The Mid-American Conference doesn’t have any stars hitting the stage in the 2015 NFL Draft, but there are several players from schools across the Great Lakes regional conglomerate who will make a dent at the next level. While lacking an Eric Fisher or Jimmie Ward surefire first-round pick, Saturday of draft weekend will feature many MAC products who hope to follow in the steps of Antonio Brown, Chris Jones and Branden Oliver as instant impact contributors from the later rounds. As a proud MAC graduate (Ohio University class of 1996), I always pull hard for the conference and its future NFL players.
Here are the most likely to get drafted or make it in the NFL:
Quinten Rollins, CB, Miami OH--the best defensive football player in the MAC was once the best defensive basketball player in the MAC. Quentin Rollins terrorized opposing offenses as a quick-footed, lightning-handed point guard for the Redhawks basketball team for three years. As a senior, he decided to translate that quickness, nose for the ball and almost freakish agility to the gridiron.
It turns out he speaks pigskin pretty darn well too. I stumbled upon him almost as an afterthought while catching Miami’s game at Michigan; in just his third football game since high school, Rollins stood out with a lot of positive moments including an interception and a forced fumble. While his inexperience was readily evident, so was his ample, hard-hitting potential.
Rollins continued to make big plays in aggressively attacking the ball in the air, picking off seven passes while breaking up 9 more. One of those INTS against my Bobcats shows his outstanding quickness and click-and-close ability:
He also proved to be a reliable presence against the run and a great eraser of YAC against receivers. Even though he’s just 5’11” (interestingly he played hoops at 6’1”), he packs a big punch behind his pads and isn’t shy about laying the lumber. Rollins copped to a love of hitting and snot bubbles in Senior Bowl interviews, and it shows in his on-field play.
Rollins is not going to be great right away. He lacks long speed and is still learning how to anticipate routes and steer receivers with his feet and shoulders. There were a few too many “toast” coverages where he couldn’t turn and chase fast enough or guessed on a move, and Rollins really struggled with pump fakes. He’ll be on the wrong end of some highlight reels as he gets accustomed to being a football player. But when he finally does, Rollins has a chance to be a very good starting corner. Think Tramon Williams with more oomph. He’s a top 50 player in this class even though he won’t look like it as a rookie.
Current projection: 2nd-3rd round
Greg Mancz, C, Toledo--Mancz is the player every high school coach in the country wants his offensive linemen to be. His hand placement, squared shoulders, quick and compact punch, relentless effort, all are exemplary. Few centers get out of their stance and into the defender as quickly as the Cincinnati native and four-year starter, which helps him compensate for the one real chink in his armor--his lack of anchor strength and driving power.
You want positional versatility? Mancz was All-MAC at three different positions and a freshman All-American at guard. If he went back to playing guard he’d rank in the top 10 in this class at that spot. Yet his best NFL role is center, where he would be my #2 ranked player if he was healthy. Unfortunately for Mancz he tore his labrum during Shrine Game practice and hasn’t been able to work out. That’s a serious blow because an injury like that keeps him out of the weight room, making him unable to mitigate those strength concerns. It was encouraging he tipped the scales at 301 at the Combine, but he will have to prove he can handle the increased physicality at the next level on the fly.
The injury will also cause him to drop in the draft, as Mancz is a good candidate to spend at least the first part of his rookie year on the PUP. A patient team which values movement and agility in its offensive linemen will find a stowaway gem in one of the MAC’s most decorated players ever. I’d still use a 4th round pick on him, and if he were healthy that would go up a full round.
Current projection: 6th-7th round
Titus Davis, WR, Central Michigan--in a time where fans love to focus on speed scores, it’s easy for a guy like Titus Davis to get lost. He ran a 4.51 at the Combine and that is actually faster than expected; he plays more in the 4.58-4.65 range. He also had the smallest hands (8.25”) of any player in Indy and wasn’t very impressive in the agility drills, either.
Yet Davis has a lot of feathers in his cap which should allow him to make it in the NFL. The two primary functions of a wide receiver are to get open and catch the ball, and few do both better than the Chicago-area (Wheaton) product. Nobody in Chippewa history has done either better. Check out his accolades from the school’s athletic website:
Davis has exceptional footwork on his routes. Exceptional. There is zero wasted movement, and he uses his shoulders, head and feet to set up moves and breaks so beautifully. Davis is great at working back to the QB or finding the soft spot in the coverage and presenting himself as a target. And even though his hands are tiny for a 6’1” guy, he is very adept at securing the ball away from his body.
There is a place for a reliable, sure-handed wideout who can get open and move the chains. I’m not sure it’s going to get him drafted, but there are a cadre of teams where Davis would represent an upgrade as the #4 wideout. He will have to be great right away in camp, however, and that makes his road a tough one. Marginal athletes like Davis don’t get many chances.
Current projection: potential Mr. Irrelevant
Junior Sylvestre, LB, Toledo--everyone talks about Washington’s Shaq Thompson as a super-speedy hybrid linebacker/safety, but Sylvestre fits the same mold with even better athletic metrics. At 233 pounds, the native Floridian blazed a 4.53 40 at the Rockets’ pro day and showed well in the explosive exercises too.
Watching him on tape, the speed definitely shows. Sylvestre is an aggressive, downhill closer in the run game with outstanding closing speed. He’s got both burst and control, traits which do not always sync up. There is also readily evident football instincts and quick play diagnostic skills; he’s often seeing the play the same way the running back does, and Sylvestre excels at cutting down ball carriers just as they get to the hole. I don’t know his average depth of tackle, but he has to rank highly and well ahead of the more prominent Thompson or Eric Kendricks.
He’s a hair under six feet tall, and he played at about 10 pounds less than his pro day weight. Those are obstacles which will deter some teams from looking his way. I’m far less concerned about his size than his relative lack of experience playing in the passing game. He’s got the physical tools to be a quality cover backer, but Toledo seldom asked him to do much more than stand as a QB spy or patrol the shallow middle, with some blitzing. He was a high school safety so there is some background, and the hope is it comes back to him when he’s asked to turn and run with a flexed-out tight end or hanging with a running back on a wheel route. Again, the speed and vision are there.
He’s one of my more underrated commodities in this draft. After watching about 10 Toledo games over the last two years, I graded Sylvestre as a 4th-round talent even at 225 pounds. He’s bulked up nearly 10 pounds beyond that and clearly did not lose a step. He could start from day one in Washington, New Orleans or Green Bay as an inside backer in their 3-4 schemes. I absolutely believe that.
Current projection: 5th-6th round
Leterrius Walton, DT, Central Michigan--Walton didn’t stand out a whole lot in the five Chips games I watched (Purdue, Toledo, Buffalo, WMU, Western KY). He only notched two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, none in three of the games I saw. It was easy to see his physical potential, but it never really produced a lot other than drawing near-constant double teams. Opponents recognized how scary the 6’5”, 315 pounder with quick feet and giant hands could be.
He’s a coordinated athlete for a big man, a former basketball player and baseball star in high school. It’s easy to see he’s just not a natural football player. It’s also easy to see that if he ups the football IQ even a handful of points, he could be a monster. One NFL position coach said as much during Shrine Game practices, describing “L.T.” as a “giant puppy dog out there. He’s got those big paws and all that energy and no f***ing clue what he’s doing. But he learns on every play. Watch out for the big dog there.”
As I stood with that coach watching practice, I found that analogy perfect. Walton barraged the coaches and even more veteran teammates (notably Kentucky’s Zadarius Smith) after every rep, trying to master his craft. Here’s what impressed me--he improved his hand placement and footwork so much from Monday to Thursday. A coach like Rod Marinelli or Robert Nunn can coax real results out of the eager young Walton, and he’s got enough athletic ability to handle his own for a few plays per game as a rookie. Walton is a nice draft sleeper with high upside.
Current projection: 5th-6th round
Donald Celiscar, CB, Western Michigan--the highly productive Broncos corner is an interesting study. Celiscar posted decent tackle numbers in his four years in Kalamazoo, but what really stands out are the plays on the ball: 45 PDs, 10 INTs. He led the nation in plays on the ball as a senior with 17 PDs and 4 INTs, and teams really didn’t throw at him as much as many corners near the top of those rankings. In addition, he allowed less than 50% of the passes his way to be completed over his final two years. That’s mighty impressive.
Transitioning that productivity and propensity for getting a hand or two on the ball from college to pro will not be easy. He’s not long, just 5’11” and a stocky 198 pounds. He’s not fast, clocking a 4.62 40 at the Combine which accurately reflects his playing speed. He’s not overly quick either, though sound positioning and anticipation help in that regard. And despite the big tackle numbers (averaged almost 6 per game over his career), he whiffs quite a bit as a run defender.
The myriad questions about his physical limitations are going to keep Celiscar, a Haitian native, from being selected highly…if at all. The lack of long speed is the real stock killer; teams cannot rely on him to play man coverage without dedicating help over the top, or him drawing illegal contact penalties if he tries to clutch and chuck as a route impediment. Zone teams will worry about his suspect tackling, as he often leaves his feet prematurely and doesn’t wrap or drop his weight well. Yet he has two strong attributes in his favor.
First, he’s incredibly confident in coverage. Confidence is a requisite skill for NFL corners, and Celiscar has it. Second, he’s very smart and positionally aware. His peripheral vision is outstanding, allowing him to keep an eye in the backfield while still tracking his mark across the field. He thrived at transitioning coverages during a play in a defense where attacking the ball was a primary emphasis. Those skills might allow him to move to safety or a hybrid role as a dime back in the way the Lions used Don Carey. If his tackling gets some polish, that’s probably his best NFL role.
Current projection: 7th round/UDFA
Dechane Durante, S, Northern Illinois--a former freshman phenom in Dekalb, Durante never quite emerged as the player many expected him to become. He made immediate impact with splash plays, forcing fumbles and picking off passes while patrolling the turf next to Jimmie Ward. At 6’2” and blessed with twitchy speed, he sure looked like a player to watch for the next level. While he did pick off four more passes (two in the MAC title game) as a senior, he just didn’t have the kind of impact that portends well for draft stock.
His biggest issue is his indecision. Safeties have to quickly read and react to what is happening in front of them, but too often Durante doesn’t process the information fast enough. Great closing speed and good length will only get you so far. When he guessed, he often guessed wrong and exposed his secondary mates to big plays. Missed tackles have always been an issue, and that’s bad for a safety if he’s not exceptional in coverage. Durante missed three tackles in the Arkansas game and was not as aggressive or strong at the point of impact as desired. His slight frame--he played at about 190 pounds--just isn’t strong enough to handle downfield blockers or manning up against tight ends.
Durante might wind up moving to the big nickel CB role to make it in the NFL. His man coverage skills are solid for a safety, and he played over the slot quite a bit in games against Purdue and Florida State earlier in his Huskies career. Only having one assignment could be beneficial for Durante, allowing him to focus his plus speed and great ball skills. To me, that’s worth a 6th round flier; he’s proven he can be effective enough against top NCAA competition when he wasn’t called upon to do too much. A shoulder injury at the Combine likely pushes him to the UDFA ranks, however.
Current projection: 7th round/UDFA
Kristjan Sokoli, DT, Buffalo--Workout Wonder. That’s Sokoli, an Albanian immigrant who played nose tackle for the Bulls. His workout numbers are eye-popping for a 6’5”, 290-pound man:
- 4.86 40-yard dash with an awesome 1.55 10-yard split
- 38” vertical, or a full foot higher than Missouri’s Shane Ray
- 4.36 in the short shuttle and 7.25 in the 3-cone drill, very impressive agility for his height and weight
- 31 bench press reps
Alas, the Tarzan athleticism looked a lot like Jane on the field. He had just 2.5 sacks--all in his junior year--and 15 TFLs in his four years in Buffalo. More than just the stats, he seemed consistently surprised by what the offense was doing. Wham blocks and pulling guards routinely destroyed Sokoli, and he has never figured out what to do with his hands once he’s engaged with a block.
Some of the issues are how he was used by UB. He was the nose tackle but an attacking one, primarily playing a shaded 1-technique where his job was to take on two blockers and still try and make the play. His athleticism and body type are much better suited to play the 5T in an NFL 3-4 front, or even strongside DE in a 4-3 with the ability to kick inside as needed. Teams intrigued by raw athletic talent will look at him in the seventh round and hope they have something after a year as a practice squad stash. You want it to be your team, because the payoff could be great. Nobody will outwork him.
Current projection: 7th round/UDFA
Casey Pierce, TE, Kent State--Pierce is a player I had to evaluate backwards. My first real exposure to him was during Senior Bowl practices, where he impressed with soft hands and decent giddy-up off the line. He was also strong in pass protection drills even though he’s smallish at 6’3” and 244 pounds and doesn’t have a lot of muscle definition.
I went back to the tape and watched a couple of games, while also calling upon the memory banks to when I saw him live vs. Buffalo in 2013. The former walk-on once again showed he could handle his own as a blocker; he’s got strong shoulders and coordinated technique, as well as desirable tenacity. While he’s not a quick-twitch guy, Pierce has sneaky speed and just enough litheness in space to operate as a move tight end or even play in the slot a few times a game. Kent didn’t ask him to run much other than hooks, curls and shorter in/out routes, and the NFL team drafting him probably won’t either.
There is enough athleticism and football IQ for Pierce to play as a hybrid FB/H-Back/tight end and special teams stalwart. He has that “Patriot” feel to him, a try-hard guy with a finite ceiling but several useful skills and intelligence. Don’t be surprised if he winds up going to New England in the late rounds.
Current projection: 7th round
Thomas Rawls, RB, Central Michigan--one of the most promising power backs in this draft, but there are flags everywhere. Washed out of Michigan. Missed games due to arrest for theft. Missed games with a knee injury. Missed CMU’s bowl game on academic suspension. Fumbled at least 6 times in 9 games (stats are hard to come by). He’s a bull of a runner with plant-and-cut ability, but Rawls will go undrafted. If he learns to hold onto the ball and stop getting in trouble, he could stick as an undrafted flyer.
Da’Ron Brown, WR, Northern Illinois--Brown is great at catching the ball well away from his body and over his head. He showed that repeatedly in games and also during Shrine Game practices, where he definitely had the best hands of any wideout. Beyond that, he’s an average athlete who plays slower and stiffer than he times. The Chicago native won’t have the size advantage he had in the MAC in the NFL. Shrine Game practices were illuminating in that respect; he struggled to create separation and was visibly less explosive than his cohorts coming out of breaks and after the catch, even though he caught everything thrown anywhere near him. UDFA with a chance to make it as a slighter Kevin Walter, a former MAC product who parlayed limited skills and a 7th-round selection into 356 career catches.
Jeremiah Detmer, K, Toledo--what can you say about a kicker other than his accuracy and kickoffs? Detmer had a touchback percentage over 45% in his final two years, and he made 65 of 77 field goals. He hit 3 of his 5 attempts from beyond 40 yards as a senior, but he never even attempted a 50+ yard FG in college. NFL teams won’t sniff a kicker who can’t make at least half his attempts from 48 yards.
Jahwan Edwards, RB, Ball State--thickly built bruiser at 5’9” and 220, looks like Maurice Jones-Drew physically. Unfortunately he doesn’t run with any type of authority. Or speed. He just doesn’t get north/south the way a power back needs to on a consistent basis, certainly not enough to justify the “Quake” nickname. Pass protection is not his strong suit either. Edwards does have nice hands and can break tackles. Best bet might be AFL, where he’ll be forced to attack and can use his receiving skills in tighter quarters.
Jordan Haden, S, Toledo--Joe’s little brother missed over two years--three if you count his senior year of high school--between injuries and a transfer from Florida. He then missed 8 games as a junior and three more as a senior. Some bodies just aren’t made for football, and that appears to be the case here. It’s too bad because when he’s been able to play, Jordan Haden has shown great ball skills and quick reactions in coverage. He will be camp body #90 for some team this summer…if he’s lucky.
Antwan Crutcher, DT, Ohio--a former high school wrestling star, “Crutch” was the immovable object in the middle of the Bobcat defense. He stood out in 2013 but struggled to do much other than occupy (a lot of) space with lesser talent around him as a senior. He disappointed in weighing just 297 at his pro day, about 25 pounds too light to play the nose in the NFL. He’s not a penetrator or a dynamic athlete, more of a tough-guy plugger who jams gaps and snuffs out interior runs. Here’s hoping Crutcher gets a chance!