By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The NFL teams that uncover hidden gems in the middle and late rounds separate themselves during the draft each year.
It can prove as important as evaluating first-round selections.
As we move toward the draft later this month - yes, it's still out there April 28-30, although the NFL labor woes have drained much of the excitement - the Football Championship Subdivision features some of the potential finds.
The "small-school" label will always reserve judgment on FCS players compared to those at Bowl Subdivision schools.
But here are some of the risers in the pre-draft talk:
Will Rackley, OG, Lehigh, 6-3 1/2, 308 - Rackley is expected to be converted to guard at the next level, but the fact he held his own in the tackle position at the East-West Shrine Game bodes well for the team which selects him. He's built with massive thighs and uses his strength wisely. He has solidified a third-round spot for himself.
Julius Thomas, TE, Portland State, 6-4 1/2, 250 - It's almost unfair to have Thomas on this list considering he's risen from nowhere, having played four seasons of basketball before joining Portland State's football program just last year. Part of the growing list of basketball-to-tight-end stories, his athleticism and size are perfect for the NFL. He's considered a fifth-round choice.
Buster Skrine, CB, Chattanooga, 5-9 1/2, 186 - His speed at the NFL Combine set him apart in scouts' minds. Combine that quickness with excellent ball skills and Skrine (pronounced "screen") has pushed himself into the fifth or sixth round. He wasn't considered draftable entering his senior season.
Mark LeGree, FS, Appalachian State, 5-11 1/2, 210 - Legree's athleticism has been questioned by scouts, but he's had a good enough postseason to solidify himself in the middle rounds, maybe the fifth or sixth. It's hard to argue with the productivity of the three-time Buck Buchanan Award finalist.
Markell Carter, OLB, Central Arkansas, 6-4, 250 - At best Carter is a seventh- round pick, but he will be a coveted free agent because of his potential. With good length and quickness, he could become an excellent pass rusher with the room to run (he had 5.5 sacks, but 19 tackles for loss as a senior defensive end at UCA).
Anthony Bratton, SS, Delaware, 6-0, 213 - Bratton's excellent numbers at the Delaware pro day last month has brought him into the conversation of being a final-round selection. He was highly productive in the FCS's top conference, CAA Football.
So with every riser, there must be a faller. Here are some on the FCS level:
Pat Devlin, QB, Delaware, 6-3, 225 - There's some varied opinion on Devlin because he was so efficient in running the Blue Hens' offense, but he struggled at the East-West Shrine Game and the NFL Combine. During his senior season, there was talk that he would be the fifth or sixth quarterback taken in the draft. Now that total is probably doubled. He may have fallen to the sixth or seventh round.
D.J. Smith, ILB, Appalachian State, 5-11, 237 - His lack of height and speed will get him moved from outside to inside linebacker in an NFL camp. But he might arrive there as a free agent instead of as a draftee. He did not stand out at the Combine, when he needed to do that.
Kevin Hughes, OG, Southeastern Louisiana, 6-4, 300 - He was the first Southeastern Louisiana player to ever earn an invite to the Combine. A team will have to convert his raw athleticism and strength into production on the next level. He's an intriguing free agent possibility, but he hasn't done anything this postseason to move into the draft.