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Small School vs. Big School- Does Size Matter?

It's a statement uttered every year as the NFL Draft approaches: "Sure, he had big stats, but he didn't play against anyone." <BR>

The "logic" behind the comment is that a player at a school not known as a football powerhouse had his statistics inflated by the lack of quality opponents his team faced. Because of this theory, there are players every year who are dubbed a "surprise," a guy who's production at the NFL level exceeds that expected of a player not drafted in the first round.

That makes sense -- if a player didn't play against top-flight competition in a major conference, he has no chance of NFL success, right?

If there's any doubt about the lunacy of this statement, check out the pro résumés of Walter Payton and Jerry Rice. The greatest rusher and receiver in NFL history played their college ball at Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, respectively -- not exactly Michigan and Florida State.

There are some NFL personnel executives who will choose to take a productive player from a high-profile college team over any small-school star, regardless of how big or strong or fast or productive the small-school player is. Others will reach for a player from a low-profile school, touting the player's physical attributes and production, perhaps in the private hope of becoming the scouting genius who sees the talent in a player that other scouts overlooked. Some will bypass a player who clearly has professional ability in the hopes of mining a diamond. Others will eschew small-school talent, taking the "safe" approach by going for a big-name player from a big-name school, even if the ability and production just isn't there.

The question here, of course, is: will the Cowboys dip into the small-school pool in this year's draft? Or will they stick only to players from high-profile football factories?

Jerry Jones has a history of grabbing high-profile college stars like Emmitt Smith (Florida) and Michael Irvin (Miami), as well as small-school players, such as Kavika Pittman of McNeese State. But to be fair, so does head coach Bill Parcells, who drafted small-school stars such as Phil Simms (Morehead State) and Wayne Chrebet (Hofstra) between big-school names like Drew Bledsoe (Washington State) and Willie McGinest (USC).

To illustrate the options available this year, consider a pair of wide receivers. Granted, Dallas is not expected to take a receiver in the first round (most prognosticators have the Cowboys taking defensive players with each of their two selections in the first round) but the choice -- if not the answer -- is evident.

One of the hot names in this year's pre-draft speculation is that of Arkansas quarterback Matt   Jones, who is expected to move to receiver in the NFL. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Jones is enormous for a receiver, and couples that size with freakish athleticism: having run sub-4.4s in the 40-yard dash and displaying his all-around athletic ability as a member of the Arkansas basketball team.

Vincent Jackson looks a lot like Jones as a prospect. He's a 6-foot-5, 238-pound receiver who is hailed for his athleticism. He has good speed and athleticism, not to mention good hands. Like Jones, Jackson also is a former basketball player. And unlike Jones, who will be learning a new position, Jackson dominated in his college games.

So what's the difference?

The theory is that as an always-improvising QB against some of the best athletes in the nation, on the gridiron and the hardwood, Jones must have the ability to switch positions as a professional player. Some team is going to bet a large signing bonus and signing bonus on that assessment, as Jones is expected to hear his name called in the second round -- or maybe even the first. Jackson, on the other hand, beat up on the competition while playing at Northern Colorado -- an independent school awaiting acceptance into the .... Big Sky Conference.

Drafting college players, like the college recruiting of high school players, is a very inexact science.

Teams do extraordinary amounts of testing, film evaluation, interviewing and even background checks on players, knowing that they are facing an immense investment in the game's top new players. Considering the fact that he played a different position in college, pro scouts really don't know what they're getting in Jones. At the same time, Jackson was an extremely productive college receiver, and his athletic measurements and tests are very similar. Is the difference in schools (and therefore competition) the only reason for the anticipated two-round gap between the two? Put it this way: if Jones was playing at Northern Colorado and Jackson was playing at Arkansas, would Jones still be rated two rounds ahead of Jackson? Not likely.

Besides, Parcells and Jones remain open to the idea of drafting from small schools (see Northwestern Oklahoma WR Patrick Crayton, who was taken by Dallas in last year's draft). The willingness to do so often goes in cycles; if a team is burned repeatedly on small-school "reach" players, that team likely will stick to taking players from the nation's larger programs. Whether the Cowboys will repeat the practice will be determined this weekend.

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