Noah Elliss, DL - Idaho
Elliss, despite just wrapping up his junior season, is one of the two defensive line invitees headed to this year’s combine from the FCS. Coming in at 6-4, 359 lbs, he had a tremendous 2021 season in which he authored 46 total tackles, a sack and had a fumble recovery. This last fall was his only full season of collegiate experience as Idaho did not play during 2020 due to the pandemic and an injury prematurely ended his 2019 campaign.
Elliss has the ability to collapse holes in opposing run schemes as well as effectively rush the passer when needed. His knack for moving both vertically and horizontally was put on display in this year’s East-West Shrine Bowl where he wowed NFL scouts. Several mock drafts have Elliss going in the late fourth or early fifth round.
Troy Andersen, LB - Montana State
Andersen is one of the more swiss-army type players in this year’s class. At Montana State, he did everything from quarterback to running back to linebacker but undoubtedly his greatest assets came on defense. The 6-4, 230 lbs linebacker had a stellar career at MSU where he served as the team’s starting quarterback at the beginning of his tenure before shifting over to the defensive side of the ball. Andersen finished ninth all-time in school history for rushing yards (2,260) and second in rushing touchdowns (33) but he also notched 150 tackles in 2021 alone which is good for fifth in program history. To say he can do it all is an understatement.
Andersen turned heads at the Senior Bowl with a solid performance on both special teams and defense. His pursuit to the ball from the middle linebacker position is impressive as is his speed. If he gets the ball in his hands, whether it be by turnover or otherwise, Andersen is tough to stop, especially with a head of steam. Currently, he is a projected fourth-round pick but an impressive showing at the combine could easily bump him up to the third.
Braxton Jones, OL - Southern Utah
As of late Southern Utah has implemented a zone-based run scheme and Jones has been a big part of that. Measuring in at 6-7, 310 lbs, Jones could be a real hidden gem for one of the several NFL teams in need of line help. He has 29 career starts under his belt including all 11 of SUU’s games last fall at left tackle.
Jones’ arm length is exceptional and he has often been the first point of contact on opposing defenses. His strength and stoutness give him the ability to knock defenders off balance and open up holes in the run game. Jones is pegged to be selected in the later rounds of the draft.
EJ Perry, QB - Brown
In a year where quarterbacks may be at more of a premium than they have in past seasons, Perry looks to be one of the several hidden talents in this year’s draft. The former Brown quarterback nearly eclipsed the 6,000 passing yard mark in college despite only playing two full seasons. Perry also put up 45 passing touchdowns and over 1,000 rushing yards in his career with the Bears.
The East-West Shrine Bowl gave Perry a chance to improve his draft stock and he did just that. With a beautiful mix of touch and accuracy, he wowed with three touchdowns and 241 yards in that contest, taking home the game’s MVP honors. Perry’s precision is as good as anyone’s when he’s on and he can place the ball perfectly into his receivers’ hands without them breaking stride. He could be a Day 2 pick pending a productive combine.
Markquese Bell, DB - Florida A&M
Bell was arguably the FCS’ most dominant defender last year and he was justly rewarded with the coveted Buck Buchanan Award. The redshirt junior comes in at 6-3, 205 lbs and was all over the field for FAMU last fall. He got in on 95 total tackles (2.0 sacks) and forced five fumbles. He also recorded an interception and even took a few offensive snaps toward the end of the season. Bell was invited to this year’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl where he had four tackles.
His versatility is something that will be enticing to NFL scouts as he has proven that he can handle both the back end and the box as needed. Bell’s aggressiveness allows him to be an asset in plugging up the run game while his awareness makes him just as dangerous as a single-high safety. Expect Bell to continue to show out as one of the nation’s best FCS prospects at the combine and don’t be surprised if he’s a third-round pick.
John Ridgeway, DL - Illinois State (Arkansas)
Ridgeway, despite most recently playing for Arkansas, is a former FCS product with a lot of upside. Measuring 6-4, 327 lbs, he was a force on the Razorbacks' line in 2021. In his 11 games, Ridgeway accounted for 39 total tackles (4.0 for loss) and two sacks.
His tall frame and lengthy wingspan allow him to often make first contact with opposing lineman. Although there have been some concerns about his foot speed, Ridgeway's toughness has helped scouts look past that. Many see him as a future role player that will go in the fourth or fifth round.
Matt Waletzko, OL - North Dakota
One of the first players to land on a Senior Bowl roster was Waletzko and with good reason. The 6-6, 310 lbs offensive tackle started in five games as a true freshman at North Dakota and saw snaps in four more. It was indicative of the talent Waletzko has and it translated into over 20 more starts throughout his college career. He did suffer a season-ending injury in 2019, but this last fall he walked away all-conference honors.
Holding down the left tackle position is what Waletzko does best. He has the ability to make long strides despite having a large frame. Such a trait helps him cover a lot of blocking area on the line. He also is very light on his feet which allows him to be a valuable asset in pass protection. In the Senior Bowl, Waletzko continued to impress scouts and most likely earned himself a selection on Day 2 of the draft.
Cordell Volson, OL - North Dakota State
One of the main reasons the Bison came away with yet another championship in 2021 was thanks to the play of their offensive line. Volson was one of the cornerstones. He actually could have declared for the draft last year but opted to stay in school and polish his already impressive resume. Volson, at 6-7, 317 lbs, was one of the more dominant tackles in the Missouri Valley last season, earning first-team All-American honors and multiple conference Offensive Lineman of the Week awards.
He is extremely powerful and creates tremendous leverage, often knocking defenders out of the way with (what looks like) relative ease. Volson isn't successful just due to brute force, however. He has an uncanny ability to play angles and create holes by doing so, making him an excellent blocker in the ground game. Volson could easily be a third or fourth-round pick in April.
Christian Watson, WR - North Dakota State
Watson was one of the most prolific wideouts in the country last season and was the go-to guy on NDSU's potent offense. Even though he missed the bulk of the Bison's playoff run, Watson still returned in time to help deliver the championship. In 2021, he had 710 receiving yards and 210 kick return yards despite missing a good portion of the season with a hamstring injury.
Watson is a tall 6-4, 211 lbs but that doesn't slow him down. In fact, he clocked an unofficial 4.44 40-yard dash coming out of high school. That speed allows him to often get behind defenses and give secondaries trouble. Even more enticing to scouts, though, is his versatility. NDSU used him in countless ways both on offense and in the return game. Watson could easily be a Day 2 pick with a solid showing in Indy.
Trevor Penning, OL - Northern Iowa
Of the seven offensive linemen invited to the combine from the FCS, none may have more potential upside than Penning. The 6-7, 330 lbs tackle started 33 games for Northern Iowa from 2019-21 and had gotten several snaps in the seasons before. As far as experience goes, Penning has more than enough under his belt.
He has exceptional length to his upper body which gives him a wide blocking range. Having such a bulky frame hasn't affected Penning's speed either has he can run a 40-yard dash in just over five seconds. Beyond his physical traits, however, he also has great awareness in pass protection. Several mock drafts have Penning going in the second round or even late in the first.
Isaiah Weston, WR - Northern Iowa
Weston was a burner for UNI last season. The 6-4, 209 lbs redshirt junior hauled in 37 receptions for 883 yards and five touchdowns in 2021 and earned all-conference second-team honors. Weston received an invitation to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl as well as the Hula Bowl.
Although there seem to be concerns about his lacking a diverse skillset, Weston has proven that he is a viable receiver. His unofficial 4.50 40-yard dash displays speed that helps him create separation from defenders. He'll have a lot to prove at the combine but Weston could be a late fifth round to early sixth-round pick if he shows out in Indianapolis.
Pierre Strong Jr, RB - South Dakota State
In 2021, Strong was one of the best running backs in the entire country, FCS or FBS. Standing at just 5-11, 202 lbs, Strong put up a whopping 1,673 rushing yards last fall and had 18 touchdowns to boot (and that was while missing time with an injury). He was a consensus All-American and landed a first-team All-Conference spot.
Strong will be an asset to whoever nabs him. He has incredible quickness and burst from the line of scrimmage meaning that any time he touches the ball he's a threat to take it the distance. Strong also has great vision and knows how to weave in and out of tacklers seemingly at will. Although some scouts have described his size as "average", don't be shocked if he's off the board by the fourth round.
Nick Zakelj, OL - Fordham
Zakelj saw his draft stock climb during the Senior Bowl and he could turn into a real steal. The 6-6, 316 lbs tackle has 45 collegiate starts under his belt and has taken home first-team all-conference accolades three times (2019-21). Although the majority of his snaps came from the left tackle spot, Zakelj does have some experience on the right side as well.
His big hands generate a lot of force when blocking and often times he's able to get enough leverage to knock defenders off balance. He also stays extremely light on his feet which allows him dexterity to shift around as need be on the line, even during the course of a play. If all goes well Zakelj is expected to be a fourth or fifth-round selection.
Cole Strange, OL - Chattanooga
This offseason Strange became just the eighth player in Chattanooga history to accept an invitation to the Senior Bowl. The 6-4, 304-pound lineman started in 44 games in college and played the majority of them as a guard but does have experience at tackle and even as a center. He has oodles of experience as a sixth-year senior and is a two-time winner of the Jacob's Blocking Award, given to the best offensive lineman annually in the SoCon.
One thing that immediately stands out about Strange is his awareness both pre and post snap. He seeks out defenders when left unblocked and has shown an ability to pick up late-developing blitzes. His lateral quickness is also an asset, allowing him to create a wide range of protection. Strange is seen by many to be taken in the middle rounds of the draft.
Bailey Zappe, QB - Houston Baptist (Western Kentucky)
Zappe lit things up for Houston Baptist before transferring to WKU and doing the same thing for the Hilltoppers last season. In 2021 he was sensational with nearly 6,000 passing yards and a mind-boggling 62 touchdowns. He quickly has become a household name and will undoubtedly be one of the most-watched players at the combine.
While there are some concerns about Zappe's height (6-0) he more than makes up for it with his accuracy. He can twist his throwing angle at a moment's notice to adjust to his receivers and he delivers crisp passes. Zappe doesn't opt for the long ball often, but when he does he gives it plenty of lift and allows his receivers plenty of time to get underneath it. If he performs as expected in Indy, Zappe could be a third or fourth-round pick.
Dai’Jean Dixon, WR - Nicholls
Dixon established himself as one of the potential hidden gems of this year's class after his performance in the Collegiate Bowl where he caught six passes for 131 yards and a score. That showing was just a microcosm of what Dixon did for Nicholls last year. He surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on 71 receptions and had eight touchdowns. He also earned first-team all-conference honors three years in a row (2019-21).
Dixon has the size to compete in the NFL but even more so he has the hands. He doesn't have any trouble extending his body to make catches and his overall athleticism is exceptional. Dixon's burst from the line of scrimmage is great as well and he often can get a half-step head start on opposing DBs. He's slated by several to be a fourth round selection.
Cole Kelley, QB - Southeastern Louisiana
This year's quarterback class isn't particularly deep and Kelley did himself a big favor by balling out at the Collegiate Bowl last month. He took home the game's Offensive MVP award behind a three-touchdown performance and raised eyebrows from onlookers. With SLU, Kelley threw for 7,112 yards 59 yards on his career and was a Stats Perform All-American.
Standing at 6-7, 260 lbs, Kelley has great vision downfield and has no issues seeing over the line. His passes are accurate and he can apply a good amount of zip on the ball when he releases it. He also is thorough in his progressions and very aware while in the pocket, often making him a difficult quarterback to plan for defensively. Mock drafts have Kelley going anywhere from the fourth to the sixth round.
Qwynnterrio Cole, DB - Alcorn State (Louisville)
Before coming over to Louisville, Cole was one of the FCS’s best defenders. He was named first-team All-SWAC in 2019 and helped Alcorn State reach the Celebration Bowl for the second consecutive season that year. He nabbed a team-best five interceptions that season as well and had 86 tackles to his name.
The 6-3, 190-pound Cole has shown great play recognition from the back end and has excellent vision in regards to what’s going on around him during the course of a play. His big body allows him to effectively stuff blockers and ball carriers at the point of contact, even off a catch. Pending a productive combine, Cole is seen to be a fourth-round selection at the earliest.
Ja’Tyre Carter, OL - Southern
Carter is coming off his redshirt junior season with Southern where he had a very strong campaign. A three-year starter, Carter actually received his combine invite before he played in the Senior Bowl. He was a big part of why the Jaguars’ running game led the conference with an average of 203 yards per contest in SWAC play and why quarterback Ladarius Skelton had the success he did this last fall.
Coming in at 6-3, 308 lbs, Carter has the potential to play from either the guard or tackle position. There are some concerns about his explosiveness off the snap but his ability to maul opposing defenders makes him useful in run blocking and pass protecting. A lot of positives have also been said about his hand strength and ability to control defenders at the chest level. Carter still has plenty of work to do but he may very well be taken on Day 3 by a team in need of a strong supporting role on their line.
Zyon McCollum, DB - Sam Houston
McCollum has been a game changer for Sam Houston during his career. Standing at a tall 6-4, 200 lbs, he racked up a series of impressive statistics including 50 tackles (39 solo), four sacks and three interceptions. Those efforts earned him a spot on the All-Conference first team and landed him on the Buck Buchanan Award watchlist for much of the season.
One thing that immediately stands out about McCollum is his sheer size. He is one of the longest DB prospects in this year's class (at any level) and, while his height alone gives him a distinct upper hand, his physicality is nothing to overlook. Not only can he cover a wide array of receivers, but he’s also shown a real nose for the football when it comes to tackling. NFL teams already have an eye on him as he was invited to two showcase games this winter so don’t be shocked if he goes as early as the third round.