2016 NFL Draft: Underrated Prospects Who Could Sneak into First Round

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Underrated Prospects Who Could Sneak into First Round

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    Almost every year the NFL draft provides fans with some shocking first-round selections. 

    The most memorable in recent memory came in 2010 when the Denver Broncos shocked the world and selected Tim Tebow with the 25th overall selection.

    But there have been plenty of less-high-profile surprises such as the Detroit Lions taking offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson 28th overall in 2015, or the Philadelphia Eagles selecting linebacker Marcus Smith with their first-round pick the previous year. 

    These surprise picks happen for a variety of reasons. 

    In the case of Tebow, it was a combination of a coach falling in love with the potential of an undeveloped prospect compounded by the fact he played the most important position on the field. These situations are rare, however. 

    The more common scenario that plays out is the one which led the Lions to take Tomlinson in 2015. In their case, the Lions were 11-5 the previous season and believed they needed an offensive lineman to help put them over the top. So the Lions reached slightly for Tomlinson, hoping his immediate value would be worth the risk. 

    If it were easy to predict these surprises, they wouldn't come as a shock. But we can try to throw out some scenarios based on the prospects available and the needs of the teams in the late first round.

    For each of the prospects in the slideshow, a list of potential fits will be included. Most of these will be teams selecting in the late first round, but others who could trade back into the first round will be included as well. 

Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Interest in Shilique Calhoun, at least in the first round, should be limited to teams that can compete in 2016. 

    At this stage of his career he doesn't have the skill set to be a three-down lineman or linebacker due to his struggles against the run. Even in college, Calhoun was often overmatched at the point of attack, even getting sealed off by smaller tight ends

    As a pass-rusher, however, Calhoun has the explosive athleticism to make an immediate impact and should have value as a situational pass-rusher early in his career. 

    The Denver Broncos' Super Bowl run demonstrated just how valuable a dominant pass rush can be in the playoffs, and Calhoun could play a vital role for a contender in 2016. 

    A team with relatively few holes to fill may be able to justify a luxury pick such as Calhoun in the late first round if they have a specific role planned for him and view him as an immediate contributor. 

    Potential fits: Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys

Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Connor Cook is one of the wild cards of this draft class due to a combination of his fringe first-round talent and a surprising number of teams at the back end of the first round needing a quarterback. 

    Typically the bottom third of the first round doesn't produce many quarterbacks because those spots are occupied by the playoff contenders from the previous season, which usually means they have a quarterback in place. 

    But this has been an odd offseason and in mid April there are still two teams—the Denver Broncos and New York Jets—who own late first-round picks and still need to find a starting quarterback. 

    North Dakota State's Carson Wentz and California's Jared Goff should be long gone by the time the Jets are on the clock at No. 20. And the third quarterback expected to be selected, Memphis' Paxton Lynch, could be gone as well. 

    In that scenario, the odds of Cook sneaking into the back end of the first round skyrocket. 

    It's also possible a team missing out on a quarterback at the top of the draft could trade up to land Cook at the end of the first round. 

    The Cleveland Browns, for example, own the first pick of the second round but may have a financial incentive to trade up if they want a quarterback with that selection. 

    Contracts for all first-round picks are five-year deals, with the fifth-year being a team option. Second-round picks however, do not have the team option, meaning the 32nd pick will likely hit the open market a year earlier than the 31st pick. 

    The Minnesota Vikings took advantage of this quirk in the rookie wage scale when they traded up to select Teddy Bridgewater with the final pick of the first round in 2014. 

    Potential fits: Denver Broncos, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns

Jeremy Cash, Duke

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Duke's Jeremy Cash has a very specific skill set that isn't going to interest every team. 

    He's a safety/linebacker hybrid, which means some teams may view him as a man without a position. Others, however, will see him as a potential star in this new hybrid position teams have been experimenting with in recent years. 

    The Arizona Cardinals currently use Deone Bucannon in this role their coaching staff has termed the "moneybacker" position. 

    Like Bucannon, Cash has the coverage skills of a typical strong safety, but is extremely aggressive against the run and his elite range makes him a weapon when playing in the box. 

    Not every team will be in the market for Cash. In fact, some teams may not even have him on their board if his skill set doesn't fit into their system. But since this is a copycat league, there will be some teams looking to find their own moneybacker in this draft class. 

    There are a small handful of prospects available who can fill that role, which could cause a team to view Cash as a commodity worth snatching up in the late first round. 

    Potential fits: San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers

Su'a Cravens, USC

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Su'a Cravens fits into the same category as Jeremy Cash, as a hybrid safety/linebacker. 

    Unlike Cash, whose role more closely resembled a traditional strong safety, Cravens was primarily used as a linebacker at USC.

    For that reason, Cash might actually have more suitors as some teams may be willing to simply plug him in as a traditional weak-side linebacker. 

    The flip side to the argument, however, is that Cravens has less experience in coverage, which may worry teams that view him as a better fit at safety. 

    But if he sneaks into the first round, it will be for the same reasons Cash could land there. He's a rare talent with elite range against the run and also the tools to handle some coverage assignments. 

    If a team wants to copy the Cardinals and develop a moneybacker position, Cravens and Cash will both be in the conversation. 

    Potential fits: Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys

Bronson Kaufusi, BYU

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Remember all of the hype Baylor lineman Shawn Oakman received the past two years?

    Football fans have been fascinated by Oakman's 6'8" frame and freakish athleticism to go with it. The only problem: Oakman never produced on the field.

    The physical freak worthy of your attention, however, is BYU's Bronson Kaufusi.

    At the combine, Kaufusi weighed in at 6'6", 285 pounds—not quite at Oakman's level but, combined with his athleticism, it certainly qualifies him as one of the physical marvels of this draft class. 

    Kaufusi is certainly a first-round long shot, but if he sneaks into the late first round it wouldn't be the first time a team fell in love with a prospect's physical gifts and took him a little earlier than expected. 

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller recently compared Kaufusi to Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe. And according to Rotoworld's Josh Norris, the Broncos are one of the teams who have worked out Kaufusi this offseason. 

    The Broncos lost defensive lineman Malik Jackson in free agency and may view Kaufusi as someone who can help rebuild their depth. 

    Potential fits: Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans

Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech

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    When surprising players sneak into the late first round, it often occurs after a run on a particular position has been started earlier than expected. 

    One of the positions where that could occur this year is offensive tackle. 

    Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil headlines a class of four or five offensive linemen who are virtual first-round locks. But if those prospects come off the board early, teams at the back end of the first round may feel the need to reach to fill a need. 

    Texas Tech's Le'Raven Clark is the guy who could benefit from an early run on tackles. 

    There's no denying Clark's raw skills, and based purely on potential it's not hard to see why a team might consider him in the first round. 

    Clark is 6'5" and has quick feet for his size, making him an ideal fit at left tackle in the pros. However, Clark is also extremely raw and makes mistakes that will drive coaches crazy if he's forced into a starting role. 

    It's difficult to envision a team entering the draft with Clark as a first-round target, especially if they're in need of a tackle to play right away. But if the draft doesn't go as planned, a team may decide it values Clark's long-term upside even if he isn't ready to contribute immediately. 

    Potential fits: New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers


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