SMALL SCHOOL NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: PIONEER LEAGUE
By Rebecca Rennie
The search for under-the-radar NFL Draft prospects in the FCS continues with the Pioneer League, where the offensive talent leads the way in the conference. Get a head start on more of the small school players available in the 2020 draft class!
Of the large number of small school prospects to feature on the initial preseason watch list, only a handful of FCS level talents are confirmed as attending the Senior Bowl to this point. Trautman has been a scouting media favorite for much of the season and was one of the first to be announced as going to Mobile. After improving his statistical impact each year of college, he finished with his most productive season yet as a senior. Trautman totalled 70 receptions for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns over the 2019 season.
The appeal as a prospect is apparent immediately on film; Trautman looks the part. With an ideal combination of size, strength and speed, he ticks off all the boxes in terms of measurables. An outstanding mover, the Flyers senior has excellent upfield burst off the line with quickness over short areas and long speed to stretch the field. Trautman moves around the formation from inline and the backfield, to the slot and out wide.
Tempering the initial excitement over his potential, of which the upside is certainly significant, Trautman is very much still a developmental project. The contributions and effort as both a receiver and blocker showcases an all-round impact at the position, but is technically unpolished in both primary areas. Currently, he is still able to win consistently as a result of his rare athletic ability at his size.
As a blocker, the Dayton standout is aggressive and imposing in the run game. Though technically ragged, he flashes the ability to dominate at the point against overmatched opposition. He is frequently capable of driving defenders out of frame and knocking his opponent to the turf. To do so more consistently, he’ll have to improve his leverage, base and hand placement.
As a receiver, Trautman is most impressive at the catch point, consistently winning in contested and jump ball situations. With good use of his big frame and catch radius, he positions himself well, high pointing with timing and a fantastic vertical leap.
There is plenty room for improvement as a route runner. Trautman can separate through his athletic pluses and can theoretically be dynamic in his route breaks. However, there’s some inefficiency and wasted motion as he breaks at the top of his routes and is a bit green in his spacial awareness, including working through traffic over the middle of the field.
A convert to the position from quarterback, given the refinement that his all-round game requires and the step up in level from the Pioneer League to the NFL, there’s a possibility that Trautman doesn’t have a major role early in his pro career. That said, with his measurables and athletic gifts, should he land in a great situation with the right team, he could make the transition look easy.
He has a high ceiling, and it’s encouraging to see the strong motor. Trautman never seemed to coast on his physical advantages over those he took the field with over his college career.
With the fifth most receiving yards for a single season in FCS history, Michael Bandy put himself strongly on the radar in part to his 1,698 yards through the air in 2018 as a junior. Though his numbers may not have been quite so spectacular as a senior, he remains an exciting sleeper draft prospect. There’s also nothing to knock in his 1,152 receiving yards on 75 catches this season, along with 12 touchdowns.
A political science major who plans to attend law school after his time in football, Bandy’s high IQ on the field is no less impressive than his intelligence off the field. The former multi-sport athlete (playing baseball in high school) has an innate feel for space and zones over the middle of the field. His route tree is varied and executed sharply. He shows all the subtleties in his game to sell route breaks, work the coverage and buy separation.
While he has more than enough in his skill set to play at the NFL level regardless, Bandy’s testing numbers will be interesting. The relatively smaller receiver has footspeed. However, he could be a “quicker than fast” type who may or may not time with high-end top speed. His suddenness in his movements and general short-area quickness is evident however. Meanwhile, his technical savvy is a significant part of his ability to win consistently.
His ability to exploit space and work after the catch with the vision of a running back sees the Toreros senior maximize his touches. The FCS 1st team All-American (Hero Sports, STATS) is versatile in his deployment. Bandy changes up his positions in the formation, making him difficult to track and account for, impacting the game on multiple levels and areas of the field.
With his technically polished game, Bandy could be the type to emulate the likes of Cole Beasley and Adam Humphries. A late round selection is a possibility for the San Diego star receiver, particularly if he gets an opportunity at an All-Star event during the pre-draft process.
The Toreros are coming off yet another dominant Pioneer League season. San Diego compiled an 8-0 conference record for an incredible fourth straight season. Sinnett has had to watch most of that success from the sidelines, however. The redshirt senior was unable to beat out former starter Anthony Lawrence over the previous four seasons.
Still, Sinnett chose to stick around after initially considering a jump to the Kansas Jayhawks after the 2015 season. There’s something to be said for the patience to stick it out. He has made the most of his single season opportunity as the Toreros starter. Leading one of the most productive offenses in the FCS, Sinnett compiled 3,528 passing yards at 9.4 yards per attempt, completing 66.9% of passes and a TD:INT ratio of 32:10.
One of 26 finalists for the Walter Payton award given to the year’s most outstanding FCS offensive player, Sinnett has reportedly been drawing interest from NFL scouts, and resultingly is a clear choice to include as part of this look at Pioneer League prospects. With an ideal frame and quick release, there are traits to pique the interest alongside his production. However, there’s also some traits lacking in his game that makes him feel like a longshot at best in this writer’s opinion.
Sinnett is at his best executing from within the pocket. The senior QB shows solid footwork in his dropbacks, is decent stepping into his throws from a clean pocket and has the previously referenced proficient upper-body mechanics. While his throwing motion is fairly quick and compact, the arm strength is a concern. The velocity is often lacking on longer throws.
While he managed 6 rushing touchdowns, Sinnett is a limited athlete who struggles when forced to scramble and escape the pocket. Throwing on the run can look uncomfortable and he doesn’t evade many closing pass rushers. The relative lack of playing experience can show up in his reading of defences. Too often he fails to recognize coverages, dropping lineman, and where the safety help is over the top. That could improve, but his lack of playing time hurts his chances.
After their strong regular season, San Diego were one-and-done in the FCS Playoffs after a 17-3 loss to Northern Iowa in the first round. Sinnett had a difficult game in which he threw 3 interceptions. It was a tough game to evaluate him in though, as the UNI defensive line completely dominated in the trenches, with SInnett running for his life on seemingly every snap.
Though not the ideal way to conclude his college career, it was a great 2019 season for Reid Sinnett. Whether that career continues at the pro level remains to be seen. The intangibles could help his chances though, receiving a lot of praise from his coaches regarding his leadership and determination.
The short video below shows some of the positives and negatives in Sinnett’s game, while also featuring his leading receiver Michael Bandy.
It’s one of the best parts of scouting film of smaller schools, when a player unexpectedly catches your eye. Kanda was one of those prospects during Pioneer film study, despite a relatively disappointing senior season in which most of his production numbers fell, including going from 6 touchdowns as a junior to none as a senior.
Still, the Marist senior stood out immediately as a different caliber of athlete on the field and one with enough traits to deserve a look at the pro level. The Congo native has worked hard to get to this stage, and the intangibles and work ethic add to the appeal of his skill set. Asked his most memorable play in college, rather than citing a highlight catch, Kanda chose a pancake block that helped open the hole for a teammate to score; there’s a lot to like about that mindset.
Kanda isn’t the biggest of tight ends in terms of listed size and could get some full back consideration. Still, he appears physically impressive on film with a powerful stout frame. The athleticism is also present, with good speed, including in his initial acceleration off the line of scrimmage. Physical in all aspects of his game, Kanda is dismissive of press corners and can be commanding as a run blocker.
As with Adam Trautman at the top of the article, Kanda is another where the technique is a work-in-progress. The route execution could be sharpened up, and there’s often a little loss of momentum as he changes direction off his route breaks. His pad level is high both in his route running and as a blocker, often negating some of his power advantage, particularly in the latter area.
When he does get his form correct at the point of attack, Kanda can dominate. Regularly putting defenders on skates or finishing to the turf, he backs that ability up with a strong snap-to-snap motor. That effort level bodes well for him to continue to improve. Relatively new to the game, he is still very much learning and developing in all areas.
While a draft selection seems unlikely, particularly after a disappointing season statistically, he could be worthy of a spot on a practice squad. Kanda has plus physical and mental traits, dynamic quickness and ideal core strength. As someone who seems easy to root for, he hopefully will get a chance to prove himself in a training camp.
The best NFL prospects in the Pioneer League certainly lie on the offensive side of the ball. In looking for a defender to include in the article, there was no clear candidate. Several juniors looked promising but would be a surprise to declare early.
Ultimately, one player stood out as highly enjoyable to watch and with the relentless effort level each snap that might just give him a shot. That despite featuring on a defense that were a part of five losses that included over 40 points for the opposition.
In truth, there are times when Sennett is at fault for the occasional long play conceded, but also has plenty to like about his game. The production has been particularly impressive over the past couple seasons. After 104 tackles as a junior in 2018, he followed that with another 95 stops as a senior.
Along with being an outstanding competitor with a non-stop motor, Sennett showed his toughness. In one of the game films watched versus Drake this season, Sennett gutted it out despite picking up a knock that limited his movement. Though nothing special in his measurables, the Butler safety has solid size and enough range and quickness, even if he may lack true top speed. He plays with a spring in his step and helps himself with quick reads to take off toward the action early.
Sennett is arguably at his best working downhill into the box to support in run defense. Showing the ability to navigate through congestion, he can close effectively on ball carriers in general. His effort again stands out in his tackling when in position, committing his frame into the tackle, delivering solid hits while wrapping up. He is prone to some poor downhill angles, occasionally over-running the action and struggling to redirect and recover.
His best season in coverage came in 2017 in which he claimed four interceptions as part of seven passes defended. That said, he doesn’t look the most natural in coverage, showing some issues with his positioning, ball tracking and timing. Sennett looks better offering support over the top than in man situations. Were he to surprise in a training camp, it would likely be in his potential to earn a role on special teams, where he could thrive.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
He doesn’t exactly stand out on film as dominating. However, Morehead State right tackle Josh Poe has enough size for the interior at 6’3, 303lbs with nice movement. With starting experience at guard as well as tackle, he could offer some useful depth. Though his form is generally good in pass protection, he can be overly aggressive as a run blocker, bending badly at the waist. Hand placement is inconsistent, but his knee bend and footwork are solid in pass pro.
Continuing to look at the San Diego offense, Michael Armstead is overshadowed by his teammate Michael Bandy. He doesn’t put up anywhere near the same numbers as a receiver. Where he has made an impact is on special teams as a kick and punt returner. Over his two seasons with the Toreros, he has taken 3 kicks back to the house. While the 5’10, 180lb Armstead doesn’t offer the best measurables, his success on special teams could earn a look.
Looking to next year, Drake’s Will Warner and Dayton’s Brandon Easterling are two talented junior safeties. Easterling had a monster year with 140 tackles, including at least 10 stops in all but two games, with 8 tackles his lowest output. The 5’11”, 203lb safety’s 6 interceptions including a 3-pick showing against Drake late in the year.
Drake’s Will Warner had 4 picks of his own this season. He offers nice size for the next level at 6’2”, 201lbs. Patrolling all areas of the field, he’s not always the most all-action of playmakers, but is a smart, reliable performer with a well-rounded skill set. Both Easterling and Warner were unsurprisingly chosen as first team All-PFL this season.
Also making the All-Conference team from Drake was another intriguing tight end prospect in Devin Cates. Cates made the PFL team at wide receiver rather tham TE, however. The 6’4”, 243lb Cates had a fantastically productive year with 51 receptions for 627 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has reliable hands at the catch point, though might lack ideal explosiveness for the next level.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: University of San Diego Athletics