The NFL Draft has always been a mechanism that favors potential over production. Value is measured not by statistics accrued on the field, but by conformity to an ideal physical prototype.
Which is how we so often end up with cases like Ole Miss' Trae Elston, a four-year starter at safety who piled up All-American awards as a senior but has received shockingly little attention from pro teams and draft media. While six of his Rebel teammates showed their stuff in Indy at the NFL Combine, Elston watched from home. While draft experts endlessly pontificate about the abilities of Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, Elston goes unmentioned.
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Emotional and boisterous on the field, the otherwise soft-spoken defender remains calmly determined to make it at the next level... despite the lack of attention.
"I just don't understand why."
Elston is a damn good football player.
Elston was one of just three defenders in the country to notch at least 70 tackles, four picks and 18 passes defensed in 2016. He piled up at least 60 tackles in each of his four college seasons. As a senior, he was named to the All-America second team by the Associated Press; All-America third team by Athlon and Phil Steele; All-SEC first team by the coaches, ESPN, Athlon and Phil Steele.
He has great ball skills. He can come down into the box and pursue the ball carrier. He'll clobber the shit out of anyone that comes over the middle.
But he's not getting much attention from the draft media.
Elston wasn't invited to the NFL Combine. He wasn't invited to any of the major postseason all-star games.
CBS Sports puts him in the "seventh round/free agency" category and you have to tab through to the 11th page in their overall prospects rankings to find him at No. 257. NFL.com gives him a prospect grade of 4.99, which equates to less than a 50 percent chance of making an NFL roster.
That's partly because scouts think he's "undersized."
Pretty much any scouting report you drag up on the web holds Elston's 5'11, 195-pound build against him. His official review at NFL.com insists that he's "lacking size/speed combination" and that his size "won't jump off the screen at teams."
"I think it's because a lot of people say I'm undersized," Elston told me when I asked why he's been universally overlooked. "But there are a lot safeties in the league that are 5'11 and around that 190, 200 range."
Indeed there are, Trae. Of the 32 projected starters at free safety next year, 12 of them are shorter than 6'0 and weigh 200 pounds or less. Five of them are both shorter and lighter than Elston, including last year's All Pro selection, Tyrann Mathieu (5'9, 186). If you take the average height and weight of all 32 starters, the composite is just half an inch taller and nine pounds heavier than Elston.
He finally started getting some attention after he balled out at the Ole Miss pro day.
Stuck watching the Combine from home, Elston had to settle for showing off his stuff at pro day. Fortunately for him, the Tunsil-Nkemdiche-Treadwell triumvirate brought the whole damn league to Oxford, where Elston got the chance to open some eyes.
"A lot of scouts were saying they didn't think I was a 4.4 type of guy, that I was more like a 4.7, 4.6," he said. "I think I proved 'em wrong."
I'd say so. Elston smoked a 4.46 40-yard dash, negating fears that he doesn't have the giddy-up to play center field against NFL receivers.
Soon thereafter, he was making trips to Minnesota and Pittsburgh (UPDATE: San Diego too!). He said he's heard talk from scouts that he could go in the fourth or fifth round.
Blessed for the opportunity Talking football pic.twitter.com/PamJrnnPup— Trae Elston#⃣7⃣ (@Trip7ERA) April 6, 2016
@Quez_G I am on the way ✈️— Trae Elston#⃣7⃣ (@Trip7ERA) April 7, 2016
Downtown Pittsburgh what a View— Trae Elston#⃣7⃣ (@Trip7ERA) April 8, 2016
Elston was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
That doesn't really have anything to do with his draft stock, but it's pretty damn cool. Remember that time Ole Miss went down to Tuscaloosa and beat No. 1 Bama? Trae does.
"Me being from Alabama, it was overwhelming. I go to the barber shop when I get home and everyone's hatin' on us. I have a couple friends that play for Bama so I can always mess with them. I can just say '43 to 37.'"
The dude brings enthusiasm.
I typically roll my eyes when I hear draft experts using words like "intangibles" and "competitor" and "leader"—the NFL is and always has been more about innate physical ability than anything else—but those qualities aren't meaningless, particularly when it comes to filling out the bottom of your depth chart and finding special teams contributors.
You want a guy with Elston's leadership qualities on your roster.
"My game play on the field is just to be very intimidating and to play with a lot of enthusiasm for my teammates," Elston said when asked what he would bring to an NFL team. "That's what a lot of scouts say—that I uplift my teammates. I can be on the other hash, I'm gonna go all the way over there and tell them 'good job, let's keep working.' And if they mess up, I'm gonna correct 'em on that. I'm capable of being that commander in chief on the field."
... LOTS OF ENTHUSIASM.
"They blew the whistle right when he hit the line," Elston said of his now infamous low blow on Dak Prescott, a play that's done more to rustle Mississippi State's collective jimmies than perhaps any other in Egg Bowl history. "But when you're on that football field and it's loud, you might not be focused on that. You see a quarterback that's almost 6'4, 230 about to run in the end zone... yea, you'll hit 'em too."
Not that there's any personal beef—Elston told me he "respects [Dak] as a competitor" and thinks he'll do well in the NFL.
As for State fans...
"On social media, Mississippi State's not that nice to me, so I try to rub it in that I'm 3-1 against them."
Don't feel bad for Trae. He's just fine with being overlooked.
"You know, I'm kind of happy that I got overlooked. It really humbled me and made me work really hard and focus on my dream... I'm just ready to make a statement. I really don't know what to expect. If I don't get drafted, I'll go through free agency.
"I'll find a way in."
Pinned to the top of both his Twitter feed and his consciousness is this reminder:
Trae Elston#⃣7⃣ (@Trip7ERA) March 15, 2016