The importance of the NFL Draft cannot be overstated. In a salary cap league like the NFL, being able to find cheap, productive talent consistently is an essential part of building a successful franchise. The 2019 NFL Draft will begin on Thursday night, and while it will run through Saturday, it is obviously Round 1 that most hold in highest acclaim. In fact, the first round is the only round most mock drafts cover. It’s when the best players get taken, and it’s the round where Roger Goodell is standing on stage giving players bear hugs after they’re selected.But calling first-round picks the “best players” is an assumption more than a proven fact — an educated assumption but an assumption nonetheless. Every year there are plenty of players taken in the later rounds who become stars for their teams, or if not stars, foundational pieces. For example, in the previous five drafts (since 2014) there have been 25 players drafted in the third round or later who went on to become Pro Bowlers. Names like Trai Turner (Round 3, Pick 92), Tyreek Hill (Round 5, Pickc 165), Alvin Kamara (Round 3, Pick 67), Dak Prescott (Round 4, Pick 135), David Johnson (Round 3, Pick 86) and George Kittle (Round 5, Pick 146) to name a few. Many more have become entrenched starters on their respective teams.In other words, these are players who aren’t appearing in mock drafts or receiving a ton of pre-draft hype before their selections but could well go on to become productive NFL players. I’ve watched a lot of these players through college, and I’ve studied them over the last few months, both by watching film and through statistical analysis. I’ve picked one player at each position group who I believe won’t be drafted before the third round who I think are the most likely to have productive NFL careers.We’ll start at quarterback with one of my favorite unheralded players in this draft.QB Will Grier, West VirginiaIn a draft where I feel nearly all of the quarterback prospects are more than likely backups at the NFL level, Grier is one outside the Kyler Murray-Dwayne Haskins tier that I believe has the best chance to develop into a solid NFL starter. We see that every season NFL teams fall in love with the size, arm strength and just Looking Like An NFL QB, and it gets them in trouble. This year I think those QBs are Drew Lock and Daniel Jones, both of whom have enticing potential but showed a lack of accuracy in college.Then there’s Grier, who was not only productive in college as a starter but has both a strong and accurate arm. If there’s one thing I believe teams overlook when evaluating quarterbacks it’s their accuracy as a thrower. You can do things to improve upon it at the next level, but for the most part, you’re either accurate or you aren’t.Now, none of this is to say Grier’s a perfect prospect. He needs to develop. He shows intelligence before the snap in diagnosing the defense and finding his first read. After that, though, things tend to get iffy. Oddly enough, because of that, falling to the third round might benefit Grier. He’s not going to be drafted in a spot where teams feel pressure to put him on the field and let him sink or swim. He should end up in a place that allows him to sit and learn for a year or two, and I think that will help him address his shortcomings. He’s shown plenty of ability to make me believe some team is going to get him in the third round and he’ll be far more valuable than a few of the QBs likely to go ahead of him.RB Justice Hill, Oklahoma StateIt’s difficult to find an underrated or underappreciated running back prospect because, for the most part, nearly all of them are underrated or underappreciated these days. The position has become so fungible in the minds of many that plenty of talented players are afterthoughts. In a world of afterthoughts, Hill might be my favorite nobody is noticing. His size is a detriment when it comes to teams evaluating him, as he measured at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds at the NFL Combine. What I love about him, though, is that despite his size he’s not ineffective between the tackles. He also shows great vision in finding the hole and hitting it, and he has good balance, so he’s able to take hits and bounce off them without losing much if any speed. He wasn’t asked to catch a lot of passes in Oklahoma State’s offense, and that leaves questions about his ability as a pass-catcher, but I think there’s potential there. Where his size hurts him most is in pass-blocking. I’m not sure he’s strong enough to be effective there, but he’s at least shown a willingness to try, and sometimes that’s half the battle.WR Deebo Samuel, South CarolinaDeebo Samuel is going to go on the second or third day of the draft and be a productive slot receiver in the NFL. I’m convinced of this. He seems like he was made for the role, even though he mostly played outside at South Carolina. The things I look for in receivers more than their size or speed (they’re both important, but I think we tend to focus on them too much) are their ability as a route runner and their ability to find holes in a defense. Samuel does both well. He’s got excellent short-area quickness which is why I believe he’ll be so effective in the slot, and he shows an ability to diagnose defenses and find soft spots. He can’t (or won’t) block much for you in the run game, but I don’t care. I’m not drafting him to block, though if he could, that’d be great too.TE Foster Moreau, LSUThe tight end position has evolved in recent years thanks to Rob Gronkowski. Since Gronk emerged, every team in the NFL has tried to find their version of Gronk, and they’ve failed miserably. It’s because when teams look for their Gronk, they look for giant athletic freaks who can create mismatches in the passing game both in-line and in the slot. What they ignore is that Gronk was a brilliant in-line blocker as well, which made it even more difficult for defenses to matchup against the Patriots offense.In this draft, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson strikes me as the most “Gronk-like” for his ability to do it all. I don’t feel the same about Noah Fant or Irv Smith. Then there’s Moreau, who showed at LSU that he could stay in and block and do well. In fact, I don’t have a doubt he’ll be able to perform as a blocking tight end in the NFL. I also think he’ll develop as a pass-catcher. He doesn’t have great speed or quickness and isn’t going to burn many linebackers deep, but he has good hands and shows intelligence in using his body to shield defenders from the ball. He did catch 46 passes for 550 yards and 5 touchdowns the last two seasons at LSU, so it’s not like it’s a foreign concept to him. He’s not Gronk, nor will he be, but he’s going to be a steal for somebody in the middle rounds.OL Max Scharping, Northern IllinoisAs a Tuesday night football connoisseur, I have seen plenty of Northern Illinois games. Ironically enough, during those games, it was Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith who garnered most of the broadcast’s attention because, well, he did deserve it. He was incredibly productive. But it was always Scharping who caught my eye while watching the Huskies. He played left tackle, and he succeeded there against MAC competition. I think at the NFL level he has a shot at playing on the left side, but he may be better suited for the right side.He’s got a good base, uses excellent technique, and he’s strong. He’s also a little mean which is something I’ve always enjoyed in my offensive linemen. He gets a little reachy with his hands at times, and in the MAC he got away with it often enough that it didn’t hurt him, but he’ll need to work on that at the NFL level. Either way, he’s a guy who could be drafted later that ends up as an NFL starter who may not go to a bunch of Pro Bowls but can have a stable career.DL L.J. Collier, TCUCollier is challenging to assess because he didn’t play a whole lot at TCU. He’s also somewhat positionless. To me, he profiles best as a five-technique in a 3-4, but he sometimes played at outside linebacker with TCU. He’s not the kind of guy that will amaze you with his shirt off, but he’s strong, and he has long arms — arms he uses very well to get his hands on offensive linemen and control the line of scrimmage. Also, while he doesn’t have the kind of speed you’d look for in a typical edge rusher, he uses those arms and strength and can bull rush effectively.All of which are good things, but what I love most about Collier is his motor. When you watched TCU’s defense last season, he was always going full speed. He didn’t take plays off, and he wasn’t afraid of mixing it up, either. I love that in a defensive lineman as much as I do an offensive lineman. Collier doesn’t get nearly the attention that so many of the other edge rushers and defensive linemen in this draft do, and I get it because he’s not going to wow you with his traits. But he’s a Football Player.LB Ben Burr-Kirven, WashingtonYou’re going to notice a running theme with the players I like on defense. Yes, athleticism, speed, strength, and skill are all essential things for any player at any position. On defense, though, there’s a mentality that I look for, and Burr-Kirven is another example of it. He’s not exactly huge at 6-foot and 230 pounds, but he flies around the field with a high motor, and he finishes tackles. They aren’t always the prettiest tackles, but he finishes most of them. The current era of the NFL has seen offenses follow college offenses and spread defenses out. You see teams in nickel more than you see them in their base sets these days, and I think Burr-Kirven is somebody who benefits from that. He can get sideline to sideline and shows signs of having the kind of coverage ability you need from your linebacker these days if he’s going to stay on the field in your nickel set. If there’s a weakness, it’s that he has trouble in traffic due to his size, and he isn’t great at penetrating a backfield stopping the run or in the pass rush. He’s more east-west than north-south.CB Ugochukwu Amadi, OregonDon’t worry, you can call him “Ugo.” Whatever you want to call him, I think Amadi profiles as an excellent nickel corner in the NFL, something that’s only becoming more valuable by the day. He played somewhat of a hybrid role at Oregon between slot corner and free safety, and could possibly do both in the NFL, but with his size (5-foot-9, 199 pounds) and short-area quickness, I think he’s best suited for the slot corner role where he can mirror guys, and he’s shown good ball instincts.Some teams might be scared off by the 4.51 40 he ran at the combine, but Amadi plays faster than that speed, and his agility and ability to change directions quickly helps cover for the lack of top-end speed. As does the fact he’s just smart defensively and has good instincts. He has shortcomings in the run game due to his size. That limits his draft stock because a corner in the slot is going to need to contribute against the run occasionally, too.S Jaquan Johnson, MiamiJohnson won’t be the highest-drafted player on his defense, nor will he be the highest-paid player, but he could quickly become the leader of it. If he were quicker (he ran 4.69 at the combine), he’d probably rocket up draft boards because he’s just a smart, instinctual player with a high motor. Somebody who is not afraid to come up and hit somebody when he needs to but at the same time is capable of dropping in coverage. When I watch Johnson, I can’t help but think he was born a decade or two too late, as he would have been a perfect NFL safety not too long ago. Still, even now, I think he’s going to be a good NFL player who is a valuable member of a good defense. He’s the kind of player who may not be the best player on your defense, but he’ll make everyone around him look better. I like Johnson better than quite a few of the safeties projected to go ahead of him.



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