By Wil Masisak @accidentalzen
Time again for my annual list of undervalued draft sleepers and smaller school prospects who deserve more attention in the NFL draft.
For 18 years now, I have made the analysis of lesser-known, small school, and undervalued NFL draft prospects my obsession. Over the years, I’ve tweeted about, written about, mock-drafted, interviewed, argued about, and generally died on the hilltop for “my” guys. Over the years, I’ve missed on a few I liked (Hello, Donald Hammond II!) and missed on some I should have included but didn’t feel worthy (hello, Darius Leonard!)
However, I did hit on a few very unexpected home runs, too. Like when I watched 15 minutes of Texas Tech film and said out loud, “Patrick Mahomes is what a future Hall Of Fame QB looks like.” My work here is done… almost.
Here are a few past B2Bers, more or less the B2B Hall Of Fame:
Patrick Mahomes, Jared Veldheer, Richard Sherman, Carlos Dunlap, Emmanuel Sanders, Jimmy Graham, Josh Norman, Alterraun Verner, Junior Galette, Jordan Cameron, Tarik Cohen, Kevin Byard, Kenny Golladay, Julius Thomas, Buster Skrine, Doug Martin, Bruce Irvin, Robert Turbin, J.R.Sweezy, Jamie Collins, Brandon Williams, Paul Worrilow, Jarvis Landry, Javon Hargrave, George Fant, Malcolm Mitchell, Karl Joseph, Adrian Colbert, Cooper Rush, Chase Allen, Sharif Finch, Jatavis Brown, J.T. Hassel, Jessie Bates, Nik Needham, James Robinson, Donald Parham, Garrett Wallow, Elijah Mitchell, Kenneth Gainwell, Larry Borom, … and more each year.
In general, I tend to favor what a player shows they can do that has outlier potential– what is the best this player can be– paired with the football personality and working style to bring that to fruition. Give me a guy with heart, football smarts, and athletic ability and shame on you if you can’t figure out how to make him a player.
This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive. I’m sure there will be a sleeper or two who make it in the NFL who isn’t on this list… but it’s not because I didn’t try to find him.
For some background on how I got started with this and a list of previous year’s teams, click the following links:
2015 B2B Directional State Team
2016 B2B Directional State Team
2017 B2B Directional State Team
2018 B2B Directional State Team
2019 B2B Directional State Team
2020 B2B Directional State Team
and the 2021 Directional State Team
Read this, and I promise you’ll know more about the rosters of preseason games and the XFL than you ever thought possible! (Hello, Teton Saltes!) Amaze your friends!
Special shout out to: Matt Alkire, Bill Carroll, Josh Buchanan, Dom Kay, SteelPerch, everyone at Steelerfury.com, and especially Emory Hunt of Football Gameplan & Damond Talbot at DraftDiamonds.com for bringing names forward.
This year–because of the COVID complications and extended eligibility–is a treasure trove of undervalued prospects. It may be the deepest draft class of our lifetimes. Narrowing down to the best of the lesser-known contingent will be a true challenge.
Without further ado, the best of the B2Best:
B2B Directional Player of the Year: QB Cole Kelley, Southeastern Louisiana (6072 248lb, 9 5/8 hand, 34 3/8” arm)
I wrote a full writeup of Kelley a few months ago… through his long journey from 4-star recruit to true freshman starter in the SEC, to a transfer rebirth at Southeastern Louisiana, he has transformed himself from a giant running QB with a big arm into a sophisticated passer, running the closest thing to an NFL passing offense that you’ll see in college football. He won the FCS version of the Heisman in a dazzling spring season, then actually had an even better season in the fall, rushing for TDs in 13 games, to go with 44 TDs and only 10 INTs (at least two of which were drops that bounced to defenders). At one point this fall they were 27 for 30 scoring TDs in the Red Zone and the 3 non-touchdowns were two dropped passes and a fumble.
Off-the Map Power 5 Offensive POY: OL Zach Tom, Wake Forest Everybody wants to talk about what Zach Tom isn’t: he isn’t tall enough, he isn’t strong enough, he’s not a tackle, he’s not a guard… all I can say is: on tape he just does his job over and over again. There were matchups that exposed area where he needs refinement, but you can also see him shut down an elite EDGE like Jermaine Johnson for an entire game like it’s not even hard.
Off-the Map Power 5 Defensive POY: CB Damarri Mathis, Pittsburgh Clutch is a word often thrown around, but Mathis is that guy on your defense who just finds a way to make a play when you desperately need one. An interception, a fumble created, a sack, a tackle 1-on-1 on the edge… he’s your man. The concerns on him as a prospect were that he just wasn’t fast or athletic enough…but that was before he ran a 4.39 electronically timed 40 at the combine and then ran a 4.22 shuttle and jumped 43 1/2 in the vertical and over 11 feet in the broad. I don’t know his exact SPARQ score but I’m guessing that’s good.
Underappreciated Non-Power 5 FBS DPOY: CB Marcus Jones, Houston You’ll hear all about “He’s a slightly-undersized dynamo ” “special teams” yadda yadda about this player… but here’s the truth: he is as relentless, talented, explosive, and versatile as any player in this draft. He defines football player. I honestly don’t care what size he is. He covers bigger guys all over the field, his play recognition is instantaneous–hell, even before the ball is snapped kind of recognition–and he will fight you and anyone who gets in his way. He’ll even pursue you 80 yards across the field and rock you up just when you thought you were going to score. An awesome football player.
Underappreciated Non-Power 5 FBS OPOY: OT Ryan Van Demark, Connecticut Van Demark has 35″ + long arms and the kind of nasty streak we all love in O-Linemen. Toiling away on the blind side of perhaps the worst team in FBS, he didn’t get a lot of in-season attention but his performance at the East-West Shrine game was astoundingly efficient and got him more and more deserved attention.
FCS Defensive Player Of The Year: LB Troy Andersen, Montana State They just don’t build many football players like Andersen. A former All-American RB & QB, he made the switch to LB just two seasons ago and became All-American on the other side of the ball. His ability to scrape and go sideline to sideline, combined with his height and agility working in space/coverage are beyond elite, especially for a player of his size. He’s got some work to do to make the sifting through trash/blocks in the interior second-nature but the tools are all there.
Oh, and for an encore, he’ll likely captain all you special teams units and maybe be your wildcat QB.
FCS Offensive Player of the Year: C Cole Strange, Chattanooga Strange shined in the games he played vs. Power 5 competition and then blew the doors off the Senior Bowl. Other than Zion Johnson, Strange was pretty much the only IOL who held his own vs the trio of Travis Jones, Logan Hall, & Otito Ogbinnia––and then told them to come back for some more. The impressive anchor was in contrast with the assuption he’s best on the move and is a little undersized.He appears to be an above-average shit-talker who has the goods to back it up. What’s not to like?
D2 & Below Defensive Player Of The Year: CB Kishawn Walker, Kentucky Weslayan 6’2″ 200lb cover CBs don’t grow on trees, but apparently they do grow in Kentucky. Walker was a prize signee to Western Kentucky, but after a stint there he transferred to NAIA Kentucky Wesleyan, where he absolutely dominated his competition… 5 INTs and 17 pass breakups this season. He’s a really smooth, mirroring in coverage but also has great ball skills and willingness to be physical. Oh, and his CB partner opposite him at an NAIA school is also a terrific prospect (Shedrick Kirk, 6010 201 w 5INTs & 7 PBU this season):
D2 & Below Offensive Players Of The Year: RB Andrew Brazicki, Bentley It’s hard to get a lot of film of Bentley film, but I dug around since little Bentley in Massachusetts ended up with a wonderful UMass transfer at LB (see Cole McCubrey below) and a NFL roster candidate in Brazicki. Brazicki is a sturdy 5011 227lbs but with excellent quickness and agility for a back of that size. You can see it in his burst as a one-cut runner in zone. He reminds me a little of Zach Zenner, who stuck around on the Lions roster for a few years and contributed quite a bit at times on offense and special teams.
B2B “Hearts & Smarts” Award:
BYU C James Empey was voted best student-athlete at the school voted best student-athlete program. Aqeel Glass finished his masters in civil engineering AND Quarterbacked a football team. DL Tomas Booker of Stanford had two majors and won a slew of awards for both academics and football character.
But EDGE Samuel Wright of Princeton not only went to college at a non-athletic scholarship program–where you have to do it for the love of the game–he captained the football team while simultaneously training for the very real possibility of the Olympics as a shot putter. In a spring football practice, he suffered a hand injury that ended his shot put aspirations. Instead of succumbing to that disappointment, he instead used the chaos of a COVID year without football to bond with his teammates and be inspired by his coaches to become the football player he could be. He elevated his technique and his understanding of hte game and because an All-Ivy League performer, finishing 2021 with 13 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 6 QB Hurries, and 2 forced fumbles in just 10 games.
The “If This Were 1975, I’d be a 1st Rd Pick” or “Borderline Too Violent For This Sport” Award: S Elvin De La Rosa, Fayetteville State In short, if it moves, hit it. Hard. He may not have the top-end wheels to play outside the box but man he’s a terrific player in short spaces and close to the ball.
B2B Adversity Award: QB Jake Bentley, S. Alabama Bentley started off as a 5-star QB, recruited to SEC South Carolina. He actually put up some pretty impressive results there and seemed to be on his way to stardom, throwing all over the field to future NFL stars like Deebo Samuel & Bryan Edwards. A combination of disillusionment with coaching, talent turnover, expectation and being replaced as the starter led to him doubting his love for the game. He transferred to Utah but thought about walking away after that season. He found some inspiration in a move to South Alabama, where he was a big part of their passing resurgence and a breakout season for WR Jalen Tolbert. His season was going well enough for some to start whispering about him as a darkhorse QB prospect for some team to talk themselves into on Day 2… and then he suffered a catastrophic knee injury (torn MCL & ACL damage) in his game vs Troy. Up to that point, he was having an outstanding season, completing a career-high 70%+ of his passes for 2,171 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions before the injury. But, knowing it would be his last season and knowing his team was on the verge of being bowl-eligible, he decided to return and play the Jaguars last game of the season vs Coastal Carolina. Bentley finished that game, going 28/41 for 354 yards and 2 TDs… on a destroyed knee. He then announced his retirement and accepted a coaching position, where he coached in the spring on crutches. It’s a shame and a damn shame we couldn’t get to see his talents at the next level, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
The B2B Honorary Karl Joseph People Had Me As A Third Rounder But I’m Going In The top 50 Award: WR Christian Watson, North Dakota State Watson got noticed as the guy on Trey Lance’s highlight tape– a tall, extremely fast wideout who had moves in the open field or on designed run plays. He has a reputation as a diligent worker, high character guy, and has the coveted NFL bloodlines (his father Tim played Safety in the league for 4 years). When he ran 4.36 at the combine–at 6041 208 lbs!–there was no more thinking of him as a late-round, small-school sleeper:
B2B Unwanted to NFL Award: RB Zander Horvath, Purdue ( 6021 228 0868 3200 7628)
Rushed for 3,373 yards and 50 touchdowns during his high school career.
• Broke every rushing and scoring record in Marian High School history.
• Honored with Indiana All-State, Academic All-State
Somehow had to walk-on at Purdue, work his way through the depth chart, put up great results… and still be thought of as not athletic enough, not good enough to be the primary ball-carrier. Not athletic enough? He tested through the roof (and outdoors in subzero conditions!) 31 reps on the bench, 1.57 10yd split, 2.58 20yd, 4.60 40, 4.25 SS, 6.75 3-cone, 35.5 Vertical, & a 1003 broad jump. And teams are still looking at him like “maybe he could be a fullback”. Please. He’s a perfect big back for a team that likes them that style, a la Baltimore or Pittsburgh:
New for 2022: Honorary McKenzie-Griffin-McCourty-Hollister-Pouncey Seeing Double Award: Tre & Tyrell Ford, Waterloo…
Tyson Jalen Philpot, Calgary… Tristan & Zyon McCollum, Sam Houston
Statistically, you’ve got a better shot of being the 1.6% of college players who play pro football than being a twin (0.4%). Not one, not two, but THREE sets of twins with pro ball aspirations in the draft class are on their way to being BOTH. The two sets of Canadian Twins appear set to be drafted in the top 10 of the CFL draft, Zyon is a lock to be a top 150 pick, and Tristan will very likely be in a rookie minicamp. We are scrambling now to see if there is come future NFL talent in the 2021 graduating class of Memorial High School in Houston, TX, where they had–I am not making this up–18 sets of twins and 3 sets of triplets! I wonder what the odds on that are?
Tristan and Zyon McCollum are the best pairing, with Zyon’s fame as an All-American and NFL Combine standout boosting him into the conscienceness… but in Sam Houston’s run to the FCS Championship last spring, it was arguably Tristan who was the Bearkats best player on defense. Both twins are long, fast, and superior athletes. They also are attracted to physical play and rallying to the ball.
B2B For The Love Of The Game Award: RB Zaquandre White, South Carolina
A top RB recruit signed to Florida in 2017, the Seminoles moved him to LB, where he promptly recorded 22 tackles, including 7 tackles in one game. He then transferred to Iowa Western CC, returned to RB, then was named 1st-team All-American. he then transferred back to power 5 football with the Gamecocks, where he promptly went back to being buried on the depth chart and working his way up through excellent special teams play. In 2021, he finally got a chance to at least be the backup RB and managed to shine as both an open0-field runner and as a pass-catcher. Maybe his next team will give him the chance to shine: