Garrett Grayson and David Johnson are among prospects who have impressed ahead of the NFL draft, yet remain under the radar.
When it comes to underrated draft prospects, we could be talking about late-round, small-school guys who might have a shot at the NFL despite their limitations, or we could filter that designation to feature players who have done great things for bigger schools without receiving the recognition they deserve. My All-Underrated Team for the 2015 draft class is a bit of both—based on the players who have impressed me the most without as much prominence as I would like to see.
Quarterback: Garrett Grayson, Colorado State
Grayson generally fills out the top five in any discussion of quarterback prospects in this draft class, along with Baylor's Bryce Petty and UCLA's Brett Hundley. Some prefer Petty for his arm strength or Hundley for his athleticism, but I'll take Grayson at that secondary spot. He's already shown success with many of the things he'll be required to do at the next level—he's comfortable in the pocket, he processes multiple reads consistently, he'll look off the safety and he's a better deep passer than his supposedly limited upside would suggest. Per Pro Football Focus, Grayson completed 33 of 72 passes over 20 yards in the air for 1237 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2014. I think he'll go in the middle rounds, but he has the potential to be a starter in the long term.
Running Back: David Johnson, Northern Iowa
Johnson is a very interesting player. At 6'1" and 224 pounds, he doesn't fit the modern running back prototype, and he might be seen as more of an H-back prospect. The Northern Iowa product runs with surprising speed and agility, and he can add estimable receiving skills to his palette. Johnson washed away a lot of strength of competition concerns with a great week at the Senior Bowl, and he blew it up at the combine with a 4.5 40-yard dash and a 41.5-inch vertical jump. Ideally, he'll be drafted by a team with a creative offensive coordinator who realizes his multi-positional potential.
Wide Receiver: Tre McBride, William & Mary/Nelson Agholor, USC
McBride will be driven down to the middle rounds by the small-school bias and the fact that this receiver class is so deep, but the tape shows that he's got legit NFL-level talent. He's solidly built with decent speed and a lot of toughness after the catch. And he's a great return man, which gives him an advantage when his NFL team looks to get to final cuts and special-teamers are given more value.
As for Agholor... it's not often that a USC guy is underrated, but it certainly seems as if he's been under the radar throughout the pre-draft process. He's a highly prolific player (104 receptions for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014), and he can excel outside and in the slot. Add in his value as a return man, and it's easy to see Agholor as a special-teamer right away, with the ability to grow into a number-two receiver role on a number of NFL teams.
Tight End: MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois
At 6'2" and 251 pounds, Pruitt may project best as an H-back hybrid at the next level, but I like his release off the line, second-level speed, understanding of zone coverage, and good hands. He's also a great blocker, which will keep him on the field for a higher percentage of reps. It didn't happen against compelling competition, but Pruitt led all NCAA tight end with 81 catches and 13 touchdowns in 2014.
Offensive Tackle: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M/Ty Sambrailo, Colorado State
Ogbuehi was the third offensive tackle in the Aggies' 2010 recruiting class, along with Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Not half bad. He pass-blocked on 63% of his snaps in 2014, but he shows the power to run-block when given the opportunity. He'll need to work on his technique, which is the primary reason he tends to lose power at times, but he has the potential to be a top-end NFL left tackle.
Sambrailo was Garrett Grayson's primary blindside protector, and he has similar NFL potential—there's a lot to like if you look beyond the small-school stuff. A former youth freestyle skiing champion, Sambrailo would be best served in an NFL system where he can use his agility and competitiveness, and his relative lack of top-end strength won't be a major factor.
Offensive Guard: Arie Kouandjio, Alabama/Josue Matias, Florida State
The older brother of Buffalo tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie won't likely make the switch outside at the NFL level. He's a mammoth man (6'5", 310 pounds) with an impressive combination of power and athleticism. If he can get his spatial awareness together and make the best use of his raw skills, Kouandjio could be a Pro Bowler. Right now, though, he looks a bit lost at times. As for Matias, he gets lost in the Tre Jackson hype, but he could be the better prospect over time, depending on the NFL team that takes him. While Jackson physically overwhelms opponents, Matias is quicker, with natural movement around the pocket and to the second level.
Center: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
When I talked with Oregon lineman Kyle Long before his 2013 draft selection by the Bears, Long told me that Grasu taught him more than anyone else about offensive line play. Grasu is a very, very smart player who has excelled in Oregon's multi-faceted, high-rep offense since 2011. There are dings regarding his functional strength—at 6'3" and 297 pounds, he'll get rocked back by bigger nose tackles at times—but if you watch the tape, he gets stronger against tougher opposition. Grasu would a great fit in an NFL line with bigger guard where he can move to the second level and display his athleticism.
Defensive Tackle: Grady Jarrett, Clemson/Joey Mbu, Houston
Jarrett will be limited in his NFL role due to his size (6'1", 304)—he's going to be a 4–3 three-tech pretty much exclusively. But he reminds me of Geno Atkins, who was undervalued in the 2010 draft class due to his own size issues, and became a Pro Bowler. Jarrett gives a complete effort every time he steps on the field—he's kind of stunning at times in how he can slip through gaps with strength and quickness. My only concern about him is whether he'll get gassed with high reps. That's how total his effort is on every play.
I'm also surprised that there isn't more talk about Mbu—he's a 6'3", 313-pound fireplug who will line up at the point of attack and move blockers out of the way. He's not an elite pass-rusher and his speed is questionable, but he plays with a lot of power.
Defensive End: Preston Smith, Mississippi State/Za'Darius Smith, Kentucky
Smith put up nine sacks in 2014, but he's not a speed guy off the edge; he is a great five-tech run-stopper in either a 4–3 or a 3–4 defense. Plus, he can kick inside to play a one-gap three-tech or five-tech tackle on passing downs. He'll be more in demand from NFL teams than some may think because he has functional versatility, and he attacks through gaps with more quickness than some would expect.
When I was watching Bud Dupree play for the Wildcats, Smith kept popping off the tape, as well. He's a 6-4, 274-pound multi-gap player who looks best as a run-stopping end, but can kick inside to tackle and will use high effort to kick off blocks and disrupt plays from whenever he's lined up. Once an NFL line coach gets hold of him and squares away his technique, Smith could be special.
Outside Linebacker: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington/Zach Hodges, Harvard
Kikaha led the nation in sacks with 19 in 2014, and racked up 13 more quarterback takedowns in 2013. Not bad for a guy who lost serious chunks of time in his first two seasons due to knee injuries. Many analysts are dropping him to the third round due to his injury history, but the player I saw on tape and at Washington's pro day wasn't the limited, stiff pass-rusher he's purported to be. He looked surprisingly good in coverage during linebacker drills—something he told me he's been working on throughout the offseason—and that skillset could raise him up. I do think Kikaka will be best as an outside linebacker in a 3–4 base defense as opposed to a 4–3 end, but don't be surprised if he brings his college production to the NFL.
A double major in government and philosophy, Hodges lost his mother when he was 16, and moved from North Carolina to Atlanta to help his family. He went to a boarding school to get his grades up when Harvard came knocking, and he's learned a lot about the value of hard work. He started playing for the Crimson in 2012, earning FCS All-America honors in '14 and the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year award in '13. Hodges played in a 3-3-5 stack defense and has the strength to deal with blockers, as well as speed off the edge. Hodges is an unrefined player from a technique perspective, but there's a lot to like here.
Inside Linebacker: Zach Vigil, Utah State
Vigil wasn't invited to the scouting combine, and for the life of me, I have no idea why. He replaced Bobby Wagner as the man in the middle for Utah State and took off right away. He was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, and he looks like a bat out of hell on tape: A very high-effort player with exceptional run-stopping abilities for his size (6'2", 236 pounds). I wouldn't put him quite in Wagner's class, but I could easily see a 4–3 team taking Vigil in the fourth or fifth round. Last year, he had 156 tackles, nine sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and four passes defensed.
Cornerback: Senquez Golson, Mississippi/Troy Hill, Oregon
In the modern NFL, everyone wants bigger cornerbacks who can play press coverage aggressively and trail speed receivers downfield. That's all well and good, but those kinds of players don't exactly grow on trees. More often than not, teams are forced to adapt to what's available. In Golson's case, some NFL team is going to get the guy who led the SEC in interceptions with 10 in 2014—a heady player who can be a force defender in run support surprisingly well for his 5'9", 176-pound frame, and has the ability to excel in off coverage that could see him as a star slot cornerback at the next level. Similarly, Hill proved able to deal with big receivers using toughness and technique—his primary issue is a disconcerting off-field resume. Hill was suspended for one game in the 2013 season for a violation of team rules, and suspended indefinitely in December of last year after his arrest for menacing and fourth-degree assault during a domestic incident.
Safety: Adrian Amos, Penn State/Anthony Harris, Virginia
NFL teams need defenders who can line up in the slot as well as outside and in the deep third, and Amos certainly qualifies—according to PFF, he was in the slot about a third of the time last season and allowed just 14 catches and a ridiculous 13.0 opponent passer rating on 39 targets. He's regarded as a second- to third-round prospect because he could be a much better tackler for his size (6'0", 218 pounds), but he'll be a valuable hybrid pass defender at the next level.
Some have the 6'1", 183-pound Harris projected as a cornerback, but I like him as a true free safety who can defend the deep third and get sticky with deep receivers. He led the nation with eight picks in 2013, and the main reason that total dropped to two in 2014 was that he wasn't targeted as often. He needs to work on his tackling and change of direction in short areas, but this is a fun guy to watch, and he has a lot of potential.