Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell has made it well known during his eight-year tenure that he believes you find the best players from the best programs. The SEC, Big 10, ACC all breed championship teams, so they must breed championship players that can be found in each round of the draft.
Caldwell has spent late-round fliers on players from Monmouth, Central Arkansas, and Montana, but the vast majority of his early and mid-round selections have come from Power 5 schools.
Caldwell's pedigree of leaning on players from major programs begs one important question following last week's draft: why was St. John's of Minnesota offensive lineman Ben Bartch the exception to one of Caldwell's principle rules?
Caldwell and the Jaguars selected Bartch, a D-III lineman who was a tight end in 2016 and 2017, in the fourth round with the No. 116 pick last Saturday. The pick made Bartch the first player from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to be drafted since Ryan Hoag was selected by the Raiders with the final pick of the 2003 NFL Draft.
So, what about Bartch made the Jaguars buck tradition and bring in the uber-talented offensive line prospect? One major force was Bartch's performance at the Reese's Senior Bowl, in which he dominated throughout the entire week of practice.
“It was important and that was one of the key things when we went to the Senior Bowl, and obviously Coach Marrone with his offensive line background," Caldwell said when the draft concluded last week. "Generally don’t love, as you guys like to point out, the smaller level comp[etition] players, but we got to a point in time in that fourth round where this is a kid with his makeup, his toughness, his competitiveness, his intelligence, where you saw him at the Senior Bowl and you saw him competing against some of the top players in the country and some guys that went in the first round. And he held his own. He did a hell of a job."
It likely helped ease any concerns Caldwell had that one of the NFL's best interior offensive lineman today is Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Ali Marpet, who was the first NCAA Division III player picked to play in the Senior Bowl when he attended the game in 2015.
Marpet went on to become a second-round selection (No. 61 overall) by the Buccaneers, and is today an anchor along their offensive line
"So when that happens with these small-school guys – and a couple years back there was a player, an interior offensive lineman, that Tampa took and he’s played well and he’s done a really nice job for Tampa. We kind of feel like this player has a very, very high ceiling and can come in and compete at multiple spots for us along the offensive line," Caldwell said.
For head coach Doug Marrone, a former offensive line coach himself, it was important to see Bartch hold his own in Mobile. Sometimes players who dominate at small schools falter when they are finally faced with elite completion, but Bartch never did.
“I like it. I agree with what Dave said. The only thing I look for is, is it kind of too big when they’re at the Combine or they’re in one of these bowl games? It wasn’t for him," Marrone said. So I think that’s important, especially at a time when you can’t really go work people out. We didn’t have those opportunities."
But it was also important for Marrone to look back on his own past as a coach. When he worked for the New Orleans Saints as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach from 2006-2008, the Saints took a D-II guard in the fourth-round in the form of Jahri Evans.
Evans hailed from Bloomsburg college, far from an NFL hotbed. But he went on to start every game at guard as a rookie and eventually grew into an elite lineman, being named to six Pro Bowls and becoming First-Team All-Pro four times in his career. For Marrone, Bartch and Evans aren't the same players, but he evaluated them similarly.
"You look on film, I have some standards that I look at personally when we look at it, depending on what conference they’re in or who they’re going against," Marrone said.
"We took a chance a couple years ago when I first got in New Orleans on Jahri Evans, from Bloomsburg. I’m not comparing those two players, but the things I looked for in Jahri when we were looking for that we looked for in Ben. We’re excited to have him, and he can play multiple positions and I’m looking forward to him competing.”
Bartch himself noted the Senior Bowl was a huge week for him. There were talks of him being a top-75 selection before he fell to the fourth round, and it is clear those never would have taken place unless he did as well in Mobile as he did.
“It was a huge week for me," Bartch said after he was drafted. "Definitely a proving week, but you know I walked in like I was just as good, if not better than some of the other guys and I think that is a good attitude to have. But I had a lot of fun and learned a lot.”
Thanks to one week in Mobile, and a stellar two years as an offensive lineman in D-III, Bartch made his NFL dreams a reality. But maybe, more importantly, the week is what pushed the Jaguars to buck tradition and take a leap. The fact they did so speaks volumes about how they graded Bartch.
Moving forward, Bartch's D-III pedigree won't matter. He will be an NFL player, just like every other person in the locker room. But for now, he can hang his hat on the fact that he alone helped the Jaguars get out of their comfort zone, even if just for a fourth-round pick.