The game-changing interceptions that helped decide the past two Super Bowls were pulled in by a pair of unheralded and relatively untested defenders. Linebacker Malcolm Smith helped secure Seahawks' blowout Super Bowl XLVIII win over the Broncos with his 69-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first half, which gave Seattle a 22-0 lead and earned Smith the game's MVP award. The Patriots sealed this year's dramatic Super Bowl thanks to cornerback Malcolm Butler's goal-line pick with 26 seconds left.
The Malcolms in the middle of the past two Super Bowls' seminal moments have something in common beyond their first names: They were each lightly-regarded draft prospects who rose up unexpectedly at the most important time despite their lack of big-game experience. Butler, an undrafted rookie free agent out of West Alabama, had never started a game for the Patriots; he was in the right place at the right time as a post-snap substitution, jumping a short slant route the team had prepared for all week long. Smith had actually held his own when injuries pushed him into action in 2013, especially in pass coverage, but he was a seventh-round pick two years before and had started just a handful of games before his Super Bowl star turn.
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Is it possible to identify future big-game difference-makers within the deepest parts of the draft? One might look for smaller-school players who dominated their competition and excelled against high-profile opponents, or for bigger-school guys who weren't featured but made big plays when they had the opportunity. For the eight division champions, these prospects taken on the third day of the 2015 draft may end up shining in critical moments down the road.
New England Patriots: Trey Flowers, DL, Arkansas
Flowers was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2014, racking up 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles, but he fell to the fourth round because he's a bit of a tweener at 6'2" and 266 pounds. Flowers shows surprisingly good field speed in coverage for a player his size, but he's not always explosive off the snap and he tends to wrestle more than he pursues at times. Still, Bill Belichick saw him as a good value with the 101st pick.
"I feel like things got off to a good start with [Trey] Flowers; real productive player at Arkansas," Belichick said on Saturday. "[He] played mainly on the edge, a little bit inside. But a young player that I think has got a lot of good football in front of him; a lot of great qualities in terms of leadership, toughness, those kind of things."
As for Flowers, he was happy to land with a team that will utilize his versatility.
"It came up a lot all around," he said. "There were calling me a tweener, linebacker, edge rusher, defensive end, and I’m just glad that I can show that versatility and just be open to any type of scheme whether it’s 4–3, 3–4, whether it’s standing up or hand in the dirt, I’m open to anything. I’m just glad I put that out on tape."
One thing's for sure: Whatever his attributes are, Belichick will put them on the field to maximize his impact.
Seattle Seahawks: Tye Smith, CB, Towson
The Seahawks are known for taking risks on unheralded players from big and small schools alike. There were few cornerbacks in this class less heralded than Smith, though he's thought by some in the know to be the best small-school cornerback of 2015, and he put up some surprisingly good tape against West Virginia's Kevin White in 2014. Smith had a good week at the East-West Shrine Game, and that earned him an invitation to the scouting combine.
Still, that didn't get Smith a look before the fifth round, which is where Seattle took him with the 170th pick. Now, Smith will try to become a starting bookend for another fifth-round cornerback—some guy named Richard Sherman. The Seahawks seem to believe that Smith has that potential.
"Oh, man. Very aggressive," general manager John Schneider said of Smith. "A really cool mover. Length. Tough. Just competed his tail off all the time. He was always around the football. I want to throw a name out there to compare him to, but I can’t because you guys will think I’m crazy. As a mover, and his ball skills."
Coach Pete Carroll seemed to intimate that Smith was going to compete for that starting spot right away.
"We’re going to play him at corner, start him outside, that’s where he looks most comfortable," Carroll said. "But he has enough knack and nature to him, he might be able to play inside some day. We’ll see what happens. But we want to start him at corner."
Denver Broncos: Lorenzo Doss, CB, Tulane
Doss amassed 14 interceptions in his three years with the Green Wave, including seven in 2013 for a nation-leading 185 return yards and two touchdowns. His tape shows a player with outstanding ball skills, especially on short and intermediate passes. The 5'10", 182-pound Doss may project as a slot corner in the NFL due to his size, but he played on the boundary very well at the collegiate level. Doss slipped to the fifth round and the 164th pick because he occasionally shows an aversion to contact and needs to work on his coverage at the line (he played a lot of off-coverage at Tulane), but the ball skills are undeniable—executive vice president John Elway mentioned them more than once this weekend.
Ringo was available for the Packers in the sixth round in part because he doesn't fit an easy positional paradigm. The 6'1", 293-pound lineman isn't really stout enough to play tackle unless he is doing so in a designated pass-rushing role. But general manager Ted Thompson and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have had success with atypical body types of late—consider 6'0", 291-pound Mike Daniels, selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Iowa. Daniels has become a bit of a star in Green Bay's defense, with 12 sacks in his last two seasons in a hybrid end/tackle role. Ringo is quick enough off the snap and has enough pursuit ability to fill that role as well. In fact, head coach Mike McCarthy compared Ringo to Daniels, and Thompson specified the rookie's role on Saturday.
"He's more of a quick-twitch, penetrate type of thing," Thompson said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He'll be part of the way we do things with packages and things like that. We like him. We thought he was a pretty good player."
Ringo had said that he wasn't sure if he'd be drafted at all, but it sounds like he landed in the right place.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Gerod Holliman, FS, Louisville
How do you drop all the way to the seventh round after you tie the NCAA record for interceptions in a single season with 14? In Holliman's case, you show a fundamental aversion to contact in all cases. Some may have seen Holliman as a one-year wonder as well—he intercepted exactly zero passes the year before. Still, with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu retiring this off-season, coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert are well aware of the need to re-stock their secondary.
"I don’t know how many times we said this through our draft preparations, but 14 interceptions is no accident," Colbert said. "This kid has great instincts, great awareness, he’s a great studier of film. You see him making breaks on the ball before the quarterback throws it, and he has the hands to catch it."
If Holliman can be convinced to do more than shoulder-tackle at the NFL level, he could be a pretty special center-field safety.
Dallas Cowboys: Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue
The Cowboys took pass rusher Anthony Spencer out of Purdue with their first-round pick in the 2007 draft, and Spencer rewarded the team with decent production, including a career-high 11 sacks in 2012. Dallas went back to the well in this draft, and the franchise's newest Boilermakers end could be a better bargain. Selected in the fifth round, Russell had 10 sacks over four seasons, and though he got a bit lost as the team changed its defensive schemes, he does show speed off the edge and good play against the run. He played all over the place when Purdue moved to a 3–4 scheme, but he'll be best utilized off the edge.
"He is actually a local kid who we also had in here and for us he just, again, has some upside as a pass rusher," Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said. "Potentially could be a two-position player—both an end and a tackle in our scheme. We like his upside. We do think he demonstrated at different times an ability to really rush the passer from a couple different spots. So, we’re excited about bringing him in here to mix in with the competition up front."
With Spencer off to New Orleans, Greg Hardy suspended for the first 10 games of the 2015 season and second-round pick Randy Gregory looking like a work in progress, Russell might get quite a few reps with the NFC East champs.
The Colts' running game was a veritable black hole in 2014, and they finally decided to move on from uber-bust Trent Richardson. Signing veteran Frank Gore was a good coup, but young blood was also needed, and the 5'8", 217-pound Robinson looked pretty good against some of the SEC's better defenses in 2014. He gained 1,203 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground on just 190 carries, putting himself on the map with a 197-yard game against LSU. Still, he had to wait until the sixth round to hear his name called. Robinson fits what the Colts prefer: an aggressive power back with some speed and not a lot of wiggle. He'll blow through whatever gaps he's given, and perhaps most importantly, he's a good blocker. You're not going to get on the field with the Colts if you can't protect Andrew Luck.
Robinson visited the Colts before the draft and made quite an impression on general manager Ryan Grigson.
“He’s been a target guy ever since he walked in our door at our top 30," Grigson said. "The running style, he fits what we do. When you run that low to the ground and have that center of gravity, he’s a bowling ball, and that’s what they call him. To put up the yards he did in the SEC with a 6.3-yard average, that speaks for itself in that conference.”
Now, Robinson will get a real shot to let his running do the talking in the NFL.
There must have been a run on bowling balls in the late rounds, because the Panthers seemed to like Artis-Payne for many of the same reasons the Colts liked Robinson. Like Robinson, Artis-Payne did good work against some of the best defenses in the country, gaining 1,608 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns on 303 carries. His best game came against Texas A&M, when he put up 221 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. Yes, he was helped by Auburn's enormous offensive line, but Artis-Payne is a 5-10, 212-pound power back who hits the hole with speed and authority.
"This young man is a between-a-tackle type runner who does slash a little bit with good quickness to bounce the ball outside," Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said. "He is a bowling ball. You watch him go inside the piles and really move people. He is low to the ground, he has great leverage. He’ll fit right in with our short running backs. He’s built a lot like them. So, I think he’ll have a good opportunity to come in and take some of those carries off of Jonathan [Stewart] if need be, and Fozzy [Whitaker] as well. I think it’s going to be a combination of our running backs because of the styles they have."
With all that, why did Artis-Payne fall to the fifth round? He's a 25-year-old rookie who had to attend a military academy after he graduated from high school because his grades weren't good enough for the big schools. He didn't play anywhere in 2009 or 2010 and went the Juco route for the next two seasons before finding a home at Auburn.
GALLERY: Best photos from the 2015 NFL draft in Chicago