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Small-school star Jimmy Garoppolo continues to gain admirers

Photo: Chris Anderson/Icon SMI

Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 53 touchdowns and 5,050 yards -- with just nine interceptions -- last year.

With the combine having passed into history, the NFL draft's annual wart-finding season is almost in full bloom. On that front, it has been a particularly brutal week for the presumed upper echelon of this year's quarterback class, who have gotten laid to waste by the league's talking head/contrarian set.

Former Eagles quarterback turned longtime ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski opined that he wouldn't spend a pick on Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel until the draft's third day, let alone the first round. Ex-Giants quarterback turned CBS analyst Phil Simms piled on, saying he's not sure there's a franchise quarterback in this year's crop of passers, and that the Jets' Geno Smith would have been the best of this bunch had he been part of the 2014 class. And then there was former Oklahoma and Dallas head coach Barry Switzer, who so elegantly labeled Manziel "an arrogant little p----,'' who embarrassed himself, his teammates and his coaches as an Aggie.

Tell us how you really feel, Barry.

The law of NFL draft physics generally teaches us that when the top-shelf talent starts getting downgraded and picked apart by the experts, invariably the reputations of other prospects start rising in the estimation of the chattering class. Perhaps those trends are in reaction to one another, and perhaps not. But the whole draft risers and fallers phenomena would seem to have its roots in the playground see-saw effect.

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So I can't help but notice that while the headline names are getting trashed, the most positive reviews for a quarterback coming out of the best-of-the-rest bunch in recent days all seem to have attached themselves to Eastern Illinios' Jimmy Garoppolo, an intriguing small-school prospect who has gained many admirers for his strong work in both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, as well as his very solid showing at last weekend's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

The more people see of Garoppolo, the more they seem to like. Former Colts general manager Bill Polian -- the man who picked Peyton Manning -- made some news this week on ESPN when he reportedly projected Garoppolo to go in the first round, becoming the first analyst in that particular pool. Polian offered some needed context for his comments Thursday morning by phone, but he confirmed that he does believe Garoppolo could be picked in the first round come the night of May 8.

"[ESPN host] Suzy [Kolber] set the stage by asking me on air if Houston would be better off drafting Jadeveon Clowney at No. 1, then coming back with the first pick in the second round taking Garoppolo?'' Polian explained. "And I said, 'Well, if that's the case, he won't be there.' What I said is absolutely correct. If word gets out that that's what the [Texans'] strategy is, then other clubs that have interest in him and are below Houston in the second round would try to trade up for him. The guys that are legitimate second-round quarterbacks can get moved up, or overvalued simply because of the competitiveness and the desire to get a quarterback before someone else takes him.''

When you add in NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock's assessment that Garoppolo projects to be a second- or third-round pick, and the fact that he has helped advance his prospects to be an NFL starter as much as any quarterback having taken part in the main events of this year's draft season, real momentum has gathered behind the player who threw for 53 touchdowns and 5,050 yards last season (with just nine interceptions) and was named the NCAA offensive player of the year at the FCS level.

"I think I belong,'' said Garoppolo by phone Wednesday night. "I've always thought of myself as a good player, one of the top players in this draft. I'd be willing to put my talent up against anyone at this point. It's not really my decision to make, but that's the competitive nature in me. It's very humbling to hear that type of stuff, but it's early on in the process and there's still so much more to be done. I can't really pay too much attention to it.''

Garoppolo was smart to seize every opportunity the NFL has provided him so far this draft season. When was the last time a quarterback played in both the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, in addition to fully participating in the combine drills? He has showcased to the league a lightning quick release that has been described as nearly Marino-esque, good feet, an accurate arm and the ability to handle the mental part of a quarterback's game in the NFL.

"The comparison will be drawn between he and [Fresno State's Derek] Carr, and that's a pretty good comparison,'' Polian said. "I think he'll come out of the scouting process in pretty darn good shape. In my mind, it's Carr and him, and then the question is, 'Who's the best of the rest?'''

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Garoppolo is no unknown to NFL scouts. Eastern Illinois is where Tony Romo played his collegiate ball, and the school is something of a cradle of NFL coaches, with Sean Payton, Mike Shanahan and Brad Childress having all gone there. Garoppolo's team went 12-2 last season, won the Ohio Valley Conference and was ranked No. 2 in the country in the FCS, losing in the quarterfinals of the national playoffs. At 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, Garoppolo has NFL size, and some league scouts consider him head and shoulders a better prospect than Alabama's A.J. McCarron, one of the most accomplished and winningest QBs in college football history.

"The small-school question will always be there,'' Garoppolo said. "Everyone will always knock me for playing against I-AA competition compared to Division I. But we played a couple of Division I teams this year, Northern Illinois and San Diego State, and we held our own. We beat San Diego State and had a great game with Northern. There's not as big a gap between FCS and FBS as there used to be.

"These guys [scouts] they go out there looking for something to knock everyone on, that's their job. And I guess that's what they're tying to me, the small-school label. That's something I just have to live with, but it kind of puts a chip on your shoulder at the end of the day.''

But I'm not sure Garoppolo is right about that. I couldn't find anyone wary of his competition level, as much as they are the transition he will have to make in the NFL to playing more under center, after being almost exclusively in an offense that was a cross between the spread and a West Coast attack in college. Garoppolo has spent recent weeks training in the Los Angeles area with both former Heisman winner Ty Detmer, and QB coach Bill Cunerty, who worked with Andrew Luck before he entered the NFL in 2012. Much of the focus of the work has been on getting Garoppolo comfortable under center, with five- and seven-step drops.

"I don't think the small-school element means anything because he performed well in the Senior Bowl and he performed well in the East-West game,'' Polian said. "He stepped up there with the big guys and did fine. It's not Division III he played in. He's doing fine.

"You can find flaws in everybody, and with a spread quarterback, the built-in flaw is that they don't go through extended progressions -- meaning going to the backside of the field. And if they do, it's usually a simply check-down or dump-off. The other thing you have to be cognizant of is whether they wait for their receivers to come open, because there's so much space involved in the spread, or whether they anticipate well. I haven't done that study yet with him, but his release is quick enough to lead me to believe he'll be fine.''

Garoppolo said he has made vast strides with his footwork under center -- "My first seven-step drop wasn't the prettiest thing, I can tell you that'' -- but NFL talent evaluators rave about his quick release and his ability to keep his eyes downfield and extend plays, getting passes off despite sitting in the pocket for long stretches. He's not a scrambler, but he's quick enough to escape and buy himself time to make a throw.

"A lot of coaches and personnel people keep telling me, 'Don't change anything with your release,'" Garoppolo said. " 'Keep it the same.' I've always taken pride in that. It's been my thing since I started playing quarterback. I get the ball out quickly. It's a great trait to have. It helps avoid sacks and helps beat the blitz.''

Garoppolo didn't play quarterback until his junior year of high school (he had been a linebacker), but he is a natural athlete and at least cracked the five-second mark running the 40-yard dash at the combine (4.97). His next opportunity to impress the NFL will come quickly -- at next week's March 4 pro day at Northwestern. Eastern Illinois doesn't have a practice bubble in which to hold a pro day, so Garoppolo will head for Evanston, Ill., where he'll have a bit of an old-school pro day experience. Northwestern doesn't allow agents or coaches to attend the event, so Garoppolo will basically be on his own, with a very limited script of plays that Detmer hashed out for him.

"The script will be nowhere near as detail oriented as most people imagine on a pro day,'' he said. "Us being there is part of the FCS struggle, in that we don't have an indoor facility. It's only players and scouts allowed in there, so I'm pretty much running my own pro day. Which I'm excited about, because it gives me a chance to show my leadership and show I can take charge of something like that. I have no problem doing that. After I do a very general script of passes the scouts want to see, I'll ask them if there's anything else they want to see me throw? I'll do whatever it takes.''

Plenty of eyes will be watching. League sources say quarterback-needy teams like Houston, Jacksonville, Minnesota have shown sustained interest in Garoppolo thus far this winter, and many if not all of the clubs seeking passers are expected to attend his pro day. Another impressive showing there, and Garoppolo's draft stock could continue its rapid ascent. There's still a long way to go before the picking starts, but you'll know he's arrived if the likes of Jaworski, Simms and Switzer start taking aim.

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