The Most Underrated Players in the 2021 NFL Draft

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2021

The Most Underrated Players in the 2021 NFL Draft

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Identifying underrated NFL draft prospects is harder than ever in 2021. 

    The 24/7, 365 coverage of the draft as an event with mass appeal to all 32 fanbases, surge in film availability and rise of advanced metrics combine to leave no stone unturned. 

    Still, superb depth at certain positions (e.g., wideout), the level-of-competition factor, injuries and COVID-19-related drawbacks (e.g., opt-outs, no scouting combine) mean it's still possible to find prospects that are underrated enough to classify as sleepers. 

    Based on The Draft Network's big board and a mock draft here and there, the following players sit in underrated territory and the franchise that selects them can expect better production than the slot projects.

Quinn Meinerz, OL, Wisconsin-Whitewater

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    It's hard to shake the feeling that Quinn Meinerz would have a boatload of hype entering the draft if he played for a big-name school. 

    Instead, Meinerz spent his time at Wisconsin-Whitewater, bulldozing the competition but otherwise needing a strong pro day to really start getting some attention. He did just that, checking in at 6'3" and 320 pounds with some head-turning times in drills like his 4.92-second 40-yard dash. 

    While all of the numbers coming out of pro days this year seem favorable given the lack of a combine, Meinerz is impressive even taking that into account. As Kent Lee Platte pointed out, he's one of the rarest athletes at his position dating back to 1987. 

    Despite this, even TDN's draft board has him as the 119th-ranked prospect. But given his convincing film, versatility to play multiple spots and athleticism that will clearly translate to the pros, his drafting team should come away very happy if he falls out of the second round.

Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Wideout, just like the free-agent class, is incredibly deep this year. Even so, it's a little surprising LSU's Terrace Marshall Jr. isn't riding the hype train into the draft. 

    Marshall was in Ja'Marr Chase's shadow during LSU's Joe Burrow-led title run in 2019. Despite this, as a sophomore, he put up 671 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 14.6 yards per catch. He bested most of these numbers over five fewer games in 2020, posting 731 yards and 10 scores with a 15.2 average. 

    NFL analyst Josh Norris found a fun comparison: Tampa Bay's Chris Godwin. He'll be just 21 years old for his rookie season, had an 82 percent catch rate and measures 6'3" and 205 pounds. Reliable is the right word—he didn't drop a pass in the red zone over three years, according to Pro Football Focus

    Marshall has the feel of one of those wideouts who could end up being the best in class. He's 25th overall at TDN but just the fifth-ranked receiver. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have him falling to No. 27. 

    Given the combination of production, dependability and pro-ready athleticism, Marshall has a good chance to make teams regret their decision to pass on him.

Dyami Brown, WR, North Carolina

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    During a normal draft year, North Carolina wideout Dyami Brown would be all the rage. 

    This just isn't a normal draft year for wideouts. 

    Brown, a solid 6'1" and 189 pounds, put up 1,000-plus yards in each of his last two seasons with 20 touchdowns over that span, averaging 20-plus yards per catch. He was a deep threat, yet one who could play inside and out. 

    Keep in mind this all happened with the Tar Heels, a team that ran the ball 492 times to 357 passing attempts last season. After Brown's 1,099 yards, the next two names on the list had 684 and 337 receiving yards. 

    For now, Brown only ranks as the 38th prospect at TDN and the eighth overall receiver. CBS Sports has him as low as the 117th prospect and 19th wideout. But given the versatility and big-play ability, there's a chance Brown could be one of those surprise first-rounders.

Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Milton Williams sure feels like the next Geno Atkins-type player who can take the league by storm as a pass-rusher from the middle. 

    His time at Louisiana Tech is working against him, of course. The perceived lesser level of competition still shouldn't tarnish his 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and 108 total tackles over three seasons (30 games) too much. Ditto for the 90.8 Pro Football Focus grade for his showing in 2020. 

    And to say the testing numbers were elite would be a gross understatement. According to ESPN's Next Gen Stats, measurements that indicate pro success show he's one of the most athletic edge-defenders in the class. 

    Williams didn't even appear in Kiper and McShay's three-round mock, and he's the 63rd overall prospect at TDN. But a pro-sized interior rusher with this blend of athleticism and production shouldn't have too many problems making his mark right away in a rotation.

Carlos Basham Jr., Edge, Wake Forest

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Carlos Basham Jr. has everything going for him, yet he's had a hard time keeping up with some of the bigger names in this year's edge class. 

    Odd, considering Basham spent his four seasons at Wake Forest being wildly productive to the tune of 173 total tackles, 35.5 for loss, 19.5 sacks, eight passes defensed and seven forced fumbles. 

    All Basham did at the Senior Bowl was impress against NFL-ready classmates, and all he's done athletically in predraft testing is rank among the top 100 defensive ends since 1987.

    Basham slots 77th at TDN as the ninth edge-defender listed, but the solid testing, huge production and ability to play on the edge or kick inside to provide a pass rush will have teams that run four-man fronts salivating to pick him up. Given how underrated he is right now—he's not a gamble like guys ranked above him with elite testing numbers but inferior production, such as Penn State's Jayson Oweh—he'll come at a great value, too.

Payton Turner, Edge, Houston

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Payton Turner is another one of those edge-defenders who has it all, yet doesn't flash with numbers that go viral. 

    Over four years at Houston, Turner put up 114 total tackles, 23.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks, one interception and nine passes defensed. And while he didn't make headlines for his performance in drills, he still ranked as one of the top 50 defensive ends athletically since 1987. 

    Like Carlos Basham Jr., Turner has the size to kick inside but is especially impressive on the edge, where he can put his length to work while getting around blockers. Still, he's sitting 86th on TDN's board as the 12th edge-defender. 

    A surefire rotational presence as a pro right away, Turner has some huge every-down potential as a starter. That's not as alluring as a boom-or-bust prospect and won't get as much attention, but when the team that secures him sees the production, there are bound to be few complaints.