There really is no such thing as a "sleeper" prospect these days given the depth of NFL scouting. Small-school prospects can be tricky to evaluate due to the level of their competition, but each year there are a handful who come off the board in the first few rounds, and today's installment of the Nickel Package looks at the best small-school players in the 2011 draft class.
One prospect in particular is getting plenty of notice after an impressive workout April 14.
Eastern Washington RB Taiwan Jones ran a 40-yard dash in the mid-4.3-second range during his pro day, posted a 40-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot broad jump, and Jones has also bulked up to 197 pounds on his 6-foot frame to help ease durability concerns.
Jones' game tape shows a back with explosive burst, an ability to accelerate when weaving in and out of traffic, great vision in space and a natural feel as an open-field runner. It was easy to be skeptical of the level of competition he faced in most games, but his 322 total yards versus Nevada helped ease some of those concerns and his strong workout results slam the door.
Jones is an explosive athlete with a great deal of NFL potential, and backs like that don't last long in the draft.
He runs high and needs to learn to protect his body, and supect ball security (17 fumbles in two seasons) could keep him out of the first couple rounds, but Jones reminds me of a young Jamaal Charles at Texas.
Don't be surprised to hear Jones' name as early as Round 3 to a team in need of a versatile back, such as the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers.
Below is a look at four other small-school prospects to keep an eye on as the draft unfolds. As always, head to my Twitter page (@McShay13) to voice your opinions on the list or tell me who I missed. And I'm still taking suggestions for a topic to be used for the Nickel Package next week, so give me your best ideas and I'll credit the follower who sends the most intriguing topic when we post that list.
Lehigh G Will Rackley (6-5, 303; Grade: 81)
Rackley played tackle his last three years with the Mountain Hawks but projects as a guard in the NFL, where he has the feet to develop great range in pass pro. He shows good balance and the ability to sink his hips and re-set against pass rushers.
Rackley also has the upper-body strength to knock linebackers off-balance with a powerful punch, though he doesn't appear to have great lower-body strength and doesn't always generate enough push as a drive blocker.
He also lacks experience working in space on pulls and traps and will have to develop that area of his game in the NFL, but as it stands we grade Rackley on the fringe of the second round.
Villanova OT/G Ben Ijalana (6-3, 317; 80)
Ijalana lacks ideal height for a left tackle prospect but has long arms (35 inches), quick feet and great balance, and his effective kick step allows him to ride edge rushers past the pocket.
He also keeps his legs driving after contact but needs to improve his upper-body strength to steer defenders as a run blocker. Ijalana is not a mauler and is often content with executing his assignment rather than looking to bury the defender, leading some scouts to question his mental toughness.
Durability is also a concern after Ijalana underwent sports hernia surgery in December and was unable to work out for scouts until April 6. However, based on his skill set Ijalana still grades out late in the second round.
Abilene Christian WR Edmund Gates (5-11, 192; 70)
Gates has the blazing speed (4.34 in the 40) to take a quick-hitter the distance, shows good initial burst and can accelerate out of breaks into a big-time second gear. He also uses his hands well and doesn't let the ball get to his pads often, which is surprising given his background.
Gates played only one year of high school football (as a freshman in 2001), and he needs to improve his overall strength. He also carries some off-field baggage from his community college days, but he still projects as a third-round pick to a team like the Baltimore Ravens or Oakland Raiders.
Hampton NT Kenrick Ellis (6-4, 346; 69)
Ellis has an explosive first step for his size and a thick, powerful upper body, and he is a powerful bull rusher who can drive interior offensive linemen back into the quarterback's lap. He dominated at the FCS level the last two years, piling up 30 tackles for loss.
He could do a better job staying low with his first step, but Ellis shows the ability to hold ground against double-teams when he plays with proper pad level, and he is one of the few legitimate 3-4 nose tackles in the 2011 class.
However, he comes with character concerns after beginning his career at South Carolina but being suspended during 2008 and ultimately dismissed from the team prior to the 2009 season. Ellis was also arrested for assault in early 2010 and suspended for the season-opener.
Still, he compares favorably to Green Bay Packers DT Ryan Pickett and, because so few two-gap nose tackles are available, Ellis could come off the board earlier than his late-third-to-early-fourth-round grade, possibly to a team like the New York Jets or Kansas City Chiefs.