When we start analyzing the rookies each year after the draft, there's only so much that can be said as fact. The rest is just pure speculation and some guesses, albeit educated, that probably won't pan out. We here at the Beatdown are guilty of this, and so is just about every other sports site out there as well.
That's why I make it a point to try to reach out to those who really know what they're talking about. The guys who have been watching the players before their names were ever even known to NFL fans.
This week, that guy was A.A. Knorr, formerly a student-journalist with the Grand Valley Lanthorn, a student-run publication. Before graduating this year, Knorr covered all things Grand Valley State, including the Lakers' football team and their star player, Matt Judon. As arguably the best player in Division II football, it's a little surprising that we had heard so little about the guy who led the NCAA in sacks last season. Thankfully, Knorr was able to fill me in on just about everything I had missed on Judon.
Q: The Ravens seem to go after a lot of players during the draft from schools that aren't members of the "Power Five" conferences. The theory is that this is because 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. Seeing as you've witnessed how the program at GVSU is, do you think there's any truth to this?
A: If there's a positive angle of coming from a Division II school, that's the one. The scope of this answer requires a look into GVSU and what the program is like. GVSU competes in the GLIAC, which is one of, if not the toughest conference in Division II. For the better part of the last two decades, GVSU has been the toast of the GLIAC and, largely, of Division II football. This prompted GLIAC schools to make a choice — invest in football, or continue to get steamrolled.
A number of schools chose to send money to their programs, which resulted largely in two things. First, the GLIAC is more competitive. Second, GVSU's facilities have been left in the dust comparatively. Other schools leveled up, GVSU stayed the same. So not only was Judon playing in DII, but he was training with worse facilities than a number of teams in GVSU's own conference. GVSU's coaching staff is fine, but when you factor in the increase in coaching and facilities, it's safe to say Judon hasn't shown his max potential.
Q: Judon played his entire collegiate career at defensive end, yet the Ravens drafted him officially as a LB. Do you think he can succeed there as well if the Ravens make him move?
A: Yes. I asked GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell this sometime in April, and he told me Judon was a DE at GVSU because that's what worked best for the defense, but he would've worked out just fine at LB if it was necessary. Judon excels at quick changes of direction and ball-carrier pursuit. I think he'd do well at LB.
Q: I see that Judon has had several knee injuries, including an ACL tear and a meniscus injury that held him out of the East-West Shrine Game. Some also said that Judon was sheepish upon his return from that ACL tear. Is there any reason to believe that these ailments will hold him back?
A: No. GVSU played Colorado St. - Pueblo in the regional finals of last year's playoffs, and during the game, Judon took a late hit that twisted his knee something fierce. I remember thinking it might be the end for him. Instead, he missed a few plays, got back on the field and finished off the rest of the season without missing a beat. He claims he's not bothered by his past injuries, and judging by his performance at GVSU's Pro Day in mid-March and his early showing at Ravens camp, I'm inclined to believe him.
Q: Has GVSU produced any NFL talent before?
A: I'm glad you asked. Judon is the eighth GVSU draftee and fifth since 2000. Others have been signed as UDFAs. The most notable Lakers in the NFL are Brandon Carr (DB, Dallas Cowboys), Dan Skuta (LB, Jacksonville Jaguars), Charles Johnson (WR, Minnesota Vikings) and Tim Lelito (OG, New Orleans Saints). Judon missed being GVSU's highest-ever draft pick by two spots, so Carr retains that title. Judon also broke Skuta's record for career sacks during the 2015 season.
Q: Finally, how steep will the learning curve be for Judon? I imagine the playbook at GVSU, is relatively primitive compared to that of the Ravens. Would I be wrong in that assumption?
A: I would have to imagine that the jump from GVSU's playbook to Baltimore's is notable, but it won't be overwhelming. Judging by this Instagram post, Judon (No. 9) didn't seem overly concerned with the playbook at GVSU, but I can't see something like that stopping him from making an impact.
Special thanks to Knorr for the great answers. You can follow the Lanthorn's sports team on Twitter @GVLSports.