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

Although he played alongside four players drafted in the first four rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, Yawin Smallwood was UConn’s best defensive player last season. (Photo: Michael Ivins — USA Today Sports)

Brendon Kay, QB, Cincinnati

When then-Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones benched Munchie Legaux last season, Brendon Kay made the most of the opportunity. Kay started the final five games of last season at quarterback and completed more than 62 percent of his passes for 1,250 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.

He has ideal NFL size, listed at 6’4” and 233 pounds with a solid build. He may not be a great athlete, but he has enough athleticism and mobility to scramble for a few yards.

Kay’s mechanics have some flaws. He tends to hold the ball low when in the pocket and will drop his arm angle when throwing at times. He also tends to throw with too much arm rather than transferring his weight forward and following through.

Despite some mechanical issues, he has good arm strength and enough velocity to make all the NFL throws.

When he has time and sets his feet, he is very accurate and throws with the touch to fit the ball into some tight windows. However, he throws off-balance far too often, which affects his accuracy and overall effectiveness.

As Kay heads into his first full season as a starter, he has the opportunity to make a name for himself and showcase his NFL talent. If he can transition under new head coach Tommy Tuberville and show improved mechanics, the sky is the limit for how high Kay’s stock may rise.

Branden Oliver, RB, Buffalo

After a solid sophomore season in which Branden Oliver ran for 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns, injuries slowed his junior season.

Oliver still churned out a solid junior season, leading Buffalo with 821 rushing yards and five touchdowns while averaging nearly one yard more per carry (5.55 compared to 4.56), but he missed five complete games last season and parts of four others.

He has a stocky Ray Rice-like build at 5’8” and 204 pounds with quick feet and enough speed to get to the edge and be effective on outside runs. He plays bigger than he is and will take defenders head on as often as he will try to juke and get around them.

He is a north-south runner who is most effective between the tackles. He shows good vision for where the hole is going to be and bursts through the hole.

While he isn’t a guy who busts off long runs for touchdowns, he is consistent and will fight to get yards. He also looks like he doesn’t tire much as the game goes on.

He will have a lot of miles on him if he stays healthy and plays the whole season, but Oliver should see himself drafted somewhere in the middle rounds. He doesn’t get as much attention as he should being in the MAC, but Oliver could be a steal in the 2014 draft.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, Connecticut (Jr.)

Connecticut had four defensive players taken in the first 124 selections of the 2013 draft, but the best defensive player on the team last season was returning linebacker Yawin Smallwood.

Smallwood’s great sophomore campaign included 120 tackles with 15 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. He received first-team All-Big East honors.

Listed at a solid 6’3” and 244 pounds, he has top-notch athleticism. He is very fluid with a good first step, outstanding range and explosive closing burst.

His outstanding instincts and his great ability to read and react are a great combination that have him always around the ball and making plays. He does a great job of using these traits to get into the backfield and stop plays before they even develop.

His physicality makes up for his lack of power when taking on blockers, and he uses his long arms well to create space and shed blockers.

At times, he plays too aggressively and overrun his assignment because he is too focused on making the play. Against the pass, he reads the quarterback and controls the middle of the field effectively for a linebacker and has the athleticism to keep up with most tight ends.

If he can improve his few faults and have another solid season, Smallwood could be one of the first linebackers off the board next year should he declare for the 2014 draft.

Others Names to Watch:

Greg Blair, LB, Cincinnati

A physical defender with very good instincts and intangibles, Greg Blair may just be the player that goes much earlier in the draft than most would project. He lacks good athleticism but does a good job compensating for it.

Jordan Hansel, OG, Ball State

Jordan Hansel anchors a young and inexperienced offensive line for Ball State. Hansel has good size at 6’4” and 326 pounds and he continues to add solid bulk to his frame.

Jamal Merrell, LB, Rutgers

With Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais now gone to the NFL, it’s Jamal Merrell’s time to step up and lead the Rutgers linebackers. He needs to be more instinctive, but is a solid defender in the box.

Bernard Reedy, WR, Toledo

Toledo is constantly trying to get the ball into Bernard Reedy’s hands for a reason: he has playmaker potential. Reedy is an extremely athletic receiver who reportedly ran a 4.39 40-yard dash time in the spring of 2012 according to the Toledo Blade. He may have only accounted for six touchdowns on 101 touches from scrimmage last season, but he had four return touchdowns as well.

Lee Skinner, LB, Buffalo (Jr.)

While Khalil Mack gets most of the attention on the talented Buffalo defense, Lee Skinner shouldn’t be overlooked. Though Skinner lacks good speed, he is a solid downhill defender who takes a good first step and good angles to compensate.

Previous Sleeper Articles:

Atlantic Coast Conference

Big Ten Conference

Big 12 Conference

Pac-12 Conference

Southeastern Conference

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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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