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The case for drafting from small schools

The tiny schools don't make the sports news much, but some of their former players certainly do.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For most athletes, the jump from college ball to the big league is a drastic change. Rather than bus rides to games and undermanned staffs, the professional players are instead treated to private flights and a plethora of specialists. But for a select few, their isn't really much of a difference between college and the next level.

Some of the nation's top football programs are almost like NFL teams. Texas A&M, the school with the highest revenue generated by a football program, brought in almost $200 million last season. That's roughly half of the $400 million the Green Bay Packers brought in over the same time period. Because of their massive cash flow, Texas A&M and other schools like it are able to offer their student-athletes world-class facilities, coaches, staff, and medical treatment during their time on campus. There's no doubting that college is the most important stage in prepping a player for the pros, and players at big schools have had the best chance to both show and increase their potential on a big stage. And while this seems like a big draw for teams come draft time, in the eyes of many organizations, players at smaller schools are actually more appealing than alumni of big programs.

The working hypothesis is that players at smaller schools don't have the resources like their counterparts at the big football programs and thus don't show their max potential. Teams are searching for the next unheard of star at a tiny college, and they're not exactly wrong for doing so. Jerry Rice, Howie Long, Walter Payton, Art Shell, Kurt Warner, and many other prominent NFL greats both past and present hail from schools that even the most dedicated college football fan probably hasn't heard of.

Judging by their past draft selections, the Ravens have certainly bought into this philosophy. Excluding schools that identify as Independents, Baltimore brought home six players, or a little more than half of their draft haul this year, from non-Power Five conferences. Spanning all the way back to the 2012 draft, the Ravens have selected at least four players each year that don't hail from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC. Collectively known as the Power Five, these conferences are comprised of 64 of the biggest football programs in the country, and typically field the teams that participate in major bowl games.

For their part, the Ravens have reaped great rewards by sticking to small-school players. Joe Flacco, Lardarius Webb, Brandon Williams, and Kyle Juszczyk all hail from tiny programs, yet they have made a big impact on the professional stage. Based on the careers of these four and other small-school guys around the league, the Ravens are hedging their bets and hoping that new additions like Kamalei Correa and Matt Judon can continue this pattern of success.

But it's not just the Ravens who are benefiting from these unheralded prospects. It seems that no matter where these small-school guys go, they are able to adjust and become the best player they can be. Of the 27 players named to the Associated Press All-Pro team last season, six of them called non-Power Five schools their alma mater. You can also say the same for two of the latest Hall of Fame inductees, Brett Favre and Dick Stanfel.

While it's not surprising to see that some small-school guys find success in the NFL, the amount that do is a lot higher than one would think. From 2006-2015, we saw 320 players selected in the first round of the draft. Small-school players made up 26, or 8.1% of those selections. Of those 26, which included Joe Flacco, Muhammad Wilkerson, Joe Staley, and Jason Pierre-Paul, all of them were still active in the NFL during the 2015 season. This is pretty shocking when you consider the amount of first round busts who are now watching games from their couches.

While teams may still have valid concerns about players facing poorer competition and being victims of poor development during the athletic prime of their lives, these caveats seem to be greatly outweighed by their untapped potentials. This year's draft featured four non-Power Five players in the first round, the highest since 2010. And judging by the trends, we're only going to be seeing more and more players who once contested on the small stage make it in the big leagues.