Now that the 2021 NFL Draft is in the books, much of the focus will be on how the higher-profile players in this rookie class fit in on their new squads.
Collegiate superstars like Trevor Lawrence, Kyle Pitts, and De'Vonta Smith will draw plenty of eyeballs next season, yet some of the more unheralded players in this rookie class may be the biggest difference-makers for title-contending teams.
The following players were Day Three selections (picked in rounds 4 through 7) who played college ball outside the Power Five. Each one of these four flew under the radar in college, but a combination of skill and opportunity on their new teams could make them diamonds in the rough.
*College statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CFB
DE - Elerson Smith: Northern Iowa -> New York Giants
Scouting small-school athletes is a tall task, as numbers that look impressive on paper can often be misleading, since the level of competition pales in comparison to bigger conferences. In the case of Smith, his fourteen sacks as a senior could be the real deal.
Taken in the fourth round by the Giants, experts see Smith as a developmental pass rusher who could be molded into a major presence on the edge with the right coaching. His physical attributes from UNI's Pro Day are certainly impressive: Smith ran a 4.71 40-yard dash as a 6'7, 255-pound defender, while bench pressing 26 reps.
One other factor worth noting is that Elerson's coach at UNI was former All-Pro outside linebacker Bryce Paup, a fellow late-round pick who became Defensive Player of the Year in 1995. Having a former edge-rusher teach Smith the finer points of the position likely impressed the New York coaching staff, who have a need for pocket pressure this season.
WR - Jaelon Darden: North Texas -> Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unlike some of our other selections on the list, don't expect Jaelon Darden to play a major role right away. It's not his fault; the defending champions are simply loaded at the wide receiver position. With that being said, it should tell us something that they still used a valuable pick in the fourth round on this small-school standout.
A slot specialist, Darden had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2020 to go along with an impressive 19 touchdown grabs. With stellar speed and precise route running, Darden possesses NFL-caliber skills, even if he was playing against mediocre opposition. The downside? His nimble 5'8, 174-pound frame may not hold up longterm against hard-hitting defenders.
For Tampa Bay, Darden fills a need, but the team's depth means he can be groomed for a role rather than being thrown into action. While Scotty Miller performed admirably last season, the Bucs could use more juice from the slot. Darden allows for quarterback Tom Brady to get rid of the pigskin even quicker, speeding up the offense and limiting the amount of time defenses can collapse the pocket. Once the ball is in the North Texas product's hands, watch out...
CB - Tay Gowan: UCF -> Arizona Cardinals
Much like Jaelon Darden, Gowan's slide to the sixth round on draft day can likely be attributed to his relatively underwhelming size (186 pounds), coupled with the fact that he sat out the 2020 season at Central Florida. Still, it would be a mistake to count out this former shutdown cornerback.
Blessed with a lanky, NFL-prototype frame at 6'1, Gowan is certainly capable of holding his own in coverage. He allowed just twenty completions in fifty pass attempts in 2019 to go along with two picks, showcasing a blend of physicality and athleticism. However, as a former JUCO transfer, Gowan was forced to sit out the 2018 season, which means that he has limited experience against quality college receivers.
With a lack of game tape during the pandemic-affected season, many front offices either ignored Gowan or opted not to take a risk on such an unknown. That may have worked to Arizona's advantage; after saying goodbye to longtime corner Patrick Peterson this offseason, the team has a clear need for solid players at the position. Don't be surprised if the Cardinals are relying on the rookie Gowan to make an impact this season in the secondary.
OT - James Hudson: Cincinnati -> Cleveland Browns
It's hard to classify Cincinnati as a small school after their undefeated 2020 season, but they certainly weren't Power Five material. A key reason for their success last year? Big, bruising 6'5, 315-pound tackle James Hudson.
A fourth round selection by the Browns, Hudson has enough talent to step into the offensive line rotation right away. Ineligible for the entire 2019 season after transferring from Michigan, Hudson's college tape is limited. He made up for this with a year that culminated in a First Team All-AAC selection at left tackle for the conference's best team. His technique certainly needs some work, but that should benefit from increased experience at the next level.
Hudson's future may not be at tackle, at least not next year. The Browns have two elite tackles in Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills. Still, with a massive frame and solid athleticism, a role as a swing tackle or even a guard seems plausible for Hudson. Expect the former Bearcat to pave quality running lanes for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in 2o21.