Predicting the Best Day 3 NFL Draft Bargains of 2018

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 23, 2018

Predicting the Best Day 3 NFL Draft Bargains of 2018

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    NFL prospects become less idealized with each passing round. However, individuals drafted in the fourth through seventh rounds will step into NFL lineups next season and contribute. 

    Scouts and personnel departments won't stop picking apart each incoming player during the draft process, though. Identifying translatable next-level traits becomes the key to finding late-round standouts.

    First-round prospects are often viewed as instant contributors and potential franchise-changers because they fit preferred physical profiles with the requisite talent and collegiate production. Day 2 draft picks (second and third rounds) should become starters early in their careers.

    Meanwhile, third-day picks are lottery tickets. The odds of one developing into a core piece is low, but it still happens every year. The Cincinnati Bengals' Carl Lawson, Chicago Bears' Tarik Cohen, Green Bay Packers' Aaron Jones, Los Angeles Chargers' Desmond King and Washington Redskins' Chase Roullier are perfect examples from the 2017 class.

    Young men fall in the draft for numerous reasons: injury history, off-field concerns, underwhelming performances, etc. These same issues help create tremendous value picks.

    Bleacher Report identified 10 incoming talents earmarked as Day 3 prospects with the ability to become long-term contributors and standout performers.

Running Back Mark Walton, Miami

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    Season-ending injuries are bad enough. Suffering one before entering the NFL draft is even worse.

    A long time ago in a draft far, far away, Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee suffered a devastating knee injury in his final collegiate game, yet he still ended up as a first-round pick by the Buffalo Bills.

    Mark Walton won't be as fortunate, but whichever team selects him might be.

    Walton looked like a superstar in the making with his 2016 effort (1,117 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns) and first three 2017 contests. Miami's RB1 provided 494 total yards and three touchdowns to open his junior season before suffering an ankle injury the following week against the Florida State Seminoles.

    Now, he's stuck in a stacked running back class coming off a major injury. Size, or lack thereof, is another factor.

    At 5'10" and 202 pounds, teams won't view Walton as an every-down or lead back, especially since his testing at the combine proved to be marginal with a 4.60-second 40-yard dash.

    First, he is still working his way back from injury. Second, all of this overlooks the obvious: Walton is made for the modern game. Much like his predecessor, Duke Johnson, the Miami product is a dynamic ball-carrier in space, either as a runner or receiver.

    "I think he's going to fall, but only because he's coming out in a season where there are so many backs," an AFC team scouting director told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "That position will be devalued, and you might be able to grab him later than you might expect for a player who can help you on all three downs."

Wide Receiver Antonio Callaway, Florida

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    Every year a talented prospect falls multiple rounds in the draft due to perceived attitude and/or off-field concerns. Eventually, talent trumps trepidation for some organization. 

    For example, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Tyreek Hill in the fifth round of the 2016 draft despite his previous dismissal from the Oklahoma State Cowboys program due to an alleged assault (to which he later pleaded guilty). 

    A large portion of the draft process is becoming comfortable with the person as much as the player. 

    Antonio Callaway's rap sheet is extensive, with an alleged sexual assault, a citation for marijuana possession and involvement in a credit card fraud scheme since 2016. Former Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain placed his top receiver on indefinite suspension, and Callaway never played a down during his junior campaign. 

    No one will excuse Callaway for his previous transgressions. Despite the receiver's laundry list of concerns, some franchise will take a chance on his talent, because a sliding (some might say unfair) scale exists for athletes who can help teams win. Everyone understands the hypocrisy under which the NFL operates here.

    Callaway, the player, is skilled. He led the Gators with 54 receptions for 721 yards as a sophomore. The 5'11", 197-pound target has the short-area quickness to avoid jams and create separation with 4.41-second speed to blow the top off defenses. The Miami native is also a standout punt returner. 

    NFL teams want electric receivers who can create chunk plays. Callaway has the potential to be a dynamic target if a front office and coaching staff become comfortable enough with him to draft late in the process. 

Wide Receiver Cedrick Wilson, Boise State

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    This incoming wide receiver class may not be top-heavy with elite prospects, but it does feature numerous talents to slide into specific roles early in their careers. 

    Memphis' Anthony Miller, SMU's Trey Quinn and Texas Tech's Keke Coutee are outstanding options out of the slot. Iowa State's Allen Lazard, Florida State's Auden Tate and Notre Dame's Equanimeous St. Brown are big-bodied targets. LSU's D.J. Chark, Clemson's Deon Cain and Oklahoma State's James Washington can provide a vertical presence. 

    Complete targets are much harder to find. 

    Cedrick Wilson doesn't elicit the same praise as Alabama's Calvin Ridley or even Texas A&M's Christian Kirk does, yet the Boise State wide receiver's combination of production and versatility makes him one of the best all-around wide receivers in the class. He's still generally viewed as a Day 3 option. 

    Raw athleticism is the difference between Wilson and other top prospects. Despite NFL bloodlines—Wilson's father played seven NFL seasons—the 6'3", 188-pound target didn't test well at the combine. A 4.55-second 40-yard dash coupled with a 37-inch vertical, 10'1" broad jump, 4.23-second short shuttle and 6.89-second three-cone drill are all solid numbers, but they're not special.  

    Otherwise, Wilson proved he is a capable route-runner with the ability to play out wide or in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, every one of the receiver's routes garnered a 99.3 quarterback rating or better last season.

    The Tennessee native led the Broncos with 139 receptions for 2,640 yards and 18 touchdowns the last two seasons. 
    Having a father who played wide receiver surely helped Wilson become a more nuanced route-runner with the potential to provide flexibility within any offense. 

Tight End Dalton Schultz, Stanford

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    Stanford is Tight End U. Since 2010, Austin Hooper, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, Coby Fleener and Jim Dray entered the league and experienced varying levels of success.

    There's no reason to believe Dalton Schultz can't do the same and extend the Cardinal lineage. 

    Stanford's tight end assembly line stems from a pro-style offense that often features 12 (one running back and two tight ends) or 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). David Shaw's squad will even put three or four tight ends on the field at times. 

    In the Cardinal offense, the position requires a well-rounded approach. Every tight end is asked to block and serve as a No. 1 target in certain route schemes. Some are better than others, yet all know they're not just going to be glorified wide receivers detached from the line of scrimmage. 

    Penn State's Mike Gesicki, Oklahoma's Mark Andrews and South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert are perfect examples of tight ends without a clue how to be capable blockers. Yet their advantages in the passing game make them early-round options. 

    Schultz isn't the same caliber of athlete as those mentioned, but he's close to another Stanford product and one of the NFL's best tight ends. At five fewer pounds, Schultz ran the same 40-yard-dash time as Ertz (4.75 seconds) with better efforts in the vertical (32 inches), broad jump (10 feet), short shuttle (4.4 seconds) and three-cone (seven seconds), as the Eagles Wire's Turron Davenport noted. 

    The Cardinal don't throw the ball often, and Schultz managed just 45 receptions for 434 yards the last two seasons. Yet his body control, blocking capabilities, understanding of how to run routes and reliable hands make him a starting-caliber prospect even in the middle rounds.

Offensive Tackle Joseph Noteboom, TCU

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    The offensive tackle class is considered the weakest among this year's position groups. Even so, a few starters will emerge.

    Most of the available offensive tackles are considered developmental prospects because they're better athletes than technicians. 

    TCU's Joseph Noteboom is a top athlete with 40 career starts under his belt. The four-time Academic All-Big 12 honoree has multiple traits to project him as a professional left tackle. 

    First, Noteboom's physical profile is impressive. At 6'5" and 309 pounds with 34 3/8-inch arms, the Texas native finished fourth overall among offensive linemen with a 4.96-second 40-yard dash and second with a 4.44-second short shuttle. 

    His mobility translated to the field, too. Noteboom moved smoothly and effortlessly during position drills. None of this should have come as a surprise after being a high-level starter at a top-25 program for the last three seasons. 

    Noteboom looks and even plays the part. He performed well against top competition. However, the left tackle needs to become far more consistent with his technique. Noteboom has a good pass set and punch, but he can be late off the snap and grows lazy at times. 

    NFL offensive line play relies on repeatable technique. Noteboom has the skill set to grow into a starting blindside protector as long as he concentrates on the little things that make linemen successful.

    He's smart and athletic with all of the requisite physical tools and experience. The NFL can't ask for much more of a third-day offensive tackle prospect. 

Defensive End Ade Aruna, Tulane

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    Tulane's Ade Aruna is viewed as a project, and there's nothing wrong with the designation. After all, the Nigerian immigrant didn't start playing football until his senior year of high school. 

    "You look at my background, I'm not like all these guys who've played football since they were five or six years old," Aruna said at the NFL combine, per the New Orleans Advocate's Joel Erickson. "I'm blessed to be here today."

    Even so, the defensive end can provide instant value as a pass-rusher.

    At 6'6" and 262 pounds with 34-inch arms, Aruna posted a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, 38.5-inch vertical and 10'8" broad jump. All three of those numbers ranked top six overall among participating defensive linemen. According to Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman, those testing numbers show Aruna is a more explosive athlete than the top two defensive end prospects: North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb and UTSA's Marcus Davenport. 

    Testing well is nice, but it must translate to the field. The fact Aruna ranked among the top edge athletes in each of the aforementioned events meant to test explosiveness is key to his value. His ability to fire off the ball and beat NFL-caliber offensive linemen should help make him a sub-package defender early in his career.

    A 1.60-second 10-yard split during his 40-yard dash confirmed Aruna's first-step quickness. When his suddenness is coupled with his length, the Tulane product has the physical tools to develop into a top-flight edge-rusher despite a lack of collegiate production (12 career sacks), mainly due to scheme changes. 

Defensive Lineman James Looney, California

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    It's easy for a good player to be overlooked on a bad team. It's even easier for a defender to be driven down draft boards if he doesn't have a defined position. 

    At 6'3" and 287 pounds, Cal's James Looney suffers from both issues. 

    Looney registered 41 total tackles and a team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss while being used all over the Golden Bears' defensive front. 

    "I feel like I could play any position at the next level," Looney said after Cal's pro day, per 247 Sports' Ryan Gorcey. "I feel like that's my key: My athleticism. I feel like I could play 5-technique, 3-technique, shade, 4-I in a 3-4 defense. I feel like I showed it myself, this year."

    The three-year starter is a good athlete with 4.89-second 40-yard-dash speed, but he lacks length (32-inch arms). This makes his projection difficult even though he's a consistent presence in an opponent's backfield. 

    "He does some really good things, in terms of quickness and explosion. He's got good pass-rush ability," Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. "It's finding the right fit, where they're going to play him, whether he's a 3-technique or a 6-technique in a four-down defense, or will somebody play him at a 4i in a 3-4 defense. I think they're all trying to figure that out, and he knows that, too."

    Ideally, Looney is placed at 3-technique with a two-way go so his first-step quickness can be maximized, even though he still needs work on his pad level and hand play. 

Edge Hercules Mata'afa, Washington State

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    Washington State's Hercules Mata'afa is a throwback. It's a compliment of the highest order. 

    At 6'1" and 254 pounds, Mata'afa played defensive tackle and dominated. Everyone has grown so accustomed to watching 300-pound war daddies playing the trenches that we tend to forget how beneficial leverage, technique and short-area quickness can be. Mata'afa became the living embodiment of these traits and dominated the competition with 45.5 tackles for loss and 21 sacks over the last three seasons. 

    Mata'afa's projection is fascinating since he won't play defensive tackle in the NFL. Granted, some defensive coordinator may want to slide him inside in certain sub-packages, but the majority of his playing time will come at another position.  

    The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American didn't play inside because he has questionable athleticism. Quite the opposite. He ran a 4.76-second 40-yard dash at the combine and looked fluid in all of the drills, including linebacker drops. 

    His future NFL coaching staff has options. Either it can keep Mata'afa on the edge against offensive tackles and tight ends, or he can make the transition to middle linebacker, like Tedy Bruschi once did. 

    This uncertainty doesn't help the defender's draft standing, though. Mata'afa will require some time to adapt. His previous play suggests he can immediately contribute as a pass-rusher while learning on the job. 

    Mata'afa is the type of player every coach wants on his team: He's consistent, hard-working, and his motor never stops. Sometimes a good football player is just a good football player, and a coaching staff needs to find a place for him.

Linebacker Jack Cichy, Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin's Jack Cichy may be the most naturally instinctive linebacker in this year's class. Unfortunately, no one got to see him play last season. In fact, he hasn't taken a meaningful snap since Oct. 22, 2016, when he tore a pectoral muscle during a Badgers victory against the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

    Once fully healed from the pectoral tear, Cichy tore an ACL during camp last August. 

    "I'm prepared to earn my way onto a 53-man roster any way I can," the linebacker said at Wisconsin's pro day, per Sconnie Sports Talk's Lucas Johnson. "[NFL Teams] know what I can do on film; now the biggest question is 'How am I going to be able to bounce back from the past year-and-a-half?'"

    The former walk-on bounced back well during his workout, even though he decided not to run the 40-yard-dash since he's only about 90 percent recovered. Even so, the linebacker posted a 33.5-inch vertical, 4.19-second short shuttle and a three-cone effort just under seven seconds. 

    Each of those numbers would have qualified Cichy as a top-13 performer among linebackers at the combine. In fact, his short shuttle would have been a top-four effort. 

    As long as his body is willing, the 2015 Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP displays the necessary athleticism and playmaking ability to be a quality inside linebacker. The last time he took the field, he managed 60 tackles, including 7.0 TFL and 1.5 sacks, in just seven contests. 

    Medical evaluations are a big part of any prospect's draft status. In Cichy's case, they're vital. How a team perceives his long-term health will determine where he lands. No one questions his on-field capabilities, though. 

Defensive Back Dane Cruikshank, Arizona

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    The more a player can do, the more valuable he becomes, especially in today's NFL where defensive sub-packages are so prevalent. 

    Dane Cruikshank blossomed in the desert last season once the Arizona Wildcats' coaching staff moved him to spur (a hybrid safety/linebacker in the team's 3-3-5 defense). Cruikshank registered 75 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions during his senior campaign. 

    At 6'1" and 206 pounds, the one-time junior college transfer appears to be a natural fit at safety. However, he started all 12 games at cornerback during the previous campaign. 

    NFL teams can go back to the 2016 tape and see Cruikshank struggle with some of his responsibilities. That's OK. What scouts need to see next is if his skill set translates to corner with the possibility of playing some safety. 

    Cruikshank has the speed and quickness to return to his old position. Arizona's only representative at the combine ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash with a 4.24-second short shuttle and 6.89-second three-cone drill. As a safety, each of those efforts ranked among the top five overall. It's more than enough athleticism to play cornerback, too. 

    His 2016 play doesn't warrant much consideration as anything other than a safety. Yet the possibilities found within his skill set should make him an intriguing role player for defensive coaches. Cruikshank can play strong or free safety, nickel corner, nickel linebacker and even bump outside on rare occasions. 

    Scheme flexibility gives Cruikshank plenty of value as a late-round possibility.