Who will be this year's Marques Colston?By Steve Muench
The ascension of Marques Colston from seventh-round pick out of a Division I-AA school to a 70-catch rookie sensation in the NFL is the stuff of Hollywood.
The 6-foot-4 receiver wasn't highly recruited out of high school because of questions about his hands and explosiveness. He turned down his only Division I-A scholarship offer -- from Missouri -- and instead went to Hofstra. He became a productive receiver and improved his hands substantially, but he didn't dominate, never reaching the 1,000-yard receiving plateau and finishing with fewer catches as a senior than teammate Devale Ellis.
As an NFL prospect, Colston had a number of perceived flaws. Because he played against small-school competition, scouts wondered whether he could produce in the NFL. He also didn't seem to have the burst to separate from NFL-caliber corners, and some felt he would have to move to tight end to make it in the league. A shoulder injury that kept him out of the 2004 season and a tense relationship with his head coach made him an even riskier pick, so it's not surprising that 251 players -- and 30 receivers -- were drafted ahead of him in 2006.
Even after the New Orleans Saints drafted him, they weren't sure what they had. In fact, they nearly cut him in during a May minicamp. But Colston held on, and his work ethic started to catch the eye of the coaching staff. By September, New Orleans had traded Donte' Stallworth to the Eagles and was looking to Colston to fill his spot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Finding another Marques Colston-type story in the draft's later rounds is a general manager's dream. Here are some small-school prospects available this year who could pay big dividends in the NFL:
WR David Ball, New Hampshire
Ball eclipsed Jerry Rice's Division I-AA record for career touchdown catches last season. He is an excellent route-runner who catches everything thrown in his area and can pick up valuable yards after the catch. In other words, he has the makings of a reliable sub-package receiver. However, Ball's upside is limited by his lack of top-end speed, size and explosiveness. It's also worth mentioning that Ball uncharacteristically dropped several passes at the combine and didn't appear confident. Teams won't hesitate to cut a late-round pick if he gets off to a slow start, and that's where Ball projects. It's imperative he makes the most of his natural ability every time he suits up.
WR Jacoby Jones, Lane College
Teams are more willing to keep a developmental receiver on the roster if he can contribute on special teams. That bodes well for Jones, who is a dangerous punt and kickoff return man. At receiver, Jones needs to work on his route running and making the tough catch in traffic, but he's fast enough to stretch the field and is capable of creating after the catch. His potential to develop into a quality No. 2 or 3 should make him a fourth-round pick despite coming from a Division II school.
OLB Justin Durant, Hampton
Outside the level of competition he faced at Hampton, the biggest concern about Durant making the jump to the NFL is his ability to defend the run -- and for good reason. At 6-foot-0½ Durant is undersized and takes too long to shed blocks. There's no denying his natural ability, though, as Durant is a powerful open-field tackler who can make plays from sideline to sideline and has the quick feet to develop above-average cover skills. At the very least, he should provide quality depth and contribute on special teams during his rookie season. Don't be surprised to see him get drafted late on the first day.
TE Michael Allan, Whitworth
The only Division III prospect on this list, Allan arguably has the biggest hill to climb to make it in the NFL. For a player with Allan's natural ability, one unfortunate side effect of playing at a school like Whitworth is that he was able to excel on talent alone and wasn't forced to work on his technique in order to produce. Thus it comes as no surprise that he is a sloppy route runner. Allan's poor technique and marginal strength also make him a liability as an in-line blocker. So why is he on this list? He has the athleticism, speed and height to develop into the kind of productive receiving tight end teams value so much these days. That's why he projects as a fifth-round pick.
OLB Zak DeOssie, Brown
DeOssie takes too many false steps, doesn't shed blocks well and is an inconsistent tackler, but his upside is tough to ignore. He has the size of a middle linebacker (6-4, 268), the athletic ability of an outside linebacker and the range to make plays all over the field. His natural ability alone should make him an attractive pick early on Day 2, and he has the unique advantage of being able to lean on his father, Steve, for insight and advice. Steve DeOssie played for three different teams during a 13-year NFL career.
OT Allen Barbre, Missouri Southern
Barbre wowed scouts at the combine, showing the quickness, athletic ability and length to develop into an upper-echelon pass blocker who can hold his own when left on an island. He has all the tools to develop into a starting left tackle if he can add some power to his game. It's unlikely he'll see the field much during his rookie season, though, because his inability to deliver a violent initial punch and drive defenders once in position makes him a marginal run-blocker at this point. However, he could come off the board as early as the fourth round considering how hard it is to find quality left tackles.
Steve Muench has evaluated both NFL and college players for Scouts Inc. since 2002.