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NFL Draft Notebook: Small School Stars

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The 2021 NFL Draft is coming, and the Buffalo Bills will be looking to add pieces that can push them over the top in the 2021 season. For the past several weeks, I’ve been breaking down players that the Bills could target at each defensive position. Today, let’s take a look at some players that come from smaller colleges that could excel in the NFL. 

Everyone is familiar with guys from the brand-name schools like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State. But when you hear the commissioner announce your team selected a player from Abilene Christian or Grand Valley State, your reaction might be “Who is this guy?” Last year, the Bills selected a kicker out of Georgia Southern. By the end of the year, we were all trying to come up with nicknames that described the size of his testicles because the kid hit big kick after big kick. 

Without further ado, here are three players from lesser known schools that have the potential to have long and productive careers.

DE Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa (6’7”, 262 lbs.)

Smith dominated FCS competition in 2019 to the tune of 14 sacks, among the top sack totals in the nation. He was forced to sit out the 2020 season, as the FCS shifted their season to the Spring. He’s long, lean, and athletic, and offensive tackles at his level of competition had no chance of keeping up with him. Smith has added some muscle to his frame over the past year and is up to 262 lbs. He’ll likely always be a bit slender, but there’s no denying his ability to get off the ball and get to the quarterback.

The Bills need pass rushers, and even if they add one early in the draft, a guy like Elerson would be worth a look in the middle rounds. Smith’s defensive line coach at Northern Iowa is a familiar name to Bills’ fans. Bryce Paup, former Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year for Buffalo in 1995, has been the Panthers’ defensive line coach since 2018. 

Elerson Smith could be an absolute steal on Day 3.

CB Robert Rochell, Central Arkansas (6’0”, 193 lbs.)

Rochell has the raw talent to be a starter in the NFL sooner rather than later. Rochell is a big-time athlete who just ran a 4.4 forty and showed a 43.5 inch vertical at his pro day. He also has plus coverage skills and is a ballhawk who routinely forces takeaways. Rochell has good height and long arms to go along with his freakish athleticism. 

The one drawback to his game right now is he has some subpar technique, particularly in his back pedal and hips. This is typical of cover guys at small schools who can often dominate with their superior athletic traits. NFL talent will exploit these weaknesses, so Rochell might need a year or two to develop his technique. If the technique catches up to the athleticism, you’re looking at a guy who can be a starter in the NFL. 

Rochell has been generating some buzz after his pro day workouts, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him chosen on Day 2. This is a deep and talented cornerback class, however, so a small school talent like Rochell might be available in the 4th round. 

DT Kenny Randall, Charleston (6’2”, 320 lbs.)

Randall dominated his competition at the Division II level. His combination of size, speed, and strength overwhelmed opponents and led to a ridiculous 30 tackles for loss over his final two seasons of college football. But Randall isn’t just a dominant small school player; he’s a legitimate NFL caliber athlete. You can find plenty of videos of Randall doing box jumps and backflips, which shouldn’t be possible for a man of his size. 

On the field, Randall shows good short-area burst and a strong bull rush. He brings a nasty attitude to his game and is very difficult to move off his spot. He likely won’t ever be a big-time pass rusher in the pros, but he can be a guy who holds strong at the point of attack and consistently collapses the pocket. 

Randall was originally recruited by Matt Rhule and Temple. Due to his academics, he was unable to qualify and was forced to go the Division II route. Matt Rhule knows defense, and he saw Randall as a Division I defensive tackle. The main downside to Randall is his age. He’s an older prospect that is already 25 years old, and you have to wonder if he’s physically maxed out. His upside is going to be limited, which might scare some teams off. Randall might sneak into the 7th round, but, more than likely, he’s a guy that will be a priority undrafted free agent. If I’m the Bills and Brandon Beane, he’s a guy I give a serious look at #236 (7th round). 

What do you think, #BillsMafia? Which of these small school gems would you most like to see in a Bills uniform? Who are some other hidden gems the public needs to know about?

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