Off the beaten path

The fact that most high draft choices come from the marquee college teams is no surprise — the better the players, the better the teams, the greater the national recognition those teams earn.

But part of what makes the NFL Draft such an inexact science is the selection of players from the so-called "small schools." That doesn't just mean universities with lower enrollment — it also includes programs at schools that might have a large enrollment but aren't viewed as traditional football powers. A player can be just as big or just as strong or just as fast as a player at a high-profile national-power school, but will he be as effective in the NFL after playing against sub-par competition? Or does that player from the small school have even more potential for improvement, once he starts working with elite coaching and teammates, and getting into a professional strength and conditioning program?

Here are some players from some lower-profile schools who could make sense for the Cowboys:

• The best such player in this year's draft is Idaho guard Mike Iupati, although he is expected to go in the first round — probably before the Cowboys choose at the No. 27 spot — and the team has other needs at several other positions. But starters Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier both turn 32 this season, so if the Cowboys decided to pursue a guard, Iupati could be a useful backup while he waits his turn behind the current Dallas starters.

Iupati measured in at the NFL Combine at 6-foot-5 and weighed 331 pounds. He is a thick, powerful player who is at his best when he gets low and drives through defenders on running plays. He is quick and explosive, but not overly fast, even for a player of his size, so he is not viewed as someone who will excel when pulling or getting through the defensive line to the second level of the defense. His pass protection is getting better, as he shows good balance, uses his hands well and has an excellent first punch that can knock defenders back on their heels.

• Massachusetts tackle Vladimir Ducasse (6-4, 332) is another lineman from a school that normally isn't known for cranking out NFL players, but he makes more sense for the Cowboys, perhaps in the second or third round, if he lasts that long. Some teams project him as a guard in the NFL, but other teams view him as an NFL tackle, and Dallas needs a tackle to back up Marc Colombo and/or Flozell Adams, or replace Adams if the Cowboys cut him.

Ducasse is another raw blocker with exceptional strength; his 29 repetitions on the NFL-standard 225-pound bench press at the NFL Combine tied him for the 10th-highest total of all offensive linemen. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Ducasse is relatively new to the game, but has very good athleticism and agility for a big lineman. Like Iupati, he needs some refinement on his footwork and some of his technique, but he is a powerful blocker who should be able to contribute on the offensive line and on special teams for years.

• Citadel wide receiver Andre Roberts (5-11, 195) is a wiry wideout whose exceptional athleticism has him climbing several teams' draft boards. The 4.46 he ran in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine tied him for seventh among all wide receivers, and he also was among the leaders at his position in the broad jump, the three-cone shuttle and the 20-yard shuttle.

Roberts is a classic example of a guy who was a dominant player against a lower level of competition, prompting teams to have a wide range of projections for him as an NFL prospect. He has been listed as high as a third-round possibility, and as low as a seventh-rounder, or even an undrafted free agent. He had 285 receptions in his career, including at least 77 in each of the last three seasons, and ended up with 3,743 yards and 37 career receiving touchdowns.

Roberts needs to add significant strength, but he makes the most of his physical tools. Despite his relative lack of bulk, he'll willingly go over the middle to catch passes in traffic, and is an effective runner after the catch. He also is a gifted return specialist and can cover kicks and punts — he earned first-team all-conference honors as a receiver and on special teams in each of the last two seasons.

• Indiana Univeristy of Pensylvania cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah has excellent size for his position (he measured in at the NFL Combine at 6-0, 207), gifts which are magnified by his long arms and excellent leaping ability.

Owusu-Ansah's biggest asset, however, is his speed. At the Combine, he ran a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash, tying him for third among all cornerbacks, and his 60-yard shuttle time of 11.23 seconds tied him for sixth-best at the position.

His strength is making plays on the ball; he had 10 interceptions in his career, including eight in his junior season alone. He'll improve his footwork as he faces better receivers and gets better coaching, but the tools are there to play at the next level. He very well could slide over to play safety, where his ball skills would allow him to play a center field-type role, much like Darren Sharper of the New Orleans Saints, and he also is a gifted return specialist.

• If any of the Cowboys' three free-agent defensive ends — Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher or Stephen Bowen — leaves for another team, the Cowboys should be in the market for another, and Arkansas State has an intriguing prospect in Alex Carrington.

An ideal fit for the Dallas 3-4 defense, Carrington measured in at the Combine at 6-5 and 285 pounds. Spears, Hatcher and Bowen all played last season on the north side of 300 pounds, so Carrington likely would be asked to add a little weight if he ends up in Dallas, and he certainly has the frame to do so.

Arkansas State doesn't play a lot of heavyweight teams, but regardless of the opposition, it's difficult to ignore Carrington's production. Over his last two seasons, Carrington, who also is pretty effective against the run, had 94 of his 146 career tackles, but more importantly, he had 19.5 of his 21.5 career sacks.

His speed holds him back from being a high draft pick — he has been clocked most often in the 4.9 range — and needs more consistent intensity. But as a bulky backup who could collapse a pocket with fresh legs in the fourth quarter, he could be a perfect fit with Dallas.