Despite all the research and film-room work that goes into evaluations, we consistently see players outplay their draft position as they go on to better pro careers than what was expected of them coming out of college. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the highest-profile example of such a case. Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris is another former sixth-rounder who has stunned people with his rise in the NFL ranks. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt was a first-rounder (11th overall), but no one was projecting him to become such a dominant force.
I see some candidates in this year's draft who have the potential to chart a similar course. Here are five prospects who could exceed the expectations set for them by their college careers.
Dupree has had some solid numbers, recording 7.5 sacks last season and 23.5 during his Wildcats career. He has all the athletic tools you look for, too. Yet, the big concern that comes up with Dupree -- whether watching tape or talking to evaluators -- is a lack of consistency. Is he more than just a flash player? He's had to wear different hats in different systems at Kentucky, so it's possible that consistency of scheme and assignment will help him as a pro. If he lands in the right defense and becomes more consistent, look out.
Heuerman never posted a huge statistical season during his career with the Buckeyes, but his numbers still dropped significantly last season, going from 26-466-4 in 2013 to 17-207-2 in 2014. He dealt with a foot injury last season, but played through it. He's an excellent blocker at the point of attack and an outstanding pass protector. I know he can catch the ball and make big plays downfield. Heuerman's a much better athlete than people think, too. I expect him to be an excellent pro.
Mannion's stock took a hit as his numbers declined sharply in 2014. After throwing for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2013, he threw for 3,164 yards and 15 TDs last season. However, the talent around him wasn't as strong in 2014 as it had been in past years and evaluators are weighing that as they take a closer look at the quarterback. Despite the dropoff in production, Mannion is actually gaining momentum as he makes a case to be the third quarterback drafted behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Mannion had a very nice pro day, and he has an advantage over some other top QB prospects because he played in a pro-style offense in college rather than a spread system. Give him an NFL supporting cast, and he has the ability to be a very solid pro signal-caller.
Odighizuwa is similar to Dupree in that he'll flash on tape but then won't pop up again for a while. Can he be a force and string together a series of good games? We don't know yet. He sure looks the part, though. He's a physical specimen, but he's never had that big, breakout season and needs to show more consistency. He missed the entire 2013 season after undergoing surgery on both hips, so injuries have certainly been a factor in his career. If he can stay healthy and put it all together, he should be a better pro than college player.
It might seem counterintuitive to include Rollins on this list, given that he had seven interceptions last season and was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Yet, I'm among those that think his best football is still ahead of him. Rollins was a four-year starter for the Miami (Ohio) basketball team before he decided to return to football, which he hadn't played since high school, for the 2014 season to tremendous success. There's reason to think he has plenty of potential to improve as he continues to learn the game. He played corner in college and could stay at that spot in the NFL, but I think he's best suited to play safety in the NFL, given his speed (he ran the 40 in 4.57 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine). His ball skills could really shine at safety, where he's able to keep the game in front of him instead of having to turn around to find the ball as a corner.