Everyone knows about the top projected picks for the upcoming NFL draft at this point. Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel will all be counted on to turn the fortunes of struggling franchises around rather quickly. But what about the less-heralded prospects that could see their names called in the late first round or early second round?
Oftentimes, those who become the best NFL players aren’t necessarily the ones who shot to the top of the projected drafts by January. Instead, they're the ones who were drafted to solid franchises that consistently put enough talent around them to thrive.
With that in mind, let’s dig into a discussion about some under-the-radar defensive players who will shine at the next level.
Jason Verrett, Cornerback, TCU
Had Jason Verrett been a draft prospect 10 years ago, there wouldn’t be much of a chance that he would hear his name called in the first couple of rounds.
That is because, fair or not, he isn’t very big (listed at 5’10” and 176 pounds on ESPN.com), and there would be a fear that quarterbacks could exploit his lack of size with jump balls and physical receivers.
However, today’s NFL is quickly turning into a passing league, with almost every team featuring three-receiver sets, meaning athletic and quick corners like Verrett are needed more than ever to stop slot receivers.
Verrett may not be big, but he is a playmaker who is constantly around the ball. He is also a formidable pass-rusher, which will allow teams to use his speed to rush off the end in nickel sets. Verrett is the exact type of corner teams need in today’s game to stop the high-octane passing attacks that litter the league.
Stephon Tuitt, Defensive End/Tackle, Notre Dame
It’s not too often that a Notre Dame defensive playmaker can fly somewhat under the radar, but after an up-and-down season production-wise, that is exactly what is happening with Stephon Tuitt.
Talent-wise, Tuitt is probably a top-15 or 20 pick, which means if the right team takes him late in the first round it could be getting a steal. His versatility is the first thing that stands out, because he can play in a variety of defenses (3-4 or 4-3) as either a pass-rushing defensive end or a run-stuffing tackle.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller echoes the sentiment that he is incredibly talented but struggled a bit on the field this year:
Regardless of the inconsistency, Tuitt has the coveted size and speed combination that is so highly sought after in almost every sport. There are few, if any, defensive sets that he couldn’t thrive in, which means he may end up as a first-round pick.
Kony Ealy, Outside Linebacker/Defensive End, Missouri
Speaking of versatility, Kony Ealy from Missouri provides just that.
He is capable of playing on the line or as an outside linebacker and is one of the best pass-rushers in this entire draft. Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports believes that the New Orleans Saints will recognize this and use their first pick on the SEC product:
If there's a pressing need on this defense, it's a pressure player on the edge. Ealy has seen his stock rise as more teams see a similar type of talent to the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith budding. Despite having a bigger frame, Ealy is not as freakish an athlete as Smith and he needs to defend the run better, but there are some similarities. Ealy is a power player, and he'd be a perfect fit—if he can prove he stand up consistently—in this Rob Ryan scheme.
Comparisons to Aldon Smith may be a bit premature before Ealy even plays a snap in the NFL, but just mentioning him in the same sentence as the 49ers’ standout is noteworthy.
Ealy will end up becoming a genuine pass-rushing star at the next level, which becomes more valuable every year with rule changes that favor wide receivers against the secondary and mobile quarterbacks sprinkled throughout the league.