Does Size Matter? Part II
Can Small School Players Make it in the Big League?
by Dan Conklin
July 18, 2012
In Part I of this topic, we looked at some undersized players that the Packers have drafted in recent years and speculated on the possibility that teams can get tremendous draft value in smaller players because many teams would rather go with the larger, more sure thing in earlier rounds. In particular, we looked at Mike Daniels, D.J. Smith, and D.J. Williams—-three players who had outstanding performance in college and who may surprise some people by their NFL production despite their shorter-than-average heights.
There is another way in which teams can often get good draft value based on size: the size of the college or athletic program a player is from. Teams tend to favor players from larger schools, particularly in the early rounds. Thus, players from smaller schools or less prominent football programs tend to be overlooked—at least to some degree.
About 70% of the players in the NFL come from the six conferences that automatically qualify for the BCS bowl consideration—the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pacific 10, Big 12, and Big East (plus the independent Notre Dame). In the 2012 draft, these numbers were closely duplicated, with 73% of the picks coming from these schools. But the top of the draft was very clearly skewed toward these larger schools: in the first two rounds of the draft 87% of the picks came from the Superconferences; in the last five rounds, only 68% came from them. In the early rounds, when teams are looking for a sure thing, they very clearly look to these powerful conferences to provide it.
That makes sense in several ways. Players in these conferences are going against athletes that are larger and faster and are more likely to make it to the NFL. NFL teams often have enough experience with players coming out of certain programs to feel pretty good about projecting their talent to the next level. Plus, there are opportunities to directly observe a player's performance against top-level talent, which is a fairly good predictor of NFL potential. For example, the Packers would have been able to evaluate their 2nd round pick Jerel Worthy (DT, Michigan State) in games against eventual 2nd round pick Peter Konz (Wisconsin) or 4th round pick Ben Jones (Georgia).
So players from less-dominant conferences or from smaller schools are more likely to slide down in the draft. Sometimes, this can give teams an opportunity to get excellent players at bargain draft prices.
The Packers have had a measure of success with such players. Perhaps the best current example of this is wide receiver Donald Driver. Driver was a 7th round pick out of Alcorn State. Although his college receiving numbers were modest, he was an Olympic-level athlete in the high jump as well as a champion-level long jumper. Fighting at first just to make the team, Driver not only made it, but went on to become the all-time Packer leader in catches and receiving yardage. Not bad for a seventh-rounder.
Other established starters from less-prestigious programs include: cornerback Tramon Williams (Louisiana Tech, and undrafted free agent [UDFA]), receiver Greg Jennings (Western Michigan, 2nd round), guards TJ Lang (Eastern Michigan, 4th round) and Josh Sitton (Central Florida, 4th round), and running backs James Starks (Buffalo, 6th round) and John Kuhn (Shippensburg, UDFA). Other significant contributors have been receiver James Jones (San Jose State, 3rd round), cornerback Jarrett Bush (Utah State, UDFA), guard Evan Dietrich-Smith (Idaho State, UDFA), and linebacker DJ Smith (Appalachian State, 6th round).
Altogether, the Packers' roster in 2012 may have as much as 40% of its players coming out of non-BCS conferences, which is much higher than the league average. In terms of drafting, general manager Ted Thompson has drafted just over 30% of his picks from the non-BCS schools, which is pretty much average for the league. His success rate (loosely measured as drafted players who have made it successfully into the league for at least a few years) is around 65% for both BCS schools and non-BCS schools.
But the thing that bumps the number of small-school players up on the roster is the number of undrafted free agents. As many as 20 players who started out as undrafted free agents many end up making the Packers 53-man roster this season, and of these, half are from the non-BCS schools. Every season, the Packers sign undrafted players that most fans figure are just camp bodies, but who end up surprising everyone and pushing for a roster spot. Last year that included safety M.D. Jennings and linebackers Vic So'oto and Jamari Lattimore, who all surprisingly made the opening day roster. The Packers were also impressed by running back Brandon Saine and guard Ray Dominguez, and they ended up being promoted from the practice squad to the roster during the season. Receivers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, center Sampson Genus, cornerback Brandian Ross, and fullback Jon Hoese all made an impression during training camp, but ended up spending the season on the practice squad.
The Packers have a “draft-and-develop” philosophy of player development. The team has spent many years building a top-level scouting department that is able to find talent and potential that other teams often overlook. It seems that every year, Thompson will draft somebody one or two rounds earlier than all the “experts” think they should be drafted. But many of these players end up paying off down the road. The power of a good scouting department is seen not just in the quality of the draft choices, but also in the quality of the undrafted free agents that are signed after the draft is over.
The other side of the draft-and-develop philosophy is the player development side. The Packers are known as a coaching staff that is excellent at teaching and developing the players. Safeties coach Darren Perry compared the staff to his previous experience in Pittsburgh. “Very knowledgeable and great teachers. If you can't teach, it's hard to get the guys to perform. I think that's probably one of the things that sticks out to me—you've got some really good teachers. A lot of that goes to Mike (McCarthy) for putting it all together.”
Not only is good coaching a key, but so also is the ability to develop players through the practice squad. Over the years, several key players have worked their way through the practice squad to the team, including center Scott Wells, fullback Vonta Leach, receiver Ruvell Martin, safety Atari Bigby, tight end Tom Crabtree, linebacker Robert Francois, and quarterback Graham Harrell. (Wells and Leach went on to become Pro Bowlers.) So the practice squad can be an important part of player development, especially for those who came from smaller schools and didn't face as high a level of talent as their large-school counterparts. (Leach, Martin, Bigby, and Crabtree were all from non-BCS schools.)
So for teams like the Packers who have good scouting and development processes, there are many gems to be found from smaller or less prominent colleges. Several small-school players around the league have gone on to have significant careers, including Vikings DE Jared Allen (Div. 1-AA Idaho State, 4th round), Bills RB Fred Jackson (Div. 3 Coe College, UDFA), Colts WR Pierre Garcon (Div. 3 Mt. Union, 6th round), and Saints G Jahri Evans (Div. 2 Bloomsburg University).
Sometimes, players from these smaller programs know coming into the league that they will have to work and fight for everything they get, thus developing the very habits that lead them to success. In many cases, big-name players from big-name schools have more of an entitlement mindset and don't put in that level of work, or they get sidetracked by the fame and money that is suddenly showered upon them. Perhaps this is why Green Bay is a good place for some of these less prominent players to shine—the bright lights of Green Bay just don't carry the glitz and glamor that a New York or Dallas or Miami does.
List of Packers players from non-BCS schools who have a good chance of making the team this year:
- CB Tramon Williams (Louisiana Tech, UDFA)
- CB Davon House (New Mexico State, 4th)
- CB Jarrett Bush (Utah State,UDFA)
- WR James Jones (San Jose State, 3rd)
- S M.D. Jennings (Arkansas State, UDFA)
- RB Alex Green (Hawaii, 3rd)
- WR Greg Jennings (Western Michigan, 2nd)
- G TJ Lang (Eastern Michigan, 4th)
- RB James Starks (Buffalo, 6th)
- TE Tom Crabtree (Miami (Ohio), UDFA)
- G Josh Sitton (Central Florida, 4th)
- WR Donald Driver (Alcorn State, 7th)
- LB D.J. Smith (Appalachian State, 6th)
- C/G Evan Dietrich-Smith (Idaho State, UDFA)
- S Jerron McMillian (Maine, 4th)
- FB John Kuhn (Shippensburg, UDFA)
On the Bubble:
- LB Dezman Moses (Tulane, UDFA)
- LB Vic So'oto (Brigham Young, UDFA)
- LB Jamari Lattimore (Middle Tennessee State, UDFA)
- WR Diondre Borel (Utah State, UDFA)
- LB Frank Zombo (Central Michigan, UDFA)
- DL C.J. Wilson (East Carolina, 7th)
- LB Erik Walden (Middle Tennessee State, UDFA)
- S Anthony Levine (Tennessee State, UDFA)
- QB B.J. Coleman (TN-Chattanooga, 7th)
- CB Brandian Ross (Youngstown State, UDFA)
- C Tommie Draheim (San Diego State, UDFA)
- FB Nic Cooper (Winston-Salem State, UDFA)
- S Micah Pellerin (Hampton, UDFA)
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)