Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Under-the-radar Raider ready for impact
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
If you want a player to root for now that the NFL draft has concluded, here's a name worth remembering: Oakland Raiders safety Michael Mitchell.
He's the unheralded prospect from Ohio University who went from being a potential late-round pick to a second-round selection. He's also the player with the biggest chip on his shoulder, now that several draft analysts have questioned his being chosen so high.
"I definitely have a lot of motivation," Mitchell said. "Some people basically said I wasn't a good football player from the minute I got drafted."
Oakland was not the only team interested in Ohio U. safety Michael Mitchell.
Mitchell is referring to the surprise that followed his becoming the 47th overall pick in this past weekend's draft. Since Raiders owner Al Davis already had shocked most people by selecting Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey seventh overall -- when more highly touted targets like Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin were available -- the choice of Mitchell seemed to be just more evidence that Davis had gone completely bonkers. First the Raiders take a speedy receiver with shaky hands. Then they select an obscure safety so far under the radar that you would need a GPS to locate him.
But here's what we all have to remember about Mitchell: He now has more reasons than ever before to prove himself in the NFL. He has the same hopes and desires and -- if you talk to him long enough -- as much heart as any other player in this class. It doesn't matter that few people outside the Mid-American Conference knew his name before Saturday or that he went much higher than expected in the draft. It only matters what he does with the chance Davis has given him.
That's why Mitchell can't wait to start his pro career.
"[Being chosen by the Raiders] makes me want to play that much harder," Mitchell said. "I know teams like Chicago and Cleveland were interested in me, and I appreciate that they were willing to draft me regardless of what other people were saying. But now that the Raiders have given me a shot when nobody knew anything about me, I really feel like I have even more to prove. If people thought I was working hard before the draft, just wait until they see me after it."
Although it's obvious Davis has made his share of mistakes with overrated draft picks in the past, that isn't a legitimate reason to assume Mitchell can't play in the NFL. As Mitchell pointed out, there were other teams that were impressed with his potential. He said the Bears told him to wait by the phone when they were preparing for their second-round pick, an indication Chicago liked him that early as well. It's just that the Raiders were willing to move faster.
Michael Mitchell (34) reminds Raiders head coach Tom Cable of famed hard-hitting safeties Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum.
And judging by the way the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Mitchell performed during his predraft workouts, it wasn't a surprise his stock soared. He didn't gripe when his success at Ohio University -- he was a three-year starter and registered 62 tackles and a team-high three interceptions as a senior -- didn't earn him an invitation to the league's scouting combine in February.
Instead, he turned Ohio's pro day into his personal stage. Along with showcasing his strength (he bench-pressed 225 pounds 22 times) and leaping ability (a 37½-inch vertical leap), Mitchell ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds.
Suddenly, Mitchell wasn't just another no-name prospect from a Bobcats program that has had just 28 players selected in NFL draft history. He was that commodity that makes pro scouts giddy: a sleeper. He had the size, the athleticism and, above all else, the versatility.
"When I started visiting teams, the thing I kept hearing was that I was interchangeable," Mitchell said. "I could play free safety or strong safety, and they liked that. Now, I'm not big on talking about myself, but there weren't a lot of guys [in the draft] with my height, weight and speed combination. I think that made me more marketable."
Mitchell visited 13 teams after his pro day in March. Some just had him take a physical while promising that he'd be a late-round pick if available. Others -- like the Raiders, the Bears and the Browns -- saw him as a far more valuable commodity. Mitchell said Raiders coach Tom Cable made it clear that he envisioned Mitchell as a fierce tackler who could fill the team's void at strong safety instead of merely contributing on special teams.
"When you see some highlights of this guy, you're going to see a guy that has that Ronnie Lott, that Jack Tatum mentality," Cable said of Mitchell in the Contra Costa Times. "He literally knocks people out. It allows you know to get back to Raider style of football, which is really the reason I wanted this guy so bad."
Cable's admiration was not the only reason Mitchell could sense his stock rising. He learned just as much by talking with players on his visits, like when he spoke with Texas All-American defensive end Brian Orakpo at Cleveland's headquarters in early April. Orakpo, whom Washington drafted 13th overall, was making his seventh visit, and that opened Mitchell's eyes as to where he stood in the predraft universe.
"I was making my eighth visit at that point, and here I was talking to a guy with all these accolades," Mitchell said. "That's when I started thinking I really had a chance to go higher."
Now that Mitchell has a chance, he doesn't look like a man who is going to blow it. He knows he'll be facing plenty of scrutiny. He understands the excitement of being a higher pick means he also has to operate under the weight of loftier expectations. But Mitchell also is a young man who entered college as a 5-11, 188-pound defensive back with only two other Division I offers. He's not going to think he's arrived now that the lights are getting a lot brighter.
What Mitchell realizes is the NFL is filled with players who once were as unknown as he is. They have names like Kurt Warner, James Harrison and Tony Romo, and they had to win over the skeptics the same way he will. The only thing that separates them from Mitchell at this stage is that no team was willing to spend a high draft pick on any of them. But they also ultimately proved their value.
That's why Mitchell is embracing his underdog status.
"There are a lot of guys in this draft who got to play in front of 80,000 people in college and they also got a lot of things handed to them, which they probably deserved," Mitchell said.
"And people like me have always had to hear about how we played at small schools where the competition was weaker. But I do know one thing: If people don't respect me now, I'm going to get that respect at some point."
Given how Mitchell came into the league, the odds favor him making good on that promise.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.