Which Position Group Contains the Most Value at the NFL Draft?
These days, we tend to search for value virtually everywhere we turn. We look it at the grocery store, when searching for healthcare, at the car lot and even in fantasy football.
Believe it or not, NFL executives look for value in the real draft as well and the potential payoffs can be huge (even more than in fantasy, no matter how badly you want to beat uncle Earl).
The league's most successful franchises find value with their draft picks and not just those in the early rounds. Finding the right pieces in later rounds can help a team immediately improve its talent pool, its roster depth and its plans for the future. Wasting picks, even late ones, on non-contributors can be a quick way to steer a franchise into the ground.
This is why value is important. That seventh-round wide receiver might not necessarily be the next Marques Colston, but that doesn't mean he can't help your team.
Over the next few pages, we'll take a look at some of the most underrated prospects at each position in next month's draft and rank them according to (what else?) their potential value.
While the safety position might not be quite as deep as some other groups this year, there are still a number of projected late-round prospects that should be able to contribute early at the pro level.
Take Stanford free safety Ed Reynolds, for example, who is projected by NFL.com to be drafted in the fifth or sixth round come May. Reynolds is a 6'1", 207-pound defender who produced 89 tackles, seven interceptions and three defensive scores over the past two seasons with the Cardinal.
Louisville's Hakeem Smith is another intriguing prospect that has talent but may not even hear his name called on draft day due to his less-than-ideal size (6'1", 179 pounds). Smith is a four-time All-Conference prospect that will likely contribute early as a rotational defensive back and special teams player.
Other value prospects at the safety position include Brigham Young's Daniel Sorensen, Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Arizona State's Alden Darby.
Though some of the aforementioned players may go undrafted, each should have an opportunity to catch on with a team as a depth player or special teams contributor as a free agent.
While the draft's best and most polished tight ends will certainly be concentrated in the earlier rounds, there should be plenty of developmental pass-catchers and blocking tight ends to be found late or in free agency.
California product Richard Rodgers is an example of the type of unfinished college tight end who could thrive with some development at the pro level. The 6'4", 257-pound player only started 11 games in his collegiate career, but he managed to amass 608 yards receiving and 15.6 yards per catch last season. He is currently rated as a fifth- or sixth-round pick by NFL.com.
Smaller-school prospects who could emerge as serviceable pro players include Dixie State's Joe Don Duncan, who racked up 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games in 2013.
Bowling Green's Alex Bayer is an example of the type of large-bodied (6'4", 257 pounds) in-line blocker who could catch on with a team as a free agent. The same is true of the 6'6", 260-pound Crockett Gillmore of Colorado State. While blocking tight ends do not garner the attention of their dynamic pass-catching counterparts, they still hold value, especially for teams that rely on a strong rushing attack and max pass protection.
The running back position may have less value in today's NFL, but teams still need quality backs, and there are still bargains to be found late in the draft.
Surprisingly, some of the best value backs in this year's class actually come from larger college programs, which hasn't exactly been the case in the past.
Take USC's Silas Redd for example. His stock isn't currently very high due to the fact that a smaller role and injuries led to limited production over the past couple of years (just 81 attempts for 376 yards last season). However, he rushed for 1,241 yards with Penn State back in 2011 and has not averaged fewer than 4.6 yards per carry in any one season. He is currently projected as a seventh-round pick at best by NFL.com.
Oklahoma's Clay Brennan and Wisconsin's James White are a couple of other big program backs who will likely be available late in the draft.
Timothy Flanders of Sam Houston State is the type of small-school runner who could thrive in the right pro system. According to gobearkats.com, Flanders holds 34 individual school records. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons.
This draft might not have a surefire star quarterback sitting in Round 1, but it is deep with capable signal-callers who may have what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
Guys like Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger of LSU and Georgia's Aaron Murray will likely be waiting to be plucked in the middle rounds, though each appears to have at least some degree of starting potential.
However, these guys are hardly sleepers in the mold of Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage, who was recently profiled by Bleacher Report's own Brad Gagnon. Gagnon labeled Savage the draft's biggest sleeper and NFL.com's Gil Brandt recently called him the "Best QB prospect you've never heard of."
All that said, Savage is protected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick by NFL.com. San Jose State quarterback David Fales, who passes for 4,189 yards and 33 touchdowns with a 153.3 passer rating last season, is rated as a sixth- or seventh-round pick.
It is also worth keeping an eye on guys like Cornell's Jeff Mathews, Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch and Miami's Stephen Morris. While these guys are not currently household names outside of collegiate football circles, their talent level and that of the projected first-rounders are not as far apart as might be in other years.
Save for the rare dominating edge-rusher, the linebacker position isn't exactly celebrated in today's pass-oriented NFL.
However, linebackers are absolutely essential, especially for teams utilizing a 3-4 base alignment, and they often make up a large portion of special teams units.
Therefore, there should be plenty of inside and outside linebackers selected in May's draft. Fortunately, there should be plenty of value, even in the latter rounds.
Perhaps the best value will come from the inside linebacker position, where smart, capable players are needed but not as coveted as their pass-rushing counterparts. Iowa's James Morris is a classic example of an intelligent, experienced player who can aid the middle of the defense but who is too athletically unspectacular to warrant early-round consideration.
The latter rounds should also feature raw but promising pass-rushers like South Dakota's Tyler Starr.
"I like him a lot,"one NFL scout said of the 6'4", 250-pounder, per CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman. "He's tall, long and extremely athletic and plays with a high motor."
Other value prospects to keep an eye on include Western Kentucky's Andrew Jackson, Montana's Jordan Tripp and Southern California's Devon Kennard.
With NFL teams putting more emphasis on defending the pass than ever before, there is sure to be heavy interest in cornerbacks in May's draft.
Fortunately, this year's cornerback class is extremely deep and features several late-round prospects with starting potential. These value prospects come in both the small-school and major program variety.
Guys like San Jose State's Bene Benwikere, Southeastern Louisiana's Todd Washington and Brandon Dixon of Northwest Missouri State come with intriguing physical skills but questions about their level of collegiate competition.
Meanwhile corners like Lamarcus Joyner of Florida state, Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson and Alabama's Deion Belue were often overshadowed in larger programs, but they have the potential to contribute at the pro level in sub packages and on special teams.
For a time, it seemed like one of the best values in the draft would be Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir. However, the small-school prospect has seen a jump in draft stock since the Senior Bowl and is considered by many, including Bleacher Report featured columnist Ian Wharton, to now be a potential first-round selection.
Teams in need of wide receiver help should be extremely happy to own picks in this draft, which is deep with wideout talent.
We already know that there is a ton of receiver talent at the top end of the draft (Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller has six in the first round of his latest mock draft), but there are plenty of players with starting potential who will be drafted much later or not at all.
Oklahoma wideout Jalen Saunders is a prime example. A quick, shifty receiver who was underutilized at the collegiate level, he is currently projected as a fifth- or sixth-round pick by NFL.com. He has the potential to be a fine slot receiver in the pros.
Other promising value receivers include Fresno State's Isaiah Burse, Oklahoma State's Josh Stewart and Chris Boyd of Vanderbilt. Boyd, in particular, should draw the attention of teams searching for big-bodied possession types who can manhandle smaller cornerbacks in the red zone. He measured in at 6'4" and 206 pounds.
Also keep an eye on small-school prospects like Pittsburg State's John Brown, who was tabbed by Bleacher Report featured columnist Eric Galko as the biggest sleeper at his position in the entire draft.
There are some very appealing offensive line prospects at the top end of this draft, though the deeper players do not quite wow like the blue-chippers.
Still, there are several serviceable lineman to be found in virtually every round of the draft, and even in free agency once teams are done calling out names in New York.
Teams searching for tackle depth should be extremely fortunate to own later picks, as guys like Southern California's Kevin Graf should be readily available (rated a seventh-round prospect by NFL.com). While he isn't the most versatile or talented tackle in the draft, players like him will likely make up the bulk of rookie depth players and developmental prospects.
Teams searching for interior line help are also in luck. Potential starters like Ohio State center Corey Linsley and Florida Guard Jon Halapio should be available later than Round 5.
With a large and deep collection of run-stuffing tackles and explosive front-line pass-rushers, the defensive line group has to be filled with the most value in the entire draft.
Just consider that Stanford standout Josh Mauro, who racked up nine sacks over the past two seasons, is only considered a sixth- or seventh-round pick by NFL.com.
There are plenty of similarly talented prospects to be found late in May's draft both on the edge and interior of the defensive line.
Canadian prospect Evan Gill is a interesting player who has played multiple positions along the line. At 6'3" and 293 pounds, he projects as an interior defender at the next level, though he does possess pass rush ability. However, he is pegged as a sixth-round prospect at best by NFL.com despite his immense potential.
Other interesting defensive line prospects include Jackson Jeffcoat of Texas, Delaware's Zachariah Kerr and Kasim Edebali of Boston College.