2016 NFL Draft: Late-Round Prospects Who Provide Huge Upside

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Late-Round Prospects Who Provide Huge Upside

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    While the majority of draft coverage revolves around first-round picks, there are times when the media need a nudging to remind them that Day 3 of the draft even exists. Everyone expects to hit on first- and second-rounders, while mid- to late-round prospects are treated as fliers—lottery tickets to impact in the league.

    Just because a prospect isn't drafted with one of the top 100 picks doesn't mean there isn't talent rolling around when the NFL is in the triple digits on Saturday of the draft weekend. Plenty of projects develop with the right coaches and scheme. Who will be the next hidden gem pass-rusher like Robert Mathis? What about the next polished pass-catcher in the mold of Antonio Brown?

    In an attempt to unearth some Day 3 talent in this draft class, we'll lay out eight prospects with high upside who should be available in at least the fourth round. We'll explain why a player is being viewed as being outside of the top 100, what role he can fill for an NFL franchise and why he is mistakenly being overlooked. None of the following prospects is listed in Play the Draft's top 100, a site that creates a composite big board based on users who look at the program with a stock market approach.

Willie Henry, DL, Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    For some reason, Willie Henry isn't being talked about. It's possible that the media are slowly catching up to underclass declarations, but Henry did enough on television broadcasts to prove he's potential a next-level starter.

    Even at the combine, he didn't score under the 61st percentile of defensive tackles in any on-field drill, per Mock Draftable. His football talent matches that effort, as he has no glaring holes in his game. That's one reason, despite declaring a year early for the NFL draft, that he made 22 starts in his career at Michigan.

    As an under tackle type, he was able to post 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for losses for the Wolverines last season. He's a B-plus run defender and a C-plus pass-rusher on the relative scale of defensive tackles. He's never going to be a Pro Bowler, but he does post flashes of a broke man's Gerald McCoy.

De'Runnya Wilson, WR, Mississippi State

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Heading into the combine, many considered De'Runnya Wilson to be a Kelvin Benjamin-like receiver, a jumbo red-zone target with limited top-end speed. No one expected Wilson to run a 4.85-second 40-yard dash at 6'5" and 224 pounds, though.

    Wilson performed three drills in Indianapolis, never finishing above the 7th percentile of receivers in any of those drills individually, per Mock Draftable. That doesn't change who he is as a player, though.

    Maybe he's not a red zone-specific player but a red zone-only player. Still, tall, strong pass-catchers are more than valuable enough to stash on the roster for touchdown opportunities in a compressed field. Over the last two years, he's caught 19 touchdowns. Dorial Green-Beckham was used as a primary red-zone target early on in his rookie season last year, and I'd expect the same type of role for Wilson.

Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Brock Osweiler was just paid like a king by the Houston Texans after just seven starts. The NFL needs to develop more quarterbacks to stay afloat, and Cardale Jones is a prime example of a player who can be molded into a starter.

    Everyone saw what he was capable of during his three-game stretch during the 2014 season, which led to Ohio State winning the national championship. He has size (6'5") and arm strength but lacks the polish and consistency to be considered a franchise quarterback coming out of Columbus. On paper, he's similar to Ryan Mallett, who was drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft.

    Given the opportunity, can Jones grow into a Drew Bledsoe-type talent? The issue is, he's already 23 years old and hasn't had many repetitions in his post-high school career. He was a third-string quarterback heading into the 2014 season and split snaps with J.T. Barrett in the 2015 season, when they were battling for the starting gig. Backup passers don't get as many practice looks as you might think, but Jones is worth investing in.

Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Dean Lowry is a defensive lineman who is similar to Henry Anderson from last year's draft class. As a rookie out of Stanford, Anderson recorded nine starts with the Indianapolis Colts. For a third-round pick, that more than meets expectations.

    Anderson was a tall player who was quietly able to rush the passer, even in a 5-technique defensive end's body. Lowry is a spitting image of Anderson in that aspect. The upside is there, as most pure 5-techniques are seldom thought of as three-down players in a nickel defense, the NFL's current base defense.

    What's going to worry NFL teams is Lowry's arm length. That measurable is overrated for pass-rushers, who often attack with one arm and have to keep their outside shoulder clean anyway, but for a two-gap defender like a 3-4 defensive end, being able to press an offensive lineman out of your chest is a crucial skill. Somehow, at 6'6", Lowry has 31" arms, ranking in the 1st percentile of defensive ends, per Mock Draftable.

D.J. Reader, DL, Clemson

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    D.J. Reader didn't play the first half of his senior season, as he was on personal leave while dealing with the death of his father. When he did return, though, he did so as a team captain. To get that honor from Clemson, which played in the national championship against Alabama, on that defensive line, which may have two first-round picks with Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, is something special.

    Reader offers three-down potential at the nose tackle position, as his strength and power match well in both the running and passing game. No one will mistake him for Dontari Poe, but as far as nose tackles go, you can do a lot worse than Reader.

    He was a late addition to the Senior Bowl, but as someone who kept his eyes on defensive linemen throughout the Ladd-Peebles Stadium practices, I can tell you Reader impressed. He's quick for a guy in the 330-pound range, and he has countermoves to play off his initial burst.

Antonio Morrison, LB, Florida

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    At Florida, Antonio Morrison was one of the most aggressive and talented linebackers in college football last season. He grew to develop into a team captain and a first-team All-SEC defender.

    He isn't without faults, though. He has a major ACL injury in his past, which he suffered in the Gators' 2014 bowl game, plus he has two arrests under his belt. One was for barking at a police K-9, while the other revolves around a bar fight. He also has "don't trust me" tattooed on his arm, to top it all off.

    He's a good linebacker for the first two plays on the down box, but he won't bring anything to the table as a third-down player. Between that and his background, teams may wait to draft the linebacker until Day 3, but whoever selects him will get a quality starter, if he can keep his head on straight. Morrison also didn't make it to the combine, which is virtually unheard of for a draft prospect.

Byron Marshall, WR, Oregon

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    As a sophomore in 2013, Byron Marshall took over the starting running back job at the University of Oregon. He was able to break 1,000 rushing yards that year but then transitioned to receiver in 2014, when Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, two super recruits, took the reins in the backfield.

    In his first year at the position, Marshall netted more than 1,000 yards receiving. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see much of him in 2015, as he missed the majority of his senior season with an ankle injury.

    The running back position has been devalued for years, but the one role that doesn't seem to be making less of an impact at the NFL level is the backfield pass-catcher. Look at what the New England Patriots offense looked like with and without Dion Lewis. Look at what the San Diego Chargers offense looked like with Danny Woodhead in the backfield.

    That type of player gives a team a big advantage in the league, as the mismatch between a running back and move linebackers is an edge toward the offense. Now, imagine a running back who had a 1,000-yard receiving season going toe-to-toe with a linebacker in space. Marshall is a flexible talent who can both play in the backfield or split out as a receiver.

Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Like Byron Marshall, Vernon Adams is another former Oregon Duck. Unlike Marshall, though, Adams only played in Eugene for one season. Before then, he was the starting quarterback of the Eastern Washington Eagles, who won the Big Sky Conference three times under Adams.

    As a graduate transfer, the potential draftee decided to take a jump from FCS play to compete as a starter for a national championship-contending FBS program. After joining the roster in August, Adams was named the opening-day starter. After a wrist injury occurred on a late hit against his former program, though, he missed games or played injured for half of a season.

    When he finally was healthy, he ripped off one of the more impressive stretches for a quarterback in recent memory. Against USC and Stanford, he completed over 80 percent of his passes combined in two giant wins for a team that was hovering around .500 during his absence.

    Adams is a quarterback who measures under 6'0", which is always going to be a knock, and he's an unconventional passer. While he can drop in the pocket, a lot of his success came by extending plays, even if his rushing totals don't reflect his mobility.

    While he wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl, the top all-star game for outgoing graduates, he was invited to the East-West Shrine Game, where he was named the MVP of the event. If you're looking for the next Tyrod Taylor, Adams is going to be high on your list.

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