Posted: Wednesday April 25, 2012 11:59AM ; Updated: Wednesday April 25, 2012 11:59AM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Overrated/underrated: Predicting pro success based on college years

Story Highlights

NFL draft experts often discount college production when grading pro prospects

Ryan Tannehill hasn't earned his top 10 status, while Kellen Moore is overlooked

Workout wonders sometimes pan out, but there's reason to doubt Dontari Poe

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During the doldrums of the offseason, my friends and I love to sit around and reminisce about great moments from the previous college football season. With the NFL draft approaching, we've been focusing lately on the highly rated quarterbacks. We fondly remember Andrew Luck's resilient triple-overtime win against USC, Robert Griffin III's opening-week heart-stopper against TCU and Ryan Tannehill's ... Hmm. Give me a second. Didn't he beat ... No? Well, there was that first half against Arkansas ...

Every year, NFL groupthink elevates at least one player's stock well beyond what his actual college career merits. Meanwhile, it automatically dismisses, say, the winningest quarterback in NCAA history (Kellen Moore) because he doesn't fit the rigid physical prototype. I realize college skills don't necessarily translate to the pros, but as a college football follower, I'm always amused when, say, Utah's Eric Weddle, a two-time All-American who completely shut down Calvin Johnson in the Emerald Bowl, slips to the second round of the 2007 draft, then goes on to become a two-time All-Pro.

There's at least one Weddle lurking in the later rounds of this year's draft, just as there are inevitably a slew of first-round busts about to hear their names called in New York. Looking solely at players' college production (no 40 times, no bench reps, no wingspans, no "burst"), let's take some guesses.

NOTE: Players are deemed overrated or underrated compared to all those at their position, not strictly each other.

Quarterback

Overrated: Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M

I don't mean to pile on the Aggies quarterback, but Top 10? Really? I'm not sure Tannehill was even one of the top five quarterbacks in the Big 12 last year (coming in behind RG3, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Kansas State's Collin Klein and Missouri's James Franklin). Nationally, Tannehill ranked 55th in pass efficiency, one spot below Notre Dame's Tommy Rees, a guy who probably won't even keep his starting job this fall. Tannehill is admittedly raw, having only taken over the starting role midway through his junior season. He's certainly athletic, having caught 12 passes for 210 yards against Kansas State as a freshman receiver. Maybe he could develop into an elite passer with the right coach; unfortunately, he's expected to go eighth overall to the Dolphins, where his offensive coordinator will be ... his college coach, Mike Sherman.

Underrated: Kellen Moore, Boise State

I don't care that Moore is only 6-foot, that pesky handicap that's obviously troubled Drew Brees so much. No one who watched Moore lead his team on that game-winning drive against Virginia Tech in 2010 or shred an eventual Top 10 Georgia defense last fall can say with a straight face that he was anything but a lethal passer. His accuracy was astounding, his anticipation of where his receivers would break unmatched by any quarterback in the draft this side of Luck. While Moore's arm isn't a Luck-like rocket, it's not weak. This isn't a Tim Tebow situation, where Moore won a lot of games (50) despite zany mechanics. Moore is an incredibly polished passer -- among the very best in the country the past four years -- and could easily become an NFL starter if given the chance. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like many teams are willing to give him one.

Running back

Overrated: Chris Rainey, Florida

This was a hard one, because I really do like all of the running backs atop most boards: Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Lamar Miller, LaMichael James and Isaiah Pead (the latter two are also underrated). So that leaves Rainey, a projected fourth-round pick who may be a risk even there, primarily because he's a well-documented head case with a dubious off-field past. On the field, it's hard to envision him as a traditional running back. Rainey's success at Florida was predicated entirely on creating mismatches that allowed him to utilize his tremendous speed and thus tended to diminish against elite SEC defenses. In the NFL, he'll face defenders like that every week.

Underrated: Chris Polk, Washington

I'm genuinely puzzled by the lack of buzz surrounding a guy who ran for more than 4,000 yards over three seasons, including 21 100-yard games and a memorable 284-yard night in the 2010 Apple Cup against Washington State. Polk is mostly an inside runner who was durable enough to tote the rock at least 20 times in 10 of 13 games last season, but don't discount his explosiveness. In last year's game at then-undefeated Stanford, Polk twice burst through the line and took off virtually untouched for touchdown runs of 46 and 61 yards. Few teams rely on just one tailback these days, and I could see Polk being a very productive No. 2.

Wide receiver/tight end

Overrated: Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech

This has to be a case of scouts figuring history will repeat itself, right? Yes, Demaryius Thomas emerged from Paul Johnson's triple-option offense to become the Denver Broncos' go-to receiver, and yes, Hill is similarly tall (6-4) and fast. But Hill's actual pass-catching experience is extremely limited. Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards for Tech's 2009 ACC title team. Hill last year caught 28 balls for 820 yards, with two of his three biggest games coming against Western Carolina and Middle Tennessee. In total he had 49 career receptions, as he was never quite the same go-to play-action threat as Thomas.

Underrated: Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina

Jeffery's stock dipped along with his production after he notched just 49 catches for 762 yards in 2011 -- down from 88 for 1,517 as a sophomore. But Jeffery didn't suddenly become less talented. It was more a matter of Steve Spurrier losing all confidence in his quarterbacks (the eventually dismissed Stephen Garcia and replacement Connor Shaw) and going with a more conservative offense. As a sophomore, the 6-3 receiver showed a lot of Justin Blackmon-like skills in his ability to out jump most defenders and catch tough balls in traffic. Jeffery may not be on Blackmon's level, but I'd take him before any other receiver besides Notre Dame's Michael Floyd.

Offensive line

William Vlachos (73) could go undrafted despite anchoring a two-time BCS championship line at Alabama.
William Vlachos (73) could go undrafted despite anchoring a two-time BCS championship line at Alabama.
ZUMAPRESS.com

Overrated: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin

At this point, every Wisconsin offensive line prospect likely gets a 10- to 20-spot boost simply by playing for Wisconsin. No program churns out more high-level blockers, but projecting Zeitler nearly the first round seem a bit lofty. He's fundamentally sound, but not physically overpowering like many of his predecessors, or even his fellow 2012 Badgers draft prospect, center Peter Konz. Teams know Wisconsin guards are well prepared, but in terms of overall talent, there's a significant gap between Stanford's David DeCastro and the rest of the field.

Underrated: William Vlachos, Alabama

Someone please explain how one of the cogs of two national championship offenses is deemed a seventh-round prospect, if that. Barrett Jones was the most talented and versatile Alabama offensive lineman, but Vlachos was the three-year starting center for a team that consistently wore down opposing defenses and moved the pile for star backs Mark Ingram and Richardson. Vlachos is also the kind of smart, charismatic leader teams want in the locker room. I'd give him a chance.

Defensive line

Overrated: Dontari Poe, Memphis

Sometimes the workout wonders pan out, sometimes they flop, but the hype over Poe is pretty astounding considering his limited accomplishments. For such a supposedly otherworldly athlete, Poe hardly dominated the competition in Conference USA. On the contrary, he was a second team all-conference performer who notched five sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 30 starts. With the right coaching, a 345-pound man who can run a sub-5.0 40 could well become an All-Pro, but he did little at Memphis to demonstrate it.

Underrated: Tyrone Crawford, Boise State

People scoffed when I suggested two years ago that Boise boasted an SEC-caliber defensive line, but that unit is about to produce one first-round draft pick (Shea McClellin) and two other second- or third-rounders (Crawford and tackle Billy Winn). Crawford, a juco transfer, didn't start until his final season and was largely an afterthought compared to McClellin and Winn, but he was arguably the most productive guy on that line, notching 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season and 7 and 13.5 the year before. He may be a bit raw, but he could wind up having the best pro career of the Boise group.

Linebacker

Overrated: Nick Perry, USC

This draft is heavy on projected outside linebackers who played primarily defensive end in college, including South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Clemson's Andre Branch and West Virginia's Bruce Irvin. Perry was the least productive of that group, notching a modest 13.5 sacks in two seasons. He's unquestionably an explosive pass-rusher and may well merit at least a second round selection, but I'd be more inclined to take Ingram, Mercilus or McClellin above him.

Underrated: Lavonte David, Nebraska

Some of the scouting reports I've read question David's tackling technique, which is mystifying considering the former juco transfer was a tackling machine the past two years. As a junior he broke Nebraska's school record with 152 tackles in 14 games, then followed it up with 133 in 13 games last year. In one of the key plays of the Huskers' 2011 season, with Nebraska down 27-6 to Ohio State, David swiped the ball from Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller just as Miller completed what would have been a first down pickup, igniting a comeback win. It's odd to see such a talented player listed behind eight to 10 other linebacker prospects.

Cornerback

Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward was one of the most impactful SEC defenders last season and deserves to go in Round 2.
Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward was one of the most impactful SEC defenders last season and deserves to go in Round 2.
AP

Overrated: Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama

It's hard to nitpick any of Alabama's five-star/All-SEC/BCS champion defenders, but the few teams that managed to bust some big plays on the Tide's defense the past two years often did so at the expense of the gambling Kirkpatrick. He's an incredible athlete and definitely cut down on the mistakes last season -- I'm just not sure I'd take him with a high first-round pick. I certainly wouldn't take him before Alabama teammates Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower or Mark Barron, which seems like a possibility.

Underrated: Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt

Granted, the first thing I'd do is bulk him up a bit and move him to safety, but Hayward is currently ranked behind seven to nine other cornerbacks. It's hard to overstate just how impactful he was for the Commodores, particularly last season, when Vandy improved from 2-10 to 6-7 (with a bowl appearance) largely on the strength of its aggressive defense. Hayward was the key piece, notching seven interceptions and 10 pass break-ups. I'd like to see him sneak into the second round.

Safety

Overrated: Harrison Smith, Notre Dame

It surprised me to see the four-year starter sneak into Peter King's projected first round. Smith certainly got the most out of his ability at Notre Dame and was often the rare bright spot on a defense that struggled mightily his first three years. I could see him playing his way into an occasional starting role in the NFL, but a first-round pick means that a team sees Smith becoming a long-term starter and possibly a star. Most Notre Dame on NBC viewers saw a few too many missed tackles and blown assignments to share that opinion.

Underrated: Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State

The Cowboys' defense took criticism for allowing a lot of yards in its run to a 12-1 record and Big 12 title last season, but the unit performed better than most realized in large part by forcing a nation's best 44 turnovers. Martin was one of Oklahoma State's better playmakers, and Coach Mike Gundy considered him one of the best defenders to come through Stillwater. A knee injury just after the season limited his workouts and likely affected his stock -- he's currently projected to go around the fourth round -- but I'd put Martin up there with any safety prospect besides Barron.

 
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