12 exciting 2014 NFL draft prospects hidden behind bigger names
The story goes that prior to the 2010 draft the Pittsburgh Steelers visited Central Michigan to scout QB Dan LeFevour, only to be wowed by wide receiver Antonio Brown. The Bears took a (poor) shot on LeFevour at No. 181 overall that year. Pittsburgh nabbed Brown, considered a fringe prospect, at No. 195.
Four years and 261 Brown receptions later, the Steelers' serendipitous trip to Mount Pleasant, Mich., has become somewhat legendary.
This type of good-fortune scouting happens all the time, be it for colleges recruiting high-school talent or NFL teams falling in love with a prospect after initially tracking his teammate. The latter also occurs for those of us who study the draft, as it did for The MMQB's Greg Bedard this week:
Watching Blake Bortles tape ... very impressed with RB Storm Johnson. I have no idea how he's viewed.
— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) March 17, 2014
Bedard's tweet set the wheels in motion for this list: a refresher course (and possibly an introduction, in some cases) on a dozen 2014 draft prospects who lived in the shadow of some high-profile teammates.
The star: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
The understudy: Kelcy Quarles, DT
Did Quarles benefit from lining up next to Clowney? Absolutely. The reverse is true as well, though. On this play, for example, Tennessee doubled Quarles with a lineman blocking down to seal him off, thus leaving Clowney wide open to make an emphatic tackle for loss.
"I do get tired of hearing it, but it is what it is," Quarles said at the combine of the perception that all of his success came because of Clowney's presence. "I feel like I was in the weight room working hard at 6:00 in the morning. I was out there at two-a-days running hoops so I could get to the quarterback.
"I’m glad he was out there and that things worked out the way that they did, but at the end of the day, I still had to beat my man to get there."
The stats are impressive, especially for an interior D-linemen: 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks during 2013. Because of that production and his size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds), Quarles could settle in as a Day 2 pick despite the general consensus that another year in school would have served him well. Quarles can be stalemated up front, but he found plenty of gaps created by attention to Clowney outside and created his own openings as well.
The star: Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
The understudy: Storm Johnson, RB
The man who launched this post idea, Johnson had been one of this draft class' more intriguing sleepers. Emphasis on "had been".
Spoke to teams at UCF's pro day. They believe RB Storm Johnson will be a steal for one #NFL team. Bigger than expected. They love his film
— Anwar Richardson (@AnwarRichardson) March 20, 2014
Johnson flanked Bortles with 1,139 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He also came out of the backfield to haul in 30 catches for three more scores, and that dual-threat success should serve him well as he carves out an NFL role.
Perhaps the main knock on Johnson right now is his carelessness with the football. NFL teams may feel, though, that is a part of his game they can improve rather easily. Johnson also showed the ability at UCF to shake off a miscue -- against Houston he fumbled early inside the Cougars' 10, then posted a career-high 127 yards.
The star: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
The understudy: Martavis Bryant, WR
Keep in mind as you watch this that Bryant is 6-4:
There aren't a ton of 6-4 receivers with the speed to beat a corner at the line and then blow past a helping safety.
That's where Bryant does his best work right now -- as a straight-line deep threat. Yet, his height and leaping ability make him dangerous in the red zone (he had seven TDs last season), and there is tons of room to grow as a route-runner. Watkins may be a top-five pick; Bryant, who clocked a 4.42 40 at the combine, should not make it out of Day 2.
The star: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
The understudy: Michael Schofield, OT
There is a huge gap between Lewan, who is one of the top three tackles in this draft, and Schofield, who held down the RT spot for Michigan's offensive line. That said, Schofield himself measured in above 6-6 and 301 pounds with 34-inch arms. Those numbers alone should buy Schofield some time as a developmental/swing tackle at the next level, though he also has experience playing guard, as he did at the Senior Bowl.
Dropping Schofield in as a rookie starter would be a mistake (especially if keeping a QB healthy is a goal), but he has an NFL future.
The star: Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
The understudy: Jordan Zumwalt, OLB, UCLA
"There is room on every team" for a guy like Zumwalt, UCLA head coach Jim Mora said at his team's recent pro day, per NFL.com. The 6-4 linebacker falls under that Chris Borland umbrella as someone who outperformed his physical gifts in college.
His teammate, Barr, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Barr may wind up a top-10 pick based extensively on the potential he has to grow as an edge-rusher. Zumwalt may already be close to maxed out. Even if that is the case, some team will land a charged-up special teams player who at least should be able to crack a depth chart at linebacker.
The stars: Louis Nix III, DT; Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The understudy: Prince Shembo, OLB
A rather disappointing 2013 season may cloud Shembo's prospects. After registering 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a junior, he dropped to 5.5 in both categories last year. But there is enough skill here for Shembo to catch the eye of a team running a 3-4, and he may be able to do more for a defense the less pass-rushing he's asked to accomplish. The reasoning there is that Shembo pursues the football and tackles well, so allowing him to flow freely may be the ticket.
To wit, on the play below Shembo is totally stymied by Purdue's OT on a pass rush but manages to reverse course and track a receiver several yards downfield:
The star: Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
The understudy: Eathyn Manumaleuana, DT
Late-round prospect here. The 6-2, 296-pound Manumaleuna will be 25 when he plays his first NFL game, which could scare away teams hoping to develop a young tackle. As is, the BYU product might be able to hold his own as a rotational lineman (4-3 DT, possibly 3-4 DE).
As is often the case with BYU products, Manumaleuna took a two-year break from playing football in 2008-09 for a Mormon mission.
His lack of pass-rush abilities could limit Manumaleuna to a two-down prospect. He had zero sacks last season.
The star: Timmy Jernigan, DT; Lamarcus Joyner, CB; Telvin Smith, LB/S
The understudy: Christian Jones, ILB
Add Terrence Brooks in there, too, and it feels as though every Florida State defensive prospect but Jones has had a few moments in the pre-draft limelight so far. Overlooking Jones, a versatile 6-3 linebacker, might be a huge mistake. He can cover, he can get to the football and he played several different spots on Florida State's defense throughout his career. Jones could have declared for the 2013 draft and found a home somewhere.
The star: Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
The understudy: Ja'Wuan James, OT
Considering that James could be a Day 2 selection and may even come off the board before Richardson, he is a borderline inclusion on this list. James is a four-year starter in the SEC (a fact that never hurts among scouts) and more than held his own in that role. Should he land on a team that likes to air it out, James could be a Week 1 starter -- he's a beast in pass protection, less so grinding on run plays.
The star: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
The understudy: Antone Exum, CB
Fuller could climb as high as the first round now that he's proven he is healthy. Exum's ceiling is not nearly as high, mainly because it has been so long since he has been at 100 percent. He was sensational as a junior for the Hokies, picking off five passes. Last season, as a senior, he missed most of the year after injuring his knee in January.
Should he ever find his old football self again, Exum could have a long NFL career -- doubly so because he has experience playing safety, so he will interest NFL teams as a multi-positional player. Tyrann Mathieu's a very recent example of someone who excelled as a rookie jumping back and forth from cornerback to safety.
The stars: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn; Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
The understudy: Jay Prosch, FB; J.C. Copeland, FB
"Jay is the No. 1 fullback coming out this year," Mason said at the combine. "I'm surprised he isn't here."
The fullback position continues to fight off extinction, with a couple pass-heavy teams like Detroit even adding a player there this offseason after ignoring the spot in recent seasons. Copeland is a big dude at more than 270 pounds, perhaps ideal for a short-yardage, Vonta Leach-type fullback role.
Prosch brings a bit more John Kuhn to the table as a fullback who blocks as well as any prospect here plus can contribute on special teams or as a check-down option in the passing attack.
Both guys will be taken well after their more explosive teammates (Copeland also has WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry ahead of him), but they should find homes somewhere. FARRAR: NFL teams in need of QBs now turn to draft for solutions