SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: MEAC
By Rebecca Rennie
HBCU conference the Mid-Eastern Athletic is next in The Touchdown’s look at the best Group of Five and FCS prospects to know for the 2020 draft. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine!
SC State have had more success than most in recent years among FCS teams in producing NFL talent. Defensive stars Darius Leonard of the Colts and the Steelers’ Javon Hargrave have been hits on Day 2 of past drafts. Offensive tackle Alex Taylor looks certain to be the next Bulldogs alumni to be taken relatively high in the draft as one of the better small school prospects in the 2020 class.
A two-year starter at right tackle, the Appalachian State transfer has found the regular playing time that he sought after being stuck as a backup during his time with the Mountaineers. His length and overall size stand out immediately on film. It’s no surprise that he has a basketball background, which he had planned to return to upon transferring. Whether he loves the hard court more than football could be a question he’s asked by scouts, but there’s no doubting the potential upside.
While the length is exciting, an offensive tackle can be too tall, and Taylor’s film does occasionally flirt with being hindered by the high pad level naturally occurring with his frame. He can struggle to gain consistent leverage and is prone to some bending at the waist as he engages in his pass pro blocks. For the most part though, he shows good flexibility to lower his pad level. The advantage the reach of his extension provides is a significant positive.
Being late with his hands is a frustrating technical inconsistency that needs work to maintain that edge over pass rushers. When he is beaten, it’s often a result of losing the initial exchanges at the point of attack where Taylor has failed to connect.
His frame is currently fairly lean, with the potential to add further bulk and muscle without reducing his mobility. Given that his core strength already appears to be in place, the potential to dominate physically at the next level is there also. The Bulldogs’ right tackle regularly flattens defenders in the run game, with some devastating highlight blocks on the second level. A good overall athlete, Taylor maximizes his stride length to gain depth in his pass pro sets and to find blocks in space upfield.
Taylor has already received an invite to the Senior Bowl. It’s a fantastic opportunity to showcase his skills against a better overall level of competition. The upside alone will see him drafted as a developmental tackle prospect but flashing dominance in Mobile could see his stock soar.
It’s been a challenging start to head coaching for former NFL and Michigan star Tyrone Wheatley. A shutout 0-48 defeat to Norfolk State in their most recent outing was one of the poorer results in a difficult first season. There have been encouraging signs for the Bears however, despite a 1-8 record.
After offensive lineman Joshua Miles earned a late draft selection to the Arizona Cardinals in 2019, there’s the potential to boast back-to-back years with an NFL Draft pick from Morgan State. Receiver Manasseh Bailey could likewise hear his name called on Day 3 with a strong pre-draft process. It’s been an unusual path to this point for Bailey. A high school standout receiver, he began his college career on defense at linebacker, before returning to wideout in 2017.
Bailey has played his best against some of the better competition he has faced this season. Two standout performances came against FBS opponents Army and a top FCS defense in James Madison. His speed and ability to track the ball downfield were highlighted in the touchdown below against Army.
More than just a speedster, he followed that up later in the contest with nice route execution and securing the ball under tight coverage for a second score.
Bailey’s athletic traits ought to give him an opportunity at the next level. With not only good acceleration out of his stance, the Bears receiver has suddenness in his changes of direction and at the top of his routes to buy a step or two of separation. His quick feet and ability to work himself open could fit well working from the slot on a regular basis, with after-the-catch ability to add to his threat level.
To aid with that potential projection to the slot, Bailey could be more consistent with his handling of aggressive defensive backs, who have shown the ability to disrupt his routes with physical coverage. Bailey does flash proactive use of his hands though to deflect contact. He will also offer some shake in the initial phase of his routes to flat-foot cornerbacks. Continuously working, the Morgan State receiver will keep battling to get openm for his QB on broken plays.
Bailey has the traits to contribute on special teams, an essential part of earning a depth spot on a roster. His athleticism and run-after-catch skills could be used on coverage units and as a returner. He has also made a big impact this season with a pair of blocked punts. Though the offensive struggles have limited him to a modest 37 receptions this season, the playmaker has averaged over 17.5 yards per catch on those opportunities.
After just four starts in 20 games played during his three seasons with South Carolina, Wilder went searching for more playing time elsewhere. The Aggies have proved a good move for the former high school running back, putting together a second standout season at A&T.
Providing bags of energy in a versatile role on defense, Wilder has been a key part of another strong season for a team aiming for a third straight MEAC title. With a 6-2 record and 4-1 in conference, their only MEAC loss has been to the 6-0 Florida A&M Rattlers who are ineligible for the championship.
Not the biggest in terms of listed size, yet he carries a compact muscular build and plays up to physical challenges. Hard-hitting on impact, Wilder consistently ensures of the takedown. Though he wraps up well to finish the play, he’s also willing to throw a shoulder for a hit than lingers in the mind of ball carriers. Wilder has a presence about him as he roams around pre-snap, with an air of impending menace.
Switching it up at safety, nickel and linebacker, Wilder contributes deep, in the box, and to the sidelines. He may not test as an elite athlete, but plays with good range and quickness. The former 3-star recruit shows good movement laterally and backward, getting depth in his backpedal. He plays with an aggressive mentality without being overly reckless and undisciplined.
North Carolina A&T are another school with a good recent pedigree in the draft. Bears running back Tarik Cohen is the most notable of those former players, but Bills’ 2019 pickup of edge rusher Darryl Johnson is looking like an astute move, and 2018 third round OT Brandon Parker may still develop for the Raiders. Wilder’s film looks worthy of a late draft selection, but if not, hopefully gets a chance in training camp. His versatility and motor could earn a roster spot.
On the other side of Morgan State’s thumping at the hands of Norfolk State, Spartans safety Price played a key role in the 48-0 shutout, including 7 tackles and 3 pass breakups. As one of only a handful of MEAC prospects on the preseason Senior Bowl watch list, it was a much-needed impactful performance to justify that attention in what has been a solid if sometimes unspectacular final season for Price.
Regardless of performance, Price’s frame seems sure to earn him at least a look. With the long arms and resulting wingspan to match his tall frame, the Spartans safety has desired length and size for the position. He puts those plus traits to good use at the catch point to get vertical and make plays on the ball when in position.
Working down into the box, Price flashes the ability to be an imposing hitter. That said, he’s not always the best at breaking down in space and can occasionally allow ball carriers out of his grasp when attempting to wrap up. He does show solid reads and decision making, not often found out of position.
A little tight in his movements with average footwork, Price is likely to have limitations in coverage. He’s going to be at his best facing the action, working between the tackles and around the box. While true for most prospects, seeing his testing numbers will be enlightening. Based on the film at this stage, he seems more likely to fall into the priority free agent pool than to be selected on the final day of the draft.
After a highly productive high school career in West Virginia, Bell went under-recruited. He’s played with that chip on his shoulder ever since and it shows. A different type of receiver than Manasseh Bailey listed above, Bell is nowhere near as explosive but brings some serious physicality to his game. Bell’s powerful frame stands out immediately on film.
Physical and aggressive in every facet of his game, the Aggies senior is perhaps at his best after the catch. Bell turns into an imposing runner with the ball in his hands. He will drive and lower his shoulder, tough to take down and capable of breaking tackles. His physicality is also key in contested situations when battling for position at the catch point.
Those abilities are necessary, as Bell lacks explosion and top-end speed. Not able to generate much separation outside of scheme, even at this level, that issue will continue in the NFL should he get the opportunity. There’s a bit of a wind up required as he accelerates off the line of scrimmage that won’t scare covering DB’s. Ultimately, that underwhelming athleticism may be what hurts his prospects.
To be honest, Royster could be a significant longshot for the NFL level. However, he’s a fantastic story of determination and an overachiever. It would be unwise to bet against him proving so again. The 2019 preseason defensive player of the year according to Phil Steele, his production has been outstanding. Through nine games this season, Royster has piled up 61 tackles from his defensive end position. He’s added to that with 14 TFLs, 8 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.
A former walk-on who tried to make the team at Norfolk State initially, the transfer to Central and his perseverance has paid off in the form of a scholarship and as the standout player on the Eagles defense. A high IQ instinctive playmaker, his hustle and effort only adds to the number of plays he is able to contribute for the 4-5 (3-2 in MEAC) North Carolina Central.
Royster shows plus positioning and timing, along with finesse in his upper body technique. His hands are constantly working to disengage from contact. Where he is a bit more limited is in his explosive traits. Royster lacks burst out of his stance and in his overall movements. There’s not a great deal of punch at the point of attack that can see him controlled on blocks occasionally.
Already an outside shot for the pros, Royster probably would also have to transition to a different role from his current DE position. He does often line up off-ball and in space for the Eagles, but even then, is built more like a safety and without the speed to match. He would require finding a key role on special teams to make a roster. Either way, Royster is already a success story in life, regardless of where he ends up after this season.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
Though ineligible for the championship and post-season, Florida A&M are impressing on the field regardless. Led by their experienced quarterback, Ryan Stanley might earn a look from scouts. He can be prone to some poor decision making that resulted in a couple ugly turnovers versus South Carolina State earlier this season. His relative lack of arm strength isn’t ideal either.
That said, he plays with decent mechanics and footwork in the pocket, and generally shows good touch on his throws. Mobility is also a positive to work outside the pocket and make plays as a runner. His experience as a starter and command of the offense he runs gives him a level of confidence in his on-field demeanor.
The intriguing receiving talent extends beyond Bailey and Bell. South Carolina State’s DeMontrez Burroughs could also be considered. With a stout frame at 6’1” and 218lbs, he is another who uses his body advantageously in his positioning. Though he isn’t the fastest, he tracks the ball well on deeper targets with reliable hands.
Howard’s Kyle Anthony has a similar profile to Burroughs, with speed limitations but a sturdy 6’2, 205lb build. Anthony is particularly physical, standing out as an aggressive blocker. However, he also shows subtle skills such as impressive use of late hands to not telegraph the ball’s arrival to covering cornerback’s who don’t get their head around. His production has been hurt by the departure of transferring QB Caylin Newton.
Finally, Bethune-Cookman’s undersized playmaking receiver Jimmie Robinson is only 5’8”, 175lbs. However, the Mercer transfer has quick feet and elusiveness that gives him potential to continue his role as a returner on special teams in the pros. He’s a crisp route runner with good field awareness to exploit zone defences.
North Carolina A&T’s Marcus Pettiford and Delaware State’s Kaiden Crawford are two college offensive tackles who might get an opportunity as interior O-linemen. Pettiford lacks ideal size and over-compensates with his lunging reach. That said, he plays with good strength, balance and aggression. Crawford has better size and length, but plays too upright with disappointing leverage and balance, affecting his footwork and anchor.