The 2014 NFL draft may not be until May, but it’s one of the few things that fans of 28 teams in the NFL have to look forward to right now. With the AFC and NFC Championship Games being held on Sunday, only supporters of the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have actual football left to get excited about.
The rest of the league’s fans are looking at the draft and free agency, hoping that their team’s front office can make smart decisions during these processes and field a championship-caliber squad for the 2014 campaign.
Let’s take a look at some underrated talent that these scouts and general managers should be keeping a close eye on leading up to the draft, as they could far exceed their projected draft position.
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
Mason proved that he belongs in the big leagues by dominating the SEC and all other comers during a historic 2013 college football season that nearly ended with a national championship. While the Tigers ultimately fell a bit short, it wasn’t due to a lack of effort from the junior running back.
He finished his career with 2,818 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 488 carries, which were outstanding numbers for the 5’10”, 210-pound back. He stepped up in the biggest moments, with a 34-rush, 195-yard, one-touchdown (plus a 42-yard scoring reception) performance against Florida State in the BCS Championship Game and a 46-carry, 304-yard, four-score showing for the ages in the SEC Championship Game vs. Missouri.
Considering the bulk of his statistics came during the hardest part of Auburn’s schedule—he generated 1,063 yards and 14 touchdowns in the final six games—it’s clear that Mason can hack it in the pros.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller only ranks Carlos Hyde ahead of Mason at the position: “Mason's quickness in and out of the hole is exciting, and with his vision, patience and open-field burst it's easy to see him as a starting NFL running back.”
While he may not come off the board until the second round, Mason should be given consideration earlier. There’s a great chance he emerges as the top rusher in the class and makes every team that passed on him regret the decision.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Pass-rushers are at a premium in the modern NFL, which is why a small-school talent like Mack has a chance to get picked up early in the draft.
If you haven’t heard of him yet, prepare to get familiar. You will likely hear his name a lot during the predraft process, as Mack is a bona fide star in the making.
The 6’3”, 245-pound outside linebacker is a versatile talent. He is capable of getting after the quarterback, disrupting plays in the backfield, dropping back into coverage and more.
Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata mentioned that even he doesn’t like lining up across from the physical specimen in practice, while cornerback Najja Johnson sang his praises to Brian Murphy of the Idaho Statesman:
“If you watched any of our games, you see the terror in the QB’s eyes,” Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata said. “I have to line up against him every day in practice and I don’t like doing that.”
Said Buffalo defensive back Najja Johnson: “He makes our jobs a lot easier. When he is in their face 24-7, quarterbacks tend to make bad decisions and give us Christmas gifts.”
After a 10.5-sack season, a Jack Lambert Award under his belt and the NCAA’s all-time record in tackles for losses and forced fumbles, Mack is ready for the next step. He’s going to be a beast in the NFL and one of the surest prospects on the board.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Cooks is an elite receiver in a class full of them. He may not be the biggest or fastest of the bunch, but he’s going to be productive in the NFL.
The 5’10, 186-pound wideout ran wild through opposing secondaries in 2013, shredding the coverage for 128 catches, 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season.
Those statistics are out of this world and reminiscent of the numbers that a former Oklahoma State superstar, Justin Blackmon, put up during his time in college. The current Jacksonville Jaguar's best campaign came in 2010, when he hauled in 111 passes for 1,782 yards and 20 scores.
While Cooks doesn’t have the 6’1”, 210-pound frame of Blackmon, he does share the ability to run crisp routes and create separation when needed.
He’s better compared to someone like DeSean Jackson, who uses his quickness and agility to find holes in the coverage and burn defensive backs for big gains.
Don’t sleep on this junior becoming one of the more underrated and overlooked prospects in the class. He’ll quickly make fools of the general managers who passed him up due to his size.