The Best-Kept Secrets of the 2021 NFL Draft

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

The Best-Kept Secrets of the 2021 NFL Draft

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The NFL draft is exactly one week away, and teams' preparation for the crucial event is nearing completion. 

    Scouting departments are devoted to scrutinizing every possible draft prospect. With so many draftable prospects and the college football landscape scrambled on account of the varying responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's draft prep posed challenges unlike any other. 

    The first round, which is set for Thursday, is going to see most of the familiar names come off the board. However, there is plenty of value to be found on Days 2 and 3. 

    In a year when some prospects didn't get to play at all, there's a good possibility that some quality NFL players are slipping through the cracks. 

    Every year, there are players who get picked late on Day 2 or Day 3 and go on to make a bigger-than-expected impact. James Robinson (undrafted), Antonio Gibson (third round) and Kamren Curl (seventh round) are just a few unheralded prospects from last year's class to surprise. 

    Here's a look at the best-kept secrets of the 2021 NFL draft.

Cameron Sample, Edge, Tulane

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Unlike a lot of the guys on this list, Cameron Sample's athletic testing doesn't jump off the page. He comes into the draft with a relative athletic score of 7.46, placing him 343rd out of 1,349 defensive end prospects since 1987.

    The good news for Sample is that the average Pro Bowl defensive end boasted an RAS of 7.88, which means there should be no worries about his athleticism. 

    Sample is athletic enough to make the transition to the pros, and he's among the most productive players on this list. The 6'3", 267-pound defensive end racked up 48 pressures, the third-best pass-rush grade and the best pass-rush win percentage in the nation, per Pro Football Focus

    The two-year starter played multiple positions along the defensive front for Tulane. That positional flexibility should help him find a role. His pass-rush production says he would be fine on the outside, but he also has the size and strength to kick inside in certain sub-packages when the scheme calls for four pass-rushers across the line. 

    Sample brings production and polish to a position that oftentimes favors athleticism and frame. He's going to make some general manager look very smart for taking him on Day 3.

Tamorrion Terry, WR, Florida State

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    Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    Traditionally, it's hard to be a secret coming out of Florida State. But the Seminoles program isn't what it used to be, and Tamorrion Terry's draft stock may have been a casualty. 

    This particular draft class is lacking in big-bodied receivers. Terrace Marshall Jr. is the only notable receiver over 6'1" who is likely to enter the first-round discussion. He comes in at No. 35 on the Bleacher Report big board

    However, teams looking for a red-zone target that miss on Marshall should have their eye on Terry as Day 2 draws to a close or Day 3 begins. The 6'2½", 207-pound target is likely down on boards because of a lack of production in 2020. Terry is much further down the B/R big board at No. 25 among wide receivers and 156 overall. 

    In his first two years at Florida State, he hauled in 17 touchdowns on 95 receptions and averaged 20.3 yards per reception. In 2020, he played in just six games, averaging 12.6 yards per catch and scoring just once. 

    The team that chalks that up to the extenuating circumstances of bad quarterback play at Florida State, a season impacted by the novel coronavirus and yet another head coach in Tallahassee could be getting a big-play weapon ready to make an impact sooner rather than later.

Elerson Smith, Edge, Northern Iowa

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    When Elerson Smith signed with Northern Iowa in 2016, he was a 6'6" 190-pound 2-star project. Fast-forward to 2021, and he's now 6'7" and 262 pounds with one of the most intriguing athletic profiles of the edge prospects in the class. 

    Smith's pro day at Northern Iowa included a 41.5-inch vertical, demonstrating his natural explosion. For reference, the highest vertical posted by a defensive lineman at the 2020 combine was Jonathan Garvin at 36 inches. Only five players posted better numbers, including Jaelen Reagor, Kyle Dugger and Henry Ruggs III. 

    Smith's production is what you'd expect from an NFL prospect playing at the FCS level. He tallied 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in his 2019 season at Northern Iowa. It's worth noting that he posted five tackles (2.5 for loss) and one sack in the team's season opener against Iowa State. 

    Had Northern Iowa played in the fall of 2020, there's little doubt Smith would have dominated and potentially raised his stock. 

    As it stands, Smith is a prospect who faced questionable opposition and hasn't played in over a year. That'll be enough for him to drop on draft boards even if he could turn out to be a starter with a year of development.

Spencer Brown, OT, Northern Iowa

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Spencer Brown is not a well-kept secret to fellow Panthers prospect Elerson Smith. The mammoth tackle is an intriguing draft target in his own right and had to see Smith in practice every day. 

    At 6'8" and 311 pounds, Brown is a mountain of a man and Smith believes he has the skills to go with that frame. 

    "Tristan Wirfs is a guy I would compare him to on skill level. I've seen Spencer's best. When Spencer is on he is playing low, getting underneath guys. A guy who is 6'8" and can get underneath you and as strong as he is. He is a monster in the weight room. It translates well because he is a really smooth athlete," Smith told Jim Nelson of the Times Herald. 

    Like Smith, there are legitimate questions about the level of competition Brown saw at FCS Northern Iowa, but you can't teach the physical tools Brown brings to the table. His incredible frame combined with the athleticism he showed at his pro day resulted in the highest relative athletic score possible, tied with Taylor Lewan for the highest of all time. 

    Brown didn't move to the offensive line until college, and his small-school pedigree is likely to cause him to slide, but the team drafting him is getting a potential anchor at one of the most important positions in football.

Robert Rochell, CB, Central Arkansas

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    If Robert Rochell had gone to a Power Five school, it wouldn't be surprising for him to go in the first round. 

    Rochell checks about every box you'd want to see in a corner. He's a shade under 6'0", was 12th on Bruce Feldman's Freaks List for his leaping ability and clocked a 4.39 40-yard dash, showcasing the recovery speed that you can see in his film. 

    Then there's the production. Working against FCS competition, Rochell was a ballhawk. He had 10 interceptions and 38 passes defended in 42 games at Central Arkansas, dominating the way you'd hope an NFL prospect would at that level.

    Rochell came to Central Arkansas as a wide receiver and running back prospect before making the switch to defense. An athletic marvel with a nose for the ball and the hands to rack up interceptions should be in the first-round conversation. The only question is whether he can make the jump from FCS to the NFL.

Jacob Harris, WR/TE, UCF

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Darren Waller. Jimmy Graham. Antonio Gates. 

    The NFL is always on the lookout for big-bodied athletes from diverse backgrounds who may be able to make the transition to tight end. UCF's Jacob Harris could be the next late-round gem to make that transition. 

    That is unless he ends up being a legitimate NFL wide receiver. Harris is a huge receiver at 6'5" and 219 pounds but set UCF's pro day ablaze with a 4.39 40 and the fastest three-cone time (6.54) in the entire draft class. 

    Harris is still raw as a prospect. He actually didn't play football until his senior year of high school. He initially committed to play soccer at Florida Gulf Coast University before walking onto Western Kentucky's football team and ultimately going back home to Central Florida. 

    He's not a perfect prospect. His hands leave a lot to be desired, and he only had 30 catches in his final season for the Knights. But with limited experience and a ton of physical tools at his disposal, the potential is there for Harris to be a steal in this class.

Tyler Coyle, S, Purdue

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    The uncertainty of the 2020 college football season impacted some prospects more than others. One can't help but wonder where Tyler Coyle would be on big boards and mock drafts if the coronavirus-shortened season and offseason had not impacted his senior year. 

    Coyle led the Connecticut Huskies in tackles in 2018 and 2019, adding 10 passes defended in his final season there. 

    He transferred to Purdue in 2020 and struggled to make an impact with the Boilermakers, playing just three games after the birth of his son and registering 13 tackles. 

    Coyle's athleticism is hard to ignore, though. He ran a 4.36-second 40 at 6'1" and 209 pounds, affording him the speed to play the alley and the size to be a true box safety. 

    At a minimum, Coyle could be an elite special teams player. He's a strong tackler and has the size/speed combination to cover serious ground. There's also a chance he develops into a legitimate starting strong safety in the right system.

Kene Nwangwu, RB, Iowa State

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    In today's college football landscape, it's admirable for a player to stick it out with a program even if he would have gotten more playing time at a different school. Coaches may like that commitment from Kene Nwangwu, but it has definitely made him a lesser-known commodity in the 2021 draft class. 

    Nwangwu is an explosive athlete but never really got a crack at the lead-back role at Iowa State. He was second fiddle to David Montgomery, who went in the third round of the 2019 draft, and then to Breece Hall, who figures to be one of the top running back prospects in 2022.

    The result is a back in Nwangwu who played four seasons for the Cyclones but only saw 143 carries (5.2 yards per carry). At a position that sees a ton of wear and tear, the lack of run could work in his favor. 

    Nwangwu is one of the most athletic running back prospects in the class. His relative athletic score of 9.88 (out of 10) is the highest in this year's running back class based on his pro day numbers, which included a 4.29 40-yard dash and 6.75 three-cone time. 

    While it may take a while for Nwangwu to make his presence felt as a running back, he will be a special teams weapon right away. As a kick returner, he was top-15 in the nation in both 2016 and 2020.

Zach Davidson, TE, Central Missouri

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Of all the prospects on this list, Zach Davidson faces the steepest uphill battle to stick on an NFL roster, but the potential for him to exceed his draft position is too good to exclude from the list. 

    Davidson came to Central Missouri to be a punter. As it turns out, when you're 6'6⅝" and can run the way Davidson does, you find a role beyond being a specialist. 

    He was a Division II third-team All-American as a punter as a redshirt freshman and started playing tight end as a sophomore in 2018, catching 11 passes for 239 yards. However, in his junior year in 2019, he exploded for 40 catches, 894 yards and 15 touchdowns while still averaging 40.3 yards per punt. 

    Davidson is an exceptional athlete. At Central Missouri's pro day, he posted NFL-caliber numbers, including a 6.95-second three-cone drill and 37.5-inch vertical—both would have been top-two numbers at the combine for a tight end last season. 

    Because of the pandemic, Davidson didn't play in 2020, so the team that drafts him (or signs him) is getting an incredibly raw athlete, but one who could be a valuable weapon given the right coaching and situation to hone his craft.


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