The goal of the NFL draft is for 32 franchises to build through youth and athletic ability. The entire event of the draft has become a huge market unto itself. The proliferation of draft coverage has been remarkable in recent years. What was once a niche is now as mainstream as football itself.
Access has been a huge part of that. Teams, writers, analysts and even fans have access to far more information on prospects than ever before, even those lesser-known, mid-round prospects. And that’s what this is all about.
First, let us define our terms. A mid-round prospect is outside of the top-100 selections. Mid-round also cuts off prior to the deep rounds, where all bets are off. For this exercise, let’s think of it as players in the fourth- and fifth-round range.
In this area is where teams often look toward supremely athletic prospects or highly productive ones playing in lesser known systems or smaller programs. It’s too early to look at guys who lack great film, but probably too late to get any top-tier sliders, unless it is due to a significant injury or off-field legal issues.
Nevertheless, mid-round prospects are risky. Great teams are built in these rounds and missing on these players can get you fired. However, you hit big on these guys, and it makes your first-round picks even better. Here is a look at 10 of these mid-round gems your team should consider. If these pro hopefuls can get on the right teams and play to their potential, the reward well outweighs the risk.
Devonta Freeman, Running Back, Florida State
All the press out of Florida State last year was about quarterback Jameis Winston, and rightfully so. However, if you were paying too much attention to Winston, you might have missed running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman is the type of back with film that grows on you. The more you watch, the better he looks. His size is not ideal, but he gets the most out of his 5’8”, 206-pound frame.
Freeman runs with excellent power and a nice forward lean. You have to appreciate a back that is always working and fighting for yards. Freeman has nice speed and excellent vision.
At FSU, Freeman did a lot of the dirty work between the tackles and did an excellent job setting up his blockers. His agility is underrated. In the open field, Freeman has a exceptional lateral agility to make tacklers miss.
In the right system, Freeman could have a Ray Rice-like impact on the offense. Low to the ground, surprising power and solid hands out of the backfield are an excellent combination.
There’s not much beyond his lack of ideal size and acceleration to discount about his game. Some team is going to snatch Freeman up in the early fourth round and get a back who can contribute right away.
Donte Moncrief, Wide Receiver, Mississippi
Sometimes, a player will dip into the mid-rounds by no fault of their own. That is partially the case for Mississippi wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Looking only at Moncrief from a talent standpoint, he is on par with wide receivers who will be drafted well ahead of him.
At 6’2” and 221 pounds, Moncrief casts an imposing shadow. He has the look of a physical interior receiver who will fight for the football. And to a degree, he is. However, with legit 4.4 speed, Moncrief has shown that given the opportunity, he can run past defenses as well. This package of size and speed sets him up to be a real multi-purpose receiver.
Scouting Moncrief is a challenge, primarily because Mississippi had a revolving door of inconsistent quarterback play. He displayed soft hands at times, but you could see lapses in concentration that led to drops that shouldn’t have happened.
Same with his routes. At times he blew past the jam, stuck his foot in the ground and ran crisp routes. Other plays he was lax and lazy.
In a wide receiver class as talented and deep as this one, Moncrief’s shortcomings are magnified. This will almost certainly push him down. If Moncrief slides out of the first three rounds, he will be a real bargain for some team.
On a team where he has some talent around him and consistent quarterback play, Moncrief can be a very productive professional.
Josh Mauro, Defensive End, Stanford
With the growing number of 3-4 defenses in the NFL, players like Stanford's Josh Mauro have become much more valuable. As a true 5-technique defensive end, Mauro can join a roster and be ready to contribute from the beginning.
Too often, 3-4 defenses draft either undersized defensive tackles or traditional 4-3 defensive ends, then are forced to wait. Wait for the defensive tackle to trim down and learn to play on the outside. Or wait for the defensive end to beef up enough to anchor in a 3-4.
For Mauro, there will be no transition. He already has the requisite size at 6'5" and 271 pounds. More than that, Mauro also understands the position. He plays with power and leverage and displays sneaky athletic ability for a man his size.
Mauro is also experienced in multiple fronts, which helps his draft stock. Most 3-4 defensive ends are asked to slide inside in passing sets to allow the outside linebackers to drop down and rush.
From a technical standpoint, Mauro shows a very good punch at the snap and can finish strong as a tackler. He is never going to be a high sack guy, but no team is going to turn away a potential opening day starter drafted in the fourth round.
Phillip Gaines, Cornerback, Rice
When it comes to looking at film, Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines is a tough scout. Gaines has excellent size and length, but it isn't like Rice is a hub for NFL prospects. There's little doubt Gaines is the best player on the Rice defense, but because he is, it is hard to judge him in comparison to his teammates.
The big positive to Gaines' game is his ability diagnose a play and then close on the football. Gaines played primarily zone at Rice, and he used his exceptional speed and acceleration to close in a flash on wide receivers while the ball is in the air. Gaines isn't a great man-coverage corner, but for a team that plays a lot of zone, Gaines in the mid-rounds will be a steal.
Gaines is another player who is likely to slide because of the depth of the class as anything else. There are some exceptional cornerbacks in this class many of which excel in man coverage. These are the types of corners who are all the rage across the league right now.
Nevertheless, you cannot coach 6'0" tall with 4.4 speed and anticipation like Gaines has. By the time it is all said and done, Gaines might end up toward the end of the third round. Nevertheless, as a developmental prospect, Gaines has as much raw ability as any cornerback in the entire draft.
Billy Turner, Offensive Tackle, North Dakota State
Look out for North Dakota State offensive tackle Billy Turner. He might only be a fourth-round pick in May, but if he can get the technical side of his game to line up with the physical part of it, he will be a star.
At a solid 6'4" and 315 pounds with long arms, Turner certainly passes the eyeball test. On film, Turner flashes absolute dominance in the run game.
You have to appreciate a lineman with the type of punch Turner has. On multiple occasions, Turner exploded off the ball and worked the defender down the field like he was on skates.
In short, Turner is a sudden, violent player. On the other side of that is the lack of refinement to Turner's game. His footwork is sloppy, and he struggles when he isn't moving forward.
Because of these problems (all of which are coachable), Turner might be better suited to start his career at guard, then move back outside to tackle. He certainly looks athletic enough to be a pulling guard in a power scheme.
Overall, Turner has a physical and athletic package enticing enough to make him nearly impossible to pass up if he slips out of the first 100 picks. Not to mention, there is no offensive line coach who doesn't want a player with the violent and aggressive style of Turner.
Larry Webster, Defensive End, Bloomsburg
There is no aspect more important to the success of a defense than the ability to rush the passer. It makes the entire defense go. Average secondaries are better when the opposing quarterback has to be mindful of the pass rush every time they drop back.
Finding players who can rush the passer is different for every defense. The number of 3-4 defenses in the league means that a player like Bloomsburg defensive end Larry Webster is going to get a shot.
Webster is going to get that shot because he has the physical build to succeed as a rush outside linebacker, and the dynamic athleticism to be great at it.
Webster is a jet off the snap, and can close in a hurry. At 6'5" and 252 pounds, Webster has a long athletic build that can carry another 10 pounds without any problems. But, depending on which team drafts him, the extra weight might not be needed.
If he's drafted by a 4-3 team, it might want Webster to play at 265 pounds. However, a 3-4 team might not feel the need to bulk him up at the expense of his speed and explosion.
Webster is going to slide because of his limited experience and level of competition. No, you don't draft Webster in the first round. You draft Webster in the fourth round and bring him along slowly. Better to teach and mentor him on the finer points of rushing the passer than it is to take a player slightly more technically sound without his length and speed.
Josh Huff, Wide Receiver, Oregon
Oregon wide receiver Josh Huff is in a similar situation as Moncrief. In some drafts, Huff is a much higher pick. However, in this draft, his weaknesses are exposed and he will slide.
But, what makes Huff a risk worth taking? First, it's those quick feet. Huff might not wow on the stopwatch, but he is straight up fast on the field. Teams give him cushion and he eats is up. Oregon lined Huff up all over the field, and he was able to be productive.
Huff's acceleration allows him to take those horizontal throws and get yardage in a hurry. When he works the intermediate and deep seams, he finds spots in zones or runs past linebackers and safeties.
In the NFL, Huff likely projects as a slot receiver. He would be a matchup nightmare for safeties and nickel cornerbacks who can't get their hands on him. Granted, when Huff does get pushed around at the line of scrimmage he struggles. But, that's why you move him around in motion, get him quick throws and keep defenses guessing.
Watching Huff play, he reminds me of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in many ways. Huff is a little beefier, and Sanders is a little faster, but both run similar routes and do similar things after the catch.
Huff is not an easy scout because of the offense at Oregon, but his hands are active and it never appeared he was lazy in his routes or after the catch. Some team is going to be very happy to snatch up Huff early in the fourth round.
Marcel Jensen, Tight End, Fresno State
All the talk this draft season has been about the top tight ends. North Carolina's Eric Ebron has been garnering all the headlines, and rightfully so.
Ebron is a tremendous prospect, but, let's say you already have a tight end you are confident trotting out as a receiving threat.
No, your team needs a big, physical player who can secure the tough catch, move the chains on third down and is raw enough to slide to the late fourth round.
Fresno State tight end Marcel Jensen is your guy. Jensen has some legitimate criticisms about his game. For an offense that threw so much, Jensen wasn't targeted very much. And Jensen was rarely targeted downfield. Granted, Jensen isn't the athlete that Ebron is, but he is far more athletic than what the stopwatch tells you.
As an added bonus, Jensen is a very capable run-blocker lined up tight and, as a receiver, he shows soft hands. Most of his routes were in the middle of the field, and he displayed an excellent knack for finding soft spots in zones and was fearless making catches in traffic.
Draft Jensen if you have a veteran he can learn from, and you just might find yourself an excellent starting tight end in a year or two.
Antone Exum, Cornerback, Virginia Tech
Savvy teams understand how to scout college prospects who suffer injuries. Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum lost nearly his entire 2013 season recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in January 2013. Exum made an attempt to return during the 2013 season, but was unable to play at 100 percent and was eventually shelved for the season.
Exum was healthy enough to put in a full workout at the combine and did well. However, his lack of 2013 film is going to push him down. It doesn’t help his case that he is part of a loaded cornerback class, as well.
Looking at Exum’s body type, skills and measurables, he could project to be a much better safety than cornerback. While this is good that he has shown versatility, it doesn’t help his draft stock if teams rate him as a safety. Exum is rock solid in coverage, whether it is man or zone.
He can come up and press receivers and throw them off their timing or turn and mirror speedy receivers. Exum has solid hands and understands when to go after the football.
However, if a team takes the time to go back and watch the 2012 tape on Exum, it will find an exceptional coverage player and physical run-stuffer. If a team thinks that Exum can return to 2012 form as either a cornerback or safety, he is well worth the mid-round risk.
Dion Bailey, Safety, USC
Watching the NFL, it has become clear the role of an NFL safety has changed. The days of the classic free safety deep and strong safety up close could be coming to an end.
Due to this evolution, the demands of prospects coming in have increased. And for the most part, college prospects have evolved with it. However, smart franchises understand if you can get a player who is very good at one or the other, you can build around them.
That is the case with USC safety Dion Bailey. Watching Bailey play, it is fairly obvious his strength is not dropping into deep man as a center-field type of player, and he's probably not the guy who lines up across from slot receivers. But, in the box, playing the short zones and delivering big hits is where Bailey excels. That's not to say he can't play coverage.
Against tight ends and running backs, Bailey's physical play will be welcomed. A number of strong safeties and free safeties have become more lax. Now, it is expected that on any given play, either safety could be asked to play one of these roles.
But, with range being the buzzword for safeties this year, Bailey will slide. And a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who employ a strong safety in a more pure role, Bailey can be a star.
In fact, other than long speed, there are many similarities to Bailey and Troy Polamalu in and around the line of scrimmage. Draft Bailey knowing what his limitations are and exploit those strengths.