The draft is the ultimate lottery for the 32 NFL teams; a series of decisions that can make or break a franchise. The draft can be the catalyst for a championship dynasty, or the beginning of a quick, painful downfall for a team and its fanbase; get the draft right and you are on the track to success, get it wrong and the future will look increasingly worrisome. Recent years have seen teams utilise the draft in different ways. Whilst many franchises still adhere to the stockpiling of draft picks, the success of the Los Angeles Rams in 2021 has thrown a metaphorical spanner in the works. The Rams have chosen to trade ‘valuable’ draft picks for experienced top-tier players – improving production whilst also impacting the salary cap – and the ultimate prize was, just that, the ultimate prize: a Championship. However, regardless of the draft strategy chosen, the importance of mid-round picks remains high. Whilst pundits and analysts wax lyrical about the top-tier prospects in this year’s draft, the cunning personnel in each team’s draft room will be looking at under-the-radar players that can be a ‘steal’ come draft day. Following this concept, let’s look at much-hyped prospects to avoid, and the late-round alternatives for each position – matching player traits and skillsets where possible.
Quarterback – Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky Kenny Pickett remains a contentious prospect in this year’s draft, but regardless of your opinion on him, Pickett will definitely be a top prospect for the position come draft day. And it is easy to see why based on Pickett’s tape from the 2021 collegiate season. Pickett is the third ACC quarterback to pass for 4000 yards and 40 touchdowns. That said, it should be noted that Pickett’s production over the previous three seasons was that of a middling college quarterback – hardly the ‘face of a franchise’. Teams will need to decide whether the Pitt man’s wild ascension in 2021 was due to development or a multitude of situational advantages. Therefore, if a team has any doubts about Pickett’s ability to be their leading man and box-office superstar – and his tiny hands may be the cause of that (hyperlink hand article)– then they should look a little deeper on the list of auditionees and give Bailey Zappe a chance. Zappe had a single scholarship option out of high-school – Houston Baptist – and quickly got on work on making a statement. His sophomore season saw Zappe put up 2822 yards and 23 touchdowns, swiftly followed with 3811 yards and 35 touchdowns during his junior year. This high-level production continued into the Covid-19 shortened season of 2020 with a 159.3 QB rating, before Zappe chose to transfer to Western Kentucky and test himself at FBS level for the 2021 season. Putting up video-game numbers, Zappe averaged 597.8 yards per game with 62 touchdowns, becoming the FBS single-season passing yards and passing touchdowns records holder in the process. Given Pickett’s projection as a pro-ready quarterback who can complete the majority of passes, it is fair to offer Zappe’s passing talent and ability as a comparison and alternative. Yes, there are physical limitations for Zappe, but having beaten the odds his entire career, could Zappe beat them once more? Given the uncertainty and slander greeting the top quarterbacks of this year’s draft class, Zappe may have as good a chance as any to succeed in the league.
Running Back – Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M Tyler Allgeier, BYU Isaiah Spiller is another contentious prospect heading towards the 2022 NFL Draft. Those that are high on Spiller, are high on Spiller. But having disappointed at the combine, Spiller should be dropping down draft boards. Posting just a 30-inch vertical and a 9'6" broad jump, which are concerning indicators for his explosiveness, further questions were asked given the running back didn't run the 40-yard dash. Spiller has since run a 4.63 at his pro-day, doing little to quash concerns, and as such the Texas A&M man may be one to avoid. With Spiller’s primary skill being his natural running instincts and projection as a workhorse back, a late-round alternative should be Tyler Allgeier. The BYU running back has himself failed to match expectations during the draft process, but with this he has become a viable late-round option. Similarly to Spiller, Allgeier disappointed with his speed during testing, however he can work around this in the league given his vision and patience. Projecting as a workhorse back and with similar size to Spiller, Allgeier has better vision than the Texas A&M man and knows how to tempo his runs in order to allow blocks to develop. The BYU man has less-refined receiving chops than Spiller, however this can be developed or Allgeier can be used as part of a multi-player rushing offence.
Tight End – Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M Grant Calcaterra, SMU Few players have seen their draft stock fall further than Jalen Wydermyer since the start of the 2021 season. At one time a possible first-round pick, the Texas A&M tight-end has failed to put a foot right since. That said, there will be scouts that remain fervently behind Wydermyer. Defenders will point to Wydermyer’s stats and receiving numbers, but as a less than polished blocker and after running 5.03 in the 40, the Aggie is becoming harder to defend. Coupled with Wydermyer’s average lateral agility and get-off, it is tough to see him becoming a consistent seam threat at the pro-level and therefore teams may be best served utilise a high-value draft pick on a different position and player. If that is the case, then up steps Grant Calcaterra as a late-round option. Whilst we have looked at like-for-like alternatives for other positions, SMU’s Calcaterra projects as the player everyone said Wydermyer would be. With very good straight-line speed - a 4.42 40yard dash - Calcaterra has the ability to stretch the field on vertical routes, as well as be able to pull away from defenders on crossing routes. Though requiring fine-tuning as a blocker, the SMU man's arm length should benefit this, as will his experience at the fullback role. Nevertheless, Calcaterra does come with his own concerns. Having retired from football previously due to concussion, teams may be hesitant to draft him. This will see Calcaterra drop lower in the draft than his talent projects, making him a potential 'steal' on day three.
Wide Receiver – Treylon Burks, Arkansas Khalil Shakir, Boise State Moving outside from the tight-end position, it is time to discuss yet another contentious prospect. Arkansas’ Treylon Burks has somewhat echoed Wydermyer as his draft process testing has shone for the wrong reasons. A top 5 receiver throughout the draft process, the big bodied Burks looked nowhere near as athletic at the combine as he did on tape. The most concerning numbers came in the three-cone drill where Burks recorded a time of 7.28 seconds. Ranking 8th percentile all-time among wide receivers, the combination of this and his vertical jump – 33 inches - puts Burks in extremely worrying and ominous company. According to Pro Football Reference, there have been 39 wide receivers in combine history to post a vertical jump of 34 inches or less and a three-cone time of 7.25 seconds or more. In fact, out of those 39 players only 13 were drafted. Add this to concerns over how Burks was almost force-fed the ball at Arkansas and it is easy to see why Burks has his detractors. Burks’ loss could well prove Khalil Shakir’s gain. Undoubtedly one of the best pass-catchers in this year’s draft class, the Boise State wideout projects as a well-rounded receiver at the next level. Whilst Burks had been talked up as a versatile prospect who could win with power and speed – in the slot and on the boundary – Shakir demonstrates this same versatility available in the later rounds. Having posted a similarly poor three cone at the combine, Shakir does not come without his own concerns, however his route running is nuanced enough to believe his will be successful in the league. Whilst Burks is a true boom or bust talent given his high draft projection, Shakir offers an alternative that should be available in the fourth, fifth or even sixth round of the draft. This would offer less pressure and expectation, allowing Shakir to gradually improve and become an impactful option for whichever team drafts him.
Offensive Tackle – Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa Bamidele Olaseni, Utah
Likely the biggest difference in terms of draft projection between prospects – alongside the safety position - the late-round alternative to Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning will not be for everyone. That said, firstly focusing on Penning, it is easy to see why the bruising tackle is getting a deluge of first-round hype. A massive man with ideal size and dominant resume in the FCS, Penning further showcased his almost bullying dominance at the Senior Bowl. But whilst some pundits and scouts are raving about that, it is that same exact reason that people should and will sour on Penning. With a tendency to be overly aggressive, Penning may well become a perennial ‘flag-getter’ in the league, as well as being caught out the more wily and clever pass rushers. The viral clip of Penning throwing a rusher to the ground during Senior Bowl practice had people excited but should have had people concerned. Not only was Penning holding, the Northern Iowa man then proceeded to throw the defender into his own quarterback for the sack. Add this to concerns about the quality of opposition Penning faced in the FCS and it should be a red-flag for many teams – not to be confused with the multiple flags Penning is destined to pick up in his rookie season.
As aforementioned, the alternative option here is somewhat of a reach. With Penning regarded as a first-round prospect, Utah’s Bamidele Olaseni is quite far away from this kind of projection. That said, Olaseni offers the same 6”7 330lbs+ size with less propensity for holding. Additionally, the Utah man’s extremely long wingspan and lack of experience at the position should act as source of excitement rather than concern at the pro level. Whilst you know what you will get with Penning, the London-born Olaseni taps into the curiosity and inquisitiveness of NFL scouts. The former remains likely to start earlier than Olaseni, but give it two years and you might see the Utah man as perennial NFL starter whilst Penning is still causing concern for his own coaches and team.
Interior Offensive Line – Kenyon Green, Texas A&M Cole Strange, Chattanooga
Another position and another Texas A&M prospect to avoid. It should be said here, this writer is not anti-Aggie or harbouring a vendetta against Texas A&M. That said, many of their top prospects should be analysed further. At first look, Green looks like a dominant run protector with high-level athleticism and upper body strength. However, when you delve deeper you see issues with hand technique. Using prior experience and knowledge, it is easy to understand how this can hinder pass protection. Green can likely fix this with pro coaching, but as a projected first-round pick, his positional value should count against him. Given this, and the fact that the NFL has a history of talented interior offensive lineman being drafted in the later rounds, a ‘cheaper’ alternative is Cole Strange. Chattanooga is hardly a breeding ground for NFL talent, but Strange has the potential to break that mould. Similarly athletic to Green, Strange plays with a nasty demeanour but in a controlled manner. A people-mover in the run game, Strange offers a stout anchor in pass protection and could be the latest small-school guard to succeed in the league.
Interior Defensive Line – Jordan Davis, Georgia Marquan McCall, Kentucky * *A caveat is required here for Jordan Davis. Given his elite athleticism, Davis looks like a great prospect but taking him inside the top-15 picks could prove questionable given his limited snap count and poor conditioning. Thus, Davis is not a prospect to avoid but more of a prospect to approach with care. This position should probably be caveated again when it comes to Jordan Davis’ projected usage in the NFL. If a team does not have a unique plan for Davis, instead preferring to use him as a traditional nose tackle, then his ceiling is limited and a late-round option could be more frugal. The primary concern for Davis is his conditioing and ability to play regular snaps – something he did not do at Georgia. Couple with his lack of lateral agility – particularly compared to his linear agility – and the role Davis plays in the league may not be as innvoative as his hype suggests. On the other hand, Davis is an almost laughably large man with freaskish athleticism and surprising range. With the correct coaching, conditioning work and usage, Davis could be a highly impactful player in the league. Looking for alternative big-bodied prospects who can anchor down and stop the run – inevitably with less upside and athleticism – Kentucky’s Marquan McCall is an interesting prospect. True nose tackles are a dying breed, yet that is exactly what McCall brings to the table. With a low-centre of gravity and 379lbs of mass, McCall isn’t easy to uproot off the line of scrimmage and was nicknamed ‘bully’ at Kentucky for a reason. Throw in the glowing reviews of McCall’s integrity, character and demeanour on and off the field, and the big man out of Detroit, Michigan could prove to be a valuable pick-up for many NFL franchises.
Edge – Travon Walker, Georgia Amare Barno, Virginia Tech Currently the man of the hour, the fact that Travon Walker is being talked of as a potential number-one pick baffles this writer. It comes down to five key questions: Is Walker the ideal size and shape? Yes. Is Walker a generational athlete? The numbers do not lie, yes. Has Walker terrorised colleges offences? No, not even close. Could Walker become a star in the NFL? Yes. Could Walker continue his mediocre collegiate production in the NFL? Yes… and that is the more likely outcome. Sports Reference statistics show that in three seasons at Georgia, Walker racked up only 13 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. Hardly even first-rounder numbers, add in the context of Georgia having one of the best defences in the FBS and these statistics are even more unexceptional. In response, many will argue that this context is why Walker’s numbers were low. The Bulldogs coaches will point to Walker ‘wearing many hats’ for Georgia, playing across the line as part of a heavy rotation of NFL talent. This is not a moot point and must be considered, however when projecting Walker’s impact in the league it does not leave much to go off. Therefore, if you want a freaky athlete for the position, and at a lower cost, Amare Barno’s name is definitely in the hat. Another super-athletic, downright freaky prospect, Barno offers a smaller frame than Walker but has the elite speed and explosivity to match the Georgia Bulldog. The Virginia Tech man also compares to Walker in terms of his limited production during the last college season, but it is clear to see that he's explosive and rangy in space. closing ground quickly and suddenly with his long strides. Once drafted, Barno could look to add more weight and play at the 6"4, 250lbs range, offering somewhat of a unicorn athlete for the position.
Linebacker – Brandon Smith, Penn State Troy Andersen, Montana State
This year’s draft class is being heralded as ‘deep’ when it comes to linebacker prospects. Penn State’s Brandon Smith is seen as one of the top prospects in this class, and it is easy to see why. A highly gifted athlete, Smith could potentially be the next in line to live up to the LBU moniker that Penn State has so frequently attempted to claim. But despite his elite-level athleticism, Smith has failed to consistently produce at the collegiate level. Flashes of high-level play were intermittent amongst generally mediocre and average production. Whether an NFL team can get Smith, the athlete, to the required level to perform week in week out on the field remains to be seen.
From one athlete to another, Troy Andersen has quickly become one of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s NFL draft. Out of Montana State, you could be forgiven for being unaware of Andersen at the start of this year’s college season. But after being impactful at quarterback, running back and linebacker at Montana State, the intrigue rose. The intrigue hit fever pitch at the NFL combine, where the 6”4 243lbs Andersen ran a 4.42 40 yard dash, with a 36 inch vertical and a 10”9 broad jump. Andersen is not just an athlete, Andersen is an elite, elite athlete. Andersen is still very raw when it comes to processing, but given his inexperience in the position improvement can be assumed and almost guaranteed at the NFL level. Andersen’s intrigue should be enough to entice various teams, with the Montana State man likely available in the third-round.
Cornerback – Kyler Gordon, Washington Alontae Taylor, Tennessee
Comments were full of mockery and concern when the NFL announced on social media that Kyler Gordon would be attending the draft in person. This is not because Gordon is a bad prospect, but rather that the consensus has become that Gordon should not be drafted in the first-round. However, Gordon’s attendance surely confirms his confidence that the first-round is not just a possibility, but a probability. On tape, Gordon has the tools to be a first-round prospect, agile and quick enough to track receivers whilst demonstrating effective hands and pass break-up skills. That said, Gordon’s tackling ability and instincts pose questions, potentially limiting his usage on the outside.
As a late round alternative, Tennessee’s Alontae Taylor offers similar speed and athleticism to Kyler Gordon. Posting an official 4.36 40 yard dash at the combine, Taylor is also regarded as a great prospect character wise and is coming off a strong collegiate effort in 2021. Taylor developed his instincts in coverage, featured plenty of versatility, and continued to embrace a physicality whenever necessary. Shifty and elusive route-runners can give him trouble if he is unable to disrupt the route early at the line of scrimmage, and Taylor will likely require time to adapt to the NFL level. That said, Taylor’s athleticism and instincts make him particularly interesting as a prospect when in direct comparison to Kyler Gordon. Available at the end of day 2 or early day 3, Taylor could end up being one of the best cornerbacks in this draft class.
Safety – Lewis Cine, Georgia Kenderick Duncan, Louisville * *Another caveat here. Cine is likely going to be – at worst – an above-average NFL safety, but he definitely requires extra time and training to become a three-down player in the league.
A semi-finalist for the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award – the nation’s top defensive back – Cine has seen his draft stock continue to rise since the start of the season. To the point that a few pundits have Cine as the top safety prospect, it would be incorrect to say the Georgia Bulldog is not an uber-exciting prospect. That said, Cine still comes with reservations. Likely seen as a box-safety when he enters the league, Cine is a hard-hitting and physical athlete who will likely need time to develop into a three-down player at the next level. This begs the question on whether Cine is worth a late first-round or early second-round pick.
The alternative option is Kenderick Duncan from Louisville. Projected as a day-three pick, Duncan projects to play a similar role to Cine at the pro-level, as well as coming with added versatility. Having seen snaps at free safety, box-safety, slot, and outside cornerback during his time at Georgia Southern and Louisville, Duncan’s physicality and play-speed are evident on film. Whilst Cine is a quicker and more explosive prospect, Duncan fits a similar mould at 2 inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than the Georgia man. Immediately this physical size – coupled with Duncan’s on-field physicality – should allow the Cardinal to have an impact playing the box role, whilst proving he could step up to Power-5 level at Louisville will hold him in good stead. There are concerns over Duncan’s injury history – notably a recurring hip problem – but as a fifth to seventh round option, Duncan should top team’s wishlists.