Eagles not afraid to sift through I-AA talent pool

Posted by Administrator On April - 14 - 2009

Rob Agnone traveled to Florida recently to train for what he hopes will be an NFL career.

When he arrived at the private facility, he didn’t know what to expect, where he’d fit and how he measured up against some of the country’s elite college athletes.

They came from everywhere, many from power conferences that traditionally played in major bowls and from schools that historically ranked among the top 25.

Agnone trained alongside two other tight ends — one from national championship contender Alabama, another from the University of North Carolina.

When he left, the former University of Delaware tight end couldn’t tell if he belonged in the same breath as them — or vice versa.

“I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m better than both of them,” Agnone deadpanned. “But I’m sure they’ll tell you the same. I’m very confident I can play in this league. I just need a shot.”

He’ll probably get it. At least one scout from every NFL team, Agnone said, has seen him since his sophomore season. Through his agent, he learned that six teams have directly expressed interest.

That one is the Eagles shouldn’t be a surprise.

For the past few years, Eagles head coach and player personnel czar Andy Reid has shown a penchant for mining talent from schools that compete in Division I-AA.

Five of Reid’s starters from last year’s team that went to the NFC title game came from a I-AA school, including his prized weapon, running back Brian Westbrook, who rewrote record books at Villanova.

Thirteen players on the Eagles’ roster, including newcomer Leonard Weaver, come from schools below the Division I-A level.

Since his first draft in 1999, Reid has used more than a half-dozen draft picks — usually in the last two rounds — on prospects from these lesser-known programs.

Last year, he tapped three prospects from the small-school ranks, including Andy Studebaker, the first player ever drafted from Division III Wheaton in Illinois.

Already this offseason, the Eagles have had their eyes on Monmouth University tight end John Nalbone, University of Richmond lineman Lawrence Sidbury and Stony Brook University lineman Lawrence Lovell.

With 12 picks in the draft, which takes place April 25-26, Reid can afford to unearth another set of potential diamonds in the rough.

The Eagles were one of the first teams to scout Nalbone, who caught 42 passes for 491 yards and five touchdowns his senior year for Monmouth, a I-AA school that lost 42-7 to Delaware in September 2007.

Nalbone was surprised, at first. But by the end of his senior season, he had become accustomed to NFL scouts appearing at his games and practices.

“I figured if you were good enough they’d come out to find you,” he said.

Exposure and perception are obstacles lower-division standouts forever battle. Their regular-season games aren’t usually on ESPN. Their schools don’t play in major bowls, let alone the dozens of minor ones. And they’re not always judged equally with I-A players, whose level of competition is rarely questioned.

While prospects from powerhouse schools often get the benefit of the doubt on draft day, lower-division prospects can’t have bad games — or bad seasons — and expect the same treatment.

“You look at it in this factor: Did he dominate the competition?” said former Eagle Herm Edwards, who coached the Jets and Chiefs. “It’s just like the running back Philly has [Westbrook]. He dominated the competition at his level. Those are things you kind of weigh.”

It’s easier for quarterbacks and running backs to showcase their talents each weekend. They’ve got the ball in their hands almost every play. For tight ends, defensive backs and linemen, it’s not always that simple.

“I know I’ll be second-guessed because I went to Delaware,” said Agnone, who caught only 16 passes this past season after catching 38 the year before, when future first-round pick quarterback Joe Flacco was pulling the trigger. “That’s just the way it is.”

On the flip side, one AFC college scout said lower-division players can be evaluated more accurately compared to those from the traditional powers.

Big-school players, the scout said, reap the benefit of top-notch coaching and carefully orchestrated offenses and defenses that can camouflage his ability to excel at the highest level.

“That’s why I think when you see a guy at a small school, he is what he is,” said the scout, who asked to not be identified.

“Being a big fish in a small pond sometimes works out,” Nalbone added.

A majority of small-school standouts are either drafted in the later rounds or bypassed altogether. They scramble to sign rookie free-agent deals worth considerably less money, which makes them eminently more expendable than those who get drafted and sign longer-term deals.

“I definitely have a chip on my shoulder being from a I-AA school, no doubt about it,” Agnone said. “I know I have to prove myself two times compared to a guy from USC.”

But the Eagles aren’t shy about gambling in the draft, including in the first three rounds, even if they don’t see immediate results.

In 2006, they drafted Chris Gocong from I-AA Cal Poly but placed him on injured reserve early in training camp with a neck and shoulder injury. They used the year to transition him from defensive end to linebacker.

Last year, Philadelphia used a third-round pick on Bryan Smith, an undersized defensive end from McNeese [La.] State who didn’t play a single snap.

Some fans and analysts have questioned the Eagles’ draft approach, wondering if it’s prudent to use third-round picks on projects instead of big-time prospects that can make an immediate impact.

Last year, the Texans drafted West Virginia running back Steve Slaton nine spots lower than Smith. Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards, totaled more than 1,600 yards and scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie.

“You do that at the quarterback position all the time, but nobody really says anything,” Edwards said of the draft-and-groom process. “But when you do it at another position, people question it.”

Agnone, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa., knows the Eagles are in the market for a tight end. He hopes they buzz his cell phone in two weeks, but he won’t be watching the draft on TV.

He’s not projected to go in Saturday’s first two rounds and doesn’t plan to waste away hours Sunday watching names flash across the screen, many of them from schools bigger than his.

“There are guys from I-AA all over the place,” Agnone said. “In the end, your talent will show that you belong. I’m not worried about that.”