NFL Draft: FCS defensive players to know
(STATS) - An average of about 18 players from the FCS level have been selected in the NFL draft in recent years.
There are slightly more defensive candidates than offensive this year, with Eastern Kentucky defensive end/outside linebacker Noah Spence viewed as a first-round selection.
Following are defensive players to know for the seven-round draft, which will be held April 28-30 in Chicago:
James Bradberry, CB, Samford, 6-1, 213 (possible selection: 5th-6th round)
Originally signed to play at Arkansas State, Bradberry transferred to Samford following a redshirt season in 2011, as ASU wanted him to play safety instead of his natural position of cornerback. In his four seasons at Samford, Bradberry started 45 of 46 games, totaling eight interceptions and 128 tackles. His 11 pass breakups led the team in 2015, when he was named to the All-Southern Conference coaches' first team. In addition, Bradberry was touted as a STATS FCS third-team All-American. Bradberry has the size most scouts look for in a defensive back, which was evident in his performance at the Senior Bowl, where most insiders believe his stock rose from a seventh-round selection to a possible fourth-round pick. He certainly has the speed the NFL requires, posting a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash. Playing in the FCS might be his downfall due to the supposed level of competition, but look what happened to Jaquiski Tartt from Samford, who was drafted in the second round in 2015 by San Francisco, or David Johnson, selected by Arizona in Round 3 after he played at Northern Iowa. Both players had solid rookie seasons in the NFL. Bradberry is on many teams' radar, especially with his 32-inch plus reach and ability to play in bump-and-run coverage.
James Cowser, DE, Southern Utah. 6-4, 258 (5th-6th round)
Only 11 votes separated Cowser from capturing the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year honors this past season. He had some stiff competition in eventual winner Tyrone Holmes and runner-up Patrick Onwuasor, but that certainly does not diminish the accolades earned by Cowser, as he was named Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year and a STATS first-team All-American. Cowser registered a whopping 19 tackles for loss to go along with 13 sacks in 2015, which made him the all-time leader in FCS history with 80 TFL and 43 1/2 sacks. Cowser recorded a sack in his final seven games and performed admirably in the Shrine Game, which improved his draft stock. He has plenty of scouts buzzing with his athleticism, relentless pass-rushing ability and solid technique. Cowser is rated in the top 20 of most prognosticators at his position, ahead of players from Notre Dame, Georgia and Alabama, and is projected as a late-round selection. If he continues to play with a high level of intensity, don't be surprised to see him taken earlier in the draft, as Cowser has the tools to compete at the highest level.
Makinton Dorleant, CB, Northern Iowa, 5-11, 185 (7th round-PFA)
Following a stint at Maryland, Dorleant moved on to Northern Iowa and played three consecutive seasons at cornerback - starting all 40 games - and totaling a team-high 17 pass breakups in 2015. A punt and kickoff return specialist, Dorleant led the Panthers in punt returns this past season, averaging 14.2 yards, including a 90-yard return for a score against Southern Illinois. He finished the season ranked fourth in the FCS. A second-team Missouri Valley Football Conference selection at corner, Dorleant also was named to the STATS FCS All-America third team. Not the biggest or strongest at his position, Dorleant does possess well-above average speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Despite being a late addition to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, he performed admirably at nickel back and at punt returner. "Everybody likes what they see," UNI coach Mark Farley said late last year. "He's got the speed. He's got the talent. He's done enough where he deserves a look, now it is more of what he does with that look that will be most important." Dorleant certainly showed his wares during the FCS playoffs against Eastern Illinois, posting six solo tackles (two for loss), an interception and a forced fumble in a 53-17 victory. Considered a late-round selection, Dorleant should be able to latch on as a returner and work his way up.
Deiondre' Hall, FS, Northern Iowa, 6-2, 190 (4th-5th round)
No one was interested in Hall coming out of high school - at least not at the FBS level. After earning first-team all-state honors, Hall only received offers from four FCS schools, including Northern Iowa. Well, following a sensational 2015 season, everyone knows his name. Not only was Hall named Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year, he was a first-team STATS FCS All-American and finished fifth in the voting for the STATS FCS Defensive POY, earning a spot in the Senior Bowl. Versatility might be the key for Hall to land on an NFL roster, as he has the ability to play several positions, including wide receiver and returner. His long wingspan enabled him to pull in 11 interceptions the past two seasons to go along with 156 tackles. Hall has been a starter since the midway point of his freshman season and his 4.68-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine (he ran 4.52 at UNI's pro day) and athletic reach can make him an ideal defensive back on any team. His cover instincts are insightful and his ball-hawking skills are top notch, as he owns the UNI record with four pick-sixes. Speed and size are of NFL quality, so Hall appears to have a future at the next level.
Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State, 6-2, 295 (3rd-4th round)
One of the most dominating linemen in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference history, Hargrave could become a monster at the next level. The STATS first-team All-American, who finished in the top 10 for STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, registered a whopping 29 1/2 sacks the past two seasons, including six against Bethune-Cookman in 2014 to tie an FCS single-game record. A 2015 STATS Preseason All-American, Hargrave hit the ground running in the first game of the season, as he registered seven tackles, 4 1/2 for loss, and 2 1/2 sacks. His size and raw power have wreaked havoc in the opposing backfields of the MEAC for years. In fact, the past two seasons, Hargrave has registered 43 1/2 TFL. Hargrave had a sensational week leading up to the Shrine Game, and as one NFC scouting director mentioned, "You don't think much of him going in because of his size, and then he's all over the place. He's had a good week." Surprisingly fast for his size - he ran 4.93 seconds in the 40-yard dash - Hargrave is quite agile, and he posted an excellent vertical jump of 34.5 inches during the combine. He has certainly made his way onto all NFL teams' radars, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Hargrave selected before the fifth round.
Tyrone Holmes, DE, Montana, 6-4, 250 (6th-7th round)
The STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, Holmes is surely ready for the next level. "He doesn't say a whole lot, he just comes out and practices and plays the exact same way every single day - a hundred miles an hour," Montana coach Bob Stitt said. "It made our lives on offense through spring practices and fall camp miserable, having to try to block him and deal with him. So I know what opposing offenses are dealing with Tyrone. People feed off his play." After starting one game as a freshman, Holmes started the final 40 of his career, finishing with 34 1/2 sacks and 49 1/2 tackles for loss. His 18 sacks in 2015 led the FCS. Although his size does not lend to playing the defensive line, his quickness and instincts should land him a role at outside linebacker. Snubbed for an appearance at the combine, Holmes impressed many scouts at Montana's pro day, as he showed his strength and speed, recording 28 bench press reps at 225 pounds and posting a 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash. A STATS FCS first-team All-American and Big Sky Conference first-teamer, Holmes was invited to the Shrine Game and performed admirably by making three tackles and creating havoc in the backfield. A late-round selection will likely be his fate.
DeAndre Houston-Carson, FS, William & Mary, 6-2, 195 (3rd-4th round)
After being a starting cornerback in his first three seasons at William & Mary, Houston-Carson made a successful conversion to free safety, and it paid off heading into the NFL, where he appears best suited. His good length is undeniable, but Houston-Carson may not have the necessary hip turn of an NFL-caliber cornerback for consistent man-to-man coverage. After the position switch, the versatile defender became a 2015 first-team All-American and CAA Football's co-defensive player of the year, making plays all over the field with explosiveness and an instinctive style. He gets to ball carriers - 293 tackles in his career, including a team-high 109 as a senior - and his good ball skills are aided by his background as a cornerback (his 10 career interceptions included a school-record 94-yard return as a senior). However, he has been known to leave other defenders vulnerable because of his aggressive approach. With 4.54-second timing in the 40-yard dash at the combine, Houston-Carson should contribute on special teams immediately at the next level. At William & Mary, he played gunner, blocking nine kicks during his career. He is looking to add weight to his frame as he continues to develop at free safety and is a likely middle-round pick.
Miles Killebrew, SS, Southern Utah, 6-2, 219 (3rd-4th round)
A candidate to be a Day 2 draft selection, Killebrew looks every bit the part of an NFL strong safety. In fact, his large frame suggests he could be converted to a hybrid linebacker's role, which has led to him drawing comparisons to Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals. A four-year starter at strong safety, Killebrew is one of the more physical tacklers at the position in this draft class. His 22 reps in the bench press led all defensive backs at the combine and he's a hard hitter. Killebrew moves well for his size and flashed good closing speed during Senior Bowl practices. He called defensive signals in the secondary for the 2015 Big Sky Conference championship squad - which featured other NFL talent - and led by example with a whopping 132 tackles plus seven pass breakups. While Killebrew flourishes in run support, he has to improve in his reaction time at the next level. But his across-the-board skills are mostly solid. Also experienced on special teams, Killebrew is expected to quickly find a role in the NFL with the chance to develop into a reliable starter.
Harlan Miller, CB, Southeastern Louisiana, 6-1, 180 (4th-5th round)
Part of an excellent group of defensive backs coming from the FCS level, opinions vary on Miller during the buildup to the draft. At the Senior Bowl, he was selected as the top defensive back during practices and then posted a game-high seven solo tackles. Three weeks later at the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in a subpar 4.65 seconds, which raises the question of whether his talents will translate into a starter at the next level. He plays with tenacity and excellent ball awareness. An All-Southland Conference first-team selection in each of his final three seasons, Miller totaled 11 interceptions and 22 pass breakups during that time. He has a lanky frame and needs to put on weight, but he is excellent in press coverage with the ability to dislodge a wide receiver's route at the line of scrimmage and turn and stick with him in coverage. He's also a strong run defender, collecting a career-high 49 tackles as a senior while earning second-team All-America honors. Miller missed three games as a junior because of a dislocated shoulder, but was healthy throughout his final season.
Udochukwu "Victor" Ochi, OLB, Stony Brook, 6-2, 255 (6th-7th round)
Ochi is expected to become Stony Brook's first-ever draft selection. He played defensive end throughout his career, but his smaller size is necessitating a drop back to outside linebacker, presumably for a defense that has a 3-4 base. Ochi has big, active hands (10 1/8 inches) and plays with a high motor, but he is still adding bulk to his frame and doesn't have ideal height. He will have to get accustomed to playing in more space, although his coordination and flexibility should allow him to keep tracking the ball from the second level of defense. He's been accustomed to using an explosive first step to get around the edge and be active in pursuit across the backfield. Named CAA Football's co-defensive player of the year as a senior, he totaled 47 tackles, 16 1/2 for loss and 13 sacks. He finished his career with 50 1/2 TFL and 23 1/2 sacks - both school records - and followed it with an excellent week at the Shrine Game. Ochi isn't the ideal draft candidate, but his body of work suggests he will find a role with an NFL team.
Luke Rhodes, ILB, William & Mary, 6-2, 242 (7th round-PFA)
As the only FCS player to be named to the 2015 Butkus Award Watch List for linebackers, Rhodes looks the part with his size (he added good weight and became more chiseled in college) and determined style of play. A two-time team captain, Rhodes often gets out in front of a play with his pursuit of the ball, which also helps set up teammates for tackles. As a four-year starter, Rhodes finished a balanced career with 341 tackles to rank fifth on William & Mary's all-time list. He was a first-team All-CAA Football selection in each of his final three seasons after making the third team as a redshirt freshman. However, a knee injury last October ended a streak of 30 consecutive starts. He returned one game later and had a good finishing touch as a senior, when he was limited to 78 tackles (below his sophomore and junior totals). His hustling style will allow him to contribute on special teams immediately for an NFL team. Scouts also note that some of the more eye-opening performances of Rhodes' career came against FBS competition early each season. He finished his career by playing in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
LeShaun Sims, CB, Southern Utah, 6-0, 202 (6th-7th round)
FCS programs rarely have three legitimate prospects for the same draft, but Sims comes from a Southern Utah defense that also boasts candidates in strong safety Miles Killebrew and end James Cowser. Sims is considered the third of the three prospects, but he has the necessary size and skill set to be selected in a later round. The Thunderbirds were 2015 Big Sky Conference champions, with Sims totaling 54 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups and earning all-conference first-team honors. A year ago, he ran a verified 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Southern Utah's junior day. He plays with good balance and a physical playing style while maintaining excellent range. A press corner, he can dislodge a receiver at the line of scrimmage. He has to improve when playing off the ball and in getting to ball carriers and finishing tackles. Also, his numbers coming out of the combine were not good. His 4.53 40 was a big letdown, he ranked 22nd out of 29 cornerbacks with 11 reps in the 225-pound bench press, and his 8 1/8-inch hand measurement was relatively small.
Ryan Smith, CB, North Carolina Central, 6-0, 185 (6th-7th round)
After being North Carolina Central's first participant at combine since 1989, Smith could become the first Eagles player selected in the draft since 2007. An impressive 26 NFL teams were represented at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school's pro day in March. Largely overlooked by college programs because he played only one season of high school football, Smith added 30 pounds throughout his standout career. The interesting late-round possibility was part of two N.C. Central teams that tied for the conference title and played extensively over 42 career starts. He set the school's all-time record with 168 solo tackles - which isn't common for a cornerback - and picked off seven passes. He also returned kickoffs, averaging 28.1 yards with one touchdown in 14 returns as a senior. In one-on-one coverage, he gets in an initial hit at the line of scrimmage and is consistent in turning and running with his wide receiver. At the combine, he was clocked in an above-average 4.47 seconds for the 40-yard dash. Smith is best suited to cover slot receivers because of his smaller size. NFL teams have told him to add more weight heading into his pro career.
Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky, 6-2, 255 (1st-2nd round)
Spence has top 10 talent. The question is, will he be drafted that high? He failed two drug tests at Ohio State and was banned by the Big Ten Conference, underwent treatment for an addiction to the drug Ecstasy and was charged with public intoxication at Eastern Kentucky - where he transferred in 2015 - before even playing a game with the Colonels. However, people close to him often advocate for his character and he's been forthcoming about his off-the-field problems. On the field, there's so much to like. He is considered by some to be the best pass rusher in the draft, although because of his lack of height, he might transition to outside linebacker from defensive end. He's balanced and flexible, and his first step to the edge is elite. He made the 2013 All-Big Ten first team at Ohio State with 14 tackles for loss and 7 1/2 sacks. In his one season at Eastern Kentucky, he racked up 22 1/2 TFL and 13 1/2 sacks while earning co-defensive player of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference and making the FCS All-America first team. His overaggressive style doesn't lend well in the run game, but more plays will be in front of him if he plays outside linebacker in a 3-4. Spence was perhaps the most impressive defensive player during Senior Bowl week, but tailed off a bit at the combine and EKU's pro day. It's an odd dynamic that Spence has had so many problems off the field yet many people feel confident he will remain on the right path moving forward.