Everyone who follows the draft has their prospect crushes; players who you seem to develop an unhealthy obsession with for whatever reason. The following (in no specific order) are just a few of mine. They’re not necessarily the players who I think will be the best steals of the draft or who are criminally underrated by scouts and the media – they’re just guys I’ve come to enjoy watching and would readily welcome on my team.
Barrett Jones, C/OG, Alabama (6-4, 306)
By far my favourite prospect in this year’s draft, despite his illustrious college career, Jones’ stock has been on the slide over the past few months, mainly due to offseason foot surgery, which has prevented him from partaking in any workouts, but also because of a perceived lack of ‘upside’. Nevertheless, Jones drew comparisons to hall of famer Bruce Matthews from Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his excellent fundamentals, versatility and intelligence should see him carve out a role for himself at the NFL-level. After all, this is a player who started three National Championship Games at all different positions, was a unanimous All-American in 2011 and 2012 and won both the William V. Campbell Trophy and Rimington Award last season.
Jones isn’t a flashy athlete by any means but he is technically sound and, whether starting at tackle, guard or center, he’s demonstrated time and time again he can perform against the very best in college football. Whether he ultimately goes on the second or even the third day of the draft, some team will be getting one hell of a lineman in Jones.
Khaled Holmes, C, USC (6-3, 302)
Like Jones, Holmes went into his senior season projected as a potential first round pick but has seen his stock drop considerably since. That fact can be partly chalked up to ankle injury, which caused him to miss USC’s game against Stanford and severely hampered him in several others, as the Trojan’s offensive line was noticeably substandard without their linchpin at full strength.
The brother-in-law of Troy Polamalu, Holmes isn’t the most athletic of centers but he is a smart, reliable lineman, who appears more than capable of moving outside to guard if necessary and could ultimately thrive in the league if drafted by a team which employs a heavy zone-blocking scheme. He likely won’t hear his name called until the third day of the draft now but any team which takes Holmes will no doubt be getting good value for their pick.
Lavar Edwards, DE, LSU (6-4, 277)
Playing behind Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery at LSU, Edwards was previously somewhat of an afterthought among draft circles but has increasingly established himself as a fine prospect in his own right. A solid all-round defensive end, with experience playing all across the line, the fact he earned his way onto the field over the more heralded Mingo and Montgomery at times last year speaks volumes about both his determination and ability. In a draft deep with pass rushers, Edwards has received little fanfare but, outside of the first two rounds, he’s arguably the best 4-3 end prospect available.
Wes Horton, DE/OLB, USC (6-5, 264)
A quality athlete at the defensive end position, Horton has been a solid contributor at USC since his freshman year but never quite enjoyed the breakout campaign that many anticipated him to have. A series of niggling injuries ruined the start of his 2012 season, though the son of former UCLA offensive tackle and American Gladiator Myke Horton did manage to bounce back in the second half to put together a respectable campaign of production. A heady and well-disciplined player, Horton does not stand out in any one aspect of his game and will likely never be a star but, as players such as Kroy Biermann have demonstrated, there is a niche in the NFL for someone with his skillset. He may be far from the top 50 player some projected him as before the start of the season but Horton is certainly well worth a late round selection to a team looking to add some pass rush production and special teams depth.
Gilbert Pena, DT, Ole Miss (6-2, 330)
Teams looking for a late round nose tackle prospect would do well to look at Pena as a prime option. An older prospect, at 26-years-of-age, Pena put his college dreams on hold after graduating from high school to help care for his mother who was battling thyroid cancer. He worked for four years, first as a cook and then as a manager in a plumbing and heating supply warehouse, before re-starting his football career at ASA Junior College in Brooklyn; impressing enough in his two seasons there to earn a transfer to Ole Miss for 2011.
Pena admitted that he had weight and condition problems his first year in Oxford but got himself back on track in 2012, even demonstrating a surprising burst of quickness and array of pass rush moves to go along with his run-stuffing expertise. Make no mistake, Pena’s never going to be one to consistently get into the backfield in the NFL and his snaps will obviously need to be managed carefully. However, as part of a defensive-line rotation he could certainly prove a nice piece, whether as the one-technique in a 4-3 or nose tackle or even defensive end in a 3-4, much like a poor man’s Star Lotulelei. Players of his size are always going to be in high demand and Pena should have plenty of potential suitors once the draft reaches its latter rounds.
Oday Aboushi, OT, Virginia (6-5, 308)
Once ranked alongside the likes of Lane Johnson and D.J. Fluker earlier in the year, Aboushi failed to truly establish himself at the Senior Bowl and subsequently tested poorly at the Combine, leading to doubts he can start at tackle at the next level. Now projected as more of a mid-round pick, most believe Aboushi would be better suited to move inside to guard in the NFL, despite having started on both sides of the offensive line at Virginia, primarily due to his struggles with speed rushers and counter moves. Though he could well prove to be a capable right tackle down the line, his strength, size and physicality to compensate for poor footwork should ultimately serve him better at guard to begin with and one can envisage him eventually becoming a versatile David Diehl-like lineman.
Sam Brenner, OG, Utah (6-2, 307)
A jack-of-all-trades lineman at Utah, Brenner started at left tackle for the majority of his senior season and, though he obviously lacks the length or base strength to start on the outside in the pros, his versatility should be an attractive quality to teams looking to add depth towards the end of the draft. Brenner is certainly not an exciting prospect but he’s an intelligent, hard-nosed player, who you wouldn’t be surprised to see starting in the league in the next few years.
Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford (6-3, 244)
If athleticism wasn’t such a huge factor in the draft, Thomas would undoubtedly be a first round pick. The redshirt senior’s draft stock has fluctuated wildly over the course of the past nine months and, though he had another year of phenomenal production (71 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) the fact he isn’t a naturally explosive athlete will ultimately end up costing him a place in the first round of the draft. In fact, Thomas could quite conceivably end up falling to the fourth round – something which seems quite ridiculous given the combination of production, strength and intelligence he brings to the playing field.
Sure, he lacks the all-out speed you look for in the ideal linebacker prospect, but Thomas is a disciplined and versatile defender, equally effective rushing the passer or holding the edge against the run, and capable of slotting in to a number of different roles in an NFL defense. Granted, his lack of elite athleticism may handicap his ceiling somewhat but, whether deployed as an outside linebacker in a 4-3, a pass rush specialist, or even inside in a 3-4, one certainly shouldn’t bet against Thomas enjoying success in the pros.
Reid Fragel, OT, Ohio State (6-8, 308)
A former highly touted tight end recruit, Fragel eventually outgrew the position to become the Buckeyes’ starting right tackle his senior year. He couldn’t compete at the Senior Bowl, due to an undisclosed injury, but impressed at the Combine and Ohio State’s pro day enough to ensure that he’ll likely be solid mid-round pick when all is said and done. Fragel also spent some time at left tackle in 2012 and some believe he could be groomed to eventually protect the blindside in the pros. He is evidently a much safer bet to succeed on the right however, à la Eric Winston; another former heavily recruited tight end-turned offensive tackle, who he has drawn the most comparisons to from analysts. Fragel is obviously still very raw and a bit of a project but he plays with good strength and intelligence for someone still learning the position and the upside is evident.
Montel Harris, RB, Temple (5-8, 208)
As the past few years have demonstrated, there always seem to be a few late round running backs that make people wonder how on earth they fell so far in the draft and Harris might just be next one to join that list. Despite starring for Boston College on the way to setting the school’s all-time rushing record, Harris was dismissed from the programme in May 2012 after several team violations. Forced to transfer to Temple, where he fortunately earned immediate eligibility, Harris proceeded to put up solid numbers for the Owls (186 carries for 1,054 yards and 12 touchdowns) but his draft stock had already been damaged by events at BC, a poor injury record and a lack of ideal speed and size for the position. Nevertheless, he’s one of those prospects who I just get a ‘feeling’ about.
Harris isn’t big, he isn’t fast but he just seems to have a knack for finding the hole and running between the tackles. A patient runner, who’s great at catching the ball out of the backfield, Harris would be a truly ideal fit for a heavy zone-blocking scheme and, were it not for the presence of Alfred Morris in Washington, you’d think him and Shanahan were a match made in heaven. The character and health concerns could well mean he goes undrafted in April but Harris should be able to play his way into a running back-by-committee situation in the preseason and, from there, go about making a case for his starting credentials.
Zeke Motta, SS, Notre Dame (6-2, 213)
Unfortunately, the abiding memory of Motta’s college career will be the National Championship game against Alabama, where he and Te’o, the two undisputed leaders of the defense, proceeded to miss tackle after tackle. It was a disappointing way to go out for a player who didn’t miss a game in his Notre Dame career and took on the role of the elder statesman of a young and inexperienced secondary in 2012 – a unit which surprised many with its level of performance.
With experience at both safety positions, Motta is a forceful run defender, who looks and plays like a hard-hitting linebacker. In fact, coming out of the high school as a four star recruit, that was the position he was originally recruited to play, before switching fulltime to safety during his sophomore year in 2010. Motta perhaps isn’t a true coverage safety, with the range to play a center field role, but he is an underrated athlete and with teams across the NFL searching for these hybrid defensive players for their increasingly common “Big Nickel” packages, he looks like he was born to fill that role. Motta certainly isn’t the player his former teammate Harrison Smith was coming out of college and will likely be a late round pick but, at worst, he should be a stellar special teams player, who any coach would love to have on their team.
Gavin Escobar, TE, San Diego State (6-6, 254)
Outside of Tyler Eifert, there are grounds for suggesting that Escobar is the best tight end prospect in this class. The San Diego State junior looks the part of today’s hybrid receiver/tight end and is a natural receiver, possessing the straight-line speed to challenge the seam, despite what his disappointing 40 time at the Combine may suggest. Escobar has one obvious area of weakness: his blocking, but if drafted by a team with a dynamic offense, where he can move around the formation and split out wide, he should emerge as a dangerous receiving weapon. With plenty of tight end-needy teams around the league, he looks like a top 100 pick.
Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State (6-3, 254)
Stoneburner is largely cut from the same cloth as Escobar; a versatile receiving tight end, who will be moved around the offense to exploit favourable matchups. A former wide receiver, Stoneburner isn’t as athletic as Escobar and likely won’t be selected until the third day of the draft but he has a strong enough overall package of receiving and blocking to contribute in the NFL. Urban Meyer’s comparisons of him to Aaron Hernandez do seem wildly exaggerated, especially after the unremarkable numbers he put up as a senior, though with more and more teams employing multiple tight end sets, there’s certainly a place for a player like him on a roster. It’s unlikely that Stonerburner ever develops into a certified NFL starter but, as a complementary piece to a number one tight end, you could see him being productive.
Brandon Kaufman, WR, Eastern Washington (6-5, 216)
One of the top small school receivers in the 2013 class, Kaufman surprised many by declaring for the draft after his junior year but that doesn’t mean the Eastern Washington receiver is ill-equipped for the next level. In 2012, he set the FCS single-season receiving yards record, recording 93 receptions for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also easing any concerns about the level of competition he faced, by averaging six receptions for 116 yards and scoring three touchdowns against BCS opponents Washington, Washington State and Nevada.
With fantastic size, deceptive build-up speed and consistent hands, Kaufman is a solid producer and his play is largely reminiscent of former Penn State receiver Joe Jurevicius. He should at least be a dangerous red zone threat in the NFL and could be the next tall, physical receiver to thrive in a slot role, much like those such as Marques Colston, David Nelson and Greg Little have done in the past few seasons. Some may well argue that Kaufman is overrated, due to his inflated numbers in EWU’s spread offense, but those people clearly haven’t seen him perform on the field – he more than merits a late round selection.
Zach Rogers, WR, Tennessee (6-0, 182)
Playing on the same offense as Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, it’s a given Rogers would be overlooked somewhat. The Tennessee receiver didn’t even receive an invite to the combine but has already visited with a number of teams during the pre-draft process and has been pegged by Mike Mayock as a late round sleeper. In typical ‘white wide receiver’ fashion, Rogers has been billed as slot receiver only in the pros, though that tag is in fact a fairly appropriate one, given his lack of size and strength. He is a reliable and efficient route runner however, who is quick in and out of his breaks and in fact looks faster on tape than fellow pigmentally-challenged receiver Ryan Swope.
Possessing consistent hands and enough straight-line speed to challenge deep, with Patterson emerging opposite Hunter in 2012, Rogers was highly effective working the middle of the field for Tennessee and some team will likely take a flier on him during the latter rounds of the draft. The question is however; will he be Kevin Curtis at the next level or just another Brett Swain-type, wallowing away on special teams at the bottom of the depth chart?