NFL Draft 2014: Underrated Talent Sure to Rise During Predraft Process

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NFL Draft 2014: Underrated Talent Sure to Rise During Predraft Process
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly 62.5 percent of NFL teams have their season end in December. The 2014 NFL draft does not start until May 8. If you're someone who gets bored waiting in the DMV line, on road trips or watching overlong Hollywood awards shows meant simply to allow everyone to get drunk, it's hard to blame you for checking out on the draft process.

Hell, it's hard to blame the teams. The other three major professional sports handle their draft infinitely better. The NHL and NBA within weeks of their respective finals. MLB has its festivities midway through the season, stoking interest in the league at the point in the season where 162 games begins feeling like 162,000.

The NFL? Yeah, it's going to make us all wait longer. Starting in 2015, the combine won't even be held until March. The draft, almost certainly in an effort to get it into television-sweeps period, will be pushed back to May permanently. It's a decision that makes sense only from a fiscal sense, drawing out an already elongated process to the point that your eyes may literally glaze over.

Keep in mind that this week is the East-West Shrine Game. And also keep in mind that May is still four months from now. While some of that time off is useful—it's inherently more difficult to evaluate NFL prospects than NHL and NBA—most of it is used for empty speculation and loud arguments that wind up fracturing friendships.

Of course, it's also a chance for relatively unheralded prospects to go soaring up draft boards. Eric Fisher was considered only a fringe-first-round draft choice prior to the Senior Bowl before a series of excellent workout performances sent him soaring up draft boards. Who would have thought Tavon Austin would be the No. 8 pick in the draft in December 2012? Or that EJ Manuel would be the top quarterback off the board?

Point being, things change. And while they may not always change for the better—ask the Chiefs or Rams whether they would make their selections over again—it's worth highlighting a few guys who might see their prospects improve over the next five thousand months.

 

De'Anthony Thomas (RB, Oregon)

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

He won't even be close to being the most discussed prospect in this draft, but Thomas may be the most polarizing among experts. Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney are conversation-generators and polarizing in their own right, but nearly everyone agrees they will and should be first-round draft choices.

As for Thomas, good luck. CBS Sports grades the former Oregon back as a sixth-round pick, No. 203 overall in the draft. That's you-might-not-get-drafted range. ESPN (subscription required), on the other hand, has Thomas ranked as the 42nd-best prospect period. That's potential-first-round-pick range. 

If you want to talk about the difference between a dream come true and potential nightmare on draft night, that dichotomy begins with Thomas. The questions about the all-purpose monster begin with his size. Thomas is listed at 5'9", 176 pounds, and there is some fear that he'll measure even shorter at the combine.

While being short isn't a total death knell, Thomas' slight build makes him a massive injury risk until he adds bulk. Darren Sproles will be the name most thrown around in the predraft process, but Sproles is chiseled in stone while stuffing 190 pounds in his 5'6" frame. Thomas looks like Kings guard Isaiah Thomas in shoulder pads—not exactly robust.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

That said, if anyone thinks Thomas is falling into Saturday, they haven't paid too much attention to how teams are using the running back spot at this point. Increasingly, the position is becoming fractured. Coaches are better understanding that, rather than using one player on three downs, it's often more efficient to use a rotation of players and work on highlighting their strengths.

In that way, the Sproles comparison is apt. Thomas can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield, serving as a big-play threat carrying the ball or catching it. He had more than 40 catches in each of his first two seasons at Oregon before an injury-riddled junior campaign left him with only 22 grabs. Teams will also be intrigued by Thomas' ability to return kicks and punts, which seems like a tertiary skill right until the point you have an elite return man.

The key for Thomas will be workouts. Austin sent his draft stock soaring from a late-first grade all the way into the top 10 last season after leaving scouts slack-jawed at the combine. Thomas has the physical skills to do the same. If he's able to bulk up 10 or so pounds and put together an impressive bench workout without losing quickness, Thomas will see his stock soar.

 

Martavis Bryant (WR, Clemson)

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Bryant is a victim of living in the shadows of a truly elite prospect. Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins is a potential top-five pick with enough talent to become a yearly Pro Bowl selection. Watkins isn't Randy Moss reincarnated—no one is, seeing as Moss is probably the most physically gifted receiver in NFL history—but he may well be Marvin Harrison.

Bryant, on the other hand, has perhaps the best physical gifts of any receiver in this class. Listed at 6'5" and 200 pounds, Bryant was the deep threat that helped open up Watkins' brilliance in the intermediate routes. His 19.7 yards per reception was the fourth highest in the nation among players with at least 40 catches, and he had two touchdowns in Clemson's 40-35 Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.

Literally every physical tool is here. He's big, strong, a springy athlete and even ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds last summer. That's a whole heaping pile of good things all in one sentence.

Of course, there are quite a few areas where Bryant struggles—specifically pertaining to the areas of being a wide receiver that don't involve being a super-awesome athlete. He's a minus run-blocker, so much so that he and Mike Williams were battling deep into camp for the starting 9 spot. 

Bryant won, and it was obviously the right decision, but some of the problems Clemson coaches saw in practice show up on film. Route-running is a consistent exercise in frustration. At this point in his development, Bryant is a straight-line runner who will break routes early or take oblong angles when a straight cut would suffice. 

In that way, no team should draft Bryant with the expectation of getting an instant contributor. He's CBS Sports' 71st-ranked player and ESPN's 78th, both of which seem like wholly rational calls considering the limited sample we have. 

Still, Bryant has all the makings of a combine and workout warrior who goes soaring up on draft boards based on potential alone. If someone at his size, with his leaping ability, comes out and runs a Tavon Austin 40-yard dash, good luck holding some general manager back at the end of the first round. 

Analysts have Bryant in the right spot, but he'll be an early second-round choice at worst by May.

 

Scott Crichton (DE, Oregon State)

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing talent on the offensive and defensive line means actually watching the offensive and defensive line. And while talent evaluators will tell you they love watching the trenches, that's the scouting equivalent of being "proud" to not own a smartphone. Scouting the skill positions is inherently more fun; it just is.

But every once in a while there are guys like Crichton who jump off the tape and make you appreciate the process. The former Oregon State defensive end busts his (expletive) on every play. His motor is constantly running, and he's a competitive, physically imposing talent who has a bit of a mean streak at times.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

In some ways, he reminds me of current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner, who played defensive end at Florida State. Crichton doesn't have elite first-step quickness, but he makes up for it with brute strength, solid technique and tenacity. While Crichton had a solid 6.5 sacks in 2013, he's a better fit on the left side where his ability to stop the run can shine.

Granted, comparing someone to Werner isn't glowing considering how his rookie season went. But Werner also went to a team and system that tried shoehorning him into a system rather than working to exemplify his strengths. He was as worthy of a first-round pick now as he was then, and I'm holding out at least some hope that Werner can become a solid NFL contributor.

As for Crichton, he's possibly a slightly better version of this type of player. He's a football lifer and someone who will put in the work and kill it in the interview room.

With some wondering whether he's worthy of a first-round pick, expect Crichton to impress a few teams enough for him to be a mid-20s lock.

 

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