2016 NFL draft primer: Mountain West
The Mountain West produced 16 draft picks in 2014, matching the league's all-time high, including six selections on Day 2. The 2015 class could not match that success, with the conference's total dropping to 10 draft picks.
The number should push up into double digits again come next April, with at least one player angling for a first-round look.
The Mountain West's five most intriguing draft prospects:
1. Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State: It's a shame that Colorado State does not have more mainstream television exposure, because a lot of folks are missing out on Higgins. He and new Saints backup Garrett Grayson put on a show in 2014, combining for 96 completions, which Higgins turned into 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns—the latter numbers led the FBS.
As a junior, Higgins will have to be a leader for a Colorado State team with a new quarterback (likely Nick Stevens) and new coach (Mike Bobo). Even though his numbers may slide in 2015, the 6'2", 188-pound Higgins already has put enough evidence on tape that he could succeed at the next level. He was a deserving All-America last season.
“He's the No. 1 playmaker that comes back from last year's team, and he's got to continue to challenge himself to work hard, where he improves on last year's production, and he's done that,” Bobo said, per The Coloradoan. “He's been very unselfish.”
What's most impressive about Higgins's game is that he is far from a one-trick pony. The Rams have enjoyed his big-play ability, but he's just as adept at working his way into space on short and intermediate routes. Few passes get away from him either, even in traffic.
If he declares for the pros after this season, Higgins might have what it takes to push the likes of Tyler Boyd and Duke Williams for the honor of the draft's top receiver.
2. Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Utah State: You have to dive back into the 2013 archives to see Fackrell on display—a torn ACL suffered in the Aggies' 2014 opener sidelined him for the remainder of his junior season. If Fackrell's knee holds up following that setback, it will be well worth getting reacquainted with him.
In his last full season, Fackrell notched 99 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks and returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown. He stands 6'5" and 245 pounds, a build which enables him to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
Headed into the '14 campaign, Fackrell had been tabbed by some analysts as an under-the-radar prospect to monitor. Thanks both to his closing speed and ability to come downhill at the quarterback, a healthy Fackrell will be all over the draft boards of teams running 3–4 schemes.
3. Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State: Fackrell's partner in crime and the brother of Dolphins UDFA Zach Vigil, the 6'2", 230-pound junior recently was voted by the Mountain West media as the conference's best defensive player. (Fackrell landed No. 3, with Boise State's Kamalei Correa second.) Vigil's massive 123-tackle effort last season—plus 16.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks—certainly gave him claim to that honor.
A cherry on top: Vigil also rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns while seeing some work as a two-way player.
Those opportunities on offense underscore Vigil's unique athleticism, though he is certain to remain mainly on defense. As his numbers indicate, Vigil tracks the ball well both laterally and vertically; he can find and attack a hole at the line of scrimmage, making him a disruptive, three-down threat.
4. Darian Thompson, S, Boise State: Time to bust out that ol' "ball hawk" term. Thompson picked off seven passes last season to lead the conference, and he has 14 interceptions over his first three seasons at Boise State.
Forcing turnovers is not enough on its own—the FBS leader in interceptions last season with 14, Gerod Holliman, slipped all the way to the seventh round due to poor physical tests and holes in his game as a tackler. Thompson is far more willing to get involved against the run. He plays at a high speed yet manages to break down and keep ball carriers in front of him. The Broncos safety added 71 tackles to his seven picks in 2014.
5. Eddie Yarbrough, DE, Wyoming: NFL.com draft analyst Chad Reuter dropped a LaMarr Woodley comparison on Yarbrough, due to his tweener size (6'3", 251 pounds) and length. Reuter's setting a pretty high bar, but Yarbrough definitely presents an interesting skill set.
Over three seasons with the Cowboys, Yarbrough has totaled 194 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He stays very active along the line, delivering a lot of his plays with second and third efforts.
Any team eyeing him will have to be a little speculative in terms of his position—he could face a similar transition after the season, as players like Utah's Nate Orchard did at the Senior Bowl before he was taken in round 2 by the Browns. Yarbrough could sneak into a similar range with a productive 2015 and strong workouts in the months that follow.
Beyond the Mountain West's top-five prospects, who might climb onto the NFL draft radar? Here is one more prospect per team to track this season:
Air Force—Alex Hansen, DE: Air Force has not had an NFL draft pick since 1999, so odds are against this year breaking the drought. That said, Hansen (6'3", 260 pounds) is coming off a 10.0-tackles for loss, 3.5-sack showing last season. He also has three blocked kicks for his career.
Boise State—Shane Williams-Rhodes, WR: The Broncos continue to find ways to get the ball into Williams-Rhodes's hands, be it as a receiver, taking handoffs or returning punts. The 5'6", 168-pounder is one of the smallest players in college football, so playing that Swiss army knife role will be his ticket to an NFL chance. He's averaged 72.5 catches the past two seasons, though with a disappointing 8.9 yards per catch clip.
Colorado State—Kevin Pierre-Louis, S: Not to be confused with Seattle's 2014 draft pick of the same name (ESPN accidentally used this Pierre-Louis's photo when the Seahawks made their choice). Colorado State's version carries good size (6'1", 215 pounds) and experience with 23 starts in the past two seasons. Pierre-Louis posted tackle totals of 77 and 85 over those two years, respectively.
Fresno State—Charles Washington, DB: This program has produced a consistent string of NFL draft picks, including two recent defensive backs—Derron Smith this past draft and Phillip Thomas in 2013. Washington has not yet drawn the attention of either of those former Bulldogs, but stay tuned. With 27 starts the past two years split between cornerback and safety, he offers the positional versatility so coveted by NFL teams these days. He also has played nickelback at times.
Hawaii—Max Wittek, QB: A former four-star recruit, Wittek transferred from USC in 2014 and will spend his final college season as Hawaii's starter. We'll see how it goes. Wittek has an NFL arm, but he completed just 52.6% of his 95 passes with the Trojans. Can he take advantage of this opportunity?
Nevada—Ian Seau, DE: Nephew of the late, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Junior Seau. He was a second-team All-MW pick last season (10.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and a pick-six). Seau stands 6'2", 255 pounds, on the small side for a defensive end, meaning he may either have to bulk up or try his hand at OLB if he wants a shot at the next level.
New Mexico—Carlos Wiggins, WR: Wiggins is officially a wide receiver, but his real value comes as a kick returner. Two seasons ago, he led the nation with 1,303 kick return yards (29.6 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns. Multiple leg injuries limited him to eight games and 13 return tries last season. His blazing speed should at least earn him a special teams shot in an NFL camp.
San Diego State—Donnel Pumphrey, RB: Undersized at 5'9" and 170 pounds, Pumphrey nevertheless churned out 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground last season and added 23 receptions. He could be a valuable third-down back in the NFL, one with the capabilities to step into a starting role if need be.
San Jose State—Jimmy Pruitt, CB/S: Pruitt was not far from cracking the MW's top-five list. A 6'0" cornerback with experience at safety, too, he does well when the ball is in the air and is willing to use his body. He made 37 tackles and picked off a pair of passes last season.
Wyoming—Shaun Wick, RB: Wick shares time in the backfield with Brian Hill. The pair combined for more than 1,500 yards rushing last season, with Wick contributing 753 despite missing several games due to a broken hand. Even at 5'10", 212 pounds, he has been effective in the red zone (19 career rushing touchdowns) and offers a reliable safety valve for the passing attack.
UNLV—Peni Vea, S: Loads of experience here, as Vea has been starting since the 2012 season and redshirted in 2011. He has been a very productive tackler for the Rebels, posting a team-leading 108 two years ago and another 88 last year. That ability could make him a coveted UDFA should he produce again this season.
Utah State—Chuckie Keeton, QB: When he's right Keeton is among the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. The rub is that he rarely has been been healthy the last two years. Keeton tore his ACL in October of 2013, then played just three games last season before an aggravation of that injury sidelined him again. At his best, back in 2012, Keeton threw for nearly 3,400 yards with 27 touchdowns and a 67% completion rate, while also rushing for 619 yards and eight TDs. He needs to stay on the field.