Some NFL draft prospects are being hyped to the point of ridiculousness as the annual event draws near. Others are flying under the radar but deserve more hype than they’re getting.
It’s that latter group we’re focusing on today. Which players have the potential to become veritable superstars but aren’t being mentioned in the same breath as their peers? Which prospects will end up being pleasant surprises after falling in the draft?
The following 20 young men fit that mold, and they deserve a bit more respect than they’re getting on a national level.
Isaiah Oliver, cornerback, Colorado
Most casual fans likely have no clue who Oliver is, due to the fact he played for the Buffaloes. But it shouldn’t take him long once he’s in the NFL to change all that. A big, long corner (6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, with a wingspan of 80 5/8 inches — longest of any corner since 2015), he combines that size with excellent speed (4.5 second 40), soft hands and an aggressive mentality. Pac-12 quarterbacks quickly learned to throw elsewhere going up against this young man, who still managed to intercept three passes and break up 19 more the past two seasons at Colorado. Likely a Day 2 pick, he’s going to be a steal, and he could be a starter by the time the 2018 season begins.
Will Hernandez, offensive guard, UTEP
It wouldn’t be surprising if Hernandez ends up being the third guard selected in the draft behind Notre Dame product Quenton Nelson (a top-10 pick) and Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia. But by the time it’s all said and done, this mammoth road-grader could end up being a perennial All-Pro and the best of the bunch. A huge man, at 6-foot-2 and roughly 350 pounds, he hits like a Mack truck and is more agile than you’d expect from a man his size. Think Mike Iupati in his prime — that’s what you’re going to get with this Conference-USA star, who absolutely dominated during Senior Bowl week going up against top competition.
Rasheem Green, defensive line, USC
Green projects as a defensive end and is scheme diverse, meaning he could play in a 3-4 or 4-3 due to his size/strength/speed combination. He could be a better pro than he was a collegiate player. He really came on strong last year as a junior for the Trojans, racking up 10 sacks and 12.5 tackles behind the line, so that’s saying something. A raw player with a ton of upside, Green will benefit from being inserted into a group that includes tenured veterans who can show him the ropes. If he had stayed in school another year, it’s possible Green could have been a top-10 prospect in 2019. As it is now, he’ll likely be a Day 2 pick and could end up being a steal because of it.
Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle, Western Michigan
One of the guys who was being mocked late in the first round by some last year, Okorafor’s national stature has shrunk in recent months. At this point, he’s generally being viewed as a mid-round prospect, with the caveat that he has first-round potential. Because his family immigrated from Botswana in 2010, Okorafor got a late start learning the game. But he has all the size (6-foot-6 and 330 pounds) you want from a left tackle, and he possesses outstanding raw athleticism. Plug him into an NFL program and let him develop. In a year or two, Okorafor could become a dominant left tackle for years to come.
Harrison Phillips, defensive tackle, Stanford
All Phillips does is make plays in the trenches. The past year at Stanford, playing defensive tackle, he led the Cardinal with 103 tackles, including 17 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He has some issues that need to be addressed, but this burly dude (6-foot-4 and about 310 pounds) has the physique and demeanor — he’s a former wrestling champ — to become a darn good interior lineman at the NFL level. Because this draft is so deep at defensive tackle, Phillips could slide to the tail end of Day 2 or even to Day 3. That makes him a prime candidate to be one of the biggest steals this year.
Nick Chubb, running back, Georgia
It’s a shame that Chubb has a bit of a red flag on his resume in the form of a knee injury. Before shredding his left knee in 2015, Chubb looked like a lock as a future first-round pick. Now this year, it’s his teammate, Sony Michel, who has all the hype. Chubb, on the other hand, is seen by some as a firm Day 2 player who could be limited at the NFL level as a two-down back. That’s a darn shame. Because Chubb has all the tools to succeed long term in the NFL, and quite honestly he could become the next Frank Gore.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, EDGE, Oklahoma
Another player like Okorafor who has seen his stock slip throughout the pre-draft process, Okoronkwo is an undersized prospect who could develop into a ferocious situational pass rusher at the next level. One of the reasons he’s taken a nosedive recently is that Okoronwko isn’t an elite raw athlete like some of the other top pass rushers teams covet so much. But his production speaks for itself — 29 tackles for a loss and 17 sacks the past two years at Oklahoma. He’s more powerful than fast, but if his job is solely to rush the passer off the edge he’ll thrive in the NFL.
Mike Gesicki, tight end, Penn State
It’s pretty strange to me that Gesicki isn’t heralded as the premier pass-catching tight end of this year’s draft class. No offense intended to the likes of Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews or Dallas Goedert, but none of them hold a candle to Gesicki in terms of being a matchup nightmare. And in today’s NFL, players who can create havoc in this way are what tips the scales. Gesicki put up testing numbers at the combine that we haven’t seen since Vernon Davis. Even better, he was productive at Penn State, hauling in 105 passes for 1,242 yards and 14 touchdowns (including nine last year) the past two seasons. This kid’s arrow is pointing up in a big way, and he’s the first tight end I’d pick in the draft.
Shaquem Griffin, outside linebacker, UCF
As much as we’d all love to see Griffin drafted in the first couple of days, it’s not likely to happen. More likely, he’ll be selected somewhere in Round 4 or later. And the only reason this is going to happen is that he has just one hand. That’s a shame. Every other thing — from his college production (166 tackles, 33 tackles for a loss and 18.5 sacks the past two years), to his insane testing numbers at the combine, to his never-give-up attitude — screams top-tier talent. But because of his disability, which hasn’t stopped him from performing at an extremely high level, he’s going to be underdrafted.
D.J. Moore, wide receiver, Maryland
For my money, there’s no receiver better suited to take the NFL by storm as a rookie than Moore. He’s an absolute devil with the ball in his hands and will become a RAC (run after the catch) specialist in no time flat as a professional. For fans of advanced metrics, Moore’s SPARQ score tested in the 97th percentile of NFL receivers. He also caught 80 passes to set a school record while going for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns last year, despite some serious quarterback issues at Maryland. Moore has decent size, at 6-foot and 210 pounds, and is just as fast as Calvin Ridley, slated by many to be the first receiver taken. No offense intended to Ridley, but I’d take Moore before the Alabama product 10 times out of 10 and never think twice about it.
Joe Ostman, EDGE, Central Michigan
Ostman is hardly the first guy who dominated in a small pond to have his pro potential questioned. And he’ll not be the last. A young man who gives maximum effort on every single play, he’s seen as a guy that will have to earn playing time on special teams and likely will be selected at the tail end of the draft. The reason for this is that Ostman isn’t an elite athlete and has a somewhat limited skill set as a pass rusher. But this is a player who has the size to be effective off the edge, and who is absolutely determined to succeed. I’m not counting him out to be highly productive as a pro at some point.
Dante Pettis, wide receiver, Washington
A smaller receiver who plays huge, Pettis (6-foot, 190 pounds) has all the tools to become an instant-impact player, if only for his game-breaking abilities as a punt returner. No player in NCAA history has more punt returns for touchdowns than Pettis, who utilizes incredible vision, instincts and quickness to weave his way through traffic. This also translates into big plays after the catch as a pure receiver. This year’s draft class is absolutely stacked with receivers, many of whom have better size and pure speed. So Pettis is likely going to be drafted late in Round 2 or in Round 3, where he’ll be an absolute steal.
Duke Dawson, cornerback, Florida
Dawson earned first-team All-SEC honors last season, which was the first in which he was a full-time starter for Florida. He’s a well-built young man who plays taller than his 5-foot-10 frame, and he has a knack for making plays on the ball even when it looks like he’s beat. Dawson is also adept at converting interceptions into touchdowns — three scores on six picks — and is able to play anywhere in the secondary in a pinch. He’ll be perfectly suited as a press corner and should earn playing time early in his career.
Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, SMU
Sutton gets knocked as a “possession receiver” because he doesn’t run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. But he proved he’s not exactly slow at the combine, posting a very respectable time of 4.54 seconds. And man, this kid really makes plays when the ball is in the air. Blessed with tremendous length, he has a very wide catch radius and makes some tough catches look easy. The past two seasons with the Mustangs, all he did was haul in 144 passes for 2,331 yards and 22 touchdowns. So he clearly has the ability to produce, in addition to his outstanding physical attributes.
Jessie Bates, safety, Wake Forest
A two-year starter for the Demon Deacons, Bates is an impressive defensive back who has the potential to develop into a ball-hawking center fielder at the NFL level. This is a very instinctive safety who also has a knack for making offenses pay for mistakes, having returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2016. An injury caused him to take a step back in 2017, and size isn’t his greatest asset (just 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds). But he’s an excellent cover man with good speed and smarts, and those are very valuable at the professional level.
Kalen Ballage, running back, ASU
There are so many excellent running backs entering the NFL this year. So with that in mind it’s hardly surprising that a player like Ballage, who didn’t play all that much at college (just 450 carries in four years), gets pushed down the board. He’s likely going to be selected early on Day 3, but we’ve seen all too often that draft position matters little when it comes to running backs. Ballage is a big back at 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds who runs with some impressive speed (4.46 second 40) and can make plays in the passing game. He’s not the best between-the-tackles runner, but get him out in space and he’s magnificent.
Micah Kiser, inside linebacker, Virginia
In a year that features the likes of Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds — athletic freaks, both — it’s not surprising that Kiser isn’t getting much national love. That said, nobody should fall asleep on this kid. After all, he managed to consistently produce at an insanely high level during his tenure at Virginia, racking up 393 tackles, 33.5 for a loss, 19 sacks, one interception and eight forced fumbles the past three seasons. Kiser isn’t particularly big (6-foot-2 and 240 pounds) or fast (4.66 second 40), but he always find a way to the ball and makes big plays when he arrives.
Royce Freeman, running back, Oregon
One of the most underrated players at any position in this year’s draft, Freeman has NFL starter written all over him. This is a young man who combines outstanding size (5-foot-11 and 234 pounds) with better-than-average speed (4.54 second 40) and is a three-down back. Meaning, he can make plays in the passing game and protect the quarterback (though of course he can improve here, too). Freeman was banged up for much of his last two seasons but still managed to pile up 6,435 yards and 64 touchdowns from scrimmage at Oregon. Put him behind a solid offensive line and let him work. You won’t be disappointed.
Jerome Baker, outside linebacker, Ohio State
Baker fits the mold of the new breed of weakside linebacker. He’s very fast and moves smoothly, even if he is a bit undersized at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. His ability to flow from sideline to sideline, and his ability to make plays in the passing game, make him a perfect fit for teams that run a 4-3 defense. He’ll chase down runners from the backside and break up passes underneath, filling up the stat sheet by flying to the ball all over the field.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville
Of course we couldn’t run this and not include Jackson, who has been disrespected perhaps more than any other prospect in the draft not named Shaquem Griffin. Should he switch positions and become a wide receiver? Is he smart enough to run an NFL offense?
Jackson isn’t too short, too slender or too dumb to play quarterback at the NFL level. He has plenty of all the traits (and an overabundance of some) one needs to succeed as a professional. In truth he could have the same kind of impact of Michael Vick or Cam Newton to transform an offense, and how people perceive what is possible in this league.