Everyone who’s remotely interested in the 2018 NFL Draft is, by now, very familiar with the big-name players expected to be selected early on. But so often, it’s the young men who are picked up later on that end up making the biggest impact.
A common term used to describe such players is, “diamond in the rough.” And that’s the focus of this list. Which players will end up being steals? Which players will rise from relative obscurity to have tremendous NFL careers?
We have some ideas. These 20 players won’t be drafted early, but they could end up being shining stars.
Nyheim Hines, running back, N.C. State
There’s been a lot of emphasis on finding the next Alvin Kamara, and Hines has come up in some of those conversations. That’s not fair, really, especially since Hines isn’t the same kind of player — he lacks the lateral quickness and explosion Kamara features. That said, there aren’t many in this class who can match Hines when it comes to raw, game-changing speed, which is an invaluable weapon in the NFL.
Hines is a diminutive (5-foot-8, 198 pounds) track star who plays as fast as his 40 time (4.38 seconds) suggests, provided he’s running in a fairly straight line. He’s a home-run threat every single time he touches the ball. Given the right situation in the NFL, he could become a legitimate star, though it’s likely his role will always be somewhat limited due to his size.
Carlton Davis, cornerback, Auburn
Davis is likely going to be selected on Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft, but he has a really good chance to quickly develop into a superstar at the next level. Blessed with extraordinarily long arms to go along with excellent overall size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds), he’s an ideal fit for teams that utilize press coverage.
A very well balanced defensive back, Davis isn’t afraid to get dirty. He racked up 136 tackles in three years, adding four interceptions, 28 pass break-ups and three forced fumbles. His physicality and aggressive nature are huge assets, and he’ll shine in the right NFL system.
Braxton Berrios, receiver, Miami
Every time you turn on the tape to watch this young man, he makes spectacular plays (like this). Berrios has the skill set to become a high-volume target as a slot receiver in the NFL. He’s not a big guy (just 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds) but comes up big when the pressure is on. He’s an explosive playmaker in tight spaces and has a knack for coming up with tough catches.
Truly, Berrios is the type of player you’d expect the New England Patriots to target. He’s one of those tough, aggressive slot specialists who always attacks the ball and has sticky fingers. He’s going to become a quarterback’s best friend, wherever he lands.
Lorenzo Carter, EDGE, Georgia
A highly touted five-star prospect coming out of high school, Carter never really developed into a superstar at Georgia. In four seasons with the Bulldogs, he tallied just 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. None of this screams elite.
That said, Carter is one of those players who might actually blossom at the NFL level. He’s long and gangly, coming in at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, with a frame that is begging for more weight and muscle. Get him locked into an NFL weight-training regimen, build up his technique off the edge and he could become quite a nightmare with some time to develop. It’s highly likely that Carter will end up being selected in the middle of the draft, so he could end up becoming quite a steal in the long run.
Austin Corbett, offensive guard, Nevada
Corbett was a tackle throughout his tenure at Nevada, but he projects as a guard in the NFL. He lacks the length teams look for out on the edge, which is why he’s going to have to learn how to play inside going forward. People who study prospects for a living rave about how smart Corbett is, however, and there’s a chance he could even transition to center in the future, per Lance Zierlein of NFL.com.
So, we’re talking about a versatile player who could theoretically play all five positions on the line in a pinch. Those are very valuable assets for NFL teams. Corbett likely will end up being selected on Day 3 of the draft, so if he can develop his game and becomes a starter, he’ll end up being a tremendous value in the future.
Darius Leonard, outside linebacker, South Carolina State
When looking at small-school prospects who could become big-time NFL stars, Leonard is one of the players we have high hopes will succeed.
He was an absolute do-it-all stud for the Bulldogs of South Carolina State, earning MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2016. That year, he racked up 124 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, three pass break-ups, and four forced fumbles. He followed that up with 114 tackles (73 solo), 8.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions in 2017.
Leonard has exceptional athleticism and could develop into a star if he can add more strength and mass to his slight 6-foot-2, 213-pound frame.
Simmie Cobbs, wide receiver, Indiana
There’s a lot to like about Cobbs, who was very productive the past two seasons playing at Indiana, hauling in 132 passes for 1,876 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is a big receiver, coming in at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and has the ability to come down with some insane catches due to his wide catch radius.
The biggest issue teams will have with Cobbs is that he’s not very fast — 4.64-second official 40 time at the combine. And that comes through on tape, too. He’s not the kind of receiver who will be able to gain much separation from NFL cornerbacks based on speed alone, so he’ll need to improve his route-running skills and learn to fight through press coverage. But if he can improve in those areas, then Cobbs has a shot to become a dangerous red-zone weapon and security blanket possession receiver in the NFL.
Josh Sweat, EDGE, Florida State
In terms of pure athleticism and raw, untapped potential, Sweat is in a class all by himself in the 2018 NFL Draft class. His performance at the combine moved him from being just a guy into legendary territory, as he put on one of the best shows we’ve seen in ages (more on that here).
The problem is that none of that really translated to on-field production during Sweat’s tenure at Florida State. In three seasons, he managed just 14.5 sacks and 29 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, which is one year’s worth of production for elite players at the collegiate level. So, due to that, teams likely aren’t going to be throwing a first-round pick at this young man. But if he can figure out how to put it all together, then Sweat has the raw abilities to become an elite NFL pass rusher.
Tyler Conklin, tight end, Central Michigan
One of those former basketball players who converted to tight end, Conklin has a chance to become a very good, well-rounded player at the NFL level. He was highly productive for the Chippewas in 2016, catching 42 passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns. Then he suffered a very painful foot injury during the preseason before the 2017 campaign, only to fight through it and play in eight games, catching 35 passes for 504 yards and five scores.
Conklin is also a solid run blocker, and early in his NFL career he’ll be a core special teams player. He’ll likely be a late-round pick, so there’s a real chance for him to vastly outperform his draft slot as he continues to get better at this football thing.
Duke Ejiofor, EDGE, Wake Forest
Most of the top pass rushers that garner praise these days are quick and fast. Those aren’t qualities you’d use to describe Ejiofor, who is more powerful and plodding than he is a jackrabbit off the edge. Still, he was very productive at Wake Forest, racking up 24 sacks in four years, 17.5 of which occurred in his junior and senior campaigns when he became a full-time starter.
Teams looking for a run-stuffing edge defender who can utilize strength, rather than speed, to get to the passer, will key in on this young man. He’s likely going to be a Day 3 pick, so there’s obviously a chance to land a steal if he becomes a starter.
Dante Pettis, wide receiver, Washington
As someone who hails from the West Coast and has watched Pettis perform regularly the past few years at Washington, it’s crazy how underrated he is. His yardage and touchdown totals this past season were well down compared to 2016, but it’s important to note that Washington’s passing game in general was much worse. Even so, his two-year totals from 2016-17 amounted to 116 receptions for 1,583 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Even while not 100 percent healthy during his pro day recently, he posted a 40 time of 4.48 seconds, and based on tape he’s faster than that. The best thing about Pettis is that, quite aside from being an underrated receiver, he’s one of the most dangerous return men we’ve seen enter the NFL in a long time. He’ll be a fantastic steal as a late Day 2 pick.
Fred Warner, outside linebacker, BYU
In a year that features so many excellent linebackers, it’s only natural that some quality guys are going to end up dropping. Warner is one who likely will still be around when Day 3 starts, and he’s going to be an absolute steal if he lands in the right situation.
In three years as a starter for the Cougars, Warner was a ball magnet. Wherever it went, there he was. He utilizes excellent instincts and above-average athleticism to put himself into position for big plays, piling up 6.5 sacks, 32.5 tackles for a loss, seven interceptions, three forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns during his college career. He has ideal traits to become at the very least an outstanding nickel linebacker, if not an every-down starter.
Royce Freeman, running back, Oregon
In four seasons at Oregon, Freeman terrorized the Pac-12 on a regular basis. Despite missing games and struggling through an injury in 2016, he finished his collegiate career with 6,435 yards and 64 touchdowns — just absurd production. He’s a big back, at 5-foot-11 and 229 pounds, and has plenty of speed, burst and power to excel at the NFL level.
Had Freeman been able to stay healthy in 2016 and entered the draft in 2017, he might have been one of the top backs taken that year. It’s not his fault that this year’s draft happens to be absolutely stacked with starting-caliber running backs. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, though. And it’s going to make one lucky NFL team very happy, because Freeman has a real chance to become a dynamic starter and won’t be an early-round pick.
Deadrin Senat, defensive tackle, South Florida
Senat is a big ole bowling ball of a man who wrecks offensive lines with his squat, 6-foot, 314-pound frame. He’s ideally suited for teams that run a 4-3 defense and need a nose tackle who can clog up lanes with regularity.
Over the course of four seasons at South Florida, Senat, who originally was committed to Florida State, racked up 178 tackles, including 23.5 behind the line. That said, the past season he showed he’s more than capable of getting to the quarterback as well, earning six sacks. As a mid-round prospect, Senat has the potential to develop into quite the handful at the NFL level.
Equanimeous St. Brown, wide receiver, Notre Dame
It’s really not fair to judge St. Brown based on his stats the past two seasons at Notre Dame. From 2016-17, he caught 91 passes for 1,476 yards and 13 touchdowns. That’s not bad. But the Irish just haven’t had a passer who regularly distributes the ball. Like Will Fuller before him, he has a chance to become more dynamic at the pro level than he was at college.
St. Brown has an intriguing physique, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds with 33-inch arms. He’s long and lean, and he has the deep speed to break open downfield (like this). In fact, perhaps the biggest issue teams have with him is that he might be too smart — no, seriously.
Quenton Meeks, defensive back, Stanford
Okay, so it’s a bit overkill to compare Meeks to Richard Sherman. That said, like Sherman before him, this Stanford product is not getting a ton of love as a top cornerback this year, even though he has the chance to really be good at the next level.
The big issue is that Meeks isn’t particularly quick or fast. He’s more of a hands-on, press-cover guy who utilizes his size (6-foot-1 and 209 pounds) and technique to keep receivers in front of him. In three years for the Cardinal, he did quite well, starting 36 games while intercepting seven passes and scoring two touchdowns. Most analysts peg Meeks as a mid-to-late-round pick, and he very well could slide that far. Put him in a scheme that provides help over the top, however, and he’ll be really good.
Chris Herndon, tight end, Miami
One of those rare RAC (run after the catch) masters at the tight end position, Herndon is going to be a late-round steal. There are a lot of really good tight ends in this class, which pushes him down the board. Herndon is rehabbing an MCL injury as well, which will contribute to his draft slot, too. He also didn’t make a ton of plays in the passing game for the Hurricanes, though that’s partly due to the play at quarterback and the scheme they ran.
Blessed with really good size, at 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds, Herndon looks more like a receiver after the catch than a tight end of his size. He’s a player who also has the speed to stretch the field and put stress on linebackers in a major way.
Josey Jewell, linebacker, Iowa
We covered Jewell after he put together a somewhat disappointing combine. He’s just not very fast, though he does have the ability to quickly change direction, which is an asset to him. Still, his overall lack of athleticism makes him a throwback, and it’s going to push him down draft boards in a big way.
It’s a shame. Because anyone who watched Jewell play at Iowa the past four years knows he’s an incredible linebacker. Utilizing excellent instincts, along with the rare ability to diagnose plays and act on what he sees in the blink of an eye, he’s always around the ball. Don’t count him out as a guy who potentially becomes a long-term starter in this league.
Anthony Miller, wide receiver, Memphis
When you realize just how insanely productive Miller was at Memphis, it seems absurd that he’s not being mentioned among the top receivers in this year’s draft class. The past two seasons alone, he piled up 191 catches for 2,896 yards and an incredible 32 touchdowns.
Yet look around online, and most draft analysts peg him as a mid-round pick. We kind of get it. After all, Miller is only 5-foot-11 and 201 pounds. Yet that’s not much different size-wise than Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who many people think will go in the middle of the first round. Yeah, Miller is going to be an incredible steal for some lucky team that has a vision for how to utilize his skills.
Devron Davis, cornerback, UTSA
Everyone knows about one UTSA defender, Marcus Davenport, who’s opened so many eyes and is seen as a likely first-round pick this year. Not so many people know about his teammate, Devron Davis, who has a bright future ahead of him.
A former JUCO player who transferred to Texas-San Antonio ahead of the 2016 season, Davis played in 20 games for the Roadrunners, intercepting three passes (one for a touchdown) and breaking up 15 more. He has outstanding size, at 6-foot and 210 pounds, and 4.40-second speed. It’s not surprising that pro teams have started showing interest in Davis, and it’s likely he’ll end up being drafted early on Day 3.