10 Best Under-the-Radar NFL Draft Prospects
The 2016 NFL draft is rapidly approaching, with about three months remaining until the start of what is a life-changing event for hundreds of players. The draft process is now ramping up, as the all-star game circuit culminates with the Senior Bowl this coming week. As of this time, evaluators are going back to research seniors, early entrants and small school-prospects for the 2016 class.
Inevitably, some players slip through the cracks and become late-round gems. These under-the-radar NFL prospects may see their stock rise when more information comes available, but sometimes their skill set is simply underrated. We’ve found 10 prospects who are projected to be Day 3 picks by CBS Sports but deserve to go much higher.
As the combine arrives and pro days pass, the 10 players we’ve identified are potentially major risers. An eye-popping individual performance can force people back to the tape or even try to find tape for small-school prospects. Even if this group doesn’t see their stocks skyrocket, don’t be surprised if these players become quality NFL players in the next few years.
Cayleb Jones, WR, Arizona
An early entrant to the 2016 NFL draft, Cayleb Jones is a 6’3”, 215-pound receiver who played two seasons at Arizona. He was a high school All-American who originally committed to Texas before transferring to the Wildcats in 2013. In his two seasons with Arizona, he amassed an impressive 1,926 yards and 14 touchdowns in 129 receptions.
Jones’ numbers and size are intriguing enough, but he also stands out among his peers on film. He is an effortless runner who can get separation on vertical routes. Although Arizona ran a spread system that didn’t ask Jones to run a full route tree, he is effective at the most popular routes we see in the NFL, such as go-routes, curls and comebacks.
Some big receivers struggle to maximize their size advantage, but Jones does not. He is physically overwhelming by playing with strength and winning at the catch point. While he may not be a speedy, physical freak for his size, he has strong hands and plays to his strengths.
Jones has the ability to be a late Day 2 pick in terms of talent. CBS Sports has him as a late Day 3 pick. If that comes to fruition, some team will be happy he fell that far.
Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas
The 2016 quarterback class has only one true franchise signal-caller, but it is deep with developmental, multiyear investment types. Despite the recent hype on quarterbacks Paxton Lynch and Carson Wentz, they’re two years from being ready to compete at a high level. Investing a mid-round pick into a player with the same time frame is a wiser choice.
Arkansas' Brandon Allen transformed himself in 2015 from a weak-armed quarterback with middling accuracy to an efficient playmaker with a great arm. His body matured in front of our eyes, and he played much better because of it.
It’s no coincidence Allen increased his completion percentage almost 10 points from 2014 to 65.9 percent. He showed great velocity control on downfield passes and worked well off a run-heavy attack for the Razorbacks. In a balanced NFL-offense, he can be a solid starter.
CBS Sports rates Allen as a sixth- or seventh-round pick. With Allen competing this week in the Senior Bowl, watch for his name to rise up with a strong showing. At worst, he’d be a quality backup with average starter potential.
Mike Jordan, CB, Missouri Western State
At 6’0”, 200 pounds, Missouri Western State cornerback Mike Jordan was one of the stars at the East-West Shrine Game practices. According to Real GM draft analyst Jeff Risdon, Jordan showcased great ball skills and movement ability for a player with his size. That bodes well as Jordan continues through the draft process since NFL teams love cornerbacks with those two traits.
Jordan was productive in college, posting 138 tackles, 11 interceptions and 25 pass breakups in three seasons. He earned two first-team All-MIAA selections for his stellar play. Most importantly, his traits project well into the NFL.
The jump from Missouri Western will be difficult, but if Jordan continues to find the ball in coverage and defend the run as he did in college, there’s a place for him in the league. While many cornerbacks are content to challenge receivers at the catch point, Jordan’s tape has many examples of an alpha male who plays the ball as if it were his own.
CBS Sports has Jordan as a seventh-round or undrafted free-agent player. That seems much too low for his skill set and upside. Although he may need a year to adjust to the NFL’s speed, Jordan has rotational upside early in his career with potential to become more as he refines his game.
Victor Ochi, OLB, Stony Brook
Projecting how an FCS stud will translate to the NFL is difficult, even if his production is excellent. Stony Brook pass-rusher Victor Ochi logged 13 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2015 but needed to prove he’d continue to be effective at a much higher level. The East-West Shrine Game practices gave him that opportunity, and he delivered.
According to NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein, Ochi was one of the most impressive players of the week. His 6’1” frame doesn’t give him great size, but his fit into a 3-4 outside linebacker role will suit him well. As Zierlein noted, he uses his length and strength well enough to overwhelm blockers.
Ochi is definitely worth at least a high Day 3 pick, such as in the fourth round, if not higher. CBS Sports has him going in the seventh round. Ochi should perform well in individual drills at the NFL combine and his pro day, which will only enhance his value.
With pass-rushers being as valuable as any defensive position, taking a shot on Ochi is a solid risk. His physical traits and overall talent should help evaluators overlook that he is coming from a smaller school.
Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas
One of the 107 early entrants to the 2016 NFL draft, Texas junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway is one of the more interesting defenders in the class. Ridgeway was productive as a sophomore in 2014, totaling 47 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks for loss. His numbers dipped in 2015, but he was demanding more attention from opposing offenses.
Ridgeway is a better athlete than pure football player right now, relying on his physical gifts more than skill. At 6’3”, 314 pounds and with the ability to explode into backfields, he is a positional coaches’ dream project.
A high-upside tackle like Ridgeway should be a Day 2 lock in the draft. His film is much more impressive than the numbers show, and a rotational role in the NFL will help him maximize his opportunities. CBS sports has Ridgeway as a late Day 3 value.
Ridgeway is just 21 years old, so he is oozing with upside. Easing him in as a pass-rushing specialist while he improves his run-blocking ability will help a defense and also Ridgeway in 2016, while the long-term payoff could be huge.
Kyle Friend, C, Temple
A three-time captain for an upstart Temple program, center Kyle Friend was one of the most reliable linemen in college football in 2015. At 6’2” and 305 pounds, he is an accomplished player who earned First Team All-American Athletic Conference honors last year. He’ll also participate in the 2016 Senior Bowl.
Friend had several high-profile matchups this year and responded wonderfully. His game against Penn State was a masterpiece despite facing defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. They each offer a different challenge for a blocker, but Friend shut them down in their individual snaps.
Despite this, CBS Sports rates Friend as a seventh-round pick and the 10th-best center. If Friend ends up as a borderline-drafted player, he will represent a major steal. A starting-caliber center going in the seventh absolutely qualifies as an under-the-radar prospect.
Daniel Lasco, RB, Cal
Finding late-round running backs who contribute early in their NFL careers is something that several franchises have seemed to master. The quality of rotational backs is at an all-time high. Cal running back Daniel Lasco has the skills to be an impact rotation player in the NFL.
Lasco broke out as a junior in 2014, posting 210 carries for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is a nimble runner with impressive short-area burst. He’s a quality receiver out of the backfield as well, catching 33 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns.
Injuries struck Lasco in 2015, including an ankle and quad strain. He was limited to just 69 total touches throughout the season. Although he was productive in those touches, his stock seemingly took a hit. CBS Sports has him as a seventh-round pick, which sets him up to be a tremendous value.
A well-rounded back who is a solid athlete may still be a Day 3 value with how the NFL currently treats running backs. But Lasco has more talent than the crop of players he’s lumped in with. Don’t be surprised to see him as a regular NFL contributor if he can stay healthy.
Mike Thomas, WR, Southern Mississippi
The 2016 wide receiver class is shaping up as a deep and diversified group of playmakers. While the cream of the crop isn’t as clear as years past, there are numerous draftable prospects. One of the top receivers is Mike Thomas from Ohio State, but there’s another Mike Thomas to pay attention to.
Southern Mississippi receiver Mike Thomas put up massive numbers in his second season as a Division I player. The former Dodge City Community College player moved to Southern Mississippi as a junior but really took off in his senior season. He had 71 receptions for 1,391 yards and 14 touchdowns.
With 10 100-yard games on his resume, the 6’1”, 200-pounder is a high-upside prospect who has room to improve. He’s quick and has good downfield speed. If given the chance to develop for one or two years, he can be a quality receiver for a spread passing attack.
Thomas is rated as a borderline draftable player at CBS Sports. While he is raw in his polish, he is too physically talented and explosive to go that low. He should be an early Day 3 pick at worst and will reward a franchise that affords him some time to develop.
Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State
Similar to the wide receiver class, the cornerback prospect pool in the 2016 class is deep but not top-heavy. That bodes well for players like Kevin Peterson, a standout cornerback for Oklahoma State over the last four seasons.
At 5’11” and 190 pounds, he has the size and length to be an effective boundary defender. He’s wiry in his frame, but his competitiveness at the catch point helps overcome his lack of bulk. His biggest challenges included covering former West Virginia star receiver Kevin White in 2014, and he limited White to just 27 yards.
Peterson is a younger member of the class, as well. He’ll be 22 by the time the 2016 season kicks off, but he has four years of collegiate experience to fall back on. He had five career interceptions and 23 passes defensed.
According to CBS Sports, Peterson is a projected sixth-round pick. While he may not be the best athlete, the need for cornerback depth is high in the NFL. Peterson has the ability to play as a third cornerback and special teamer in the NFL, which makes him an early Day 3 value.
Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington
Washington outside linebacker Travis Feeney was one of the more talented players on a 2014 Huskies defense that featured several NFL players. He is an athletic specimen at the position who often drops back into coverage and plays in space. At 6’4” and 226 pounds, he’s a talented new-age linebacker.
The All-Pac-12 Second Team linebacker fits perfectly as a 4-3 weak-side linebacker or as a 3-4 inside linebacker. He was productive as a four-year player for Washington, totaling 168 solo tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. He’s not the biggest playmaker at the position, but he would be a solid piece as a complementary player for a talented defense.
Right now, CBS Sports has Feeney as a sixth-round pick. In the right situation, it would not be at all surprising to see him earn rotational snaps immediately as a rookie. His floor may bottom out as a top special teams player and part-time defensive player. If his combine results show the athleticism that his tape displays, then he may be a big riser.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.