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Permalink 04/29/08 , The CSN Way, CSN Columns

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The CSN Way: Three Paths to the Pros

By Charles Burton, CSN Columnist

It was a great NFL draft if you played in the FCS. It’s rare enough that two FCS players get drafted in the first round, let alone eight in the first three rounds.

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The story of the draft, however, is best summed up by the three different paths that three of the biggest stars of FCS have taken to the NFL.

When the Baltimore Ravens made University of Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco their QB savior for the future, I can’t say I was particularly surprised. Flacco’s arm strength is real, and Blue Hen fans will wax philosophic about his ability to lead Delaware in his two years at the helm in Newark

Yet in his two years at Delaware, he wasn’t able to wrestle the Walter Payton Award from Georgia Southern’s Jayson Foster in 2007. And not only did he miss out on the most prestigious award in FCS football, he didn’t separate himself from New Hampshire’s Ricky Santos in his quest for Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year either. Flacco and Santos shared the award this past season.

The three FCS offensive superstars found their way onto NFL teams this weekend. Now, shortly after the NFL draft, these quarterbacks will take different roads to try to play on Sundays in the NFL. They couldn’t have been signed under more different circumstances.

Winner Of The Draft Day Lottery

Flacco’s rise from “small-school phenom” (in NFL draftniks’ eyes) to first-round draft pick isn’t the typical path that former FCS players generally take to the pros. You could even argue that Flacco’s rise largely results from incredible luck.

First, there weren’t many elite quarterbacks available in this year’s draft according to several experts. Boston College’s Matt Ryan earned consistent raves from draftniks (even though he could manage only one touchdown pass against FCS Massachusetts in a 24-14 squeaker). Louisville’s Brian Brohm was tagged inconsistent; Michigan’s Chad Henne was dogged by his team’s opening-game loss to Appalachian State in the 34-32 “upset of the century,” and Hawaii’s Colt Brennan’s endured a late-season injury that saw him plummet on draft boards because it appeared he might not be available to play this year.

Given this uncertainty, there was room for an FCS quarterback to break into the elite ranks. Enter Flacco, who earned a precious invite to the NFL combine to perform before pro scouts and the media. The Delaware quarterback has a history of strong workouts since his first spring camp, and the combine was no exception. After Hens’ head coach K.C. Keeler started talking to the media about the 74-yard bombs his quarterback was routinely throwing in practices and how the “kid has ice water in his veins,” Flacco saw his stock rise.

It didn’t hurt that the FCS has never looked better in the eyes of the college football world. Everyone got the memo that Appalachian State upset Michigan, but college football followers also had heard news that Delaware upset bowl-bound Navy in a 59-52 thriller, too (where Flacco completed 30 of 41 passes for 434 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions). And more people also knew that Flacco guided Delaware to the FCS championship game, upending Delaware State, undefeated Northern Iowa and once-defeated Southern Illinois in the playoffs before losing to Appalachian State in the finals.

Early media reports talked about the 6-foot, 7-inch Flacco needing to shake the “small-college stigma.” Speculation centered on whether he would be a first- or second-day draft pick. As draft day neared, however, he was being compared positively with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (6-foot, 6 inches) and which team was going to draft him in the first round.

It’s unlike anything FCS-watchers had seen. Only one other FCS quarterback had been selected in the first round, notably Alcorn State’s Steve McNair (in 1995). However, McNair was a Walter Payton Award winner and had been sniffed out as a potential NFL player by his junior year. He wasn’t called “one of the most storied Payton winners to date” for nothing, with boatloads of mentions on ESPN and a feature article in Sports Illustrated.

Flacco didn’t get picked as high as McNair (who was the No. 3 overall pick and the first quarterback chosen), but he was the highest-drafted quarterback in Baltimore Ravens history, not to mention the first Delaware player to be drafted in the first round.

In the Ravens’ news conference after the selection, offensive coordinator Cameron Jones, who had developed a rapport with Flacco when he met with him weeks before the trigger was pulled, couldn’t have been more delighted with his pick of Flacco. “He’s a perfect fit for what we want to do,” he said. “Here’s a guy that has a gift to throw the football, a gift for throwing it quickly and accurately. This kid is going to develop and get better and better.”

Flacco played his hand beautifully and was rewarded with a first-round pick undoubtedly worth a huge contract. The hand dealt to the New Hampshire quarterback that outdueled him in 2005 in a 59-52 shoot-out, however, was not nearly so good.

Making The NFL The Hard Way

On March 17, Ricky Santos, the co-CAA offensive player of the year in 2007 and Walter Payton Award winner in 2006, was prevented from working out in front of pro scouts at Boston College. It was a fitting moment in an offseason full of frustration for the Wildcats’ quarterback who almost single-handedly made the University of New Hampshire relevant again in the football world.

Santos engineered three Wildcat victories over FBS schools: as a freshman in 2004 over Rutgers (35-24), as a junior in 2006 over Northwestern (34-17) and as a senior in 2007 over Marshall (48-35). Starting all four years, he led New Hampshire to four straight playoff appearances, including three quarterfinals, and dazzled Granite states with his ability to take off at any time to get a first down. Shortly after his college career came to an end, his jersey was retired by the New Hampshire athletics department.

Despite his statistics and his accolades, he couldn’t buy a ticket to the NFL combine, although his performance in the Hula Bowl all-star game was good by all accounts. Normally, an all-star game performance like Santos’ would make a talented player unknown by most of America rise on people’s draft charts.

But here he was, victim of an NFL technicality prohibiting a potential draftee from attending a pro day if he didn’t play college in the state or his hometown was within 30 miles of the location and wasn’t in a “major metropolitan area.” Apparently, the NFL considers Bellingham, Mass., a major metropolitan area, a tiny town formed at local routes 126 and 140 in Massachusetts.

As a result, Santos wouldn’t get his chance to work out in front of 22 big-time scouts heading to see the golden boy, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. It’s not clear who might have tipped off the NFL that Santos might steal some of Ryan’s thunder — or if the rule, in the history of pre-draft workouts, had ever been enforced — but Santos would instead have to settle for a hastily arranged pro day at New Hampshire in front of three pro scouts. At the pro day, Santos said he felt “out of the loop,” and he, unfortunately, was right.

The criticisms of his play, leaked out in the weeks before the draft by scouts, seem impossible to reconcile for New Hampshire fans or people who have followed the FCS in the last four years.

He’s too small? At 6-foot-1 inch, he’s the exact height as another Payton award winner (McNair), who had a pretty good NFL career.

Santos didn’t play good competition at New Hampshire? Not only did he lead the team to three FBS victories (including two over BCS conference programs), he played against the exact same competition that Flacco did and beat him in a head-to-head matchup in 2005. I was at that game and nobody was talking about Flacco afterward. They were talking about Mr. Santos.

His arm strength isn’t good enough? Santos has never been a workout wonder, but he’s simply won football games and always managed to get the job done. And his ability to take off and make things happen is something you maybe can’t measure in a combine.

Perhaps the most ludicrous of all his knocks is the following: “makes bad downfield decisions.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but 13,000 yards and 123 career New Hampshire touchdowns has to mean that Santos is doing something right.

Draft day came and went without Santos’ name being called. Shortly after the draft, the Kansas City Chiefs called, offering a free-agent contract that he accepted. It won’t be easy, battling three young quarterbacks in David Greene, Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen (drafted out of Coastal Carolina in the seventh round last year), but Santos will get his shot.

Signing as a free agent isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Tony Romo was undrafted in 2003 after his Payton award-winning campaign at Eastern Illinois, and now he’s the great hope of the Cowboys with a girlfriend you might have heard of: “The Dukes of Hazzard’s” Jessica Simpson. Delaware’s Rich Gannon signed as a free agent for the Minnesota Vikings after his record-breaking years at Delaware — three years later, he was their starting quarterback. And everyone knows the story of Northern Iowa’s Kurt Warner, who went undrafted, played in the Arena Football League and eventually played his way to a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams.

Santos’ agent, Brad Blank, agrees. “Anyone not drafted, I wouldn’t say the odds are better than 50-50,” Blank told the Foster (N.H.) Daily Democrat. “But he’s always been the underdog. He broke records at UNH but had to kick down the back door to do it. He knows what that’s like.”

You’d think that if anyone could follow in the footsteps of Romo, Gannon or Warner, it would be Santos. But it’s still an uphill battle. Unlike his leaguemate Flacco, he’ll enter the Kansas City Chiefs camp without any fanfare but there’s better than a 50 percent chance that he’ll leave camp as quietly as he was signed.

Too Small To Pass, But Just Right To Catch

The Walter Payton award winner that beat Joe Flacco also didn’t see his name to be on the crawl at ESPN, although he isn’t aiming to play quarterback at the next level. And award-winning Jayson Foster had an easier time of things that Ricky Santos. But that’s not to say it was a cakewalk. Like his college career, his time between his final college game and the NFL draft has been a rollercoaster.

In Foster’s junior year, a brand-new Georgia Southern head coach dismantled the triple-option offense where Foster thrived and instead tried to convert the former quarterback into a wide receiver. Although he played well, by the end of his junior year, his head coach was run out of town after a 3-8 campaign and many FCS watchers had forgotten about the speedy back from Columbus, Georgia.

At the start of the 2007 season, he was seen as an outside candidate for the Payton award at best. But by the end of the year, the monstrous numbers he amassed in head coach Chris Hatcher’s “Hatch Attack” offense had him running away with the award with 1,844 yards rushing, 24 rushing touchdowns, 1,203 yards passing and 6 passing touchdowns.

At 5-foot-7¼ inches, and a product of a triple-option attack, Foster was never going to be recruited as a quarterback, and he didn’t get an invite to the NFL combine despite a nice 22-yard catch at the “Texas vs. The Nation” all-star game. But with 1,844 yards rushing yards as a quarterback and intriguing speed, he managed to get some looks at a pro day at Georgia Southern where 13 pro scouts came to watch the hyper-fast Foster do his thing.

Projected as a receiver or return specialist, he did everything asked of him at the pro day: fielding tough punts and passes. What impressed people the most, however, was his speed, anecdotally running a 4.4 40-yard dash time.

Still, it’s difficult for a player to sell a change in position when trying out for the pros, especially if such a player is small. Foster is so small that if he makes an opening-day roster in the NFL he’d be the smallest player in the league.

That’s not to say that the pros are out of reach if you’re 5 feet-7 inches — after all, Towson’s David Meggett was the same height and had an outstanding career for the New York Giants as a return specialist. Foster’s agent, Joel Turner, thinks size is a cop-out. “I get sick and tired of those so-called gurus who every year talk about height,” Turner told the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News. “Height doesn’t matter. Jayson can get 6 to 8 inches over a basketball goal. If your quarterback throws a ball that Jayson Foster can’t catch, you don’t need a receiver, you need a quarterback.”

But Meggett stood out in terms of returning punts and kicks when he played college football. For all his greatness at quarterback, he was much more down-to-earth statistically as a punt returner his senior year. The question going into draft day was: would someone take a chance on Foster?

Like Santos, the draft came and went without his name appearing on the ESPN crawl. But shortly afterward, Foster received a call from an NFL legend — Bill Parcells, Super Bowl-winning head coach and general manager of the Miami Dolphins.

“He told me they were excited to have me come,” Foster told the Savannah Morning News. “He told me to be ready to play. Right now, I’m just tickled to death.”

The consensus after draft day from Dolphins fans was that they had unearthed a gem in Foster. “Some times you can slide through the radar,” Foster told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

You sometimes wonder whether general managers such as Parcells had planned Foster to “slide under the radar” all along. After all, talented players sign as free agents and thrive in the NFL after being told they’re too short, that they can’t make the transition from quarterback, or that they play in a “minor league” in college. Anyone who watched a Georgia Southern game last year saw that Foster was a tremendous player.

But scouting, and NFL expectations, is a game. And if you’re beat down enough by scouts, professional teams can sneak in and sign you on the cheap without risk. It’s a system that benefits NFL teams enormously.

Foster doesn’t seem to be caught up in the expectations game for the NFL. As a result, he looks like he might be just the type of player that sticks with the Dolphins this year.

* * *

Sometimes, it seems as if so little separates athletes that one little thing takes one quarterback to the first round in the draft. One little thing takes another “out of the loop” so that he has to earn his roster spot the hard way. And one little thing takes another to recast himself as a return specialist and slot receiver to prove himself worthy of being in the NFL.

Three great FCS quarterbacks. Three great collegiate careers. And three different paths into the NFL.