NFL Draft sleepers: The best FCS & small-school players you should know in 2021
You already know that Power-5 schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Georgia will have the majority of players picked in the 2021 NFL Draft, but smaller schools from the FCS, Division II, and Division III will also see some alumni wind up on NFL rosters. When that happens, whether it’s in the early or late rounds, most fans don’t know how to react. Did your favorite team just find a diamond in the rough or waste a pick on a guy who wasn’t even good enough to play in the Sun Belt?
This year, an FCS player will likely go in the top 10 (QB Trey Lance), and at least one more who will likely go in the second round (OT Dillon Radunz). Several more small-school sleepers will be sprinkled throughout Day 3, so it doesn’t hurt to become familiar with them now so you can impress your buddies at a watch party by pretending you’ve heard of these players before. Who knows — maybe your team is hitting on the next Cooper Kupp, James Robinson, or Darius Leonard.
Here’s a breakdown of the top-10 small-school prospects in this year’s NFL Draft.
NFL Draft sleepers 2021
1. Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State. By now you’ve heard all about Lance, who could go as high as the No. 3 pick. The 6-4, 224-pound signal-caller started just 17 games, all against FCS competition, in his short college career, but he never lost a start, nor did he throw an INT during his redshirt freshman season when he won FCS Freshman of the Year, FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and FCS Championship Game MVP. He wound up throwing for 2,786 yards, running for 1,100 yards, and accounting for 44 total touchdowns while playing in NDSU’s pro-style offense during his standout 2019 campaign. Lance will be the third-straight Bison QB drafted after predecessors Carson Wentz and Easton Stick went in the first and fifth rounds, respectively. Clearly, NDSU isn’t a typical FCS program.
What Lance lacks in experience, he makes up for in tools. He was clocked at a top speed of 21.54 mph during a 44-yard TD run in the FCS National Championship, which would have been the 12th-fastest of any ball carrier in the NFL last year and fastest among all QBs. He can also throw dimes like this:
Lance likely won’t start in Week 1 — or maybe even Year 1 — but he clearly has the skill set modern offensive coordinators drool over. Until he takes the field, he’ll be a wild card because of his limited experience against lower-level competition, but his ceiling is as high as any QB in this year’s class.
2. Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State. The man who protected Lance’s blindside is also expected to be a high draft pick, though it’s more likely Radunz goes on Day 2. At almost 6-6, 301 pounds, Radunz has the size to play either tackle position in the NFL, though he’ll likely need to get a bit stronger to really excel. NDSU’s pro-style offense gives him a leg up, as his footwork and technique won’t need quite as much work as offensive linemen from more spread-heavy attacks.
3. Spencer Brown, OT, Northern Iowa. Brown is a giant at over 6-8, 311 pounds with long arms. He profiles as a right tackle in the NFL, but to be a consistent starter at any position, he’ll have to work on his footwork and movement. That was on display at the Senior Bowl, where he mostly struggled. However, his upside — like his stature — is immense. Once he engages, most defenders stay blocked, so it will be worth it for a team to take a chance on him in the fourth round.
4. Robert Rochell, CB, Central Arkansas. Rochell was a shutdown corner for the Bears — so much so he didn’t see many passes thrown his way last year. He had nine INTs and 28 passes defended in 2018 and ’19 combined, and he supplemented that with 5.5 tackles for loss. At just under 6-0, 195 pounds, Rochell has good size, especially when you factor in his 79-inch wingspan. Rochell is the type of player who can go in the third round if a particular team falls in love with him, but chances are he’ll go in the fourth or fifth. Either way, he’s a legit prospect with a lot of upside.
5. Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State. Johnson was an absolute stud for the Jackrabbits the past two seasons, catching at least 67 passes for at least 1,222 yards in each campaign. His TDs dropped from 17 in 2018 to eight in ’19, but make no mistake, he’s a big play waiting to happen. He also performed well in his lone game against FBS competition, catching six passes for 90 yards and adding another 25 rushing yards against Minnesota in ’19. Lack of size could be an issue, as Johnson measured in at just under 5-11, 183 pounds, and his 4.51 40-yard dash doesn’t wow anyone. But Johnson plays faster than that and compensates with crisp route running and reliable hands. He’s an intriguing sleeper in the late rounds who can also return kicks.
6. David Moore, OL, Grambling State. Moore was a Senior Bowl darling who went from draft afterthought to late-round sleeper. At just under 6-2, 320 pounds, Moore might not look like a typical offensive lineman, at least in terms of height, but he’s quick off the line, and with an almost 83-inch wingspan, he’s solid in pass protection and second-level blocks. He still needs to improve his technique, but Moore has tools any team can work with.
7. Elerson Smith, EDGE, Northern Iowa. Smith has “pass-rush specialist” written all over him, and at nearly 6-7, 252 pounds with plus athleticism, he can excel in that role. Smith racked up 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2019, up from 7.5 sacks and 10.5 TFL in ’18. The improvement was obviously noticeable, so it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling can get. Smith wasn’t particularly good against the run, but, again, as a pass-rush specialist and potential late-round pick, teams can live with that.
8. Quinn Meinerz, OL, Wisconsin-Whitewater. Meinerz is the first non-FCS player on this list, but this Division III prospect is no slouch. At just over 6-3, 320 pounds, Meinerz has legit size for an interior line prospect, and he’s a dominant run blocker. He impressed at the Senior Bowl, and while he might not work well in all schemes, it’s likely someone will take a chance on him late in the draft.
9. Bryan Mills, CB, North Carolina Central. Mills is a JUCO transfer who played just one year for the Eagles, but he racked up five INTs and 13 passes defended in his 12 games. At almost 6-1, 180 pounds, Mills has great size, and with a sub-4.5 40 time, he also has good speed. He’s another guy who could surprise with how high he’s drafted, but the sixth or seventh round seems most likely.
10. Christian Uphoff, FS, Illinois State. Uphoff had a big Senior Bowl week that catapulted him into the late-round discussion. The 6-3, 195-pound safety is a hard-hitter with good ball skills. He’s not quite the ballhawk former conference-mate and last year’s two-time defensive rookie of the month Jeremy Chinn was, but Uphoff has a lot of upside.
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