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A player’s draft position doesn’t determine his level of NFL success—a late-round flier can develop into a decorated Pro Bowler.
In 2018, running back Tarik Cohen and tight end George Kittle earned Pro Bowl invites for the first time. During the 2017 draft, both players waited until Day 3 to be selected.
The Chicago Bears took Cohen in the fourth round. Twenty-seven picks later, the San Francisco 49ers selected Kittle. Neither had a standout rookie campaign, but the two late-rounders broke out last year, leading their clubs in yards from scrimmage.
While teams hold high expectations for early-round selections, that outlook isn’t confined to blue-chip prospects. Incoming rookies with upside may fall for a variety of reasons and land in ideal situations. Perhaps there’s a vacancy in the starting lineup or the player elevates his game as a pro.
Whatever the cause, more Day 3 picks will have a chance to shine in a year or two. Let’s take a look at potential unheralded draft gems and why they have a pathway to the Pro Bowl early in their careers.
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The Washington Redskins’ passing offense could undergo major changes, starting at quarterback. The club took Dwayne Haskins with the 15th overall selection. If he can pick up the offense without a major issue, the wide receivers will benefit in the next year or two.
The Redskins selected Terry McLaurin, Haskins’ 6’0″, 208-pound collegiate teammate, in the third round, and they added Kelvin Harmon in the sixth (No. 206). The latter is a bigger target at 6’2″, 221 pounds and has a physical nature and ability to separate at the top of his routes.
Harmon could pose an immediate threat in the red zone while building a rapport with his quarterback, regardless of who’s the starter under center. The North Carolina State product has an understanding of how to set up targets with his route-running ability.
Although Harmon will carry the possession-receiver tag, he may emerge as a favorite target because of his tendency to high-point the football and battle for imperfect passes.
Washington doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver, which opens the door for Harmon to leapfrog his teammates.
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The Arizona Cardinals added three wideouts in this draft: Andy Isabella (second round), Hakeem Butler (fourth round) and KeeSean Johnson (sixth round).
At 6’5″, 227 pounds, Butler enters the league with size that draws comparisons to that of Plaxico Burress (6’5″, 232 lbs), who also had some focus drops in college similar to the Iowa State product’s. The big-bodied pass-catcher may never shake his lapses completely, but he’ll garner a lot of attention in the aerial attack.
Assuming Kyler Murray starts under center, the rookie may experience moments when he must toss up a few passes behind a questionable offensive line that will field at least two new starters. In 2018, the Cardinals’ pass protection ranked 26th, per Football Outsiders. Butler should be the target for passes thrown under duress. He can win jump-ball situations.
More importantly, Butler’s stature will cause defensive coordinators to stay up late to game-plan against him. He can dominate smaller cover men in the slot and stretch the field on the outside for 20- 30-yard receptions. It’s a cliche, but size matters, especially for a wide receiver who can haul in difficult catches. The former Cyclone averaged 22 yards per reception last year.
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Zach Gentry may take a year or two to reach a Pro Bowl level, but he’s capable of doing so with development and progress. He started his Michigan career as a quarterback before he moved to tight end.
On film, Gentry didn’t catch the ball cleanly at all times, but he only spent two years at the position. Yet, the former Wolverine still averaged 16.7 yards per reception between his junior and senior seasons. The athletic 6’8″, 265-pound tight end will work with an experienced quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
The Pittsburgh Steelers just signed Roethlisberger to a two-year extension, which ensures Gentry will have a chance to grow with one of the game’s best signal-callers. As the rookie learns the ins and outs of the position, his upside will rise.
In 2018, tight end Jesse James carved out a sizable role alongside Vance McDonald. Gentry could do the same in the Steelers offense. If he shows enough promise, the fifth-rounder should see an uptick in targets.
With James now in Detroit, if the front office voids McDonald’s deal instead of paying him $7.13 million in 2020, Gentry could become the lead tight end and a playmaker in the passing attack.
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Michael Jordan lined up at left guard for two years and at center last season for Ohio State. He earned freshman All-American honors, first-team All-Big Ten recognition and second-team All-Big Ten respect in those three years.
At 6’6″, 312 pounds, Jordan has a sturdy frame, and he uses his 34¼” arms to keep interior pass-rushers at bay. His balance and body control will allow him to man the pivot if the Cincinnati Bengals want to move fellow Ohio State product Billy Price to guard—a position he played for a good chunk of his collegiate career.
If the coaching staff moves on from left guard Clint Boling, who’s in a contract year, Jordan could make a name for himself immediately on the interior. He has three years of starting experience at a powerhouse program, already has an NFL body and shows a mix of fluid movement and power to run and pass block.
According to the Washington Post, Boling allowed three sacks in 2018. The Bengals have the option to go young with the fourth-rounder if they think quarterback Andy Dalton needs better pass protection on the inside.
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The Cleveland Browns drafted Mack Wilson in the fifth round, but he’s a solid Day 2 talent based on his tape. The 6’1″, 240-pound linebacker shouldn’t have limitations, as the coaching staff can use him on all three downs.
Wilson isn’t a quick-strike linebacker like Atlanta’s Deion Jones but shows functional awareness in coverage. He logged six interceptions and seven pass breakups between his sophomore and junior seasons at Alabama.
Joe Schobert’s deal expires at the end of the season. Despite having a Pro Bowl campaign in 2017, the three-year veteran linebacker may become expendable. The Browns can turn to the rookie who has a cheaper contract and a comparable skill set.
Assuming Wilson’s traits translate, he’ll likely see action in a limited role in 2019, though his coverage skills are beneficial with an increasing number of spread offenses around the league. The Montgomery, Alabama, native has the potential to put together a breakout season within his first two years.
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New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman double-dipped at cornerback. He traded up to select Deandre Baker with the 30th pick and took Julian Love on Day 3.
The Giants had a need opposite cornerback Janoris Jenkins. They can part ways with him next season if his $14.8 million cap hit becomes a burden. Still, with or without him on the roster, Love should have an opportunity to put his coverage skills on full display.
At 5’11”, 195 pounds, Love isn’t a good match for bigger receivers, but he can flip his hips and mirror quick-twitch pass-catchers who attempt to shake defenders with double moves. The Notre Dame prospect has the footwork to stay in lockstep with high-end route-runners.
Because he lacks top-notch foot speed, Love may shift inside to the slot, but the move wouldn’t compromise his coverage skills. The rookie fourth-rounder can recognize and finish receiver routes, which will allow him to disrupt the passing game on the inside and perimeter.
Love broke up 36 passes over the last two seasons at Notre Dame. His versatility and ball-tracking skills should lead to an early Pro Bowl season.
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On the pro level, Amani Hooker won’t face scheme limitations because of his size or an inability to play on all three downs. He measured in at 5’11”, 210 pounds and ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Hooker can play both safety positions or cover pass-catchers in the slot. At Iowa, the coaching staff moved the versatile defender to various spots and allowed him to make decisions, which indicates a high football IQ. He’s not a shy hitter and looks comfortable while playing downhill against the run.
Cornerback Logan Ryan served as the primary slot defender over the last two seasons. While he’s decent in that role, the six-year veteran hasn’t logged an interception since 2016 with the New England Patriots and logged just eight pass breakups last year. The 28-year-old is heading into a contract season with a $10.7 million cap hit.
This year or next, Hooker could supplant Ryan. The Iowa product’s awareness and ball skills may entice the coaching staff to make the move. The rookie fourth-rounder snagged six interceptions and broke up nine passes over the last two years. He could also emerge as plan B at free safety if there’s an issue with coming to terms with Kevin Byard on a new deal soon.
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The New Orleans Saints added a ball hawk on Day 3 in Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. He racked up nine interceptions and 12 pass breakups in three seasons at Florida. The front office didn’t use the 105th pick as a flier; there’s a need for the rookie’s coverage skills.
In 2018, the Saints defense recorded 12 interceptions. The lack of turnovers could burn a unit that leaks on the back end. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s group ranked 29th in yards allowed and surrendered 30 touchdowns through the air (22nd).
Along with issues in pass defense and a low takeaway rate, the Saints have a few questions with their secondary.
Team brass re-signed cover man P.J. Williams to a one-year deal after an inconsistent season. There’s a looming decision on cornerback Eli Apple’s fifth-year option. In 2018, Patrick Robinson played 110 snaps with the club because he suffered a broken ankle in Week 3. Safety Vonn Bell has one year left on his deal.
In an NFC South with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, who likes his teams to throw downfield, the Saints should focus on Gardner-Johnson’s development.
The former Gator has the size (5’11”, 210 lbs), speed (4.48-second 40-yard dash) and tackling ability to fill the slot cornerback or safety role alongside Marcus Williams. Because of his ball-tracking skills, he should move up the depth chart and produce in the defensive backfield soon.