Best-Kept Secrets of the 2019 NFL Draft

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 18, 2019

Best-Kept Secrets of the 2019 NFL Draft

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    Loren Orr/Getty Images

    Think you know everything there is to know about this year's NFL draft prospects? Think again.

    This rundown of best-kept draft secrets features prospects you have never heard of and some familiar names you'll want to get to know a little better.

    Get ready to meet (and jump to with the links):

    We kick things off with one of the most successful and decorated players in NCAA history.

    How is he a secret? Some folks have him pegged as a future slot receiver. But he's really a quarterback

Secret Small-Program Steve Young: Easton Stick, QB, North Dakota State

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    It was a typical Saturday for Easton Stick. He threw four touchdown passes to lead North Dakota State back from a 14-0 deficit and take a 35-31 lead over Northern Iowa. After getting stopped at the goal line on an option run, he just needed to punch it in on a quarterback sneak to put the game out of reach.

    But the Bison line couldn't get any push. So Stick slid to his left, took on a Panthers defender man-to-man and barreled his way into the end zone.

    "It was a fun little meeting for the two of us," Stick said.

    It was also nothing unusual for the dual-threat quarterback who led the Bisons to 49 wins during his career, the highest total in FCS history.

    "I remember sitting in the first offensive meeting I was part of as a freshman," Stick said. "Our offensive coordinator told us our goal offensively was to lead the country in physicality. That's all 11 guys, quarterback included."

    Stick put that physicality to use as a freshman, replacing injured quarterback Carson Wentz and leading the Bison to several FCS playoff wins en route to a national championship. Stick went on to guide his team to two more championships in three full seasons as a starter, throwing 88 career touchdown passes and running for 41 touchdowns.

    Stick's rushing ability and wide receiver-like combine measurements (4.62 40-yard dash, 33.5-inch vertical) suggest he's more like the next Julian Edelman than the next Wentz. But Stick chose North Dakota State specifically so he could learn an offense with pro-style concepts, and he showed off a new streamlined delivery at his pro day after spending the offseason working with Zac Robinson (now the Rams quarterback coach) and Mike Sheppard (who worked with Patrick Mahomes two years ago).

    Stick isn't hugethough he's no Kyler Murray, eitherand he doesn't have Mahomes' arm. But he's experienced, athletic and well-regarded as a team leader. At times, he looks like the Steve Young of the Missouri Valley Conference. And having succeeded Wentz and three-time FCS champion Brock Jensen for the FCS equivalent of the Patriots, he knows how to handle expectations.

    "You have to have the mindset that you are going to push the envelope and try to do it better than it's ever been done before," he said. "You find ways to model what they did—because what they did worked really welland then find your own edge."

    Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo paved the way from the FCS to the NFL for quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Murray, Baker Mayfield and Russell Wilson have blazed the trail for smaller quarterbacks. Now it's up to Stick to prove that a prospect who is both smaller than the prototype and from a smaller program can succeed in the NFL.

    "I'm in a unique box, but I think that's part of my strength," he said. 

    "I did a lot of things under center. I called plays in the huddle and controlled a lot at the line of scrimmage. But at the same time, I'm an athletic player who can run and make plays on the edge.

    "That combination is a little bit unique to me. I hope it makes me stand out." 

Secret Siberia Survivor: Dax Raymond, TE, Utah State

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    Steve Conner/Associated Press

    If you want to know what winter in Siberia is like, you could read a long, depressing Russian novel. Or you could just ask Dax Raymond.

    "There's a different kind of cold there," he explained. "It's humid and cold. It feels like ice water hitting your face.

    "I have pictures of myself where my eyes are growing icicles on them as I'm walking."

    Raymond spent two years in eastern Russia for his Mormon mission, spreading his faith in towns like Nakhodka, Ussuriysk and Artyom. Don't worry if you have never heard of them. Most folks Raymond met in the regions around Vladivostok had never seen an American before and knew nothing about American football.

    "I tried to tell them I played American football, but they didn't understand what that was," he said. "So after a few months, I just told them I played a sport that is kind of like rugby. That's what they could understand."

    Raymond had to explain all of this in Russian. No one in that part of the world spoke English, not even his traveling companion. Raymond only spoke English to himself in the shower. Per mission rules, he  communicated with his family once per week via email. Other than that, he did everything in Russian, often walking for hours through that ice-watery cold.

    Needless to say, football was far from his mind back then.

    "Mom once emailed that the Patriots just won the Super Bowl," he recalled. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, the Super Bowl was this week.'

    "That's how out of it I was. I had no idea. We were focused on our purpose."

    But once he returned to the U.S., Raymond set his sights on an NFL career. He switched from quarterback to wide receiver in high school and caught 23 touchdown passes as a senior. He converted to tight end at Utah State and quickly became an all-purpose weapon, lining up everywhere from the slot to H-back and catching 68 passes in his final two seasons.

    Raymond has NFL-caliber size, speed and athleticism. And he's more than just a pumped-up receiver. He relishes his chances to mix it up as an in-line blocker, especially on 3rd-and-short.

    "There's just one guy in front of me, and I have to move him before he moves me," he said. "It's the trenches, it's grind time. It's a blast."

    Because of his two-year mission, Raymond is older than most draft prospects. He knows that can make teams skeptical about whether he's maxed out athletically. At the same time, Raymond believes his tenure in Siberia makes him dependable, adaptable and able to process information quickly.

    "If I can learn Russian," he joked, "I think I can learn a playbook."

Secret Small-School Super Saiyan: Justin Sumpter, WR, Kennesaw State

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    Courtesy Kennesaw State University

    Justin Sumpter's game has been shaped by two figures: Megatron and Goku.

    Megatron is Calvin Johnson, of course. He attended the same high school as Sumpter (Sandy Creek, in Tyrone, Georgia). Johnson's parents and Sumpter's parents are neighbors. Every time Sumpter entered his high school weight room, he saw Johnson's 11-plus-foot broad jump and other jaw-dropping records on the wall.

    Goku is the main character of the Dragon Ball anime series, a hero with the power to go Super Saiyan on his opponents. When the chips are down, he hits them with the kamehameha, an energy blast that can level mountains.

    It's obvious why Sumpter looks up to Megatron. But why Goku?

    "It's about how Goku trains for a fight, how he carries himself, how he's always looking out for everybody else," said Sumpter, who is a huge anime fan, as you might have guessed

    "He's always going 110 percent no matter what, and he's a great guy. I just want to live that kind of life."

    So does Sumpter have a kamehameha of his own?

    "It's probably the one-handed catch. I had a couple of those throughout my career."

    Sumpter's most famous one-handed catch against Liberty University went viral and was featured on an ESPN "You Got Mossed" segment.

    "I had to turn my notifications off for a while after that," Sumpter joked.

    But most of Sumpter's catches look like something out of Odell Beckham Jr.'s sizzle reel. That's because he played in a wing-bone option offense (think Navy or Georgia Tech) where passing was rare and every reception was contested.

    "We would line up with three receivers on the right and me on the left on 3rd-and-12; everybody knew the ball was coming my way. It was hard to deceive people."

    Megatron started a pipeline of receivers at Sandy Creek. Sumpter spent most of his prep career behind players who would go on to programs like Clemson and Auburn. So Sumpter became part of Kennesaw State's first-ever recruiting class.

    An Owls team consisting mostly of freshmen went 6-5 in its inaugural season. In Sumpter's junior year, Kennesaw State won the Big South and played deep into the FCS playoffs, facing opponents that often send prospects to the NFL.

    "Every game, they talked about how small we were," Sumpter said. "But we were built for that. We have one of the biggest-hearted football teams in the country."

    Sumpter ended his college career with only 111 receptions, but he averaged 17.9 yards per catch and scored 21 touchdowns.

    Sumpter knows he has a lot to learn to make it as an NFL receiver. He didn't run a full route tree at Kennesaw State and faced mostly simple coverages as teams concentrated on the option running game. At the same time, Sumpter has become an alert, aggressive blocker, which can make him a valuable special teamer while he refines the rest of his game.

    With a little refinement, the 6'3" acrobatic Sumpter could become a receiver who goes Megatron once in a while on opposing cornerbacks. Or goes Super Saiyan on them. There's really not much of a difference. 

Secret Pool Shark: Kahale Warring, TE, San Diego State

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Kahale Warring was so new to football when he walked on at San Diego State University that when a coach asked him how many players were on each side, he didn't know the answer.

    "I never really thought about it," he said. "I just took a guess. I said 13."

    Oops. 

    "It was a little humiliating. I'll never get that one wrong again."

    Warring didn't watch much football growing up. He shot lots of 1-on-1 hoops with his dad (a high school basketball and soccer coach), but they never tossed the pigskin around.

    The 6'5", 252-pound junior didn't even learn about football the way most kids do these days: from video games.  

    "When I played, it was just 'Ask Madden,' pick a receiver, throw it to him, hope it doesn't get intercepted," he said.

    In the winter, he focused on basketball, which is common for a tight end prospect. But he spent the autumn sports season playing water polo. That isn't a sport we associate with Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, but it requires both explosive athleticism (as a goalie, Warring had to blast out of the water like Aquaman to make saves) and unbelievable stamina.

    A typical water polo workout required Warring to hold a stack of metal chairs over his head while treading water across the length of the pool, propelled only by his churning legs.

    "I had to have a really good eggbeater," he said.

    A friend coaxed Warring into trying out for football in his senior year of high school. He needed a custom cheat sheet to know which routes to run in his first few starts. but he soon learned football well enough to earn a walk-on opportunity with the Aztecs. He redshirted for a year, packed on 35 muscular pounds by lifting weights instead of treading water and finally began watching football regularly to help learn the game.

    "I fell in love with Gronk," he said.

    Now a somewhat experienced starter with 29 collegiate games on his resume, Warring does the things basketball crossovers have done at tight end for years: posting up defenders in the end zone, boxing them out for tough catches and so forth. But Warring's time in the pool is also evident when he snaps his body around quickly and smoothly to catch short passes in traffic.

    "I can put myself into really good positions and situations to make plays over people who don't have the same athleticism."

    Don't let the eggbeater talk fool you: Warring led the Aztecs in receptions last year, so he isn't some long-term project who took up football last week. The only swimming the San Diego native does these days is at the beach.

    In fact, Warring is so committed to football that he doesn't remember how many players are on each side in a water polo match.

    "I think there's six," he said, struggling with the question. "Shoot, you might have got me again."

    That's OK. It doesn't matter anymore. 

Secret Workaholic: Juwann Winfree, WR, Colorado

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When Juwann Winfree wanted to get in some extra work but his quarterback wasn't available, his girlfriend would head to the practice field to load footballs into a Jugs machine for him.

    "That just comes from me being a workaholic and having a supportive girlfriend," he said. "I can't always get a teammate to work with me, because I like to work out at any time: late nights, early mornings.

    "She's always with me, so she was able to do it for me." 

    Winfree didn't always have such exemplary work habits. He was a 4-star recruit and played behind Stefon Diggs as a freshman at the University of Maryland in 2014, but he was suspended for violating team rules in 2015 and left the Terrapins for a year in junior college.

    Before leaving Maryland, Winfree got some sound advice from his receivers coach, former Jaguars great Keenan McCardell.

    "When he found out I got in trouble, he sat me down and gave me a list of things I have to do on the daily," Winfree said. "Get 200 catches per day, stretching, doing cone drills. It's stuff I took with me forever."

    Winfree brought his improved work habits to Colorado, only to suffer an ACL injury two weeks before the start of the 2016 season. He was relegated to a backup role in 2017, but when Shay Fields got injured early in a November game against USC, Winfree exploded with five catches for 163 yards and a pair of highlight-reel touchdowns.

    "That game meant everything for me," Winfree said. "I had to show I was back. A lot of people forgot about me. That was a game that I needed to have."

    Unfortunately, a sprained ankle kept Winfree from following up on that breakout performance in 2018. He finished last season with only 28 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns. But a solid performance (and a highlight touchdown) at the NFLPA Bowl and a strong pro day have the versatile 6'3", 215-pound receiver back on the radar.

    "Teams were skeptical about me," he explained. "They all saw the USC game, but then they didn't see that exact player again, and they wanted to know why.

    "But I've been able to express just how much of a factor my health was in my season last year. So teams are excited now, because they now get to see me full go, 100 percent healthy, confidence all the way up."

    Winfree's off-field problems also are in the past. He was a team captain for the Buffaloes, and he earned his degree.

    "I've been through it all, and I know what it takes," he said. "I'm a leader, and I'm not going to back down from a challenge or take 'no' for an answer."

Secret 60-Yard Field-Goal Sniper: Matt Gay, K, Utah

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    There's nothing unusual about a high school soccer player moonlighting on Friday nights as a football kicker.

    "The coach asked if I wanted to show up for games and kick," Matt Gay said about his introduction to high school football. "I said, 'Sure!'"

    Gay didn't practice field goals at all during the week. He just showed up, warmed up and drilled them during games. Then he was back on the soccer pitch Saturday.

    That's where most the story ends for most Friday night kickers. Gay's football story appeared to come to an end when he suffered a major knee injury during a football practice. He recovered and played a year of soccer at Utah Valley University. He then went on his Mormon mission, but he struggled with depression and returned home.

    After getting his depression under control, Gay attended some college tryouts and specialist camps as a kicker. But he didn't attend any clinics or consult with kicking coaches to prepare.

    "I'm self-taught," he explained. "I just went to my high school field and figured out what worked and what didn't."

    The self-taught approach worked. Gay won a Utah specialist camp, earned a walk-on opportunity and a chance to compete with Chayden Johnston for the Utes' kicking job in 2017. Johnston missed his first attempt. Then it was Gay's turn.

    "I made that one, and kept making them and making them. I got offered a scholarship two months later."

    Gay went 30-of-34 that year and was a perfect 40-of-40 on extra points. His ability to kick for distance was even more impressive than his accuracy. Gay kicked eight 50-plus-yard field goals on 11 attempts in the last two seasons, and he's known for nailing 60-plus yarders in practice.

    "I feel comfortable from 60, 65 yards," he said. "That's an area where I can come through with a really good stroke and the ball will get there."

    Gay's homebrewed field-goal style is definitely unorthodox: part Sebastian Janikowski, part something from the 1970s. He recently attended John Carney's clinic to prepare for the draft. But the Chargers/Saints legend and field-goal guru didn't try to fix what wasn't broke.

    "John would just ask, 'Do you always do this when you kick? Yeah? OK. Well, I wouldn't teach that, but that's how you do it. So, great.'"

    Gay had an impressive pro day, which Bears special teams coach Chris Tabor supervised. The significance of Tabor's involvement was not lost on Gay, who remembers watching Cody Parkey miss what would have been a game-winning field goal in last year's playoffs.

    "You feel bad for the guy. He got a lot of backlash and hate that I don't think he deserved," Gay said. 

    "At the same time, it's a dog-eat-dog world, and it's tough to keep a job. You have to have the mindset: 'If I don't perform, I could be gone.' And that's something that has helped me while going into this process."

More Best-Kept Secrets of the 2019 NFL Draft

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    John Cominsky, DL, Charleston

    Cominsky may be the worst-kept secret of this draft class: a former high school option quarterback ("There was nothing orthodox about my game, or anything that simulated a quarterback at all," Cominsky joked at the Senior Bowl) who grew into a small-school 3-3-5 defensive end. Cominsky has both the athleticism and demeanor to be a middle-round pick and a future starter.

           

    Jack Fox, P, Rice

    The best of a strong class of punters. Fox kicked for three years for the Owls and has a pro-style delivery, a knack for driving deep directional kicks and the athleticism to both scoop a poor snap and save the day after a long return.

           

    Ka'dar Hollman, CB, Toledo

    A former walk-on turned starter and respected team leader, Hollman is a physical corner who ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day.

                

    Brandon Hitner, C, Villanova

    Hitner played tackle for the Wildcats but is expected to move to center in the NFL. An exceptional pro-day workout, plus high marks for intangibles, could make Hitner a middle-round pick.

       

    Jordan Miller, CB, Washington

    Teammates Byron Murphy and Taylor Rapp overshadowed Miller in the Huskies secondary. But when Murphy and Rapp declined to do position drills at their pro day, Miller put on a show. Miller is tall, fast and physical. Look for some team to select him on Day 3.

       

    Natrez Patrick, LB, Georgia

    Patrick was a top recruit whose Bulldogs career was derailed by injuries and marijuana-related arrests. Now healthy and having undergone treatment (as well as a Scared Straight-type program at a prison), Patrick projects as an old-fashioned thumper at inside linebacker. 

       

    James "Boobie" Williams, RB, Washington State

    Williams is nicknamed after Boobie Miles from Friday Night Lights, which is unfortunate (Miles tore up his ACL, after all). But Williams caught 202 passes in three seasons in the Air Raid offense, and he combines the quickness and route-running diversity to be a Rex Burkhead-like receiver out of the backfield in the NFL.