The 2014 NFL Draft is as deep and talented as any collection of prospects that I've evaluated in my 20-plus years around the league.
Although the conversation centers around the top prospects on the board, it's the unheralded players surging up the charts that will shape the opinions of evaluators when they reflect back on the class in a few years. Thus, it's important to know the sleeper picks that scouts are buzzing about behind closed doors to get a better perspective of how things will play out on draft day.
After conducting a few conversations with scouts and decision-makers around the league, here are 10 under-the-radar players to remember heading into the draft:
West has been quietly touted as the draft's best running back in some meeting rooms around the league due to his powerful running style and impeccable instincts. He has a natural feel for finding creases in the middle, yet is quick enough to bounce around the corner for big gains. Some skeptics will question his skills due to his status as a small-school standout, but the film doesn't lie, which is why I'm going all in on West's potential as a feature back.
The dynamic pass catcher created a buzz in scouting circles with a spectacular performance at his pro day, even though he wasn't able to do a full workout as he recovered from a broken foot that kept him sidelined at the NFL Scouting Combine. Latimer surprised scouts with his overall athleticism and explosiveness, while confirming his solid skills as a big-bodied receiver. Although Latimer is still rough around the edges as a route runner, his explosiveness as an athlete and playmaker has teams salivating about his potential at the next level.
After taking a long, hard look at Savage earlier this week, I'm convinced NFL coaches will come away smitten with his prototypical size and arm talent. He looks like a franchise quarterback and evaluators will view him as a potential starter despite his limited experience as a full-time starter. Given the question marks that surround every quarterback in the 2014 class, it is quite possible that Savage ranks higher on draft boards than most expect based on his performance last fall.
Attaochu is a powerful edge player with outstanding first-step quickness. He explodes off the line of scrimmage on passing downs, exhibiting terrific snap-count anticipation. Attaochu shows good balance and body control turning the corner to hit the quarterback on rush attempts. He complements his speed rush with an explosive bull-rush maneuver that overwhelms blockers. While Attaochu needs to refine his hand skills and learn how to set up his rush moves, he is a high-motor player who has the potential to develop into a legitimate pass-rushing threat with repetitions and coaching.
Smallwood is an active linebacker with terrific instincts and awareness. He has a strong nose for the ball and attacks runners in the hole. Scouts ding him for his perceived lack of physicality, but his exceptional production over a three-year career suggests that he is an impact defender despite being a grab-and-drag tackler. It's even more important that Smallwood is a versatile three-down linebacker capable of staying on the field in every situation.
Small-school standouts must dominate their college competition to earn high marks from NFL evaluators. Edwards played up to that standard during his time at Tennessee State, and he validated his pro potential with a solid week of practice at the Reese's Senior Bowl. Edwards also checked off all of the boxes at the combine with a strong showing on the field and in interviews with team officials. The thorough domination of the pre-draft process by Edwards will likely push him up the board and make him a likely first-year starter as a pro.
Every defensive coordinator in the NFL covets a swing defender in the back end with the athleticism and cover skills to play a variety of spots in sub packages. Brooks fits the bill as a hybrid safety with the physicality and toughness to play in the box, and the instincts to float over the top as a deep-middle defender. With Brooks also capable of playing on the outside in spots, the Florida State standout should be a prized commodity on draft day.
The former quarterback is still transitioning to a new position, but shows tremendous potential as a pass rusher. He recorded 14.5 sacks as a senior, displaying explosive first-step quickness and closing burst. In addition, Smith flashed quick hands and slithery agility coming off the edge. Although his game is still evolving at this stage of his career, it's quite possible that he could develop into a double-digit sack artist early in his career.
The Big Ten receiving leader has received little fanfare this offseason despite ranking as one of the top pass catchers and athletes in the draft class. The buzz is starting to build, however, after Robinson put up remarkable numbers at a pro-day workout that suggests he is far more explosive than scouts expected after studying his tape.
The NFL's sudden fascination with "big" cornerbacks will make Jean-Baptiste a highly coveted pick in the draft. Scouts are fascinated by his size-speed combination, while coaches are encouraged by his quick development as a cornerback after spending his first two seasons at Nebraska playing wide receiver. With Richard Sherman and several other "big" cornerbacks successfully pulling off similar conversions as collegians, Jean-Baptiste will come off the board much sooner than most observers expect.