Each year, front offices scramble to find the best of the best in the NFL Draft. And it isn’t just first-round talent – that’s an obvious evaluation for talent scouts around the country. What teams truly look for is the diamond in the rough, the best-kept secret in the draft class.
This year’s “unicorn” is someone who has gained tons of traction over the last few months, but it’s likely you haven’t heard a peep about him during his entire college career.
That’s because Troy Andersen didn’t play for a big-time SEC, Big Ten, or Big 12 school. In fact, he never donned a jersey of an FBS school.
Instead, Andersen was the best-kept secret of Dillon, Montana, and when he was starting to make some noise in high school, winning state championships in football, basketball and track, then-Montana State Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate made sure to keep it that way.
“He was one of the first guys on our radar,” Choate, the current co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach at the University of Texas, told SNY during a phone interview. “The thing that we knew was he was from a Bobcat family. Both mom and dad had gone to Montana State and his older sister was attending Montana State and she was actually dating a guy a year older who we had just signed. So, we were like ‘OK, this is one we should not screw up.’
“The thing that I knew was Troy was probably a talent that should’ve been recruited, if not just by the Mountain West, certainly by the Pac-12 schools. My concern was that the word was going to get out. We did everything we could to keep him from going to the University of Utah for a one-day camp coming out of his junior year going into his senior year because the second he gets on a Pac-12 campus, everybody’s going to look at this guy and go on him.”
Colter Nuanez, who has covered Montana State football since 2010 as co-founder and senior writer of Skyline Sports as well as GM of ESPN Montana, hasn’t seen a recruitment of a high school player move any quicker than it did with Andersen.
“His recruiting was perhaps the most open and closed, short recruiting in the history of college football,” Nuanez told SNY over the phone. “He went to Montana State’s individual camp and they offered him the day that he got there, and he committed the next day. He didn’t get recruited by anybody, so when people ask who did he choose Montana State over other offers, [it was] no one. He didn’t have any other offers.
“If he would’ve been seen by anybody at any time in his high school career, he would’ve been a four-star recruit. But he didn’t. He went to one camp, went to one school and committed in one day.”
Coach Choate echoed that sentiment, saying “we just got lucky” that no one knew who Andersen was. The Big Sky learned very quickly who he was, though.
Why should Giants or Jets fans care about a linebacker prospect coming out of an FCS school? It’s because Andersen isn’t just a linebacker. It isn’t just because he posted a 4.42 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine a couple of months ago at 6-foot-3 ½ and 243 pounds. And it’s not even because he was a shoe-in FCS All-America selection during his senior year, when he posted 150 combined tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
Andersen can literally do anything on a football field, and his college tape proves a coaching staff could use him as more than just someone to make a tackle.
Here’s a quick rundown: A true freshman, Andersen walked on campus recruited as a safety. However, when one of MSU’s top running backs got a DUI, Choate was forced to suspend him six games, which led to him thinking Andersen could fill the void.
“He ended up being our leading rusher,” Choate said with a chuckle.
When he wasn’t taking handoffs, he was on defense as a linebacker, too. Normally, freshmen just hope they can sniff the field on Saturdays in college. Andersen wasn’t a normal freshman, though, and West Wilsonformer Montana State safety and current Bleacher Report producer, learned that the hard way the second fall camp started prior to the 2017 season.
“My only diagnosed concussion in college, and it was kinda embarrassing because he was a true freshman, was my senior fall camp,” Wilson told SNY. “We were doing kinda like an Oklahoma drill and I went low and I got his knee right to my head and it took me like 10 seconds to walk off the sidelines. I was like ‘This dude’s serious.’”
Nuanez added that Andersen wasn’t this guy you had to develop once he stepped foot on campus. As mentioned, he was already winning championships at high school, specifically taking home gold in the 100-meter dash in the entire state. Wilson, unfortunately, felt that speed immediately when he tried to go low during practice.
But when his sophomore year rolled around, another off-the-field situation happened that forced Choate to move Andersen again, this time to the most important position in football.
Andersen was under center for the entire 2018 campaign, calling the shots as quarterback and becoming a true star. But it wasn’t his arm that impressed, it was the speed yet again.
He totaled 1,515 yards on the ground with 21 touchdowns (you are reading that correctly), while also throwing for 1,195 yards and three touchdowns.
“And that’s with defenses knowing what the offense was,” Wilson said. “It was literally zone-read, like a jet sweep, or hitch, or go route to one of our receivers.”
One would think having played both ways that Andersen was run down, and there is injury history from the 2019 season that forced him to miss out on the playoffs. But the COVID year in 2020 was a “blessing in disguise,” as Wilson put it, because it allowed him to focus on his physical development.
“He would’ve not played in 2020 anyway,” Choate said. “He had a PCL [injury] and he ended up having that repaired so we already made the decision he wasn’t going to play in 2020.
“The year that he never had to just develop as a football player, because he’d always been a three-sport athlete, he’d always been bucking bails [of hay] in the summer and always been feeding the cows in the winter, and now all of a sudden this guy who’s already this Adonis gets to just dedicate an entire offseason to physical development. Now he’s 6-4, 242 pounds.”
The results came in 2021, when he moved to linebacker under Montana State’s new coaching staff and started gaining serious recognition. The Senior Bowl was also a huge help, as he used his invite wisely and teams began doing more background on him. What they would end up finding is someone who is much more than a sideline-to-sideline backer who can track people down.
Could a team like the Giants or Jets, then, use him the same way the New Orleans Saints have been using Taysom Hill? Of course, Hill wasn’t a linebacker coming out of college. Andersen will be drafted because of his defensive acumen, but Nuanez is someone who believes he could be so much more if teams would expand their mind about his abilities.
“In my personal opinion, Troy Andersen should play offense in the NFL,” he explained. “I think that he’s Taysom Hill if you wanted him to be. I think he’s George Kittle if you want him to be. But then he’s also Budda Baker if you want him to be – he just happens to be five inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. He runs better than Budda Baker.
“The best way I could say it is Troy Andersen is at his best is when he’s either running away from people or running people down.”
For the Giants, they need all the defensive help they can get. At inside linebacker specifically, Blake Martinez is in the final year of his contract, and he’s returning from a season-ending ACL injury in 2021. They also lost Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan, two crucial safeties in their system the last couple of seasons. Andersen has the physical nature and knowledge to play either position.
In the Jets’ case, it’s the same thing: They need all the help they can get defensively. CJ Mosley has an opt-out year after the 2022 season, and safety is also a big need for Gang Green despite the addition of Jordan Whitehead. The Jets also need a better pass rush, and Andersen’s speed off the edge has been showcased in college numerous times.
But Choate is the former coach who has gotten calls from NFL teams, so where do they think he best fits? There’s no real consensus.
“I get calls from guys in the NFL that say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about taking him as a [half]back-tight end’ and that’s fine,” Choate said. “I think he’d be tremendous there. He’s an outside linebacker, he’s an inside linebacker. He reminds me of this guy, he reminds me of that guy. Beauty’s just going to be in the eye of the beholder of the NFL team that selects him.”
Choate also had a pretty eye-popping comparison other than Hill when describing Andersen’s skill set.
“I also used Brian Urlacher, who returned punts at New Mexico,” he said. “A guy that I had some familiarities with, Leighton Vander Eschbut [Andersen’s] a better pure athlete than Leighton.”
And there’s no doubt in Choate’s mind that Andersen would fit perfectly in New York.
“He’d be the Urban Cowboy,” he said laughing.
Nuanez added: “Football is absolutely king here and he was the king of the football world here from the day he stepped on campus at Montana State, so he had so much attention. … I think that’s definitely prepared him.”
For those who don’t know, the most recent Offensive Player of the Year, Cooper Kup, was an Eastern Washington product. So that FCS stamp that goes on certain players when they’re drafted doesn’t always result in a developmental project player. Kupp worked hard to get to where he is, and Choate believes Andersen has that “work ethic, that drive” to make a name for himself, too.
“He’s gotten hype the last few months, but I think the chip of the FCS from Montana and all that would be a nice little fire for him,” Wilson said. “He’ll show up and his draft class will be guys from Ohio State and Oklahoma and he’ll be Montana State. That’s enough motivation for a lot of people and I know he’ll use that and run with it.
All in all, Andersen doesn’t just check off the boxes for a lot of scouts who believe he can be a second- or third-round pick. We’re talking about a Madden create-a-player here, someone who can change positions at the flip of a switch without any real need to develop. Just stick him where you have a need and watch what happens.
Versatility gets you far in the NFL, but making a potential two-way impact from the jump is something that Andersen is more than capable of doing. It’s also quite unheard of.
So will either New York team make that call this weekend? I’ll let choose leave a final reason why they should:
“It’s rare that you find a talent like him, and I’ve coached Shaq Thompson, Dante Fowler, Jr., Doug Martin. You can kinda go down the list of these first-round draft picks that I’ve had a chance to be around and he’s as good, or better, than any football player.”