Top 10 most underrated players in the draft 

April, 20, 2009

I've always been a big fan of the NFL draft, and these days everyone seems to have their own mock draft. I've been checking out a few and have been surprised to find a lot of guys ranked quite a bit lower than I would've thought. So using Mel Kiper's recent four-round mock draft, here are the 10 guys I think are the most underrated going into the draft:

  1. Mike Thomas, Arizona, WR: Let's be clear about this: He's short. He's not small. Thomas is a powerful guy who stands just under 5-9 but is a jacked 195 pounds with exceptional quickness and flat-out speed. He really does have some Steve Smith-type skills, and the production has been there. This guy tore up the Pac-10 for almost his entire career, leaving as the conference's all-time receptions king with 259, and it's not like he played with the most accurate QB in college. He's also a dangerous return man. In a draft loaded with supposed first-round-quality guys, watch Thomas outshine a lot of them.
  2. Connor Barwin, Cincinnati, DE/TE: With Barwin, there are probably going to be some folks worried about a "workout warrior" tag à la Mike Mamula. This Bearcat produced a lot more at the college level and is a more versatile athlete, and people are intrigued by this one-time UC basketball player. Kiper has him going 34th overall. I think with the edge rushers geared toward having immediate impact on a defense, this guy could be dynamite in the NFL. Plus, he's a terrific special-teams guy. He's versatile and explosive and has great closing speed. He also ran a pair of 4.50 40 times and weighed 251 pounds at his pro day.
  3. Kevin Ellison, USC, safety: For all of the first-day defensive studs that USC is expected to crank out this weekend, it is worth noting that for much of his career, the 230-pound Ellison was deemed by people inside the program to be the best of that bunch. He is physical, exceptionally smart and driven to be the best. Two things have submarined his stock, though: He doesn't have great speed (he ran a 4.70 at USC's pro day) and he was injured for most of his senior season. Still, he is a natural athlete and might be the sharpest defensive mind in the entire draft. If your team gets him, you should be thrilled.
  4. James Casey, Rice, H-back: If NFL personnel guys think Barwin is versatile, wait 'til they bring Casey on board. A chiseled 240-pound former pitcher from the Chicago White Sox organization, the guy whom his Owls teammates called "Thor" (he's got biceps like a young James "Robocop" Thornton) came to Rice as a linebacker.
  5. But then he was moved to DE and then to QB. He's played some wideout and some running back, returned some kicks, and was the team's holder and backup long snapper. And he's more than capable at a lot of those positions. He caught 111 passes last season and could be a scary weapon running the Wildcat. I bet he catches at least 50 passes this season. Pretty good for someone not expected to be selected in the first 120 picks.

  6. Clinton McDonald, Memphis, DT: Another mid-major star, he could be a handful for a lot of NFL O-linemen because of his exceptional quickness, clocking in the mid 4.8s at his pro day. He also had a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-1 broad jump. Strength isn't a concern, either, considering he did 36 reps of 225. The downside is that he's just 6-2, 285, but in the right scheme, he could be a real force.
  7. James Davis, Clemson, RB: Mel's 105th projected pick is a physical runner who had a great career running in a very underrated defensive league loaded with NFL talent. Davis shared some of the spotlight with the speedy C.J. Spiller, and because of that, many people underestimate Davis' burst. He has good feet and ran in the 4.4s at his pro day. With so many teams rotating two tailbacks, look for Davis to get his due at the next level very soon.
  8. Alex Mack, Cal, C: I know some teams prefer Oregon's Max Unger to Mack in part because the Bear spends too much time on the ground. Some of the Pac-10 defensive tackles I've spoken to in the past say Mack was the better player. My hunch is that Mack will start in the NFL for close to a decade. He is a former standout wrestler with great flexibility and more than enough bulk to anchor the middle.
  9. Gerald McRath, Southern Miss, LB: Few linebackers in this draft run better. McRath was a tackling machine at USM, and that was while he played behind an undermanned D-line for the later portion of his career. His lack of great size (he's only about 6-1, 230) has hurt his stock, but look for him to continue to develop after breaking in as a special-teams ace.
  10. Cameron Goldberg, Duke, OT: Rival coaches say he's one of the nastiest linemen they've faced in the ACC in years. Duke coaches who came from Tennessee say this guy was good enough that he would've started somewhere on the O-line of the best Vols teams. He's a tad undersized at 6-4, 286 pounds, but he's strong and athletic, having done 37 reps on the bench press and run in the 4.9s with a 33-inch vertical jump.
  11. Brian Toal, Boston College, LB-S-FB: Three seasons ago I would've bet that Toal would've been the BC Eagle that draftniks were gushing about, not B.J. Raji. I'll never forget watching BC get pounded at Va. Tech in an ESPN Thursday night game. Toal seemed to be the only Eagle really trying to take the fight to the Hokies that night, especially late in the game. Toal is just a tough, pure football player and is a very athletic guy (he had a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump and an impressive 10-foot broad jump). His size isn't great, and the fact that injuries have derailed his career at BC will probably cause teams to pass on him. If he's healthy -- and I realize that's a big if -- he's worth drafting at some point Sunday.


• I was out at Tennessee's spring game over the weekend and was very impressed by the atmosphere around Knoxville. On the field, the Vols showed very little in the Orange and White game, although their running backs did look pretty good, as they have, apparently, for much of the spring. The staff has been especially pleased with RB Montario Hardesty, who is working as though he realizes this is his last shot to impress NFL scouts.

Before the game, the UT fans gave a nice ovation to former coach Phil Fulmer. I gotta say, the Fulmer dynamic is a little weird there. Actually, it's really weird. Lots of fans, as most do whenever a coach is fired, say good riddance to the guy and relish the change (and new energy) of the new staff. I think it's only natural. Just like whenever a team hires a new defensive coordinator, the guy is always said to be bringing a more aggressive scheme. Over the past few years, the UT program has lost its way. It also didn't help that Fulmer's program had been rocked by a ton of off-field problems, as noted by such things as the infamous Fulmer Cup.

The day before the spring game, there was a lettermen's golf outing, where many of the former UT football stars gathered at a local country club. Before they teed off, there was a luncheon at which the new staff was introduced and AD Mike Hamilton made some comments. Everyone there seemed so upbeat. As I was walking out, I was talking to UT tight ends coach James Cregg. I noticed Fulmer standing near the entrance to the club, and he just looked sooooo uncomfortable. It must've have been incredibly awkward for him to be there, although I don't think he was in the room when the new staff was getting introduced or to see other UT alums going to up to greet them. I imagine it was also awkward for lots of other folks, too.

Anyhow, Fulmer did spend decades coaching UT football and won a national title for the Vols. He also seems to care for his alma mater about as much as any coach there's been. It was very nice to see the fans honor that on Saturday.

• Sacks are the most overrated stats during spring practice since merely touching often doesn't lead to sacking the quarterback during the season, but at least you're getting to the quarterback, so Ohio State fans should be excited that sophomore defensive end Solomon Thomas had seven of the team's 12 sacks over the weekend, as Tim May writes:

Although six of his sacks were on touches, several would have been good if he were tackling. The defense swarmed the pocket most of the session, and cornerbacks Andre Amos and Devon Torrence, competing to replace Malcolm Jenkins, had an interception each.

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