NFL teams will, as the saying goes, search under every rock to find good offensive linemen. Especially those who can protect the blind side of their most valuable asset, the franchise quarterback.
So it is that NFL teams, including the New York Giants, have had scouts spending an extraordinary amount of time studying a player from a school that has not had a player drafted by the NFL since 1969.
The school? Bucknell University. The player? Julien Davenport, a three-time Patriot League first-team left tackle for the Bison, who play at the FBS level.
Why the fuss over Davenport? Well, for starters he is a freakishly athletic 6-foot-6¾, 310-pound player with 36-inch arms — more than an inch longer than any other player measured at the Senior Bowl — an 87½-inch wing span and 10.5-inch hands.
“There’s very few people on this earth walking around with his length and his athletic ability,” said Darnell Stapleton, who started 12 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008 and has been offensive line coach at Bucknell for the past three seasons. “If you get a chance to sit down and watch him stretch and watch the positions he can put his body into you know you have something special. Then you actually put pads and a ball on the field and you actually see him move in space around other people, granted it’s at a different level ... you know he has a really good shot.”
CBS Sports has a fourth-round grade on Davenport. In a scouting report, Walter Football indicates that Davenport could be selected on Day 2, but that he is likely a player that whoever drafts him will have to wait for.
Davenport needs a lot of work before he will be ready to play in at the next level, requiring at least one redshirt season. First and foremost, Davenport needs to add strength as he is a finesse player who will get bullied around in the NFL. He got pushed around and had a hard time sustaining blocks at the Senior Bowl because defenders had sufficient strength to shed him. Davenport also needs to play with a more aggressive demeanor. On top of the physical development, he needs to work on his technique in both the ground game and pass protection. That includes hand placement, footwork and leverage.
Thus, Davenport is a big developmental project and there are no guarantees that he will work out. As a result, he is more of a mid-round pick. Davenport could sneak into the second day of the 2017 NFL Draft, but going in the early rounds of the third day is possible. Davenport has the size, athleticism, and length to be a starting left tackle in the NFL, but he is a real boom-or-bust prospect for the next level.
Stapleton said Davenport “has really good technique,” but did mention that he needs to avoid being labeled a finesse player.
“The ultimate thing he has to continue to get better at his ultimate finish. I’m not going to say he’s a finesse guy, but you never want to be labeled one of those. He’s got to continue to improve upon his ultimate finishing of a play or finishing of a defender, which he’s grown in strides over the last three years,” Stapleton said.
“He has solid technique, he understands how to switch up his sets, he understands how to change his approach to a defender depending on the scheme. Very smart player. He’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to this incoming class of linemen.”
Stapleton believes how quickly Davenport gets on the field is up to him.
“It’s gonna be on him and how he deals with the first punch in the mouth. We talked about it a lot. What hasn’t happened to him a lot at this level is him getting beat. How does he deal with adversity when he gets to that pro stage and somebody beats him on a pass rush? Can he bounce back? Can he learn from a mistake and be able to put it behind him? The faster he understands that component of the game I think the faster he’ll be on the field and stay on the field,” Stapleton said.
“If there’s a team in dire need of an offensive lineman he’s gonna probably be thrust into a situation where he’s going to have to play early and often. If it’s somewhere where he might be behind a Pro Bowler or eight, nine-year vet he may have a chance to learn from that guy, maybe play the opposite tackle, maybe play guard a little bit and then grow into ultimately what I think is a left tackle.”
For his part, the faster Davenport can shed the “small-school player” label the better. He believes he began to do that at the Senior Bowl.
“It got me that chance to get against that top competition, something I haven’t been able to do in my four years at Bucknell. I was able to play against some of these top players in the nation,” Davenport said during a phone interview.
“I think I did real well. I was consistently getting better every day. Came to the game, felt like I did real well in the game.”
Stapleton, who began his journey to the NFL by playing for two years at Hudson Valley Community College in New York’s Capital Region, knows that where a player comes from ultimately doesn’t matter.
“The one thing is, once drafted that doesn’t matter anymore,” Stapleton said.
“I think it’s really on the athlete. If they sit there and allow themselves to believe that they are a lower division or a lower-league player then that’s how they’ll perform. But if they come in with their big-boy pants on and make a statement as if they belong they’ll stick around.”
“Julien has the right mindset of understanding he can play with any of these guys, especially after going to the Senior Bowl and holding his own. … Now he’s proven to everybody else he can play with these guys.”
How did Davenport wind up at Bucknell, anyway? He played football and basketball at Paulsboro High School in South New Jersey and had originally committed to play for Old Dominion University, but backed out. When it came time to make a decision the only remaining offers he had were from Bucknell and Fordham.
Davenport knows that his status as a probable draft pick is “definitely a big deal for Bucknell.”
“I get a lot of love from the people there,” he said. “They’ve been following my path … It’s exciting because it hasn’t happened at the school, and it’s not very often that it does.”
We have spent a great deal of time this offseason wondering how the Giants would address their offensive line, specifically the tackle spots. Davenport told me he has had contact with the Giants.
“I’ve talked to multiple Giants scouts and I think even a few coaches at the Senior Bowl. Multiple Giants scouts came to Bucknell, as well to practices, games,” Davenport said. “They’ve said they like what they see and I’m just trying to show them everything they want to see.”
Davenport’s next opportunity to show the Giants, and other NFL teams, that he is indeed ready to handle a step up in competition will come at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Davenport has been preparing at GATA Training in Georgia. His goals for the combine?
“Continue to have good interviews, as I had at the Senior Bowl. Put up some good numbers in every single drill we have to show the scouts this guy’s an athletic kid, he can do pretty much everything else these other guys can and not be looked at as the small-school guy anymore,” Davenport said.
Stapleton told me that “I believe he (Davenport) can play a long time” at the NFL level.
“I think he’s someone that will work at it. He just has intangibles that God didn’t bless everybody on this earth with. To be as tall and as long as he is and be able to move and bend as fluidly as he can it gives him an advantage,” Stapleton said.
“The more he learns about the position, he’s not a finished product by any means, but as long as he continues to be coachable, as he is, continues to come with that workman’s mentality he’ll be there for a long time.”
Will he begin that time with the Giants? We will know in a couple of months.