clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steve Keim has found some diamonds in the rough, but there are a number of small school duds out there too

A look at the impact of small school prospects and how Steve Keim has to wade through the players.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2016 NFL Draft, Cardinals GM Steve Keim told a local morning show that he prefers to take a risk on a small school player later in the draft because they are unknowns with a greater risk vs. reward balance. He said diamonds in the rough are more likely to come from small schools because there is less information on those players and the Power-5 conferences produce known commodities by the time they are drafted.

So, I looked back at the 2010 NFL Draft to see if what Steve Keim said holds true as these player’s careers wind down. Of the 255 players drafted in 2010, 190 (74.5%) were drafted from Power-5 conferences (PAC12, SEC, ACC, BIG10, Big 12). Those conferences have gone through various realignments since 2010 so I used the current conference make-ups when assigning players to conferences. Notre Dame and BYU are not included in the Power-5 schools. Of the 12 players in the 2010 NFL Draft who started at least 8 games per season for their first six years, only one (Mike Iupati) came from a non-Power-5 school.

In my previous article, I explained that it is very difficult to draft players that will actually make an impact after round three. And, despite what Steve Keim says, the non-Power-5 players are much more likely to have no impact at all. Of the Power-5 players drafted in 2010, 45% of them never started most a season. While that sounds dismal, of the 65 non-Power-5 players drafted, 68% of them never started most any season. Not only did most all draftees never start in at least 8 games during any season, 5.8% of the Power-5 players never even played in a single NFL game. However, this is significantly better than the 12.3% of the non-Power-5 players that never played after the 2010 NFL Draft.

As I tried to explain previously, the NFL draft is an adventure that can make or break General Managers despite the inexact science of guessing how human beings will perform. Contrary to Steve Keim's stated preference for taking small school long-shots, in 2013, his first draft as GM, the Cardinals selected only 1 non-Power-5 player out of their 9 draft picks (Earl Watford, James Madison). In 2014, Walt Powell from FCS Murry State was the Cardinals only non-Power-5 player they drafted after round 4. Powell was cut prior to the season and has bounced around to various practice squads. The Cardinals drafted 2 non-Power-5 players in 2015. Rodney Gunter (Delaware State) in the 4th round and J.J. Nelson (Alabama-Birmingham) in the 5th round. Both players have started several games in their first two years in the league.

Last season, the Cardinals used their final three picks on small school players. Marqui Christian, drafted in the 5th Round, was cut during the season. Cole Toner (5th Round, Harvard) and Harlan Miller (6th Round, SE Louisiana) were forced into action late in the season as the Cardinals were out of playoff contention and several players were dealing with injuries.

Small-school late-round picks can be sleepers. Former Kent State QB and 7th round pick Julian Edelman was a key contributor to the Patriots' recent Super Bowl win.

Antonio Brown (6th round, Central Michigan) is one of the best receivers in the NFL. But these players are obviously the exception and not the norm when it comes to late-round success. Six other wide receivers were drafted during rounds 4-7 out of non-Power-5 schools in 2010 with Antonio Brown. Brown is the only one currently in the NFL and none of them ever started 8 games in a season before they left the NFL.

So, while the NFL Draft is an inexact exercise, that exercise is made ever more difficult when looking for small school gems. These players are less likely to become starters and they are more likely to be cut during training camp. So perhaps Steve Keim should be given even more credit for finding contributors like Nelson and Watford. But like I said in my first article, I would still rather trade a 5th round pick for Brandon Marshall and his 100+ annual catches!