Best-Kept Secrets of the NFL Draft
Draft secrets just ain't what they used to be.
In the old days, when "draft prep" meant thumbing through little rectangular Pro Football Weekly scouting guides, you could feel like the ultimate insider just by knowing what Joel Buchsbaum thought of some wide receiver from Western Kentucky.
Now, with hourslong daily television draft coverage, seven-round mock drafts updated in real time and around-the-clock speculation roiling through your Twitter feed, there are few real secrets. That diamond in the rough you just uncovered may have already appeared on so many Diamond in the Rough lists that he's already begun transitioning to the Overrated lists.
Still, there are some well-kept secrets out there: big-program starters who never got opportunities, small-college speedsters, hard-working trench warriors who toiled in obscurity, multi-talented players who bounced from position to position, specialists a team doesn't have to feel embarrassed about targeting with a late-round pick.
Get to know some of these prospects and you will realize that the 2017 NFL draft still has some secrets to share.
Even at quarterback.
Secret Small-Program Super-Sleeper Quarterback: Kyle Sloter, Northern Colorado
Kyle Sloter has dealt with bad luck throughout his college career, so he was not surprised when Mother Earth herself turned against him at Northern Colorado's pro day.
"We had 45 miles-per-hour winds," he recalled in an interview with B/R. "The [timing] lasers kept getting knocked over."
Sloter and his former teammates had to move indoors, where he worked out on a basketball court in borrowed sneakers. Those aren't exactly scouting-combine conditions, and Sloter had a disappointing workout.
But when Sloter later attended Colorado's pro day, he was told he could not re-run his 40 or other drills, because he was already in the database for the indoor debacle.
Luckily, Sloter was permitted to throw in front of the scouts in Boulder.
"All 32 teams were there, and he lit it up," Sloter's trainer, longtime NFL offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, said to B/R.
"I'm used to adversity at this point," Sloter said. "You just gotta fight through it."
Sloter has spent more time battling fate than opponents during his college career. Recruited as a quarterback at Southern Mississippi, he switched to wide receiver when a coaching change buried him on the depth chart.
A system change took away his slot receiver role. Sloter tried playing tight end, then transferred to Northern Colorado in search of a quarterback opportunity. Except that many of Sloter's college credits didn't transfer, forcing him to miss parts of spring practices so he could complete courses and an internship. Sloter started the 2016 season as a backup quarterback in the Big Sky Conference.
Injuries pushed Sloter into the starting lineup, where he threw 29 touchdown passes in 2016. But it's no mystery why Sloter, despite a 6'4" frame and 4.5-second speed when not sliding around on hardwood, fell short of even the most thorough prospect lists.
"I saw draft charts where there were 250 quarterbacks listed, and he wasn't one of them," Fairchild said.
That was before Fairchild tightened Sloter's delivery and unleashed him on scouts at Colorado. But Fairchild stressed that Sloter, whose Northern Colorado offense is more NFL-like than most of the ones we watch on autumn Saturdays, is much more than a big athlete who had a good workout.
"He can make every throw," Fairchild said. "He did it in on the pro day. He's shown he can do it off pocket movement. It's not just take five steps, set and throw to your primary. He can readjust his target line, his launch point."
Working in an NFL-friendly system helps, too.
"He's been under center," Fairchild said. "He's had to drop back. He changes protections. I'm not saying he's NFL-ready, but he's a lot further down the path than some of these guys."
Sloter is no longer being left out of top 250s. He's getting late-round grades from teams and appearing on some top-20 QB lists.
"It's exciting to see myself up there," Sloter said. "But I wouldn't short-change myself either. I believe I deserve to be higher."
"In the end, I'll have some proving to do, and I'll do just that."
Secret Underused Big-Program WRs: Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, LSU
Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural don't leap off the stat sheet the way Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry did at LSU.
Dupre caught 41 passes for 593 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. Dural, injured for part of the year, caught 28 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown. It's a far cry from the 136 receptions and 18 touchdowns Beckham and Landry combined for in 2013.
But Dupre and Dural hardly bristle at the comparison to the Pro Bowlers who preceded them in Baton Rouge.
"Jarvis and Odell have broken records their first couple of seasons in the NFL," Dupre said at the combine. It shows me we're prepared well at LSU; we have the mindset of winners."
The lack of production is easy to explain. The Tigers offense was built around running backs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice in 2016, and quarterback Danny Etling isn't an NFL prospect like Zach Mettenberger was in the Beckham-Landry days.
That left Dupre and Dural with few targets to go around.
"I was still getting open, still doing the things I needed to do to help out the team," Dural said. "It was just so much more of not getting the opportunity."
"I'm not here to criticize and say I didn't get the ball enough or Travin didn't get the ball enough," Dupre said. "We just wanted to go out there and do what we had to do to help the team. If that was a block, or to run a route to get somebody else open, we wanted to do that and make that happen."
The run-dominated Tigers offense left Dupre and Dural with minimal "wow" tape. Ironically, that has left a pair of power-conference starters from a program known for producing wide receivers behind lots of small-school wonders with gaudy receiving totals in the mid-round receiver conversation. With everyone swooning over Taywan Taylor, Cooper Kupp, Zay Jones and Carlos Henderson, it's been hard for the duo from LSU to get much love.
But Dupre and Dural tested well at the combine, and NFL scouts know the drill about LSU's offense.
Dupre and Dural aren't Beckham and Landry. But they come stamped with the LSU seal of approval.
"They're building athletes over there," Dural said of his college program. "Producing them left and right. It's a great feeling knowing I'm next in line."
Both Tigers receivers are eager to get their NFL chance. And to do more of what receivers are supposed to do.
"I'm excited to have the opportunity to play in an offense that throws the ball," Dupre said. "I'm ready to make plays, confident in my ability for sure."
Secret Lacrosse Star-Turned-All-Purpose Back: Dalton Crossan, New Hampshire
Dalton Crossan was a lacrosse superstar who played football at a small Northeastern college.
Chris Hogan was a lacrosse superstar who played football at a small Northeastern college.
That means Crossan is the next Hogan, right?
Not really. Crossan respects Hogan, but not the comparison. "He was a lacrosse player first," Crossan said in an interview with B/R. "I've always been a football guy first who happened to grow up on Long Island and become a good lacrosse player."
Hogan played just one year of football at Monmouth College, having played lacrosse at Penn State before transferring and winding his way into the NFL and onto the roster of the Super Bowl champion Patriots. Crossan entertained offers from major programs for lacrosse, then gave up the sport and accepted an offer from New Hampshire to play running back instead. "Lacrosse hasn't been in my life for a long time," he said.
Crossan rushed for 2,617 yards and 27 touchdowns in his Wildcats career, adding 105 receptions and a 25.3-yards-per-return average on kickoffs. That's a fair bit more production than Hogan's 12 career NCAA receptions.
"I'm more like a Julian Edelman who can also run the ball out of the backfield than a Chris Hogan," Crossan said.
Crossan ran a 4.46-second 40 at New Hampshire's pro day, with cone and shuttle drills that rank among the best in the nation for running backs. His video shows your standard open-space darter, one who can run away from the majority of FCS competition once he breaks free. A few teams have worked Crossan out as a slot receiver, but most are looking at the 5'11", 205-pounder as an all-purpose back.
"My biggest value is that I'm so versatile," Crossan said. "I can do it all. I'm big and strong enough to play running back on first and second down—pick up a blitz, run off tackle, run up the middle. But I can also run routes from the slot or the outside, plus special teams and the return game."
Crossan impressed scouts at the College Gridiron Showcase and projects as a late-round pick in a deep running back class. Crossan participated in both the New Hampshire and Dartmouth pro days and has been contacted by many NFL teams.
And you don't even have to ask: The Patriots were indeed one of them.
Secret Run-Stuffing, Old-School Nose Tackle: Glen Antoine, Idaho
Glen Antoine believes he is the best run defender in this year's draft class.
"I just think there is no one coming out of this year that can take on run blocks like me," he told B/R.
"I can split double-teams. If I get one-on-one blocked, I'm definitely making the tackle. From my technique to my strength and my power, and my physical and mental toughness, I'm the best run-stopper in the country."
Every successful player tells himself he's the best, of course, especially at a grinding position like nose tackle, where motivation is paramount. But the 337-pound Antoine backs up solid tape with some eye-popping workout results, according to Tony Pauline at Draft Analyst: 37 bench reps at 225 pounds at his pro day, an 8'7" broad jump and a Twitter feed full of feats of size and agility that look like they come from the Thor: Ragnarok movie trailer.
"I'm working on agility drills," Antoine explained. "I still work on my strength every day. But I want to make sure I am conditioned well and that I can go as many plays as they need me to go."
The son of an arena football player, Antoine was a 3-star recruit out of high school, per 247Sports, but chose to attend junior college while he matured physically and emotionally. By the time he stepped on the field for the Vandals, he had grown from a 280-pound all-purpose lineman to a behemoth anchored over center.
Pure nose tackles like Antoine aren't as coveted as they once were in the NFL. He modeled his game on Steelers great Casey Hampton when he was younger. Now he takes his cues from Baltimore's Brandon Williams. "He's a really big guy, but he's also an athlete that moves around a lot," Antoine said. "He's a baller."
Antoine is drawing interest from three or four teams. Being strictly a run-stuffing 0- and 1-technique tackle limits his marketability a bit. But the position is all about holding your ground against stacked odds.
"Sometimes you are facing two guys who are 315 pounds apiece," he said. "It takes a lot of toughness to endure that pounding on every play."
Secret Offensive Line Stabilizer: Jon Toth, Kentucky
Jon Toth grew up a Colts fan living across the street from superstar Colts running back Edgerrin James.
It would make great copy to say that James brought Toth and the other neighborhood lads over for backyard pickup games, but that's not how it happened. "He was a pretty private guy," Toth said of James. "He went about his business. We tried to respect that."
But surely the future second-team All-SEC center spent Sundays taking copious notes while watching Colts legend Jeff Saturday, right?
"I didn't start playing football until high school," Toth told B/R. "I hadn't really watched him."
Toth played multiple youth sports, then basketball, lacrosse and football as a high school freshman. He soon abandoned the lower-contact sports to focus on football. "I was aggressive," he said. "It was fun to hit other people."
The Wildcats recruited Toth as an offensive tackle. During his redshirt year, coaches converted him to center. Though Toth had never snapped a football in his life, he would go on to start 49 consecutive games against the toughest non-NFL competition in the world.
"I never had a rolled ankle I had to play on, or anything," Toth said. "Maybe a jammed finger or thumb. But you just tape that up and go."
Analysts consider this year's center class to be extremely thin. LSU's Ethan Pocic (the first-team All-SEC center) and Ohio State's Pat Elflein (a converted guard) are the only players at the position generating much buzz.
But in the middle rounds, NFL teams seek reliable linemen with the experience to play center and the toughness to play guard if needed. That's the perfect description of Toth.
"They're getting a team guy who works hard on and off the field," Toth said of the team that drafts him. "I'll work on any deficiency I have to try and get better, try to use any advantage I can get to be the best player I can be."
And if a team gives Toth one crack at the starting center job, he might never leave the lineup again.
Secret Big-Play (and Big-Block) Receiver: Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State
Jhajuan Seales caught 112 passes in his Cowboys career, but his most memorable moment was a block against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl.
"It was a four-verts play," Seales remembers in a conversation with B/R. "Mason [Rudolph] saw Blake Jarwin wide open. I saw the opportunity to get him a score if I made the block. So I ran it. I don't think he even saw me."
"He" was Colorado defender Ryan Moeller, who was laid out on the turf for a minute after Seales' crushing (but legal) block. But how did Seales feel after the hit?
"It straightened me out," Seales joked. "I felt fine after that."
Seales was Tyreek Hill's roommate in 2014, when Seales was coming off a 39-catch freshman season and Hill was a prized JUCO recruit. But Hill was dismissed from the program for a domestic violence arrest, and Seales had troubles of his own. He was arrested and received team discipline for falling asleep in his car at a Whataburger drive-thru lane in 2014, then was arrested for DUI in 2015.
The second arrest brought probation, community service and a victim-impact program. "I learned from that," Seales said. "I realized that I could have hurt somebody that day. And I could have lost the game I loved."
Seales made the most of his second chance with the Cowboys, catching 37 passes and four touchdowns in 2016 and displaying a knack for hauling in 50-50 balls when he wasn't laying out defenders. He followed the season with a 4.37-second 40 and a 41.5-inch vertical leap, among other excellent results, at Oklahoma State's pro day.
Two seasons of probation and team discipline may have hurt Seales' reception totals, but they also forced him to play on special teams, which will give him an edge when teams begin stocking their rosters with fourth or fifth receivers.
"I offer a chance of winning on every ball on the perimeter, as well as playing on special teams," Seales said. "A returner. A gunner. A wedge player if that's needed. Anywhere."
Not many receivers with 4.37 speed list the ability to play the wedge as one of their best attributes. But not many point to a big block as their signature highlight, either.
Secret Safety-Cornerback-Receiver-You-Name-It: Anthony Cioffi, Rutgers
Like many young athletes, Anthony Cioffi did it all for his high school football team.
"I played every position: running back, quarterback, wide receiver, safety, corner, linebacker; you name it," he told B/R.
Unlike most NFL prospects, Cioffi decided to change positions and attempt something he hadn't done since high school. At his pro day.
When the Rutgers wide receivers lined up to run routes, Cioffi decided to join them, despite having been in the secondary for his entire Scarlet Knights career and focused exclusively on defensive back drills during offseason workouts.
"I didn't even get ready for it," Cioffi said. "I'm athletic. I figured, 'I can do this. It's nothing I'm unfamiliar with.'"
Cioffi ran routes well enough that two teams have spoken to him about playing slot receiver. Most other teams still have the 5'11", 205-pound Cioffi, who ran a 4.5 40 with excellent agility results at the pro day, pegged as a defensive back.
Cioffi bounced all over the secondary for the flailing Scarlet Knights program, intercepting eight passes, forcing three fumbles, recording 2.5 sacks and once chasing down Jabrill Peppers from behind, among other highlights. He also became a film junkie who studied opponents' tendencies on his iPad and would bark adjustments to his linebackers before the snap when he knew what play was coming.
Despite all of the position flipping, Cioffi feels most comfortable at safety. "I like being able to read the quarterback and being able to freelance, make breaks on balls and track things down."
He also knows that special teams will be his true foot in the NFL door. As you might expect, the versatile Cioffi has done it all: blocked punts, blocked for punts, gunned on kickoffs, handled returns as a freshman. "I know what it does to flip-flop a game," he said. "Momentum is everything, and one play on special teams can ignite the offense or defense."
Cioffi remains on the fringe of draftable players. But smart, playmaking defenders from Rutgers have a knack for becoming late-round selections, and not just thanks to the Patriots.
Then again, maybe Cioffi is really a smart, playmaking wide receiver.
"Give me both playbooks," he said. "Let me do what I have to do to make the team."
Secret Kicker Who Won't Break Your Heart: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State
Zane Gonzalez views Roberto Aguayo's rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a glass-half-full situation.
"He started the season a little slow but finished pretty strong," Gonzalez told the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman. "To see a kicker drafted that high is pretty awesome. It's a reminder you still can be."
The Buccaneers selected Aguayo in the second round of last year's draft. The rookie had a miserable year, finishing 4-of-11 on kicks longer than 40 yards and missing two extra points. He may not have permanently poisoned the well for kickers getting selected beyond the final rounds of the draft, but he didn't help his successors at the position.
But Gonzalez is not Aguayo, who was even inconsistent on mid-range kicks while at Florida State. Gonzalez holds the FBS record with 96 career field goals. He was 23-of-25 as a senior for the Sun Devils. And he wasn't just hitting chip shots in pursuit of a record. Gonzalez nailed three 50-plus-yarders at Colorado.
Gonzalez was also effective on kickoffs, a must for any NFL kicker. And he's savvy to the fact that there is more to the NFL kickoff than blasting the ball through the back of the end zone. "It all comes down to how big a leg you have," he told the Times. That will make you more diverse and able to do more pooch kicks, skying the ball, mortars, or you can kick it deep."
Accuracy. Distance. Kickoff capability. Records. Cool-cucumber kicks while chasing records. Gonzalez may not be a "secret" the way the others on this list are as he is at the top of most kicker draft boards. But who looks at kicker draft boards?
"I'm not picky about when/where I get drafted," Gonzalez told CBS Local in Arizona. "For a kicker to be drafted at all is a pretty big accomplishment, so I'm just looking forward to finding out where I'm going to be and what the next step is for me in my career."
Look for Gonzalez to be drafted next week, probably before the final round. And don't pull your hair out and scream about drafting a kicker when it happens, because Gonzalez is the real deal.