One of the real tests for scouts and NFL scouting departments across the nation is their ability to locate small-school talent and uncover possible hidden gems throughout the draft process.
Mike Lombardi, Andrew Brandt and Wes Bunting of the National Football Post rank this year's top non-FBS (i.e., Division I-A) prospects for the '09 draft.
1. RB Rashad Jennings (6-1/232), Liberty The Buzz: Jennings, who began his career at Pitt, is a powerful back who has the frame and strength to handle the pounding of being an every-down runner in the NFL. He has great vision, and has the ability to break tackles and separate with his first-step quickness. Jennings, who has been invited to the Senior Bowl, ranks among the nation's top three senior running backs.
2. DE/DT Chris Baker (6-2/308), Hampton The Buzz: Baker, a Penn State transfer, has found a home at end in Hampton's 3-4 defense. Baker displays the power and explosion to make plays in the passing game, as well as be stout at the point of attack. He offers good versatility, with the ability to play in the 3-4 or the 4-3.
3. WR Ramses Barden (6-6/224), Cal Poly The Buzz: Barden is a king-sized target who has a long reach and great body control. Barden has good deep speed for his size (4.5) and also has the ability to use his body and work the middle of the field. He is an ideal possession receiver who looks like a possible third-round pick.
4. QB Rhett Bomar (6-2/215), Sam Houston State The Buzz: Bomar, a Oklahoma transfer, has rebounded nicely since his dismissal from the Sooners in 2006. Bomar is a strong-armed quarterback who has the ability to make all the throws in the NFL. He has put together an excellent senior season and looks poised to become one of the top senior quarterbacks to come off the board. But his accuracy runs hot and cold, and he needs a good showing at the Senior Bowl to solidify his spot in the first three rounds.
5. CB Domonique Johnson (6-2/190), Jackson State The Buzz: Johnson, who began his career at Missouri, is this year's version of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – a tall, lean corner from the FCS level (i.e., Division I-AA) with excellent ball skills and knack for the big play. Johnson lacks the same type of awareness in man coverage as Rodgers-Cromartie, but he has a similar skill set and the upside to warrant a first-day pick.
6. C Cecil Newton (6-4/316), Tennessee State The Buzz: A powerfully built center with an explosive first step and excellent range in space. Newton does a nice job getting into defensive tackles quickly and has the body control to chip and get out to the second level. He has the size and athleticism to work his way into a starting lineup at the next level and is one of the nation's top 10 center prospects.
7. QB Nathan Brown (6-1/215), Central Arkansas The Buzz: Brown is a bit undersized by NFL standards, but has a thick, well-built frame and the athleticism to move around and find throwing lanes in the pocket. He has a strong arm and displays good balance and accuracy on the move. Brown is ranked among the top 10 senior quarterbacks, and with a good combine effort he could really move up draft boards. He reminds some scouts of Tony Romo, who played at Eastern Illinois.
8. TE Brian Mandeville (6-6/248), Northeastern The Buzz: A physically imposing tight end with good length and power at the point of attack. Mandeville, who began his college career at defensive end, has excellent athleticism but it is his power and blocking ability that has NFL teams intrigued. He reminds some scouts of New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss, but Mandeville has the technique and power to become a much better blocker.
9. WR Jeremy Gilchrist (5-9/176), Hampton The Buzz: Gilchrist, a Virginia Tech transfer, is an undersized receiver prospect who displays a great first step and big-time ability after the catch. He lacks the strength to play on the outside, but his quickness and vertical speed will make him a perfect fit for the slot. Gilchrist also is a talented return man.
10. T Joel Bell (6-7/312), Furman The Buzz: Bell is a tall, long-armed tackle who has good power and toughness in the running game. He has the upper-body strength to lock on and really drive defenders out of a play, but he must work on his overall technique. Bell has the athleticism and foot speed to play right tackle in the NFL. He plays with a mean streak and consistently dominates opponents.
11. QB Mike Reilly (6-3/214), Central Washington The Buzz: Reilly, a Washington State transfer, has soared up draft boards because of his ability to create via the run and pass. Reilly is accurate from the pocket and also does a great job sidestepping pressure and picking up first downs with his legs. It will take him time to develop, but the skill set is there.
12. G/T Cornelius Lewis (6-4/316), Tennessee State The Buzz: Lewis, who started his career at Florida State, has a thick, powerful lower half and has good lateral mobility in pass protection. He lacks great length and size, and may be best-suited to play guard. Lewis has good feet and has the power to hold his own in the run and pass game.
13. TE Jared Bronson (6-4/255), Central Washington The Buzz: Bronson is a transfer from Washington. He's an intriguing size/speed prospect who has the explosion to get downfield and threaten the seam at the next level. Bronson is a bit limited as a blocker at this stage, but he has the athleticism to be flexed out in the slot and create mismatches in the passing game. Bronson has the size and power to block; he just needs some time to develop his technique.
14. RB Herb Donaldson (5-11/222), Western Illinois The Buzz: A no-nonsense type running back who has the power and drive to wear down opposing front sevens. Donaldson doesn't have much flash or explosion to his game, but he has great vision at the line of scrimmage and the first-step quickness to hit the hole hard. He looks like a late-round guy who definitely can help carry the load at the next level.
15. DT Louis Ellis (6-2/312), Shaw (N.C.). The Buzz: Ellis was a big-time prospect out of high school who signed with Mississippi State but had academic trouble. He's an explosive athlete who makes a living getting off the snap and penetrating into an opponent's backfield. Ellis is a gifted athlete who was timed in 4.94 in the 40. He has dominated his level of competition – NCAA Division II – despite seeing consistent double teams. Ellis should see his stock rise with a strong showing in the postseason and could improve significantly on his late-round grade.
16. DT Sammie Lee Hill (6-4/328), Stillman (Ala.) The Buzz: He's a massive nose tackle prospect who has good athleticism and quickness for his size. Hill has the body control to move laterally as well as hold the point of attack against the run. He's a developing pass rusher who has the physical attributes to become an every-down lineman.
17. DE Lawrence Sidbury (6-3/265), Richmond The Buzz: He's a strong, good-looking end who has quick feet and body control on his pass rush. Sidbury re-directs quickly in space and may be best-suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
18. LB Jason Williams (6-1/236), Western Illinois The Buzz: Williams is a thickly built outside linebacker who has the frame to play inside. He displays good pop as a tackler, but his best attribute is his sideline-to-sideline speed. Williams has great range on the outside, with the burst and speed to track down the ball in pursuit. He's an ideal "Cover 2"-type linebacker.
19. DT John Faletoese (6-2/295), UC Davis The Buzz: He's an explosive, penetrating tackle who has the burst to shoot gaps inside and get after the quarterback. He has a motor that never stops, and he fights like a dog in the run game. He will scrap and claw for every inch. He reminds some scouts of Bills DT Kyle Williams.
20. S Dre'Mail Hardin (6-0/195), Stillman (Ala.) The Buzz: He's a physical safety prospect who reads and reacts quickly. He's at his best at the line of scrimmage attacking downhill versus the run. He's a physical tackler who takes good angles, but lacks great closing speed and range in the secondary. Hardin plays at one speed and lacks the straight-line speed to handle the centerfield-type role at the next level.
NationalFootballPost.com is a football insider Web site featuring Andrew Brandt, the vice president of the Green Bay Packers for the past nine years, and Michael Lombardi, who has worked in NFL front offices for 22 years, including nine years with Cleveland and eight with Oakland.