Despite all the work that teams put into evaluating prospects, some players outperform their draft position every year in the NFL. That doesn't mean they become huge stars at the next level, but they still are considered steals given the value they provide relative to where they were selected in the draft. Just last season, we saw wide receivers John Brown (third round) and Martavis Bryant (fourth round) emerge as steals.
So, who will be the steals of the 2015 draft? My colleagues from NFL Network's "Path to the Draft" made some excellent picks when discussing the topic on Monday's show. Here are five guys that I believe have the potential to become the steals of this year's draft.
The skinny: If Ekpre-Olomu had not suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice for the College Football Playoff in December, I think he would be in the conversation for top cornerback in the draft. Now, he's not in the first-round conversation and I have him ranked as the No. 10 corner available. He might need a redshirt year as a rookie as he recovers from the injury, but he's such a good player. It will be interesting to see how early a team will be willing to draft him. At 5-foot-9, he's going to struggle against size at times, but he's an excellent tackler, even though he missed a few last season, and has great intangibles.
The skinny: Jackson will probably go in the third round, but he'll likely be a plug-and-play guy and start in the NFL for a decade. He's a tough, physical player who is proficient in just about everything he's asked to do.
The skinny: Lewis could join the likes of Cecil Shorts and Pierre Garcon, who both played their college ball at the University of Mount Union, and become the next small-school receiver to make his mark in the NFL. He had a good showing at the Senior Bowl and is a big-bodied target (6-4, 214 pounds) who can make plays downfield. 2014 draft steal Martavis Bryant is that type of player, too.
The skinny: Smith kept flashing at the East-West Shrine Game. In fact, he was so impressive that he received a call-up to the Senior Bowl, where he had a very good week. He's a high-effort player who will battle to make plays. One other East-West defensive end to keep in mind -- Miami's Anthony Chickillo, who starred along with Smith in the Shrine Game.
The skinny: I'm hearing more and more buzz about Yeldon of late, which is interesting considering he's not a newcomer to the national scene having played a prominent role for Alabama. The thing is, Yeldon has often been left out of discussions about the top running backs in the draft. I think the team that lands him in the middle rounds will be very happy with the value he provides, though. He's a talented rusher with good receiving ability. Yeldon is productive, and I was on hand last month for his pro day, where he ran very well. The stopwatches I saw had him in the mid-4.4s, a big improvement from his NFL Scouting Combine 40 (4.61).