News & Analysis

Re-examining the late-round NFL Draft steals of the PFF era

While it’s often easy to look back in hindsight and see what you missed about a particular player in the NFL Draft, that doesn’t mean the exercise invaluable. I’d argue that learning why players outperformed (or underperformed) their draft slots is the goal of PFF’s draft coverage. With that in mind, let’s examine what the NFL missed on the biggest Day 3 steals since we started our coverage in 2015.

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Note: Players who fell in the draft for obvious off-field reasons weren’t included in this analysis.

Round 4

101. New England Patriots – Arkansas EDGE Trey Flowers (2015)

Reason He Fell: Flowers simply wasn’t the athlete teams often covet on the edge early. His 4.93 40, combined with a 4.4 short shuttle and 7.34 3-cone, were downright bad numbers. Bleacher Report noted that his “lack of speed is an issue, and it shows up often.” Sometimes good tape can’t overcome the NFL’s preference for athletic measurables.

PFF’s Take at the Time: We were firm believers in Flowers and had him going 21st in PFF’s first-ever mock draft. He earned a 91.2 overall grade his final season at Arkansas with a 90.9 run defense grade and 83.1 as a pass-rusher. His 61 pressures were the fifth-most of any player in the country back in 2014.

What We Learned: Since Day 1, Flowers was the type of edge prospect we’ve believed in more than most. He didn’t have the elite athletic profile, but he had an elite production profile and a bonafide “way to win” at the NFL level with his blend of power and hand usage. If you want to be a player who consistently wins off the edge, athleticism is necessary, but that was never Flowers' game. His game was more on the bull-rush, and we’ve seen that translate to the NFL.

112. Chicago Bears – Alabama S Eddie Jackson (2017)

Reason He Fell: Jackson was simply not an all-around safety. There were serious concerns about him in run defense and as a tackler. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein said Jackson had “a finesse mentality as a tackler relative to those around him.” This, combined with a broken leg he suffered during his final season at Alabama, caused him to fall to Day 3.

PFF’s Take at the Time: We were higher on Jackson than where he came off the board in the draft, as he checked in 79th for us back in 2017. We noted that he offers “little in terms of run support” and that he missed 16 tackles on 122 attempts from 2014-2016. He graded out well in both 2015 and 2016 in terms of coverage, though, with grades over 80 both seasons. 

What We Learned: Believe in coverage playmakers. While tackling and run support are certainly important aspects of the safety position, they are not nearly as valuable as picks and pass breakups on the back end. Jackson’s 91.3 coverage grade from 2015-2016, seven picks and cornerback background should have pushed him higher on our draft board.

135. Dallas Cowboys – Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott (2016)

Reason He Fell: While a pre-draft arrest for a DUI didn’t help his draft stock, that's not why Prescott wasn’t considered a top prospect back in 2016. As Dane Brugler noted at the time: “His footwork is inconsistent and he loses accuracy when his feet are not set.” Lance Zierlein had a similar take: “The tape shows a player who must improve his mechanics, poise and quickness through his progressions.” He also had an ugly outing on the big stage against Alabama in 2015 that saw him go 22-of-43 for 299 yards with no touchdowns, a pick and nine sacks.

PFF’s Take at the Time: Prescott’s grades at Mississippi State were very unspectacular. He earned a 72.1 overall grade in 2014 and 76.4 in 2015 (mostly due to the disastrous 34.6 overall grade against Alabama). He checked in at 221st on the PFF draft board, where we noted the following: “Prescott has almost everything you’d want from a quarterback, except accuracy. He has some awful misses at times.” His 75.3 adjusted completion percentage ranked 18th among FBS starters his final season. 

What We Learned: Supporting casts matter. There wasn’t another single skill-position player on that 2015 team to be selected in the NFL Draft. Mississippi State's success during Prescott's tenure — the Bulldogs went 10-3 in 2014 and 9-4 in 2015 — was mainly on his shoulders. At a position like quarterback, the talent around him has to be taken into consideration.

Prescott’s success also speaks to the intangibles inherent to the position. His leadership and white board reviews pre-draft were about as glowing as one can get. At a position that has as many variables to juggle, those are necessary aspects.

Round 5

131. New England Patriots – Georgia Tech IOL Shaq Mason (2015)

Reason He Fell: This one is obvious: Mason was the definition of a project coming out of Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense. He fired off into a cut block most plays and only had 242 pass-blocking snaps his final season.

PFF’s Take at the Time: Mason didn’t make either the first or second round of PFF’s mock drafts that year because we had no clue what to do with an offensive lineman coming from that offense. Mason graded out exceptionally, though, with a 90.3 run-blocking grade and 72.4 pass-blocking grade in 2014.

What We Learned: Mason is such a unique case that I’m not sure there’s much to glean. If there’s anything, it’s that offensive line coaching is so important at the NFL level. There’s little chance that Mason becomes the Pro Bowl-level guard he is today without being paired with a line coach like Dante Scarnecchia.

137. Atlanta Falcons – Clemson DT Grady Jarrett (2015)

Reason He Fell: The reason is obvious — it’s his height. Jarrett barely scrapes 6 feet tall, and that’s far from the size and length most teams covet. But Jarrett’s fall all the way to the fifth round is still a considerable head-scratcher, as most independent evaluators at the time had him as a Day 2 prospect at the latest.

PFF’s Take at the Time: Jarrett was yet another player from the 2015 draft we called a first-round talent, as we had him off the board 23rd in our inaugural mock. We had little concern about his size and thought he could hold up on the nose, where he earned a 92.3 overall grade in 2014 for Clemson.

What We Learned: Height is overrated for interior defensive linemen. Short guys can get swallowed up at times, but they also win leverage battles with ease. Jarrett’s 6-foot stature has never been an issue, and he’s yet another in a line of shorter defensive tackles (Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald, Jurrell Casey, etc.) who have fallen in the draft relative to their college production and outperformed expectations.

146. Minnesota Vikings – Maryland WR Stefon Diggs (2015)

Reason He Fell: The production concerns were difficult to ignore. Diggs had only 792 yards his final season at Maryland, and his career-high 842 yards came as a freshman in 2012. It’s also worth noting that he had a broken leg and lacerated kidney during his college career.

PFF’s Take at the Time: We only had one season of grading on Diggs — he earned a 79.3 receiving grade, which didn’t really put him highly on our radar that first year. As such, he didn’t make the first or second round of our mock.

What We Learned: Evaluate receiver production within the context of QB situation and route tree. We saw this with our evaluation of Jalen Reagor this season. Evaluate whether someone can get open, not whether it leads to big receiving numbers.

146. San Francisco 49ers – Iowa TE George Kittle (2017)

Reason He Fell: Kittle had 43 catches during his entire college career and 22 for 309 yards his final season. It’s simply difficult to be too high on a player you’ve barely seen catch the football. Kittle also missed seven games his final two seasons at Iowa with injury.

PFF’s Take at the Time: We were fans of Kittle’s game, as he checked in 70th on our draft board, but that obviously wasn’t nearly high enough. He earned a 93.8 overall grade in 2015 and 78.6 in 2016 with eight broken tackles on 42 catches over that span. 

What We Learned: Athleticism matters at tight end. To produce like a wide receiver in the NFL, you have to move like one. Kittle’s 4.52 40, 7.00 3-cone, and 11-foot broad jump were all exceptional numbers for the position. The tight ends who have the juice to get open down the field are the true needle movers at the position.

Round 6

None

Round 7

249. Seattle Seahawks – Oklahoma State RB Chris Carson (2017)

Reason He Fell: This one was simply sample size. Carson had only 213 carries in his career and 83 his final season, as he played second fiddle to Justice Hill at Oklahoma State.

PFF’s Take at the Time: Because of Carson’s role as a backup, he wasn’t even on PFF’s radar and didn’t make our top-300 players.

What We Learned: Broken tackle rates are predictive. The guys who break tackles at high rates in college tend to be able do it in the NFL. While 213 attempts is still a small amount of carries to evaluate a ball-carrier, Carson’s 56 broken tackles on them is an excellent rate. He was also trending upwards considerably in that regard with 31 broken tackles on 83 carries his final season.

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