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Monday, 9 April 2012

Under The Radar

In every NFL draft class there a huge variety of personalities. The entertainer, the sure-thing, the physical freak, they all take up the column inches at this time of year. But come April 29th, 253 former college players will have been drafted to NFL teams, and hundreds more will be waiting by the phone to get invited to camp for the summer, to give them one more shot at making the big time. To give you a break from the Luck-RGIII-Blackmon-Claiborne monotony, here’s a quick taste of three names worth looking out for in later rounds, each with their own little back story that deserves some recognition.

Darius Nall, DE, Central Florida  - The survivor

Nall hurdles UAB QB Bryan Ellis
His story: In a world like football that demands everyone to be at peak physical fitness at all times, small injuries can be turned in to big news, but much like Mark Herzlich and Marcus Cannon, both NFL rookies in 2011, defensive end Darius Nall from Central Florida has had far bigger things to worry about. In 2008, having found the field for UCF as a true Freshman, Nall started getting chest pains during class, and after visiting doctors was told he had a baseball-sized tumour in his chest, and was diagnosed with malignant thymoma – a rare cancer of the lining of the thymus gland. He underwent mammoth surgery to remove the tumour along with part of his lung, and started on a lengthy course of chemotherapy. It took him two years, and a gruelling amount of training, but Nall made his way back to the UCF starting lineup, despite having to retrain his body to compete with reduced lung capacity. He finished his college career  with 89 total tackles and 58 solo stops. He earned 23 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks. Nall also broke up eight passes, forced three fumbles and recovered one fumble. Not bad numbers by anyone’s calculations. After his senior season, Nall began preparations for the NFL draft, and despite his health issues, at  6’4 and 250 he was getting plenty of interest from NFL scouts as he prepared for the Battle of Florida college all-star game. It was then that during a routine check-up, doctors discovered that his cancer had returned. Preparing for the draft might have saved his life, as this time the cancer was caught in its early stages, and meant he could go straight back onto chemotherapy rather than go under the knife again. Anyone who has gone through chemo, or knows someone close to them who has, will tell you just how awful it makes you feel. The drugs effectively poison your body, not being able to choose between cancerous and healthy cells. All the more remarkable then that even during this period Nall continued to train, running and lifting weights with staff at UCF, and doing all he could to keep in game-shape. By the time the UCF pro-day came round on March 28th, Nall was there, ready to shine, and with the most important thing he could possibly have to his name: an all clear from the doctors. Nall impressed at the pro-day, with a number of big name scouts and front office personnel in attendance, and should have earned himself a late-round selection. If there’s one guy to back to make an NFL roster, I’d say it’s him.

A good landing place would be: Green Bay. At the UCF pro-day, Ted Thompson was standing on the sidelines, and although the Packers’ GM was likely there to watch Josh Robinson, the lighting fast UCF corner, he can’t have failed to be impressed by Nall. Nall may need to translate from DE to OLB in the NFL, and the Packers could certainly do with a dynamic threat to go opposite Clay Matthews.

Draft prediction: If Nall hears his name called, it’ll be in the 6th or 7th round in April. If not, he can expect plenty of phone calls as a priority FA, not just a body for camp.

Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State – The “Brit”

His story: Everyone in the UK loves to jump on the “born in England” bandwagon whenever it rolls into town. Just look at Lawrence Tynes. Crawford actually spent a lot of his young life in the UK. Having been born in London, his family only moved to the US in 2005, and he intended to persue Basketball as his #1 sport. But in 2006 he found a place on the football team at St Augustine HS in New Jersey and instantly excelled as a DE and TE. Just two years later, having never played football before, Crawford played every game in 2008 at DE for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman. He earned the roll as starter for the next 3 years, as well as a combine invite, and was projected as a 5th rounder thanks to his 6’5, 274 frame, which he has room to bulk up. Some teams may be put off by the fact he’s only played for 5 years, and is very much a prospect for a development rather than a week 1 start, and others might be put off by more recent issues… In March, police in Pennsylvania found a variety of drug and marijuana paraphernalia in an apartment that Crawford lived in whilst at Penn State. Although Crawford has not lived there since December, and he vehemently denies any knowledge or possession of the items, the mere hint of there being “off the field issues” might be enough for teams to go in a different direction in later rounds of the draft.

A good landing place would be: New York Jets. Amidst Tebowmania, people seem to have forgotten that the Jets have plenty of glaring needs, and they’ve expressed an interest in Crawford.  Crawford showed a propensity to stand up and Penn State, even when he wasn’t supposed to do so, so perhaps a switch to OLB isn’t out of the question, but his size would suggest he might be better suited to playing with his hand in the dirt.

Draft prediction: The drug issue is a non-starter, and provided NFL teams do their homework on that it won’t hurt his stock. A 4th/5th rounder who could easily earn a spot as a special teamer come day 1 and give himself a chance to develop into a starter.

Rico Wallace, WR, Shenandoah – Small Schooler

You HAVE to be good to wear #1
His story:  Where?? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of Shenandoah University. Half the NFL probably hasn’t heard of the Div III school in Virginia, about 30 miles North West of Washington DC. But maybe it’s time to start taking notice. Rico Wallace was a decent QB at high school in Maryland, but wasn’t highly recruited, and ended up at Shenandoah where he converted to receiver, and went about breaking record after record. He scored 168 points and holds records for most passes, yards and touchdowns in one game, as well as longest reception from scrimmage. He finished his career with 3,287 yards on 189 receptions and 28 touchdowns. This may have been against Div III opposition, but the numbers are impressive enough to take note. He didn’t really succeed in getting himself noticed at his proday (he worked out at James Madison U), but did stand out at a small school showcase attended by NFL scouts.

A good landing place would be: St Louis Rams. Why? Because there are basically no WR (except maybe Danny Amendola) on their depth chart that are safe from being cut. Where better for a chancing rookie to land than on a level playing field? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part. He’s also been coached by guys with links to the Redskins, so a quiet word in Shanahan’s ear might get him a job.

Draft prediction: Small school prospects don’t get drafted very often. Only 15 DivIII guys since 1991. And no-one has ever been drafted from Shenandoah. I’m sure he’ll find a place at camp, but being chosen in the 253 might be a stretch. Expect him as a UDFA, who gets the chance to select his landing spot.

-          Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
-          The Pulling Linemen

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