Teams head into the NFL draft with their fingers crossed, dreaming of scenarios in which they land their ideal prospects early. Rarely, if ever, does the draft play out according to script.
So what do those teams do when they fail to pluck a top prospect at a position of need? They may turn their attention to less-heralded players with comparable skillsets.
Obviously, a player taken with a top-32 pick arrives in the NFL with higher expectations than those selected on Day 3. This is the inherent risk in "waiting" on a position, as many have suggested teams do this season due to the abundance of receiver talent. Just because there are a lot of talented players out there does not mean that the value in Round 4 is equal to what is available in Round 1.
In a lot of cases, though, the later-round prospect is still worth a shot.
Early-round option: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Backup plan: Brett Smith, QB, Wyoming
Perhaps the most obvious -- and certainly the most high-profile -- comparison to be made in this draft class. Anyone who has paid even an iota of attention to the 2014 draft or the 2012-13 college football seasons knows Johnny Football's story. Smith, who turned pro after his third year at Wyoming and then was snubbed from receiving a combine invite, is far more of an unknown quantity among the general fan population.
And yet ...
"Wyoming QB Brett Smith is a more controlled and better version of Johnny Manziel IMO [in my opinion]," CBS draft guru Dane Brugler tweeted in late December, after Smith declared for the draft. "Terrific addition to this QB class."
Matt Waldman, author of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio and noted QB analyst, told ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey: "If you look at [Smith] and Johnny Manziel, and you took him [Smith] and put him in the Texas A&M offense, you might not have seen much of a discernible difference if at all."
Smith threw for nearly 3,400 yards last season, on a 5-7 Wyoming team. He also rushed for 571 yards and scored 20 TDs on the ground during his three NCAA years, hence some of the love for his mobility and quickness. Smith has a quick release on his throws, plus delivers the ball with confidence.
Not everyone is quite as sold on him as a prospect (he fell outside Audibles' top 100 ranking for the 2014 draft), and a lot of the doubt stems from mistakes he made repeatedly, both in reading defenses and from a mechanics standpoint. Whereas Manziel may be drafted to be a Week 1 rookie starter, Smith likely will be eased onto a roster as the No. 2 or 3 quarterback.
His upside, however, might not be far below Manziel's.
Early-round option: Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Backup plan: Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
Fuller is firmly in the first-CB-off-the-board discussion; Cockrell will be lucky to hear his name called before Day 3 of the draft. Nevertheless, there are similarities between the two ACC products, starting with size -- Fuller stands 6-0, 190 and Cockrell 6-0, 191.
Both guys play larger than that size, too. Cockrell essentially played a shut-down role on his side of the field, registering 12 interceptions and 50 pass break-ups during his four seasons. Like Fuller, he'll jump up against the run when it's necessary. And also like Fuller, he's better when the play is in front of him than when asked to turn and run.
Fuller is further along in terms of his straight coverage technique (Cockrell probably will draw a healthy number of flags if asked to play one-on-one as a rookie.) As with the majority of these comparisons, there is a noticeable drop-off from player A to player B if you look hard enough. But Cockrell is well worth a draft choice.
Early-round option: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Backup plan: John Brown, WR, Pittsburg State
Another way to phrase all of these pairings: The "backup plan" guy is a poor man's version of the Round 1-2 prospect. That's really a perfect way to sum up what a team might get in Brown, who was Cooks translated down to a Division II level.
Brown (5-10, 179) finished just one one-hundredth behind Cooks (5-10, 189) in the combine's 40-yard dash. Both players use that speed exceptionally well, turning catches in confined space into big gains. The level of competition Brown faced alone is enough to knock him down a bit in the draft, as Cooks put up his numbers against much tougher competition. Brown still ought to find a landing spot somewhere on Day 3.
Early-round option: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Backup plan: Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB, Boston College
From the "linebackers who look like safeties" file come Shazier and Pierre-Louis, the latter arguably the most underrated prospect in this entire draft class. The Boston College product is coming off a 108-tackle, six-sack season -- he flat-out knows how to find and get to the football. Of course, at 6-0 and 232 pounds, Pierre-Louis is even smaller than Shazier (6-1, 237). And size has been one of the main knocks on Shazier during the draft process.
Early-round option: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Backup plan: Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
A little tricky to include any running backs on this list because of the remarkable uncertainty surrounding that position a week out from the draft. Carlos Hyde probably will appear near the top of my RB rankings, with Tre Mason somewhere close behind. Sankey has remained right in the mix, as well, off a 2,100-total yard junior season.
Grice could wind up being just as effective an NFL product as any of those guys. One of Sankey's main selling points is that he can be a three-down player, having shown competence as a blocker and a knack for making catches out of the backfield. Grice fits the same mold. He fell shy of the 1,000-yard mark on the ground last season but caught 50 passes and scored 20 total touchdowns.
Early-round option: Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Backup plan: Justin Britt, OT, Missouri
A knee injury in 2012 dropped Britt off some radars, but he bounced back last season to earn a second-team All-SEC nod. His stature (6-6 and 325, similar to Moses' 6-6, 314) will earn him a look somewhere, even if he has to move from LT to the right side or attempt a shift inside to guard. Britt plays a big, strong game with unexpectedly nimble feet.
That one-sentence scouting report falls in line with the word on Moses. Improvement during his final Virginia season -- and on into the All-Star game circuit and combine -- allowed Moses to pull himself up to the fringe of Round 1. He is more NFL-ready than Britt, who was adequate but not great in most aspects. Britt also used a two-point stance frequently, as opposed to the three-point stance favored by most NFL teams for their tackles.
Early-round option: Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Backup plan: Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt
The perception is that there is a drop-off at safety after Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Pryor and possibly Jimmie Ward. There is more mid-to-late round talent, however, than the safety class has been given credit for thus far.
To wit: Ladler. The 6-0 ex-Commodore will not blow anyone away with his workout numbers (4.7 40 at the combine, for example; Pryor ran a 4.58), but he finds a way to be in position most times. His game is reminiscent of Pryor's in that way -- both win through the mental aspect of football, anticipating plays before they happen. Ladler makes some of the same mistakes as Pryor, too, like sacrificing a sure tackle for an attempt at a big hit.
Pryor's athleticism no doubt gives him a leg up on a prospect like Ladler. But for a team not willing to spend a Round 1 pick on a fly-to-the-ball safety, Ladler will be enticing on Day 2 or 3.
Early-round option: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
Backup plan: Crockett Gilmore, TE, Colorado State
This pairing is more a reality check on what Seferian-Jenkins is as a prospect than on what Gilmore might have in store for the NFL. Whereas, say, Eric Ebron can pressure defenses on deep balls up the seam, Seferian-Jenkins is far more of a Heath Milleresque TE -- someone who will do most of his damage as a receiver within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage or in the red zone. The Miller comparison wanes some when looking at Seferian-Jenkins' on-again, off-again blocking.
Which brings us to Gillmore, a 6-6, 260-pound prospect. No one is going to mistake him for an elite athlete, nor is he going to dominate at the line on all occasions. But he can pitch in as a blocker in the run game and slide out as a reliable target when his team takes to the air.