Seattle Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner was a second-round pick in 2012 and is coming off a rookie season that saw him record 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks. Wagner played a big role in the Seahawks' playoff push and finished second to the Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
It's been an impressive 12-month run for Wagner, whose ascent from under-the-radar Utah State prospect to rookie starter began with a strong week at the 2012 Senior Bowl and extended through a solid pro day workout. Those performances backed up what we saw on Wagner's game film, and despite facing a lower level of competition it was clear he could play at the next level.
Which small-school prospects could come out of the 2013 draft class and make an impact right away? Here is a look at three notable prospects from non-AQ conferences who have been invited to the NFL combine. While they don't project as high as Wagner, each has the potential to become an NFL contributor.
Fresno State S Phillip Thomas (Grade: 70)
Thomas missed the entire 2011 season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle, so his medical examination will be a big part of his overall evaluation and draft position. In terms of what we see on film, his average burst and hip fluidity limits his ability to match up with slot receivers, and he's somewhat inconsistent in run support.
Still the risk might be worth the reward late on Day 2 or early on Day 3. No FBS player picked off more passes than the eight Thomas hauled in this season. Yes, three came against a bad Colorado team, but Thomas (6-foot-0⅝, 210 pounds) is a ball hawk with above-average hands and instincts, and the ability to produce after the pick. He shows good range and the ability to match up with tight ends in coverage. He also has the size and experience lining up at that depth to develop into an effective in-the-box safety.
San Jose State OT David Quessenberry (63)
Quessenberry weighed in at 294 pounds at the Senior Bowl, and his arms measured just 33.7 inches. Both are well below average for an offensive tackle prospect. That lack of length and mass also shows up on film. Quessenberry (6-5, 294) can have a hard time taking away the edge when he doesn't over-set in pass protection, and he's not a powerful drive blocker who overwhelms defenders at the point of attack in the run game.
Quessenberry's quick hands and feet do make him a good fit for a zone-blocking team like the Houston Texans, who could be in the market for a right tackle. He is an effective hand fighter who moves well enough laterally to seal the front side and cut off the backside. While teams might need to help him at times pass protection, he does a good job of keeping defenders in front of him once he's engaged, and Quessenberry could offer some value in the early part of Day 3.
Nevada S Duke Williams (61)
Williams isn't big enough to line up in the box and his frame limits his ability to match up with tight ends, so he's not a prototypical strong safety candidate. He fits better at free safety, but he's not ideal there, either. He could be smoother transitioning in man coverage, and he had just four picks in four seasons at Nevada. It doesn't help that Williams has made mistakes off the field, so it's important he make the most of his interviews in Indianapolis to convince teams he won't be a distraction.
Williams (5-11, 201) could still prove to be a Day 3 steal. His greatest asset on tape is his range. He covers a lot of ground, whether he's supporting the run from the high slot or providing help over the top in deep coverage. While he has some limitations in man coverage, he has the burst and enough athletic ability to improve in those areas. Finally, Williams might never be a playmaker, but he flashes the aggressive nature and instincts to get better in that area, too.