Later this month, when the NFL Draft winds down, the stock of some smaller conference players such as M.D. Jennings could begin to rise.
Jennings, a lanky free safety from Arkansas State, was named to the 2010 All-Sun Belt Conference first team and is projected to be a late-round draft selection. While Jennings doesn't have an elite profile entering the draft, it's worth noting that his college conference has produced the likes of NFL talent such as Chris Harris, Charles Tillman, Tyrell Johnson and DeMarcus Ware in recent years.
Adding to Jennings' value is his versatility — something that is coveted by NFL teams — especially towards the end of the draft. During his career at Arkansas State, Jennings flashed some all-around playmaking ability, leading his top-ranked Sun Belt defense in both tackles and interceptions during his senior season. Along the way, Jennings has played both safety spots, and has shifted to cornerback in Arkansas State's dime defenses.
According to Jennings, his coaches at Arkansas State relied on him to play a role similar to that of Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, in the sense that he was a threat all over the field.
"Basically, they used me everywhere," Jennings said. "I started out playing strong safety, then free safety, nickel corner and dime corner."
Jennings, 22, cites his high football I.Q. and ability to break down plays as his best attributes. Those qualities were on display when he first broke into Arkansas State's starting lineup in 2008.
And while the Polamalu comparison may be prove a bit lofty, Jennings offers up Saints' safety Darren Sharper as his NFL inspiration.
"I've always followed Sharper," Jennings said. "Like me, he came from a smaller school (William & Mary), but has had a long career."
As for his chances of getting drafted, Jennings realizes that he has some work to do.
"First, I have to gain some weight," Jennings said. "I'd like to add about 10-15 pounds."
Jennings currently weighs 180 pounds, but has shown an aggressive tendency on the field.
"My favorite part of playing free safety is getting a chance to hit the receivers coming across the middle of the field," he said.
Unfortunately for Jennings, he flew under the radar of league scouts despite his Sun Belt success. He was not offered an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in February. So, Jennings had to rely on the strength of his team's Pro Day as a means of attracting the attention from NFL scouts.
As for his performance, Jennings felt he showed scouts his versatility, despite a rough ending to his afternoon.
"I feel that I accomplished some things, but it could have been better," Jennings said. "I started cramping prior to the running and agility drills and that impacted my results."
Jennings feels he has garnered enough league interest to warrant a team selecting him in the later rounds. However, the NFL draft process is brutally competitive – something that Jennings is fully aware of. Jennings is one of dozens of secondary players trying to impress NFL scouts. When asked about the prospects of becoming an undrafted free agent, Jennings refused to consider such a scenario.
"I haven't even thought about that," Jennings said. "I just want a chance."
However, the reality of the NFL may dictate Jennings' immediate future. Despite his versatility in the defensive backfield, Jennings' "chance" may have to come through his special teams play. That point is not lost on the young safety.
"I would love to play special teams on the next level," Jennings said. "Special teams are an important part of the game and can be the difference between winning and losing. I feel that my speed and ability to make open field tackles make me a good special teams candidate."
As for the possibility of joining the Browns' special teams units, Jennings is intrigued by the team's recent history of special teams success. However, as a native of Calhoun City, Mississippi, Jennings admits that he is not used to playing in the brutal cold weather offered up by the winds blowing off Lake Erie, but understands that football is all about toughness.
"It's a mental thing,'" Jennings said. "You get used to it. The AFC North is all about competition. There are some great, hard-nosed rivalries up there."
However, another mental challenge looming over every draft prospect is the possibility of a lingering labor lockout. In Jennings' case, he could be severely affected, especially if he is not drafted. As a potential undrafted free agent, Jennings would be at the mercy of the labor process and unable to sign with any team until a new deal is reached.
But of course, such developments are out of the reach of players.
"I really have not thought about the lockout much," Jennings said. "I try not to worry about things that I cannot control. I believe that both parties will come to an agreement soon. I will continue to train and prepare for a minicamp."
Come April, Jennings may get his opportunity.