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NFL Draft 2014: Analyzing Late Climbers Fighting to Sneak into Opening Round

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 09:  Tom Savage #7 of the Pittsburgh Panthers drops back to pass against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game on November 9, 2013 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2014

By the end of Thursday night, 32 NFL prospects will go to sleep on cloud nine after getting selected in the draft's opening round. Many of the more popular names have been discussed ad nauseam, but some sleeper choices could surprises many viewers.

Football fans are by now all too familiar with Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles. You know that Teddy Bridgewater may slip because of his pro day while Khalil Mack is now a prudent top-five choice. How about the other guys?

These three players have turned into trendy choices during the final stretch run, putting them in contention to earn a Round 1 selection. They might have to wait until after Thursday to get selected, but don't be surprised if their names are called during the opening night.

 

Tom Savage, QB, Pittsburgh

DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 21:  Tom Savage #7 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 21, 2013 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Tom Savage has taken such an uncommon path to the draft, which has some scouts scratching their heads about the 24-year-old quarterback.

The age is not a great start, and neither is the fact that he didn't play college ball in 2011 and 2012. Savage, a former Rutgers signal-caller, transferred to Pittsburgh as a fifth-year senior, where he completed 61.2 percent of his passes and threw 21 touchdowns.

Shortly before the draft, he went from unmentioned quarterback to a golden deity whose arm was stronger than one of those T-shirt toss guns. Last month, NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah said the hype was more than just a smokescreen. 

He possesses the prototypical size with a strong arm, which apparently means more these days than succeeding at playing football. Before getting carried away, Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke offered a counterpoint to Savage's rising popularity. 

That’s not to say that Savage is destined to fail — at 6-foot-5 with a big arm, he ticks off many of the boxes NFL teams look for at quarterback. But he also turned in three rather nondescript college seasons, while playing for three teams. He is very limited in his mobility and must get much quicker with his decision-making before any team can even begin to think about him as starting-QB material.

Does the potential bump him above a plummeting prospect like Bridgewater or other projected Day 2 guys (Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, etc.)? It might. It probably should not.

Out of these three, Savage is the least likely to get taken in Round 1. There's a solid chance everyone will be asking "Why is Tom Savage still on the board in Round 3? I thought everybody loved him."

 

Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana

Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

Already admired for its deep batch of wide receivers, the draft now has another wideout garnering first-round consideration in Indiana's Cody Latimer, who caught 72 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns during his junior season.

In his final mock draft, subscription required, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. tabbed Latimer to the San Francisco 49ers at pick No. 30. He explained in a teleconference call earlier this spring, via the Indianapolis Star's Zach Osterman, why the young wideout caught his eye.

"When you're 6-21/2 and you're 225 pounds and you run a 4.39 (40-yard dash) and you're one of the strongest wide receivers you'll ever come across, and you have real good hands and natural pass receiving skills, that's going to push you up," Kiper said.

Once a scout of Kiper's stature plants his flag in a prospect, others follow suit and purchase a seat on the bandwagon. Just like that, a mid-round prospect could now sneak into the first round.

Latimer now stands a strong shot at finding a new home on Thursday night. Along with San Francisco, the Cleveland Browns (No. 26), New Orleans Saints (No. 27) and Carolina Panthers (No. 28) are all in the market for a wideout.

 

Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois

MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 25:  Jalen Saunders #8 of the South squad catches a pass in front of Jimmie Ward #15 of the North squad during the Reese's Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on January 25, 2014 in Mobile, Alabama.  The South defeated the North 20-10
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Widely viewed as a Round 2-3 talent, Jimmie Ward is starting to invade the first round of mock drafts.

Ward headlined CBS Sports' Pete Prisco's annual "Better-than Team," a group of players he likes more than the general consensus of scouts.

Ward is a 5-10, 193-pound safety who plays much bigger than he's listed. He is a willing tackler in the run game, and played up near the line a lot at NIU. But he's more than capable of playing deep.

He is a smooth player in coverage, who turns and runs like a corner when he's asked to do so. I watched several of Ward's games, and really thought he competed on every play, which is something I like to see.

The only problem with this pick: Many scouts are reappraising Ward with more positive results. B/R's Matt Miller took a deeper look at his pro prowess in March.

Jimmie Ward stands out as a coverage safety both on film and in person. During his time at the Senior Bowl he showed smooth hips and fluid, controlled movement in space. That makes him a threat to play immediately in the NFL, even if he's used only as a nickel coverage safety or slot cornerback.

The Green Bay Packers need help at safety, which is why Ward occasionally gets attention at No. 21 if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor are both already gone. An early-to-mid Round 2 selection is more realistic approximation for the unheralded safety, but keep him in mind as Round 1 comes to a close.

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