By Russ Lande
Anyone who follows the NFL draft has heard about Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Tre Mason and Eric Ebron. But, when you look around the NFL and see players like Wes Welker, Antonio Gates, Pierre Garcon and Darren Sproles excelling, it is clear that skill position players can be found in later rounds, or even among the undrafted free agent pool. Below are five skill position players who have the tools to become productive starters in the NFL if they go to the right situation.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State
5-11, 224, 4.57
A former five-star recruit who won SEC freshman of the year in 2011 while at Georgia, Crowell ended up at Alabama State after being dismissed for a felony firearm charge and finished his career there with 1,126 yards rushing in 2013. Thickly built with excellent playing strength and an aggressive running style, Crowell charges through attempted tackles to gain yards after contact with remarkable ease. His good balance, body control and agility help him keep his feet vs. hard hits and make sharp cuts to get through holes. While he possesses the snap explosion to deliver a violent blow to potential tacklers, he does not have the explosive burst of acceleration and top-end speed to get the corner consistently or to outrun angles.
Crowell has the tools to be a power back who can handle 15-plus carries running inside to go with the ability to break tackles and wear down defenses. Crowell can be the answer for teams that are looking for that kind of player, if he has matured and can stay out of trouble, which is a major question mark and the reason he will not likely be drafted until the sixth or seventh round.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
6-5 ½, 265, 4.76
The craze in the NFL is to find dynamic tight ends who run like receivers and can change games, but the reality is there are very few tight ends like that who actually exist. Fiedorowicz is a vastly underrated athlete who possesses the skill set to be a complete tight end. Tall and well built, he showed at Iowa and then again at the Senior Bowl that he has the strength and technique to be a good run blocker at the next level.
Although he is never going to beat Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in a race, he is a smooth and fluid athlete who runs precise routes, does an excellent job of getting his head around quickly, reaches out and catches the ball away from his body and makes tough catches seem routine. Fiedorowicz is unlikely to ever make a Pro Bowl and probably will not start in his rookie season, but three years from now I believe that he could be a quality starter who catches 50-plus passes and does a good job as a blocker.
Jerick McKinnon, RB/WR, Georgia Southern
5-9, 207, 4.41
McKinnon played option quarterback at Georgia Southern, so everyone knew he would need to make the switch to RB/WR/returner to make it in the NFL, and that is why he was expected to slide through the draft and be signed afterward. However, after his display of elite athleticism and hands at the combine, you can be sure some team is going to take a gamble on him. He is no doubt a project and will need time to learn the finer points of whichever position his team tries him at, but he has the vision, instincts, dynamic open-field running ability and home-run speed to make an impact as a kickoff returner immediately.
A smart and heady young man, McKinnon has the skill set and tools to make it as a slot receiver because he will not be fazed having to learn and adjust to a new position. Do not be shocked if McKinnon gets selected in the fourth round, as I have heard numerous NFL people talking about him in terms similar to Antwaan Randle-El.
Jeremy Gallon, WR, Michigan
5-7, 185, 4.49
While evaluating Michigan's senior prospects a year ago, Gallon constantly jumped off the film with his explosive playmaking ability, and he continued that in 2013. Despite a career-best season in 2013 with 89 catches for 1,373 yards and nine touchdowns, Gallon is still likely to be a third-day draft pick because at 5-foot-7, he was the shortest skill position player at the combine. Every year there are a number of short receivers who get a chance in the NFL, and most fail, but there are reasons to believe that Gallon can be different. Although he is short, he is not small, as he has a solid build and has consistently shown the strength and balance to keep his feet against low, grab tackles.
Able to stop and start in a heartbeat, Gallon explodes out of his cuts to get separation and can easily make tacklers miss, and combined with his run instincts and vision, he is a legit touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. While I have no doubt that he can become a dangerous starting slot receiver, he also has experience returning punts and kickoffs, which should help him to get on the field sooner in his career.
Erik Lora, WR, Eastern Illinois
5-9, 190, 4.42
Lora immediately grabbed my attention during a game in which I had been evaluating quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. In the first quarter, he made a great catch in traffic, then a violent crack-back block to get the running back to the corner. No one is ever going to confuse Lora with a speedster who can outrun defenses to score long touchdowns, but he does have quick feet off the ball and is able to accelerate to full speed more quickly than he gets credit for. His precision when running routes, consistency maintaining his stem and knowledge of how to set up defenders enables him to get separation from defenders regularly.
When not battling man coverage, he uses his instincts, awareness and football intelligence to find open spots, sit down and gets his head around quickly. I love that when the quarterback is forced from the pocket, Lora does an outstanding job of working back toward him to give the passer a target. A month ago I would have bet that Lora would be a seventh-round pick at best, because so many scouts questioned his speed, but after running in the low 4.4 range at Northwestern's pro day, you can be sure that some team will take a gamble on him on Day Three.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.