The new wave of superstars typically arrives in Round 1 of the NFL draft, but a team's long-term success often depends on uncovering regular contributors in the later rounds. If a team can't land the top prospect at its positions of greatest need, there's still value in sorting through the less glamorous options to find flashes of the talent that's already come off the board.
With that in mind, here are 10 comparable players teams should consider as backup plans once the more heralded choices have heard their names called:
Round 1 option: Leonard Williams, DT, USC
Backup plan: Bobby Richardson, DT, Indiana
Ideally, if a team adds a starter like Williams, it would prefer to have a Richardson-type on the roster as well. Richardson offers a lot of the same versatility as Williams—if not the potentially dominant impact—so he might do his best work spelling a starter at various spots. Richardson spent time at defensive tackle for Indiana, then slid out to defensive end in what was mostly a 3-4 front.
The 6'2", 283-pound Richardson matched Williams for the longest arms among the D-line group at the combine (34 5/8 inches) and no player there topped his 11-inch hands. Richardson is long and athletic, and has the get-off to disrupt plays in the backfield, just as Williams does on a consistent basis.
Round 1 option: Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Backup plan: Ibraheim Campbell, S, Northwestern
Some of the "backup plan" choices here are viable rotational players and potential starters. Others are long shots. Campbell falls into the latter category. But the four-year starter at Northwestern earned a few extra looks during Senior Bowl week, and he could sneak up the board in what's perceived as a weak safety class.
Campbell averaged just shy of 88 tackles over his first three college seasons, while adding seven interceptions. As those numbers indicate, he, like Collins, does his best work pulled up close to the line.
"I’ve been hearing good things," Campbell said at the combine about the feedback he'd gotten from NFL teams. "They like my physicality, the way I come downhill."
Round 1 option: Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
Backup plan: Joey Mbu, DT, Houston
Mbu checked in 26 pounds lighter than Shelton at the combine: 313 pounds to Shelton's 339. (At 6'4" and 338 pounds, UCLA's Ellis McCarthy was closest to Shelton's measurements.) Mbu still engulfs huge chunks of the screen on Houston's game tapes, possessing the lower-body size to deal with multiple blockers but also the quickness to penetrate into the backfield.
He caught the eye of SI's Doug Farrar a couple months back:
Re-watching lesser-known draft prospects, and Houston DT Joey Mbu stands out. Great strength, good speed, shoots gaps, splits double teams.— Doug Farrar (@BR_DougFarrar) February 16, 2015
Mbu has a future as an NFL nose tackle, either in a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
Round 1 option: DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
Backup plan: Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary
Parker's dominance in the air is arguably the most impressive aspect of his game, and McBride follows suit. Despite standing just six feet tall, two inches shorter than Parker, McBride displays an uncanny ability to adjust to the football in the air—his 64-catch senior year is dotted with incredible highlight-reel plays. He's also intelligent enough to find openings in the defense, then pick up yards after the catch.
McBride offers bonus value as a return man. He was the CAA Special Teams Player of the Year in 2013 and compiled more than 1,200 yards on kick returns during his career.
Round 1 option: Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson
Backup plan: Davis Tull, DE/OLB, Chattanooga
Beasley was tabbed a combine star after posting a 4.53-second 40, a 41-inch vertical and a 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump. Tull's numbers in those events, respectively, spread over the combine and his pro day: 4.57, 42.5 and 11 feet. Tull does not have the play-to-play explosiveness that Beasley features—the Clemson product might stand alone in that category this year—but he does bring comparable athletic traits to the table. Tull finished his college career with 37 sacks and 60 tackles for loss.
He walked on at Chattanooga after suffering a broken leg as a high school senior. There, he transitioned to defensive end, but his size (6'2", 246) will force a move to a pass-rushing outside linebacker role at the next level. Labrum surgery in March, the broken leg and a 2013 sports hernia slap some medical red flags on Tull's resume. If he stays on the field, he could be a productive Day 3 find.
Round 1 option: Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota
Backup plan: Wes Saxton, TE, South Alabama
The scouting report right now on Williams, the draft's top tight end, is that he can serve as dangerous downfield weapon, can be moved around an offense's formations and must continue to develop as a blocker. The 6'4", 235-pound Saxton is even more raw as an all-around prospect but provides similar intrigue as a pass-catching tight end. His times in the 40 (4.65) and three-cone drill (7.29) both ranked second among tight ends at the combine.
South Alabama simply did not ask him to block all that much, instead opting to use him in more of an H-back role. Williams, on the other hand, saw ample snaps as an inline blocker for the run-heavy Gophers' offense.
Round 1 option: Brandon Scherff, G/T, Iowa
Backup plan: Jeremiah Poutasi, G/T, Utah
Poutasi spent one year as the Utes' starting right tackle and then two on the left side, but at a bulky 6'5" and 335 pounds, he might project best as an NFL guard. Much of that matches the vibe surrounding Scherff, a three-year starter at left tackle who could be drafted in the top 15 and asked to play inside.
"I played left tackle at Utah, but ... I feel more comfortable at guard," Poutasi said at the combine. "I feel like I’m a versatile player. I can play anywhere on the line but center."
Poutasi's drive forward in the run game is best suited for the shift to guard; his lack of quickness dropping in pass protection makes it almost impossible to see him continuing on as a left tackle. He opted to turn pro despite receiving a "stay in school" designation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board (underclassmen who request feedback are given either first-round, second-round or stay-in-school projections). The decision to enter the draft might pay off if he lands with a team willing to be patient as Poutasi settles in as an interior lineman.
Round 1 option: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Backup plan: Craig Mager, CB, Texas State
Perhaps the closest that Mager's game gets to Waynes's is against the run. Mager matches his Michigan State counterpart in both the tackling ability to bring down ball carriers and the desire to get a little dirty on non-passing plays. If nothing else, Mager will make his case for an NFL roster spot via special teams this summer—he shows the tenacity teams crave on their coverage units.
As was the case with Waynes, Mager produced a faster 40 time at the combine (4.44 seconds) than people expected from him. He does not always show that speed when closing on the football, but he can turn and run with receivers. Transitioning some of his run-defense physicality over to press coverage would allow the 5'11", 201-pound Mager to close in on a permanent pro job.
Round 1 option: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Backup plan: Zach Zenner, RB, South Dakota State
When he had an opportunity to take on FBS competition, Zenner did not let it go to waste. He rushed for 183 yards against Kansas in 2012, torched Nebraska for 202 yards and two touchdowns the following year, then opened his senior season by posting 144 total yards and another pair of touchdowns against Missouri. All told, Zenner racked up 2,019 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns as a senior.
Because of those accomplishments, Zenner is among the players carrying the small-school banner into the draft. Zenner's name has stayed tucked behind the likes of Gordon, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, T.J. Yeldon and several other first- or second-day prospects. Once the mid-rounds roll around, Zenner will approach the top of some boards.
While he is not nearly the electrifying performer that Gordon can be, Zenner can break away—his Kansas performance was bolstered by a 99-yard touchdown run. Zenner and Gordon will appeal to teams featuring one-cut running games, though both are willing (sometimes to a fault) to stretch a play outside looking for space.
Round 1 option: Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami
Backup plan: Jeff Luc, LB, Cincinnati
Luc did not receive a combine invite, which is a shame for anyone who saw him flying around at the Senior Bowl. He weighed in at 263 pounds there, and his stout 5'11" frame looked every bit of it. Luc carries the size well, frequently showing the range during that week of practices to stick with running backs and tight ends.
But his real selling point, like Perryman, is in how he charges downhill against the run. Luc punishes any blockers who try to attack him on the second level, using his power to fend them off and maintain his path to the football. Cincinnati credited him with 134 tackles last season, plus 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
How sturdy is Luc? Both the NFL Network's Lance Zeirlein and CBS draft guru Dane Brugler suggest a possible move to fullback. Should he stay put at linebacker, Luc should be able to earn some shots as a special teams dynamo and a two-down hammer.