Tom Brady, Stefon Diggs, George Kittle. Every NFL draft contains a clutch of late-round gems who outplay where they were selected and became stars. The 2021 draft will be no exception. The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, and Cleveland Browns (among others) all found starter-ready talent on Day 3.
The Pats took a running back in the fourth round whose every-down skills give him a chance to emerge from a crowded rotation. Aaron Rodgers is not happy with life in Green Bay, but he’ll cheer up if yet another fourth-round offensive lineman quickly makes the grade for the Packers.
Predicting which late-rounders will surprise is almost impossible but always fun to try. It’s best to stick to three categories when gauging who will outplay their draft status. Value, fit, and history.
Do third-day players last that long because they played at a small school or had a poor pro day? Those things won’t count once the pads are on in the pros. Who joined a team looking for help at their position? How many of these prospects landed with franchises with a history of starting late-round picks?
Derrick Barnes, Linebacker, Detroit Lions
Barnes came off the board in the fourth round, but he offers the Detroit Lions excellent value as the 113th overall pick. Most of that value comes from his versatility. Barnes played outside and inside linebacker, as well as edge-rusher for the Purdue Boilermakers. He’s a good rush guy with a strong frame at 6’1″ and 245 lbs.
Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will know how to use Barnes’ broad range of skills. Glenn followed Dan Campbell from the New Orleans Saints where Demario Davis plays inside and outside and blitzes from multiple angles. The Lions said goodbye to Jarrad Davis during free agency, so there’s a spot for Barnes. It’s also telling that the team traded a fifth-round pick this year and a fourth in 2022 to move up and make this selection.
Check out Barnes’ scouting report here.
Rhamondre Stevenson, Running Back, New England Patriots
New England’s offense is not lacking for running backs, but none offer the complete skill set Stevenson possesses. The 120th pick does a bit of everything well. The former Oklahoma Sooner can pound it out between the tackles thanks to his 246-pound frame. He can also bounce plays to the outside because of above-average vision and instincts.
What will appeal to Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick more is Stevenson’s ability as a receiver and pass protector. He’s adept enough at both to stay on the field for all three downs. In other words, Stevenson offers the best of incumbents James White and Damien Harris.
White and Harris are prime examples of the Patriots not caring about draft status when deciding who gets playing time in the backfield. White was also a fourth-rounder in 2014, while Harris made the team as a third-round pick two years ago.
Royce Newman, Guard/Tackle, Green Bay Packers
David Bakhtiari, T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter. It’s worth taking notice when the Green Bay Packers draft an offensive lineman in the fourth round. Newman is the latest mid-round road grader looking to work his way into a starting job with the Pack. He has a chance for two very good reasons.
First, Newman was outstanding in pass protection at Ole Miss. That’s a skill the man under center will appreciate, regardless of whether it’s Rodgers or Jordan Love.
New #Packers OL Royce Newman allowed three sacks and 26 total pressures in 916 pass-blocking snaps over four years at Ole Miss at multiple positions.
97.8% pass blocking efficiency
— Ross Uglem (@RossUglem) May 1, 2021
Second, Newman could put his pass-blocking skills to good use at a variety of spots. He played both left guard and right tackle during his collegiate career. The latter is where he may get his first chance in the NFL, according to Packers co-director of player personnel, Jon-Eric Sullivan:
Jon-Eric Sullivan very confident in Royce Newman and his versatility: "If we had to go play tomorrow and put him at right tackle… I'd feel good about it." #Packers
— Lily Zhao (@LilySZhao) May 1, 2021
Tommy Togiai, Defensive Tackle, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns aren’t short of defensive tackles, but not many of the current options inspire confidence. Malik Jackson is the pick of the bunch, but the 31-year-old is not the force he was. It’s why Togiai has an excellent chance to win a starting job as a rookie.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods will naturally build his scheme around the talents of edge-rushers Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. They’ll need one-on-one matchups to be game-wreckers every week. A strong push in the middle will prevent offenses from double-teaming the marquee names on the outside. Power was the key component of Togiai’s game at Ohio State, and he fits as an active 1-technique and block absorber next to the more disruptive Jackson.
Darrick Forrest, Safety, Washington Football Team
There are shades of Sam Garnes in Forrest’s game. Like the rookie from Cincinnati, Garnes was a strong safety drafted in the fifth round, all the way back in 1997. He started as a rookie and played seven seasons, suiting up for both the New York Giants and New York Jets.
Forrest can make a similarly quick transition with the Washington Football Team. He’s joining a position group with questions since Landon Collins has struggled with injuries and inconsistency. The good news is unheralded defensive backs tend to play in Washington. Kamren Curl was a seventh-rounder who became a starter a year ago. Before that, Quinton Dunbar went from being undrafted to starting at cornerback.
Curl replaced Collins but could switch to free safety thanks to his experience on the corner. That would leave an obvious spot for Forrest to fill.
Forrest says he can play both safety positions but mentioned strong initially.
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) May 1, 2021
Nick Niemann, Linebacker, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers kicked off the sixth round by taking Iowa inside linebacker Niemann. He can answer an obvious need for head coach Brandon Staley’s defense. Denzel Perryman moved on during free agency, leaving the cupboard pretty bare at a key position.
Staley ran the Los Angeles Rams’ league-leading defense in 2020. He was content to rely on an undersized but intelligent middle linebacker like Kenny Young. Niemann’s got decent size at 6’4″ and 233 lbs. He’s also active, having made 77 combined tackles for Iowa in 2020. Those numbers should balloon in L.A., where defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Jerry Tillery will keep blockers off of the inside linebackers.
Niemann may not prove a permanent solution at the heart of the Chargers’ linebacker corps, but he’s got a great chance to see extended playing time as a rookie.
Mike Strachan, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts
There always seems to be a wide receiver who emerges from the obscurity of the late rounds to become a prolific NFL pass-catcher. Donald Driver, Marques Colston, and Julian Edelman all trod that path. Strachan can follow suit not only because of his physical gifts but also because he landed in a great situation, joining the Colts at the top of the final round.
Strachan’s a classic example of a prospect not thoroughly scouted because of where he played. He thrived at Charleston College where he faced Division II defenses. The level of competition put some teams off, but the Colts landed a potential steal who will be a size mismatch in the NFL. Strachan’s 6’5″, 226 punds, has 34″ arms and 10″ hands.
The Colts selected Charleston (W.V.) receiver Mike Strachan with the 229th overall pick.
Check this out: Strachan is 6-5, 226 pounds and STILL ran 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. If you're going to take a late flier, you do it with guys like this.
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) May 1, 2021
Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich will put those towering dimensions to good use. Reich was offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles when they won the Super Bowl in 2017. He understands the value of big-bodied wideouts like Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
The Colts have no problem giving a tall wide receiver who was overlooked in the draft his chance. Zach Pascal was an undrafted free agent in 2017 but has been a regular since joining Reich’s team in 2018, starting 15 games last season. Strachan’s draft status won’t matter if he catches Reich’s eye this offseason.