2014 NFL Draft: Garrett Gilbert, Shaq Evans lead list of sleepers on offense
Any general manager worth his salt will tell you that an NFL personnel executive's salary is earned in the second and third days of the draft. Anyone can throw a dart and hit pretty well in the first round (at least generally), but to add key players to your roster in the later rounds, it takes a keen set of scouting eyes, an understanding of how to weld talent to your scheme, and the ability to bypass any biases to find the best prospects on a no-matter-what basis.
The 2014 draft class has its own array of players who, for various reasons, will likely find themselves going off the boards when the overall selection process has hit three digits. That doesn't mean that they won't succeed; just that the right opportunity will have to match their own desires to transcend their current limitations. It happens all the time; and it could happen to some of the names on this list, as well.
QB Garrett Gilbert, SMU
The former five-star recruit and son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert came into his own in 2013, reducing his interceptions and increasing his efficiency. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the Cowboys have expressed interest in Gilbert. At times, he reminds me of Tony Romo in the ways he will escape pressure and make plays through improvisation. However, he's also similar to Romo in that he will have some very weird throws that lead to less than positive results. A developmental prospect with a lot of very raw talent. Sidearm delivery could be an issue over time.
QB Bryn Renner, North Carolina
A shoulder injury stopped his 2013 season seven games in, but there is still enough juice around his junior season, when he threw for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and just seven picks. Renner has a decent enough arm, but his expertise with short and intermediate passes is what looks best on tape. He has a good sense of the field when he's in the pocket, and he'll occasionally cork one off that makes you wonder if his arm could be developed into something special over time in an NFL conditioning program. My primary issue with Renner is that he's frantic under pressure a lot of the time -- he needs to slow down and avoid mistakes. He threw five picks to just 10 touchdowns in 2013.
QB Keith Wenning, Ball State
Wenning threw for over 11,000 yards through his four seasons with the Cardinals, and led the MAC in every significant passing stat in 2013. At 6-3 and 218 pounds, he fits the physical profile many NFL teams prefer. If you're looking for a touch and timing thrower who tends to be mistake-proof. Wenning may be your man. He's a little slow to get rolling in the pocket, which could be a problem, but I like the way he throws when he has time to set his feet -- especially on deeper passes that require air under them.
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, Coastal Carolina
A second-team FCS All-America in 2013, Taliaferro rushed for 1,678 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The thing I may like best about Taliaferro's game is his blocking -- even if he misses the initial punch, he'll effort his way back into the play. And, he'll occasionally just lay an opponent right out. That will keep him on the field more often in the NFL. As a runner, Taliaferro doesn't display optimal cut speed -- but he is a patient runner who will beat people up at the second level. You'd like to see more pure power at the line of scrimmage for his size, though.
RB Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern
As it is with some smaller-school prospects, McKinnon was all over the place through his collegiate career -- quarterback, halfback, fullback, defensive back and kick returner. At 5-9 and 209 pounds, and with a 4.37 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, McKinnon is a fascinating athlete who, while classified as a running back, played at H-back depth in college a lot of the time. He can be potentially devastating as a sweep runner, and he's an outstanding blocker. His NFL position is yet to be defined, but some creative coaching staff could take McKinnon and mold him into something special over the long haul.
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WR Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State
Those who saw Janis do surprisingly well during Senior Bowl week and went back to his college tape saw a player with impressive speed for his size (6-3, 219). He caught 83 passes for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, following up a junior campaign in which he ranked second in the nation with 106 receptions and led all DII players with 1,635 receiving yards, adding 17 touchdowns. Strength of opponent is going to be a concern when projecting Janis' NFL future, and he needs some route development, but I think he could have a Jordy Nelson-style impact over time as a speed seam and slot receiver.
WR Bruce Ellington, South Carolina
Put simply, Ellington is one of my favorite sub-elite receivers in this draft class, and I'm not sure why more people aren't talking about him. He caught 89 passes for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns in his last two years against SEC defenses, and he was Connor Shaw’s main target in Shaw’s 24-touchdown, one-pick season in 2013. The tape on Ellington shows a player with outstanding field speed, the ability to get open in short spaces, and a lot of toughness for his size (5-9, 197). He's unafraid to make catches in traffic from the slot or outside. Ellington will need time to grasp the full route tree he didn't run in college, but he could make an instant impact as a return man and situational receiver.
WR Devin Street, Pitt
With all the hype surrounding Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, you'd think there would be a little more love for Street, who caught 51 of his passes for 854 yards and seven touchdowns. Street leaves school as the Panthers' all-time leading receiver. He's a big target without the top-end speed to burn cornerbacks on vertical routes, but he can win jump-ball battles and he's durable and consistent. He'd be a valuable addition to any NFL team with a high percentage of multi-receiver sets, especially concepts that place larger receivers in the slot to gain formation advantages against nickel and dime defenses.
WR Shaq Evans, UCLA
While defense defined the Bruins in 2013, the match of quarterback Brent Hundley and receiver Shaquelle Evans was also fairly remarkable at times. He transferred from Notre Dame after the 2009 season, and caught 107 passes for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last two seasons for UCLA. Built a bit like a tailback at 6-1 and 203 pounds, Evans reminds me a bit of Golden Tate when he came out of Notre Dame -- both as an enticing pure athlete, and as a player who needs some development. He has a good embryonic sense of how to get open, but he's not a reliable target at all times.
TE Blake Annen, Cincinnati
Annen's stats won't blow anyone out of the water -- his career "highs" came in 2013 with 16 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns. But in the right system, I could see Annen becoming the kind of old-school tight end that still has a place in the NFL. He's a great blocker, whether inline or flared out, and he releases quickly at the snap.
OT Billy Turner, North Dakota State
As the Bison throttled the FCS with three straight national titles, and stunned Kansas State in perhaps the most memorable college football game of the 2013 season, Turner's game tape got better and better. He possesses a great combination of strength and agility at 6-5 and 315 pounds. He turns the corner in pass protection with a nice kick-slide, keeps defenders at bay with upper-body power and hand moves, and could improve greatly as a drive blocker with a bit more lower-body muscle. Could be a surprise second-day pick, and if he isn't, some team's going to get a steal.
OT Kevin Pamphile, Purdue
More a basketball player in high school, Pamphile gained traction after one year as a defensive lineman, and was recruited to Purdue on that side of the ball. But he moved to the offensive side in 2011, making nine starts at left tackle for the Boilermakers in 2013. As such, Pamphile will need some developmental work, but he already has the functional strength to assert himself as a drive blocker in the run game, and his pass protection instincts are surprisingly well-developed. He could be a late-round pick and practice squad candidate who could turn into a starter with time and coaching.
OT/OG Charles Leno, Jr., Boise State
Notre Dame's Zack Martin is the best tackle-to-guard prospect in this draft class, but it's hard not to like Leno as a third-day possibility in the same way. At 6-4 and 303 pounds, Leno looks great in a straight line, but tends to lose traction when asked to move in an arc outside in pass protection. That's why some NFL teams are looking for him to put on a few pounds and possibly move inside.
OG Trai Turner, LSU
In his first season as a true starter, Turner turned into a real force for the Tigers at right guard, taking on the best the SEC had to offer. And in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa, he registered a season-high 10 knockdown blocks as his team ran for 220 yards. What I love about Turner is that he's a straight-up, ass-kicking mauler in the run game -- he drives right through defenders when his technique is right, and he's pretty devastating at the second level. He's a bit unrefined when it comes to pulling and trapping, and it would take some time to put him in a zone scheme, but I don't think there's anything Turner couldn't do if given patience.