By: Matt Harmon
The Mountain West Conference continues to improve and gain respect in national circles. The league’s strong showing in the 2014 NFL Draft gave some evidence to this. Professional teams drafted 16 players from Mountain West squads. Many more will have the opportunity to impress in training camps as undrafted free agents.
The conference could have an even better showing in next year’s draft. There’s a strong group of seniors from the MWC ready to round out their resumes for the NFL.
1) SAF Derron Smith, Fresno State
Derron Smith is the top senior in the Mountain West Conference. He’s a fixture on preseason All-American teams. As a premiere palyer on one of the top teams in his conference, it’s easy to see why. The Fresno State safety spent the 2013 season stuffing the stat sheet. Smith has the playmaking ability of a top-tier secondary defender; his four sacks and seven interceptions back that up. His 2013 interception number bumped his career total up to 14, which makes him the nation’s active leader. Smith’s film confirms what the stats say about his instincts and ability to play in coverage.
Safety is a highly sought after position around the NFL these days. A great player at the position can be a true tactical advantage in the matchup game. An aggressive but strong tackler in the run game, and a ball hawk in coverage; Derron Smith has the makings of a nice safety prospect. He could sneak his way into the first round with another great season.
2) QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah State
An ACL tear during the 2013 season robbed us of one of college football’s most exciting players. No longer a well-kept secret, the nation will be watching to see if
Chuckie Keeton improves when he returns to the field. He has the playmaking savvy and escape-ability that will remind some of Johnny Manziel. However, just like Manziel, Keeton does need to learn when to slow down and play within structure. The Utah State quarterback could also work on mechanics and keeping his delivery consistent. Tightening up those areas would help him improve as a deep ball passer.
All in all, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to make Keeton a very intriguing prospect. He’s very advanced in the short passing game, with great zip and accuracy at this stage of his development. NFL teams will be watching to see if Keeton proves himself worthy of being a high draft pick.
3) WR Josh Harper, Fresno State
Fresno State sent one receiver into the NFL this year when the Packers drafted Davante Adams in the second round. Don’t forget that Adams wasn’t David Carr’s only productive pass catcher last season. Josh Harper broke out in 2013 by recording 79 receptions, over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a junior, he displayed a ton of explosion and toughness to compliment his great hands. Harper obviously provides a lot of excitement, but also has a few advanced traits. While he isn’t a massive player, Harper isn’t bothered by physical play and maintains great balance as a runner in space.
The senior receiver will have to deal with a likely downgrade at the quarterback position. He will also be the opponent’s main focus with Adams now playing in the NFL. Both factors should help scouts determine whether Harper fits best as an outside or slot receiver. Another big year could propel him up draft boards.
4) WR Devante Davis, UNLV
He’s far from a household name, but UNLV’s Devante Davis is quite a good player. Many were puzzled as to why Davis didn’t make the move to the NFL after last season along with Tim Cornett and Caleb Herring. Considering he dominated the completion with a school record 14 touchdowns, no one would have been surprised. As it happens, Davis chose to stay and show he should be a high draft pick. He already looks like an NFL receiver with plenty of speed on a long, lean frame. The strong ball skills and body control stand out on tape, but don’t overlook his potential as a route runner. Davis has great spatial awareness, and is super quick in and out of his breaks.
The Mountain West has plenty of good receiver prospects, but Devante Davis has a chance to surpass all of them. General managers will be impressed with the potential they see. Davis just has to keep producing and more recognition will come his way.
5) OT Ty Sambrailo, Colorado State
Colorado State churned out a few prospects in this year’s draft, and looks to do the same in 2015. At the top of the list is offensive tackle, Ty Sambrailo. He has moved all along the Rams’ offensive line, but found a home and shined at left tackle last season. Sambrailo is very light on his feet, and is stout in pass protection. His strength isn’t his best attribute, but he is technically sound in the run game. The senior tackle takes smart angles and is good on the second level. It wouldn’t be surprising if zone blocking teams are more interested in Sambrailo than others come draft time.
There’s a lot of debate about whether Ty Sambrailo is a guard or tackle prospect in the NFL. Provided he continues to play well, there’s no reason to think he needs to move inside. Either way, his versatility will be a plus for his draft stock.
6) OC Robert Waterman, UNLV
A veteran in the truest sense, Robert Waterman has started every game at center for UNLV since 2011. The senior is a stalwart in the middle of the line, and is a fine player in his own right. Waterman is a lightweight lineman who shoots out of his stance in a hurry. He snaps the ball and is prepared to block his assignment without delay. His balance also stands out, as defensive lineman rarely push him around. By all accounts Waterman is a smart man off the field, and it shows on film. He understands assignments, angles and moves from block to block when necessary.
Waterman looks like a coach’s dream. He won’t wow anyone, but his consistency means there is a place for him in the NFL. An offensive line guru will want him around in the meeting room, and to provide depth.
7) WR Matt Miller, Boise State
Another nice receiving prospect in the Mountain West, Matt Miller is the playmaker of the Bronco’s offense. He recorded 1140 yards and 12 scores, and could improve on those numbers in 2014. Miller has nice size, but isn’t lacking for quickness. He’s no burner, but he gets in and out of his breaks well. Those skills give hope that Miller can be a strong route runner, but he needs to be crisper in that department. There were also a few moments were Miller shied away from contested coverage in big moments. He will have to improve in those instances if he wants to get into the day-two conversation come draft time
Matt Miller should be a leader on the Boise State offense during the upcoming season. NFL teams will want to see him show a few more advanced traits to move him up their boards.
8) OT Kevin Whimpey, Utah State
Chuckie Keeton isn’t the only NFL prospect on the Aggies’ offense. His blind side protector, Kevin Whimpey, is a fine player as well. He jumps off the screen as a guy who gets his job done with regularity. Whimpey is almost always in the right place and gives a good fight to anyone who faces him. The aggression he plays with, and his strong upper body will endear him to evaluators who hone in on him. Whimpey is a former defensive lineman, and that athleticism also shows up when he blocks out in space. There aren’t many ways you can pick holes in Whimpey’s game right now. He just needs to continue to show out against top-level players over a longer period of time.
There are a number of nice offensive line prospects in the Mountain West. Kevin Whimpey is a little under the radar at the moment, but don’t forget about him. He has an NFL frame, and a future playing in the league to go along with it.
9) QB Cody Fajardo, Nevada
Another Nevada quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is one of the best young signal callers in the NFL today. Cody Fajardo hopes to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. While he isn’t the overwhelming athlete Kaepernick is, Fajardo is a similarly exciting player to watch. He looks like a natural on the football field. Fajardo stands tall under pressure, and finds the right spot to make a throw with a very live arm. However, the ascending young quarterback does need to iron out a few kinks. Fajardo should work on tightening up his delivery, his decision-making and cleaning up his footwork. He could also stand to be more patient, and wait for passing lanes to develop before looking to run.
Provided he improves on some of those areas, Cody Fajardo is a legit NFL quarterback prospect. He probably isn’t for everyone, but there’s of promise with this young man.
10) CB Tajh Hasson, UNLV
He might be the least recognized name on this list, but Tajh Hasson is sure to interest NFL teams. With bigger corners being so in vogue, someone will take a chance on the UNLV cover man. He is listed at just under 200 pounds, and stands a tall 6’1”. For a corner that doesn’t come from a major program, Hasson possess some highly sought after corner traits. His eye level really stands out when playing in off-man coverage, and he works well to redirect receivers. It would be nice to see him get a few more attempts in press coverage, given his size. Yet, Hasson does everything he’s asked, and should not be slept on.
He might get overlooked among MWC draft prospects, but don’t forget about Tajh Hasson. You might look very smart when scouts begin to find out about him. His size and awareness will get him some attention once teams do their deep digging.
TE Kivon Cartwright, Colorado State
The Rams’ Crockett Gilmore went to the Ravens as a surprising third round pick in May. Gilmore was a very good prospect, but wasn’t the only talented tight end at Colorado State in 2013. Kivon Cartwright teamed with Gilmore to give CSU a fine tandem at the position. Cartwright only caught 27 passes, but made them count by posting a nice 17.1 yards per catch figure. He was also a strong red zone presence, nabbing six touchdowns in 2013. That talent is clearly there; evaluators just need to see it on a regular basis. Luckily, Cartwright will be the man returning quarterback, Garrett Grayson, looks for this fall.
DE Brock Hekking, Nevada
On a list of Mountain West Conference players, Brock Hekking would be near the top. However, this is a list of the top 10 NFL draft prospects, and there is a difference. Hekking is well known for his vibrant blonde mullet and his tenacious style of play. He broke out in a big way last season by racking up 8 sacks and two forced fumbles in 13 games. Coaches in particular will like watching Brock Hekking play due to his active motor and aggressive style of play. He still needs to show a lot more for his NFL future to become clear. Hekking needs to work on his functional strength and becoming a more developed technician. His big frame gives reason for optimism, although he might get slapped with the dreaded tweener label.