If there's one lesson to be learned, over and over, from the NFL Draft, it's that there's no way to predict what teams are looking for past the first round or two. Once teams draft to fill an immediate need, the things they look at in picking players in the later rounds vary as widely as the skills and talents of the players themselves. And, as we've seen many times in the past, production on the field often counts for little.
Take, for example, WVU's Keilen Dykes. Here's a productive player that filled multiple positions for the Mountaineers along the defensive front, and played them all very well. Teams looking for a defensive lineman that could play either the nose in an odd front or a tackle or end spot in an even front might be expected to pick up Dykes, who showed the ability to move back and forth along the defensive front in college. However, that didn't happen. Why?
It likely comes down to a matter of "projection". Just as high school players "project" to a different position in college, so to do collegiate players in the pros. Dykes was viewed as a "tweener" along the defensive front by many analysts, and, apparently, NFL personnel staffs as well. Not quite big enough to play the nose and stand up to double teams, not quick enough to play end in a 4-3, not big enough to take on all the double teams at end in a 3-4. Whether that's true or not, we'll find out in a few weeks after Dykes goes through mini-camps with the Arizona Cardinals. However, he has an uphill climb to do so.
From another perspective, we might not get a true picture of Dykes' ability to play in the NFL. (I think he can - and I think he should have been drafted, but the personnel guys obviously disagreed with me.) As a free agent, he (and almost all other free agents) will be under pressure to stand out quickly. A nagging injury, an off day, just about anything can derail a free agent's pro dreams, and there are no doubt dozens of players each year with the ability to play in the NFL that miss their chance due to one of those reasons. A certain amount of luck, along with skill and ability, certainly plays into those outcomes.
The same sorts of labels probably got applied to Reynaud and Magro. WVU's most productive side receiver was tagged as too short in many evaluations, and his jitterbug running style after the catch also cost him a few evaluation points. While Reynaud could also help as a return man, that label is a dime a dozen in the NFL. Any wide receiver or running back that doesn't have a full time job on offense is going to get a look as a return man, so that talent might be categorized more as a necessity than a bonus. Magro will always fight the speed issue, but he will certainly impress coaches with his work ethic. Whether that's enough, again, remains to be seen.
Wicks and Dingle? They might also be players without an NFL position. Can Wicks cover well enough to be a strong safety? Is he big enough to morph into an outside linebacker? Without film to back up even the most speculative of answers, Wicks was caught in the "projection" category as well. Dingle was viewed as too small to be an end in the NFL – scouts feared he would get overpowered in the run game.
The luck factor also comes into play in getting into the right situation. Owen Schmitt landed in a perfect spot in Seattle – fullback Mack Strong retired last season after suffering a neck injury, and the Seahawks don't have a proven blocker on the roster. Ryan Mundy landed on a Steelers roster that isn't overcrowded with safeties, so he figures to have a decent chance to hang on as well.
That brings us to a final thought on the draft – free agency vs., late rounds. Common wisdom holds that being picked in the sixth or seventh round is actually worse than going undrafted. The thought process involved there is that a player has more choices, and can find a team with a "better fit" through free agency than he could by being drafted. While there's a grain of truth there, it's probably overblown.
First, NFL teams aren't going to draft a player that doesn't "fit" their system. The Texans took Steve Slaton in part because they don't have a player with his running style, but also in part because they are going to more zone blocking this year. Slaton's experience with that certainly made him a good fit for Houston. And in most cases, teams are going to take players that either fill a need or "fit" them best.
Second, teams are more reluctant to cut draft picks. Sure, some late-rounders prove to be total busts and get cut loose, but coaches and personnel directors don't want to look like they had no idea what they were doing during the draft. Therefore, it's rare when a player taken in the first few rounds gets cut before his first season. Draft picks are going to get extra chances to prove themselves, which is another built-in advantage to getting picked. The free agents will get no more than a handful of chances to make an impression, or they will be gone. Draft picks will get a longer window in which to succeed, or fail.
None of this is to say that West Virginia's free agents don't have a chance. These are talented players who helped the Mountaineers reach heights they have never attained before. But the NFL looks at things differently, and those on-field accomplishments don't account for much in its eyes. It will take the synergy of standout early showings, the "right fit" and a little luck for those free agents to stick on an NFL roster this year – but that's just what happens for a handful of those players each year. There's no reason a couple of Mountaineers can't be among them.