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By now, most fans are familiar with the big-name players from schools like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Michigan. However, the NFL is full of players that reign from much smaller, non-Power 5, and in some cases, non-FBS schools. Rather than highlight players like Malik Willis or Ahmad Gardner. They might end up being top-five picks. Instead, here are a few smaller school prospects that could come off the board pretty early that you should definitely be paying attention to.
Christian Watson, WR, NDSU
This is probably one of the most well known small school prospects in this class. Watson has an incredible combination of size and speed. He measured in at 6’5″ at the combine and posted a 4.36 40-time. When you watch him play, you will see a technician in route running with huge hands capable of snatching contested passes. He lacks elite quickness to generate separation, but his size makes up for much of that. Expect him to go early in the second round if he doesn’t sneak into the first.
Cole Strange, OL, Chattanooga
Strange turned heads at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine with a really strong pre-draft process. He will be a fantastic fit for any team that uses pulling guards and runs a heavy dose of screen plays. His speed and agility stood out on tape. The biggest drawback in his game is average to below average play strength. With the ability to play at guard or center, I expect him to come off the board on Day 2.
Tariq Woolen, CB, UTSA
If you could build a corner prototype, Woolen might be the base model. He stands 6’4″ and can move. He posted a blazing 4.26 40-yard dash time at the combine with an absurd 42-inch vertical. He has 33 and 5/8-inch long arms as well. He is unquestionably raw when it comes to his technique and hand usage, but my goodness, he has all the physical tools to be an elite shutdown corner. Expect him to be taken on Day 2.
Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State
If you are looking for a home run hitter at running back, here is your guy. Strong is a menace in the open field, making defensive backs look foolish trying to track him down. He has breakaway speed and great acceleration. His footwork is also very impressive. Given his slightly smaller frame, he probably won’t ever be an every down back, but he could definitely be a high-quality change of pace or committee option. He isn’t an elite receiver, but he caught 43 passes over the past two seasons as well and can hold his own as a blocker. I don’t think he will make it to Day 3.
Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa
Easily the biggest name among small school prospects this season not named Malik Willis, Penning seems like a lock for the first round at this stage. He is massive at 6’7″ and 325 pounds. What might be more impressive is his movement skills for a man his size. He tested in the 97th percentile for the 40-yard dash and the 98th percentile with his 3-cone time. There will be a learning curve and some refining for Penning at the next level, but he brings some nastiness along with that athleticism. He will develop into a solid starting tackle. With the amount of buzz he is getting, he will probably be a top-20 pick.
Cameron Thomas, EDGE, San Diego State
Thomas put himself on a lot of draft boards following an impressive 2021 season, posting 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He did not test super well, but the production and tape are more important. Given his size, he projects best as a 4-3 defensive end, but could bulk up to play 3-4 end as well. He plays downhill and shows good play speed when he disengages from blockers. He needs to develop more pass rush moves, but he has a solid swim move he relies on. I believe he will be selected in the late second or early third round.
Dylan Parham, G, Memphis
While Parham is very undersized by NFL standards, he competes well. His effort and technique make up for some of the physical shortcomings. He has solid play strength and good footwork. Those physical limitations will prevent him from joining the league’s elite at the position, but he has already done really well to bulk up from the 285 pounds he was listed at when he played for Memphis. He is now 311 pounds and does not seem to have lost any of his speed. Pass-heavy teams in the late second or early third round will definitely want to give Parham a look.
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