9 Late-Round NFL Draft Picks Making Waves Early in Offseason Workouts
There is nothing that can help a team win quite like a good draft. Plenty of bad teams go out every year and try to buy free agents in hopes of winning a championship. However, ultimately it is the teams who can restock their rosters via the draft that find themselves in the playoff hunt season after season.
The key to this is not just hitting on the early round picks. No sir. Teams make their money by scoring in those later rounds. The fourth round and on is where a team has to take those calculated risks with a focus on finding high-reward prospects who fit the scheme.
Now that the league has gotten a couple of rounds of OTAs in the books, let's take a peek at some of these later-round prospects who are making their front offices look pretty smart.
Yawin Smallwood, LB, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were able to get exceptional return on investment last season with linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow. Both went undrafted but ended up with 25 total starts and 212 total tackles.
2014 netted the Falcons an even better player in the seventh round with UConn linebacker Yawin Smallwood. Smallwood slid in the draft because he is less about the athlete and more about the football player. However, Bleacher Report’s own Ian Kenyon might have summed it up best:
Yawin Smallwood in Atlanta in the 7th was a steal.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) May 19, 2014
With Atlanta moving to a 3-4 defense, Smallwood’s ability to stuff the run on the inside could give him an edge over more experienced players on the roster. Thus far at OTAs, Smallwood is transitioning to the speed and star power of the NFL. Here’s a great quote from Smallwood about his initial impressions, via CTnow.com:
It really hit me when I went in the locker room and I saw [wide receiver] Julio Jones. It hit me. I'm not star-struck are anything like that. I'm here for a purpose ... I'm ready to get to work try to land in the lineup.
If Falcons fans loved Curtis Lofton, they will really love Smallwood. He was a leader on the field at UConn, and according to Falcons head coach Mike Smith, per Vaughn McClure’s blog on ESPN.com, that will need to continue if he’s in the lineup:
Probably of all the positions on the defensive side that has the most on them are the two inside linebackers because they’ve got to do a lot of the communicating, as well as our safeties,” Smith said. “They did a good job with the communication. Again, we put a lot on them in three days. We’re trying to get these guys caught up as quickly as possible with the veterans so when we start our (organized team activities) a week from Tuesday, we want those guys to be caught up in terms of where we are in our installation with the veterans.
As the offseason progresses and Smallwood gets up to speed on the defense, expect him to continue to open eyes among the Atlanta coaches.
Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
It certainly looks like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is going to have a new center. And there’s a real chance that this year he will be Ohio State center Corey Linsley.
The Packers took Linsley in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft, and with that they set in motion a real position battle. Packers beat writer Wes Hodkiewicz offered up this image on Twitter:
Corey Linsley's battle for starting center has begun, talking with OL coach James Campen as Don Barclay watches on pic.twitter.com/EOfyiOACNM— Wes Hodkiewicz (@WesHod) June 3, 2014
With no incumbent at the position, it will be between JC Tretter and Linsley for the job. Linsley is a far more talented pure center, and assuming he can get up to speed on the line calls, he’s going to get every shot to win the job.
Josh McPeak, Packers writer for LombardiAve.com, wondered if Linsley can be the next Frank Winters:
The center position may be one of the most competitive position battles over the length of camp. Green Bay knows they have a smart, strong, versatile and super good run blocking center in the way of Linsley.
Will Corey Linsley beat out JC Tretter and become the Frank Winters-to-Brett Favre long-term answer at center for Aaron Rodgers?
Only time will tell.
Linsley’s combination of functional strength and experience are going to be very welcome in Green Bay. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on Linsley being Rodger’s center for many seasons.
Dontae Johnson, CB, San Francisco 49ers
The league trend is to outfit secondaries with defensive backs who are big, athletic players who can run and hit. The San Francisco 49ers might have found the next great one in North Carolina State cornerback Dontae Johnson. The 49ers took Johnson with pick No. 129 primarily because he has impressive length (6’2”), legit speed (4.45 40 time) and an impressive football IQ.
Early reports out of camp, per the 49ers’ official site, are good. It sounds as if Johnson is already adopting the philosophies of what has made the 49ers one of the most impressive in the league in recent seasons.
And they are going to need him. This is a team that is thin at cornerback, and regardless of when you are drafted, if head coach Jim Harbaugh wants you to make plays, you’d better be ready to do so. Dylan DeSimone of Comcast SportsNet summed it up well:
All their eggs are in the Dontae Johnson basket.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone_80) June 1, 2014
As promising as things seem right now, once Johnson is able to strap on the pads and play press-man coverage, he’s going to look even better. His odds to be a major contributor, based on early reports, are very good.
Alfred Blue, RB, Houston Texans
After letting Ben Tate go via free agency, finding his replacement was a must for the Houston Texans. And it certainly seems they found it in the sixth round with LSU running back Alfred Blue.
It didn’t take long for Blue to impress the Texans staff. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle reported that head coach Bill O’Brien is happy with what he’s seen so far:
He’s doing pretty well. He’s a guy that came in here as a talented young player that has shown us early on — very early now, OK? So we’re not sending him off to the Pro Bowl just yet, O’Brien said at NRG Stadium. But he’s able to learn and he’s got some instincts and he so far he seems like a good team guy. I’ve enjoyed being around him.
It’s Blue’s all-around game that will get him reps this year. Patrick Starr of StateoftheTexans.com put this tweet out confirming Blue’s skills:
Alfred Blue catches the football like a wide receiver. Easy to see why the offensive staff liked his skill set. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 17, 2014
Oh, and one more tweet from Starr, just in case you were wondering if Blue looked the part of an NFL stud or not:
I look for Blue to work his way up the depth chart in Houston quickly if he continues to do the things he has done so far. Being able to be effective in the run game and the pass game will be his best weapon. The talent behind Arian Foster at this point isn’t great, so the opportunity for Blue is excellent.
Zach Mettenberger, QB, Tennessee Titans
It came as no surprise that former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger fell to the sixth round of the draft. Any time a player is recovering from injury, his value is going to dip regardless of talent.
Nevertheless, for a team that is quarterback poor such as the Tennessee Titans, Mettenberger could be a real steal. Even while operating at less than 100 percent, Mettenberger has been able to showcase his strong arm at camp.
In Paul Kuharsky’s blog on ESPN.com, he mentions just how well Mettenberger threw it when the wind was an issue:
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the Titans’ sixth-round pick, still lacks strength in his surgically repaired knee and will throw better when’s he’s all the way back. Still, his throws cut easily through the crosswind in the first of three days of rookie minicamp practices.
For all the athleticism of a Jake Locker, this team needs a quarterback who can make all the NFL-caliber throws. Even early on, it seems that Mettenberger is that guy. When his new teammate, offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, was asked about Mettenberger, he kept it simple:
When we look back at this draft in five years, this pick might be the one that everyone points to. Mettenberger is a great talent and is on a team where he could really shine. Mettenberger’s former offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, echoed those sentiments in this interview with NOLA.com:
He couldn’t have landed in a better spot,” Cameron said. “If you looked at all 32 teams, and you say who really fits his personality, fits his style and appreciates what he brings to the table along with the need they have at quarterback both short-term and long-term, I think Tennessee is a good fit.”
“He’s innately accurate in critical situations, Cameron said. “He proved that last year on third down and in the red zone and NFL teams know they need that. Until they’re around him on a day-to-day basis and understand it, this guy really understands what ‘open’ means in the NFL in terms of separation.
Tyler Starr, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Back to the Atlanta Falcons for another potential late-round star. Former University of South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr has created significant buzz out of Atlanta so far. With the Falcons moving to a 3-4 defense, they must find players who can work as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Starr might just be that guy.
Starr displayed a great burst and excellent short-area quickness prior to the draft. That same high-energy style of play has been evident early on in his professional career as well.
Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com noted that Starr has been relentless in his work so far:
Outside linebacker Tyler Starr, the seventh-round pick from South Dakota, continued to display a relentless pass rush. And he did so out of a four-point stance. In college, I went to three-point stance when we went into nickel, and it really wasn't working for me here, Starr explained. One day, I just kind of started thinking the four-point, and it gave me a little more weight in the back of my hips so I could get a little more torque out of my stance. And it also helped me come out at more of a horizontal level so I could play with my hands out in front of me.
In a base 3-4, every team needs a player like Starr who is just flat-out disruptive on every snap. Look for Starr to continue to impress and earn more and more significant reps as the offseason progresses.
Not to mention, the kid has hair that would make Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews jealous. Digital content manager for the Atlanta Falcons Jay Adams captured Starr’s glorious locks and shared it with Twitter:
Bene Benwikere, CB, Carolina Panthers
One of the real late-round stars of the NFL offseason has been Carolina Panthers cornerback Bene Benwikere. The former San Jose State defensive back has come in as a fifth-round pick and acted like a first-rounder from the jump.
Panthers head coach Rob Rivera is a defensive mind, so when you get his praise early, as reported by ESPN.com’s David Newton, you have to take that seriously. With the nickel cornerback spot wide open, a great camp by Benwikere could easily cement that:
Rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere played nickel back. The coaching staff said he could step right into the competition with Godfrey for that spot. He looked up to the challenge with one interception and almost a second. When I asked coach Ron Rivera if there were any surprises so far, he couldn't get the name of the fifth-round pick from San Jose State out of his mouth fast enough.
Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer shared his observations on Benwikere as well on Twitter:
Two standouts for me at Panthers OTAs today: CB Bene' Benwikere (1 INT, 1 PBU) and WR Philly Brown. Both had a big impact— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) May 28, 2014
Before you dismiss the notion that Benwikere could play the nickel or even start this season, keep in mind the Panthers started undrafted Melvin White 10 games in 2013, and the Carolina pass defense was very good. Benwikere has the skill set to challenge for a spot and, once he has it, keep it.
Dakota Dozier, G, New York Jets
When the New York Jets drafted Furman offensive tackle Dakota Dozier with pick No. 137, it was assumed it would be part of a transition for the Furman product.
Even though Dozier had been an excellent tackle in college, it was a given that he’d be moving to either left or right guard. So far, things are going according to that plan, and Dozier seems to be doing well. In Darryl Slater’s piece on NJ.com, Dozier talked a little about his transition to this point:
Just trying to get any tips I can about playing inside, Dozier said. I know Brian is one year ahead of me, so it’s fresh in his mind, what it’s like to make that adjustment. I’m definitely going to use their knowledge to help me, for sure. Whether it’s during drills, I’m watching them. I’m listening to whatever they’re telling me. Whatever it is, I’m going to learn from them as much as I can.
Dozier may not be able to do enough to earn a starting spot this season over guard Brian Winters; however, there is nothing to say Dozier can’t use his combination of footwork and power to end up being the starting guard opposite of him.
If Jets fans want a little closer look at the kind of person Dozier is and his adjustment to the NFL, Furman public relations rep Dwight Covington posted this excellent video on his Twitter account:
As camps progress, look for Dozier to continue to make strides and impress coaches and teammates alike on his way to a starting spot.
Logan Thomas, QB, Arizona Cardinals
We finish this list with one of the most fascinating players from the entire 2014 NFL draft. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas is a puzzling prospect. Physically, he’s a terrifying prospect. At 6’6” and 248 pounds, with a howitzer for an arm and 4.61 40 speed, how does he fall to the end of the fourth round?
The answer is all about passion and consistency, traits that Thomas has lacked for the better part of the past two seasons. Nevertheless, the Arizona Cardinals recognized the potential in him and took a chance by drafting him.
And so far, it appears things are paying off, albeit slowly. However, he has flashed that dynamic skill that have so many enamored with his potential. In Vince Marotta’s piece on ArizonaSports.com, Thomas shared a little about how things are going being mentored by Carson Palmer:
I love learning from Carson, he’s such a great guy and he’s got a wealth of knowledge in his head, Thomas said. The more I can pick up on, the better. So when we’re here in the building, I’m pretty much trying to pick up everything that he does.
Once Thomas is able to clean up his footwork, shore up his upper/lower-body mechanics and just play hard every snap, he’s going to flourish in a Bruce Arians offense.
Fellow rookie defensive end Kareem Martin had high praise for Thomas and his future in the league. SiriusXM NFL Radio’s Twitter account shared this:
Thomas might not be winning a starting spot this year, but it sounds like he has definitely caught the eye of coaches and teammates.
Unless specified, all stats and combine results courtesy of NFL.com.
Curt Popejoy is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He also covers college football and the NFL draft.