By: Lou Musto, Feature Writer
The 2014 NFL Draft is quickly approaching and for the most part, everyone knows the big stars who will go early in the first round on May 8. Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater—all are names you can expect to hear called early at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
However, there are a number of unknowns who may go undrafted during the NFL’s three-day process you should definitely get to know. Not every athlete in the NFL came in as a star first-round draft pick and, believe it or not, a surprisingly impressive quantity of the league’s starters were once picked up as undrafted free agents (such as Victor Cruz, Arian Foster, Antonio Gates, Tony Romo, Adam Vinatieri and Wes Welker).
Here’s a look at five of those players you ought to know before they land on an NFL roster in the near future…
Jeff Matthews, QB, Cornell
The big-armed quarterback from Camarillo, Ca. has all the physical tools to compete for a job in the NFL, but his ride toward getting that opportunity won’t be as easy as most. Despite his impressive arm strength, vision and football IQ, Matthews is the furthest thing from an athlete and it showed when he posted a 5.26 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
His footwork and throwing mechanics are in desperate need of improvement, but it’s difficult not to fall in love with what you see on tape from him. He can make every throw and does so with perfect velocity and touch.
He’ll garner interest from NFL teams because of his work ethic and willingness to learn. He was a four-year starter at Cornell, now holding 17 Ivy League records after capping off his Big Red career with 11,284 passing yards and 72 touchdowns.
Matthews will not be the first unathletic quarterback to sneak into the league (see: Tom Brady), but he’s going to have to really work at it to earn his stripes and get an opportunity to place his cleats firmly on some NFL turf.
Brandan Green, WR, Grand Valley State
Green was one player we here at LockerReport.com had the opportunity to witness firsthand at the Regional Combine in Tampa Bay. The small-school talent was impressive during directional drills and notched one of the best long-jump scores of the day.
He garnered comparisons to the Denver Broncos’ Wes Welker from our own Barry Barnes, who noted that Green has a knack for finding the open spots in a defense as well as his threat deep down the field.
Green’s small stature is a disadvantage he recognizes, standing just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, but the D-III standout has found ways to overcome what he calls a “challenge” more than a disadvantage. If he can live up to Barnes’ comparison of Welker, or his own comparison to Welker’s replacement in New England Julian Edelman, Green’s size could prove to be a benefactor in the long run rather than a detriment to his success on the gridiron.
Green capped off his senior season at Grand Valley State with 53 receptions for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed 24 times for 267 yards and three scores.
Cole Klotz, LB, UW-Whitewater
Klotz was a fixture in the middle for a stalwart UW-Whitewater defense that has dominated the D-III level for years. You may not be able to find the 6-foot-4, 240-pound inside backer on many prospect rankings lists, but the unsung prospect made his presence known earlier this year at Wisconsin’s Pro Day and at the Regional Combine in Chicago.
Klotz was a Gagliardi finalist (the award for the top player in D-III) after leading the Warhawks with 103 tackles, 11.5 of which came for a loss and one sack. He anchored a defensive unit that ranked as the best in the nation at the Division III level.
The explosive linebacker was a key contributor on a Warhawks team that won three National Championships during his collegiate career. In a recent interview with NFL.com, Klotz joked that UW-Whitewater has become something of a
“Linebacker U” of D-III much in the same vein as Penn State is at the Division 1 level, but the school’s penchant for churning out talented, young linebackers could work in his favor.
EJ Frain, CB, Simon Fraser
Another underrated, small-school athlete, EJ Frain got the attention of everyone at the Regional Combine in Baltimore. As a 6-foot-2 cornerback, his size is already of intrigue in a league that has begun to place a high value on tall corners (see: every corner on the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks), however his athleticism and playmaking ability could make him an enticing addition late in the draft or as a free agent with great potential to earn a roster spot in camp.
Frain showed great footwork throughout skill tests and positional drills, and excelled in departments few others were capable of in Baltimore. At his Pro Day, Frain ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and notched a 40-inch vertical leap. Those numbers alone should have potential suitors excited.
David Wright, TE, Westminster
Coming from a very small D-III school in Western Pennsylvania, Wright is still a prospect far under the radar. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see the young man do his thing at Bloomsburg’s Pro Day in early April and came away very impressed with the tight end’s potential.
Wright is still developing, having never played sports before enrolling at Westminster. Still, he was able to adapt quickly and—thanks to a bit of a growth spurt—the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end caught 20 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns during his fifth year with the Titans.
He clocked an impressive 4.58-second (wind-aided) 40-yard dash, leaped a Pro Day-best 36 inches in the vertical and came in second with 27 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
In positional drills, he was just as impressive, displaying quick, exceptional footwork, good blocking technique and solid routes. His hands, however, could use some work and he admitted as such when I spoke to him following his workout.
“I think I tested really well, even better than I expected,” he said. “But I could have cleaned up in the position drills and caught more balls.”
Still, I was pleasantly surprised and left Bloomsburg a fan hopeful that he may get a shot somewhere in the NFL.
I later learned that Wright had actually graduated a year ago, but missed most of his senior season due to a “gruesome” ankle injury. The Westminster athletic department put together the following video documenting his return to the gridiron for his fifth year of eligibility.
The Ohio native certainly looks the part of an NFL tight end. He’s a big, physical presence in the mold of an Antonio Gates or Rob Gronkowski, capable of competing as both a traditional in-line blocker and downfield receiver over the middle. He appears to be a project due to his lack of football experience, but his physical tools make him a prospect worth taking a chance on with a great opportunity to be rewarded for that risk down the road.