2014 NFL Draft: Biggest Game-Changing Prospects Flying Under the Radar
With roughly one week left till all the speculation surrounding the NFL draft is finally laid to rest, this slideshow highlights some of 2014’s most under-the-radar prospects who could become big-time players for their teams.
The names on this list may never bask in the warmth of the first-round sun, but I believe their talents are bright enough to shine long after the men who will be taken ahead of them.
I didn’t bother to create a list of prospects who just have a chance at becoming an NFL starter someday. I specifically reserved the names on this list for potential stars only. But not just any stars—these are the game-changers who have been overlooked and discarded for professional mediocrity.
Well, consider this list my official disagreement to such notions.
After all, stars can be found in nearly every round of the draft, especially in a deep class like this one. So keep your eye on the guys you see here.
Storm Johnson, RB, UCF
Weight: 209 lbs
To see the diamond-like qualities in Storm Johnson’s game, you must first look beyond his average combine numbers and less-than-stellar output while at the University of Central Florida. What is rare about this prospect and just as valuable is the enticing combination of power and finesse that Johnson runs with on every carry.
Beyond the impressive vision to locate daylight, Johnson will evade defenders or run them over with equal opportunity.
His 35.5-inch vertical jump wasn’t incredible but did show enough explosiveness to compete at the NFL level. Though Johnson has average (4.6 40-yard dash) speed for the position, he does has the intangibles to make big plays and can eventually become a feature back in the NFL.
With numerous running backs yielding more production and even more having superior physical tools, it seems only natural that Storm Johnson would be such an afterthought in this draft.
The team that pulls the trigger on this kid is going to get a heck of a football player.
Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Weight: 189 lbs
Factoring in as much information as you can about each prospect and bringing it all together, I can say with some degree of confidence that Jason Verrett is the best cornerback prospect in this class.
Unfortunately, most teams and draft evaluators will likely downgrade his value to the later part of the first round or early second based on his 5’9” height limitation.
Despite this shortcoming, Verrett is still one of the most physically gifted prospects at the position, which is demonstrated with his 39-inch vertical jump 4.38-second 40 and 6.69-second short shuttle.
Verrett was also incredibly productive throughout his career, finishing fourth out of 30 Division I CB prospects in this draft in pass breakups. This is the element to Verrett’s game that he does as well as anyone. This kid has the amazing timing, aggressiveness and athleticism needed to break on balls with an astonishing regularity.
Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State
Weight: 218 lbs
For a guy who measures in just below 220 pounds, Telvin Smith has outstanding functional strength, which coincides seamlessly with an aggressive, hard-nosed energy. His game film reveals a pit bull trapped inside a free safety's body.
It’s impressive watching this kid plug gaps occupied by 500-pound bulldozers. He's relentless at the point of attack against much larger blockers yet knows how to shed them quickly and effectively using a diverse arsenal of techniques.
Smith’s quickness and athleticism helps him weave through and around trash while instinctively zeroing in on the ball-carrier. Upon arrival, he has proven his reliability as a tackler, making sure to wrap up and send a message at the same time—this occurs often from behind the line of scrimmage.
If that wasn’t enough, Telvin Smith latches on to receivers, tight ends and running backs like glue in intermediate routes. If the quarterback does decide to target him, the receiver will always be forced to make a difficult catch if the ball isn’t batted down first. He may be one of the best coverage linebackers I’ve seen in three years of draft study.
Teams looking for a 4-3 linebacker with the resourcefulness to play inside or out should have Smith high on their draft boards. He could end up being a mid-round steal.
Kyle Van Noy, Edge-Rusher, BYU
Weight: 243 lbs
There are some things on a football field that cannot be coached. Having the instincts to be a great playmaker requires a certain combination of skills that are mostly innate to the individual.
Kyle Van Noy might not be the athletic anomaly like Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, he may not be overly strong, but what he does have is incredibly rare instincts for creating chaos. His playmaking abilities are off the charts and certainly an element to his game that teams get excited about, even though they don’t fully understand how it’s happening.
Many times in the draft-evaluation process, scouts and personnel guys tend to chalk these instincts to being a product of the system. This erroneous perception constantly leads to highly skilled prospects being undervalued and overlooked.
In fact, his playing style most resembles that of Tyrann Mathieu in terms of his ability to be incredibly disruptive by knowing exactly how and when to take chances. Both players are obsessed with taking a normal play and turning it into a game-changing moment. They have the incredible instincts and just enough physical gifts to make it happen on the biggest football stage available.
His effort is impressive, and he pairs it nicely with a wide range of creative pass-rushing moves. Once he beats the opposing blocker, Van Noy closes ground quickly. His five defensive touchdowns are great examples of this.
In his last three seasons at BYU, Van Noy has accumulated 54 tackles for a loss, 23 quarterback sacks, nine forced fumbles, seven interceptions and three blocked kicks. Some people just understand how to play the game, and Van Noy is one of those guys.
Although Van Noy is likely a name you have heard tossed around here and there, it’s essential to include him on the list when analysts continue to rank him in the middle rounds, such as his third-round grade and 58th overall ranking on Josh Norris’ big board via Rotoworld.
The big board's forgone conclusion is that UCLA's Anthony Barr is drafted before him come May, but I suspect Van Noy could be the edge-rusher who ends up having the better career.
His ideal position in the NFL is as a 3-4 rush linebacker. The Saints and Jets run a scheme that would be ideal for him to do all the things he does well.
Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming
Weight: 205 lbs
If you already follow me on Twitter then you must be fully aware of my Brett Smith man crush by now.
Brett Smith’s college film at Wyoming was so remarkable that I just had to write an article on him in to further flesh out this hidden gem.
This kid may not always look pretty, he may not have the sharpest footwork or the strongest arm, but when you watch close enough, you start to understand what makes this fiery competitor so fascinating.
Smith has a rare ability to deliver pinpoint accurate passes in the midst of chaos. In fact, I’ve never seen such perfectly placed balls while constantly moving around a shaky pocket to avoid defenders.
To say his offensive line struggled would be an understatement. He was constantly dodging blitzes, shedding tacklers and running away from trouble, all while scanning downfield in search for an open target. Once found, a quick release and the snap of the wrist hit the receiver perfectly on the numbers.
This type of play was commonplace during his tenure at Wyoming.
When open a target cannot be spotted, Smith has no problem tucking the ball and running for huge chunks of yards in a similar way to Johnny Manziel.
Smith has elite toughness and outstanding poise. Unfortunately, he was egregiously overlooked and failed to receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine despite declaring for the draft early after his junior year.
Sadly, there’s a reasonable possibility that Smith goes undrafted. However, the team that takes a chance on the guy who wasn’t even invited to the combine will not regret putting its faith in a little known quarterback from the University of Wyoming.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Weight: 220 lbs
If I’ve been like a broken record with my Brett Smith love these past few months, the same must be said for my infatuation with this underappreciated Penn State wideout.
One of the interesting things about draft season is the plethora of opinions about where each player should go. Shockingly, not a single analyst on NFL.com mocked Allen Robinson in the first round. This obviously suggests enough teams have valued him in the second round as well. A value in which I strongly disagree.
Despite being one of the bigger receivers in this draft, Allen Robinson ran a scorching 7.0 seconds in the three-cone drill and a four-second short shuttle. He also turned heads at his pro day by leaping 42 inches on his vertical jump.
With NFL size, reliable hands and terrific instincts, Robinson's strength and athleticism should translate well at the next level when he’s expected to escape press coverage, separate downfield and high-point a ball in traffic.
Despite concerns, Robinson has demonstrated the necessary quickness to run away from defenders. He also possesses the vision to anticipate angles and avoid tacklers by finding nearly undetectable running lanes, even if it means reversing course to the opposite sideline en route to a highlight-worthy touchdown.
In his last two seasons at Penn State, he had more than 2,400 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in a pro-style offense with limited talent surrounding him.
With a deep collection of talented receivers in this draft, Robinson could be getting overlooked. This kid has first-round talent and could emerge as a top rookie wideout by season’s end. Judging his entire body of work, he clearly is one of the most promising receivers of this class.
Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
Weight: 211 lbs
This first-team All-American out of Washington State is outfitted with NFL size and great instincts. Though he made this slideshow for being a game-changer who is somewhat undervalued, he is also known for blowing up ball-carriers.
During his college career, he wreaked havoc in the Pac-12, demonstrating a knack for causing turnovers and making big hits on ball-carriers.
Of all the safeties in this class, Bucannon graded out as the most productive safety in this draft class, based on a system that averages both production per game and career.
Though he is certainly a physical and instinctual football player, Deone seems to glide with effortless movements that often make him appear slower. At the combine in Indianapolis he ran a sub-4.5 40-yard dash and timed an impressive 6.96 seconds in the three-cone drill.
He is not afraid to dip the shoulder on a ball-carrier and has the adequate closing speed to succeed at the next level. If needed, he can even be a good special teams player. He is a high-effort player who knows how to impact the game with splash plays and a ferocious attitude.
The safeties in this class are all flawed to some degree, and Bucannon certainly has his. Ideally you would like to see more fluidity and flexion in his hips, but he still remains the highest-rated safety on my board.
Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are slated to be the first two safeties taken. If you ask me, that would be a mistake.
Trent Murphy, Edge-Rusher, Stanford
Weight: 250 lbs
Trent Murphy has spent the majority of this predraft process trying to dispel any notion that he lacks the athleticism to thrive against NFL talent. So far he could not have done a better job of this.
Murphy has impressive size and quickness, running his three-cone drill in 6.78 seconds, which is one of the fastest times for anyone this year at any position, and he did it while hauling 250 pounds of densely packed mass.
Murphy utilized these impressive physical tools, along with an acute understanding of pass-rushing nuances, to rack up more career sacks (32.5) than any other prospect available in the 2014 draft.
This highly productive yet egregiously undervalued outside linebacker is slated to go in the latter part of the second round or the first half of the third. This seems particularly odd to me considering he was ranked as one of the most physically gifted prospects in the draft based on his size and measurables from the combine, not to mention he was one the most productive edge-rushers in the nation.
If that combination alone doesn’t warrant a first-round grade, his tape seemed to back up the claim with great effort, impressive strength, awareness and playmaking abilities.
If Murphy slips too far in the second round he could end up becoming one of the biggest value picks of the year.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and draft analyst.
Follow him on Twitter if you have any questions or comments.