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Posted: Wednesday January 21, 2009 1:27PM; Updated: Friday January 23, 2009 7:15AM
Ross Tucker Ross Tucker >
INSIDE THE NFL

Tuck's Takes: As Cards prove, small college players have big potential

Story Highlights

Small-college players aren't getting their due in the draft pecking order

Tim Hightower and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have been great for Cards

Physicality of Ravens-Steelers game is why the NFL is awesome

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Cardinals rookie Tim Hightower, who played at Richmond, was tied for eighth in the NFL with 10 rushing touchdowns this season.
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Placing the correct value on players in free agency and the draft is paramount to the success of any NFL franchise. Too many busts and you're doomed. Just ask the Detroit Lions.

What amazes me is how players from the lower levels of college football continue to be consistently underappreciated and undervalued by scouts and talent evaluators. I understand that the level of competition needs to be taken into consideration when determining where to draft players, but the fact is that players from non-traditional BCS conferences continue to thrive in the NFL.

Most small-school players get slotted into the later rounds because talent evaluators aren't sure they can handle the significant jump to the next level. Quite often the thought process is that it will take at least a year or two for these players to develop. But is that really the case? Some recent examples say no.

Check out the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. Their rookie running back, Tim Hightower, has been an absolute steal out of Richmond as a fifth-round pick. Tell me that guy, with his raw power and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and to make plays, was not worthy of a higher selection. And he is doing all this as a rookie, not a developmental guy a year or two down the road. If he had played FBS football instead of FCS football, my guess is he would have been taken in the second or third round.

Need more examples? How about the Cardinals starting left guard, Reggie Wells, from tiny Clarion University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania? He was taken in the sixth round in 2003, yet has gone on to become the only fixture on the Cards offensive line the past five years. My guess is that with his natural ability he would have been taken in the third or fourth round had he played for Ohio State instead of Clarion.

Even Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, taken by the Cards with the 16th overall pick, was undervalued if you think about it. He is the lightning fast number one corner on a Super Bowl team as a rookie. Had he gone to Alabama or Tennessee instead of Tennessee State, he would have been a top 10 pick. I could go on all day. Ben Patrick, one of the Cards' tight ends and a Delaware product who caught the two-point conversion on Sunday, probably should have been taken higher than round seven. Is there really a four-round difference between him and fellow Cards tight end Leonard Pope?

Speaking of Delaware, ever hear of a guy named Joe Flacco? There is no way with his combination of size, arm strength, athleticism, and poise that he wouldn't have been a top five selection had he finished his career at Pitt instead of Delaware. In terms of physical skills and mental makeup, what else can you ask for in a player? All he did was lead his team to the AFC Championship game as a rookie.

The biggest opportunity for some of the current small school players to change opinions comes this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Players like Liberty running back Rashad Jennings and Richmond defensive end Lawrence Sidbury have an opportunity to showcase their wares against college football's elite in front of scouts from every NFL team. Jennings, reportedly, already has shown that he looks the part, exhibiting one of the most imposing physiques during the weigh-in earlier in the week. Sidbury is hoping to capitalize on the attention he got for dominating the FCS playoffs for the national champion Richmond Spiders.

Will NFL execs continue to place lower grades on these players than they deserve?

I'm sure that I have somewhat of an inherent bias because I was a I-AA player. I'm equally sure there are small school players drafted higher than they deserve who turn out to be busts. Just as I'm sure productive NFL players from big schools were taken way later than they should have been. But there are simply too many recent examples of small school players becoming NFL studs, and early in their careers, to ignore. The success of Marques Colston, an FCS wide receiver from Hofstra, is well-documented. How does a 6-foot-4, 225 pound receiver with those hands and route-running skills last until the seventh round? There is no way that would have happened if he had gone to Penn State or Boston College.

I understand that drafting players from major programs takes some of the guesswork away, that the perceptions is there's less risk and arguably a more complete body of work to judge. I get that. But there is also room for a shrewd organization to devote more resources to correctly grading smaller school players. That decision could pay immediate dividends. Just ask the Cardinals.

Let's Get Physical

I know they've already played three times this season, but is there really no way we can watch the Ravens go toe to toe with the Steelers one more time? Please? Pretty please? I absolutely loved every second of all three of their compelling matchups this year.

Larry Fitzgerald's acrobatic maneuvers are exciting, but for my money, I'll take the physicality of Ravens vs. Steelers. I am utterly enthralled by the collisions that take place and the mindset of the combatants. Those games are not for the faint of heart, and I'm sure the violence is uncomfortable to watch for some. My wife text messaged me after my former teammate Willis McGahee got knocked out by Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "I am so glad you aren't playing anymore," she wrote.

Funny thing is, I was thinking the exact opposite, wishing I was out there in the worst way. I was intermittently doing push-ups and screaming, trying in vain to release some of my pent up aggression. And isn't that really one of the reasons this game was invented in the first place? To allow young men to take out their aggression in a productive manner.

When do the Steelers and Ravens play next year?

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