SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: NEC AND PATRIOT LEAGUE
By Rebecca Rennie
Doubling up on FCS conferences from the Northeast of the country, we profile prospects from both the NEC and Patriot League. Get a head start on under-the-radar small school prospects for the 2020 NFL Draft!
Despite a hugely disappointing 1-11 season, their third consecutive losing year that has resulted in a head coaching change, Wagner offers a couple of candidates for the 2020 NFL draft. Most would have his defensive teammate Cam Gill as the higher graded, but Chris Williams is arguably the prospect with the better traits to stick at the NFL level.
Williams has thrived as a senior under D-line coach and former pro Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton. After reportedly doing significant work in the weightroom to get better weight on his frame and improve his conditioning, it’s paid off with by far his most impactful and productive college season. Williams was active in totalling 62 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles among his numbers in 2019.
The Seahawks standout may not have ideal length in his frame. However, he features a stout build with good power that sees him effectively hold up at the point of attack. Williams is not the type to be a consistent penetrating interior rusher, doing his best work against the run. He plays with aggressive intent and delivers a rocking punch on initial contact. Working well against the flow of the offensive line, Williams tracks ball carriers, shedding blocks effectively with timing to position himself to make plays.
At other times, his unselfish role as a space eater allows teammates to get home and take more of the glory. Williams shows good leverage, a sturdy wide base and coordination through his upper and lower body. His punch and consistent hand placement compensate for the relative lack of length, getting maximum extension and locking out his arms to keep blockers off his frame.
Overall, Williams is not a particularly flashy player, but does his job in the trenches with reliable technique and execution. He may have a fairly low ceiling but has a depth role to offer. Despite modest size for the position, he shows the combination of technique and core strength to hold up at the pro level. A late pick in the draft is a possibility, but if not, ought to be a high priority free agent.
Backs who thrive in space are the more coveted in the current NFL. There remains value in power-through-contact runners with size however, even if generally at a lower draft grade. Hines entered 2019 as the most productive active running back in FCS after a monster junior season. His 1,520 yards on the ground at 5.7 per carry included 15 rushing touchdowns.
His senior season didn’t go quite so well. Dealing with a shoulder injury and missing a couple games, he had his least productive season in college and drop-off in yards per carry to 4.1. Given that he also has over 900 career offensive touches, and the tread on the tires will be a red flag for his draft stock.
All that said, Hines not only has an impressive combination of size and power to work between the tackles at the next level, but has under-rated athleticism and quickness, even if the top speed is limited. In addition to showing nice upfield burst, Hines is light on his feet with better lateral agility than might be expected for his build. The Dukes star plays up to his size as a physical runner who lowers his shoulder, drives into contact, is tough to bring down and falls forward for extra yards to finish each carry.
Beyond the physical abilities, Hines shows patience as a runner, setting up his blocks from his linemen and hitting holes with timing. The vision and recognition will help his chances of continuing to be productive, despite the step up in competition level. His contributions as a receiver are another question he needs to answer. He’s flashed the required basics as a pass catcher but has only 17 receptions the last two seasons.
The former 1st team All-American has his share of issues and questions that likely results in going undrafted. His heavy workload, minor injuries this past year, drop in production and receiving unknowns all factor in. However, Hines has an appealing combination of size, strength, quickness and instincts that should translate well. Eagles back Jordan Howard would be a reasonable player comparison to consider.
When Day 3 of the draft goes down on April 25th, the first player off the board from the NEC or Patriot League is very likely to be a punter. Pechin has enjoyed an outstanding college career, both on and off the field, and will take part in the upcoming East-West Shrine event. The character and intangibles are off the charts to go with his play on special teams. The full list of awards and recognitions for his academic achievements and community work are too long to list for the 1st team All-American punter.
Beginning his film work with the 2019 season opener against Temple, Pechin’s first action saw him boom a 65 yarder with no roll to add to the distance, that pinned back one of the nation’s most dangerous returners in Owls star Isaiah Wright. That strong leg led to an elite-level average of 47.3 yards per punt for the season as a whole.
Pechin is a traditional style punter with a huge leg. Working through his process quickly, his catch-to-kick speed minimizes the risk of rushers blocking his kicks. In addition to the distance he can achieve when backed up in his own half, he shows touch on shorter fields to place the ball within 10 yards of the end zone. His accuracy on direction kicks to the corners and out of bounds also impresses.
A former high school quarterback, the potential to execute on fake punt situations is an exciting possibility. He’s handled kick offs, as well as field goal and extra point duties as a kicker on occasion as well. The added value as an emergency kicker, as well as a holder on kicking units completes his varied contributions.
The Bison team captain ticks off all the boxes in his primary role, in addition to offering extra value elsewhere. Unsurprising given his work ethic in every other area, he clearly does work in the weight room too. He’ll ace all his interviews and has every chance to be one of the first special team prospects off the board during draft weekend.
While Chris Williams did much of the dirty work inside, Cam Gill was the more visible star of the Wagner defense over the last couple years. After a breakout 2018 season, Gill finished strong as a senior. His 60 tackles included 20 TFLs and 9.5 sacks, along with a pair of pass breakups and 3 forced fumbles.
His play led to being a Buck Buchanan finalist in each of the past two seasons, finishing 18th in the voting this year for the most outstanding FCS defensive player. He departs the Seahawks as the career leader for Wagner and in the NEC with 34 sacks. Though not invited to the top All-Star events, Gill will appear at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Gill is slightly undersized as an edge rusher. It’s helpful that he does much of his best work from a two-point stance, where he best fits in the NFL also. What immediately stands out in Gill’s game is his fantastic energy and motor. Gill gets much of his success through out-working opponents and second effort hustle plays. A physical finisher, he consistently makes plays when in position. He offers a useful inside counter move, using fast and violent hands as he cuts inside.
As referenced earlier, Gill’s production may be tricky to replicate at the next level. In addition to having a smaller frame and reach, he may also lack ideal flexibility. The edge defender looks a little tight hipped. While he can work through some offensive tackles and disengage, he doesn’t project well to outside speed rushes and turning the corner. Dipping and bending round the edge looks difficult, and may see him neutralized more often than not as a pro.
This is a player who looks hungry for it though, each snap played as if it’s his last. He might struggle to set the edge in run defense but will chase down ball carriers in pursuit. Even though the measurables may not be ideal, Gill has plus traits in his motor, good upper body technique and tackling ability, with the consistent production to back it up. He could sneak into the late rounds, particularly with a strong showing at the NFLPA Bowl week.
They may have suffered a disappointing loss in the first round of the FCS playoffs, but it was a fantastic 2019 for the Blue Devils outside of the final loss. Georgia State transfer Aaron Winchester led the team to their 11-1 regular season record. His outstanding play led to being named NEC offensive player of the year and as a finalist of 26 for the Walter Payton award.
An exceptional athlete and duel-threat playmaker at the QB position, Winchester has his flaws as a passer. He lacks ideal mechanics with an inconsistent and often abrupt release that can result in not the tightest of spirals. His ball placement and velocity can be affected by his footwork and regularly not stepping into his throws. The arm strength overall is average, often lacking zip on even some of his shorter throws.
All that said, Winchester still shows a good feel for the position. The timing on his throws and connection with his receivers is impressive. He makes some high-level quick decisions, anticipating his receivers getting open. There’s an overall command of the offense he runs. The execution is impressive, particularly in the quick game, on short passes, screens and crossers.
He has also made plenty of strides in just this past season. He entered the year with little collegiate experience as a passer at Georgia State. His game in the pocket is improving and should continue to progress. He shows good natural instincts playing within the pocket that is encouraging.
The Blue Devils QB is also such an explosive athlete. The danger he poses with his ability to scramble out of the pocket allows him to buy time and take off to run if necessary. His dynamic playmaking out of structure can be deadly to defenses.
Given a chance, there could be a place for Winchester, a high IQ player with pro-level athletic traits. The potential for his use at quarterback and as an offensive weapon in general feels like a role that teams are exploring more and more currently. Winchester could be graduating at just the right time.
In the 2018 season, Colgate rode a suffocating defense (allowing under 10 points per game) to the playoffs and a shock upset of James Madison. This season saw some regression to a 4-8 record and allowing 27 points per game to opponents. One of the stars of that 2018 run continues to be an intriguing player for the next level, regardless of the overall team drop-off.
While Daramy-Swaray doesn’t pile up numbers on the stat sheet, that is simply a reflection of quarterbacks avoiding his side of the field. The preseason 2nd team All-American isn’t challenged often. After 3 interceptions as a junior, the fact that he didn’t pick off any as a senior isn’t much of a concern, given the lack of targets headed in his direction.
Born in Sierra Leone, Daramy-Swaray starred on both sides of the ball during four years of high school football. He also captained the track & field team and played both rugby and basketball. The multi-sport athlete has track speed that translates to the football field both at corner and as an explosive punt returner.
His smaller frame hurts his pro chances, but his quickness and his potential for a special teams role as a returner and gunner might open a path onto an NFL roster. He’s also seen some usage on offense during his time in college, with a handful of carries and receptions to make further use of his athletic pluses.
Daramy-Swaray plays big despite his size, battling from start to finish each rep. He uses his hands out of press, often surprising with his ability to disrupt receivers in the initial phase of routes. The Raiders senior has a highly competitive and combative on-field demeanor. He plays with the confidence that comes from trusting his reads, anticipation and overall high IQ for the position. Though chances are rare, he flashes the desired ball skills and timing of his vertical.
Though not on the initial list of players expected for inclusion in this article, Marotti caught the eye. Listed as a bit lightweight for the position, he does look on film as though he could use some additional bulk and muscle on his frame. Otherwise, his physical traits are intriguing. The Leopards left tackle has solid length and quick feet. That movement includes a smooth kick slide that achieves distance and depth to handle speed off the edge.
He may not have the heaviest, broadest of frames, but he plays with fantastic aggression. That mentality stands out in the run game, compensating for any relative lack of power. Marotti gets out in front and on the second level, searching out blocks and delivering a hit.
There’s some concerns in his hand technique that reflects in his success in pass protection. Most notably, the Lafayette lineman is let down by hand placement, regularly landing outside on the shoulders and arms, almost wrapping up in a hold at times on first contact. He’ll have to improve in that area to have any chance to make the significant step up in competition. He has also at times looked vulnerable to inside counters, in spite of his good footwork.
Certainly a longshot, there’s plenty requiring development with Marotti. Still, with some work in a professional strength and conditioning program as he bulks up in the weight room, there might be some untapped potential. Some time on a practice squad could be rewarded in a couple years’ time.