You can have your Johnny Manziels, Jadeveon Clowneys and Blake Bortles—the real drama of the NFL draft will be which teams can land the best sleepers of the lot.
That’s not to suggest there is a Tom Brady sitting around in this year’s draft class waiting to be plucked in the seventh round, but there is plenty of talent to be had after we look beyond the obvious first-rounders. A sizable chunk of productive contributors in the NFL today were not taken in the first 20 picks of their respective draft, and soon we will say the same about the 2014 group.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some projections for this year’s top hidden gems in the NFL draft.
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
If you have any Vanderbilt jokes, save them for someone else. Jordan Matthews tallied more total catches and receiving yards in the history of the mighty SEC over the course of his magnificent career than any other player.
That’s right, there has never been an Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee or LSU player in the history of the league to match Matthews' numbers. What’s more, he didn’t exactly have Joe Montana throwing him perfect strikes on every route.
Matthews improved on his receptions and receiving yards every season he was on campus and totaled 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns on 112 catches as a senior.
Matthews obviously won’t be posting those numbers in an NFL offense right away because he won’t be option one, two and three like he was at Vanderbilt. Still, he will also theoretically have a better signal-caller throwing him the ball and talented receivers surrounding him to alleviate some of the defensive focus.
Taking all that into consideration, Matthews will finish with 45 catches, 478 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. He will be a middle-of-the-field threat because of his ability to fight through traffic, and whichever team drafts him will use his soft hands in the red zone at some point.
Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Ahmad Dixon is a rare safety and linebacker hybrid who finished with nearly 300 tackles and four interceptions at Baylor during his collegiate career.
He is a physical specimen at 6’ and 212 pounds, and he uses his combination of size and athleticism to attack ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage, even when he starts back from his safety spot. You would be hard-pressed to find a safety who hits harder than Dixon in this draft, something that he recognized, via Justin Rogers of MLive.com:
I'm a big hitter, but I can tackle as well. I can make the usual wrap, just to make the tackle. I realize every hit won't be a big hit. Sometimes you have to get nasty and grab an ankle or jump on a back, whatever it takes to get a guy down.
The projection here is that Dixon earns a starting job midway through the season as an under-the-radar rookie. There are such versatile offenses in the NFL today—with the read option, tight ends acting like wide receivers, screen games and much more—that a defender with the versatility and athleticism to match will be a critical pawn in the chess game.
Dixon is a three-down player who can stop the run and dish out punishment like a linebacker and hang with tight ends on passing routes. Since he will be on the field so much because of this rare skill set, Dixon will total 78 tackles and two interceptions, even though his starting nod won’t come until midway through the season after he has impressed his coaching staff enough.
Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State
The 2014 NFL draft is loaded with elite cornerback prospects, but Rashaad Reynolds is flying under the radar a bit as the day actually approaches.
The Oregon State product checks in at 5’10”, but he has a strong frame and isn’t afraid to get physical with wide receivers despite a lack of height. He also has a knack for the ball, which was evidenced by his conference-leading six interceptions in 2013 and Hawaii Bowl MVP after he returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke sees Reynolds as one of his sleepers in the draft:
Reynolds will eventually earn a spot as a corner in the NFL, but he won’t quite crack a starting lineup as a rookie. However, he has the speed and instincts necessary to contribute on special teams (which he did at Oregon State) and will find a way to get on the field in third-down situations.
Look for 20 tackles, one interception and a handful of impact special teams plays in Reynolds' rookie season.
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