The 2014 NFL draft is still months away—114 days, to be exact—but the process for finding the next crop of superstars has officially begun for 28 teams.
While the NFL playoffs are still the focus of four teams hoping to earn a Super Bowl berth, the NFL draft is becoming the focus for franchises who weren't lucky enough to clinch one of the four coveted spots.
The first round of the draft will likely be where the most desired players will be taken. But for teams that draft for positional needs in the opening round—or even teams like the Washington Redskins, who don't have a first-round selection—the second and third rounds will be necessary to add more talent to the roster.
Here are three of the draft gems that likely won't be taken in the opening session, but have potential to boost any NFL depth chart.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carey is viewed on some draft boards as the No. 1 running back in the class. But with tailbacks in the NFL being devalued and not seen as necessary in the first round, Carey will likely fall to the second round despite his ability out of the backfield.
In a class where Tre Mason, Lache Seastrunk or Carlos Hyde could all be the breakout backs, Carey has been the most consistent. While he didn't play in the SEC like Mason, there is no doubt that he is one of the most dynamic running backs in this class.
Over the last two seasons, the 5'10", 207-pounder finished with over 4,000 total yards and 44 total touchdowns through the air and on the ground. In 2013, Carey missed the season opener due to disciplinary reasons but still finished with over 100 rushing yards in all 12 games, including 150 or more in six of those contests.
Despite his character issues to start the season, Carey was a leader for the Wildcats and proved he had enough maturity to stay with the team for the remainder of the year. With spectacular speed while carrying the ball and a willingness to take tacklers head-on, Carey will be explosive for any team who takes him.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
In a draft class where most of the top wide receivers are underclassmen, Jordan Matthews is a senior with the potential to prove he belongs in the same breath as guys like Sammy Watkins and Marqise Lee.
While some players like A.J. McCarron won't play in the Senior Bowl, according to Randy Kennedy of AL.com, Matthews is using the opportunity to learn and separate himself from others in the game by asking for game film.
Phil Savage, the Executive Director of the Senior Bowl, tweeted about Matthews' decision:
As Matt Miller of Bleacher Report points out, that might just make him more desirable for scouts and NFL executives when draft day rolls around:
At 6'3", 206 pounds, Matthews has the size and speed to be a great receiver at the next level. With exceptional hands and his abilities as a playmaker, a team that misses out on either Watkins or Lee would be foolish to pass on the Vanderbilt product if they have a need at the position.
What Matthews did on the field this year with an SEC single-season record of 107 catches and 1,334 yards made him a great prospect. But his willingness to learn and continue to grow in the NFL will prove to be what makes him a standout receiver at the next level.
Michael Sam, DE, Missouri
When it comes to athletic defensive players in the front seven at Missouri, it will be hard to top Aldon Smith's success at the NFL level. But what Michael Sam did with Mizzou this past season is something that only one other Tigers player has ever done, according to David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune:
From yesterday: Michael Sam is MU's 1st unanimous All-American since 1960, and 1 of only 10 nationally this year - http://t.co/BlFjL3x37o.— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) December 19, 2013
Outside of emerging from Smith's shadows at Mizzou, Sam had another player that he had to outshine on his own team in Kony Ealy. With Ealy now being seen as a first-round pick in some mock drafts, it appears teams value Sam's fellow defensive end ahead of him.
Though Ealy might be viewed as the better talent right now, Charles Davis of NFL.com debates who will be the better pro prospect when they make it to the next level, pointing to Ealy's consistency when noting why he's the better prospect now:
Both are really promising prospects. They bring good speed off the edge and hold the point of attack vs. the run better than you think.
Ealy, who rushes from the inside in certain packages, is a little stouter, though, and his pass rush is just as effective as Sam's. Before the season began, Ealy was the more highly touted and feared guy by offenses. Protections were geared to stopping him early in the season, which allowed Sam to get off to an unbelievable start.
He obviously worked hard in the offseason and when an opportunity arose, he capitalized on it, recording 9.5 sacks in the first eight games of the season. Sam had just two sacks -- the second of which helped clinch the Cotton Bowl win-- in the final six games.
Ealy has been consistent all the way through.
But looking at the last few SEC Defensive Players of the Year—the likes of Jarvis Jones, Morris Claiborne, Eric Berry, Patrick Willis and even Jadeveon Clowney—it's easy to see that the award is typically given to a player who has pro prospects written all over him.