Quarterback Carson Wentz has perhaps changed the public’s perception of FCS players, although NFL teams already knew about the talent.
FCS schools have been averaging about 18 selections per draft over the last decade and there were 20 players scooped up this year, with Wentz, the former North Dakota State standout whom the Philadelphia Eagles made the second overall pick, becoming the first FCS first-round selection since Joe Flacco (Delaware) in 2008.
Power Five Conference 2017 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch
ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC I Notre Dame I BYU
NFL scouts are always looking for hidden gems from the FCS level. Here are 10 draft candidates (in alphabetical order) who they are keeping a close eye on for 2017:
Keionta Davis, DE, Chattanooga (6-4, 260)
Davis, playing collegiately in his hometown, emerged last season from the shadow of former teammate Davis Tull, who won three straight Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2012-14. Davis broke Tull’s single-season school record with 13.5 sacks, and his 17 tackles for a loss led the conference. He uses explosiveness and athleticism to get to quarterbacks, although coaches asked him in the offseason to shed some weight. He battled though injuries in 2014 and suffered an ACL tear as a senior in high school, so there will be concern there.
Nick DeLuca, LB, North Dakota State (6-3, 240)
Starring in NDSU’s five-time reigning national championship program brings added attention to DeLuca, but he’s earned it since becoming a starter late in his 2014 sophomore season. The All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team selection is bigger than past middle linebackers in NDSU’s vaunted defense, armed with a versatile playing style to defend against the run or the pass. He racked up 135 tackles as a junior – 54 more than any teammate – with eight passes defended, including two interceptions.
LaMichael Fanning, DE, Jacksonville State (6-7, 270)
Fanning, who turns 25 in October, is still awaiting word on a petition to the NCAA to gain a sixth season of eligibility. The former four-star prospect spent three years at Alabama, including a redshirt season, before transferring. He made the All-Ohio Valley Conference first team in 2014, but suffered an ACL tear in the first game of his senior season last year. He is a high-energy player with enough athleticism that Alabama tried him at tight end before moving him back to his natural position. If he doesn’t gain another season with Jacksonville State (the 2015 FCS national runner-up), Fanning will try to find his way onto an NFL roster this year.
Brady Gustafson, QB, Montana (6-7, 230)
He’s not the next Carson Wentz, but he’s taller than Wentz and led Montana to a season-opening win over North Dakota State last season. He needs more seasoning because he saw limited action until last season, and then a leg injury limited him to seven games. He threw for 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns with nine interceptions, as the Grizzlies’ offense became pass-based. A drop-back quarterback, Gustafson lacks a big arm, but he’s a strong decision-maker and adept at working the field for his targets.
De’Angelo Henderson, RB, Coastal Carolina (5-8, 205)
“Hop,” as he is known to his teammates, uses his quickness to elude defenders. He returned to Coastal after seeking a 2016 draft evaluation through the NFL college advisory committee. Though small, Henderson is productive, running with a balanced style and catching passes out of the backfield. He holds the FCS record with touchdowns in 26 straight games, racking up 40 over the last two seasons. He is the Chanticleers’ all-time leader in rushing yards (3,479), carries (538), yards per carry (6.47), all-purpose yards (4,210) and all-purpose yards per game (102.7).
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova (6-7, 275)
Here’s a pass rusher who doesn’t seem to have the statistics to be in the mix for the 2017 draft, but CAA Football coaches thought enough of him to select Kpassagnon to their all-conference first team last year. The late-developing player, whose father is from the Ivory Coast and mother from Uganda, has the same size of former Central Arkansas defensive end Jonathan Woodard, a Jacksonville Jaguars pick this year. Kpassagnon has only 60 career tackles, including 33 as a junior, when he also totaled 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss. He displays good foot movement and has a nice mix of speed and strength.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington (6-1, 210)
Kupp racked up 1,642 receiving yards and 19 touchdown catches as a junior yet neither total was a career high. This year, the 2015 FCS offensive player of the year figures to add many career receiving records to the seven he owns already. He ranks fourth in FCS history in receptions (311, 84 behind the record), second in reception yards (4,764, 486 behind) and second in TD receptions (56, two behind). His father Craig was a former NFL quarterback and grandfather Jake had a long NFL career as an offensive guard. Despite lacking blazing speed, Kupp works his release from different spots on the line of scrimmage and gains extra yards after the catch.
Javarius Leamon, OT, South Carolina State (6-6, 310)
A one-time Clemson recruit who didn’t qualify academically, Leamon has remained on the NFL radar while toiling in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. He is athletic and aggressive at the point of attack, with excellent length to finish blocks. Coaches believe Leamon’s biggest strength is the fluidity he displays in pass protection. He also plays in a program that produced two draft choices in 2016 – defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round, Pittsburgh) and tight end Temarrick Hemingway (sixth round, Los Angeles).
Corey Levin, OL, Chattanooga (6-5, 305)
A starter for three consecutive Southern Conference championship squads, Levin is comfortable playing either tackle or guard. He’s won the conference’s top blocking award twice and was a first-team All-American as a junior, when the Mocs had two rushers surpass 1,200 yards each. Athletic for his size, Levin needs to be more physical when finishing blocks, but he’s NFL-bound.
Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State (6-4, 250)
The athletic Rivers loves to study game film, so he reads offenses well. That prompted his Youngstown State coaches to move him around the field more often last season. Rivers’ ability to drop back into pass coverage and his size suggests he would be an outside linebacker at the next level. He’s made the All-Missouri Valley first team in each of the last two seasons and holds the school record for career sacks with 26. He has a trim body that should take on quality weight without losing speed.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)