(STATS) -- With about 150 former FCS players on NFL rosters annually, teams are looking closer than ever at the quality across the subdivision.
And they're liking what they see.
The FCS has averaged about 18 selections per draft over the last decade, with dozens more signing as undrafted free agents. South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard leads the way among the defensive prospects this year.
Following are 15 defensive prospects -- listed alphabetically -- to know for the seven-round draft April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas (projection is from Phil Steele small-school evaluator Josh Buchanan):
Athletic edge defender had a banner senior campaign, winning CAA defensive player of the year as James Madison returned to the FCS title game. Also finished third in the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award voting for national defensive player of the year. ... Totaled 8 1/2 sacks as a senior and 26 in his career. ... Gained experience at outside linebacker during his college career. ... His older brother Jason spent time on the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans rosters in 2014 and '15.
Nick DeLuca, ILB, North Dakota State, 6-3, 251 (seventh round-PFA)
DeLuca was plagued by injuries in college, but was a standout when healthy, earning 2017 STATS FCS All-America first-team honors as a senior. ... A starter for North Dakota State's three most recent national championship squads (2014, '15 and '17). ... An instinctive style helps to compensate for a lack of quickness. ... Was outstanding on coverage teams early in his NDSU career. ... Racked up 135 tackles -- 54 more than any teammate -- as a sophomore in 2015.
John Franklin, DE, Stephen F. Austin, 6-4, 283 (sixth-seventh)
Noted for playing on a Greenville, Texas, high school team that went 0-40 during his four seasons, Franklin is rounding into a potential late-round find. ... Projected as a 3-4 defensive end, he uses an 82-inch wingspan to engage blockers and then drive through with upper-body strength. ... Hustles to get to ball carriers, notching 28 tackles for loss over his final two seasons. ... impressed at the combine, clocking 4.75 seconds in the 40-yard dash and bench-pressing 26 reps. ... 2016 All-Southland first-team selection as a junior; second team as a senior.
P.J. Hall, DT, Sam Houston State, 6-0, 310 (seventh-PFA)
Hall dominated on the FCS level with strength and explosiveness. Playing mostly defensive end, he set the FCS career record with 86 1/2 tackles for loss and was just off the all-time high in sacks with 42. ... A four-time All-Southland first-team selection, he was the runner-up for the 2016 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award as the national defensive player of the year. ... To transition inside at the next level, he added weight during the draft buildup. ... Blocked 14 kicks on special teams during his college career.
Davontae Harris, CB, Illinois State, 6-0, 200 (sixth)
Harris boosted his stock at the combine, where he ranked first among cornerbacks with 22 reps in the bench press and clocked 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash. ... A physical corner who is particularly strong in run support, but is average with hip turns into pass coverage. ... Led the Missouri Valley in passes defensed (15) as a junior and made the STATS FCS All-America first team during his senior season. ... Enjoyed some of his best games in the FCS playoffs.
Darius Jackson, OLB, Jacksonville State, 6-3, 242 (seventh-PFA)
Edge rusher won the 2017 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award as the national defensive player of the year. ... Jackson looks to disrupt in the backfield with a relentless style of attack. His experience at outside linebacker will allow for a transition from defensive end. ... Set Jacksonville State career records with 60 1/2 tackles for loss and 27 1/2 sacks. & The Gamecocks went 43-8 and didn't lose in the Ohio Valley Conference during Jackson's career.
Danny Johnson, CB, Southern, 5-10, 185 (seventh-UFA)
A four-year starter at Southern, Johnson had 17 career interceptions, including seven in 2016 when he tied for the FCS high. ... Boundary corner plays with an instinctive, speedy style, and he has the skills to blanket wide receivers. Doesn't back down to bigger players, but his smaller size will be targeted at the next level. ... Must improve in run support. ... As a senior, he contributed touchdowns on an interception return, punt return, reception and pass attempt.
Taron Johnson, CB, Weber State, 6-0, 180 (fifth-sixth)
Johnson won the Big Sky MVP and was named to the STATS FCS All-America first team while Weber State posted its best season ever with 11 wins. ... A former wide receiver with a lanky frame, he demonstrates natural cover skills. Also, a physical tackler in run support. ... Was in on a school-record 42 pass break-ups, including six interceptions, during his college career. ... NFL.com projects his best fit as the nickel spot.
Dalton Keene, DE, Illinois State, 6-3, 282 (seventh-PFA)
Scouts love the toughness in Keene, who often played nose tackle at Illinois State. ... Whether he has the quickness of a pass rusher in the NFL is the big question, but the fact that he was a record-setting pass catcher in high school suggests the possibility. ... Was productive throughout his college career, capped by a dominating senior season: 45 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, eight sacks, six pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries. ... Hands measured only 8 3/4 inches at East-West Shrine Game.
Darius Leonard, OLB, South Carolina State, 6-2, 234 (third-fourth)
Leonard's instinctive feel for the game reflects in his school-record 394 tackles, including a career-high 19 in a 2016 game against Clemson, the eventual FBS champ. ... The two-time MEAC defensive player of the year didn't stop there as he racked up a game-high 14 tackles at the Senior Bowl in January. ... Has an NFL frame with athletic range. Noted for workmanlike characteristics. ... Named to the 2017 STATS FCS All-America first team, up from the second team as a junior.
Siran Neal, SS, Jacksonville State, 6-0, 199 (sixth)
Neal played wherever FCS power Jacksonville State needed him. He was a safety as a sophomore, an undersized linebacker as a junior and a cornerback in his senior season. ... The changes didn't prevent Neal from making the Ohio Valley Conference first team as a junior and a senior. He collected a career-high 80 tackles in 2016. ... Plays with a physical style in coverage, not shy about bumping a receiver at the line of scrimmage. ... Had a 40.5-inch vertical jump -- fourth among defensive backs -- at the combine.
Bilal Nichols, DT, Delaware, 6-4, 306 (fifth-sixth)
Showing considerable improvement with each season at Delaware, Nichols has advanced into the NFL draft picture. He capped his career by making the 2017 CAA Football first team. ... Viewed as a run stopper more than an interior pass rusher, although he had 10 1/2 sacks in his career and broke up 10 passes. ... Able to move along the line fluidly and play through the whistle. ... Nichols' performance at the East-West Shrine Game earned him a late invite to the Senior Bowl.
Cole Reyes, SS, North Dakota, 6-1, 216 (PFA)
The 2016 Big Sky defensive player of the year missed much of his redshirt senior season with injuries, which were a nagging problem during his career. Otherwise, Reyes would likely be a lock for the later rounds. ... Became a starter as a freshman in 2014. Was in on 225 tackles in 33 career games. ... Has excellent size and a hard-hitting style, suited especially for run support. He's an excellent anticipator of where the ball is going. ... Could be an immediate contributor on special teams.
D'Montre Wade, CB, Murray State, 6-0, 200 (PFA)
Led the Ohio Valley Conference with six interceptions as a senior while earning first-team all-conference honors. Also named to the STATS FCS All-America second team. ... Had a conference-best 18 passes defended as a junior. ... Uses strong frame to press receivers early in the route. ... Experienced as a returner at Murray State, which adds to his attractiveness. ... Did not test well in the speed drills at the combine.
Joe Zema, P, Incarnate Word, 6-0, 207 (PFA)
Australian import spent one season as a grad student at Incarnate Word and led the FCS with a 46.7-yard punting average. He was named to the STATS FCS All-America first team. ... Booted 31 punts for at least 50 yards, including a long of 75 against Fresno State. ... Outstanding hang time helped Incarnate Word lead the FCS in net punting at 41.75 yards. ... Averaged 50 yards on three punts at the NFPLA Collegiate Bowl.
Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press
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