The 2014 NFL draft class has been heralded as perhaps the deepest in league history, so there are bound to be players with elite talent who aren't as polished and will fall into the later rounds.
In years past, perhaps front offices would reach for some of these physically gifted prospects earlier on. That won't be the case as often this time around, because there are too many pro-ready commodities to be had. Taking on pricier projects isn't necessary.
With that serving as context, there are some truly unique athletes who could make many teams regret not taking a risk—or even a mid-to-late-round flier—based on their upside and immense room to develop.
Here is a closer look at several candidates to do just that, with analysis as to what makes them special and where they might land in the draft.
Note: Complete seven-round order is listed at ESPN.com.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
It's easy to fall in love with Thomas because of his rocket right arm to go with his athleticism and size. He weighed in at 6'6", 248 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine and ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash.
The negatives are glaring. Accuracy and mechanics are not Thomas' strong points, as he completed just 56.5 percent of his passes as a senior and threw 16 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. In his defense, he didn't have much talent at the skill positions, which caused him to perhaps press at times.
Thomas' physical dimensions bring to mind 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, whose passing prowess from the pocket was also questioned as he made the transition to be the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise. Newton wound up taking the league by storm as a rookie, and Greg Cosell of Yahoo! Sports believes Thomas is further along as a project than even Newton was when he came out of Auburn:
Here's the reality, which to many is inconceivable given the negative perception of Thomas, and Newton's relative success in the NFL after three seasons: Thomas is further along as a natural passer than Newton was at the equivalent point in time, having played more games in college, and learning an offense with far more complexities than Newton's Auburn offense.
Agree with Cosell or not, he does bring up some interesting points. What Thomas' success comes down to is how well he can prepare, and he must be drafted into the right situation. He is by no means ready to take the reins of an NFL team in his maiden campaign.
Josh Norris of NBC Sports Network notes how Pittsburgh prospect Tom Savage has garnered a ton of pre-draft buzz, but was unsure why Thomas wasn't doing the same:
That should see him tumble to Day 3, which is to say the fourth round or later. ESPN's Louis Riddick feels it's a safe estimate for Thomas:
One of two scenarios appears likeliest to play out: Either Thomas goes to a team that already has an established superstar QB or to one that truly believes it can groom him to become the long-term starter beginning in 2015 or 2016.
Teams will likely seek to stock up on depth before taking a quarterback who won't help them win for at least a year or two, so Thomas figures to slide to the fifth round. Once there—ready for it?—the Cincinnati Bengals, unsure about Andy Dalton as a surefire leader of the franchise, take Thomas at No. 164 overall.
It's a perfect scenario. Dalton knows how to be a pro, but Thomas won't threaten to unseat him as the starter. At least not in his first season. If the Red Rifle can't lead Cincinnati to a playoff victory, though, you can bet fans would clamor for Thomas, who would have a strong all-around team to work with and a legitimate No. 1 receiver in A.J. Green to help him out.
Prediction: Bengals draft Thomas in Round 5, No. 164 overall
Deone Bucannon, SS, Washington State
There is little question that Bucannon can bring the wood from the secondary. With his hard-hitting ability and big frame for the position at 6'1" and 215 pounds, he brings to mind Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Kam Chancellor, who was a fifth-round pick in his own right.
A lot of teams may be looking more closely at safeties than ever before after observing Seattle's success with Chancellor and free safety Earl Thomas as the Seahawks hoisted the Lombardi Trophy this past postseason.
What makes that tandem so effective are fundamentals, and Bucannon, while a turnover-generating force, often had too many bad plays, missed assignments or blown tackles. CBSSports.com draft expert Dane Brugler hinted at those shortcomings in his evaluation:
An impressive combine performance saw Bucannon confirm his top-tier athletic ability. Bucannon ran a 4.49-second 40, registered a 36.5" vertical leap and put up 19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Those excellent numbers come as little surprise for a player who piled up 114 total tackles, snagging six interceptions and forcing three fumbles in 2013, per CFBStats.com. With the 97th-ranked scoring defense in the country last season, the Cougars didn't exactly have a ton of talent on that side of the ball, so Bucannon likely had to take more risks than he may have liked to swing momentum in his team's favor.
If Brugler is correct and Bucannon isn't a top-75 type of prospect, he should fall to the late third or early fourth round. As long as the supporting cast around him in the defensive backfield is strong, he should be able to thrive as a starter, even as a rookie.
One stable organization in need at the strong safety spot is New England, and according to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, Bucannon visited with the Patriots:
After acquiring another talented playmaker for stud signal-caller Tom Brady and fortifying the front seven with depth, it's feasible that New England will prioritize the secondary next.
The likes of Darrelle Revis, Alfonzo Dennard and Devin McCourty are already back there. Adding a hard hitter in Bucannon who also has a nose for the football would be ideal.
Prediction: Patriots draft Bucannon in Round 4, No. 130 overall
Dri Archer, RB, Kent State
Want a sure bet for someone who will slide well into the third day of the draft? Look no further than Archer. The electric Golden Flashes product is an offensive weapon capable of playing slot receiver, lining up in the backfield and helping out as a return man.
Running back is such a devalued position, and it's where Archer played the majority of his snaps at Kent State. When he weighed in at the combine at a mere 173 pounds at 5'8", it was confirmed that he didn't have near the bulk to be an every-down back in the NFL.
But Archer did run a blazing 4.26-second 40 at Lucas Oil Stadium, showcasing the elite speed that can see him be a game-changer at the professional level. NFL.com's Gil Brandt reports that plenty of teams are taking interest:
Although he won't break many tackles, the trick for defenders will be to grab onto Archer in the first place, which is far easier said than done. He has the lateral quickness to complement his phenomenal straight-line speed, so Archer can make a massive impact in spite of his diminutive frame.
This is the classic case of a back who runs with an attitude and authority and can make up for his lackluster size by finishing off runs with a rare burst.
ESPN.com's Adam K. Moussa did a report on Archer in November 2013, noting that Kent State was the only Division I offer Archer received. Moussa documented what the playmaker's assistant coach Jerry McManus had to say about Archer's future in the pros:
...Dri has been dealing with doubt and proving people wrong his entire life. He knows that 40 time will help determine his NFL future. Throughout his journey, Dri has been on top of the mountain and in some very low valleys. I don't know exactly what the future holds for him, but I do know that Dri is incredibly driven. He'll be successful in whatever he does, on or off of the field. As for everything else, only time will tell.
Archer's fall in the draft will only drive him to continue pushing harder, and among the apparently interested suitors who brought him in for visits, most of them have some rather strong depth in the backfield.
A potential wild-card destination to toss out there is the Chicago Bears. Much of their offense is based on brute strength and size between the all-purpose, physical style of feature back Matt Forte, the cannon arm of Jay Cutler and the massive targets he throws to in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.
What Chicago could use is a dose of quickness and a scatback to spell Forte and also make linebackers look silly when Archer splits out wide. Creative coach Marc Trestman should be able to find ways to get the ball in Archer's hands, and he's also an ideal replacement for Devin Hester as a returner.
Prediction: Bears draft Archer in Round 5, No. 156 overall
All three of these players have such interesting positions. While Thomas plays the most important one of all, he is not a prospect any front office in its right mind would draft early. However, he does have the upside to emerge from a questionable QB class as the best of the bunch—if he ever gets the chance.
As for Bucannon, safety is generally not a spot that teams focus too much on, but that could change in light of Seattle's success. While safety stock is going up, running back values are at an all-time low. That makes Archer ripe for picking on Day 3, where a team just may get one of the premier steals of the draft.
The best part about Thomas, Bucannon and Archer is that they're all low-risk propositions if they fall to Day 3. With the need to prove themselves as pros and their top-notch talent, all three have the potential to thrive.
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