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2019 NFL Draft: Four players who could be first-round surprises

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There always are some surprise picks near the bottom of the first round of the NFL draft, and there's a sense inside the league the 2019 edition could have more than usual. Below you'll find four prospects who aren't exactly mock draft darlings, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be waiting very long to be selected. In fact, NFL executives, scouts and coaches tell me they wouldn't be shocked to hear the following names called in Round 1 on Thursday, April 25.

NOTE: Click on each draft prospect's name for a full scouting report.

Tytus Howard, OT, Alabama State

Drafting Howard in the first round would be, in the words of one NFC executive, "really ballsy." But the upside is tantalizing on a high school quarterback who arrived at an HBCU as a tight end, then converted to offensive line, where he's still putting on weight and learning the finer points of the position.

Howard showed well in his two opportunities against top-level competition, last season against Auburn and at the Senior Bowl in January. He has the traits to play the premium left tackle spot, in a year when not many of those guys are near the top of draft boards. Some feel Howard could play right tackle or guard, as well.

"Great kid. Smart and can pick things up. Good worker," an NFC scout said. "Can get his pads a little high at times. Good strength to drive defenders off the ball. Needs to clean up his technique and finish. Has all the size and athletic tools to get better."

The number of teams giving Howard extra attention is one reason there's growing talk in draft rooms that someone might take a chance early. By draft day, Howard will have visited and/or had a private workout with 24 franchises, including the Redskins, Rams and Jets this week, a source said, with the Jaguars planning to send a contingent to see him once Howard returns to campus.

Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia

Several scouts and executives said Round 1 is too rich for them here. But Thornhill has a lot going for him: length, coverage ability, versatility. His Wonderlic test score improved dramatically from last spring to the NFL Scouting Combine, once he'd actually prepared for it. "And he's got picks -- ball production," an AFC executive said of Thornhill, who had 13 interceptions at UVA (including six this past season) while bouncing between cornerback and safety.

A high school basketball star, Thornhill put up the type of numbers at the combine -- a 4.42 40-yard dash, 44-inch vertical jump, 11-foot-9 broad jump and 21 bench reps at 6-foot, 205 pounds -- that make talent evaluators take a second look at the tape. One AFC scout compared it to the 2015 combine performance of Byron Jones, another versatile DB the Cowboys took at No. 27 overall.

"You didn't quite see that (speed) on film, and same with those testing numbers. (Thornhill) doesn't stand out in terms of athleticism," the scout said. "But he is productive."

Safety is another scarce position at the top of this draft, with Mississippi State's Johnathan Abram likely the first one off the board and then a lot of question marks. Maryland's Darnell Savage could go higher than expected, too.

Chris Lindstrom, OG, Boston College

His name hasn't been discussed as much as the draft's other top linemen, but teams will be surprised at this point if Lindstrom doesn't go in the first round -- perhaps even in the top 20, thanks to his athletic ability, smarts and versatility. He helped himself with a solid Senior Bowl week. Some believe he can play center, too.

"He's one of those guys that it's not a sexy pick, but he'll end up playing eight to 10 years and just be a steady, good pro," an NFC personnel director said.

There was a run on interior offensive linemen in the back half of Round 1 a year ago and the same thing may well happen here, with N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury, Texas A&M center Erik McCoy and maybe even Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins in the mix, as well.

Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State

At minimum, Simmons will start his rookie season on reserve/PUP, and many teams believe he'll be a medical redshirt for 2019 after tearing his ACL during training in mid-February. Simmons told me at Mississippi State's pro day that he also suffered what he called a minor meniscus tear, which doctors repaired -- a procedure that can complicate recovery and delay the normal six- to nine-month timetable. Some teams have concerns about how quickly Simmons was off crutches and traveling around on visits barely a month after reconstruction surgery.

There also is the matter of a graphic video showing Simmons repeatedly punching a woman as he intervened in a March 2016 fight between the woman and Simmons' sister. That incident led to an arrest, legal consequences and a one-game suspension his freshman year. It's sure to bring scrutiny locally on whatever NFL team brings Simmons into its community, too.

Having said all that, every executive and scout I've spoken to says the background on Simmons is otherwise immaculate. Members of the current and former Mississippi State coaching staffs call him a culture changer. He won academic and community service awards. If he were healthy and totally clean off the field, Simmons' talent and makeup would have him squarely in the top-10 conversation.

"I've yet to find one person that can say bad things about him," an NFC scout said, echoing what many others have voiced in recent months. "If there is, then we're all fooled. Not everybody deserves a second chance, but he got one and he's done a nice job with it."

The prospect of missing an entire season usually causes a player to drop a round in the draft. One executive pointed to linebacker Jaylon Smith falling to the Cowboys at No. 34 in 2016, though Smith's nerve issue was a far more serious and unpredictable injury. If an organization with historically higher risk tolerance and extra draft capital (e.g., the Raiders) sees a chance to get a bargain on an impact player for 2020 and beyond, what's to stop the team from taking a shot on Simmons?

"Before the injury, I think he would've gone top-20, even with the incident," a college scouting director said. "Now, I think he still goes (in Round 1), just because people are going to run out of first-round guys they've got a real conviction on."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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