2016 NFL Draft: Hidden Gems You Need to Know

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Hidden Gems You Need to Know

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    The 2016 NFL draft class is starting to take shape, with the underclassmen deadline less than a week away (Jan. 18). 

    While many diehard draft fans are already familiar with the names most likely to appear in the first round, it's time to start diving deeper into the class to find the hidden gems. 

    Finding the sleepers in the draft class is a long process. Prospects who look like sleepers in January could dramatically swing one way or the other based on their combine performances. 

    At this early stage of the offseason evaluation process, here's a look at eight prospects who likely won't be first-round picks, but could prove to be valuable additions on the second or third day of the draft. 

Cassanova McKinzy, LB, Auburn

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    The 2015 season did not go as planned for Auburn, but one of the few bright spots was linebacker Cassanova McKinzy. 

    According to Vincent Ronca of Pro Football Focus, McKinzy graded out as the fifth-best linebacker in the SEC during the regular season. 

    Unfortunately, McKinzy is coming off a sprained knee in Auburn's Birmingham Bowl appearance, but is expected to be ready for the combine, according to James Crepea of AL.com.  

    McKinzy's greatest strength is his athleticism, which gives him impressive range to make plays against the run and when dropping back in coverage. For this reason, it will be critical that he heals in time to work out for teams prior to the draft. 

    If McKinzy wows scouts with his combine performance, he could be a fast riser up draft boards. 

Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor

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    Baylor hasn't exactly been known for its defense in recent years, but Xavien Howard emerged as a playmaker for the Bears in 2015.

    Howard will benefit from the recent trend of NFL teams mimicking the Seattle Seahawks and targeting bigger cornerbacks, as Baylor lists him at 6'2", 200 pounds. 

    With his size and ball skills (five interceptions this season), Howard has the potential to be the complete package at cornerback. 

    Howard enters the draft following his junior year, and he is still raw in terms of technique. He tends to rely on his athleticism rather than focusing on the footwork he'll need to stay with quicker receivers at the next level. However, his overall skill set gives him a high ceiling to work toward in the NFL.

Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech

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    Having played his college ball at Louisiana Tech, Kenneth Dixon enters draft season as an off-the-radar prospect, but that may not last long. 

    In a running back class that is short on elite prospects from the major programs, others such as Dixon will emerge as favorites in the coming months. 

    CBS Sports' Dane Brugler describes Dixon as "not explosive, but patient with excellent vision and feel to pick through a crowd."

    Dixon certainly falls short in a comparison to an elite prospect such as Ezekiel Elliott. But any team looking for a running back with starter potential in the third or fourth round could find a gem in Dixon. 

    We saw running backs in that range such as Chicago's Jeremy Langford and Buffalo's Karlos Williams emerge as valuable rookies this past NFL season, and Dixon could be next in line.

Eric Murray, CB, Minnesota

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    Despite its struggles as a team this season, Minnesota boasted one of the top secondary units in the nation. That unit was led by Eric Murray.

    Murray was tested right off the bat this season with a showdown against TCU in which he picked off Trevone Boykin and helped hold the Horned Frogs to a season-low 23 points. 

    Prior to the season, NFL.com's Chad Reuter speculated that Murray's "physical nature should land him near the top of NFL teams' cornerback wish list."

    According to Matt Jessen-Howard of Rivals.com, former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill projected that Murray would be a first-round selection earlier this season

    Obviously Kill is somewhat biased, and Murray is unlikely to elevate his stock to that level, but he could certainly climb as high as the second round if he tests well at the combine. 

    Teams know Murray has size and a physical style of play, so they will be looking to see how his speed and agility stack up against the rest of this draft class. 

Adam Gotsis, DT, Georgia Tech

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    Adam Gotsis, a native of Australia, is a three-year starter who was poised for a breakout season before a knee injury ended his senior year. 

    Gotsis is still developing his technique, but he has the blend of size and athleticism to become a disruptive force in the NFL. 

    Prior to the 2015 season, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein listed Gotsis among his top defensive line prospects, stating that he "has the build and the skill set to be a 3-4 defensive end."

    Gotsis is likely a Day 3 prospect, but if he's healthy enough to work out for teams prior to the draft, he'll have an opportunity to elevate his stock. 

Miles Killebrew, S, Southern Utah

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    Miles Killebrew is one of the draft's most highly regarded prospects from outside the FBS ranks. 

    Listed at 6'3", 230 pounds, Killebrew stands out as as a dominant run-stuffing safety with the size and skill set of a small linebacker. 

    His performance has already generated rave reviews from NFL Network's Mike Mayock, who praised his hard-hitting ability. 

    Bleacher Report's Eric Galko is also a fan of Killebrew's skill set, calling him a "physical, feisty tackler."

    Killebrew will need to prove his ability to be as effective in coverage as he is against the run, but his unique skill set should land him a spot in the middle rounds of the draft. 

Eric Mac Lain, OG, Clemson

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    We often have to guess how athletes will transition to new positions in the NFL, but due to the talent around Eric Mac Lain at Clemson, he has already made that move. 

    Mac Lain was originally recruited as a tight end—ranked as the No. 6 overall tight end in the country, according to Rivals—and played some offensive tackle before finally landing at guard. 

    Even though he isn't an elite talent at the position, there are a number of reasons to love Mac Lain as a Day 3 prospect. 

    Based on his limited experience on the offensive line, there's reason to expect Mac Lain will continue to grow, potentially into an NFL starter. 

    Even if he falls short of producing as a starter, the most valuable asset a backup offensive lineman can have is versatility. Mac Lain projects as a potential starter at guard, but he also has the athleticism to play tackle. That versatility will be critical to his draft stock.

Daniel Braverman, WR, Western Michigan

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    Daniel Braverman was a surprise early entry to the draft, especially since he was overshadowed by fellow receiver Corey Davis, who is expected to be among the most highly touted receivers in the 2017 draft. 

    Despite the hype for Davis, Braverman established himself as a quality pro prospect in his own right this season, hauling in 108 receptions for over 1,300 yards. 

    Braverman's most impressive performances came against Michigan State and Ohio State, when he combined for 23 receptions and over 200 yards. 

    Draft Breakdown's Jeff Risdon has compared Braverman to New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman.

    At 5'10", 177 pounds, Braverman is slightly smaller than Edelman, but he is just as elusive in space and a similar threat after the catch.

    This draft class isn't as deep as the past two seasons, so Braverman could emerge as a Day 2 prospect.


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