2017 NFL Draft: Late-Round Prospects with the Most Potential

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 12, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Late-Round Prospects with the Most Potential

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    As we get closer to April 27, most of the discussion surrounding the 2017 NFL draft centers on the first round.

    There's been plenty written about Texas A&M edge-rusher Myles Garrett, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. Countless articles have been penned regarding this year's quarterbacks and which of North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky, Clemson's Deshaun Watson or Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer will be the first off the board. Want to know about LSU tailback Leonard Fournette or Ohio State safety Malik Hooker? You won't have to look far.

    But there's another potential treasure trove that every NFL team would love to plunder: the late-round gems.

    Who wouldn't want to find the next Richard Sherman (No. 154 in 2011) or the next Antonio Brown (No. 195 in 2010)? How about the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft—Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.?

    There's no guarantee any of these youngsters will do what those stars have and go from Day 3 picks to the best in the game at their respective positions. But each has the potential to make one believe that maybe—just maybe—they could.

Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss

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    Were it just a matter of pedigree, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly would be a first-round pick. His uncle, Jim, is in the Hall of Fame after having a fair amount of success with the Buffalo Bills.

    Were it just a matter of talent, the same might hold true. As one scout told Emily Kaplan of The MMQB, "No doubt he has an NFL arm."

    But talent and pedigree are just a small part of the story with the 6'2", 224-pounder.

    There are the off-field incidents. A lot of off-field incidents. Running onto the field during a brawl in a high school game this past fall. Dismissal from Clemson for "conduct detrimental to the team." A 2014 arrest after another fight in Buffalo that got Kelly's invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine revoked.

    As one AFC East scout told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, Kelly has also been prone to bad decisions on the field, whether it's holding the ball too long or forcing a throw into a nonexistent window.

    "He's okay. I think he could be a low-end NFL starter," the scout said. "I just wouldn't want to put my name behind him because I think it will come back and bite you with on-field and off-field mistakes. We value leadership at quarterback and I don't trust his."

    Then there are the injuries. Kelly tore the ACL in his right knee at Clemson and did so again last November. His throwing session at Ole Miss' pro daya vitally important exercise after he was uninvited to the combinewas cut short when he aggravated a wrist injury. He underwent surgery on the wrist Monday, which will prevent him from throwing for three months.

    All of those questions make it difficult to trust Kelly, suggested NFL.com's Bucky Brooks.

    "It continues to really make it difficult to make a strong case for him to be a draftable guy late in the draft," Brooks said. "He has talent, but (with) the character and the talent, and you factor in the injuries, I don't know if the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to a draft situation."

    Kelly's start against Alabama last September was a perfect microcosm of his career. He threw for 421 yards and three scores, at times looking unstoppable against the Crimson Tide. Kelly also had two turnovers returned for scores in a five-point loss.

    Someone is going to roll the dice on Kelly's arm and agility, as NFL teams are in a constant state of desperation under center. But whether anything ever comes of his considerable gifts is a crapshoot. 

Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech

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    As he told Eric Galko of Sporting News, Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans believes he's perhaps the best signal-caller in the class of 2017.

    "I think when you compare my tape to the other quarterbacks, I think I'm one of, if not the best quarterback, in terms of my speed, my arm strength, everything," he said.

    Evans' confidence isn't surprising, given that he surprised many by declaring for the draft after his junior season. Surprised might not be right word, as 2016 was Evans' only season of major college football. After tearing his ACL at Air Force, the 6'3", 232-pounder transferred to a JUCO and went from there to Virginia Tech.

    However, Evans said it was an easy call to make. "I've wanted to pursue my dream of playing in the NFL since I was seven years old," he said, "and I thought this was a great opportunity I couldn't pass up."

    Evans' one year was a doozy. He completed over 63 percent of his passes for over 3,500 yards and 29 scores, adding another 846 yards and 12 scores on the ground. His game has evoked more than a few comparisons to Cardale Jones (another big-armed, raw passer), but Evans said he styles himself after someone who's had far more success as a pro.

    "As far as who people compare me to," he said, "I wish they'd say more Aaron Rodgers, like a bigger Aaron Rodgers (laughs), just the adjustments he makes, extremely strong arm, he's a great leader, all those things I try to do. But I get a lot of Cam Newton because of my running style and size. He's got all those things too, and I watch him a lot, too."

    To say Evans is an unproven commodity is an understatement. His next team will be his fifth in six years dating back to high school, and his relative lack of experience portends the same sort of steep learning curve Jones faced entering the NFL.

    But using a statistical model that attempts to translate collegiate production to odds for success as a professional, Ethan Young of FanRag Sports named Evans one of the three quarterbacks from this year's draft most likely to succeed in the NFL. 

James Conner, RB, PIttsburgh

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    Toughness is one of the most important traits a running back can possess in the NFL. Given what James Conner has been through over the past few years, no one is about to question his.

    Back in 2014, Conner rolled to 1,765 yards and a conference-record 26 touchdowns en route to being named the ACC Offensive Player of the Year at Pittsburgh. The following season, Conner suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the season.

    While rehabbing his torn MCL that December, disaster struck. Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, the same form of cancer that Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry had.

    Like Berry, Conner beat the disease, returning to action and topping 1,000 yards on the ground for the Panthers in 2016. He told Bryan Strickland of the Carolina Panthers' website that the trials and tribulations he's endured have only strengthened his resolve to succeed in the NFL.

    I ask the coaches, 'What do you guys want in a running back?' They want a tough guy. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none. I've been through so much, and I think I'm more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.

    While Conner has a great story, he's projected as a Day 3 pick in this year's draft. He's a physical runner who can do damage between the tackles, but many scouts fear that's all he is. A 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and his mediocre performance in agility drills did little to allay those fears.

    Though Conner isn't going to win many footraces in the NFL, the league is riddled with featured tailbacks who aren't faster in a straight line. A look at Conner's tape from either that huge 2014 season or last year shows a back who can pick up yardage in space as well as in traffic. Conner is also a more than capable receiver, and his blitz pickups are above-average given how many collegiate backs struggle with that aspect of the game.

    By the time he enters the NFL, Conner will be another year removed from his MCL tear. He'll be that much further out from the rigors of the chemotherapy he endured. 

    The 6'1", 233-pounder has steal written all over him. 

Chad Williams, WR, Gambling State

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    As Grambling head coach Broderick Fobbs told Sean Isabelle of the News-Star at the Senior Bowl in January, just because Chad Williams played at a small school doesn't mean he isn't a big-time talent.

    His body is just as big as those other guys. He's just as fast as those other guys. He catches the ball just as well as those other guys, and he gets open. Then you add to it the hunger and the grit that he has, I think you're talking about a player that can really make a contribution to an NFL franchise. ...

    The misconception is the big boys are so much different than FCS players. I just think that can't be farther from the truth. The difference between FCS and FBS is offensive and defensive line. That's where the difference is. Skill for skill, player for player, receiver, DB, cornerback, if you can play, you can play.

    Though Fobbs is biased, Williams continued to build on a highly productive senior season where he topped 1,300 receiving yards and his strong performance at the Senior Bowl at Grambling's pro day.

    The 6'0 ½", 207-pounder, who wasn't invited to the combine, peeled off a 4.40 flat in the 40-yard dash and posted an impressive 26 reps in the bench press to go with strong numbers in other drills, per Gil Brandt of NFL.com. That 40 time would have put Williams in a tie for third among wideouts at the combine, behind Ohio State's Curtis Samuel and new record-holder John "JR4.22" Ross of Washington.

    Yes, that 40 was hand-timed. Williams isn't an especially long or big-bodied pass-catcher. Despite Fobbs' assertions to the contrary, the level of competition Williams faced in college must be considered relative to his production. And a one-game suspension after a marijuana arrest in 2016 is a concern. 

    But there's a reason why Williams has become a trendy "sleeper" pick among the draftnik community in recent weeks. As Pierre Garcon has shown, it doesn't take a big frame or a big school to become successful as an NFL receiver. 

Robert Tonyan, TE, Indiana State

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    Like Chad Williams, Robert Tonyan is a small-school receiver trying to make it big in the NFL. Unlike Williams, Tonyan will be attempting to do so at a new position.

    It isn't the first time Tonyan has changed positions. He arrived at Indiana State as a quarterback. But after redshirting in 2012 and struggling in 2013, the 6'5", 236-pounder made the switch to wide receiver.

    Tonyan thrived at his new position. By the end of his tenure with the Sycamores, Tonyan ranked third in career receiving yardage, second in receptions and first in touchdown grabs.

    Now, however, Tonyan is making the switch from receiver to tight end in the pros.

    Tonyan told Todd Golden of the Tribune-Star that his different positions have offered him a valuable perspective on defenses, although he allowed that lining up with his hand on the ground presents a new challenge.

    It goes back to being a quarterback, knowing the types of fronts you're going to go up against and the types of defenses you're going to see with blocking. I memorize a lot of the fronts and how defenses line up. Being in a stance is one of the more difficult things. You can't just shadow a defensive back. I was bigger than a lot of DBs and I was able to get a hold of them. It was easier to block them on the perimeter. I'll be blocking defensive ends and outside linebackers that are the same size as me. It comes down to effort and that will always be there for me.

    Per Kevin Fishbain of the Northwest Herald, Tonyan ran in the 4.5-second range at his pro day and posted a 38-inch vertical jump at the regional combine. Both compare favorably to the numbers put up by the tight ends who participated at the NFL combine.

    Tonyan also told Fishbain he was able to show off the work he's put in on his blocking technique.

    I did well on blocking, just showing my in-line blocking. I haven’t gotten a chance to show that to people, so the whole Pro Day got to see me block, which was a good thing as someone converting from receiver to tight end to show off. ... [The NFL team rep] said, 'Great for a first-time guy doing it.' I can obviously get stronger, and that's going to come with putting on more weight and size. Not too much (feedback) other than technique and that initial punch.

    Tonyan needs to add size, and his lack of experience blocking and as an in-line tight end makes him a project. But he showed last year how dangerous he can be in the red zone with three touchdowns against a Big Ten team in Minnesota, and NFL teams are always on the lookout for big, athletic tight ends who can stretch defenses.

    He's far from a sure bet, but if Tonyan is drafted, it will be quite the coup for Indiana State. The Sycamores haven't had a player selected since the Buffalo Bills spent a seventh-round pick on Dan Brandenburg in 1996. 

Tanzel Smart, DT, Tulane

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    In recent years, a trend has emerged among three-technique defensive tackles in the NFL: Little is big.

    Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams is widely considered the best player at his position in the NFL. Cincinnati's Geno Atkins isn't far behind. And the New Orleans Saints selected Sheldon Rankins with a first-round pick in 2016. All are 6'2" or shorter.

    At 6'1" and 296 pounds, Tulane's Tanzel Smart is a similarly built tackle who, like those players, relies more on quickness and burst to penetrate into the backfield. After racking up 5.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss for the Green Wave in 2016, Smart told Jim Kleinpeter of the Times-Picayune that he's eager to show he can be a similarly disruptive force in the NFL.

    I feel like it is (trending to smaller DTs). There's a lot of guys with my body structure and my height doing real good right now. I have a good chance of going to the NFL and doing a good job. ... My get off, my low center of gravity; a lot of people like my effort. They said that takes you a long way. I know the coaches were saying running to the ball and playing all out is important. You're not going to last long in the league if you're not giving good effort.

    Mind you, this isn't to say Smart is going to explode in the NFL like Donald, whose first step is otherworldly. Nor does he have Atkins' strength at the point of attack, at least not at this point in his career.

    Smart is the kind of young player for whom fit can be almost as important as talent. Where he's drafted might be more important then when he's selected. However, more and more NFL teams are employing one-gap concepts where Smart's ability to duck under blocks and get upfield could be a real asset. So will his nonstop motor.

    He may begin his NFL career fighting for a roster spot at the back end of a depth chart, but if he lands in the right scheme, Smart isn't going to stay there. 

Josh Carraway, EDGE, TCU

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    Every NFL team enters the draft with pass-rusher listed among their needs. You can't ever have too many players capable of getting after the quarterback. 

    Many clubs scour scouting reports on Day 3 looking for developmental prospects—youngsters with tantalizing athleticism who need time to overcome one or more deficiencies in their game.

    TCU's Josh Carraway is such a prospect.

    While he played defensive end for the Horned Frogs, piling up 17 sacks over the last two seasons, the 6'3", 242-pounder's NFL future would appear to be on the outside. Carraway told Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post that's fine with him.

    "Throughout this whole process, I've been doing a lot of linebacker drills and working on being able to work in space," Carraway said. "Whatever team drafts me, they're gonna get a versatile guy."

    Carraway also acknowledged that between kicking outside and acclimating to the speed of the NFL, he'll need to improve his technique. "I just need to get used to the speed of the game at the next level and the strength of the guys," he said. "My technique is gonna have to be on point."

    Despite the flaws in his game, one NFC personnel director told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com that Carraway may be selected earlier than some think, as he also possesses traits that can't be taught:

    No, he's not the toughest guy out there, but neither was Bruce Irvin when he came out. Do you remember that? I'm not saying he's Irvin, but those players with pass-rush traits usually go higher than you expect them to. Coaches get paid to improve the technique. You can't coach his speed.

    Given some work in the weight room and time to acclimate to playing standing up and occasionally dropping into coverage, Carraway could develop into a versatile chess piece who can rush the passer from both the outside linebacker spot and on the line in sub-packages. That sort of upside makes defensive scouts drool. 

Blair Brown, ILB, Ohio

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    There are many things Blair Brown supposedly isn't.

    At 5'11" and 238 pounds, he isn't especially imposing. Given his 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the combine, Brown isn't blazingly fast or superbly athletic.

    However, as Zierlein wrote in his scouting report for Brown, who had 128 total tackles for the Bobcats in 2016, he is one very important thing: a linebacker.

    Brown isn't going to check off the "physical traits" boxes for teams who always prioritize height-length-speed at linebacker, but he gets a big check mark in the "find ball, get ball" box. He's instinctive and has the play strength and leverage to fight through blocks and make his way into tackling position.

    Brown told Andrew Gillis of the Athens Post that he's hopeful his showing at the combine and OU's pro day will send scouts back to look at his 2016 game tape.

    "I think I surprised a lot of scouts," Brown said. "I heard an announcer on the TV say he had no idea who I was before the combine, then he put on my tape and found out I was pretty physical coming downfield."

    Pop in tape of the Bobcats in 2016, and Brown isn't hard to find. He's always around the football.

    Yes, speed and quickness are important at the linebacker position, especially in an age where teams spend so much time in the nickel that it's the de facto base defense. But time and again we've seen supposedly slow linebackers thrive in the NFL, in no small part because their superior instincts place them on a perpetual beeline to the football.

    The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, after all. 

Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State

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    Damontae Kazee has this much going for him: He has a defensive back's name.

    Actually, the 5'10", 184-pounder has more than that going for him. In each of the last two seasons, Kazee was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Over that two-year span, Kazee hauled in an eye-popping 15 interceptions.

    Despite his accolades and collegiate production, most draftniks consider Kazee a Day 3 pick, including Rob Rang and Dane Brugler of CBS Sports.

    That's partly due to circumstances outside of Kazee's control, as another growth spurt likely isn't in the cards. His 4.54-second 40-yard dash time at the combine also doesn't portend elite, top-end speed. Considering those shortcomings, Kazee will likely begin his career as a reserve or sub-package cornerback, something he's realistic about.

    "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be playing nickel just because of my size and my weight," he told Austin Gayle of Fox Sports San Diego. "And I'm for it. I'm for whatever position they want to put me in. I don't care if it's long snapper."

    That admirable attitude isn't the only reason teams may be underestimating the impact Kazee could have in the NFL, although the role of nickel corner is essentially a full-time gig.

    While Kazee is on the small side, Brent Grimes, who's roughly the same height and weight as him, was the NFL's top-ranked cornerback in 2016, per Pro Football Focus. Kazee doesn't play small, either. As his high interception totals demonstrate, his ball skills are excellent, and he isn't shy about getting dirty against the run.

    Kazee has the skill set to be an elite slot-corner, but he's more than that. In fact, by the end of his second season, he could well be starting for whichever team drafts him.

Fish Smithson, S, Kansas

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    For starters, Anthony Smithson's name is not really Fish, anymore than his brother (who briefly played for the Green Bay Packers in the preseason) is actually named Shaky.

    In fact, Smithson told Glenn Clark of Pressbox he doesn't even know why he's called Fish.

    It's just kind of a family secret. My grandma gave it to me when I was a young kid, and it kind of just stuck with me my whole life. It's kind of crazy now, going through my life, going through high school, going through junior college and playing at the University of Kansas -- getting asked about my nickname, Fish, and everybody just wants to know the background [of] it. And it's just kind of funny that I never even asked my grandma why she named me that.

    Like his name, Smithson is something of a secret. There isn't a lot of buzz surrounding the 5'11", 190-pounder, who tallied 93 tackles and four interceptions for the Jayhawks in 2016. Smithson wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

    It's possible that Smithson won't be drafted at all. He's a "tweener" safety—too small in the eyes of some to be a strong safety and too slow in the eyes of others to be a free safety.

    However, if ever there was a late-round poster boy for throwing out the measurables, it's Smithson. He's the proverbial "better football player than athlete."

    For someone who is under 200 pounds and isn't a huge hitter, Smithson finishes well against the run. Despite a lack of straight-line speed, he holds his own in coverage, and his six picks over the last two years indicate a nose for the ball.

    While Smithson might not be great at anything, he also doesn't have any glaring flaws. His ability to play both safety spots is a plus as well.

    Fans don't often do cartwheels about acquiring a player like Bradley McDougald, who was an undrafted free agent back in 2013. However, McDougald (who is similar to Smithson) wound up making 36 starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over three years before joining the Seattle Seahawks in free agency. 

    Everybody wants athletes, but every team also needs football players.