NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The NFL draft is seven rounds for a reason: There are seven rounds of talent — and then some.
Yet while the likes of Oregon’s Dion Jordan and Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel jockey for position atop Round 1, there’s plenty of lesser known prospects who will still excel at the next level. They are what we call “Underrated.” Or if you have a way with words, “Diamonds in the Rough.”
Now just because a prospect isn’t touted doesn’t mean they’re going to go undrafted. It’s all relative to where they’re being projected in contrast with their actual value.
So which prospects fit inside these parameters?
Here are the five most underrated talents in this year’s draft.
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
It’s hard for a wide receiver to stay in the shadows after posting 114 catches, 1,622 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns in one season. But Stedman Bailey has done just that. Having played in a Mountaineers offense that featured future first-round picks Tavon Austin and Geno Smith, the highly productive pass-catcher hasn’t gotten the attention his play deserves. Some will say he was a product of an electrifying spread offense, while others will say Tavon Austin’s burner speed helped Bailey get open. Both of those statements sell No. 3 short.
In case the numbers don’t already indicate it, Bailey was Smith’s go-to guy during their time in Morgantown. Yet because Bailey doesn’t rise above the rest from a physical or athletic standpoint — he’s 5’10”, 193 pounds, with a 4.52 40-time — he probably won’t be selected until the latter half of Day 2. Bailey has the hands, crisp route-running and short-area quickness to be a dynamic slot or ‘Z’ receiver at the next level. He just needs the opportunity to do so.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida
This draft is not especially deep at running back. Yet it wouldn’t be the NFL draft if some team didn’t take a rusher in Round 1. The race is wide open between Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, Michigan State’s LeVeon Bell and North Carolina’s Giovanni Bernard. So where’s Florida’s Mike Gillislee? Not to say the Gator is a first-round talent, but his projection as a thick of Day 3 pick sets a very low ceiling for the 5’11”, 208-pound ball-carrier. Chris Rainey in 2012 and DeShawn Wynn in 2007 were the last two Florida products to be drafted. Part of that may be the Gators’ spread attack which involves a lot of shotgun hand-offs. Part of that may be just a lack up top-tier running back development. Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe that Gillislee belongs higher on boards than he currently is.
In some evaluators’ eyes, Gillislee is a one-year wonder. He never totaled more than 328 yards in a season until last fall. That was primarily due to the presence of Rainey and Jeff Demps, however. So when Gillislee finally got his shot as a senior, he did not disappoint. He totaled 1,152 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns as well as 16 receptions for 159 yards and a score. A very slippery runner, Gillislee still has the toughness to greet tackles and stay upright. He’s on the upswing, and his potential is pretty untapped. He’s developing as a receiver, and also has very good lateral speed. At the combine, he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash — a faster time than the Spartans’ Bell and Clemson’s Andre Ellington. He’s not the strongest runner and he is a light slight of build, but Gillislee has the traits to be a very solid pro.
Will Davis, CB, Utah State
Running back Robert Turbin and linebacker Bobby Wagner have netted immediate results through their first year in the NFL, and fellow Utah State Aggie Will Davis should be next. A physical cornerback who’s used to battling in press-man coverage, the 5’11”, 186-pounder should have no problem acclimating to the pros. That said, he didn’t face many top receivers last year with the exception of Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton.
Davis wasn’t highly recruited, and attended Western Washington before the football team was curtailed. He then went on to De Anza College, where he stood out against junior college competition. He finally got his chance with Utah State, and flourished. He started five games as a junior, and then stepped up as a senior and recorded one interception in five straight contests. All in all, Davis keeps his eyes in front of the football and can back it up with quick feet and strength. He ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the combine, but really stood out benching 16 reps of 225 pounds and running a 6.52 3-cone. His value is far greater than his mid-Day 3 projection.
Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
A middle-of-the-road prep school recruit, Scout.com ranked Jordan Hill as the No. 49 defensive tackle in the 2009 class. He enrolled at Penn State and his level of intensity on the interior of the D-line didn’t take long to get noticed. Consequently, he was forced to give up his redshirt for the Nittany Lions encountered depth concerns. By his sophomore year, he was a full-fledged part of Penn State front. He played in every game that season, notching four starts. As a junior, Hill started every game. And as a senior, it was more of the same.
The 6’1″, 303-pound Pennsylvania native ran a 5.23 40-time and benched 28 reps in Indianapolis. He’s not fast, but he’s aggressive. He’s not the strongest, but he’s a hard-hitting wrap-up tackler. Hill amassed 64 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one pass deflection and even one pick during his final year with the Nittany Lions. Hill has the football IQ and the character to adapt in the NFL. He also plays with a mean streak and could really be a change of pace on the inside of a 4-3 defense. This year’s deep crop of defensive tackles has Hill lost in the shuffle. His potential outweighs his forecast as a Day 3 option.
Jeff Baca, G, UCLA
Mobile offensive linemen don’t grow on trees. But for some reason, UCLA’s Jeff Baca has been a forgotten man in draft discussion. The Bruin has excellent lateral agility considering he is 6’4” and 302 pounds. At the combine, the redshirt senior clocked a 7.26 time in the 3-cone drill and a 4.44 in the 20-yard shuttle — both first-place finishes among O-linemen. In addition, Baca had the fourth fastest 10-yard split of 1.68, which is arguably the most important measurement for a blocker.
Not many statistics are available to measure a lineman’s success. But longevity is usually a strong indicator. Baca registered eight starts at left tackle in 2008. In 2009, he moved to left guard and started all 13 games. Baca got a little over his head academically and was ineligible for the 2010 season. Baca managed to come back in 2011 and protect the blind side, starting 11 contests before eventually kicking inside to guard. During his final year of college football, Baca earned starts in 12 games, splitting time between the edge and the inside. Due to his average size, Baca’s NFL career will likely be at guard. But that’s not a bad thing. A very adept puller, Baca gets out of his stance and cuts diagonally up field with his eyes on his target. He also does a great job of extending his arms and pushing defenders into the next level. Widely projected as a sixth- to seventh-round draft choice, Baca’s skill set will pay off for some team.