Will Jordan Tripp be any good in the NFL?
Some teams are pondering that very question right now, and there just isn’t that much information to go on. For all the mystery surrounding prospects like Johnny Manziel, all you need is Google to know how strong his arm is or what kind of light beer he prefers. More importantly, NFL scouts know how he performs against the best competition in football.
But what about Tripp? The Montana linebacker is just as likely, or unlikely, to get drafted by your favorite team, yet until this spring his name only graced the pages of the Missoulian and Football Championship Subdivision blogs.
How do we grade, or project the talents of a guy who played at Montana, or Delaware or Texas Southern? NFL teams have been trying it for years, notably landing on Joe Flacco and Pierre Garcon in recent drafts. Some clubs pride themselves on locating small school gems—the Jaguars, Ravens and Seahawks have drafted a combined 27 non-BCS athletes in the past four years—and other teams shy away completely; the Broncos, Patriots and Chargers have picked one apiece in that span.
On the surface, guys like Tripp have to first pass a simple eye test.
“You’ve got to have the physical traits,” says former Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel. “Then once you have that, you ask yourself, does he dominate the level of competition that he’s playing against?”
Check, and check. Tripp, 6-foot-2, 234 pounds, led his club in tackles and was an FCS Defensive Player of the Year finalist in 2013.
After that, it gets complicated; teams want to know why you ended up in the FCS or Division II or III. Many non-BCS prospects find themselves in places like Division II North Alabama for discipline reasons, like Janoris Jenkins, an eventual Rams draftee who was kicked off the Florida football team. Others attend schools out of obligation, as in the case of Jared Veldheer, the Cardinals tackle and Raiders third-rounder who went to tiny Hillsdale College at the request of his high school coach.
Tripp falls into neither category. He wasn’t qualified for most BCS programs as a 6-0, 180-pound defensive end. A Montana native, his father and grandfather each played for the Griz. When Tripp earned a scholarship offer his senior year at a Montana football camp, he accepted it on the spot.
“I wasn’t heavily recruited,” he says. “I grew up always wanting to play here. If you ever come out here and see a game the atmosphere is unbelievable. I had talked to some other schools about walking on but I wanted to play here in front of my family.”
The next four years were spent alternately in the classroom, on the football field and working the buffet line. A frequent visitor of Missoula’s signature steakhouse, The Depot, Tripp gained over 50 pounds and grew three inches during his Montana career.
“We don’t have a training table like some of the bigger schools, but I got big on nutrition after sophomore year,” he says. “I got really serious with it.”
Scouts from more than a dozen teams showed to his pro day, an improvement on the handful Montana typically draws. Gabriel says it’s imperative to see a guy like Tripp in person, in part because coaches with no NFL experience don’t understand how to evaluate NFL talent.
“This happens to this day: I’d say to a small school coach in the state of Michigan or Ohio, Can your guy go down the road to Michigan or Ohio State and start and be dominant?” Gabriel says. “They say, Well I don’t know about that, they’re pretty good. Okay… But you think he can play in the NFL?”
For his part, Tripp believes he could have dominated at a big school and will be successful in the league. He played for three different coordinators at Montana, each with a different style. He finished his career an inside linebacker
“At the time it was a little bit of mental gymnastics,” he says. “It made me a better football player down the road because I learned more concepts. Now it’s easier for me to pick up new things because I know why we’re running certain things.”
In this, Tripp has a leg up on many small school products. Broncos veteran linebacker Paris Lenon made the jump from the University of Richmond to the NFL after a stint in the XFL, and he recalls being floored by new concepts at the next level. During his first training camp with the Panthers in 2000, he was introduced to a curl coverage drop, an entirely unknown concept.
“The details of that drop, the visual, being able to feel the routes, that’s something I hadn’t worked on in school,” Lenon says. “There are a lot of little things you don’t get when you come from a small program.
“In the NFL, your Day 1 install may be three base defenses and three sub defenses, and we’re going to have 20 days of install. Big school guys already ran all that stuff, but just called it something different. Most small school guys don’t have anything to associate it with; like learning a foreign language for the first time.”
That learning curve can be why some teams shy away from drafting non-BCS players, opting to invite several free agents to their camps instead of spending a pick on them. Guys like Tripp, Princeton defensive lineman Caraun Reid and especially Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garappolo are likely to need more time to acclimate than their BCS counterparts. It took Lenon, 36, four years to catch on as a starter in Green Bay. But others catch on faster.
Gabriel recalls scouting a behemoth tackle at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania in 2006. He was as raw in terms of technique as any prospect he’d ever seen, but he was dominant. Converted to guard upon being drafted by the Saints in the fourth round, Jahri Evans earned all-rookie accolades from several publications and began a string of five All-Pro nods in 2009.
The only evidence scouts could find that Evans would blossom in the NFL was a B-rate all-star game he participated in that spring in Las Vegas.
“In school, he dominated the competition without having to compete,” Gabriel says, “But then, when you saw him against some guys more on his level, he flashed there too. For linemen and other positions where you can see the one on ones, the all-star games are huge.”
Tripp drew rave reviews at the Senior Bowl, leading his side in tackles and likely propelling himself up draft boards. He’s projected to go anywhere from the third to the seventh round, evidence of a lack of consensus when it comes to small-school prospects. He’s visited several teams including the Eagles and Falcons since, and he’s growing a chip on his shoulder bigger than a Montana prime rib.
“I feel like I can contribute,” he says. “I’m as versatile as anybody. It doesn’t matter where you came from, because when you get to the NFL, everyone is the best.”