When you think about the plains of the Dakotas, it doesn’t often coincide with premier gridiron talent and future NFLers in abundance. However, as the talent discrepancy across the nation continues to shrink, three talents that call the vast tundra of the Dakotas home will soon make their way under the bright lights of the NFL game.
A program known for dominating the FCS scene, North Dakota State isn’t unfamiliar to producing round-one talent. While recent names in Trey Lance and Carson Wentz have represented the poster-children of the program as top-three selections in their respective drafts, talent beyond the pocket has been few and far between over the last few draft cycles, with Stacy Robinson (1985) representing the last Bison pass-catcher to be drafted.
Christian Watson will change that come late April.
A unique blazer for his size, Watson is able to win a multitude of ways and was utilized as such within the Bison offense that averaged a tick over 35 points per game last fall. Flexed out primarily as the X receiver in the high-flying NDSU offense, what makes Watson such an intriguing talent as a pro—especially with his athletic profile—is the number of ways he can provide an impact.
A vertically imposing threat where all 22 eyes are drawn to him solely for his mold and makeup, Watson’s speed and ability to glide past secondary defenders is a trait unseen from many of today’s pros with a build similar to that of the redshirt senior. While teams looked to double and bracket him throughout his time in the college ranks, to avoid the onslaught of bodies, his positional versatility allowed him to slide inside to the slot, handle manufactured touches in the backfield, and, just for icing on top of the cake, slide back on special teams as a punt and kick returner, where Watson was named a 2020 FCS First-Team All-American.
The biggest question surrounding his game was his success against similarly-built athletes, and after watching Watson dominate the Senior Bowl and finish near the top of his classmates in testing thresholds at the NFL Scouting Combine, he checks a ton of boxes for teams in search of a do-it–all-talent on the outside.
A few hours drive south brings us to the front doors of the South Dakota State football complex, and the home of another offensive weapon, running back Pierre Strong Jr.—one of the sleepers in the running back class. Known for his downhill style of play, his 40 time at the combine of 4.37 led all ball-carriers in attendance and opened scouts’ eyes as a talent with a potential day-one impact come autumn. With comparisons from scouts to last year’s late-round standout in the San Francisco 49ers’ Elijah Mitchell, while the value of the running back position and usage of such assets to add a prospect on day one has decreased over the years, it’s hard to ignore the level of intrigue surrounding Strong’s value and status on league-wide draft boards as one of the most talented offensive chess pieces available in the latter half of the draft.
As fun as the aforementioned two offensive juggernauts have been to study this fall, the big uglies up front always go overlooked, and North Dakota’s Matt Waletzko fits the bill to a T. With pterodactyl-like length and ideal movement and power in his lower half, scouts have been aware of his talent for a long while. A teammate of Watson’s at the Senior Bowl, while Waletzko failed to stand out in comparison to the 6-foot-4, 4.3-speed threat on the perimeter, he showcased an excellent anchor and cinder blocks for hands in 1-on-1 drills and ideal hip flexibility for a man of his stature (6-foot-7), etching his name as a day-three talent with an awfully high performance ceiling.
If there’s any window into the past, Quinn Meinerz out of DIII Wisconsin-Whitewater entered Mobile in 2021 as an under-the-radar talent with uncertainty surrounding his draft stock and left Mobile as a bonafide day-two pick. For Waletzko, by no means is he the cleanest tackle among the middle tier of bookend options in this year’s class, but teams in search of a developmental option with elite measurables and a proven ability to move men in the ground game and displace defenders in pass protection, Waletzko could provide a heck of a value add.
Although the prestige of the Power Five draws the brunt of the nation’s attention, the talent out of the Dakotas this spring makes the motto of ‘scout the player, not the helmet’ a statement to live by more than ever before. Each corner of the country is littered with pro potential, it’s just drawing the necessary eyes toward the deserved talent. Three prospects unique in their own way, their success to come on Sundays could further provide fuel to the fire for small-school studs waiting for their share of a national spotlight.
- May 25, 2022
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