Preseason Top 5 NFL Draft Prospects: Mountain West
By David Seigerman
The tectonic shifts that rumbled beneath the bedrock of the NCAA this week confirmed what we've already known: in college football, there are the Big Five conferences, and then there's everybody else.
The trouble is the daylight between those five leagues and Conference No. 6 isn't as dramatic as you may think. Certainly not in the eyes of the NFL. As far as the NFL Draft is concerned, the Mountain West is right there with the big boys. The Big 12 boys, for instance. That big boy leage had 17 players taken in the 2014 draft. The Mountain had 16, tying its high-water mark. Six conferences had at least five players drafted in the first two rounds: the Big Five and the Mountain.
There probably are just as many Day Two candidates in the Mountain as there were last year, when Nevada T Joel Bitonio, Boise State DE Demarcus Lawrence, Fresno State QB Derek Carr, Colorado State C Weston Richburg and Fresno State WR Davante Adams all went in the second round. And that's not counting in this year's crop three intriguing quarterbacks, all of whom will generate their share of buzz this season: Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, Nevada's Cody Fajardo, and the best of the bunch, Colorado State's Garrett Grayson.
The Mountain West may not have a seat at the adult table. But it's the next-best thing in college football.
1. Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Utah State: For a linebacker whose greatest asset is his speed, Fackrell is far from a one-trick pony. I can see him winning his share of matchups with a first-rate speed rush, but there's more to his pass rush repertoire. He won't beat too many NFL tackles with a bull rush, but he tries, which keeps blockers from playing him as a one-dimensional threat. When he learns to cross his blocker's face, Fackrell will become an even more effective pass rusher. Plus, he shows toughness against the run that too many pass rush OLBs can't be bothered with. A long-limbed 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, he's built like and has a motor that reminds me of Trent Murphy, the accomplished pass rush specialist from Stanford who Washington drafted this year with the 15th pick of the second round. Fackrell looks faster and smoother than Murphy, and you can really see it when watching his 99-yard Pick Six against Hawai'i.
2. Derron Smith, S, Fresno State: There's no denying Smith's productivity. He has 14 career interceptions (most of any active FBS player), is an active tackler all over the field (his 18 tackles against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl were the most ever in a bowl game by a Mountain West player), and proved effective when used as a blitzer (his four sacks were third on the team in 2013). Sometimes, though, he seems to arrive late in getting over to help in coverage. Clearly, he has the ball skills to be an NFL free safety, and the versatility to be used in a variety of defensive packages. But coverage is his primary responsibility, and he'll need to make the right decision sooner so he can get to the right spot faster. Smith's lack of ideal size for a safety (5-11, 197) may mean that he'll have to move to slot corner at the next level, so scouts will be taking a hard look at his consistency in coverage this season.
3. Ty Sambrailo, T, Colorado State: Come on, get happy . . . how could you not, when you hear of the comparison posed by CSU coach Jim McElwain. He recently likened Sambrailo to Mrs. Partridge, matriach of the musical Partridge Family (a reference Sambrailo, his teammates and, probably, most of you reading this will not catch). Now, I was probably more a Brady Bunch guy growing up, but I love a good '70s sitcom reference. And I get where McElwain was going. During the show's opening theme, the first bird out of the egg was the big one, the mama bird, whose lead the others follow across the screen. Sambrailo, presumably, has assumed the leadership role on the Rams offensive line, a huge role considering the magnitude of the loss of center Weston Richburg. Sambrailo has good NFL size (6-5, 315) and with a healthy season will finish his career with more than 40 starts, the majority at left tackle. He's strong and mobile, but his athleticism extends beyond the field. Sambrailo is an accomplished skier, having won USSA Far West titles in a variety of downhill events. And, allegedly, he's got quite the repertoire of freestyle moves. Not sure if that will have NFL scouts doing backflips, but Sambrailo shows promise in both run blocking and pass protection and will be a Day Two pick. And who knows? Maybe someday he'll wind up with his face on some cool retro lunchbox.
4. Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State: A punishing between-the-tackles runner who will break more tackles than he slips, Ajayi is saying all the right things about a potential early entry into the NFL. He's made big business decisions before: back in high school, he considered moving to Nigeria, where he could compete for a spot on the national soccer team. Instead, he stayed in Texas and with American football, and he's developed into a promising prospect. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Ajayi came out early. His are hard carries, and mileage adds up faster on a back with his running style. He's sure to eclipse the 271 touches he had a year ago, and with one ACL injury on his record already, it's probably the right decision for Ajayi to move on after the 2014 season.
5. Devante Davis, WR, UNLV: Davis looks like he can be a solid possession receiver at the next level. He caught a ton of passes underneath and on intermediate routes in 2013, boxing out defenders with his big body (6-3, 210). I didn't see too many examples of Davis separating himself from a defender; rather, he sat down under zones or found his way into seams. Occasionally, he'd break tackles and break a big play, and he is a physical player, one who looks as comfortable blocking in the second level as catching the ball.
David Seigerman's new book, "Under Pressure," co-authored with former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas, is available on Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere.