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Which Small-School Prospects Will The Cowboys Draft This Year?

A quarter of all NFL players drafted in the last four years come from outside the six big BCS divisions. We look at which teams draft the most small-school prospects, where the Cowboys rank, and what it could mean for this year's draft.

B.W. Webb. From small-school standout to NFL starter?
B.W. Webb. From small-school standout to NFL starter?

Like it or not, the small-school standout is a staple of Dallas Cowboys drafts, and has been for decades. The first Cowboys player to fit the "small-school standout" definition was defensive tackle Jethro Pugh out of Elizabeth (N.C.) City State in the 1964 draft. Since then, the Cowboys have had great success looking for talent in out of the way places, and have compiled an impressive list of small-school talent that includes Hall of Fame OT Rayfield Wright out of Fort Valley State, HoF OG Larry Allen out of Sonoma State, and numerous Pro Bowlers. More recently, the  Cowboys found Tony Romo in out of the way Eastern Illinois, and small-school prospects continue to make the roster in Dallas.

But for all the feel-good stories about guys that made it, there are also a lot of stories about guys who weren't able to make the jump from small schools to the NFL. For the purposes of today's post, we'll use two definitions for small-school players:

  • Non-BCS 6: Players not from the six big college divisions (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) + Notre Dame
  • Non-BCS 10: Players not from any of the ten BCS divisions (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC + Notre Dame + C-USA, MAC, MWC and Sun Belt)

As you would expect, players from the six big college divisions make up the bulk of the draft picks in the NFL. 77% of all draft picks from 2010-2013 played in one of those six divisions. Another 12% of the draft picks hail from the remaining BCS divisions, while 11% of the players drafted did not attend a BCS school. Those percentages naturally differ by round, as the following table shows:

Round BCS 6 Players
Non-BCS 6 Players
Non-BCS 10 Players
1 95% 4% 2%
2 85% 10% 5%
3 78% 15% 7%
4 79% 8% 13%
5 75% 13% 12%
6 71% 15% 15%
7 66% 14% 20%

Over the last four years, the Cowboys have drafted 11 players, or almost three per draft, that did not play in the top six BCS divisions. Here's an overview of Cowboys draft picks that could be considered smaller-school prospects:

Year Round Player POS College Conf BCS-6 BCS-10
2010 4 Akwasi Owusu-Ansah CB Indiana (PA) PSAC No No
2010 7 Sean Lissemore DT William & Mary CAA No No
2011 4 David Arkin G Missouri State MVFC No No
2011 5 Josh Thomas CB Buffalo MAC No Yes
2011 6 Dwayne Harris WR East Carolina C-USA No Yes
2012 3 Tyrone Crawford DE Boise State MWC No Yes
2012 4 Matt Johnson S Eastern Washington Big Sky No No
2012 7 Caleb McSurdy ILB Montana Big Sky No No
2013 2 Gavin Escobar TE San Diego State MWC No Yes
2013 3 J. J. Wilcox S Georgia Southern SoCon No No
2013 4 B. W. Webb CB William & Mary CAA No No

For many Cowboys fans, fourth rounder Akwasi Owusu-Ansah from Indiana (Pa) has become a synonym for a small-school bust. In 2010, AOA was selected with the 126th pick at the end of the fourth round. The next three DBs selected were Kam Chancellor out of Virginia Tech (133), Dominique Franks out of Oklahoma (135) and Kendrick Lewis out of Mississippi (136). Those three players have combined for 101 starts in four years. AOA started two games for Jacksonville in 2011 and never started for Dallas.

Yet the AOA pick falls squarely on the scouting: AOA was the BPA on the Cowboys board when the Cowboys were on the clock. The Cowboys had AOA rated as their 69th guy with a fourth-round grade. Franks was 82nd (4th rd grade),  Chancellor was 87th (4th rd grade), and Lewis wasn't even on their draft board.

If you look dispassionately at the table above, you'll have to concede that this is a pretty sobering list. Five of the eleven picks on the list are no longer with the Cowboys. And while Cowboys fans may have high hopes for some of the remaining players on the list, none of them - outside of perhaps Dwayne Harris as a returner - has yet shown that he will be a substantial contributor to the Cowboys. This might very well change this season, but it just as easily might not.

And this highlights some of the risks inherent in selecting small-school players: They've excelled against mostly inferior competition; many of them have relied more on pure athleticism than technique to beat their opponents in college, and that won't work at the NFL level anymore; many of them face a steeper learning curve in the NFL than big-school prospects; some of them need considerable strength & conditioning time to get NFL-ready. In short, small-school prospects face an arduous uphill climb in the NFL, and not all of them are up to that task.

It's not clear to us how the Cowboys factor this risk into their prospect grades, but the Cowboys’ recent talent acquisition history indicates that college pedigree may play a lesser role in Dallas than in other places. To see how the Cowboys compare to the other teams in the league in terms of drafting small-school players, I looked at how many of each NFL team's draft picks between 2010 and 2013 come from non-BCS schools, and I used the same criteria outlined above to run the numbers:

Small-School Prospects by Team, 2010-2013 (click blue column headers to sort)
Team No. of Picks
non-BCS 6 non-BCS 6 in % non-BCS 10
non-BCS 10 in %
Jacksonville Jaguars 25 14 56% 9 36%
Dallas Cowboys 29 11 38% 7 24%
Detroit Lions 28 9 32% 7 25%
Miami Dolphins 32 10 31% 3 9%
Green Bay Packers 36 11 31% 7 19%
St. Louis Rams 36 11 31% 7 19%
Baltimore Ravens 33 10 30% 9 27%
Arizona Cardinals 31 9 29% 4 13%
New York Giants 29 8 28% 3 10%
Chicago Bears 22 6 27% 2 9%
Seattle Seahawks 39 10 26% 6 15%
San Francisco 49ers 36 9 25% 6 17%
New York Jets 25 6 24% 2 8%
Houston Texans 34 8 24% 2 6%
Buffalo Bills 35 8 23% 4 11%
Atlanta Falcons 27 6 22% 2 7%
Kansas City Chiefs 32 7 22% 3 9%
Tennessee Titans 33 7 21% 3 9%
Carolina Panthers 30 6 20% 4 13%
Indianapolis Colts 30 6 20% 2 7%
Denver Broncos 32 6 19% 1 3%
San Diego Chargers 27 5 19% 1 4%
New Orleans Saints 22 4 18% 4 18%
Cleveland Browns 33 6 18% 3 9%
Oakland Raiders 33 6 18% 3 9%
Washington Redskins 34 6 18% 1 3%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 5 17% 1 3%
New England Patriots 35 5 14% 1 3%
Pittsburgh Steelers 35 5 14% 2 6%
Cincinnati Bengals 37 4 11% 2 5%
Minnesota Vikings 37 4 11% 2 5%
Philadelphia Eagles 41 3 7% 1 2%

Note that the 185 colleges that produced at least one NFL draft pick in the last four years are sorted by which conference they belong to today, not where they belonged to six months ago or four years ago or which conference they'll belong to next year. Which means that the same data produced last year would show slightly different results, just as it would next year. But that's college football for you.

In total, 23% of the players chosen in the 2010-13 drafts are not from the six big BCS divisions, 11% of the draft picks hail from non-BCS divisions altogether.

With 38%, the Cowboys have the second-highest percentage of non-BCS 6 draft picks among all teams, and the fourth-highest percentage (24%) of players from non-BCS 10 divisions. Part of this is driven by the relatively low number of total picks (the Cowboys' 29 picks over the last four years rank them a mere 24th in the league), but most of it is driven by the simple fact that the Cowboys like themselves some small-school prospects. This is in stark contrast to the Eagles, who seem to be afraid of small-school prospects almost as much as they must be afraid of holy water.

Taken by itself, the Cowboys' high percentage is neither a good nor a bad thing, but simply a statement of fact. Other teams with high percentages like the Ravens and Packers are normally considered good drafters, while some teams at the bottom of the scale also routinely receive good grades for their drafts.

But what these percentages are indicative of is a team's draft strategy: Are they more or less inclined to go after smaller school prospects or not. The percentage is also indicative of a team's risk tolerance or risk adversity. Teams like the Eagles, Vikings or Bengals seem to believe they'll increase their chances at draft success by drafting mostly from bigger, established schools. Teams like the Cowboys, Packers and Ravens seem to believe that the higher risk of taking a smaller school prospect can be outweighed by that prospect's potential upside.

Where it can get troubling is when a team like the Cowboys finds enough gems like Larry Allen for example. Do that often enough and you may come to the belief that your organization is especially adept at unearthing these jewels. And while that may have been true 20 years ago, today's scouting process by the vast majority of NFL teams is so ubiquitous and so thorough, that the chance of talented players falling through the cracks is virtually non-existent. The Jets for example reported earlier this week that they have put together player evaluations for over 3,500 prospects, and Adham Talaat, who hails from Division III Gallaudet and doesn't even show up on the CBSSports top 1,000 draft prospects, had scouts from 24 NFL teams come to Gallaudet to check him out in person.

If the trend of the previous years holds, the Cowboys could easily draft another three to four players from non-BCS schools this year, particularly since they have six picks in the seventh round to play with. Who could some of those players be?

One clue can be found in our pre-draft visit tracker, which lists the players brought in for pre-draft visits as well as players the Cowboys worked out at some point. These are the players from that list who would qualify as small-school prospects per our definitions from above:

CBS Rank Proj. Rd Player POS College Conf BCS-6 BCS-10 Visit Status
34 1-2 Jimmie Ward S Northern Illinois MAC No Yes Official Visit
38 1-2 DeMarcus Lawrence DE Boise State MWC No Yes Official Visit
72 2-3 Billy Turner OT North Dakota MVFC No No Official Visit
94 3 Caraun Reid DT Princeton Ivy No No Something
112 3-4 Walt Aikens CB Liberty Big South No No Workout/meeting
138 4 Jerick McKinnon RB Georgia Southern SoCon No No Workout/meeting
158 5 Howard Jones OLB Shepherd MEC No No Official Visit
176 5 Larry Webster TE Bloomsburg PSAC No No Workout/meeting
229 6-7 Ken Bishop DT Northern Illinois MAC No Yes Official Visit
279 7-FA Brandon Dixon CB Northwest Missouri St. MIAA No No Official Visit

There are ten players on this list, and according to the grading at CBSSports, there will be at least one player available in each round the Cowboys pick in. Odds are that at least one of these players could end up a Dallas Cowboys.

Which of these players would you want it to be?

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