Under the radar for NFL draft

Edmond Gates Receiver, Abilene Christian

A hard-luck life could turn into a heartening NFL story if Gates can make it. When Gates was 6, his father was sent away for 18 years on a murder charge. Gates saw sports as a way out of a rough neighborhood in north Texas and had dreams of being an NBA star. He went to Tyler (Texas) Junior College to play hoops but was kicked off the team after one year for unknown reasons. Around that time, Abilene Christian coaches came to recruit Gates' cousin, Bernard Scott, who is now a running back with the Bengals. When the coaches saw Gates, they said he looked like he could be a good receiver. But Gates had never played football and told the coaches he was a basketball player. Encouraged by his cousin, Gates started to work out on the football field by running patterns and catching passes. Fast-forward to last season, when Gates caught 66 passes for 1,182 yards and 13 touchdowns for Division II Abilene Christian. Most scouts rate Gates, who runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, to be about the 13th-best receiver, which likely would translate into a mid-round pick.

Julius Thomas Tight end, Portland State

Looking at his numbers, you would think Thomas is a surefire pro star — in the NBA. At Portland State, Thomas was a four-year star for the basketball team, setting school records for games played and career field-goal percentage. He was on two Big Sky championship teams and played in two NCAA Tournaments. Last year was the first time he played college football. His story reminds you of Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who played basketball almost exclusively in college. Thomas has good size (6 feet 5, 246 pounds) and was a first-team All-Big Sky (a Division I-AA conference) with 29 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns. He scored a 35 on the Wonderlic, the aptitude and problem-solving exam given to all prospects. Only a handful of prospects had higher scores.

Pat Devlin Quarterback, Delaware

Devlin started his college career at Penn State, and when you think about it, Penn State really hasn't produced that many good NFL quarterbacks. But Devlin, unhappy with playing time at Happy Valley, transferred to Delaware. And actually, Delaware has produced a successful NFL QB recently — the Ravens' Joe Flacco. And while we're at it, there is precedent for a Penn State QB transferring and becoming a successful NFL QB. That would be Jeff Hostetler, who left the Nittany Lions for West Virginia, became a third-round pick in 1984 and led the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV. Devlin led Delaware to the Division I-AA national title last year, throwing for more than 3,000 yards with 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He has NFL size (6 feet 4, 220 pounds) and can move. It's likely five or six QBs will be taken before Devlin, but as a third-rounder, he could be the sleeper QB of the draft.

The smart kids

The Wonderlic is a 12-minute, 50-question test used to assess the aptitude of prospective employees for learning and problem solving in a range of occupations. Some of the questions are easy, such as "What is the ninth month of the year?" Others are a bit harder, such as, "Three individuals form a partnership and agree to divide the profits equally. X invests $9,000, Y invests $7,000, Z invests $4,000. If the profits are $4,800, how much less does X receive than if the profits were divided in proportion to the amount invested?"

Former NFL punter and wide receiver Pat McInally, a 1975 graduate of Harvard, is believed to be the only player to record a perfect score of 50. Titans quarterback Vince Young is rumored to have scored a 6 during his draft year, while former Dolphins great Dan Marino, one of the best quarterbacks ever, scored a 16. So a high or low score often doesn't predict success or failure.

Still, what players might have improved their draft status because of excellent Wonderlic scores?

Well, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy had the top score this year, correctly answering 43 of the 49 questions he attempted. The other top scores were Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo (41), Baylor guard Danny Watkins (40), Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien (38), Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle (38) and Central Michigan linebacker Nick Bellore (36). Several players scored a 35, including Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder.

With the NFL draft beginning Thursday, most football fans already are familiar with the names who will be called in the first round — players such as Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and Da'Quan Bowers. But here are a few others to keep an eye on as the draft moves into the later rounds Friday and Saturday, players with interesting stories or unusual routes to the pros.

Andrew Phillips | Guard, Stanford

Phillips brings the most heartbreaking story to this NFL draft. Last year, Phillips' 56-year-old father, Bill, and his 13-year-old brother, Willy, were among a small group on a salmon-fishing trip in Alaska. The single-engine plane carrying them flew into the side of a mountain, killing Bill and badly injuring Willy. The four who survived were trapped in the wreckage overnight until Willy managed to crawl out and wave down a rescue plane. Five were killed, including former Alaskan U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Phillips, along with his two other college football-playing brothers — Colter (Virginia) and Paul (Indiana) — offered to quit school and take care of their mother and Willy. But their mother insisted they return to school. Playing with a heavy heart, Phillips had an outstanding season for the Cardinal, which was one of the best rushing programs in the country the past two seasons. Phillips' character and his excellent football skills have put him on plenty of teams' draft lists.

Nate Irving | Linebacker, N.C. State

Not only is Nate Irving happy to be in this year's NFL draft, he's happy to be alive. On June 28, 2009, Irving was involved in a single-car accident. It's believed Irving fell asleep at the wheel on I-40 outside Raleigh, N.C. The car left the interstate and slammed into two trees, leaving Irving with a compound fracture in his left leg, a broken rib, separated left shoulder and collapsed lung. Irving said he is "blessed" to be alive. In 2010, he was a first-team All-ACC selection, a second-team All-American and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker. Don't be surprised if the Bucs make him a later-round selection. They were one of the handful of teams to work Irving out recently.

Danny Watkins Guard, Baylor

At 26 years old, Watkins is believed to be the oldest player in this draft class. He grew up in British Columbia and was a hockey fan, never playing and barely even watching football as a child. When he graduated from high school, Watkins decided to become a firefighter. He enrolled in the fire academy at Butte College in California but ended up being recruited to play football at a junior college. After two years, Baylor recruited him, and now there's a chance Watkins could be a late first-round pick. The only reason some teams might shy away from him that high is his age. At 6 feet 4, 312 pounds, Watkins has the size of a tackle, but most scouts believe he'll start his career as a guard. The Bears and Steelers, two teams with a knack for developing solid offensive linemen, are believed to have high interest in Watkins. And if the NFL doesn't work out, Watkins already has been drafted by his hometown British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.

Under the radar for NFL draft 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 9:24pm]

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