In the modern era of football scouting, diamonds in the rough have become progressively hard to find. Increases to scouting departments — and scouting budgets — have created an environment where even tryout-only players receive attention from front offices. The increased emphasis on scouting has created better opportunities for, among others, small-school quarterbacks.
In 1987, future NFL MVP Rich Gannon emerged from then Division I-AA Delaware. Despite a college career that included conference Offensive Player of the Year honors and an honorable mention All-American selection, Gannon lasted until the fourth round. At the time, such a selection was considered a high investment in a small-school player. Move forward 21 years and Joe Flacco, another Delaware quarterback, was taken 18th overall. While other factors played a role, the jump from fourth round to first is largely due to the modernization of NFL scouting.
It’s no surprise then that the 2014 NFL draft class may yield the highest amount of pro-caliber small-school quarterbacks ever. The reason is a fortuitous overlap of extra focus on FCS and D-II programs and a preponderance of highly skilled passers graduating from those schools. Accordingly, between the draft and UDFA signings, this draft class could land a record number of small-school quarterbacks on 53-man rosters and practice squads.
Headlining the class is Jimmy Garoppolo, an Eastern Illinois product that has shot up draft boards after a fabulous senior year and strong performances in multiple post-season college all-star games. The strength of Garoppolo’s game is his quick, compact delivery combined with above average arm strength. Despite concerns about the competition he faced at EIU, Garoppolo performed well in both the East-West Shrine Game practice and game. He so impressed scouts that when Alabama’s A.J. McCarron declined his Senior Bowl invite, Garoppolo was called in to replace him. The totality of these appearances led a six-time NFL League Executive of the Year to conclude Garoppolo worthy of a first-round selection. Whether or not that prediction pans out, Garoppolo indeed appears likely to become some organization’s quarterback of the future this May.
Bullish on the Big Red Bear
While not as highly touted as Garoppolo, two other small-school quarterbacks could hear their names called this year. Few players at any position come with the experience or production of Cornell’s Jeff Mathews. During the final three of his four years as the Big Red’s starting quarterback, Mathews completed over 64% of his passes, compiled a 13:7 touchdown to interception ratio, and most importantly averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt. His tape confirms that the latter of these metrics, as Mathews regularly attempts and completes difficult downfield throws like those he’ll need to make at the next level. Because of athletic limitations — Mathews finished third to last or worst among quarterbacks in every workout he performed at the combine — Mathews’ won’t know his destination until the final day of the draft. However, he projects as a competent backup and perhaps a starter in the right system.
West Texas Tornado
Dustin Vaughan has generated substantial buzz for a graduate of West Texas A&M. Vaughan’s senior year numbers border on ridiculous; a school record 5,401 yards and 53 touchdowns, best among D-II quarterbacks. However, his big break came when scout Josh Buchanan handpicked him for a coveted spot in the NFLPA Bowl. A strong week of practice and good reviews led to a combine invite. Consequently, Vaughan might end up a day three draft pick.
Golden in Greeley
While the remaining small-school quarterbacks won’t be drafted, more than a few will find themselves well positioned for roster spots in 2014. 6-6 Northern Colorado signal caller Seth Lobato is reputed for his arm strength, but also possesses underrated athleticism. While his accuracy issues concern some front offices, his low completion percentage was in part due to an offensive system that over relies on vertical passing. With NFL coaching and a more balanced offensive attack, Lobato could stick around the league for a while.
The Best of the Bison
Another prospect generating attention is North Dakota State’s Brock Jensen. A four-year starter, Jenson owns nearly every FCS career passing record. With several visits scheduled including one with the Packers, Jensen should find himself on a 90-man roster this preseason.
As with any first-year player, nothing is guaranteed for any of these small-school quarterbacks. However, there’s enough talent here to make NFL GMs salivate. This year’s crop has the depth to produce multiple NFL-caliber passers, and, in the right circumstance, perhaps even a franchise quarterback. Such wouldn’t come as a surprise to today’s NFL scouts. Whereas a Tony Romo emerging as a star seemed an impossibility decades earlier, modern scouting uncovers these gems and lands them across the league.