The Hidden Gems Of The 2021 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft is fast approaching, and it cannot be overstated how much it can define the outlook of an organization. Whereas free agency is for short-term gain, the amount of edges that can be exploited through the draft to maximize a franchise’s long-term well being.

Between trading down, attacking valuable positions, and playing the draft board correctly, there are plenty of ways to get ahead of other teams in the draft. However, the main one may be to find value in the draft where others cannot- the overlooked player is the greatest market inefficiency out there. If you can find an above-average starter in the later rounds of the draft when other teams can’t, the amount of flexibility created is tremendous, and is something obviously every team strives for.

So who may these diamonds in the rough be? Luckily, with the help of my predictive draft model, I have just the answer! By utilizing Grinding The Mock’s expected draft position and The Draft Network’s predictive board, we’ll look at the top players that appear to currently be undervalued! These players may not be Tom Brady or Antonio Brown, but whoever acquires him will quite pleased with their investment!

Before we get to the unheralded gems of this class, let us look at the players that my model may classify as overvalued. These players not only are likely to be drafted before there is value, but are also generally ranked too highly in their respective position groups:

  1. CB Greg Newsome, Northwestern
  2. EDGE Jayson Oweh, Penn State
  3. OL Jalen Mayfield, Michigan
  4. LB Nick Bolton, Missouri
  5. EDGE Joe Tryon, Washington
  6. WR Dyami Brown, North Carolina
  7. WR Amon-Ra St.Brown, USC
  8. IDL Daviyon Nixon, Iowa
  9. IOL Deonte Brown, Alabama and IOL Josh Myers, Ohio State
  10. IDL Jalen Twyman, Pittsburgh

However, let’s not get too negative. I’d love for these players to overachieve their projections, after all! Really, we’re here to promote under-the-radar prospects, which led us right into our hidden gems:

HONORABLE MENTIONS

S Jevon Holland, Oregon

Holland is ranked as the second-best safety, according to EDP, but my model has him as the top player and a first-round value. With multiple seasons with a PFF coverage grade over 85 as a freshman and sophomore, his profile is tremendous, and he has been successful both defending the slot and as a deep safety. In other words, he’s the exact type of defensive playmaker in the secondary that every team should be looking for to boost their pass coverage.

TE Kylen Granson, SMU

Granson isn’t a lock to be drafted, and isn’t listed as one of the tight end prospects with an EDP. If so, he’ll be a nice addition for the team that acquires him. He worked down the field at SMU with a 10.7 average depth of target, ranking above average in deep-ball production, yards after the catch per reception, and yards per route run. Then, he showcased his athleticism with a 6.93 three cone and a 36.5 inch vertical jump. He might not be a premier option in the passing game, but his ability to win in the vertical passing game should allow him to potentially be a starting tight end, which is certainly worth a late day-three pick.

IDLs Malik Herring, Georgia and Mustafa Johnson, Colorado

Neither of these interior defensive linemen are a lock to be drafted, but both bring a lot to the table as rotational interior defenders who could provide value as high as the third round. Herring is an edge rusher/interior defender tweener with multiple seasons with a PFF grade above 85 in the SEC, but is likely to be undervalued because of a good-not-great season this past year. Meanwhile, Johnson has been a very strong run defender and has done more than enough as a pass rusher, including accumulating 50 pressures in 2018. They have their limitations, but each have the production that should translate to the NFL and help teams in acquiring as much quality defensive line depth as they can.

S Darrik Forrest, Cincinnati

Darrik Forrest’s production was fine in college, allowing just 0.44 yards per coverage snap, but his athletic testing numbers are quite appealing at a position where athleticism is so important:

  • 4.42 40-yard dash
  • 6.91 Three Cone
  • 132-inch Broad Jump
  • 39-inch Vertical Jump

He’s also been rather consistent with three seasons with a PFF coverage grade of 73 or higher, and profiles well as a starting player in split safety defenses. As a likely fourth-round pick, that’d make a nice value addition, similarly to Kamren Curl a year ago.

CBs Olaijah Griffin, USC, Zech McPhearson, Texas Tech, Tay Gowan, UCF, and Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon

Here we have four players who project as potential starting cornerbacks and only Graham Jr. is getting any sort of draft buzz.

Griffin allowed just 0.52 yards/coverage snap, which ranks near the top in this class. Graham Jr. earned a 82 PFF grade last year but may fall to middling athleticism, which isn’t an issue for Gowan, who earned an 81 PFF grade and pairs his athleticism with a 6’2″ frame- he’s very similar to L’Jarius Sneed of the Chiefs from last year’s draft. Meanwhile, McPhearson has multiple above-average seasons from a production standpoint despite playing in the Big 12.

All four of these players aren’t seen as potential round-two values, yet all have the production to warrant a selection there. This class is going to provide a lot of value at the cornerback position, and at the end of the draft, these players definitely are a major reason why.

IOL Drew Dalman, Stanford

The amount of starting interior offensive linemen that come from the later stages of the draft is tremendous compared to other positions, and Stanford’s Drew Dalman may be next in line, based on his current projection. With just a 2.2% pressure rate allowed, he definitely performed at a high enough level, but the athleticism is what gives him a strong projection. The three-cone drill is very predictive for success at this position, which makes his 7.33 time very intriguing, while he also posted an 111-inch broad jump and 33-inch vertical. He profiles well as an athletic center that is a great fit for zone-blocking offenses, and if he ends up as a day-three pick, that would make him a valuable pick and a much better alternative to burning an early pick on the interior offensive line.

#10: CB Brandin Echols, Kentucky

Photo Cred: UK Athletics

Year: Senior

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 178 lbs

Model Projected Value: $9.5M, 44th

Expected Draft Position: N/A

Prospect Value Comp: Jonathan Jones

As I alluded to earlier, the amount of value that can be found with this cornerback is incredible, and Kentucky’s Brandin Echols stands out as a potential gem. The senior doesn’t have a listed expected draft position and is a no show on most draft boards, which is absurd for a prospect with a starting cornerback projection from the model.

Although his numbers regressed this season, in his two years as a starter, Echols earned a 73 PFF grade and allowed 0.91 yards/coverage snap, which are quality numbers in the SEC. However, where he really stands out is with his athletic ability. He ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at his pro day and posted a 43-inch vertical jump, which, to be frank, are downright scary numbers, even after adjustment.

With standard production but excellent athleticism, Echols compares very similar to my model’s projection of Jonathan Jones of the Patriots. Jones went undrafted in 2016 out of Auburn despite running a 4.33 40-yard dash, and has very similar size to Echols- 5’10”, 190 pounds. Yet, he’s established himself as a productive cornerback for New England, even earning an 80.8 coverage grade this past season. Size tends to be overvalued at the cornerback position, and with his change of direction skills and quality-enough production, Echols should be able to make an impact in a versatile secondary role defending the slot or even the outside. If he, like Jones, also goes un-drafted, do not be surprised if he follows a similar trajectory.

#9: IOL Kendrick Green, Illinois

Photo Cred: University of Illinois

Year: Senior

Height: 6’4″

Weight: 315 lbs

Model Projected Value: $10.44M, 31st

Expected Draft Position: 124.4

Prospect Value Comp: Brandon Scherff

Projecting interior offensive linemen is much tricker than for tackles, as production is far less stable from college to pro. Thus, athleticism has much more significance in the projections.

This is great news for Kendrick Green, who, by all accounts, in an athletic marvel compared to others at his position. A 35.5-inch broad jump, 4.88 40-yard dash, and 119-inch board jump? Those are absolutely absurd numbers!

In fact, the most similar athletic comparison to Green would be Washington’s Brandon Scherff, who has a similar body frame and posted a very similar athleticism score to him. Those tools definitely were the driving force of his production, though both performed very strongly in run blocking and were adequate in pass protection- Green posted a 75.2 pass-block grade this season and has progressed in every season as a starter.

Am I here to surmise that Green will be as productive as Scherff? Not in the slightest. However, it is worth noting that the two have very similar prospect projections, and some of his other projection comparisons, Wyatt Teller and Frank Ragnow, have also performed well at the next level. With the developmental curve being steep for interior offensive line, it’s generally wise to avoid an early investment at the position. Consequently, the value of selecting Green, who has a starter projection, at the beginning of day three, is the perfect reward for a strong allocation of resources. With how many teams could use cheap, quality production on their offensive line, the surplus value is much higher than taking, say, Alijah Vera-Tucker in the first round.

#8: RB Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana

Photo Cred: Pro Football Network

Year: Senior

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 218 lbs

Model Projected Value: $8.02M, 76th

Expected Draft Position: 152

Prospect Value Comp: D’Andre Swift

Look away, it’s a running back!

If you look at Elijah Mitchell’s expected draft position and projected value, you’d initially be curious as to why he ranks so highly on this list. However, that draft position is more due to there not being enough being placed on positional value. Whereas Mitchell is the model’s fourth-ranked running back, he is 13th on consensus boards, per EDP.

What am I missing with Mitchell? In his three seasons with legitimate playing time, his PFF grades are: 83.8, 86.9, and 85.8. Furthermore, he averaged 4.14 yards after contact per attempt, has made an impact as a receiver, and even dominated in most traditional metrics- 6.2 yards/attempt. To top it off, his athletic testing numbers (4.38 40-yard dash, 38-inch vertical jump, 6.94 three-cone) were the best of any running back in this class!

From what I can tell, the main concern with Mitchell is that he never had a large workload in college. However, this might be playing to his benefit. Having less tread on his tires is great news in terms of him remaining productive longer than other running backs who had more carries in college, and with three elite seasons on his resume, sample size shouldn’t be an issue. Gone are the days are bell-cow running backs, which is why efficiency metrics are much more predictive.

Why is Mitchell any different than D’Andre Swift from a year ago? Neither had great volume numbers, but performed well in terms of creating yardage after contact, receiving ability, and performed well in terms of athletic testing. Yet, Swift went at the top of the second round while Mitchell is a relative unknown. If anything, Mitchell actually has a higher projection than Swift did! It’s so hard to find value at the running back position, but in the fifth or sixth round, a team can get a productive starter with the Louisiana product. There is one lowly-drafted running back that bursts onto the scene every year, and Mitchell appears likely to keep that trend going this year in the right situation.

#7: CB Ambry Thomas, Michigan

Photo Cred: 247 Sports

Year: Senior

Height: 6’0″

Weight: 183 lbs

Model Projected Value: $10.58M, 32nd

Expected Draft Position: 110

Prospect Value Comp: Adoree’ Jackson

One-year wonders are always risky, particularly at a position with so much volatility as cornerback. However, even after adjusting for this, Ambry Thomas remains an undervalued prospect.

In his lone season as a starter, Thomas earned an 80.8 PFF grade, and performed well in most categories. Plus, his athleticism backs up that production. With a 4.37 40-yard dash and 38-inch vertical, he definitely has more than enough movement ability, while his 32.25-inch arms are also above average. Production + athleticism= very strong production.

Based on his projection, Thomas is very similar to Adoree’ Jackson, a first-round pick out of USC in 2017. Both profiled as players with really strong athleticism and above-average production, without any major warts about either. With how similar they are from a size/speed/numbers standpoint, there’s a lot to be encouraged about here. Even excluding the projection, though, Thomas appears to have the makings of a quality starting cornerback. With how important quantity is in the secondary, being able to secure the services of a player like that on the final day of the draft is too good of an opportunity to pass up- the potential pay off is tremendous.

#6: CB Eric Stokes, Georgia

Photo Cred: NFL.com

Year: Senior

Height: 6’1″

Weight: 185 lbs

Model Projected Value: $14.12M, 13th

Expected Draft Position: 52.1

Prospect Value Comp: Jamel Dean

What if I told you there is a prospect in this draft that has excellent production in the SEC and ran a 4.31 40-yard dash atet cornerback position?

Well, this player does, in fact, exist! Yet, his chances of going in the first round are minimal, it’s hard to fathom why. Eric Stokes at the University of Georgia started three years and earned a PFF grade over 80 in two of them, while also just allow 0.615 yards per coverage snap. Remember, this is in the SEC.

Freaky athleticism and strong production should equate to being a first-round pick any day of the week, but for Stokes, that has gone under the radar. Generally, if you rate well in the two highest statistical indicators of future success, your future is bright, and if he really falls to his EDP, then he could be an absolute heist. For some reasons, cornerbacks tend to randomly fall in the draft and end up being strong values, but Stokes’ comparison is easily Jamel Dean, who also performed well in the SEC, dominated the combine, and was “rewarded” by falling to the third round. Two years later, he’s one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL and a key piece of the Bucs secondary. He’s currently listed as the tenth-best cornerback prospect by EDP, but if Caleb Farley’s back injury is serious, Stokes would be model’s second-ranked player at the position. That certainly would speak to him being undervalued and a potential steal on the second day of the draft.

#5: OT Brady Christensen, BYU

Photo Cred: Sports Illustrated

Year: Senior

Height: 6’6″

Weight: 300 lbs

Model Projected Value: $12.42M, 19th

Expected Draft Position: 89.4

Prospect Value Comp: Braden Smith

Prospect age is a variable that does carry some importance, so Brady Christensen already being 24-years-old isn’t ideal. However, outside of that, we’re talking about a prospect with a rather complete profile.

Over the past two seasons at BYU, Christensen has been absurd from a production standpoint:

  • 2019: 87.8 PFF Grade, 91.8 PBLK Grade, 81.4 RBLK Grade
  • 2020: 96, 95.2, 95.5

Those are exceptional numbers, and there is a reason why Zach Wilson never dealt with much pressure- Christensen protected his blindside as well as anyone could have. Plus, it’s not as though he’s a strong athlete, as he posted a 7.33 three-cone drill time and a 124-inch broad jump.

Sure, you’d like for him to be younger or slightly heavier, but Christensen’s production should translate well from college to the NFL and his athleticism more than backs him up. With offensive tackles, you want to target refined players over toolsy projects, and he definitely fits into the former category. I’ve seen people insist on him as either a guarantee to be a guard or a lock to stick at tackle, which just generally speaks to the overall problems of the current evaluation process. With how much offensive tackles are paid, finding a starter outside of the first round presents an opportunity to gain an extraordinary amount of surplus value. Christensen profiles similarly to Braden Smith out of college, and I’d also add Taylor Moton to that list coming from Western Michigan. The point? He should definitely be worth the investment if he’s available where he’s expected to be drafted currently.

#4: LB Garret Wallow, TCU

Photo Cred: TCU Athletics

Year: Senior

Height: 6’2″

Weight: 230 lbs

Model Projected Value: $8.57M, 64th

Expected Draft Position: 185.6

Prospect Value Comp: Blake Martinez

Coverage production can be rather volatile, so it’s always important to take a player’s full body of work into account.

Now, this is the case with all positions in general, but it’s something we generally fail to due because of a drug that is quite persistent: recency bias. After earning just a 63 coverage grade, that may impact Garret Wallow significantly.

Yet, Wallow also earned coverage grades over 80 in his first two seasons as a starter, and allowed just 0.44 yards per coverage snap in his career, which are tremendous overall numbers! Yes, athleticism matters a ton at the linebacker position, but fret not; he 6.87 three-cone drill time is an extraordinary time, especially for a player listed at 230 pounds.

Wallow’s size and speed compare very similar to Blake Martinez, and the two had a very similar projection coming out of college. Now, Wallow’s change of direction ability is much stronger than Martinez, but if he ends up as a player who has generally been a top-ten graded linebacker, I’m sure any team who drafts him will take that.

Remember, draft position isn’t as predictive of success at linebacker as other positions. There are plenty of late-round gems that come from his position, and his combination of multiple seasons of elite coverage play and elite change of direction skills make him well-equipped to be that. For the team that doesn’t succumb to recency bias or worry about run defense, which isn’t predictive at all of future success from college to pro, they’ll be able to potentially land a starting player without spending a premium pick. That is exactly how you gain an edge in the draft.

#3: WR Tamorrion Terry, Florida State

Photo Cred: 247 Sports

Year: Senior

Height: 6’4″

Weight: 210 lbs

Model Projected Value: $10.94M, 29th

Expected Draft Position: 127.4

Prospect Value Comp: Chris Godwin

When it comes to evaluating receivers, there is generally an emphasis placed on surface-level production and being a complete player.

This, however, has led to a lot of unheralded gems emerging, as surface-level production can often be greatly impacted by opportunity and supporting cast. Players like Chris Godwin, Michael Thomas, DJ Moore, Terry McLaurin, and DK Metcalf didn’t produce tremendously in college, but their underlying metrics indicated that they’d have much more success at the NFL level.

That is the case for Tamorrion Terry. During his three-year stint at Florida State, he dealt with very poor quarterback play and also dealt with an injury this season, which caused his overall numbers to not be ideal. When all else fails, though, analyze a player’s ability to create yards after the catch and be a big-play threat. This is where Terry shines, as he averaged 7.6 yards after catch/reception, 18.8 yards/reception, and induced an 15.1 average depth of target while playing on the outside for 90% of his snaps. Those are appealing traits for an offense.

Terry might not wow any as a “complete” option, but he wins down the field and makes the most of his targets, which is incredibly available. Remember, Thomas and Metcalf were seen as limited players coming out. Similarly to a player like Breshad Perriman or Chase Claypool, expect Terry to immediately be a big-play threat, with the potential to overtime add more nuance with proper development. At the very worst, you’re adding a much-needed and feared element to your receiving corps, the most valuable area outside of the quarterback. If all goes well, though, the potential pay-off is significantly higher. For a day-three pick, that’s certainly a “lottery ticket” worth buying!

#2: CB Paulson Adebo, Stanford

Photo Cred: Stanford Athletics

Year: Senior

Height: 6’1″

Weight: 190 lbs

Model Projected Value: $13.21M, 16th

Expected Draft Position: 87

Prospect Value Comp: William Jackson III

By now, hopefully it is clear that there are a lot of talented cornerbacks that are going under the radar. However, while Eric Stokes is at least getting some round-two buzz, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Paulson Adebo fall to the third day of the draft.

Based on the model projection, that should not be the case at all. After all, this is a player with PFF grades of 89.2 and 78.6, respectively in 2018 and 2019, ranked near the top in this class in pass breakups, with his top year coming as a sophomore! Worried about his athleticism? Don’t be. He has more than enough length, ran a 6.7 three-cone drill, and posted a 4.42 40-yard dash. Essentially, you’re getting a player with the length, athleticism, and production that every team should covet at the position.

I’m struggling to see the downside of Adebo. His tackling numbers aren’t great, but if you’re drafting a cornerback for his run defense, that’s a problem in it of itself. He seems to be a victim of recency bias, as he opted out of the 2020 season, and if that’s the case, then a lucky team will be able to select him with a late third-round pick. It may seem crazy that a player like this is getting enough recognition, but, remember, third-round pick Cameron Dantzler and fourth-round pick L’Jarius Sneed were the top-two graded rookie cornerbacks this season! I wouldn’t be surprised if Adebo has a similar impact for whoever drafts him.

#1: EDGE Jordan Smith, UAB

Photo Cred: ajc.com

Year: Senior

Height: 6’7″

Weight: 255 lbs

Model Projected Value: $12.22M, 20th

Expected Draft Position: 97.7

Prospect Value Comp: Frank Clark

The NFL does a relatively strong job of evaluating edge rushers, as their production is rather stable college to pro. However, it is certainly common for a college performer to slip through the cracks due to various concerns, and this year, Jordan Smith appears to be that prospect.

His involvement credit-card scandal caused Smith to not play at the University of Florida, so, instead, he found himself at UAB. By all accounts, those off-the-field-concerns are behind him, especially as it happened early on in his college career.

Smith’s production at UAB has been off the charts. His pass-rush grades over the past two seasons – 91.4 and 91.5, respectively – have been elite, while accumulated 50+ pressures in each season, and also performed quite strongly in run defense. In fact, there isn’t a metric where he doesn’t rate out as well above average.

Could Smith gain some weight? Yes. However, it’s not every day you can draft a lengthy edge rusher with elite production on the final day of the draft. Assuming his off-the-field question marks check out, which appears to be the case, then the team that selects him may very well end up with the top edge rusher in the class. With how highly paid this position is, that represents quite the amount of surplus value. In a class full of developmental prospects who didn’t produce enough in college, I’ll take my chances with a prospect who has already shown the ability to rush the passer.

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