By Billy Watkins
Only about seven percent of the eligible college players are drafted by NFL teams each year.
Nine players from Mississippi schools this year overcame the incredible odds.
We went back and looked at why they were chosen, what they bring to the NFL, and the teams’ plans for them.
Note: Ole Miss had six players drafted. Only six other schools had more: Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Penn State, Oklahoma and Cincinnati.
Charles Cross, OL, Miss. State, Round 1 (Overall Pick 9), Seattle Seahawks
“Getting Charles was a really big deal,” said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. “He’s a very good athlete. You can see his footwork. I know about the 700 passes (that State threw last year), but he can run block. He can get off the ball and do the cutoff blocks on the backside, do the front side stuff, get to the second level, stay on his feet and be agile. He’s just an excellent prospect to be a left tackle.
“He’s played against great competition and held up well. I heard him say in his (draft day) interview that he did well against Alabama. I said, ‘I want to go back and look at that again.’ I did, and he was right. He played really well against Alabama.
“(Alabama) did a lot of (stunts), and he had a lot of switches to make. They rushed maybe four different types of rushers at him, and he handled all of them — a couple of smaller guys, a couple of bigger guys. It was impressive.”
Seahawks general manager John Schneider said: “We feel really blessed that he fell to us. I think you’re really gonna love this guy. Very high character. Awesome parents. He played 700-and-something snaps last year. Phenomenal pass protecter. Former basketball player.
“You’ve probably heard the past couple of weeks or the past seven months about the run game stuff. We feel like the guy is really good athlete, will be able to move his feet and bend. And he can really move in space. It was kind of a scheme deal there with Coach (Mike) Leach. They threw the ball like crazy and he did a great job against top, top competition. We’re excited we have a pillar at left tackle.
Sam Williams, Edge, Ole Miss, Round 2 (56), Dallas Cowboys
”In the NFL, the passing numbers are going up and you have to get pressure on the quarterback,” vice president of player personnel Will McClay told Rob Phillips of DallasCowboys.com. “Here, you have a guy that’s got wide receiver speed (4.46 40 at the NFL Combine), he’s got length, strength and knows how to rush the passer as well as play the run.”
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said the team “thoroughly investigated” Williams’ off-the-field matters.
“We’ve had a keen interest in him, and we spent a lot of time talking with a lot of people that know him real close and also from a distance,” Jones said. “We’re very satisfied that we’re good with this pick.”
Ole Miss indefinitely suspended Williams in July 2020 after he reportedly was arrested on a sexual battery charge. Williams emphasized his innocence throughout. The charge was dropped two months later. He immediately rejoined the team.
Martin Emerson, CB, Miss. State, Round 3 (68), Cleveland Browns
“To some degree, that group (defensive backs) is a lot like race cars — when you have good ones, you really feel it in a positive way,” said Browns General Manager Andrew Berry. “But if you’re banged up, you sorta hold your breath play to play.
“Martin is a young, long corner who can press and play off, good in run support. We like him a lot. We were excited to get him there at 68. Martin has a pretty well-rounded game. He obviously has top-level size (6-2, 201) for the position. But usually when you get those longer, bigger corners, you see a level of ‘legginess’ when they’re playing in zone or in space. You see less of that with Martin. And whatever you do see, he makes up for it with instincts.”
Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss, Round 3 (94), Carolina Panthers
“One of the things that really stood out, beside his physical traits, was his competitiveness and his toughness,” said Panthers general manager Scott Bitterer. “The guy took a pounding and kept getting up.
“As far as his physical traits, his quick release, his ability to get out and run, to throw on the run. He sees the field well, processes quickly. All those things stood out to us.”
Added Panthers head coach Matt Rhule: “This is a young man who was a five-star recruit, came to Ole Miss and elevated them to levels they hadn’t been at. Played in the SEC. Probably one of the quickest releases we’ve seen in quite some time. The fearlessness that he plays with. We’re excited to get to work with him.”
Rhule addressed NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport’s draft night report that some teams had concerns about Corral’s alleged off-the-field issues. Rapoport mentioned depression, which Corral openly talked about during an in-season interview, and alcohol.
“There were a lot of guys drafted who were not on our board because of character issues,” Rhule said. “I think we have a very high standards for character. We do learning evaluations, intelligence evaluations, psychological evaluations. We do a lot of work.
“Everyone in their life goes through things. I think we do a good job of trying to delineate between people who have a problem or issue that can’t be overcome and somebody who is going through something in their lives.When I was 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, I certainly went through things. I really respect people who have gone through things and are powerful enough and open enough to talk about them. And Matt is definitely one of those guys. I’m not going to comment on any particular issue, but I feel good about who he is.
“This is a guy we had a really high grade on. We flew to see him, we brought him here. We Facetimed. Based upon the time we spent, I hope you get a feeling that we really saw a lot in Matt.
“We went to Pro Day (at Ole Miss), and what’s happening now is the quarterbacks have to wait and throw until (NFL Network) is ready for them to throw. Well, the scouts needed Matt to throw to the running backs, and here is this kid coming off the foot injury (suffered in the Sugar Bowl). He’d been throwing for about a week. He’s trying to save his arm (for the workout). But his teammates needed him to throw to them, and he goes over and starts throwing. Some of us were like, ‘What is he doing?’ His trainer was like, ‘Don’t throw.’ And Matt was like, ‘I’m gonna throw to my guys.’
“I think you go back to the bowl game and watch when he gets hurt, every single guy when he comes back out on the field — I’m talking about trainers, running backs, defensive linemen — they all come over to him.
“I had a chance to talk with some kids at Ole Miss who I recruited (as head coach at Baylor) and all of them said, ‘The team is going to love him.’ And that’s a big part of this position. There is a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, a lot of accolades, Every guy on the team has to believe that the quarterback wants to put them first. He did that at Ole Miss. He did it at Pro Day. You see how much love those guys pour out to him.
“If we go play tomorrow, Sam Darnold is our starting quarterback. The transition from college to the NFL is really hard. And in the last couple of years, guys trying to make that transition and play right away haven’t been real successful. In a perfect world, with Matt coming from a dynamic, fun, spread offense that he was in with Coach (Lane) Kiffin and Jeff Lebby, there are differences in the NFL It’s going to take some time.
“And sometimes if you take a (quarterback) at No. 6 (overall), the pressure is so great to put them on the field, they can get ruined.
“We think this is an amazing opportunity for a guy we thought had first-round talent and has played at a high level to come in here, grow and develop his body, learn under Sam, learn under (backup QB) P.J. Walker — two tremendously professional players — learn the system from the ground up with them, and whenever he’s ready to play, he will get that opportunity.”
Snoop Conner, RB, Ole Miss, Round 5 (154), Jacksonville Jaguars
“He’s got really good size and quickness,” said Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson. “It’s not so much the long speed as it is he’s a one-cut guy.
“He’s really good out of the backfield, he’s got good hands and can be used first, second and third down. Could also be used on fourth down because of his size (5-10, 220).
“Again, he’s a back who can give us that depth that we look for. Just his special teams value, as well. When you look at players in the this area of the draft, special teams become a factor — maybe even more of a factor, He’s capable of doing that.”
James Houston, LB, Jackson State, Round 6 (217), Detroit Lions
“Obviously, he’s done some different things from an off-ball position at the University of Florida (where he originally played) and then obviously the sack production (16.5) at Jackson State that he had last year speaks for itself,” said Lions general manager Brad Holmes told @DetroitonLion.
Chance Campbell, LB, Ole Miss, Round 6 (219), Tennessee Titans
“A tough, physical inside linebacker,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “Runs pretty good. Should factor well on special teams.
“I think he’s a cerebral player in space. He’s traditionally been more of a downhill, between the tackles type of linebacker, which certainly lends itself well to special teams, but I think that his intelligence and his savviness is there as an overall football player. It’s just the transition ability and, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t have to go to this spot athletically. I can kind of be here because I know the route concepts or where I might fit in the coverage.’ ”
Mark Robinson, LB, Ole Miss, Round 7 (225), Pittsburgh Steelers
“Mark Robinson is a real interesting story,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told Steelers.com. “Mark was a scholarship running back at Presbyterian University. Presbyterian dropped scholarships, so he looked for another opportunity, and went to Southeast Missouri as a scholarship player. Southeast Missouri, during the COVID season in 2020, didn’t play, so because Mark didn’t want to sit out a whole year, he had a friend (safety Otis Reese), an ex-teammate from back home who was at the University of Mississippi and encouraged him to come down there.
“Mark went there as a walk-on running back. Mississippi gave him some looks on defense as a scout team player, and all of a sudden, they’re seeing, wait a minute, this young man can play defense. About midway through the season, Mark actually had started nine games as an inside linebacker and really caught our attention. He has a real explosive tackling demeanor about him. He’s a very, very interesting young man and really a self-made guy.”
Brian Flores, the Steelers’ senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach, told Steelers.com: “He had one year at Ole Miss as a linebacker. I think that’s part of what we liked about him, there is some upside here. Someone who hasn’t played the position for a long time.
“He showed speed, athleticism, toughness, physicality. There were a lot of things we liked. He’s a fun guy to watch on film for sure. There was a little bit of a learning curve early in the season, but as you watched him progress — going into games five, six, seven and eight, and later on, you saw him improve. You like seeing that as a coach.
“He’s a hard working kid. I got that feeling just meeting him. It’s important to him, which is a big part of making progress as a player. I know he’ll work to get better.”
Deane Leonard, CB, Ole Miss, Round 7 (236), Los Angeles Chargers
“We did a lot of work on the end of this draft because we had so many picks in the last two rounds,” said Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. “In the secondary, there are guys there who you can find if you do a lot of work. Deane had a lot of good things to join up with.
“He started out in (Calgary) Canada and played really well. He transferred to Ole Miss and you’re getting to see him against the best in the country each and every week. He’s 6-foot-1, 190, ran a really low 4.4 (40), smooth in transition, did play some inside. Really good in run support. We think he has a lot of traits that translate to the National Football League. We’ll see where it goes.”
FREE AGENT SIGNEES:
OL Ben Brown, Ole Miss (Cincinnati Bengals)
DB Jaylon Jones, Ole Miss (Chicago Bears)
WR Braylon Sanders, Ole Miss (Miami Dolphins)
DL Tariqious Tisdale, Ole Miss (Cincinnati Bengals)
WR Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss (Dallas Cowboys)
RB Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss (Kansas City Chiefs)
DB CJ Holmes, Jackson State (New Orleans Saints)
WR Keith Corbin, Jackson State (Buffalo Bills)
QB Felix Harper, Alcorn State (Cleveland Browns)
WR Makai Polk, Miss. State, Baltimore Ravens
TE Grayson Gunter, Southern Miss (Jacksonville Jaguars)