2016 NFL Draft: Mid-Round Sleepers Who Can Start Right Away

Luke EasterlingCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Mid-Round Sleepers Who Can Start Right Away

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    The 2016 NFL draft is drawing ever closer, and with the regular season and Senior Bowl week finally in the books, teams will now turn their attention toward the NFL Scouting Combine and pro-day workouts to evaluate this year's crop of college prospects.

    It's nothing extraordinary to expect most first-round picks to become starters early in their careers, but some teams have needs that go deeper than the draft's first day. For teams needing starting-caliber players at multiple positions, the need to dig deep and find those players in the middle rounds of the draft is essential.

    Though making the jump from college football to the NFL is an incredible challenge, every draft class has produced players who flew under the radar on draft day but made an early splash in their first season by earning a starting spot and making an instant impact.

    If teams are looking to wake those sleepers from this year's draft class, here are a handful of names they should train their eyes on.

Ryan Kelly, C, Alabama

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    Even the top prospects at the center position tend to hear their names called a little later in the draft every year, but that also means NFL teams can end up finding instant starters at the position in the middle rounds.

    One teammate—Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry—considered Kelly the engine that kept the Tide offense rolling all the way to another national title, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com:

    He's a great leader and the heart and soul of the offense.

    He has to make sure everybody has the right calls [on the offensive line], everybody's doing the right thing. He does a great job at his job, but he has to make sure other guys are doing their jobs, so that's why I call him the heart of the offense.

    A three-year starter, Kelly won the Rimington Trophy following the 2015 season, which is awarded annually to college football's best center. His intelligence and leadership will allow him to make an immediate impact at the next level, and combined with his blend of quickness and power, it could make him an All-Pro early in his pro career.

Kevin Byard, S, Middle Tennessee State

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    This year's safety class has plenty of top talent that will come off the board in the early rounds, but there's plenty of depth at the position this year, as well. A big-play magnet since he first stepped foot on campus, Kevin Byard left Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders' all-time leader in interceptions with 19 and is ready to bring his ball-hawking ways to the NFL.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein outlined some of Byard's strengths last month:

    Strong football IQ. Lines secondary up and is assignment-­oriented. Disciplined in zone coverage reading and responding to the quarterback’s eyes. Scans through route developments like a quarterback. Good awareness as single-­high safety and rarely panics when faced with route combinations meant to create mistakes and indecision.

    Plays with smooth backpedal and adequate footwork and looks to have. Always active. Former high school receiver with plus ball tracking and ball skills over the top. Effort never questioned and brings desired football character onto field and into locker room. Willing downhill charge against the run.

    He still needs to refine his tackling skills and put his solid frame to better use in run support, but his intelligence and competitiveness should quickly endear him to NFL coaching staffs. He plays with passion and a chip on his shoulder, and if given the chance, he could easily earn a starting role as a rookie and continue his productive ways at the next level.

Tyler Higbee, TE, Western Kentucky

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    This year's crop of tight ends is widely considered to be rather weak, but there are some intriguing prospects who should be available in the middle rounds who could easily end up outplaying their draft slots. Western Kentucky's Tyler Higbee falls into that category.

    Despite many projections listing him closer to a Day 3 pick, Jon Ledyard of USA Today thinks Higbee's talent is worthy of a second-round pick:

    The senior’s hands are excellent, he can win at all levels of the field, he’s a dynamic red zone threat, and he’ll block all day if that is what is asked of him. Higbee can play flexed, in-line, or even line up in the backfield and be effective as a lead blocker.

    A former wide receiver who bulked up considerably to convert to tight end, Higbee can step into an offense early on and create mismatches for defenses in coverage. If Higbee were from a Power Five conference, I genuinely believe we’d be talking about him as a second round pick at worst.

    Despite missing four games in 2015, Higbee hauled in 38 receptions for 563 yards and eight touchdowns, topping 100 yards receiving against the only two Power Five teams he faced. At 6'6", 250 pounds, he's got the frame and athleticism to create mismatches as a pass-catcher, along with the willingness to stay in and block. That well-rounded skill set could earn him a starting role as a rookie this season.

Maurice Canady, CB, Virginia

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    In today's NFL, receivers are bigger and more physical than ever, which requires the same of those who line up across from them in coverage. If teams are looking for that type of corner in the middle rounds of this year's draft, they should focus their attention on Virginia's Maurice Canady.

    During his impressive week at the Senior Bowl, Canady told Andrew Ramspacher of the Daily Progress he knows his versatility will give him added value at the next level:

    It all helps me a lot and it really does add to my abilities. I can go in at safety, I can go in and cover the slot, I can go in at outside, I can return kicks, I can play any special teams they need me to. There’s only 53 guys on an NFL roster, so if you can play multiple positions, you’ll have a very good chance of making a team.

    Not only should Canady have no trouble making an NFL roster as a rookie, his size—6'1", 191 pounds—and physicality should make him a candidate to potentially earn starting snaps in 2016. For teams looking for cover men who will excel in press coverage, Canady could be quite the steal anytime after the second round.

C.J. Prosise, RB, Notre Dame

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    This year's running back class is full of starting-caliber talent that can be had on Day 2, but Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise is a name that could end up falling through the cracks because of durability questions. If that happens, a team could get lucky by grabbing him in the third round and giving him a chance to earn a starting spot.

    Prosise rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2015, but as Yahoo Sports pointed out (h/t Rotoworld), he likely never would have had the chance, if not for injuries ahead of him:

    While he battled ankle and head injuries at various times during the 2015 campaign, he still managed to accumulate 1,032 rushing yards with a fantastic 6.6 YPC average while scoring 11 touchdowns. That he posted those numbers at all is due to something of a simple twist of fate.

    Had it not been for a season-ending injury to regular starter Tarean Folston in the team's season-opener, the opportunities would not have been there. Prosise had just 10 carries for 126 yards and a touchdown last season.

    At 6'1", 220 pounds, Prosise has the frame to handle the pounding of an NFL season, and he's proved to be an explosive playmaker as both a runner and receiver in limited opportunities for the Irish. If he can stay healthy at the next level, he could end up being a productive starter sooner rather than later.

Kamalei Correa, EDGE, Boise State

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    This year's crop of edge talent isn't nearly as deep as some other recent draft classes, but if an NFL team is looking for a mid-round sleeper who could be a productive rookie in 2016, Boise State's Kamalei Correa just might be its guy.

    After a strong bowl game performance, Correa caught the eye of NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah:

    I was pumped to see him play live at the Poinsettia Bowl and he didn't disappoint with his performance. He showed the ability to set the edge in the run game and he generated a lot of pressure, including multiple sacks. Boise State moves him around on obvious passing downs, allowing him to pick a rush lane and cut it loose.

    He isn't a polished technician as a pass rusher, but he gets by on pure speed and agility. Once he learns to consistently use his hands, he'll take his game to a whole new level.

    Though he's an early entrant into this year's draft, Correa started the last 27 games for the Broncos, racking up 19 sacks and 30 tackles for loss over that stretch. He's raw but athletic and has barely scratched the surface of his potential. As Jeremiah said, once he polishes his technique, he could be an extremely productive pro.

    He may not carve out a full-time starting role as a rookie, but with as much as NFL teams are playing in the nickel and needing quicker pass-rushers on the edge, he could see a starter's number of snaps in the right situation.

Mike Thomas, WR, Southern Mississippi

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    Ohio State's Michael Thomas gets more attention, and it's hard to argue with that, given his first-round projections. But Southern Mississippi's Mike Thomas isn't getting enough press, and he could end up being the steal of this year's draft at receiver.

    Matt Waldman—author of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio—goes into great detail regarding Thomas' skill set in this episode of his RSP Film Room:

    In terms of physical dimensions and playing style (not talent), this Michael Thomas evokes names like Isaac Bruce and Odell Beckham. And honestly, I think the talent is there for Thomas to evolve into a much better pro receiver than the volume of conversation around this Southern Miss product (which is next to zero).

    Thomas was a big-play machine in 2015, averaging 19.6 yards per catch this season, which is the highest mark of any FBS receiver with at least 65 receptions. At 6'1", 200 pounds, he's got adequate size to be a starting receiver at the next level and does all the little things that will translate extremely well to the NFL game.

Antonio Morrison, LB, Florida

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    One of the most intense defenders in all of the Southeastern Conference, Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison was expected to miss a decent chunk of last season after suffering a knee injury in the Gators' bowl game the year before. But he bounced back quicker than expected, playing the entire 2015 season and racking up 103 tackles, with 12 of them behind the line of scrimmage.

    Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com acknowledged some of Morrison's strengths back in November:

    The unquestioned leader and tone-setter for the Gators' suffocating defense. He is a light athlete to quickly redirect and burst towards the play, bringing himself to balance on the move to finish in the open field.

    Keeps his feet well to work off blocks and displays outstanding awareness to recognize things quickly and react to the play before the ballcarrier can make a move.

    Inside linebackers don't tend to go very high in the draft, and combined with his injury history, that could leave Morrison on the board into the middle rounds. But he's got skills that will translate well at the next level. His fiery demeanor and leadership ability will allow him to step right in and make an immediate impact on Sundays.