Hidden Gem Draft Prospects Who Will Shine at the NFL Combine

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2018

Hidden Gem Draft Prospects Who Will Shine at the NFL Combine

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    With the all-star game circuit behind us, the draft community has already shifted its attention to the NFL Scouting Combine. The combine is particularly important for seniors who didn't go to all-star games, as they likely haven't talked to scouts or coaches one-on-one, and underclassmen, who largely aren't invited to all-star games.

    What happens on the turf in Indianapolis matters just as much as those interviews, though. Every year, we see players rise and fall, at least on media boards, after strong and weak performances in Lucas Oil Stadium. For players with unique question marks, such as those who played non-FBS football or in schemes that don't reflect what the NFL will ask of them, measurables can ease the minds of NFL evaluators who are interested in their talents.

    With that in mind, we attempted to pin down 10 of the most likely candidates to rise over the course of the week. We specifically looked for mid- to late-round graded prospects who come from an athletic background.

    Based on recent history, those are the players who have the most to gain from the events in Indianapolis. These are the sleepers you need to know before the stopwatches start clicking on March 2.

Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    If you've been following North Carolina State football in recent years, there's a good chance you already know who Jaylen Samuels is. Samuels posted 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2017, making his career total 2,958, as a hybrid running back/fullback/tight end. The Senior Bowl invite has been a known star at the college football level for three years, which is one reason the hype around Nyheim Hines, North Carolina State's starting running back, never caught on.

    Hines is more of a one-year star, as he recorded 12 of his 14 career touchdowns in 2017 and led the Wolfpack with 1,264 yards from scrimmage. In his first two years with the Wolfpack, he was mostly used as a receiver. In 2015 and 2016, Hines posted just 287 rushing yards compared to 783 receiving yards, a drastic difference than his 2017 numbers (1,112 rushing yards and 152 receiving yards.)

    Listed by NFL Draft Scout as a quarter-inch over 5'8", Hines made a great decision for his NFL future when he moved to full-time running back before his junior season. Carrying the ball, Hines got more opportunities to show the speed that earned him All-ACC and/or All-American honors in the 4x100 relay, the 100m and the 60m as a Wolfpack track star.

    He also recorded 2,171 kick-return yards (and two touchdowns) in his college career, though he only returned 11 punts. For those who don't know, successful kick returners' games are more based on a quick start and straight-line speed, while successful punt returners' games are more based on make-you-miss ability.

    Overshadowed by the established Samuels in the national narrative, Hines has the potential to rise up draft boards with a strong performance in Indianapolis. Running backs who can make plays in the passing game are becoming more valuable with the NFL's constantly rising passing efficiency. Hines' floor of being a change-of-pace back and kick returner with a receiver and track background bodes well for him in 2018.

Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Unlike Nyheim Hines, Antonio Callaway didn't have the best season of his college career in 2017. After recording 1,450 yards from scrimmage and 829 yards as a returner in 2015 and 2016, Callaway didn't play a snap for the Florida Gators in 2017.

    Callaway's career at Florida was littered with run-ins with the law. These stretched from more serious allegations, such as sexual assault (for which a Title IX hearing found him not responsible) and credit card fraud (for which he went on probation for), to smaller incidents like a marijuana citation. As one of the nine Gators who were caught in the credit card fraud scandal, Callaway was suspended for the entire season and declared for the NFL draft a year early. His last game was in 2016 as a true sophomore. 

    It's clear that his off-field issues and lack of recent production are going to influence his draft position, as NFL Draft Scout lists him as a borderline draftable prospect, despite the fact that it projects him to run a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller didn't list Callaway among his top 10 receivers in January.

    Still, there's enough on tape to make people think twice about passing on Callaway completely. This week, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah compared Callaway's on-field talent to that of Percy Harvin, a former Florida receiver who was taken 22nd overall in the 2009 NFL draft and also had off-field issues coming into the league.

    If Callaway is in the same shape he was in his first two years at Florida, when he put up 2,279 all-purpose yards and 11 total touchdowns with subpar quarterback play, a quality showing at the combine could get the ball rolling on his draft stock. Talking to teams one-on-one will be as critical for Callaway as running a 40-yard dash in 2018 that matches his game speed from 2016.

Cedrick Wilson, WR, Boise State

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    After finishing his high school career as an All-State quarterback, Cedrick Wilson, son of former Tennessee Volunteer and NFL receiver Cedrick Wilson Sr., had to convert to wide receiver at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas to keep his NFL dreams alive. After playing for the Red Ravens for two seasons, recording 1,674 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns, Wilson was able to earn FBS scholarship offers.

    According to 247Sports, the only Power Five offer that Wilson had was to Virginia Tech, though he elected to pass over the Hokies for the Boise State Broncos. In his first year in Boise, Wilson posted 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns, good enough to make the Senior Bowl's list of 55 senior receivers on its watch list. After a 1,524-yard season that he capped off with a 221-yard game against Oregon, Wilson was invited to the Senior Bowl, the country's top senior all-star game.

    While Wilson may not have faced future NFL cornerbacks in the Mountain West, he had his best games against Power Five competition. Sure, only one cornerback from the Mountain West (San Jose State's Andre Chachere) was even invited to the combine, but Wilson put up 147 yards against Washington State, 209 yards against Virginia and the aforementioned big numbers against Oregon. He's checked off every box he's faced so far in his career as a receiver. Now, only the combine stands between Wilson and the start of his NFL career.

    At the moment, NFL Draft Scout projects Wilson's 40-yard dash to be 4.49 seconds, which seems a little slow for someone averaging 19 yards per reception in his college career. If he can beat that number, expect him to "rise" into the Day 2 conversation.

Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech

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    Albert Cesare/Associated Press

    Every scouting report about Keke Coutee is going to start with his size. If we're generous, he's 5'10", though he'll likely be measured in at 5'9" and change at the combine. Outside of burners like T.Y. Hilton and Marquise Goodwin, there were few NFL receivers who were producing at a listed 5'9" or shorter last season. It's understandable that height comes into the conversation with Coutee, but it's not the end all, be all.

    After breaking onto the scene with an 890-yard sophomore year, Coutee posted a 1,429-yard junior year, good for the second-most receiving yards in Power Five football in 2017 behind Oklahoma State's James Washington. Coutee played in Texas Tech's wide-open offense that doesn't ask for much variety for its receivers, which leads to the "unrefined" label. Some take that "unrefined" label and project it as evidence that Coutee made a mistake by leaving Tech a year early.

    Think about it this way, though: Texas Tech's offense isn't going to embrace the NFL route tree in 2018. Coutee isn't going to get taller in 2018. The knocks that will be rattled off about Coutee this offseason are mostly things out of his control. When the draft media accepts him for who he is, an undersized playmaker, that's when we'll see him creep up public boards.

    The combine provides a potential point of revelation for the Coutee doubters. If he runs one of the better 40-yard dashes in the receiver class, he might be able to sneak into the Day 2 conversation. If he doesn't have a great combine, which would be surprising, some might question the value of drafting him at all. Tabbed as a small speed demon from a simple offense, Coutee needs a solid combine performance to boost his stock.

Ian Thomas, TE, Indiana

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Indiana tight end Ian Thomas only had eight receptions of 15 yards or more in his Hoosiers career. Tight ends with that on their resume are not usually thought of as Day 2 selections, but Thomas is an interesting circumstance.

    After starting his career at Nassau Community College, Thomas was considered one of the top ten junior college tight end prospects by 247 Sports' composite rankings. After recording just three receptions for 28 yards in 2016, Thomas had to wait until the spring game before his senior season to "breakout" in major college football.

    Quarterback play and scheme certainly held Thomas back at Indiana, but he flashes open-field talent when he was given the opportunity. Likely to run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash or better, based on what he did on the field, Thomas could quickly become the athlete of this relatively weak tight end class. Projected to run a 4.67-second 40-yard dash by NFL Draft Scout, they're projecting him to have the best 40-yard dash of any draftable tight end prospect in the class.

    A former JuCo tight end with a late-career breakout, Thomas proved at Senior Bowl practices that he could hang with the best seniors in the class. Should he run in the 4.6s, you can bet on at least one general manager buying into Thomas becoming a Jermichael Finley-like talent with a couple years of NFL coaching under his belt.

Alex Cappa, OL, Humboldt State

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    At the Senior Bowl, there are always at least a couple of small-school risers. This year, one of those was Alex Cappa of Humboldt State. The Division II All-American held his own against the best senior pass-rushers in the country, including projected top-10 pick Marcus Davenport of UTSA.

    In some ways, his rise is similar to Ali Marpet. He was a standout in one-on-ones in 2015, eventually leading to the Hobart product being drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Marpet also helped himself out at the combine, though.

    According to MockDraftable, Marpet's 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone, short shuttle and bench press numbers hit at least the 80th percentile for offensive linemen. There isn't a lot of NFL talent coming out of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Cappa is the only player from the conference who was invited to the NFL combine. For even just that reason alone, it makes sense why teams would lean on measurables and all-star practices for small-school players.

    Marpet proved to us that even non-scholarship Division III players can shoot up draft boards with big offseasons. Cappa's halfway there after a great Senior Bowl week. If he can prove to teams that he stacks up well with offensive linemen in the agility drills (three-cone and short shuttle), Cappa might end up being a Day 2 selection at either tackle or guard.

Nathan Shepherd, DL, Fort Hays State

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Fort Hays State's Nathan Shepherd had to pull out of the Senior Bowl because of a broken hand, but he dominated practices when he was healthy. As someone who has attended Senior Bowl practices for the last three years with a specific focus on defensive line play, Shepherd and Javon Hargrave have easily had the best performances of small-school defensive tackles in Mobile over that stretch.

    Hargrave compounded his performance in the all-star circuit with a 4.93-second 40-yard dash at 309 pounds. On draft day in 2016, the FCS defensive tackle was taken 89th overall. Shepherd, who is a bit overaged, could also rise to a top-100 player in this defensive tackle class that doesn't have many quality under tackles.

    Other than Maurice Hurst of Michigan, there aren't many interior defensive line prospects in this draft class who have both the athleticism and production to project as instant plug-and-play under tackles. Because of the supply and demand for penetrating defensive tackles this year, teams may be more inclined to take a Division II lineman like Shepherd on the second day of the draft.

    Shepherd, a Canadian national, originally played football for Division II's Simon Fraser, the NCAA's only Canadian program. Quitting football after the 2012 season, though, Shepherd didn't resurface in the football world until 2015, this time for Fort Hays State in Kansas. In all three of his years at Fort Hays State, he received all-conference honors in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

    In Mobile, Shepherd showed the scouting world that was unfamiliar with Division II football that he had great burst off the line of scrimmage and had great hips for his size. Those are usually traits that show up in the 10-yard split, the three-cone and the short shuttle. As long as he can run with that broken hand of his, Shepherd should be one of this class' most athletic defensive tackles in Indianapolis.

Hercules Mata'afa, EDGE, Washington State

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    As a junior in 2017, Hercules Mata'afa recorded 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Mata'afa did so as a 250-pound defensive tackle in a slant-heavy defense that was one of the most efficient pass defenses in the country.

    The projection of Mata'afa is similar to third overall pick Solomon Thomas' last year. He's a super-athletic edge-defender who produced at a high level as a defensive tackle for a West Coast school and declared early. The only issue is that Mata'afa is even smaller than Thomas, making his projection even hazier.

    Because of this, Mata'afa needs to have a big week at the combine. If the last two years of film are any hint, he's going to test similar to a Vic Beasley-style pass-rusher. Athleticism is how he wins, so it should come as a shock to no one when he cements himself as a Day 2 prospect, or even more, after the week.

    Remember, Thomas wasn't in the top-five conversation at this point last season. Athletic performances for penetrating defensive linemen might mean more than any other position in the sport. Odds are that Mata'afa is going to be on the right side of the post-combine shifting tides.

Kentavius Street, EDGE, North Carolina State

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb is likely to be a top-10 pick. Wolfpack defensive tackles B.J. Hill and Justin Jones were both at the Senior Bowl. Meanwhile, the hidden gem of the North Carolina State defensive line, Kentavius Street, did whatever he wanted in Shrine Game practices

    Statistically, Street took a bit of a step back in 2017, going from nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2016 to 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2017. Some of that has to do with the fact that North Carolina State was playing Street out of position at defensive tackle in pass-rushing situations. In terms of traits, there are few who have what Street flashes on a game-to-game basis.

    Being a "bendy" 285 pounds isn't normal, but Street's numbers in the gym aren't either. According to Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated, Street was the No. 3 "workout warrior" in college football coming into the year. Per Feldman, Street ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at 283 pounds last spring and had a 40-inch vertical jump. Not even yet in the Day 2 conversation, after he went without a Senior Bowl invitation, Street's skills are currently being underrated by the draft media.

    Look for that to change after his week in Indianapolis. In some ways, Street was put in the same situation as Deatrich Wise Jr., who was a starter at Arkansas until his senior year when he was moved into a situational role. Wise was the best defensive lineman of the 2017 Shrine Game, didn't receive a Senior Bowl invite and landed with the New England Patriots as a fourth-round pick. In his rookie season, Wise started three games and finished second on the Patriots defensive line, behind former Arkansas teammate Trey Flowers, in sacks.

    Street is much more athletic than Wise, who ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash at 274 pounds at the last combine. With that in mind—along with Wise's fourth-round selection—don't be surprised if the defensive end who the Senior Bowl staff thought was the fourth-best lineman on the North Carolina State roster has his name called in the top 100 picks.

Kemoko Turay, EDGE, Rutgers

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    If you weren't purposely trying to watch Rutgers football over the last three years when they've gone 10-26, you probably have no idea who Kemoko Turay is. Turay's story is unique, starting with his high school career. A basketball and track and field star, Turay only played football his freshman and senior year of high school, which is how Rutgers was able to recruit an NFL edge-defender.

    After redshirting his first year at Rutgers, he was named a freshman All-American after posting eight tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. In his remaining three seasons, he posted just 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks combined. Due to a lingering shoulder issue, Turay only played in 11 games in 2015 and 2016, while posting just 12 tackles over those two years.

    It wasn't until his senior season at Rutgers, after making splash plays against Washington in the season opener, that he once again resurfaced on the NFL's radar. A Senior Bowl invite, it's clear that his senior season pushed him into the fringe-Day 2/Day 3 conversation.

    A former triple jump and long jump state champion in New Jersey, Turay might physically jump out of the gym at Lucas Oil Stadium. It's not every day that you hear of a 250-pound athlete with a prestigious track background.