These 5 mid-round draft prospects can excel as NFL specialists
Considerable time is spent analyzing the top of the draft, and rightfully so. These are the top talents, generally the most complete players and because of their ceilings have the potential to increase the success of their individual franchises considerably.
However, it is almost as important for teams to hit on mid-to-late round prospects, as these players fill out the depth and core of the roster. The most successful clubs excel at identifying and exploiting the individual strengths of the middle and back end of their rosters, and carve out specific situational roles in order to maximize production.
With the game outcome in question, players 23-53 on the roster are just as important as the 22 starters. Here is a look at five specific game scenarios and the less-heralded draft prospects capable of executing the unique job requirement of each situation.
The Scenario: Offense has 4th and goal from the 2, trailing 10-14 with 0:02 remaining in the game
The Specialist: David Morgan, TE Texas-San Antonio — sixth-round projection
Goal line packages generally mean power running with extra tight ends or linemen, and in Morgan’s case he’s capable of being both. His +31.5 run blocking grade in 2015 more than doubled the grades of all but two other TEs in draft class, and he was equally effective in-line, in motion and from the slot.
While this particular block occurred when he was lined up in the slot, Morgan’s effectiveness did not drop off when lined up tight at the line of scrimmage. Yes, his upper body strength translates well, but it’s his subtle, quick footwork that allows him to gain consistent leverage against his opponent at the point of attack. This footwork and positional strength is a hallmark of his in-line blocking, and will allow his NFL team to install him very quickly in situations that call for jumbo personnel.
Scenario: Defense in 4th and goal from the 2, ahead 10-14 with 0:02 remaining in the game
Specialist: Steven Daniels, ILB Boston College — fourth-round projection
Flipping sides of the ball, the defense needs to stop the opponent’s power game one time to secure victory. The aforementioned lead blocker needs to be met head-on in the hole to clog up the open lane and allow the rest of the defense to rally to the ball before the running back scores. Daniels excels in this capacity, as he was our top-graded run-stopping inside linebacker in 2015 (+29.2) and ranked third in stop percentage (15.3).
In this play we see Daniels scrape off his initial blocker and successfully stand-up and defeat the lead blocker to the outside, allowing his CB the freedom to attack from the edge to make the stop for no gain. Daniels’ film is littered with examples like this, and his strength and physicality should allow him to adapt this skill effectively to the NFL level. While he isn’t likely to be a high draft pick because of his speed and coverage limitations, his ability to win in tight areas against blockers is still an obvious necessity for NFL linebackers.
Scenario: Offense’s ball on own 20, behind 21-27 with 1:56 remaining in the game
Specialist: Kenneth Dixon, RB Louisiana Tech — third-round projection
Adrian Peterson aside, the NFL has essentially done away with the feature back. Peterson’s 327 carries led the league in 2015, with Doug Martin a distant second at 288. This is notable because as recent as 2010, eight running backs notched at least 300 carries.
Instead of asking one back to carry all of the heavy lifting, today’s teams are instead opting to regularly utilize multiple backs with varied skill sets. Five years ago backs like Theo Riddick, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen may not have had significant NFL roles outside of special teams, but in today’s game their abilities to contribute in the passing game have made them essential cogs in their respective offenses.
Kenneth Dixon led FBS running backs in 2015 with 16 forced missed tackles after receptions, and was second in overall elusive rating. When lined up in the slot he was outstanding, as he caught 12 of 15 targets for 185 yards and two touchdowns. The last piece of contributing on third down and during the two-minute drill is pass blocking, and on 301 reps over the past two season Dixon yielded just one sack. His reliability as a pass blocker and ability to turn short gains into chunk plays with his elusiveness will help Dixon be an instant weapon at the NFL level.
Scenario: Defense is protecting a 17-14 at its own 45, 3rd and 10 with 0:20 remaining in the game
Specialist: Kyler Fackrell, Edge, Utah State — fourth-round projection
The offense has done just enough to give the defense the lead in the final minute, but now the opponent is just one first down from field goal range. However, two good defensive plays mean a win, thus it’s time for the pass rushers to step up and end the game. Kyler Fackrell isn’t likely to be a strong run defender, but with the game on the line, he has the skill set to get to the QB.
This is just one of four impact plays Fackrell made on Colorado State’s final drive against Utah State this past season, and it serves as a perfect example of what it means to be a closer in the NFL. Rushing the passer at the end of the game in the two-minute drill is no easy task – the number of snaps from the entire game have taken their toll, and the rapid pace of the offense offers little recovery time. It takes a special breed to still be able to bring it in this scenario, and Fackrell is just such an animal.
Among other 3-4 outside linebacker prospects this year, Fackrell’s 39 total pressures (in 191 pass rush snaps) ranked third in 2015 in pass-rush productivity, which measures total pressures per pass rush snaps (with sacks weighted). While not an innately explosive talent, he uses his hands well to set up a variety of moves and plays with a high energy on every snap, which allows him to increase his own productivity as games progress and offensive linemen wear down.
Scenario: Offense trails 6-17, 8:00 remaining in the game, heavy wind hurting downfield accuracy
Specialist: Daniel Braverman, WR Western Michigan — seventh-round projection
The offense needs to score twice, and time is becoming an issue. Unfortunately, the late-November wind has wreaked havoc with the intermediate and deep passing games of both teams throughout the game, but with time becoming an issue, the offense must find a way to quickly move the chains. Daniel Braverman may only be 5-foot-10 and 164 lbs., but his skill set translates perfectly to this scenario.
Braverman has a knack for maximizing every target his way. He ranked fourth in 2015 among the draft class wide receivers in yards per route run (3.14), a stunning figure considering the only three to top him are three of the biggest downfield threats in the class (Josh Doctson, Corey Coleman and Rashard Higgins). Further emphasizing the point, Braverman’s average depth of target was just 7.7 yards (the FBS average was 8.9). His surprising explosion in and out of his breaks allowed him to create consistent separation, and his quarterback had an NFL rating of 131.8 when throwing to him — fifth-highest in the class. He is exactly the type of target offenses need when they want to work the underneath routes and shallow zones to efficiently move the chains.