Small-School Sleeper Prospects to Watch in 2014 NFL Draft

Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders may not be the next Barry Sanders, but he has drawn a comparison to the NFL legend. (Photo: Thomas Campbell — USA Today Sports)

BBD Staff Writer: Joseph Curtis

While Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools account for most selections and nearly all the top picks in each year’s NFL draft, small schools should not be overlooked.

Non-FBS schools have averaged 24.6 selections during the past five drafts, with nearly 70 percent of those selections coming from from the Football Championship Subdivision (previously known as Division I-AA).

While non-FBS schools have not had a first-round pick since the Arizona Cardinals selected Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with the No. 16 overall pick in 2008, there has been at least one small-school prospect has been selected in the second round of the draft each year since 2005.

Almost all small-school prospects face the scrutiny of the level of competition that they played against, but every year small school athletes emerge and contribute in the NFL.

In this article, we’ll explore some small school prospects to watch leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft.

Tim Flanders, RB, Sam Houston State

After Tim Flanders ran for 287 yards in a semifinals game of the 2011 Division I Football Championship Playoffs, former Montana head coach Robin Pflugrad compared Flanders to a Hall of Fame running back.

“Yeah, he looked like Barry Sanders to me tonight,” Pflugrad said according to SHSU’s official athletics website. “He has some gears. He’s got a great jump cut. He looks like Barry Sanders on the jump cut; there’s nobody else I can compare him to.”

While comparing Flanders to Sanders would be unfair, he does possess some similar traits.

Listed at 5’9” and 210 pounds, Flanders has a compact build. He looks smaller and could afford to add some bulk, but he has enough leg drive to break arm tackles and even push smaller defenders back.

He is a scrappy runner who isn’t afraid of contact and will fight for yards when the situation calls for it. He doesn’t possess elite top-end speed or explosiveness, but he has good vision and patience before he ultimately bursts through the hole.

His strongest attribute is his elusiveness and lateral agility. He accelerates fluidly, starting and stopping on a dime and easily changing direction without slowing down.

In passing situations, Flanders will have trouble blocking NFL rushers, but he can contribute receiving. He is a quality receiver out of the backfield who led the Bearkats in receptions and was third on the team in receiving yards in 2011.

Flanders will have a lot of miles on him by the end of the season. Entering his senior season, he has recorded 758 rushing attempts.

He is no Barry Sanders, but it is easy to see why one would make the comparison. Both are shifty, elusive runners of similar stature with elite agility, and they even haev rhyming last names.

Flanders is likely to hear his name called on the third day of the 2014 NFL draft. If he is more like Sanders than he is given credit for, he could be the steal of the draft.

Jeff Mathews, QB, Cornell

Jeff Mathews is the most intriguing senior quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft. Listed at 6’4” and 224 pounds with a solid build, Mathews looks like an NFL signal-caller.

His velocity is the best of any quarterback in the class and he possesses good arm strength to drive the ball deep downfield. He can easily make sideline throws, even across the field.

His throwing motion is a bit long at times due to starting his motion low. That said, his throwing motion is lightning quick and fluid. He throws over the top, but shows the ability to change arm angles.

When Mathews has time in the pocket, his footwork is very solid, and he transitions his weight very well as he throws and follows through.

He seems to sense pressure very well and will generally keep his eyes downfield as he steps up in the pocket. His footwork, however, does have a tendency to break down under pressure.

Overall, Mathews’ accuracy is on par with the other top quarterbacks in this class. His anticipation is lacking at times, but his ball placement is very good as he consistently puts the ball away from the defender and only where his receiver can reach it.

Mathews’ mobility is also an underrated part of his game. While he is more of a pocket passer, he shows the ability to roll out and pick up a few yards for a first down.

The biggest question with Mathews is the level of competition he faces at Cornell. His stock seems to be all over the board, but with a good senior campaign and a solid performance in a post-college football season all-star game like the Senior Bowl, Mathews could end up hear his name called during the first round.

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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Billy Turner, Caraun Reid, Cornell, Eastern Washington, Ethan Westbrooks, FCS, Jeff Mathews, Jordan Tripp, Marcus Williams, Montana, North Dakota State, Princeton, Sam Houston State, Sleepers, Small School, Small School Prospects, Tevin McDonald, Tim Flanders, West Texas A&M

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