2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting Players with Surprising Upside
Anyone can gush and wax poetic about the prospects from the power conferences and big-time programs, but sometimes the best part of draft day is watching the unheralded prospects fly off the board before the bigger names.
Heck, there has to be a reason that the NFL wants to stretch the process out over more hours and more days. It is because fans cannot get enough of learning about the also-rans and hidden gems.
We start draft week in that regard, highlighting players with surprising upside in this nine-part slideshow. We select one surprising talent at each of the NFL's positional groups: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker—we give you a combo there—and defensive back.
We also include the ultimate sleeper position, the newfangled "offensive weapon," of which burner Dri Archer (pictured above) is a leader of the pack.
Quarterback: Tom Savage, Pittsburgh
The Tom Savage ascension into the NFL draft's elite collection of quarterbacks started in October, when NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt ostensibly called him the best quarterback you've never heard of. Brandt considered Savage a Troy Aikman in style and a Ryan Tannehill-like example of a meteoric rise in draft status.
Brandt might be correct on the latter point.
Per NFL.com's Bryan Fischer, analyst Charles Davis, on NFL Network's Path to the Draft, went so far as to suggest Savage might rise all the way to the first round, like Tannehill did.
"Tom Savage, a big arm out of Pittsburgh, is a guy that some people may be considering as that surprise guy in the first round," Davis said.
He has NFL size and arm strength, but his lack of playing experience has held him back as a draft prospect, according to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler.
Running Back: Devonta Freeman, Florida State
Devonta Freeman's potential wasn't just hidden because he was a time-share running back in college—a lot of backs are nowadays. It was because he was sharing time with James Wilder Jr., who was a 247Sports 5-star recruit and had NFL bloodlines working in his favor.
Both Freeman and Wilder Jr. are in this draft class, but Freeman is the speedier, more compact back with the big-time upside at the next level. Wilder Jr. outproduced Freeman when the two were sophomores, but the numbers clearly went Freeman's way their junior year. He rushed for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, per Sports-Reference.com.
Coached by Luther Campbell in Pop Warner, according to the Miami New Times—yes, that Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew—Freeman is the first Florida State back to rush for 1,000 yards since Warrick Dunn. While Freeman is a Dunn-like 5'8", he is a compact 206 pounds, making him a Ray Rice-like package, according to CBS Sports' Rob Rang: "Freeman...is a Rice clone, showing good vision, agility, burst and underrated power due to his low center of gravity. He also possesses terrific hands out of the backfield."
This modern NFL likes backs who can impact the passing game, and Freeman has the ability to pass protect, too, as CBS Sports' Dane Brugler wrote:
Freeman is built low to the ground and runs even lower with forward lean and finishing toughness, making it easy to love his energy and determination. He is dangerous in space with his quick, coordinated footwork and strong acceleration out of his cuts to be effective inside or outside, showing a terrific mix of quickness and pop. Freeman is has (sic) some Ahmad Bradshaw to him and can be a three-down player with his ability in pass protection and as a receiver.
Offensive Weapon: Dri Archer, Kent State
Dri Archer would be the No. 1 overall pick if the NFL draft were about making a track team. He unofficially is the fastest player in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine. The problem lies in the fact he doesn't have NFL size or a true position.
A team can use Archer's speed as an offensive weapon in a variety of ways, though.
CBS Sports' draft profile sums up the surprising potential best from The Sports Xchange's Frank Cooney:
Archer is instant danger who can get to the end zone as fast as anybody who has ever played the game. Anybody. Really. He has the fastest time ever clocked in 40 yards at an Indianapolis combine -- 4.16 seconds, although his announced time was 4.26 seconds. He was used in college as a running back, wide receiver and as a returner who scored four touchdowns on kickoffs and would have scored more but teams kicked away from him.
An injury marred senior season (ankle) lends credence to concerns about his slight frame and durability. Frankly: Yes, Archer is small and probably fragile. But he's bigger and faster than Trindon Holliday (5-5, 170, Broncos in 2013) and you can't hurt what you can't catch.
No one is going to draft Archer as a starter at running back or wide receiver, but his speed makes him a potential big-time playmaker out of the middle to late rounds.
Wide Receiver: Cody Latimer, Indiana
When people think of Indiana University, very few think of football. There's a rising gem from that basketball school in wide receiver Cody Latimer, though.
Heck, he honed some of his receiving/athletic skills as a basketball player (see this dunk video). What else would you expect out of that state?
A broken foot kept him from big-time draft hype early in the process, but he ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash in his late March pro day, and now he might be flying all the way up the receiver rankings to be a late first-round pick, according to Tom Layberger of The Star-Ledger.
CBS Sports' draft profile quotes The Sports Xchange's Frank Cooney in saying Latimer is more than just a speed receiver or physical one. He's a nice combination of both...with basketball-like skills.
Tough, physical specimen who reflects skills learned in his first love, basketball. He has great hands, a natural ability to get body position on defenders and that 39-inch vertical leap helps him win a lot of jump balls. ...
Frankly: His 72 catches for 1,096 yards last year, mostly while battling a bad left foot, were usually on short tosses, which helped label him as a West Coast offense prospect. But his size, speed, strength and hands should do well in any system.
Tight End: Larry Webster, Bloomsburg
From one basketball player to another, Larry Webster, the son of a former NFL defensive lineman (Dolphins, Browns, Ravens and Jets, per NFL.com's draft profile), might not even be drafted to play the position he played at his small-school program. This is a hoop-playing defensive lineman who caught two touchdowns for eight yards one year ago.
Still, as NFL draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki wrote in the aforementioned profile, this physical freak might be better off on the offensive side of the ball:
A gifted athlete with NFL pedigree and intriguing developmental tools as a speed rusher, Webster could prove to be better fit as a flex tight end in the pros, possessing more of an offensive temperament and the size, wingspan, athletic ability and coordination to create mismatches in a similar mold as Broncos TE Julius Thomas and Browns TE Jordan Cameron exiting college with limited football experience.
This YouTube video of Webster's pro day starts off with him catching passes, and it was pretty impressive.
Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates started the trend of basketball-turned-future-Hall of Fame tight ends. Webster just might be the next sleeper in that realm.
Offensive Lineman: Billy Turner, North Dakota State
NFL bloodlines are intriguing, but they were not enough for North Dakota State offensive tackle Billy Turner to land a FBS scholarship offer, according to The Sports Xchange's Frank Cooney (h/t CBS Sports). After a successful run at that small school, though, Turner proved to be a durable winner and a worthwhile NFL project.
Heck, he might be more than a roster-filler long term, as Dane Brugler wrote in his CBS Sports draft profile:
Turner looks the part with NFL size, length and athleticism, staying light on his feet with natural body control. He needs to learn to consistently sink his hips and not bend so much at the waist, but he has the on-field demeanor and mean attitude to do damage in the NFL. Turner can play tackle if needed, but is best suited inside and with technique development, he has Pro Bowl potential down the road.
It is not how you start, but it can be how you finish, and Turner looks like he will be an impressive finisher after the top tackles are off the board on draft day.
Defensive Lineman: Caraun Reid, Princeton
It is not often you can point to an Ivy League prospect as a potential NFL star, but Caraun Reid is a quick defensive tackle out of Princeton who "has to be considered a sleeper," according to Bleacher Report's draft analyst in the above video.
Reid is a rare talent among defensive linemen, despite the knock of playing against inferior competition in college.
CBS Sports' Dane Brugler said his impressive Senior Bowl might have debunked his biggest knock:
Generally-speaking, NFL scouts view Ivy League schools like museums—somewhere to visit to appreciate the culture but not a place one expects to find something they can take home to add to their own collection.
With Reid, however, it isn't a question of if he'll be selected in the 2014 draft but when, especially after an impressive performance during the Senior Bowl which silenced critics who suggested that the two-time All-American built his production off inferior competition. Back-to-back All-American seasons don't come often for the Tigers, who hadn't seen anyone accomplish the feat in 20 years and had only six earn this success in consecutive campaigns since 1950.
Linebackers: Jordan Tripp and Brock Coyle, Montana
Linebacker tends to be a position, like running back, where you can find hidden gems on draft day. After Buffalo's Khalil Mack, UCLA's Anthony Barr and Alabama's C.J. Mosley, teams can hone in on any number of fast and aggressive tacklers.
Two linebackers out of Montana—Jordan Tripp (outside) and Brock Coyle (inside)—might not be near the top of anyone's boards, but they can play.
Heck, Coyle didn't even earn an invite for the NFL Scouting Combine, despite leading Montana with 125 tackles and ranking among the national leaders with 9.6 per game, according to CBS Sports' draft profile:
While Coyle didn't score an invite to the scouting combine, he did enjoy a solid pro day on March 18, posting a 4.60-second 40-yard dash, a 37-inch vertical, a 9'7" broad jump, 4.28-second 20-yard shuttle and a 6.74-second 3-cone drill, while benching 225 pounds 25 times.
Highly productive defender who displayed good athleticism and speed at his pro day. The big question being, is there a spot in the NFL for a "small school" prospect who plays inside linebacker—one of the more devalued positions in the league currently.
Among the two Montana 'backers, Tripp is more well-regarded, although he's still a sleeper because of his small-school resume, as CBS Sports' Rob Rang writes:
Tripp is the stereotypical small school linebacker, as he is highly instinctive, tenacious and a team captain. Don't sell Tripp short, however. Besides sporting a legitimate NFL frame, he's also a fluid athlete with good closing speed. ... Proponents of the traditional 4-3 alignment may find Tripp a good fit.
Defensive Back: Marqueston Huff, Wyoming
Wyoming's Marqueston Huff is yet another prospect who comes from a small school, but he boasts the ideal NFL measurables. Blessed with 4.46 speed, per CBS Sports, the former cornerback who moved to free safety as a senior will make an immediate impact on special teams.
Eventually, he could emerge as a starter for a team, despite his small-school status and draft projection.
His versatility and athleticism are intriguing for a player CBS Sports slotted as a latter-round defensive back. CBS Sports' Rob Rang concluded in his draft profile:
A former cornerback who plays with quickness and impressive physicality for his size, Huff tallied 127 tackles from his new free safety position in 2013, averaging 10.6 per contest (11th in FBS).Huff opened eyes at the Senior Bowl in January. His intriguing athleticism to blanket receivers of all sizes, led to projecting him back to the corner at the next level. But his versatility and athleticism should earn him serious consideration starting in the middle rounds and zone-based teams will view him as a rare utility player.
In this pass-happy league, every team needs more athletic back-end defenders like Huff. They don't care what school they find them at either.
As you have seen and read in this slideshow, NFL prospects come from a variety of places. As long as they can run and fit the mold, they're going to have value on draft day.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.