As we get closer to the 2016 NFL Draft, beginning on April 28, the top players are becoming increasingly known to football fans. That is, if they already weren’t familiar to those who follow draft prospects closely. Carson Wentz, Joey Bosa, Myles Jack and Jared Goff are just a few of the names circulating near the top of mock drafts and draft boards.
But three years from now, we’ll look back on players picked after the first round in the 2016 NFL Draft and wonder how in the world they lasted so long. Factoring in a mix of film, athleticism and production, I attempted to uncover the most underrated prospects in this year’s draft class, guys who should be selected much earlier than they’re currently being projected.
Here are 10 names which aren’t receiving a bunch of hype leading up to the draft, but will make some talent evaluators look very smart for landing an impact player in the later rounds.
Ricardo Louis, WR, Auburn
From the jump, it would have been difficult for Louis to create a legitimate buzz playing in a unique, run-heavy offense under Gus Malzahn at Auburn. But the hype never had a chance to materialize for the wideout as his final collegiate season was severely hampered by bad and sometimes downright brutal quarterback play.
Louis’ 2015 statline shows 46 catches, 716 yards and three receiving touchdowns, all of which appear to be somewhat pedestrian numbers.
However, his 716 yards made up nearly 32 percent of Auburn’s yardage through the air, an identical market-share percentage to Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and better than Laquon Treadwell’s.
At the combine, Louis measured in at a sturdy 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He ran an official 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, had a 38-inch vertical and broad jumped a whopping 11 feet.
Beyond his production and combine performance, both of which have seemingly been overlooked, Louis’ film is eye-opening. He was predominately used as Auburn’s field-stretcher and won almost every downfield race against cornerbacks. In contested catch situations — created either by deep safeties playing over the top of him or errant throws — Louis’ athleticism was on full display. He made a handful of snags in the air with his arms extended and oftentimes took a hit in the process.
Louis will ultimately be one of the best pro receivers from this draft class.
Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State
Playing at Utah State is the main reason Vigil’s being underrated, although his brother made the Miami Dolphins in 2015 and Aggies alum Bobby Wagner is currently one of the top three inside linebackers in football.
Sure, Vigil didn’t play against top competition in the Mountain West. However, the 6-foot-2, 239-pound linebacker was a football magnet during his collegiate career and his athleticism is undoubtedly NFL-caliber. His 4.72 40-yard dash at the combine will create pause for some, but Vigil crushed the vital agility drills. He was timed at 6.73 in the three-cone drill and 4.00 in the 20-yard shuttle, both faster than comparably sized Luke Kuechly.
While Vigil lacks Kuechly’s overall explosiveness, he’s well-versed in coverage like the now-superstar Carolina Panthers linebacker was when he was a prospect. On film, Vigil rapidly sinks down the seam in zone and not only reads the quarterback, but almost innately follows tight ends and receivers as they move behind him. Vigil’s quick-twitch athleticism and good functional strength make him a menace against the run. He not only can stack and shed blocks, but often squiggles around them to make plays on the ballcarrier.
In his three-year Utah State career, Vigil accumulated an astounding 339 total tackles, 40 of which were for a loss and 17.5 sacks. A few missed shoe-string tackles would be the nit-picking concern for Vigil. Overall, he’s one of the finest multi-dimensional linebackers in the 2016 class.
Sean Davis, CB / S, Maryland
Another springy athlete — sensing a trend? — Davis was a dynamite playmaker at all levels of the field for Maryland. Over the past four seasons, he registered 319 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss. As a cover man, he had five interceptions and defended 14 passes.
Davis played both safety and cornerback — the latter in 2015 — for the Terps and would likely transition easiest to the safety position in the NFL. On a few instances in man coverage, Davis got caught looking into the backfield and was subsequently beat deep. The majority of his film shows a sudden, aggressive tackler in run support and a defender who has the speed, leaping ability and awareness to make a plethora of plays on the football.
At a solid 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds, Davis blew up the combine. He ran 4.46, had a 37.5- inch vertical jump and timed an almost unfathomable 6.64 in the three-cone and a 3.97 in the 20-yard shuttle. For perspective on those agility-drill times, at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, Odell Beckham Jr. ran a 6.69 three cone and 3.94 20-yard shuttle.
Davis’ athletic gifts are obvious on film, especially in run support and when he’s contesting passes.
Hassan Ridgeway, DL, Texas
Playing for Texas during an unprecedentedly futile era for the program, along with a relative lack of snaps probably led to Ridgeway being somewhat unnoticed in this draft process.
At 6-foot-3 and 307 pounds, the versatile defensive linemen was a nearly unblockable force — when he was on the field — for the Longhorns in 2014 and 2015. Was Ridgeway coming off the field every few snaps or every other series due to conditioning issues or because coaches wanted to maintain a steady rotation on the interior? If there are conditioning issues, they’ll need to be eradicated immediately.
His burst off the snap is as sudden as any defensive tackle in the class, and he boasts almost unfairly light, limber feet. Just as importantly, Ridgeway’s hand-usage to contort himself past offensive linemen is exceptional. Outside of that spectacular combination, his upper and lower body strength is extremely apparent. He anchors effortlessly against double teams and occasionally tosses guards and centers aside against the run.
A pass-rusher first, Ridgeway’s comprehensive skill set screams “NFL starter with All-Pro upside.”
William Jackson III, CB, Houston
Simply put, Jackson III checks all the boxes which NFL general managers, head coaches and scouts look for in a cornerback today. He hit the 6-foot threshold on the nose at the combine. He also has elite top-end speed, as his 4.37 was one of the fastest in Indy.
Jackson routinely makes plays on the football. His 23 passes defended in 2015 led the entire country, and he roped in five interceptions. In 2013, Jackson had six passes defended and a pick. In 2014, he deflected nine throws and secured two interceptions, so he displayed improvement in his three years at the college level.
His pass-disrupting statistics didn’t happen by chance. On film, Jackson’s fluid athleticism, lightning-fast recovery speed and natural ball skills appear in just about every game. The only concern teams may have with Jackson is the level of competition he faced in the American East Conference. But based on his size, production and physical talents, there’s a good chance he — deservedly — will be the first cornerback selected in the 2016 draft.
Darius Latham, DL, Indiana
Like Ridgeway, Latham is a large and powerful defensive lineman with an array of pass-rushing moves he’s ready to deploy on NFL blockers. At 6-foot-4 and 311 pounds with nearly 35-inch tentacles, Latham’s body type is ideal for a 3-4 defense, but he does project to be as a mammoth interior defender in a 4-3.
While he can win with sheer power, Latham utilizes his hands like a master craftsman when rushing the passer — his greatest strength — and when shedding blocks to take down running backs near the line of scrimmage, something he’s quite adept at as well. Due to the immense talent gap between himself and his teammates along Indiana’s defensive front, Latham was the subject of double teams often, and he was a prime stunting candidate for the Hoosiers.
He had a comparable combine to that of the much more hyped Chris Jones of Mississippi State and amassed 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2015, his true junior season.
Latham is the type of sound prospect who falls in the draft due to other big-name talent at his position, yet outproduces many of those who were picked before him.
Kalan Reed, CB, Southern Miss
A four-year contributor for the Golden Eagles, Reed made a habit of either knocking down or intercepting passes while at Southern Miss.
In 2015, the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder had a remarkable 17 passes defended, along with four interceptions. Because of his smaller-ish frame, he’s not a devastating tackler in run support, but he’s not in the least bit afraid to fly around on the perimeter on screens, lay the wood on a short drag route or help to finish off a gang tackle. Then again, whichever team drafts Reed isn’t doing so to boost its run defense. They’ll pick him because he’s a feisty cornerback with outstanding ball skills.
At his Pro Day — Reed was a combine snub — he posted a springy 41.5-inch vertical leap and ran 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. Even if the speed was a bit exaggerated, Reed has enough juice to stick with the overwhelming majority of outside and slot receivers in the NFL.
Justin Simmons, S, Boston College
Simmons is a twitched-up freak of an athlete who may be the most underrated defensive player in the entire 2016 class. At the combine, he measured in at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds. His 4.61 was a bit disappointing to some, but he posted a 40-inch vertical and insane agility-drill times of 6.58 in the three-cone and 3.85 in the 20-yard shuttle. That electric athleticism certainly pops on tape, too.
Over the past two seasons at Boston College, Simmons racked up 113 total tackles with six passes defended and seven interceptions. He mainly played centerfield and showcased fantastic range to the sidelines. As a run-stopper, Simmons, though somewhat lanky, is a thudder who’s also a reliable tackler in space on offensive skill position players of all shapes and sizes.
If he adds five to 10 pounds in NFL, he’d be quite the physical specimen to play the deep middle, then on third-and-short situations play man against slot receivers or become the extra defender in the box.
Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern
Getting it out there from the start — Lowry doesn’t possess an effective pass-rushing move beyond a prudent bull-rush. However, he’s still considerably underrated. At 6-foot-6 and 296 pounds, he has a Greek God physique.
Though his short arms could hurt him when he tries to keep NFL linemen away from his frame, they weren’t a problem in the Big 10 whatsoever. In 2013 and 2014, Lowry tallied a total of 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. As a senior in 2015, he had 13 tackles for loss and three quarterback takedowns.
Northwestern coaches asked Lowry to play the blue-collar two-gap role often, which helped free up other defensive linemen and linebackers, and he used his strength to shed blocks when need be against the run. When the chains were taken off and he was allowed to rush upfield, Lowry’s burst was outrageously quick, especially for someone of his size and stature.
At the combine, his 7.26 in the three-cone drill was the second-fastest time among the 12 defensive end prospects who weighed 275 pounds or more, and his athleticism undoubtedly benefited him on the field. Lowry may never be a double-digit sack guy, but he’s got 3-4 defensive end size, impressive athleticism, a non-stop motor and shedding experience as a two-gap player. What he brings to the field represents a valuable commodity, despite the fact that he won’t tote an arsenal of pass-rushing moves to the NFL.
Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
Williams isn’t likely near the bottom of most running back rankings, yet after missing the entire 2015 season with a foot injury, it’s been easy for him to get passed by his contemporaries. Heck, his teammate, Alex Collins, turned in a fantastic 2015 campaign in which he ran for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns on 271 carries for the Razorbacks. In 2014 though, Williams was Collins’ co-star for Arkansas, as the two both eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and scored 12 rushing touchdowns.
At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Williams is ideally designed to be a three-down, feature back in the NFL. He wasn’t able to run through drills at the combine because of his injury, but his 2014 film is spectacular. In nearly every outing, Williams flashed springy burst through the hole, power through tacklers and most impressively, a Carlos Hyde-like ability to maintain his balance after all types contact anywhere on his body.
While Williams doesn’t have the breakaway speed to score 80-yard touchdowns, pound-for-pound, his combo of vision, shiftiness and continual leg churn is second only to Ezekiel Elliott’s in this class.