Coming out of South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, N.C., David Mims needed a full scholarship to continue his education. But he wasn't highly recruited, and he chose Virginia Union as his college.
A Division II school and part of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Virginia Union game Mims the opportunity to learn and compete on and off the field, but it's a good bet that Mims found the football field to be less of a challenge on a play-to-play basis. A detailed view of three games provided by Mims' agent, Greg Linton, showed that the 6-foot-8, 330 pound left tackle overwhelmed the defensive linemen who tried to get past him. It was comical at times to see Mims shove a high-school size player aside with the swipe of a big paw.
Understanding Mims' skills seems easy enough. He was, after all, a two-time Division II All-American, but what do you do when you've found what you think is both a diamond and you can't base your evaluation on opponent strength?
"Identifying NFL traits in a small-school player requires a trained eye and great confidence by the evaluator," says Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com. "Assessing prospects against questionable competition is a very real concern that has led to many players being incorrectly evaluated, leading to busts and steals every year."
For scouts, coaches, general managers, and other personnel evaluators, that's the real challenge. Perhaps the team best at picking the right players from under-the-radar places is the New Orleans Saints. In the last few years, head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have hit big on wide receiver Marques Colston(notes) (Hofstra), left tackle Jermon Bushrod(notes) (Towson), guard Jahri Evans(notes) (Bloomsburg), and running back Chris Ivory (Tiffin, by way of Washington State).
"We've been fortunate at a few positions," Payton said in January when I asked him about the scouting approach assembled by the front office. "You remember who made it; what you don't reference are the ones that haven't. But I think this – No. 1, good players come from everywhere. In other words, there's no region that doesn't produce good football. Maybe there are some regions that produce more players, but we try to – and our scouting department does a very good job of getting the reports done properly on these players.
"We've been able to hit on some players in the later rounds and particularly free agency with Pierre Thomas(notes), Chris Ivory – those are some runners that came here as free agents after the draft. With only seven rounds, the work that's done immediately following the draft is critical. So I think it starts with a vision of what you see the player being able to do."
That's all well and good when your efforts have produced a Super Bowl champion and perennial playoff contender. But when just 27 schools have produced 52 percent of current NFL talent, as Bill Parcells revealed in a recent television special on the draft, it's hard to know when to dip into the smaller schools when you're trying to build from the bottom up, and every risk brings potentially greater damage.
Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who inherited a roster picked nearly clean of elite talent when he took over before the 2010 season, recently said that when redefining a final 53, risk is necessary – but it must be calculated.
"You definitely have to weigh the level of competition and we do that by conference with big-school guys," he said. "Big Ten vs. the SEC or something. So we weigh each guy depending on their competitiveness or athleticism, their character and obviously their physical characteristics. If you have a Division-III player that's kicking butt that looks like me, we're not going to pay any attention to him."
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who works in concert with Schneider on personnel decisions, brought up the wider net, and how things are narrowed down over time. "We use the experience of our staff too, seeing guys over the years and being able to measure the level of play and how that translates and stuff. That conversation goes on all the time, comparing guys with other guys."
Former St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns scout Russ Lande, who is credited with putting longtime NFL kicker Billy Cundiff(notes) on a scouting list in the first place and spent more than his share of time in out-of-the-way evaluation environments, said that the process starts from the ground up – the same sheer physical force that Mims showed against his opponents.
"Before you do anything – and this is how I was taught to do it and how I look at it – you look at the size and build to see if there's a chance," Lande said. "A lot of the time, the kid walks in, and I'm like, 'I'm wasting my time – the kid looks like me, and I'm a midget.' That's the first thing where you can go to bat with your coaches and say, 'Look at this kid.'
Of course, the next step is developing ways to separate the wheat form the chaff, and that involves live viewing more than it does the film room.
"From there, when I watch a small-school guy on film, I want to see a dominant player," Lande said. "It's not always right – [former Hillsdale College and current Oakland Raiders offensive lineman] Jared Veldheer(notes) is a perfect example of a guy who was not a dominant football player in college. He was good, but he got beat. But generally, I'm a believer in the idea that I want to see dominance when I'm looking at a small-school player. I try to watch as much as I can on film, but obviously, I can't get a good feel for their speed. So, I try to watch practice, which I always do, just to get a feel for them, but most importantly, I try to go to a live game if it's a kid I really like."
One big question Lande asks: If a player has SEC talent, why is he in a place so far off the Division I map?
"Is he there just because he's a late-bloomer, does he have intelligence or academic issues, was he late to the game, or was it a kid that went big-time, got in trouble, and went to a smaller school? You do as much research as possible to figure out why the player is where he is."
One of the advantages of scouting at small schools is that there's no Nick Saban trying to shoo everyone away. Like residents on tiny islands, most of these universities are more than hospitable with their guests.
"They make sure the kid's there when you get there, because they get a kid about once every five years that's legitimate, where every scout that covers that area is coming in there. I went to an NAIA school called Evangel College in Missouri to look at a receiver named Demetrius Breedlove. I called them and told them I was coming in, they asked when I was going to be there, and they figured out what his class schedule was and pulled him out of class so that I could meet him."
In the end, no matter whether you eventually see a small-school player at the postseason All-Star games or the NFL scouting combine and can compare like against like from a pro-ready perspective, it's still about going back to what you see on the field.
Another former scout, who currently works for a national scouting service, said that projection is so important because getting caught up in the postseason/pre-draft process can be just as misleading as grainy game tape.
"If a player arrives as the Senior Bowl, I think it is acceptable if he is immediately overwhelmed by the speed and strength of the game," the former scout said. "Much like a rookie getting to his first NFL camp, he has never seen such a thing before. But you do want to see him improve rapidly as the week goes along and more or less look like he belongs."
"Looking like he belongs" is key for all NFL prospects, but even more for smaller-school players. Finding the key is tough enough to make the skills of the people with a proven track record of drawing that talent from the ground as valuable as any in the NFL.
Here are five players in the 2011 draft class deserving of that detailed look.
The 6-foot, 196-pound Jones recently tore up the turf at his pro day, running 40 speeds anywhere from 4.27 to 4.35, which added to the NFL interest based on his 7.9 yards per carry average in 24 games. He has a upside comparison to Jamaal Charles(notes) and Chris Johnson if he can stay healthy and cure a troubling fumbling issue.
Edmond Gates WR, Abilene Christian
Gates blew past lesser cornerbacks, but he doesn't always show that same acceleration when projected against strong competition. Still, he can fly downfield against off coverage, will win jump-ball battles, and shows toughness and agility in short spaces.
Cecil Shorts III, WR, Mount Union
Having Pierre Garcon(notes) of the Indianapolis Colts as a recent alum and fellow receiver may have turned the eyes of the NFL in Shorts' direction, but he took it from there. Amassing 4,705 yards and 63 touchdowns on 259 receptions in 55 games, Shorts also brings track speed to the field.
Brandon Fusco, C, Slippery Rock
Fusco became the first player from his school ever to be invited to the combine after putting up a solid performance at the Senior Bowl. Some analysts have him as the top center in this draft class, and Fusco lives up to the hype with strength at the point and athleticism downfield.
Will Rackley, G, Lehigh
Perhaps the best truly small-school player in the 2011 class, Rackley was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 12th pick in the third round. He was impressive at the East-West Shrine Game, and has drawn comparisons to Saints guard Jahri Evans, another small-school guard who is now one of the best and highest-paid at his position in the NFL.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo’s Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.