Every year, the NFL draft is typically dominated by Power 5 schools. The top school changes from year to year. Recently, Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Clemson have been among the favorite programs from which NFL teams pluck talent, but Georgia will likely top them all in 2022 thanks to its elite defense.
Of course, there are always a few dozen prospects from outside of the Power 5 that make some noise. The NFL casts a wide net in its scouting processes, so programs from the FCS, Div. II and Div. III are able to put their names on the map as well.
The 2022 NFL Draft will feature some prominent players from the best FCS and small-school programs. It seems likely that there will be two first-round picks from FCS programs. One of the talents, Trevor Penning, may have a chance to crack the top 15, while Christian Watson will probably go at the latter end of the first round.
Most of the small-school prospects will go on Day 3 of the draft. Their names may not excite NFL fans, but they are worth noting. After all, the likes of Cooper Kupp and Darius Leonard have turned into NFL-level stars after coming from FCS backgrounds. So, maybe these prospects could be next.
Below is a breakdown of the top 14 small-school prospects to know ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.
NFL Draft sleepers 2022
1. Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa
Penning is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and could go in the top 15. The Northern Iowa standout has a huge frame at 6-7, 325 pounds, and started three seasons for the Panthers. He put himself on the map at the Senior Bowl and continued to impress talent evaluators at the NFL Combine, where he clocked a 4.89-second 40-yard dash.
Penning has a nasty, physical playing style and comes with a mean streak; he actually has said that he watches horror movies the night before games to get him amped up to play. Penning’s edge will largely be an asset to him, but he has to be careful not to get too heated on the field.
2. Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State
Two FCS players may go in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Penning is one, and Watson is the other.
Watson was a playmaker during his time at North Dakota State. He averaged a whopping 20.5 yards per catch during his college career and totaled a career-high 800 yards on 43 catches during his senior season. He did all of that — and scored seven touchdowns — despite playing in just eight games and dealing with inconsistent quarterback play.
Watson has steadily risen during the pre-draft process, as his measurables have impressed teams along with his tape. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds at 6-4, 208 pounds during the 2022 NFL Combine. He has all the tools teams look for in a receiver, and if he can stay healthy, he could prove to be a great value pick in the latter half of the first round.
3. Troy Andersen, LB, Montana State
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more productive player in this year’s draft class than Andersen. The Bobcats linebacker racked up 150 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions during his senior season.
The incredible part of Andersen’s performance in 2021 was that it was just his second full season playing linebacker. He began his career at Montana State as a running back in 2017 before moving to quarterback in 2018. Only in 2019 did he move to linebacker and find high-end success, totaling 54 tackles, 6.5 sacks and an interception in 11 games.
Andersen is 6-3, 243 pounds and runs a 4.42 40-yard dash. He has the tools that teams look for in a starting linebacker; he just lacks experience at the position. He still should go on Day 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft and may even draw interest as a potential top-50 pick.
NFL DRAFT ORDER: All 262 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft in order
4. Cole Strange, OL, Chattanooga
There are few offensive line prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft that have as much experience as Strange does. He was a five-year starter for the Mocs and spent six years with the program thanks to a redshirt year and his extra year of COVID eligibility. As such, he’s a smart player and has a pro-ready 6-5, 307-pound frame.
Strange spent almost all of his career playing at left guard and was rock solid for Chattanooga. His entire offensive line allowed only nine sacks during his final season. He was also named a first-team All-American by five publications and won the Jacobs Blocking Award, given to the SoCon’s best offensive lineman, two years in a row to close his career.
Strange performed very well at the NFL Combine and also was granted a chance to prove himself at the Senior Bowl. The positive momentum he has built will make him a potential Day 2 prospect at guard. Some team will likely take a chance on him in Round 3. If not, he won’t last long into Day 3.
5. Zyon McCollum, CB, Sam Houston State
You’ll notice a trend among the top FCS prospects turning pro. Many of them played in college All-Star games like the Senior Bowl, and that has helped them to gain some national exposure.
That’s part of what happened with McCollum. He participated in the Senior Bowl and looked great doing so. The 6-2, 199-pound corner then was present at the combine where he blazed a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and completed the 3-cone drill in a mind-blowing 6.48 seconds. He is a great athlete and that should help him find success at the NFL level.
McCollum was productive at Sam Houston State too, as he generated 13 career interceptions and six forced fumbles. He checks all the boxes in terms of measurables and intangibles, but he will need time to learn how to use his physical frame a bit better and cover NFL-level athletes at receiver. Expect him to go early on Day 3 if he doesn’t sneak into the very end of Day 2.
6. Braxton Jones, OT, Southern Utah
Jones was a three-year starter at Southern Utah and played in all four of his seasons with the team. He was a top-notch blocker at left tackle and was named a first-team All-American by the AP for his performance in 2021.
Jones is a well-built lineman and has the requisite size (6-5, 310 pounds) and length (35 3/8-inch arms) needed to play tackle at the NFL level. What he needs to work on is his technique — he tends to play upright and needs to improve his hand placement — as he currently relies more on his size to win at the point of attack. That won’t work against faster, stronger and longer NFL defenders.
Still, Jones’ potential will attract some tackle-needy teams that will develop him in the swing role to start his career. He likely won’t be selected until Day 3 but should go in either the fourth or fifth round given the league-wide need for quality offensive linemen.
7. Joshua Williams, CB, Fayetteville State
Chances are that not many have heard of Fayetteville State, but you’re going to want to know Williams as a prospect. He’s a big cornerback with a 6-3, 195-pound frame who put himself on the map by starring at a Div. II school.
Williams logged 31 tackles, three interceptions and a pass breakup in nine games during the 2021 season. His size gives him high upside at the NFL level and his tape is very good. Sure, there will be questions about how quickly he can adapt to covering NFL-level receivers, but given that he fits in all schemes, teams will have an interest in him.
Williams will probably be picked on Day 3 in either the fourth or fifth round. The team that drafts him won’t want to rely on him to earn playing time right away, but would rather view him as a long-term investment as a potential No. 2 cornerback.
8. Cordell Volson, OL, North Dakota State
Since 2014, three Bison linemen have been drafted — Billy Turner (2014), Joe Haeg (2016) and Dillon Radunz (2021). Volson will look to continue that trend.
Volson was a solid right tackle for North Dakota State and started at that position for three seasons. He moved inside to guard when injuries hit during the 2020-21 season, but mostly, he played the outside. He has the size needed to do that in the NFL at 6-6, 315 pounds, but more likely, he will be asked to kick inside to guard because his athleticism is only average.
Volson never allowed a sack for the Bison and allowed just 15 pressures across 974 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. So, maybe a team out there will view him as a tackle or, at the very least, a versatile backup that can be had for the cheap cost of a Day 3 pick.
North Dakota St. OL Cordell Volson has been one of the biggest winners at the @ShrineBowl so far. Plays with aggression and has such a strong frame.
Allowed just 15 pressures (no sacks) across 974 pass-block snaps playing mostly tackle at NDSU. pic.twitter.com/XVONY0evYu
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) February 1, 2022
9. Nick Zakelj, OT, Fordham
Zakelj started 34 games during his time at Fordham over four seasons. He’s an experienced tackle and at 6-6, 316 pounds looks the part of an NFL-level tackle. The only question with him is how he will adjust to playing against higher-level competition.
While Zakelj has good size, he needs to play a bit stronger. He’ll need to lower his pads more to hold up against NFL blockers and just improve his technique overall. The functional strength is there and he has enough quickness to become an NFL starter.
If a coaching staff is confident that they can improve Zakelj’s stance going into blocks, they will take a chance on him. He seems like the perfect developmental tackle candidate to select on Day 3.
10. Matt Waletzko, OT, North Dakota
On paper, Waletzko looks like an intriguing prospect. He’s 6-8 and has 36 1/8-inch arms that should allow him to redirect pass rushers away from his quarterback with ease.
In practice, however, Waletzko has a glaring issue that will impact him in the NFL. He is 312 pounds which, while solid for a tackle, is too light for his massive frame. Waletzko will get pushed around by stronger players at the next level unless he can bulk up. He also needs to play lower in order to avoid being bowled over or having pass rushers bend and run under his long arms on a direct line to the quarterback.
Much like with Zakelj, there will be a coaching staff that believes it can remedy Waletzko’s issues. That said, the team that drafts him also needs to have a good strength staff, as he will need to bulk up big-time to make it as anything more than a tall tackle on the back end of a roster.
11. Dai’Jean Dixon, WR, Nicholls State
Dixon is an interesting prospect, as he’s a big-bodied receiver at 6-3, 205 pounds who was productive at Nicholls State. He had two 1,000-plus-yard seasons for the Colonels, including his senior season, during which he totaled 71 catches, 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He never played with a high-end quarterback at Nicholls State, so his production was impressive.
For the NFL level, there are questions about Dixon’s speed (4.62-second 40-yard dash) but his 34-inch vertical will make him a quality contested-catch receiver.
No Nicholls State player has been drafted into the NFL since Lardarius Webb in 2008. Dixon will have a chance to change that in 2022, as he figures to garner mid-to-late Day 3 consideration.
12. Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State
Could Pierre Strong become the next great running back to be selected late in the NFL draft? It’s possible. The South Dakota State product enjoyed a prolific career with the Jackrabbits and is coming off his most productive season to date.
Strong racked up a whopping 1,673 yards and 18 touchdowns on 240 rushing attempts last season. It marked the third 1,000-plus yard season of his career and allowed him to finish his career with a yards per carry average of 7.1.
Strong’s playing style is one that will work in the NFL. He has a solid 5-11, 217-pound frame and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds. That size, strength and speed combination will allow him to chance to be an effective part of a backfield rotation.
The only concerns with Strong are that he handled 630 carries during his college days and isn’t a particularly good pass catcher. He can work on the latter at the NFL level, but some teams may be wary of taking him early because of his workload. Still, he should be selected on Day 3.
13. Cole Kelley, QB, Southeastern Louisiana
Kelley is a former four-star recruit who began his career at Arkansas before transferring to Southeastern Louisiana. He didn’t do well with the Razorbacks but found success with the Lions, throwing for 5,124 yards, 44 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his last collegiate season.
Kelley’s numbers are massive, just like his 6-7, 249-pound frame. He has good mechanics and tantalizing tools that make it easy to see why he was once a high-end SEC recruit. That said, he needs to improve his ability to read the field in order to best make use of his solid arm.
If Kelley is drafted, he will be viewed as a project. But he’s still worth keeping an eye on given his smooth throwing motion.
14. Ja’Tyre Carter, OL, Southern
Carter played tackle at Southern, but he will probably move to guard in the NFL. He is 6-3, 311 pounds and possesses good strength and power on his frame. That helps him as a run blocker, where he should have a lot of success after changing positions.
Carter is not a great athlete, so his ceiling is limited. Still, there’s a chance that he could latch on as a backup interior lineman at the NFL level. Some team may take a chance on him in the sixth or seventh round given that NFL teams are always looking for quality offensive linemen.