2014 NFL Draft: Predicting This Year's Pleasant Surprises
While NFL teams look for immediate impacts from their early-round draft selections, there are always pleasant surprises from every draft class—players who come in as lesser-heralded prospects but quickly become productive at the professional level.
Building a successful NFL team is as much about finding those hidden gems as it is finding stars with first- and second-round picks.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the No. 154 overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, famously the No. 199 overall pick in the 2000 draft, are just a couple of the many recent examples who emerged from meager expectations to become standouts and leaders of championship-winning teams.
The depth of talent in this year’s draft should lend itself to many pleasant surprises.
The following nine prospects are not projected to be early-round selections and do not stand out among their peers in this year’s draft class, but all of them have the skill sets to be very good players at the next level.
David Fales, QB, San Jose State
At the position that receives more attention than any other, San Jose State’s David Fales has seemingly become the forgotten prospect. With limited arm strength and athleticism and a lack of big-school name recognition, nothing stands out about Fales in comparison with his competition.
That said, he might end up being one of the smartest quarterback pickups in this year’s draft for whichever team lands him.
While quarterbacks with higher physical upside might end up being overdrafted, Fales will likely still be available in the middle rounds. That means he probably won’t be drafted into a situation where he is expected to start, but that’s not to say he can’t develop into a starter.
He might not have a great arm, but it’s good enough for him to be a successful downfield pocket passer at the next level. He is a consistently accurate passer, has clean footwork in the pocket and typically makes smart decisions with the football.
In the middle rounds, Fales would be a strong selection for any team that is looking to develop a potential future starter or needs a better backup quarterback, as he has a steady, well-rounded skill set with room to improve.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State
Ranked as a top-five national prospect out of high school by Scout.com and ESPN, Isaiah Crowell began his collegiate career with expectations of superstardom, but it went downhill fast. After just one season at Georgia, he was dismissed from the team in June 2012 after being arrested on gun charges.
He won’t face nearly the same expectations going into the NFL. After two productive but not outstanding seasons at the FCS level, Crowell is likely to be a late-round selection at best, depending on how well he can convince teams that his character has matured.
The Alabama State product might not even be the best small-school running back prospect in this year’s draft class, as Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon and Towson’s Terrance West have emerged as likely mid-round selections, but he has flashed the potential to be a special runner.
A good-sized back (5’11”, 224 lbs) who displays an impressive combination of burst, strength and agility, Crowell can both grind out tough yardage between the tackles and explode his way to big gains.
While he started his collegiate career with expectations he might not have attained even if he did not run into off-field trouble, the bar will be set much lower for the start of his NFL career. That said, if a team is willing to take a chance on him in the middle to late rounds of the draft, and he proves to have turned the corner in terms of maturity, he could end up being a steal and a productive, dynamic runner in the NFL.
Ryan Hewitt, FB/TE, Stanford
A prospect with uninspiring measurables projected to a dying position, Stanford’s Ryan Hewitt is unlikely to be selected before the last two rounds of this year’s NFL draft. He could prove to be a very valuable late-round pickup, however, as a versatile player who does many things well on the field.
He isn’t a big pile-driving runner or a downfield receiver with field-stretching speed, but he consistently contributes when he is in the game.
A strong, physical lead blocker who has great hands, Hewitt should find a spot on an NFL team. While he is unlikely to be an every-down player in a modern NFL offense, he could be an asset as both a run-blocker and pass-catcher in situational work as a fullback, H-back and/or tight end.
At the very least, he should also excel as a blocker on kickoff and punt return units. Special teams could be the Stanford product’s calling card in the NFL and only increase his value as a potential sixth- or seventh-round selection.
Hewitt’s size (6’4”, 246 lbs) and speed (4.87-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine) don’t stand out, but his activity level on the field was consistently noticeable in his play for the Cardinal. Expect him to take advantage of the opportunity to establish a role for himself at the next level.
Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
Jared Abbrederis gets stereotyped as a slot receiver, but while he won’t be a jump-ball specialist or blaze by NFL cornerbacks, he has more than enough size (6’1”, 195 pounds), speed (4.50-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine) and strength to play on the outside as well.
Regardless of where he lines up, he has many of the traits that make up a great NFL receiver. He is a smart, crisp route-runner who has sure hands, can play through contact and tracks the ball well downfield.
In a loaded draft class of towering rebounders and big-play weapons, Abbrederis isn’t among the top players at his position and should end up being selected in the middle rounds of the draft.
A team that seeks to add a receiver but does not want to invest a high draft pick in one would be smart to pick Abbrederis between the third and fifth rounds of this year’s selection meeting.
He isn’t the most explosive or dynamic player in the open field, but he can immediately challenge NFL defensive backs with his ability to get open. He could be a solid second or third receiving option at the next level, and he comes with a fraction of the investment that teams have to make with more highly rated receivers to play the same role.
Matt Patchan, OT, Boston College
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Boston College’s Matt Patchan as an NFL prospect. Already 24 after a college career that spanned six years between two universities, he has a concerning injury history and only one full year of starting experience as an offensive lineman.
Those factors are likely to push him into the late rounds of this year’s draft or potentially out of the draft altogether. Nonetheless, he is a talented, physically gifted offensive tackle prospect who just might emerge as a starter or very good swing tackle.
Patchan combines an impressive, 6’6” frame with tremendous all-around foot skills for his position. He is a skilled pass protector on the edge with the quickness to handle speed-rushers, while he excels at getting outside and/or to the second level as a run- and screen-blocker.
Results of his physical examinations with NFL teams might be the most important factor in his draft stock, while his age might be viewed as a limiting factor in his development—he still needs to put in a lot of work to gain significant NFL playing time.
What Patchan could bring to the table, however, is a talented option that is worth a risk for a team in need of an offensive tackle in the later rounds. It’s typically hard to come by an offensive tackle with his physical tools outside of the early rounds, but his long, strange journey of a collegiate career will likely leave him drafted late this year.
Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
The Ivy League is known far more for its academic excellence than for producing NFL talent, but the conference has produced its fair share of pleasant surprises in recent years, from Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant to retired NFL center Matt Birk and former NFL defensive end Marcellus Wiley.
This year’s top candidate to emerge from the conference as a productive NFL player is Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid.
A highly athletic interior defensive lineman, he is undersized for his position (6’2”, 302 lbs) but has great explosiveness off the snap and can be disruptive with his hands.
His dominance against Ivy League competition might not necessarily translate to success at the next level, but he made a strong case that it could with his performance at the Senior Bowl. While he might need to bulk up and become stronger to be a three-down player at the next level, he has the all-around skill set to be an effective 3-technique penetrator on an NFL defensive line.
A projected mid-round selection, Reid could be easy to overlook in a draft class with no shortage of defensive tackle talent, but he emerge as one of the class’ most impactful playmakers on the interior defensive line.
Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU
Overshadowed for most of his LSU career by stars around him on the defense, Lamin Barrow finally had his chance to be a leader and key player of the unit as a senior. He continued to perform well, but he’s still flying under the radar as a likely late Day 2 or early Day 3 draft choice.
An active, rangy and instinctive defender, he is a solid tackler who was consistently around the football for the Tigers defense. His athleticism might not have stood out in his collegiate career, but he proved at the NFL Scouting Combine, by running a 4.64-second 40 at 6’1” and 237 pounds, that his physical tools are more than adequate to be an NFL linebacker.
Barrow isn’t great in pass coverage and doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher—a combination that could put a lid on his draft stock and will have some labeling him as a “two-down player.”
However, a team could end up with a starting-caliber player at a value. He has the potential to play both inside in a 3-4 defense and outside in a 4-3 scheme, and by combining his speed for the position with his instincts, Barrow should continue to be around the football more often than not against NFL offenses.
Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
Telvin Smith is undersized for a linebacker, weighing in at just 218 pounds at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, but that might not be enough to stop him from making waves on an NFL defense.
The lack of bulk on his 6’3” frame is likely to knock him down into the third or fourth round of this year’s draft. If not for his size concerns, he would be a second-round pick or better.
The Florida State defender is a terrific athlete who stays within plays, can drop back into coverage fluidly and tackles with authority despite his small stature. He has great instincts and short-area quickness—traits that go a long way in helping him overcome his size disadvantage.
Smith could be viewed by some NFL teams as a strong safety in the mold of Seattle Seahawks standout Kam Chancellor. Although his size might limit him to playing weak-side linebacker in the NFL, his game suggests that he could be a pleasant surprise for the NFL team that drafts him.
He ideally needs to bulk up in an NFL conditioning program and might struggle when blockers are thrown directly at him, but he can be productive against both the run and pass and should also bring significant special teams value to a roster.
Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
There’s perhaps no position in football, especially since the Richard Sherman-led movement for big cornerbacks has begun, where physical skill sets are more scrutinized than at cornerback.
Duke’s Ross Cockrell doesn’t have the physical tools to stand out in a draft class with no shortage of draftable talent, but there also isn’t a great deal to scrutinize with his game.
The speed of the 6’, 191-pound cornerback is just adequate, but perhaps more importantly, he has fluid hips and uses his feet well. He is physical with his opponents, though his ability to emerge in an NFL secondary could be partially dependent on how well he can add strength, while he is very good at making plays on the ball in the air.
Cockrell might not be as big as what the new prototype for an NFL cornerback is becoming, but he has the all-around skill set to compete for a starting job at the position.
A likely mid-round selection, Cockrell needs to continue to work on his tackling ability, but could end up being more reliable in coverage and making more plays than many of the cornerbacks likely to be drafted ahead of him this year.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.