2014 NFL Draft: 20 Under-the-Radar NFL Rookies Who Will Make an Impact in 2014
With the 2014 NFL draft in the rear-view mirror, rookies around the league are trying to acclimate themselves in spring OTAs and minicamps. The pace of the NFL is a massive adjustment for most—one that should temper expectations for even the shiniest new prospects.
Nevertheless, rookies will inevitably play critical roles on contending teams in 2014, even those selected beyond the first two days. Indeed, while the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins are more likely to become foundational superstars, mid-round picks are the necessary cogs that sustain any long-term stretch of success.
When identifying potential mid-round steals, it's important to consider not only a player's upside but his environment as well. Thus, the prospects on this list are not necessarily the 20 best mid- to late-round players, but rather they are the ones who have the best opportunity to make a meaningfully positive impact in 2014.
With that in mind, here are the overlooked rookies most likely to emerge as important difference-makers next season.
20. Rob Blanchflower, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Round 7)
Rob Blanchflower flew under the radar after missing the majority of his senior season with a hernia injury, but he was on pace to set career-highs in receiving with 27 catches, 313 yards and three touchdowns in just six games. At 6'4" and 256 pounds, the UMass product possesses terrific size that could make him Heath Miller's successor as Pittsburgh's in-line "Y" tight end.
Blanchflower's greatest asset is his run-blocking ability, a skill that will go unnoticed by many. As an unrefined route-runner, the majority of his receiving production figures to come in the red zone, where he can use his superior size to carve out space. Nevertheless, as SBNation.com's Dale Grdnic relays, Steelers tight end coach James Daniel noted that Blanchflower's versatility made him a late-round target:
Rob is a guy that we had targeted. We brought him in for a visit and spent a lot of time getting to know him. (And) I think he has a chance to be helpful to us being a part of this football team. He has a high level of aggression, and he's a two-phased guy.
You can get guys who are going to be either run-blockers or pass-receivers, and he's adept at both of them. And that's something that really interested us in him. He's played in a multiple-formation offense, so what he did really gave us a chance to look at him doing a lot of different things.
Blanchflower will need to beat out veterans Matt Spaeth and David Paulson to earn a role. The 30-year-old Spaeth missed the majority of last season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in the preseason, and Paulson has just 13 career receptions in two seasons. The opportunity is there for Blanchflower to emerge as a viable contributor as the No. 2 tight end.
19. Lamin Barrow, ILB, Denver Broncos (Round 5)
As one of the deepest teams in the league, the Denver Broncos will probably not offer much playing time for rookies in 2014. Nevertheless, LSU's Lamin Barrow looks like a player who could carve out a valuable niche in the defense.
At 6'1" and 237 pounds, Barrow fits the new mold of the lighter, more athletic linebackers. However, as Andrew Mason of Broncos.com reports, Barrow is actually trying to add bulk while envisioning a move to middle linebacker:
"The (Broncos') strength staff has been telling me that I've got a good frame; I can put more weight on it and not lose any speed," he said. "That's kind of the game plan, to get with the nutrition staff, to add on some more healthy weight and just try to keep progress."
With every added pound, Barrow looks more the part of the prototypical NFL middle linebacker, which dovetailed with his work Friday.
"I've been getting work at the 'Mike,'" he said. "I've been kind of cross-training, learning the 'Mike,' the 'Will' and the 'Sam,' but primarily today, the 'Mike.'"
Barrow could potentially force his way into the starting Mike role, where veterans Nate Irving and Jamar Chaney figure to compete for playing time. Regardless, the rookie should have an important role in sub-packages along with Von Miller and Danny Trevathan, where the Broncos could use his coverage skills to stymie tight ends and running backs.
18. Shaq Evans, WR, New York Jets (Round 4)
Last season, the New York Jets had arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. With Rex Ryan facing a win-now mandate and second-year quarterback Geno Smith in need of new weapons, the Jets went out and re-stocked the cupboard with Eric Decker and three rookie receivers.
Of the trio, UCLA's Shaq Evans appears to be the likeliest to make an immediate impact. Evans (6'1", 213 lbs) largely played split end in college, as he has the size and catch radius to beat press-man coverage on the outside. Consequently, Eric Allen of Jets.com believes that the rookie could emerge as the No. 2 receiver alongside Decker:
It will be exciting to watch all these draft selections develop, but Shaquelle Evans is intriguing because he could push to become this team’s No. 2 WR. The 6’1”, 213-pound Evans, who broke out the past two seasons with the Bruins, is proficient in a lot of categories: hands, route running and instincts. I saw him up close at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL and there is talent there.
Last season, the Jets lacked a chain-moving target to serve as Smith's security blanket. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Smith completed just 56.3 percent of his 142 third-down attempts and picked up a first down on just 37.8 percent of his throws. Evans' potential as a possession receiver is exactly the antidote the Jets need to goose those numbers in 2014, meaning that he should receive plenty of snaps.
17. Antone Exum, CB/S, Minnesota Vikings (Round 6)
Untimely injuries cause talented players to slip in the draft every year, and Virginia Tech's Antone Exum certainly fit the mold in 2014. After an All-ACC 2012 campaign that saw him pick off five passes in his first full season at corner, Exum tore his ACL in January of 2013 and then sprained his ankle after playing just three games in his return.
Consequently, a mid-round talent dropped to the end of Day 3, where the Vikings snatched him up. Exum (6'0", 213 lbs) played outside corner at Blacksburg, but he will likely shift to safety in the pros. SB Nation's Christopher Gates believes that Exum's size could play well next to free safety Harrison Smith:
I think that Exum was a huge steal for the Vikings as late in the draft as the team got him, and he certainly could make an impact on the defense early on if he can stay healthy. While the Vikings currently project him as more of a safety, he did play a lot of corner for the Hokies. With the NFL trending towards more of the big bump-and-run type of corners like we see in Seattle, Exum's ability to play that spot could go a long way towards his being able to help the team.
Besides Smith, the Vikings have returning starter Jamarca Sanford as well as a few depth options in Mistral Raymond, Kurt Coleman and Andrew Sandejo. That's an underwhelming list, however, and Exum is certainly capable of carving out a niche as a nickel or dime back in Minnesota this year.
16. Jemea Thomas, S/CB, New England Patriots (Round 6)
Versatility is the buzzword surrounding safeties today, and Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas delivers the multifaceted skill set the New England Patriots have traditionally coveted. Thomas played both safety positions, slot corner and returned kicks in college.
Ever since Rodney Harrison's retirement, the Pats have lacked a true downhill, thumping enforcer in the secondary. At 5'9" and 192 pounds, Thomas may not look the part. However, when watching his games, it's clear that he sacrifices his body with a seemingly unwavering physicality. As such, Thomas is excellent in run support, and his above-average instincts help compensate for stiff hips and size disadvantages.
After the draft, Bill Belichick noted that Thomas would see reps at both safety and cornerback in training camp, per the Boston Globe's Ben Volin. In projecting a role for the sixth-rounder, James Christensen of NEPatriotsDraft.com suggested that his jack-of-all-trades skill set would aid his playing time:
Perhaps his best role could be at the “Star” position, taking off for the “Sam” linebacker in sub-packages. He can bring the wood as a tackler, can rush the passer and looks good in the box. He could also see some time at safety as he looked comfortable covering a deep half in college.
Though Devin McCourty is entrenched as the starting free safety, there are more questions about fellow projected starter Duron Harmon. A 2013 third-rounder, Harmon held is own over 433 defensive snaps as a rookie last season, but he could end up seeing double that amount if he stays on the field in sub packages.
Even if Harmon proves worthy of starting, New England badly needs safety depth, as the likes of Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner are mostly special teams contributors. Thomas could very well find himself one injury away from significant snaps, especially in base packages where his run support could be invaluable.
15. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Green Bay Packers (Round 5)
While second-rounder Davante Adams has received much of the attention in Green Bay, it's another rookie receiver who could make an important 2014 impact. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis likely enters camp fifth on the depth chart, but has the skill set and cerebral approach necessary to thrive in the Packers' West Coast system.
Abbrederis produced elite numbers in Madison (202 receptions, 3,140 yards and 25 total touchdowns in four years), but he fell to the fifth round largely due to concerns about his concussion history and lack of top-end athleticism. Though the injury history makes him a bit of a wild card, Packers' wide receiver coach Edgar Bennett noted that Abbrederis' intelligence could allow him to contribute quickly, per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today):
Packers wide receiver coach Edgar Bennett likes Abbrederis' versatility at wide receiver and his ability to return punts.
"He's a savvy route runner, he understands coverage, he understands how to defend leverage of the defender," Bennett said. "So those are some of the little things that kind of stood out as far as creating separation."
Micah Hyde likely has the return duties under wraps, but Abbrederis could certainly contribute beyond special teams. Aaron Rodgers has doled out an egalitarian passing distribution throughout his career, helping veterans Greg Jennings and James Jones earn lucrative contracts elsewhere. Even as a secondary option in the passing game, Abbrederis should still make some noise as a possession-based split end.
14. Lorenzo Taliaferro, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Round 4)
One of last season's most shocking developments was the historic ineptitude of the Baltimore Ravens rushing "attack." Since the turn of the century, only the 2000 Chargers have averaged fewer yards per carry than Baltimore's woeful 3.14 mark, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
After hiring famed zone-scheme specialist Gary Kubiak this offseason, the Ravens took another step toward remedying the running game by drafting Coastal Carolina's Lorenzo Taliaferro. Taliaferro (6'0", 229 lbs) possesses a blend of size, vision and patience that makes him ideal for Kubiak's system.
At the Senior Bowl, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko was so impressed that he likened Taliaferro to another recent late-round steal:
Highly impressed with him throughout the week. The top pass blocking RB on both teams, caught everything thrown his way in practice today. Has an NFL body, could end up being this year’s Alfred Morris.
Unfortunately, the Virginia Gazette reported that Taliaferro was arrested this week and charged with a pair of misdemeanors—public intoxication and destruction of property. It's an ominous start to his career, though there were never any questions about Taliaferro's character heading into the draft, as he was actually a team captain at Coastal Carolina.
Nevertheless, it adds another headache to an offseason full of off-field turmoil for Baltimore. But with Ray Rice facing likely discipline from the league and Bernard Pierce recovering from rotator cuff surgery, Taliaferro could receive an early opportunity to redeem himself and salvage the Ravens ground game.
13. Cyril Richardson, OG, Buffalo Bills (Round 5)
Once a projected first-rounder, Baylor guard Cyril Richardson suffered a disastrous Senior Bowl that sent his stock plummeting to Day 3. While Richardson fared poorly in one-on-one matchups against quicker defensive tackles like Aaron Donald, he is still capable of developing into a long-term starter.
Richardson (6'5", 329 lbs) is a massive road-grader who packs a strong punch. When he engages his hands on his opponent, the battle is over. Moreover, he is strong enough in the lower body to re-anchor when he loses the initial battle. The combination of these traits means that so long as he maintains a healthy weight, Richardson could turn into a steal, a thought championed by Josh Friemal of the Dallas Morning News:
I think his most underrated characteristic is his ability to play in an up-tempo offense. Everyone in Baylor’s offense has to be in extremely good shape with how fast they get up and down the field, and the linemen are no exception to that rule. He was in better shape than some defensive backs on opposing defenses this year. If he can keep that endurance up while improving at the next level, he’ll be worth a high draft pick and a steal if he slips.
Though Richardson appears better suited for a man-power blocking scheme, he was often asked to pull at Baylor, and he demonstrated above-average lateral agility in doing so. He may never have the footwork to excel in short space, but he is not necessarily incongruous with Buffalo's offensive system.
With Chris Williams and Doug Legursky topping the depth chart at left guard, there could be playing time available for the rookie. Williams, in particular, struggled mightily last year, accruing the fourth-worst pass-blocking efficiency among guards. Thus, Richardson's versatility could make him a starter by midseason.
12. Bashaud Breeland, CB, Washington (Round 4)
Washington had many problems en route to a disappointing 3-13 season in 2013, but the lack of experience and depth in the secondary was arguably the biggest culprit. Nevertheless, the team in D.C. focused on bolstering its offensive supporting cast around Robert Griffin III this spring, which could leave it needing repairs on the defense going forward.
However, in fourth-rounder Bashaud Breeland, Washington did add one potential long-term starter. The lanky Clemson product is an incredibly fluid athlete who is built to play on the outside, with adequate size at 5'11" and 197 pounds. ESPN's John Keim believes that Breeland's physicality also makes him a good fit for press coverage, even without top-notch speed:
His long arms and patience make him a good fit in press or even certain zones, but turning and running with speedier wideouts could be difficult. Seattle corner Richard Sherman isn’t a burner, either, but his combine 40 times ranged in the low 4.5s. Breeland offers versatility because of his ability to play multiple spots defensively and, perhaps, could move to safety down the road if corner does not work. It was evident on tape the kid loves to play the game and that always helps.
Washington does have several veterans ahead of Breeland on the depth chart, but the quality is debatable. Veteran DeAngelo Hall has had an inconsistent three-year stretch; last year, Hall gave up at least five completions in five of the team's first seven games. Second-year corner David Amerson showed glimpses of promise during his rookie season and figures to start opposite Hall, while free-agent signing Tracy Porter could start in the slot.
But if Washington continues to struggle defending the pass, look for Breeland to see an uptick in snaps by midseason, even if he starts the year as a reserve.
11. Yawin Smallwood, ILB, Atlanta Falcons (Round 7)
The Atlanta Falcons spent much of their offseason attention revamping a porous front seven. With free agents Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman and the return of injured veterans Sean Weaterspoon and Kroy Biermann, the group should have a decidedly different look than the overmatched bunch that ended last season.
And yet a gaping hole still exists in the middle of the linebacking corps, where the trio of Paul Worrilow, Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu will compete for a starting spot next to Weatherspoon. That could open the door for UConn's Yawin Smallwood, who unexpectedly fell into Atlanta's lap in the seventh round.
As ESPN's Vaughn McClure notes, some draftniks had Smallwood projected as high as the second round. However, despite the fall, UConn defensive coordinator Hank Hughes believes Smallwood has the well-rounded skill set to develop into a three-down starter:
They're going to get a good football player who is going to be athletic in all avenues.
I think he's good run defender. He needs to be a little bit stronger and stouter at the point of attack. He is a good pass-coverage guy and he's a good blitzer. He has the quality of being able to do a lot of things. He's not just a first- and second-down player. He's a guy who can get out there and cover guys.
Smallwood (6'2", 246 lbs) has some limitations in terms of run instincts that could limit him to sub-package contributions early on, but his surprising speed should have him covering opposing tight ends. The aforementioned Worrilow-Dent-Bartu group combined for a minus-23.2 overall grade last season, with Bartu's run defense being the only real positive asset. Therefore, do not be surprised if the seventh-rounder exceeds his draft label and starts by midseason.
10. TJ Jones, WR, Detroit Lions (Round 6)
The Detroit Lions focused on expanding Matthew Stafford's supporting cast this offseason, likely in an effort to goose their young quarterback's inconsistent results. But while first-rounder Eric Ebron and free-agent acquisition Golden Tate received most of the headlines, it's Notre Dame's TJ Jones who could provide valuable depth and emerge as an important slot target.
Despite leading the Fighting Irish with 70 catches, 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns last season, Jones never seemed to receive much hype heading into the draft. However, with excellent short-space agility and hip fluidity, Jones is an ideal candidate to replace Nate Burleson in the slot, as MLive.com's Kyle Meinke opines:
Jones is similar in stature to Burleson, at 6-foot and 195 pounds, and was highly productive at Notre Dame. He's second in Notre Dame history in receptions with 181, edging new teammate Golden Tate.
He spent a lot of time in the slot during rookie minicamp over the weekend, and will get his first dose of the entire offense when OTAs begin Tuesday in Allen Park.
The Lions sorely missed Burleson's presence last season. The trio of Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Ross and Kris Durham took over primary slot duties, but they combined to catch just 13 of their 25 slot targets. For reference, that 52 percent success rate would have ranked 32 out of 33 qualified receivers.
Thus, Jones could ascend as high as third on the depth chart in 2014. Considering the Lions' pass-happy offensive approach, that should earn him plenty of targets throughout the season.
9. Jonathan Newsome, OLB, Indianapolis Colts (Round 5)
For a team without much defensive playmaking talent, the Indianapolis Colts could ill-afford to lose Robert Mathis. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Mathis accounted for 19.5 of Indy's 35.5 sacks last season, and his four-game suspension leaves the Colts scrambling for edge-rushing candidates.
While many pinpoint 2013 first-rounder Bjoern Werner as the most logical replacement, fifth-rounder Jonathan Newsome could offer an intriguing solution. Newsome compiled 16.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in two seasons at Ball State, demonstrating lightning-quick finesse moves off the edge that helped him beat larger offensive tackles (his film against Virginia's Morgan Moses is particularly impressive).
In many ways, the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role Newsome played in college mirrors what the Colts have done with Mathis. Per ESPN's Mike Wells, Pagano believes Newsome can contribute as both a sub-package pass-rusher and as a core four special-teamer:
The tape doesn’t lie. It’s out there and the guy is a football junkie. It’s his whole life, and he’s a four core special-teams guy, and he embraces that. He loves that. It’s hard. As you guys know, it’s hard to find pass-rushers, and the way our league’s going, you can never have enough of them, so we feel great. As the board was getting plucked away, we were sweating bullets.
If there's a caveat to consider, it's that Newsome will have a short lease following off-field issues that include an arrest for marijuana possession and shoplifting of male enhancement pills. But if he can stay out of trouble, Newsome could play the "Jack" linebacker role in Mathis' absence and provide the pass-rushing depth the Colts currently lack.
8. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Kansas City Chiefs (Round 4)
After losing offensive "Joker" piece Dexter McCluster in free agency, the Kansas City Chiefs selected an eerily similar player in Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Like McCluster, Thomas (5'9", 174 lbs) figures to play both receiver and running back in Kansas City.
It's almost easier to list the roles Thomas did not play in Eugene. In just three years, Thomas compiled 3,186 total yards from scrimmage, 2,159 return yards and a whopping 46 total touchdowns. Only four players exceeded that touchdown mark from 2011-2013, per Sports-Reference.com.
The Chiefs are prepared to utilize Thomas' full tool kit, especially considering their lack of dynamic offensive playmakers. According to ESPN's Adam Telcher, Kansas City has initially given Thomas the majority of his reps at wide receiver so far, though he's also practicing with the running backs as well:
The Chiefs continued to utilize De'Anthony Thomas in a variety of spots but he received more work as a wide receiver than he did on Saturday. Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick, still lined up plenty of times as a running back. Though he could get some work there when the regular season begins, I still don't see how the Chiefs will get much out of him as a running back. First, the Chiefs are loaded there with Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. Life is also not just difficult for 5-9, 175-pound running backs, but also the teams that utilize them.
For a player without a true position, there are no real depth chart worries for Thomas. He'll be given a specialty package in each game, though his diminutive frame makes it unlikely that he would ever receive more than 15 or so touches in a game. Still, as his collegiate career illustrated, any play involving Thomas teems with explosive potential.
7. Telvin Smith, OLB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Round 5)
The Jacksonville Jaguars were a team without any discernible foundation in 2013. As a defensive coach, it's no surprise that Gus Bradley targeted the front seven as his first area of renovation, signing a trio of veteran free agents in Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood.
However, it's fifth-rounder Telvin Smith who could make the biggest long-term impact. The Florida State product saw his draft stock slip after he reportedly failed a drug test at the combine. However, if that remains a one-time transgression, the Jags may have gotten a tremendous late-round steal.
Smith (6'3", 218 lbs) is built more like a big safety, a la Kam Chancellor or Bernard Pollard, and possesses the commensurate movement skills. The ex-Seminole projects as one of the best coverage linebackers of his class, as his speed and fluidity make him ideal to cover tight ends. According to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union, the rookie's wheels have already caught the coaching staff's attention, particulary defensive coordinator Bob Babich:
We felt like he learned really well, and he moved around really well. He’s got a long way to go, but we saw a lot of potential. We were able to see what we were looking for in these practices. The type of movement and speed these guys have and you could feel it with him. He showed some acceleration where he was able to finish the play.
Smith flashes disruptive backfield penetration ability, as evidenced by his 29 career tackles for loss. That's fortuitous for the Jaguars—last season, starters Russell Allen and Geno Hayes each finished among the eight worst 4-3 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage (tackles that constitute an offensive failure).
Smith needs to bulk up to a more tenable weight, but his quickness and agility should infuse the Jacksonville defense with much-needed playmaking ability.
6. Cassius Marsh, DE, Seattle Seahawks (Round 4)
The defending champs do not have many holes, but defensive-line depth could be a sneaky issue for the Seattle Seahawks. Beyond starters Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, Seattle is looking at inconsistent former first-rounder Bruce Irvin and lots of untested young prospects.
Thus, Cassius Marsh could find himself in an important rotational role this season. Though Anthony Barr received most of the attention at Westwood, Marsh actually outproduced his more ballyhooed teammate, with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss over his final two collegiate seasons.
Marsh (6'4", 252 lbs) fits the physical prototype for the Seahawks' multi-faceted defense, with the ability to set the edge as well as provide pass-rushing prowess from any spot along the line. According to Jayson Jenks of the Seattle Times, Pete Carroll is hoping that Marsh can be Bennett's understudy. “Michael has so much flexibility, and Cassius likewise does — we think,” Carroll said. “He would, in essence, follow Michael around for a while and learn about the different spots that we play.”
Seattle's strength lies not only in its talent but also its depth. More than any other defensive unit, the defensive line took a hit in that area. Marsh is a strong high-motor pass-rusher who is capable of supplementing the starters and perpetuating the model of defensive success that has become the envy of the league.
5. Russell Bodine, C, Cincinnati Bengals (Round 4)
A beacon of stability over the past five seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals have turned into developmental machine. Eschewing the allure of big-money free agency, the Bengals instead draft, develop and (usually) secure their own talent for the long haul.
Therefore, it's harder for a rookie to break into the Cincy lineup than most other teams. However, with the departure of starting center Kyle Cook, there is an ostensible opening on the offensive line. That gap represents an opening for North Carolina's Russell Bodine to take over.
Bodine (6'3", 310 lbs) is quite large by a center's standards, and he plays with an infectious mean streak, not unlike that of left tackle Andrew Whitworth. As ESPN.com's Coley Harvey relays, Bodine's Chapel Hill and now Cincinnati teammate Giovani Bernard praised his tone-setting physicality:
I like that. He's one of those guys he's always going to watch for his guys. He's never going to let anyone bully on a guy or whatever it may be. He's always going to clean up the pile. If we get a flag here and there, it's OK. I'm joking. But he has that aggression, he has that go-getter attitude that I love. All our offensive line is like that. That shows they just don't want to be messed around with. They want to be able to play and they want to do what they can do.
Third-year pro Trevor Robinson is currently slated as the new starting center, but he has had limited exposure over his first two seasons. Robinson's only meaningful playing time last year came in Week 17, when he conceded five quarterback pressures against Baltimore. Bodine is capable of earning the starting job from day one, and his versatility could also make him a backup at guard for Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler.
4. Taylor Hart, DE, Philadelphia Eagles (Round 5)
As smoothly as Chip Kelly's spread offense and packaged plays transitioned to the NFL, his attempt to install a 3-4 defense may have been equally rough. Though the Philadelphia Eagles were aggressive in upgrading their secondary this offseason, few additions have been made to a defensive line that ranked 31st in sack percentage in 2013, per TeamRankings.com.
Consequently, Oregon defensive end Taylor Hart might have to play immediately for his old head coach. At 6'6" and 281 pounds, Hart possesses the size to be a versatile one- or two-gapper at nearly any technique. As ESPN's Louis Riddick suggests (subscription required) that makes him an ideal fit for the Eagles:
Having played for Eagles head coach Chip Kelly at the University of Oregon in a 3-4 scheme very similar to the one that is currently being run in Philadelphia, he will immediately be able to hit the ground running both in terms of what is to be expected from a training and preparation standpoint, as well as from a schematic and technical one. Look for Hart to continue to make strides in terms of his muscular/physical development, as he already has shown the competitive character and fundamental understanding of how to play the DE position in the 3-4 at a high-enough level to suggest a bright future in Philadelphia.
Hart is strictly a defensive lineman, as he lacks the explosion to play off the edge as a Will linebacker. However, he could still aid the pass rush through his stack-and-shed ability and relentless pursuit.
The Eagles do have a pair of defensive ends with promising upside in Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry. In terms of pass-rushing productivity (pressures per pass-rushing snap), both actually ranked in the top 12 among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Still, that only translated to seven combined sacks. With 22 career collegiate sacks, Hart could help goose those totals and infuse the Eagles defense with much-needed pass-rushing talent.
3. Brock Vereen, S, Chicago Bears (Round 4)
It's not a stretch to call the Chicago Bears safeties one of the league's worst units in 2013. The Bears conceded 7.4 yards per completion, a mark that only Oakland, Atlanta and Washington fared worse than.
In adding Minnesota safety Brock Vereen to the secondary, the Bears now have one of the draft's most versatile defensive backs. In reviewing the film on Vereen, the Golden Gophers lined him up as a deep free safety, in-the-box strong safety, slot corner and outside corner.
Armed with a high football IQ and above-average movement skills, Vereen is capable of fulfilling any role. The Bears' official Twitter account relayed that general manager Phil Emery said Vereen would play safety in the pros. Furthermore, Emery told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune that the Bears traded up for Vereen due to his sorely needed coverage instincts:
Kind of like a center fielder in terms of breaking on the crack of the bat. He's good in coverage in terms of anticipating cuts and mirroring receivers, staying with receivers through their cuts. (He's) good in terms of his angles and his fits against the run.
In terms of competition, the Bears signed a pair of unspectacular free agents in Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings to provide depth at the position. Projected starter Chris Conte underwent shoulder surgery in March, leaving his availability for the start of the season in doubt. Thus, Vereen may receive the most immediate snaps of any prospect on this list.
2. Bruce Ellington, WR, San Francisco 49ers (Round 4)
Once a distressingly thin unit, the San Francisco 49ers' receiving chart suddenly looks like one of the deepest in the league. With a top four of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton to complement tight end Vernon Davis, it would seem as though there are not enough footballs to go around.
Nevertheless, rookie Bruce Ellington still possesses the ability to vault over some of those names and emerge as a slot target for Colin Kaepernick. A 5'9" jitterbug, the speedy Ellington is an explosive cutter with excellent hands, and he will find ways to get open so long as he avoids bigger press coverage corners. In highlighting sleepers before the draft, SI.com's Doug Farrar praised Ellington's quickness and ability to work the middle of the field:
Put simply, Ellington is one of my favorite sub-elite receivers in this draft class, and I’m not sure why more people aren’t talking about him...The tape on Ellington shows a player with outstanding field speed, the ability to get open in short spaces, and a lot of toughness for his size (5-9, 197). He’s unafraid to make catches in traffic from the slot or outside. Ellington will need time to grasp the full route tree he didn’t run in college, but he could make an instant impact as a return man and situational receiver.
As a respected locker-room leader, Ellington also has the desired intangibles to succeed in the league. He split his time between basketball and football in college, but he has the situational IQ to develop quickly. His first impact may arrive as a kick returner, where the Niners could have a vacancy depending on what they do with LaMichael James. And if Boldin were to get injured or slip, Ellington could emerge as an important offensive cog on a bona fide Super Bowl contender.
1. Pierre Desir, CB, Cleveland Browns (Round 4)
Lindenwood's Pierre Desir has taken a remarkable path to the NFL, but he tops this list because of his talent. Desir has the talent to emerge as a future starter, and at 6'1" and 198 pounds, he possesses the big frame that has become en vogue for corners nowadays.
Desir is an outstanding athlete with fluid movement ability and a huge frame, all of which allows him to engulf outside receivers. Though there are questions about his speed after a 4.59 40-yard dash time at the combine, his outstanding instincts compensate for many issues. As Farrar suggests, the Haitian-born prospect bears similarities to Seahawks' cornerback Richard Sherman in terms of size and physicality:
Through the All-Star Games, the combine, and those team visits, the NFL has sized Desir up as the right kind of prototype, based on what Sherman and the Seahawks have accomplished defensively over the last four seasons with hyper-aggressive cornerbacks who press receivers aggressively and take risks in coverage.
In Cleveland, Desir also has a golden opportunity to receive early playing time. Even with eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert on board, the Browns are perilously thin at corner behind Gilbert and All-Pro fixture Joe Haden.
Desir certainly has the talent to beat out veterans Buster Skrine, who conceded a 95.3 quarterback rating when targeted last year, and Leon McFadden, a 2013 third-rounder who played sparingly in his rookie year. As a potential nickelback, Desir should see plenty of snaps, where his talent could overcome his relatively anonymous collegiate pedigree.