The NFL draft may be featured on Thursday, but it's won on Sunday. It's not all about how great your first-round pick is (though that certainly helps), but how well your fourth- through seventh-rounders fit on your roster, in your lineup and into your future plans.
The later picks are crucial to a team's success, both for key depth and situational starters, along with the hope that you can strike gold and unearth the next great Day 3 steal.
Thanks to a heavy influx of juniors in the 2014 class, we're bound to see plenty of talented prospects fall on draft day due to it being such a deep class overall. Miss on Johnny Football? Grab Brett Smith. Want the next Alfred Morris? Learn about Kapri Bibbs. Looking for defensive backs the way Seattle did? Don't miss out on Pierre Desir, Walt Aikens and Dexter McDougle.
Those guys and more are among the top under-the-radar prospects just a few months away from the 2014 NFL draft.
Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo and Logan Thomas left the Senior Bowl with teams feeling they’re worth a top-100 pick. Juniors Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel all have their sights set on top-10 picks after making themselves eligible for the draft. And while those in the media don’t view him as a worthwhile first-rounder, Alabama’s AJ McCarron hasn’t been forgotten about by NFL teams.
But junior Brett Smith may use that “under-appreciated” label to motivate him to be one of the best passers in the country. With a skill set similar to Johnny Manziel's in a lot of ways (with less production against top teams and better arm strength and footwork), Smith may be the most coveted quarterback for many teams in the late third or early fourth round looking to develop the high-ceiling, high-character quarterback.
Bibbs produced as the Rams' starter for just one year and then opted to declare for the draft. While I don’t support the decision to leave after his redshirt sophomore season, Bibbs certainly has shown during his breakout season that he may be able to stick in the NFL despite the tremendously deep running back class.
Bibbs’s best fit is in a zone-blocking system, where he can utilize his powerful running style and burst in a one-cut system, which could make him this year’s Alfred Morris. A one cut-and-explode runner, Bibbs protects the ball well, doesn't have many wasted steps as he attacks upfield and keeps his pad level low through contact. If he tests well in Indianapolis, Bibbs won’t be a sleeper for much longer.
Hazel stood out during this senior season, especially emerging as a draftable prospect during an impressive performance against South Carolina early in the year. Earning an invite to the East-West Shrine Game, Hazel made the most of the week of practices, showing off his physicality at the catch point and his body positioning on both short and intermediate routes.
In a deep, junior-laden receiver class, Hazel may be pushed down during the NFL combine due to it being the first time we see many of the juniors on the field again. But he shouldn’t be forgotten. Hazel fits best in a West Coast-based offense that allows him to use his strength away from his frame as a pass-catcher and his finishing ability in traffic to pick up first downs.
While he lacks great after-catch ability, Hazel has a spot as a third receiver in the NFL, if not more.
Jay Bromley isn’t a fit for every defense and doesn’t fit in the NFL as an every-down starter. He struggles against the run, doesn’t have the length to be an every-down 5-technique and doesn’t show the ability to hold at the point of attack.
But Bromley is one of the best interior pass-rushers in this draft. After Aaron Donald, Will Sutton and Dominique Easley, Bromley may fill the role of a pure penetrator nearly as well as his three peers. He slides well laterally after engaged, adjusts his leverage to the off-balance shoulder and finishes with a secondary hand rush move to reach the backfield.
He could fit as a situational 5-technique but likely is best as a 4-3 defense nose tackle or 3-technique on obvious passing downs. With a situational guy of his talent, he should be well worth an early Day 3 pick.
Dee Ford became a trendy riser during the Senior Bowl after his ability to dominate during drills as a speed rusher. He earned his Senior Bowl invite, he earned the praise he got, and he may end up earning a first-round grade from teams. But he’s not the only pure speed rusher in this class.
A week earlier, Colorado’s Chidera Uzo-Diribe impressed during the Shrine Game, albeit not nearly as much as Ford did. But he proved to me that he could have success attacking on the outside, utilizing plus quickness and bend around the edge and flashing the interior counter rush moves necessary for a speed rusher in the 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 wide-nine defensive end spot.
He’ll likely end up as a mid- to late Day 3 pick, but it's not often you can find productive, quick, flexible pass-rushers that late, and he could turn out to be an instant impact as a situational speed rusher.
Maybe not quite as “under the radar” compared to the others on this list because he was invited to the Senior Bowl, but Jordan Tripp is still under-appreciated as a legitimate top-10 linebacker in this class. Hailing from Montana, Tripp has been on NFL radars for two years now, touted as one of the best defensive players at the FCS level.
The 6'3", fluid and controlled athlete fits best in a 4-3 defense, either at the "Will" or "Mike" linebacker spot, thanks to his athleticism in the short area and vision of the ball in space. Flashing as a pass-rusher more in his junior year than last season, Tripp has shown throughout his career he can fill multiple roles in a defense. That versatility should help him emerge in a lackluster linebacker class.
A fan of his since his junior season, I was shocked to see Williamson didn't receive a Senior Bowl or Shrine Game invite during the all-star circuit. Despite that, I think it makes Williamson even more of an under-the-radar talent that teams can steal in the later rounds after a successful career at Kentucky as one of the leaders, both statistically and leadership-wise, on a defense with staff turnover.
With an ideal body type to play in a 3-4 inside or as a 4-3 strong-side linebacker, Williamson is a balanced, controlled linebacker, keeping his read steps tight and embracing contact by interior linemen with a sturdy base. Though he isn't wowing in any key area and his coverage drops are more efficient than deep enough, he has the vision, anticipation and body type to be an NFL starter.
Both of these small-school cornerbacks have emerged after the Senior Bowl as legitimate top-three-round talents, even if the major media hasn’t caught up yet. Both Pierre Desir and Walt Aikens made the most of their Senior Bowl experience and have their sights set on being among the 2014 draft’s best cornerbacks.
Desir is one of the class’s best press cornerbacks, and despite still being very raw in his footwork and vertical coverage IQ, he’s the type of person and cornerback talent NFL teams are dying to get their hands on and develop. He won throughout the Senior Bowl practices as a press coverage cornerback, using his hands initially to knock even the more polished receivers off balance. Teams like the Seahawks, or any team trying to mimic the Seahawks' defensive back success, will strongly consider Desir.
Aikens didn’t dominate during Senior Bowl practice, but it’s clear thanks to his initial physicality and vertical speed that he’s not far off from turning the tough catches made on him in Mobile into consistent pass breakups. On film, Aikens has been the star of Liberty for two years now and on NFL radars since well before his senior season. Not often targeted by opposing quarterbacks, he's produced and finished breakups and interceptions about as well as he could have based on the limited attempts sent his way on film.
After a strong junior season and on pace to lead the country in interceptions during the first few games of the year, the high-ceiling Maryland talent suffered a shoulder injury, per the Baltimore Sun, that knocked him out of the lineup for the season and likely forces him to miss the NFL combine. This is a tough blow for a cornerback with his preseason attention and the upside he flashed as a junior despite playing on a lackluster team.
His length, quickness and fluidity will certainly interest teams on Day 3 of the draft. He'll likely only fall that far due to his injury, but if he can work out during the pro day circuit, he could quickly force teams to thrust him up their boards.
Once he’s recovered, he may not be far away from starting in the NFL. He’ll slip on draft day because of the unknown that surrounds his injury, but a savvy team will use his physicality, patience and timing to make him a late 2014, early 2015 NFL starter.
After two successful seasons in the Sun Belt, Dowling opted to be one of the 102 juniors to leave school early and test the NFL waters. While I don’t support the decision, there is certainly some sound reasoning behind why he would leave early, most notably that he has the talent to be a solid NFL free safety and it’s a weak safety class.
Dowling has plus range as a center fielder and the length that allows him to have success in both man coverage and as a tackler on the perimeter. He’s not a finished product, and his read steps still need ample work, but he’s comparable to Jonathan Cyprien, last year’s Sun Belt safety standout. He can contribute immediately in the NFL on special teams and as a fifth defensive back in nickel and dime sets, but he may not be far off from being an NFL starter.