NFL Draft 2015: Underrated Talents That Will Improve Their Stock

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2014

Miami's Duke Johnson (8) during the first half of a NCAA college football game in Miami Gardens, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 against Florida. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Pat Carter

Let's be honest—we're all obsessed with the NFL draft. It's an addiction, and we might need help. But if loving the draft is wrong, well, I don't want to be right.

How obsessed are we? Well, I decided it was probably time to start looking at some of the underrated or at least under-the-radar prospects...for the 2015 draft. Yes, that's right, I'm already looking ahead to next season. 

I've got a fever and the only prescription isn't more cowbell, it's more NFL draft. Come chase that dragon with me.

Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

Andrew Nelles

Shilique Calhoun is probably already a late-first-round prospect, but if he continues to bulk up and dominates this season, he has the potential to sneak into the top 10 picks.

Calhoun finished last season with 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, good enough to earn him the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year award. Had he entered the draft this season, he probably would have been a Day 2 pick. But there's little doubt he needs to add some muscle and bulk to his frame, which his defensive line coach, Ron Burton, mentioned to Josh Slagter of MLive.com after this year's Rose Bowl:

The process of getting stronger, the process of getting bigger. That's the part of it that's going to make him better. Being able to work in space, the ability to use his hands, and work in the run game. That's where he's going to continue to get better. He's still a work in progress.

Don't be surprised if Calhoun turns himself into one of the top defensive prospects in the country next season.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 03:  Tyler Lockett #16 of the Kansas State Wildcats carries the ball against the Oregon Ducks during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 3, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Im
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

One of the most exciting players in college football is also one you might not be terribly familiar with. Tyler Lockett finished the 2013 season with 81 receptions for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he comes into this season as arguably the most dangerous player in the Big 12.

Matt Hayes of Sporting News called him "the most overlooked, exciting player in college football." And Jake Trotter of ESPN broke down his impact on Kansas State a season ago:

Of course, [Jake] Waters also benefited from having one of the best security blankets in all of college football in All-Big 12 wideout Tyler Lockett, who could be a preseason All-American going into his senior season. 

Despite missing two games earlier in the season with injury, Lockett led the league in receiving yards per game (105.2). As Waters settled in, Lockett became almost uncoverable, hauling in 278 yards and three touchdowns in late November against Oklahoma before reeling in three first-half touchdown catches in the bowl game against Michigan. 

'It’s pretty awesome for a quarterback to have a guy like him,' Waters said. “I’m confident he’s going to get open every single time. I know where he’s going to be, what he’s going to do, and that’s a big help. Me and him have a great connection.'

If Lockett weren't 5'11" and 175 pounds, we'd probably hear a bit more about him as a top NFL prospect. But given his huge 2013—I mean, he put up gigantic numbers despite missing two games!—and the likelihood that he'll surpass those numbers in 2014, he's a guy who could easily play his way into the first round. 

Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan

IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 23: Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz #86 of the Iowa Hawkeyes catches a pass during the first quarter in front of linebacker Jake Ryan #47 of the Michigan Wolverines on November 23, 2013 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In 2012, Jake Ryan led Michigan with 88 tackles and also contributed 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. In a word, he was a menace, and he looked as though he was going to become one of the top defensive players in the country.

Last year, his season was marred by injury after tearing his ACL in the spring, and he only appeared in eight games, never quite flashing the potential we saw from his sophomore campaign. At times he looked tentative, which was surely a product of his knee.

But Ryan should be fully healthy and confident this season and, moreover, he's transitioning to the middle linebacker position, where he could make an even bigger impact for Michigan's defense. If we get the Ryan of 2012 with added experience and the potential to be even more disruptive at a new position, well, you can bet NFL teams will be very, very interested next offseason.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 5: Duke Johnson #8 of the Miami Hurricanes runs with the ball against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on October 5, 2013 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.(Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

In his freshman season, Duke Johnson rushed for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns in a full season, averaging a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. He also added 27 catches for 221 yards and a score, and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Impressive stuff in his debut, no doubt.

But last year was even more impressive, as the sophomore rushed for 920 yards and six touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry.

Wait a second—his numbers decreased in his sophomore year. How is that more impressive? Well, folks, he compiled those numbers in just eight games as his season was cut short due to a broken ankle. In other words, a healthy Duke Johnson probably wouldn't make this list, but his injury concerns have likely kept him out of the national spotlight more than his talent warrants.

His injury is a major concern, but his talent and impact on Miami's offense is not in question. Consider the following, from Andrea Adelson of ESPN:

When Johnson was the starter last season, Miami jumped out to a 7-0 start and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. After he broke his ankle against Florida State, Miami averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in the final five games without him, going 2-3. Johnson accounted for every 25-yard run made by a running back before the Florida State game. After that contest, only one back had a run that went 25 yards or longer. 

If Johnson can stay healthy next year—according to Adelson, he's bulked up to 205 pounds and worked hard this offseason on improving his strength and durability—he'll not only put his name in the running to be the top running back taken in the 2015 draft, he'll also be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Yes, he's that good. 

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

Patrick Semansky

Speaking of injuries, Stefon Diggs was poised to have a big year in 2013 before his season was cut short just seven games in. He still posted 34 receptions for 587 yards and an impressive 17.3 yards per catch. He had four games with 90 or more receiving yards and posted a touchdown catch in his first three games.

As a freshman, he snagged 54 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns, and last year he would have easily eclipsed those numbers. All you have to do is watch his highlight reel to see the sort of ability he possesses. 

Don't be surprised if he rises up a lot of draft boards next season.


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