Biggest Late-Round NFL Draft Steals from 2020 Class so Far
Although the 2020 NFL draft class has yet to produce any true breakout stars from the later rounds, a handful of third-day draft picks are starting to establish themselves with their new teams.
Players taken in the first two days of the NFL draft are typically expected to have an impact early on in their professional careers. However, those drafted in the fourth through seventh rounds are supposed to be developmental projects who hope to become starters within a few seasons.
In some cases, these late-round draft picks are able to work themselves into the starting lineup quickly due to team injuries, while others impress so much in practice that their head coaches have no choice but to get them out on the field.
A few Day 3 rookies from the 2020 NFL draft are already starting to look like great value picks. Let's take a look at six who are already starting to impress around the league.
Harrison Bryant, TE, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns have so many talented tight ends on the roster right now that it can be hard for them to stand out individually. However, Harrison Bryant has started to carve out his own role in the offense.
Bryant was a nationally recognized tight end in college despite going to a smaller program in Florida Atlantic. He finished his final collegiate season with 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns, becoming the first-ever Group of Five player to win the Mackey Award, which is given annually to the nation's best tight end.
Despite such an impressive collegiate career, Bryant wasn't taken by the Browns until the fourth round of the 2020 draft. Given that Cleveland already had David Njoku and had signed Austin Hooper in free agency, it was unclear how much Bryant would see the field as a rookie.
Nevertheless, he has started to become a real weapon for quarterback Baker Mayfield. He had his biggest game of the season Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, catching four passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns in a dramatic 37-34 victory.
Bryant had a much larger role Sunday with Hooper out with appendicitis, and while he may not have as heavy a workload once the former Atlanta Falcons tight end is back, the fact that the rookie already has three touchdowns in 2020 makes him one of the bigger steals of the draft.
Kevin Dotson, OL, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-0 and look like one of the best teams in the AFC. While the return of Ben Roethlisberger is a big reason for that success, young players like Chase Claypool and Kevin Dotson have been key contributors on offense.
Dotson, in particular, has felt like a steal for Pittsburgh. He was taken out of Louisiana with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round of this year's draft. As a four-year starter, he was named to the All-Sun Belt first team in both 2018 and 2019 while also being selected as a first-team All-American in his final collegiate season.
It didn't take long for Dotson to find his way onto the field for the Steelers.
After an injury to Stefen Wisniewski in Week 1, he was asked to come in and replace the established veteran at right guard against the Denver Broncos in Week 2. He has received significant playing time since then, and the offense hasn't skipped a beat with the rookie as a starter.
Along with being a reliable player in pass protection, Dotson has also stood out in the running game. A key block as a pulling guard in a 38-7 Week 6 victory over the Cleveland Browns got some attention.
Wisniewski was signed this offseason as a short-term option at right guard. However, given the way Dotson is playing, it looks like the fourth-round pick might be the long-term solution at the position.
Tyler Johnson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense has so many mouths to feed this season that it could be hard for a late-round rookie to carve out his own role. However, wide receiver Tyler Johnson doesn't seem like a normal late-round rookie early on in his NFL career.
Johnson was teammates with fellow rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. at Minnesota, where they helped the Golden Gophers have one of their best recent seasons in 2019. During his final two years with the program, he caught 164 passes for 2,487 yards and 25 touchdowns.
However, Johnson wasn't coveted as a top-tier draft prospect due to his lack of explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and deep-threat speed. The Buccaneers eventually took him with the 161st overall pick, and since then, he has established himself as a capable NFL receiver.
Johnson didn't make his NFL debut until Week 5, but he's still been able to catch seven passes for 72 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That may not seem like much, but considering the other receiving weapons on Tampa Bay's roster include Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski, it's a win that he is even getting to see the field.
Of course, Johnson's role could take a back seat with the impending arrival of Antonio Brown. Still, in the long run, it looks like landing him in the sixth round was a great value pick for Tampa Bay.
Josuha Kelley, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers have had to deal with injuries to several key players this year, including one to star running back Austin Ekeler. However, that has opened the door for rookie running back Joshua Kelley to start getting more on-field experience.
With Ekeler expected to be out until at least November, the Chargers have had to rely on Justin Jackson and the rookie to make plays out of the backfield. A fourth-round pick, Kelley was initially a walk-on at UCLA before running for over 1,000 yards in each of his final two collegiate seasons.
Although Kelley is still trying to get more comfortable with the Chargers offense, he's getting a lot of work in. He has already carried the ball 75 times for 232 yards and a touchdown while adding 13 receptions for 117 yards.
The efficiency isn't quite there, but it can take time for the game to start slowing down for young running backs. This experience will pay dividends in the long run, and even if Kelley doesn't have the same kind of workload once Ekeler returns, he should still continue to get touches.
Solomon Kindley, OL, Miami Dolphins
After taking Tua Tagovailoa with their first pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins used their other selections to invest heavily in their offensive line. Offensive tackle Austin Jackson was the big name taken in the first round, but offensive guard Solomon Kindley has been a welcome surprise for Dolphins fans.
Kindley was taken in the fourth round out of the University of Georgia. As a three-year starter and a team captain in 2019, he elected to forego his senior year and enter the draft this past April.
A strong training camp allowed Kindley to secure the starting right guard spot, and he's held the position down ever since. Not only that, but he's played quite well, showing a lot of aggressiveness by driving defenders back in the run game and looking for work in pass protection. NFL analyst Brandon Thorn recently highlighted some of his play, showcasing some of that aggressiveness.
With Tagovailoa named the starting quarterback moving forward, it will be imperative for the Dolphins to protect their rookie signal-caller given his injury history. Fortunately, a late-round steal like Kindley should be able to help keep him upright.
Michael Onwenu, OL, New England Patriots
Although the New England Patriots are having a disappointing season by their standards, there have been some bright spots on both sides of the ball. Rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu has been one of the brightest—and perhaps their biggest surprise of the season.
Onwenu was a sixth-round pick out of the University of Michigan, where he started 35 games on the offensive line. While he didn't earn too much national recognition with the Wolverines, he was named a midseason All-American by ESPN in 2019.
Few sixth-round picks have much of an impact as rookies, but Onwenu has been playing early and often for the Patriots. His versatility suiting up at multiple positions on the offensive line has stood out most since he has already spent time playing left guard, right guard and right tackle in order to step in for injured players like Shaq Mason and David Andrews.
The fact that Onwenu is already getting praised publicly by head coach Bill Belichick should be enough to know what kind of impact the rookie has had for the Patriots. For a sixth-round pick, it doesn't get much better than that.