With three months still remaining before the 2014 NFL draft, the stocks of many prospects will rise and fall plenty by the time names are actually called at Radio City Music Hall. But from where things sit right now, here are 10 of the players I think will outplay their current draft projections.
A bit undersized and coming from a mid-major program like NIU, Ward is flying under the radar in many safety rankings at the moment. But a closer look reveals a ball hawk with the instincts and intelligence to be an impact player at the next level.
Ward followed up a fantastic senior campaign (seven interceptions, 10 defensed passes) for the Huskies with a stellar showing in his hometown of Mobile, where he was named Most Outstanding Defensive Back of Senior Bowl week.
Ward has experience sliding down into the slot to cover receivers man to man and has the change-of-direction skills that will make him a versatile asset at the NFL level. Also, while Ward is a big hitter, he's also a smart hitter, which has become a vital aspect of playing safety in the modern NFL, considering the recent rule changes.
With popular names like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville being billed for the first round, I'd be just fine waiting until the second round and grabbing Ward.
With the logjam that is the second tier of receivers in this year's draft class, I feel like Richardson is the one player who might be falling through the cracks.
If that turns out to be true on draft day, one NFL team could come up with a big steal.
Though he sports a lean frame (6'1", 170 lbs), Richardson uses his length well and has great ball skills. The junior from Los Angeles exploded in 2013 for 83 catches, 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns and will leave Boulder with 29 school records.
With so many teams in the 20-32 range needing a receiver, it's possible that Richardson could sneak into the latter part of the first round, especially if he can add some bulk and show in workouts that he's still retained his explosiveness.
If the dust settles and he's still available in the middle of the second round, he'll be a huge value pick.
A player who might see his draft stock suffer due to the "tweener" label, Smith is an outside linebacker with the frame of a prototypical safety. He'll need to find an identity at the next level, but if he does, his natural athletic ability and explosiveness could make him a dangerous defender.
At a shade under 6'3" and just 218 pounds, it's hard to see Smith being an every-down linebacker in the NFL, even though that's where he'd prefer to stay. He's at his best in open space and can get lost in traffic at times, which might allow him to make more plays roaming as a safety down in the box. The question will be if his quickness and speed will be matched with enough fluidity and change-of-direction ability to hang tight in coverage.
It will take the right team with the right system and plan for Smith to reach his full potential at the next level, but he possesses the physical tools to make him a dynamic presence.
As more and more teams move to the 3-4 defense, plenty of prototypical 4-3 defensive ends seem to be sliding further down in the draft each year. With an explosive first step and nonstop motor, Crichton could provide some serious value if put in the right system.
Crichton's frame (6'3", 265 lbs) makes him a perfect fit for the 4-3 end position, and he has the skill set to match. He uses quickness and active hands to make himself an effective pass-rusher, as he tallied 16 sacks over the past two seasons. He's also hustles constantly and is always looking to to chase plays down from the backside.
Just like with Telvin Smith, it will take the right scheme for Crichton to reach his ceiling as an NFL player. There will be plenty of 4-3 teams who would love to grab him on Day 2 and reap the benefits.
The center position is always an tough one to scout and project, but teams who do their due diligence can find some real gems in the middle rounds of the draft. Top center prospects have to be extremely versatile, showing both agility and strength, all while sporting a high football IQ.
After a great showing during the Senior Bowl week, Richburg has proved that he has what it takes.
Richburg, a 6'4", 300-pound senior from Bushland, Texas, was one of the most pleasant surprises in Mobile. He showed a great blend of strength and balance in handling interior defensive linemen, while also displaying the quickness and agility needed to be an effective blocker at the second level.
He held his own all week against top competition, sending his draft stock soaring.
Even with his solid performance at the Senior Bowl, Richburg is not appearing anywhere among the top centers in many rankings I've seen. For me, he ranks just below Rimington Award winner Bryan Stork of Florida State, and will be ready to start from day one.
The Jaguars, Ravens and 49ers would be perfect landing spots for him in the third round.
This year's cornerback class is all over the place. Every set of rankings you can find will tell you a different story as to who are this year's top cover men, but we're likely to see them settle into some sort of consensus over the next few months.
One name that I expect to see rising in the coming weeks is E.J. Gaines.
What Gaines lacks in elite straightline speed he makes up for with physicality and great read-and-react ability. The 5'11", 195-pound senior from Independence boasts a tightly packed frame and is a sure tackler who can deliver a blow. His ability to quickly diagnose plays makes him a superb run defender, and he lined up as both the field or boundary corner interchangeably.
Gaines turned plenty of heads late in the 2013 season when he held Texas A&M WR Mike Evans to just eight yards receiving on four catches.
With plenty of corners projected to go on Day 2, Gaines will likely go to a team who sees his particular skill set as a perfect match for their scheme, regardless of perceived overall value compared to the rest of the class.
Heading into the 2013 season, much ado was made about Arizona State DT Will Sutton. But it was Bradford who made the bigger splash, establishing himself as a legitimate edge-rushing threat and making some serious waves in the draft community.
A redshirt junior, Bradford (6'1", 245 lbs) led the Sun Devils with 19 tackles-for-loss and 8.5 sacks on his way to earning first team All-Pac-12 honors in 2013. Playing what ASU calls the "Devil-Backer" position—linebacker/rush end hybrid - Bradford projects as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level.
Bradford's versatility will make him very attractive to NFL teams, but with a draft class packed full of quality 3-4 outside linebackers, he could easily end up being a steal on Day 2.
Another player who did wonders for his draft stock at the Senior Bowl was Moses, who impressed scouts all week against the nation's top senior pass-rushers.
The 6'6", 325-pound Moses has the imposing size that teams look for in a dominant tackle, as well as the athleticism to hang with speed-rushers and be an effective downfield blocker in the screen game. Moses enjoyed a stellar career that saw him start 43 games at both tackle positions.
This year's draft class will have plenty of tackles projected in the second- to third-round range, and teams would be wise to snatch up Moses before the third round begins.
After a disappointing 1-11 season for the Golden Bears, the Rodgers chose to leave Cal after his junior season and head to the NFL—this despite catching just one touchdown in all of 2013.
But it's how his natural physical abilities project at the next level that could make Rodgers a steal in this year's draft.
Rodgers sports a similar skill set to top-tier tight ends such as Texas Tech's Jace Amaro and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, displaying a tall frame and long arms that should make him a dangerous red-zone threat.
A subpar statistical performance last season has Rodgers flying under the radar, but in the right system he could end up having a significant impact at the next level.
This year's class at running back runs at least 10 deep with players who could make an immediate impact at the next level. That being said, teams looking to find a diamond in the rough late in this year's draft would be wise to grab Portland State's DJ Adams.
Solidly built, the 5'10", 210-pound Adams turned heads in the postseason by taking MVP honors at the Medal of Honor Bowl, where he scored a pair of touchdowns. The Maryland transfer lit up opposing defenses in 2013 to the tune of 1,600 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, while adding 180 yards receiving. He's thick enough to handle a pounding, but shifty enough to make defenders miss.
Injuries pile up at running back, making depth at the position vital. NFL teams would be wise to take a long look at Adams in the later rounds of this year's draft.