2014 NFL Draft: American Athletic Conference and Mid-American Conference Sleepers to Watch

USF defensive end Ryne Giddins could be a riser in the 2014 NFL draft class if he bounces back strong from an injury-riddled junior season. (Photo: Danny Wild — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Joseph Curtis

The Mid-American Conference has consistently produced a few selections in each NFL Draft. The American Athletic Conference, formerly known as the Big East, has produced a good amount of NFL talent.

As one of the power conferences, the Big East produced a good amount of selections, averaging 19.4 picks over the last five drafts. With an exodus of many of the conference’s top teams in progress, it remains to be seen whether the AAC will be able to sustain that production of NFL talent.

During that same five-year period, the MAC averaged 6.6 players selected. However, the MAC did produce the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, as the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher.

Top quarterback prospect Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville leads the draft-eligible talent for the AAC this season, while the MAC’s top prospects are Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack and Kent State running back/wide receiver Dri Archer.

Although they do not play in any of college football’s major conferences, Bridgewater, Mack and Archer are already well-established names as prospect. Let’s take a look at some of the lesser-established names who could be sleeper prospects for the 2014 NFL draft.

Preston Brown, LB, Louisville

Preston Brown was an instrumental part of Louisville’s great 2012 season. He earned second-team all-Big East honors, and helped lead a solid defense on a team that upset Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Brown is listed at 6’2” and 260 pounds with a stout build. He is a decent athlete with a quick first step and a good closing burst.

He recognizes and plays the run well. He does a good job taking on blockers and plugging holes, but he does need to be more aggressive at the point of attack. He understands the angles he needs to take to make plays on outside runs as well.

He does not make a lot of plays in the backfield, often just allowing runners to get upfield before making a play. Despite leading the team with 108 tackles last season, he only recorded eight tackles for loss, which ranked eighth on the team.

Brown is very physical and a technically-sound yet violent tackler. He is consistently able to run through players and deliver big hits, but is also just as capable of wrapping up and taking down a player.

He displays good instincts and enough athleticism to drop into coverage in the middle of the field.

His biggest issue is the ability to move laterally and change direction. He struggles to stop and redirect, and looks stiff shuffling laterally. He has stiff hips and struggles to quickly flip them, especially in coverage.

Brown could be a tough, physical thumper in the middle of an NFL defense. However, he needs to show scouts better range and make more plays in the backfield to improve his draft stock.

He is a likely early Day 3 selection who has the chance to move into Day 2 with a solid senior season.

Ryne Giddins, DE, South Florida

Coming off of a very solid sophomore campaign, South Florida defensive end Ryne Giddins looked like he may be a future top draft pick, but a shoulder injury in 2012 hampered his junior season.

During 12 starts as a sophomore, Giddins recorded 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks to earn first-team All-Big East honors. He again played in 12 games last season, but only started seven. He remained fairly productive, recording 3.5 sacks, but his injury appeared to affect him as he struggled to shed blocks.

When healthy, Giddins displays a great burst off the line and the ability to beat blockers off the edge. He shows the ability to dip and angle himself, get into the blocker and around the edge.

He does need to add more pass-rush moves. He looked to try new moves during his junior season, but the effectiveness was ultimately hampered by the injury.

He struggles against the run and is almost a liability in the run game. He isn’t able to stand his ground and blockers move him off the line with relative ease. He has a tendency to play high, allowing blockers into his body.

Some additional bulk could help him stand up to blockers, as he is listed at only 6’3” and 253 pounds. With his size and athleticism, some NFL teams may consider playing him at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.

If Giddins can stay healthy in 2013 and improve on the abilities he flashed in previous seasons, he could solidify himself as one of the AAC’s top pass rushers. He is a likely mid-round pick at this point, but a solid campaign should move him up draft boards, possibly as high as early Day 2.

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Tags: American Athletic Conference, Ball State, Bernard Reedy, Branden Oliver, Brendon Kay, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Draft Sleepers, Greg Blair, Jamal Merrell, Jordan Hansel, Lee Skinner, Louisville, MAC, Mid-American Conference, Preston Brown, Prospects to Watch, Rutgers, Ryne Giddins, South Florida, Toledo, Yawin Smallwood

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