Ranking the 10 Biggest Potential Steals of the 2021 NFL Draft

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2021

Ranking the 10 Biggest Potential Steals of the 2021 NFL Draft

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    There's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect in the NFL draft, and a lofty draft status doesn't guarantee success.

    The recent trade of 2018 No. 3 overall selection Sam Darnold is clear evidence of this. While Darnold and Josh Rosen were both top-10 quarterbacks in 2018, neither is still with the team that drafted them. No. 32 overall pick Lamar Jackson, meanwhile, was named a unanimous NFL MVP in 2020.

    Linebacker Roquan Smith was a top-10 pick in the same draft, and while he's been good, Darius Leonard and Fred Warner—taken in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively—have been first-team All-Pro selections.

    The 2021 draft is likely to follow a similar pattern. While prospects like LSU wideout Ja'Marr Chase and Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II are getting plenty of early first-round buzz, we may look back on other, less heralded prospects as better overall draft values.

    Here, we'll try predicting this year's biggest draft steals, using Bleacher Report's latest big board as a guide for draft status. We'll rank prospects based on projected production and draft standings, with a little bit of speculation included.

    Who could be this year's biggest draft steals? Let's take a look.

10. Jordan Smith, Edge, UAB

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 123

    NFL draft sleepers are often small-school products, and while pass-rusher Jordan Smith is one, he wasn't always small-school-bound. An all-state player at Georgia, he originally joined the University of Florida program before being suspended indefinitely for his involvement in a credit card fraud scheme.

    Smith made his way to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he put up a pair of productive seasons. Between 2019 and 2020, he amassed 14.5 sacks, 27 tackles for loss and an interception.

    The reason Smith ranks at the bottom here is his lack of polish. He's a low-floor, high-ceiling prospect with legitimate boom-or-bust potential. Listed at 6'7" and 255 pounds, Smith has the long, lean frame of an NFL edge-rusher but lacks the corresponding technique.

    "Currently, even an average punch can stall out his rush momentum and he has a hard time exiting the block once opponents get into his frame," NFL Media's Lance Zierlein wrote. "However, his pursuit of the play rarely comes to a full standstill and he naturally works to counter movements."

    If Smith can improve his handwork and overall technique, he could become a difference-maker at the next level. While he's probably not ready to start right away, Smith could be viewed as a massive steal a couple of years from now.

9. Jermar Jefferson, RB, Oregon State

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 109

    One-dimensional running backs are regularly found in the middle rounds of the draft, and that's currently how we should view Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson.

    While Jefferson did have 25 receptions in 2018, he had only 18 catches over the last two seasons. This makes him a run-centric back, though he has excelled in that role. Listed at 5'10" and 217 pounds, Jefferson is a stout runner who can get the tough yards inside and also break away on the perimeter.

    Jefferson had 858 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in just six games this past season while averaging 6.5 yards per carry, so a team looking to bolster its ground game will find value in adding him.

    "He's going to be a Day 3 pick, but he can play—he hasn't been talked about enough over the past year," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote.

    Unless he can become a more prolific pass-catcher at the pro level, Jefferson probably won't be an every-down back. However, he can be a valuable contributor and a real steal for a run-heavy offense.

8. Aaron Robinson, CB, Central Florida

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 75

    Central Florida cornerback Aaron Robinson ranks relatively low for a couple of reasons. For starters, this year's class features some elite talent at the top of the cornerback prospect pool. Players like Alabama's Patrick Surtain II and Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley appear to be complete packages at the position.

    While Robinson has the potential to become an NFL starter, he may be limited to playing the big-nickel role. Listed at 6'1" and 193 pounds, he's a long, physical corner who can hang with larger receivers, cover tight ends and provide solid run support. However, he's likely too inconsistent right now to be a perimeter cover corner.

    "The concerns with Robinson at the next level are his modest coverage instincts, ordinary ball skills, and proving the tackler he was in 2020 is what he will be moving forward and not the inconsistent finisher he was in 2019," Joe Marino of The Draft Network wrote.

    In a specialized role, though, Robinson could be a star. In just nine games last season, he amassed 41 total tackles, seven passes defended, one fumble recovery and a tackle for loss. He had 10 passes defended and three interceptions the previous year.

    Quality defensive backs—even those who don't play 100 percent of the snaps—are always valuable. Some team is going to get one by drafting Robinson in the middle rounds.

7. Brevin Jordan, TE, Miami

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 78

    Florida tight end Kyle Pitts has the potential to be a legitimate pass-catching playmaker at the pro level, which is why he's ranked No. 3 overall on Bleacher Report's draft board. Miami's Brevin Jordan is not the same caliber of tight end, but he could still be a steal on Day 2.

    Jordan is not likely to be a big-play NFL tight end in the mold of Travis Kelce, George Kittle and, eventually, Pitts. However, he's a solid all-around player who can move the chains and take on a big red-zone role.

    "Potential Y tight end if he can improve blocking technique and grit at the point of attack," Zierlein wrote. "Jordan can work the field in-line or from the slot and has improved his route-running over time."

    Listed at 6'3" and 245 pounds, Jordan has the size of a "move" tight end and the proven production to match. Last season, he played eight games for the Hurricanes and caught 38 passes for 576 yards and seven touchdowns.

    If Jordan can improve as a blocker, he will be a starting tight end at the next level. Given the ever-increasing value of the position, that will make him a steal.

6. Aaron Banks, IOL, Notre Dame

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 63

    Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks would rank higher here if he didn't project as a scheme-specific player. Listed at 6'5" and 330 pounds, Banks is big, powerful and can anchor the point of attack. However, he's not the most athletic of line prospects and could be off the board for teams that heavily utilize zone-blocking concepts.

    "Teams that ask their interior line to play out in space often or play laterally to string out action will find Banks' resume much less appealing than those that implement vertical climbs and double teams to generate interior lanes and space," Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network wrote.

    For a team that relies more on man-blocking schemes and power-running plays, however, Banks could be a true steal. He should be a plug-and-play guard in such a system, and there's a tremendous amount of value in finding one.

    Likely to be a second- or third-round pick, Banks isn't quite as much of a sleeper as others on this list. However, he's among the most likely to be a Day 1 starter in the right scheme.

5. Davis Mills, QB, Stanford

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    Amanda Loman/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: N/A

    Stanford quarterback Davis Mills probably represents the third tier of quarterback prospects in this class. He's certainly not in the same category as potential top-five selections like Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. However, he's not ranked on Bleacher Report's top 150 and does possess NFL starter traits, so the steal potential is real.

    Listed at 6'4" and 225 pounds, Mills has archetypal size for the quarterback position. He seems to process information well and is an above-average athlete, as evidenced by an impressive pro day that included a 4.58-second 40-yard-dash.

    Mills comes with some red flags, though, which is why he isn't higher on this list. He suffered knee injuries in both high school and college and has only 14 games and 438 career pass attempts on his college resume.

    Another reason Mills isn't ranked higher is the fact that his stock is on the rise. He'll be much less of a steal if he winds up climbing into the first round.

    "I don't know where Mills goes exactly, but the buzz around the league is that he could be a first-round pick and will most likely be the sixth quarterback selected," NFL Network's Peter Schrager wrote.

    If Mills lasts until Day 2 and develops into a quality starter, it'll be hard to consider him anything other than a steal.

4. Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 132

    In a different draft class, South Dakota State receiver Cade Johnson would probably be a more highly regarded prospect. However, this year's receiver class is loaded at the top and extremely deep, which pushes Johnson into steal territory.

    Make no mistake, though, Johnson can be an NFL starter. Listed at 5'10" and 180 pounds, he's certainly on the smaller side, but his skill set is both impressive and complete. He can perform as a shifty slot receiver and as a vertical perimeter threat.

    Between 2018 and 2019, he amassed 139 receptions for 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns.

    Johnson opted out of the Jackrabbits' spring season to prepare for the draft, but he did take part in this year's Senior Bowl, where he was one of the most impressive pass-catchers in attendance.

    "Nearly uncoverable in Senior Bowl one-on-ones—when he wasn't shaking free defenders, he was making contested grabs and/or tiptoeing the sideline," Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm wrote. "Footwork and route running looked even crisper and sharper there than in 2019 tape."

    Johnson could conceivably fall to Day 3 in this year's draft and still wind up as a quality pro pass-catcher. Even in a class filled with future starting receivers, that would make him a steal.

3. Richie Grant, S, Central Florida

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: N/A

    While this year's class is loaded at receiver, it's far less impressive at safety. TCU's Trevon Moehrig is the only safety ranked inside the top 70 by Bleacher Report's scouting department.

    That's why Central Florida's Richie Grant is a potential steal. He isn't even ranked inside the top 150 but could wind up being one of the best safeties in an admittedly underwhelming positional class.

    "Grant offers versatility to play deep or down safety and has decent man-cover ability against matchup tight ends. He's at his best as a high safety, where he has an overview of the field. He can key quarterbacks and use his ballhawking tendencies to force turnovers," Zierlein wrote.

    Listed at 6'0" and 194 pounds, Grant may not possess ideal length, but his ability to read the field and create takeaways should more than make up for that.

    Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner called Grant a "riser" during Senior Bowl week after he impressed in one-on-one drills. Indeed, Grant could wind up a high Day 2 selection. Still, getting a ball-hawking starting safety on Day 2 is nothing short of a steal.

2. Walker Little, OT, Stanford

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: No. 72

    As is the case with teammate Mills, Stanford's Walker Little carries injury-related concerns that have him in sleeper territory. Little suffered a torn ACL in 2019 and then opted out of the 2020 season, which means teams have seen him for all of one game over the past two years.

    To some degree, the NFL world has forgotten about Little. However, he was once considered one of the best pro prospects in the country. Writing for Bleacher Report in 2019, draft analyst Matt Miller pegged Little as the No. 2 overall pick in an early 2020 mock draft.

    The concerns with Little are legitimate, but his upside remains.

    "He is a big, strong prospect with excellent length and prototypical NFL size. He has excellent range, which makes him ideally suited to play on the edge," Drae Harris of The Draft Network wrote. "He plays with good athleticism overall, as evidenced by his fluid pass set and his ability to laterally redirect inside. He also demonstrates excellent latch strength in his hands."

    Listed at 6'7" and 313 pounds, Little has both the size and the skill set needed to play left tackle at the next level. It may take some time for him to get back to pre-injury form, but landing a starting-caliber left tackle on Day 2 always represents a massive steal.

1. Chris Rumph II, Edge, Duke

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    B/R Draft Board Rank: 113

    Duke edge defender Chris Rumph II tops this list for a couple of reasons. Like Little, Rumph plays one of the most important positions in the game. Outside of an elite quarterback, guys who can protect or rush the passer are among the most valuable in the draft.

    With no can't-miss pass-rushing prospect in this class—like Chase Young, Nick Bosa or Myles Garrett over the past four years—Rumph could easily be one of the best to come out of it.

    "Rumph is a rare cat. He plays like a tenth-degree blackbelt with his hands and has a springy, oiled-up lower half," CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso wrote. "That blend of deeply advanced skill and inherent talent leads to him being in the same unblockable edge-rusher echelon as the Bosa brothers and Chase Young among those I've scouted. Seriously."

    Listed at 6'4" and 235 pounds, Rumph is a little light but does have adequate size to be a speed-rusher off the edge. He's shown the ability to get into the backfield in a hurry—he had 14.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss over the past two seasons—and possesses a pro-ready skill set.

    Yet, Rumph is still widely considered a Day 2 prospect at best. Like Maxx Crosby in 2019, though, Rumph could wind up being the steal of the draft when it comes to edge defenders.

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