2014 NFL Draft: Underrated Top Defensive Prospects Primed for Late-Season Rise
Even with all the coverage that the NFL draft gets nowadays, some college prospects seem to just slip through the cracks even if they're productive players on good teams.
This is not a list of little-known mid-round prospects from small schools; this is a list of guys with serious talent who have just not gotten their share of attention.
Last week I did this exact same article but with offensive players. This week I am focusing on the defensive side of the ball, which is in many ways tougher to scout.
Here are eight defensive players who will continue rising in the coming months and end up being picked a lot higher than you'd expect.
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Brigham Young
Van Noy flew under the radar last year before deciding to return to BYU for his senior year, and he has stayed in the shadows despite a successful year thus far.
But the outside linebacker is an elite athlete with definite first-round potential, and I actually currently see him as a top-20 pick without a doubt.
This video of highlights from his junior season help show just how many things Van Noy does on the field.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller wasn't being talked about enough already, and he will likely head even further into the background after tearing a core muscle that will cause him to sit out at least four weeks.
He started seven games as a freshman and has been a full-time starter ever since. The senior is an athletic, physical presence who has the ability to lock down any receiver and won't back down from a challenge.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
He isn't physically imposing by any means, but Donald has an unbelievable motor and a knack for making plays. The senior has 10 sacks and an unbelievable, nation-leading 26 tackles for loss.
At 6'0" and 285 pounds, Donald looks more like a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, but he is the kind of player who will make an impact no matter where he plays.
His lack of elite size and strength will likely keep him in the second-round range, but he is impressive nonetheless.
Za'Darius Smith, DE, Kentucky
Although you probably haven't heard of him yet, Smith is a guy who could start making waves over the next month or two.
The junior-college transfer has made a big impact in his first year in the SEC. He didn't start playing football until his senior year of high school, which definitely shows up on film in his technique.
But it's hard to find super-athletic, 6'6", 254-pound guys running around like Smith. Here's a good article to get to know more about Smith, who could end up rising into the second round if he declares.
Max Bullough, ILB, Michigan State
Michigan State has arguably the best defense in the country, and Bullough is the quarterback in the middle who holds everything together (Darqueze Dennard deserves props as well).
His playing style is not flashy, and he won't necessarily fly around the field like Luke Kuechly or lay out vicious hits like Patrick Willis, but he's a tough, strong leader in the middle of the field.
The biggest question about Bullough concerns his ability to cover. His draft stock will be capped if teams only see him as a run-stopper, but I think he has enough athletic ability and desire to develop that part of his game.
Jason Verrett, CB, Texas Christian
If you find scouting reports on Verrett, they almost all mention the fact that he is on the smaller size (5'10", 176 pounds) but that he plays a lot bigger.
The corner is aggressive, he hits hard, and he attacks the ball in the air. He can be prone to overdoing it and overrunning a route or tackle, but he's still an impressive player.
The former junior-college transfer has been outstanding this season and is arguably the most pro-ready corner in the draft.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Now we get to one of my favorite players of the draft in Hageman. The 6'6", 311-pound behemoth is one of the best defensive players in the country and has been skyrocketing up my draft board.
He's going to keep moving up into the top 15 on my board that will be released this Saturday, and after you get to know more about him it's easy to see why.
He projects as the top defensive tackle in the class for me right now, and his ability to both clog up the rushing lanes and also get into the backfield and disrupt plays makes him an incredible prospect.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
Oakman is the ultimate wild card in this year's class. He redshirted his freshman year at Penn State, transferred that summer and sat out 2012, so he is now playing for the first time since high school.
But just wait until you hear these measurables: Oakman stands 6'9" and weighs in around 275 pounds. The former football and basketball standout is finally showing flashes of promise in 2013.
He sometimes just overpowers offensive linemen with sheer force and has simple little moves he uses to beat them. But he needs to be a lot smarter and take better angles on plays, which will help him make a more consistent impact.
His upside is around the middle of the first round, but a lot of things would need to go right for that.