News & Analysis

10 small-school sleepers in the 2021 NFL Draft

Oct 16, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) is sacked by Houston Cougars defensive lineman Payton Turner (98) during the second quarter at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Power Five prospects often dominate the conversation leading up to the NFL draft, whereas small-school players fly under the radar. In any given draft cycle, there will always be prospects that come from schools in the Group of Five, FCS, Division II or Division III who end up having better NFL careers than players from the blue-blood programs.

This year, though, we are likely to see a lot of small-school guys fall in the draft as teams pick “safer” Power Five prospects due to the impact of not having the NFL scouting combine.

Here, we'll highlight some of the players who didn’t compete in one of the five major conferences in the 2021 NFL Draft class but have the potential to exceed expectations at the next level

(Note: This is in no particular order.)

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DI MILTON WILLIAMS, LOUISIANA TECH

Williams was a PFF darling this past season, notching 88.0-plus grades as both a run defender and a pass rusher — the only player at the position to do so. That landed him a spot on the PFF College 101 and put him on draft radars across the country.

With no NFL scouting combine this year due to COVID-19, Williams was forced to rely on a mock combine run by athletic training company EXOS. He subsequently put up ridiculous numbers that people had a hard time believing. So, Williams went ahead and tested again at Louisiana Tech’s Pro Day and recorded the following results (percentiles are historical at the position):

  • Height: 6-foot-3 (50th percentile)
  • Weight: 284 pounds (17th)
  • Arm: 31 1/2 inches (5th)
  • Vertical: 38.5 inches (99th)
  • Broad jump: 121 inches (97th)
  • Bench: 34 reps (91st)
  • 40-yard: 4.62 seconds (99th)
  • Short shuttle: 4.25 seconds (97th)
  • Three-cone: 6.87 seconds (100th)

Among all 280-plus-pound defensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine in the past 20 years, Williams' 40-yard dash and three-cone times would rank as the best on record and his vertical would rank second-best. A year ago, Williams wasn’t even in the draft conversation. After the 2020 season, it looked like he could be a good pick in the middle of Day 3. Now, he could be the second interior defensive linemen off the board in the late second or early third round. It’s safe to buy into the hype with Williams.

EDGE JORDAN SMITH, UAB

Smith is a little bit different from others on this list, as he was once a part of a college football powerhouse. He was a highly coveted four-star recruit in the 2016 class with offers from Florida, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, LSU and many others. Smith eventually committed to the Gators, but he never played a down for the team after being suspended early on in his career and transferring to JUCO.

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Smith came back to the FBS ranks with UAB, and he proceeded to establish himself as one of the top pass rushers in the country. He posted pass-rush grades above 91.0 in both 2019 and 2020, both of which ranked as top-five marks in college football. 

Smith is still pretty raw despite his age, and he could pack on more to his frame, but he has all the tools desired for the position. The 6-foot-6, lanky pass rusher is just scratching the surface.

iOL QUINN MEINERZ, WISCONSIN-WHITEWATER

Despite not playing a down for Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater since the 2019 season, Meinerz is a virtual lock to go on Day 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft and is inching up toward the front of the second round.

His rise started once he scored an invite to the Senior Bowl, where he went on to post the second-highest win rate of any interior offensive lineman in attendance. Meinerz then followed that up with an elite Pro Day. His vertical (32 inches), broad jump (111 inches), 40-yard (4.86 seconds), short shuttle (4.47 seconds) and three-cone (7.33 seconds) surpassed the 90th percentile among all interior offensive line prospects historically.

T SPENCER BROWN, NORTHERN IOWA

Brown looks like a created player in Madden with his physical build. He stands at 6-foot-8 with 35-inch arms and just set his Pro Day ablaze. He managed to throw up 29 reps on the bench despite those long limbs (86th percentile) and then proceeded to record near-record numbers relative to his position in broad jump (117), 40-yard (4.88), short shuttle (4.44) and three-cone (7.03). All four of those marks surpassed the 95th percentile among tackles historically.

Unlike Meinerz, though, Brown struggled in one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl, mainly because of how technically unrefined he is. He’s going to be a huge project at the next level and likely won’t see playing time right away, but the physical tools are there for him to be a quality player. He’s worth taking a chance on come Day 3.

EDGE CAMERON SAMPLE, TULANE

Sample was a key contributor for the Green Wave in all four of his years with the program, but it was until his final season in 2020 that he started to blossom as a pass rusher. He produced a 90.4 pass-rush grade that tied for fifth among all FBS edge rushers. He paired that with an 84.0 run-defense grade that also ranked inside the top 10 at the position. 

That production was good enough for Sample to receive an invite to the Senior Bowl, and he made the most of the opportunity. No one had a higher win rate in one-on-ones that week than the Tulane edge rusher. He’s a nimble, versatile and powerful player who should be in consideration for a lot of teams on Day 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. He could even go ahead of some notable Power Five players at the position, such as Washington's Joe Tryon and Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II.

EDGE PAYTON TURNER, HOUSTON

Turner emerged as a premier pass rusher back in 2019 with a 74.6 grade in that facet and broke out on a limited sample in 2020 by raising that mark to 90.0. His physical profile is precisely what the NFL is looking for; he’s six-foot-6 and 270 pounds with 35-inch arms and boasts physicality that coaches dream of.

Turner also has some impressive bend for a man his size and is capable of playing anywhere on the line. Some may be concerned about his small snaps sample size and the fact that most of those reps were against low-level competition, but he shouldn’t slide any further than the middle of Day 2.

S CHRISTIAN UPHOFF, ILLINOIS STATE

Unlike almost everyone on this list, Uphoff didn’t really help his stock at his Pro Day. He posted good, not great numbers across the board. That said, the conditions were less than ideal, as it was outdoors in sub-40 degree temperatures and rain. And in his final year at Illinois State as well as at the Senior Bowl, Uphoff displayed superb athleticism and movement skills that are required for the position at the NFL level.

He was a versatile piece for the Redbirds, performing admirably in whatever role he assumed. He logged over 230 snaps in the box, from the slot and at free safety, coming away with 75.0-plus grades against the run and in tackling. As PFF's Mike Renner mentioned in the PFF 2021 NFL Draft Guide, Uphoff has to be a more decisive player, but that shouldn’t stop a team from taking him early on Day 3.

WR CADE JOHNSON, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE

Johnson hasn’t played since 2019 due to a coronavirus-impacted 2020 season for the Jackrabbits, but he was uber-productive otherwise. In 2018 and 2019, Johnson recorded a 90.9 receiving grade and racked up 3.93 yards per route run. For perspective, the FBS leader in the latter metric was Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson (now a Super Bowl champion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), at 3.50. That was good enough to earn Cade Johnson a Senior Bowl invite. Despite taking a whole year off because of the pandemic, he proceeded to post the highest grade of any wide receiver in one-on-ones that week.

He’s such an explosive receiver, and one who handles contact a lot better than his size might imply. He can also offer a lot of value after the catch. Over his final two seasons, Johnson averaged nearly 10 yards after the catch and racked up 32 broken tackles. For teams that miss out on the run of wide receivers in Rounds 1 and 2, Johnson is a pretty good consolation prize who will likely be available in the third round.

CB ROBERT ROCHELL, CENTRAL ARKANSAS

Rochell epitomizes a late-round flier with an incredibly high ceiling but an extremely low floor. The high ceiling is all thanks to his physical tools. Rochell's all-around athleticism landed him a spot on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list, and it was on full display at his Pro Day:

  • Height: 5-foot-11 1/2 (55th percentile)
  • Weight: 193 pounds (56th)
  • Arm: 32.5 inches (84th)
  • Hand: 8 1/8 inches (2nd)
  • Vertical: 43 inches (99th)
  • Broad: 133 inches (86th)
  • Bench: 9 reps (11th)
  • 40-yard: 4.39 seconds (85th)
  • Short shuttle: 4.08 seconds (80th)
  • Three-cone: 6.83 seconds (72nd)

Rochell's makeup speed, wingspan and explosiveness are precisely what the NFL wants at cornerback. His technique, on the other hand, is virtually nonexistent. It showed up on his handful of reps at the Senior Bowl as well as throughout his time at Central Arkansas. Rochell will need to be rebuilt in that regard, and it’s going to take a talented coach to get it done. Still, you’re not going to find better physical tools at the position on Day 3 than what Rochell possesses.

CB SHEMAR JEAN-CHARLES, APPALACHIAN STATE

Jean-Charles is fresh off one of the most dominant and underrated cornerback seasons in college football in recent years. He had a solid breakout year in 2019, posting a 79.0 coverage grade and making 11 plays on the ball while allowing 36 catches on 66 targets.

But in 2020, Jean-Charles was more than solid. He locked up everyone he faced and played the catch point as well as anyone in college football. His numbers back it up. He saw 52 targets and allowed just 17 catches while making 18 plays on the ball. That formed a 32.7% catch rate allowed, which is the third-lowest we have ever recorded from a cornerback who faced at least 50 targets in a single-season in PFF College’s seven years of existence. 

The big knock on Jean-Charles is his traits. He’s on the smaller side of the position, at 5-foot-10, and pairs that with an arm length of just over 30 inches. It clearly didn’t affect him at Appalachian State, but it’s a whole other ballgame in the NFL. He’ll likely have to kick inside at the next level — which is where he spent his time during the Tropical Bowl All Star game — as a result, and that’s weighing heavy on his draft stock due to the NFL still not valuing slot corners as they should.

He may not make up for his size with elite-level athleticism like Asante Samuel Jr. does (they are near identical size), but Jean-Charles will bring the physicality needed to hold up in the slot. If he is still on the board during Day 3, he’s absolutely worth taking a shot on.

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