5 Undervalued Draft Prospects the Cowboys Should Target
The Dallas Cowboys have 11 picks in the 2014 NFL draft, but the quantity means nothing if they aren’t able to hit on some undervalued prospects. Finding value means identifying and exploiting market inefficiencies—areas where other teams aren’t placing enough emphasis.
There are two primary keys to analyzing prospects, in my estimation: understanding predictors of NFL success at each position and emphasizing the ones that others are overlooking. One example of this is hand size in quarterbacks. It’s highly predictive of NFL success but not properly priced into quarterback draft slots; if it were, we wouldn’t see players like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson—short quarterbacks with large hands—fall in the draft.
When searching for undervalued prospects who should interest Dallas (or any team), I’m looking for traits I think are undervalued by the market and comparing those to the projected draft slot for each prospect. It really comes down to the draft slot. A single prospect might be awesome value in the third round and horrible value in the back of the first; it’s all about expected value versus cost.
Here are my top five undervalued prospects, the biggest predictors of their success, their projected draft round and some analysis.
Chris Smith, DE/OLB, Arkansas
Biggest Predictors: Arm Length, Production, Explosiveness
Projected Round: 3
Arkansas outside linebacker/defensive end Chris Smith is one of the reasons I don’t think the Cowboys need to draft a defensive end that early, even though it’s a huge need. He’s a 6’1”, 266-pound outside linebacker who should be able to stick his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end.
The concern is Smith’s height, which is why he’s going to drop to the middle rounds. Height is correlated with success for pass-rushers. The question is whether or not that’s because being tall helps or because tall players typically have something that really matters—long arms.
We continually see short, long-armed pass-rushers like Justin Houston drop too far in the NFL draft because of a trait that’s overvalued (height) and then excel in the pros because of one that really matters (arm length).
Well, Smith has 34.1-inch arms, which is just ridiculous for his height. That helped him tally 18 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons at Arkansas. Smith is one of the most undervalued players in this class because teams will get scared by his height. And oh yeah, he can also jump 37 inches vertically.
Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
Biggest Predictors: Size, Production, Age
Projected Round: 2-3
Age is perhaps the single-most undervalued predictor of NFL success across all positions. NFL teams continually examine prospects independently of their age, but it has a massive impact on their projection.
The key isn’t how long a player can stay in the NFL, although that matters too, but rather accurately assessing his college production. When a 19-year old dominates college competition much older than him, that’s much more impressive than when a 23-year old does it.
Fresno State’s Davante Adams is young—a redshirt sophomore in 2013—and has everything you want to see in a college wide receiver prospect. His 6’1”, 212-pound frame is good (although not elite), but the main thing that stands out is his production; over the past two years, Adams recorded 233 catches, 3,031 yards and 38 touchdowns. Thirty-eight touchdowns!
And college production matters for receivers. A lot. Small school or not, Adams’ numbers were incredible.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Georgia Southern
Biggest Predictors: Weight/Speed Combo, Small School, Late Pick
Projected Round: 5
There’s no reason to spend an early pick on a running back. It’s such a dependent position that it’s really hard to isolate when evaluating, meaning the running back market is horribly inefficient; we continually see late-round running backs thrive because of a combination of evaluation errors and requiring primarily just a heavy workload (over efficiency) to produce in the NFL. So when I say that being a “late pick” is a predictor for Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, I just mean that it’s a predictor of value. Why waste an early-round pick on the sort of player you can get later?
Further, it’s a positive that McKinnon is a small-school back since they’re continually undervalued. Remember, since running backs are so dependent on their teammates for production, we see a lot of variance in their stats—a lot of randomness. In any random environment, you should minimize cost. Well, you can get the most bang for your buck on small-school players.
And of course, being 209 pounds with 4.41 speed and one of the NFL Scouting Combine’s top performers in every single drill doesn’t hurt. A big back with speed who jumps 40.5 inches vertically, 11’0” in the broad and runs a 4.12 short shuttle isn’t exactly common.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State
Biggest Predictors: Arm Length, Production
Projected Round: 1-2
When I first labeled Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence as undervalued a few months ago, his anticipated draft slot was the third round. Now, it’s closer to the second and perhaps the back of the first. I think Lawrence is a first-round type of player, but if he gets selected there, that’s no longer a huge value situation.
Anywhere in the second round, though, it’s a different story. This is a pass-rusher with almost 34-inch arms who was super-productive in college; he had 20 sacks and 34 tackles for loss in two seasons at Boise State. Based on those numbers alone, there’s no way Lawrence should slip to Dallas’s pick in the second round, but he still might.
Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina
Biggest Predictors: Age, Production, Arm Length
Projected Round: 2-3
If you look at defensive tackles, you’ll see that they don’t often come out of school early. Of the top 13 tackles listed by CBS Sports, only three are true juniors.
South Carolina’s Kelcy Quarles is one of those players. The 6’4”, 297-pound defensive tackle is young and has 33.25-inch arms—plenty long enough for the position and his production isn’t being discussed enough. Quarles had 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
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