Under-the-Radar NFL Draft Prospects Who Will Become Stars
The great thing about the 2013 NFL draft is also probably the worst thing about it—there are no clear-cut stars. After months of draft talk, we know that there isn’t an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the draft, but there also isn’t an A.J. Green or Julio Jones.
We know that the draft will produce a few stars, but there is virtually no consensus on which players those are. A convincing case can probably be made that even some of the best prospects in the draft are flying under the radar. If Luke Joeckel is drafted No. 1 overall, he could end up being the least talked about first pick in the last 20 years.
Now more than ever, the NFL is driven by star power. Finding a star outside of the first round can alter the fortunes of a franchise, especially at an impact position like quarterback. While the jury is still out on the last two draft classes, the 2010 NFL draft produced plenty of star power that wasn’t drafted in the first round.
Guys like Victor Cruz, Navorro Bowman, Jimmy Graham, Geno Atkins, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Eric Decker are just some of the stars from the 2010 draft. Interestingly enough, all the players listed have been to the playoffs in the last few years.
Here’s a list of under-the-radar draft prospects that will (or can) become stars in the NFL.
LB Alex Okafor: Texas
Probably the highest-rated prospect on this list, Alex Okafor seems to be flying under the radar for no good reason. Perhaps NFL teams like him so much that they simply aren’t talking about him in hopes that he will fall.
Okafor could end up sneaking into the first round, but he’s getting surprisingly little love there right now. He projects as the ideal left defensive end, as he can play the run and provide supplemental pass rush. Unlike his speed-rushing peers, he is a true three-down player at the NFL level, which gives him sneaky value.
Although lacking top-end speed and short-area quickness, Okafor racked up 16.5 tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks as a senior. If he makes it out of the first round, he’s going to make some team very happy.
TE Travis Kelce: Cincinnati
Travis Kelce will not be the first tight end drafted in 2013, but three years from now, there’s a very good chance he’s the biggest star out of the bunch. Unlike some of his counterparts, he is a good blocker and receiver.
Far too many tight ends coming out of the draft are just oversized receivers, but not Kelce. Unlike many young tight ends, he will be able to stay on the field in every situation, which boosts his value. He has the upside of a Rob Gronkowski or Jason Witten, which is about as good as it gets at the tight end position.
CB David Amerson: North Carolina State
David Amerson won the Jack Tatum Award given to the best defensive back in 2011 after intercepting 12 passes, but a subpar 2012 has affected his stock. Despite some consistency issues last season, few prospects possess his size, physicality and big-play ability.
Consistency is often an issue that NFL teams feel is coachable, which means they may not hold his junior campaign totally against him. If Amerson develops at the NFL level, he may end up being the best cornerback in the draft class.
Amerson is looking up at a handful of prospects at his position because of a deep draft class, but few of them can match his potential. He could fit in a zone or man scheme and he’s good enough in run support to convert to safety, making him one of the more versatile defensive backs in the class.
WR Markus Wheaton: Oregon State
If not for playing for a lesser-known school on the West Coast, Markus Wheaton might be regarded as one of the top wide receivers in the class. The biggest knock on Wheaton appears to be his size, but he plays significantly larger than his frame.
Wheaton catches passes at their highest point, has excellent body control and he’s also a competitive blocker. He was top performer at the NFL combine in the bench press and both shuttle drills, which is a rare blend for a receiver.
Most scouting reports minimize Wheaton’s production because of Oregon State’s offense and point to his lack of size (5'11," 189). His ability to turn a short catch into a long gain is what makes him into a dangerous weapon.
WR Da’Rick Rogers: Tennessee Tech
Not many wide receivers can match Da’Rick Rogers’ blend of size and athleticism. Roger is 6’3” and 217 pounds, and he was a top performer at the combine in the vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and both short shuttles. The only thing Rogers didn’t do was run a blazing time, but it was still plenty fast for the position considering his size and agility.
Rogers has off-the-field concerns, according to most reports, but plenty of receivers have become stars in the NFL with checkered backgrounds. As long as Rogers doesn’t get suspended and can continue to contribute, he has a chance to develop into a star receiver in the NFL.
CB Leon McFadden: San Diego State
Leon McFadden might not be the biggest, strongest or fastest cornerback prospect, but what he lacks in athleticism he makes up in instincts and competitiveness. McFadden has the potential to be a star cornerback for a team that uses predominately zone of off-man coverage.
McFadden is a quick, agile and aggressive cornerback with good hands. He is good at knocking passes away and knows when to take a chance and go for the interception. If McFadden didn’t have some size limitations (5'10", 193), he’d be one of the top prospects in the draft, but his skills will translate well to the NFL.
DE Quanterus Smith: Western Kentucky
Quanterus Smith isn’t a highly rated prospect despite posting 12.5 sacks in 2012 before tearing his ACL—including three sacks against Alabama. His injury could be holding back his rise up the draft board, but three years from now, he might end up being one of the stars of the class.
Smith has improved each year of his college career, something that should not be lost when teams look at him and see a raw prospect that still needs to work on his pad level against the run. As a pass-rusher, he has nice burst off the line, uses his hands well and has the bend to turn the corner.
Although relatively small at just 250 pounds, Smith has the frame to add bulk. He will get drafted much lower than he should because of his injury, but that may also buy him time to develop his skills with an NFL coaching staff.
The team willing to draft Smith could be rewarded with a star if it can afford to wait for him to get healthy and correct some of his technical flaws.
QB Tyler Wilson: Arkansas
In just about every draft, at least one quarterback turns into a star. Whereas Geno Smith, Ryan Nassib, E.J. Manuel and Matt Barkley are getting the most hype as potential first-round picks, the one with the most potential to be a star is actually Tyler Wilson.
Wilson has a nice arm and will fit balls into tight windows. He’s also not afraid to deliver a pass in the face of pressure and he can make every throw, unlike some of the noodle-armed QBs in this draft.
Wilson is also a good leader and held the program at Arkansas together despite a coaching change. He is also one of the few top quarterback prospects that had to face SEC defenses and with very little help. Wilson took a step back in 2012, but there were good reasons.
Look for Wilson to end up being the best quarterback to come out of this draft class.
RB Christine Michael: Texas A&M
The value of a good running back has been minimized as the NFL has leaned toward the pass. Running backs aren’t getting big deals in free agency and it seems like fewer of them are being drafted in the first round than ever before. There’s a legitimate chance that no running backs will be drafted in the first round this year.
NFL teams are increasingly looking for late-round draft choices to fix their problems at running back. Christine Michael could be the answer for some team looking for a star runner. Before the 2012 season, Michael was one of the elite players at his position, but never received enough opportunities to improve his draft stock.
Michael has all the physical traits you could ask for with good size (220 pounds) and surprising agility for his size. Michael was a top performer at the combine in bench reps, vertical jump, three-cone drill, broad jump and the 20-yard short shuttle.
There are some concerns about Michael’s maturity and missing meetings with teams at the combine will certainly do nothing to calm those fears. Still, some team is going to be willing to overlook Michael’s warts, and in return they may get one of the drafts biggest stars.
DE Joe Kruger: Utah
NFL teams love bloodlines, but that’s not the only reason Joe Kruger could end up being a star. Joe’s brother Paul was one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in 2012 and Joe has a very good chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Joe Kruger flashed his ability last season and has the size and skills to become a star at either the 4-3 or 3-4 defense end spots. At 6’6” and 269 pounds, Kruger also possesses the ideal frame and can add more weight to anchor in the run game.
Although he needs to clean up his technique, it seems like only a matter of time before the younger Kruger becomes a star. You would think having a brother in the NFL would have Kruger’s stock inflated, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Look for the younger Kruger to be even better than his brother within a few years.