Skip to main content

He Was ‘Prospect X,’ the 2021 NFL Draft’s Deepest Sleeper

He played a spring season while preparing for the draft. On Saturday, his family—two of them with NFL experience—helped him through a long day, ending with the right fit.

Last week, we profiled the most overlooked prospect in the 2021 NFL draft, but concealed his identity in order to protect the teams that were interested in him. Guesses from across the internet poured in. Now, we reveal the identity of ‘Prospect X,’ and his NFL team.

X is hunched over his iPad at his parents’ kitchen table, watching the draft on the small screen with his “NFL Stuff” spreadsheet open on the laptop next to him. He’s anxiously chewing his fingernails, and his shoulders are scrunched up close to his ears, taut with tension. He’s on speaker phone, awkwardly trying to hang up with a scout in order to take any one of the four incoming calls bouncing across his screen, a string of unfamiliar numbers all competing for his attention. “Sorry, I uh, have to take another call now,” he says.

X has 11 siblings—most of his family are huddled on the couch in front of the living room TV, just on the other side of the open-concept kitchen where he sits. Two are dressed for their prom, where they will be headed immediately after the draft. The seventh round has just begun, but X is overwhelmed with calls from NFL teams asking about priority free agent deals. He has already accidentally hung up on a head coach—well, at least he’s pretty sure he did—but he’s having a hard time keeping straight who he’s talking to.

So many teams are calling that X has to delegate the work. His dad paces outside on the deck talking to teams, looking so focused that his next-door neighbor texts him to ask if he should stop hammering. X’s older brother is leaning up against the island in the kitchen making phone calls to numbers that X misses while he’s on the line with another team. X’s girlfriend looks up rosters, depth charts and draft classes to figure out how many players each team he talks to has at his position.

“Coach, you guys won’t just pick him?” X’s older brother tells a coach on the line. “You still have a pick in this round.”

His brother is tired of this B.S. Teams aren’t properly appreciating Prospect X and he won’t stand for it. Before the draft began, three scouts from three different teams texted X that they wanted to pick him, and now those same teams claim they still want him but don’t have enough picks.

“Call Christian,” X’s brother says forcefully. “Pull the trigger.”

But that team—the Saints, who the brother has played for the past two seasons—doesn’t pick him.

A little later, outside on the deck, X’s father fields a call from an old friend.

“Hey Rick,” he says, grinning. “How are you?”

Rick Spielman, the Vikings general manager, was a Lions scout when Detroit selected Luther Elliss with the 20th pick in 1995. Twenty-six years later, the two are on the phone discussing Luther's son. The Vikings’ final pick of the draft came at 199, and they won’t be trading back in. Spielman tells Luther they’ll wait patiently, that there’s no rush to make up his mind. But he wants to make clear: The Vikings want Christian Elliss.

Were you able to decipher all the clues in this year’s Prospect X video? The answers are below...

As many correctly guessed—on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere—this year’s Prospect X is Christian Elliss, who played outside linebacker at the University of Idaho, an FCS program in Moscow, Idaho.

The 6' 2", 228-pound Elliss was a two-time All–Big Sky conference player, and scouts loved his speed (4.57 40 time) and his run game instincts. Elliss was nervous that a couple of the games he put on tape this year might have hurt his draft stock—in one he played middle linebacker for the first time, moving over because the usual starter was out due to coronavirus protocol. The Vandals run a 3–4 defense, and Elllis is listed as a strongside linebacker, though he’s rotated through every linebacker role, and when the Vandals play their nickel D, he plays the weak side. “He has really played every position in his career here,” says his linebackers coach Adam Breske. “With that comes changes in terminology, changes in technique, and that's a lot on him. We use him as a jack of all trades; he is an ILB by trade but he really has great instincts as a pass rusher as well, so we tried to take advantage of that when we pressured him.”

Christian Elliss poses, in a Prospect X uniform and in his Idaho uniform

Elliss grew up in Detroit, Denver and Salt Lake City, and he chose Idaho because his brother Kaden, entering his third season with the Saints, played there (Kaden is “the former college teammate who got drafted by an NFL team” in Part 1.) Elliss’s dad, Luther, joined the staff as defensive line coach the same year he arrived on campus (That’s the “college coach with NFL connections”).

Even though Luther Elliss coaches on his son’s college team, he has been purposely hands-off throughout the draft process. The main piece of advice he shared with both of his sons was to do everything they can to assist teams during the draft process, because getting drafted is an honor. It was a lesson Luther learned firsthand when he was entering the draft.

In 1995, he was chewed out face-to-face by Bill Belichick, then the head coach of the Browns, when Belichick flew out to Utah to personally work him out. Luther’s agent at the time (who he fired soon after this incident) advised him not to work out, because he was a top-20 pick and top-20 picks only worked out at their pro days. Even though Belichick was already there waiting in-person, his agent told him to tell the coach to come back for his pro day. Luther did as he was told; Belichick was red in the face with anger. “He told me I would never play for him or any organization he is part of as long as he is alive, and he would never have any one of my type of character,” Luther says. “That was really hard.”

A decade and a half later, Luther was retired from an 11-year career that included two Pro Bowl appearances and was working for NFL Players Inc., a marketing branch of the NFLPA. He traveled to different NFL teams to speak to current players. “And guess where I get sent,” he says.

Belichick made it known he did not want him there. NFL Players Inc. insisted, so the Patriots coach stood with his arms crossed, brooding when Luther entered the room. “If looks could kill, I was dead,” Luther says.

So he pivoted his speech and told the story of his bad blood with Belichick to the Patriots players. He apologized and said he still regretted it all this time later. After the meeting, Belichick approached him and, along with cursing Luther’s former agent, said he appreciated his apology. (Luther says the Patriots did contact him during undrafted free agency wanting to sign Christian, but they weren’t a finalist.)

“I know that’s why he felt like he had to play this spring,” Luther says. “And why he had to do his pro day. He felt like, whatever you guys need me to do I will do. The teams sent all the scouts and he was willing to put himself out there for that.”

Since 2011, an average of 15 FCS players have been drafted each year. The 2020 (six players) and 2021 (five) seasons mark the two lowest totals since the draft went to seven rounds in 1993. Of the five FCS players and four Division II and III players drafted in 2021, just one—Central Arkansas cornerback Robert Rochell, fourth round to the Rams—played in his team’s spring season. The rest opted out to prepare for the draft.

On the morning of the draft, Christian heard from a few teams who were checking in again on his status to see if he was still in this draft class.”That was frustrating,” Kaden says. “We thought we had made that clear.”

To help put out this fire, Christian even told one scout the week before that he’d picked an agent, a deliberate strategy to show teams he was serious about the NFL. It seemed like it worked: After that conversation, Sports Illustrated heard through a grapevine of NFL sources that Elliss had indeed signed with an agent. In reality, he hadn’t signed with one just yet, he’d just narrowed in on who he planned to sign with.

Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss

Kaden Elliss

Veteran NFL agent Ethan Lock represented Luther during his career, and when it became a reality that Christian was not getting drafted—and that three phones weren’t enough to manage the mayhem of free agency—Luther asked Lock to to help out. “I got 200 calls within 30 minutes,” Christian says now. “You should have been here. It was absolutely insane.”

Elliss really wanted to spend his draft day locked in his apartment bedroom, “with a DO NOT DISTURB sign,” he says. He wanted to pray about his future and try to relax by himself. He was afraid that being around his big family and hearing their reactions to every pick that wasn’t him would stress him out even more. But Luther and mom, Rebecca, convinced him that he might need help if he went undrafted, so he agreed to ditch the hermit life and spend Saturday with his family (Christian, by the way, is third oldest among the Elliss children, seven of whom were adopted). It was the right move.

At one point, exasperated from all the missed texts and calls that felt like they were growing exponentially, Elliss blurted out loud to the dozen family members scattered around him. “All right, I’m just going to go back to school.”

“Everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” he says.

Kaden says they all knew that wasn’t really what he wanted. Rebecca kept Christian in check, reeling him back in to realize how many teams still wanted him.

“I was flustered,” Christian says. “It’s the easy way out to be like, hey, you know what, I am going to go back to school. But that’s not who I am and that’s not what I want to do. The hard road is always the best road.”

Everyone in the Elliss household was so busy working their phones or taking notes for the hour and a half after the draft that nobody noticed all three dogs had escaped the yard until another neighbor, who is also their pastor, rang the doorbell with the guilty canines in tow.

As Kaden made his calls, he reconnected with linebackers coaches who remembered him from his draft process two years ago. They were surprised to be courting a current NFL player during the undrafted free agency period when they typically talk to agents and prospects. “The Seattle linebackers coach, he was like, ‘Wait. Big bro Kaden?,’ ” Kaden says. “ ‘Is this Kaden? Man, how are you? O.K., wait, I gotta get back to your brother.’ ”

Kaden helped Christian narrow his choices down to three final teams—the Chiefs, Dolphins and Vikings. Kaden, with two years of experience in New Orleans, knew the right questions to ask when grilling the scouts or coaches who claimed they desperately wanted to sign Christian.

What position do you see him at?
What’s your vision for him?
How many linebackers do you have?
Why didn’t you draft him?

In 1997, Luther Elliss chased down then-Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson during a Vikings-Lions game

During a 1997 game, Luther Elliss chased down then-Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson.

Christian quickly eliminated any team that had talked a big game about drafting him and not followed through. And all the teams that were pressuring him to sign right that instant were also crossed off his list. Luther and Kaden say several teams tried to keep them on the phone until they agreed to their terms. No, no, no, don’t go, let me tell you about this! And if they missed a call or a text, some teams would follow up again, wanting to know why they were being ignored.

“The script flipped a little bit,” Luther says. “We were getting frustrated because teams are saying all this stuff and nothing’s happening, so we are getting anxious and now they’re like, Hey, we want him! Why aren’t you guys getting back to us? Man, it’s your turn to be patient now!”

The general managers of the three finalists each contacted Team Elliss on Saturday evening. And each of the final three teams told Christian they would wait for him to make his decision, so he didn't have to worry that they would go sign the next available linebacker, while he spent five minutes analyzing his spreadsheet. Christian felt the Vikings never made any false promises during the process—he respected that—and it also didn’t hurt that they matched the highest offer he received.

Spielman and the Zimmers told him that they think he can play anywhere in their defense, at Sam or Will. They want him to start off at Will, and let him get a feel for it, learn from Pro Bowlers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and contribute heavily on special teams during that learning period.

Throughout the draft process, Christian had felt connected to the Vikings. He enjoyed his video meeting with their linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer (that was the one where he kept apologizing for mixing up college and pro terminology), and his conversation with Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer after the draft convinced him that Minnesota was the best fit. “They felt like home already,” he says.

Christian Elliss celebrates with teammates during an Idaho football game

After Elliss verbally committed to the Vikings, he went to dinner with his girlfriend, Kaysie, Kaden and Kaden’s wife Brooke. All he wanted after all that emotional turmoil was a molten chocolate cake, the kind with the warm gooey chocolate inside.

At the restaurant, Elliss’s younger brother Jonah (a freshman linebacker at Utah who enrolled early) was already eating dinner with his prom group. They all rushed over to congratulate him.

Elliss will graduate this summer with a degree in operations management, and in two weeks, he’ll head to Minneapolis for rookie minicamp. He’s closed the tab on his NFL Stuff spreadsheet for good, but he’s already workshopping ideas for his next one. Maybe “Vikings Stuff,” to track every practice rep he takes when he gets there.