Wide receiver John Brown is one of the Cardinals' most prominent small-school success stories
When rookie J.J. Nelson looks over at fellow wide receiver John Brown, it's all the proof he needs that a small-school player who was constantly doubted can become a playmaker in the NFL.
Brown, a third-round pick out of Pittsburg State, burst onto the scene immediately last year, catching 48 passes for 696 yards and five scores, including four game-winning touchdowns in the first nine games.
"John Brown, coming in and producing the way he did, it opened up a lot of doors for a lot of small-school guys," Nelson said.
Brown, though, does not see last season as the culmination of his journey, and may never arrive at that feeling. Even though he has been bathed in positive attention since arriving in the NFL– making the cover of Sports Illustrated midway through last season -- the scars from the past are not healed. He bounced around to multiple low-level colleges before finding a home at Pitt State, and few thought he'd make it this far. While he's proved so many wrong, Brown is still programmed to hear the criticism above the praise.
"I will always have a chip on my shoulder," Brown said. "Even if I get 1,200 yards this year, they'll say, 'Oh, it was luck.' The next year I'll have to prove them wrong again. There's always going to be doubters."
When General Manager Steve Keim goes into the draft each year, that type of outlook is a not-so-insignificant piece of the puzzle. There are dozens of factors which go into selecting a player each year, but desire is near the top of his list.
Prospects need the requisite skill-set, because even the most determined player won't succeed if he's at a severe athletic disadvantage. But choosing between two players in a round is often splitting hairs, and Keim prefers the one with no shortage of motivation. Often, that ends up being a small-school player.
Last year it was Brown who made the quick transition. In this draft, Keim chose Northern Iowa running back David Johnson (third round), Delaware State defensive tackle Rodney Gunter (fourth round) and Alabama-Birmingham's Nelson (fifth round), while linebacker Shaq Riddick (fifth round) played most of his career at Gardner-Webb before transferring to West Virginia for his final season.
Some may shy away from players from small schools because they didn't face the type of week-in and week-out competition of the power conferences. Keim believes in his scouts enough to take a chance on them, knowing that if the talent is there, the extra motivation from a perceived disrespect usually sticks
with the players.
"As long as the guy has the physical traits, he certainly has a chance," Keim said. "Then you couple that with a guy who has the right mindset, the passion, the work ethic, the right intangibles, now you're really cooking with gas."
The small-school angle is talked up less as a player establishes his worth in the NFL, but Keim never forgets where a player comes from. He loved the game tape from Jared Veldheer's first four seasons with the Raiders – enough to offer a 5-year, $35 million contract last offseason -- and he also loved Veldheer's background.
The imposing 6-foot-8, 321-pound left tackle is an elite player, but a dearth of options out of high school originally placed him at Hillsdale College, and he wasn't selected until the third round of the 2010 draft.
"All his life, to some degree, he was always overlooked," Keim said. "To me, you sign a guy like that in free agency and he's still got that chip on his shoulder, that hunger and that passion."
Plenty of small-school draft picks wash out of the league, just like their bigger-name brethren, but there is also a long list of success stories. With players like Brown, Veldheer, and cornerback Justin Bethel, the Cardinals have seen first-hand the payoff.
Most of the Cardinals' best players come from the top collegiate conferences, but it's not a prerequisite to success in Keim's eyes.
"The more you look across the NFL, when you look at every roster or you look at every Pro Bowl, or you look at every Hall of Fame induction, it's not just the Michigans, the N.C. States, the Penn States, the Miamis," Keim said. "It's Tennessee State or some of these smaller I-AA schools or Division II schools, for that matter, the Jahri Evans' of the world who come out of Bloomsburg.
"When they come in, whether you're from Hillsdale or Miami, you're going to hit a rookie wall," Keim added. "So that passion, that work ethic and that drive has to kick in when you handle adversity. When you find guys who are talented underachievers, when they hit that wall and they face adversity, a lot of time things they can go south. If you have the right guy, you have the right intangibles, you have the work ethic and passion, you've got a chance when adversity strikes. As they're trying to grasp the playbook, they're going to put in the time, the effort and the will to become a great pro."
Images from the Cardinals' promotional shoots for NBC