FCS draft class preview
(STATS) - Wentz and Spence bring the rhyme to the NFL draft, but among FCS schools, it's also the year to rap with the defensive backs.
The group of draftable cornerbacks and safeties are particularly strong this year, even if much of the talk has been centered around North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz likely going in the top two picks and Eastern Kentucky defensive end/outside linebacker Noah Spence also possibly going in the first round - where an FCS player hasn't been selected since 2008.
"Defensive back is very good," said Josh Buchanan, an area scout for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and perhaps the nation's leading evaluator of small school draft talent. "At least six or seven should get drafted. DeAndre Houston-Carson and (Miles) Killebrew should be the first two. I expect a very good draft and maybe up to eight getting picked."
Killebrew, a strong safety from Southern Utah, has exceptional size (6-foot-2, 219 pounds) and a hard-hitting style, while Houston-Carson, a 6-2, 195-pound free safety from William & Mary, is an explosive player who is terrific around the ball, having played cornerback during his first three collegiate seasons.
While they could be the first FCS defensive backs taken off the board, some other FCS standouts hope to have the draft covered. The top cornerbacks are Southeastern Louisiana's Harlan Miller, Samford's James Bradberry, North Carolina Central's fast-rising Ryan Smith and Southern Utah's LeShaun Sims, with Northern Iowa's Makinton Dorleant and North Dakota State's C.J. Smith perhaps just shy of a draftable grade.
Northern Iowa's Deiondre' Hall also has a background at cornerback, but could settle in at free safety in the NFL. ---=
WENTZ AND SPENCE=
NFL teams no longer mortgage so many draft choices in a trade up to the top handful of picks - thank you, Mike Ditka and Ricky Williams - so the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles are clearly going for quarterbacks. It's just a matter of their order, the expectation being Cal's Jared Goff first to the Rams and Wentz second to the Eagles.
Wentz's meteoric rise has been stunning. After returning from a wrist injury to earn Most Outstanding Player honors in the FCS championship game for a second straight year, he won teams over with his off-field character as much as his skill set.
With Spence, it's more a matter of how far his past drug issues will make him fall because he has top 10 talent. Some consider him to be the best pass rusher in the draft.
The most recent first-rounders from the FCS: In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals selected Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at No. 16 before the Baltimore Ravens picked Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco at No. 18.
THE OTHER QBS=
Quarterback traditionally isn't one of the stronger positions for FCS prospects, but when it's been hit on - Flacco and the undrafted Tony Romo from Eastern Illinois are current NFL starters, and Alcorn State's Steve McNair was the highest drafted FCS quarterback at No. 3 in 1995 - it's really gone well.
After Wentz, the best FCS quarterback candidate as far as draft potential is Liberty four-year starter Josh Woodrum. He stands tall in the pocket and drives passes upfield with good arm strength.
James Madison's Vad Lee has probably fallen out of the draft after suffering a broken foot in the second half of what was an outstanding senior season. He's still a candidate for a late round, especially if a team doesn't want to risk losing him in the immediate free agent signing period after the draft.
Villanova's John Robertson, the 2014 offensive player of the year in the FCS, also has had to prove he's overcome an injury (knee) as a senior. He and Southern Utah's Ammon Olsen will both get a long look in an NFL camp.
FCS POSTER BOY=
The "small school" label for FCS prospects might be epitomized by South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.
Scouts like his talent and production, but …
That's how it is with an FCS prospect, there is always something to overcome. Often it's the lack of higher-tier competition on a consistent basis, which is even more so from a player coming from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Also, FCS players tend to be a big undersized (those not named Wentz), and Hargrave was measured at 6-1 1/2, 309 pounds, at the NFL combine.
But the team that selects Hargrave (perhaps in the third or fourth round) is going to focus on the STATS first-team All-American's agility, quickness off the snap and ability to apply pressure up the middle.
Hargrave was a standout at the East-West Shrine Game, which led to him being an injury replacement at the Senior Bowl.
He tied the FCS single-game record with six sacks against Bethune-Cookman in 2014 and registered a whopping 29 1/2 over his final two seasons at South Carolina State.
The FCS program with the current longest streak of having an NFL draft choice isn't five-time reigning national champion North Dakota State, but one which has shared the last two Missouri Valley Conference titles with the Bison - Illinois State.
The Redbirds have had a selection in the last three drafts: 2013, outside linebacker Nate Palmer, (Green Bay Packers, sixth round); 2014, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, (Oakland Raiders, seventh); and 2015, tight end James O'Shaughnessy (Kansas City Chiefs, fifth).
Running back Marshaun Coprich, who was third in the voting for 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, is considered Illinois State's top draft candidate this year.
BEST PROSPECT BY CONFERENCE=
An average of 18 FCS players has been selected in the last five NFL drafts.
The best prospect by FCS conference (with possible draft scenario):
Big Sky - Miles Killebrew, SS, Southern Utah (third round)
Big South - Josh Woodrum, QB, Liberty (seventh round)
CAA Football - DeAndre Houston-Carson, FS, William & Mary (3rd-4th round)
Ivy League - Cole Toner, OT, Harvard (5th-6th round)
MEAC - Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State (3rd-4th round)
Missouri Valley - Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State (first round - top two selections)
Northeast - Chris King, WR, Duquesne (undrafted free agent)
Ohio Valley - Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky (first round)
Patriot League - Garrick Mayweather Jr., OL, Fordham (undrafted free agent)
Pioneer League - Greg Milhouse, DT, Campbell (priority free agent)
Southern - James Bradberry, CB, Samford (5th-6th round)
Southland - Harlan Miller, CB, Southeastern Louisiana (4th-5th round)
SWAC - John Gibbs Jr., QB, Alcorn State (undrafted free agent)
FCS PLAYER PROFILES=
Player profiles of FCS offensive candidates: http://goo.gl/F6SX9j
Player profiles of FCS defensive candidates: http://goo.gl/bCkp9D
Thursday, April 28: Round 1, beginning 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and NFL Network.
Friday, April 29: Rounds 2 and 3, beginning 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and NFL Network (ESPN's coverage switches to ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET).
Saturday, April 30: Rounds 4-7, beginning noon ET on ESPN and NFL Network.