Every year, there are hidden gems that slide into the later rounds of the NFL Draft. This year was no different, with teams finding impact players after the top-75 picks once again. Chris Tripodi breaks down his top-10 value picks of the 2014 NFL Draft below, including two 49ers and two Jaguars, seven players drafted outside the top 140 and one undrafted gem.
1. Chris Borland (LB-SF, Round 3, Pick 77)
An afterthought on the San Francisco defense to begin the season, Borland started the year third behind Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite on the depth chart. When Willis went down in Week 6 with what turned into a season-ending injury, Borland got his chance to shine and never looked back.
While he struggled in coverage in his first start the following week against the Broncos – certainly nothing new for a rookie linebacker – Borland made at least 13 tackles in five of the 49ers’ next six games before succumbing to an injury of his own in Week 15, hurting his ankle against the Seahawks.
In his eight starts, Borland totaled 100 tackles (79 solo) including 12 for loss, and most of those came around the line of scrimmage rather than downfield. Tackles are often a misleading statistic but not in Borland’s case, and his 18-tackle Week 9 performance against the Rams was broken down the following week here at Draft Insider. His coverage skills also improved as the year went on.
Willis and NaVarro Bowman may very well be back healthy next season, but San Francisco will need to find a way to get Borland on the field early and often. Questions about his size may have dropped him out of the top 75, but his toughness, instincts and tackling ability will make him an NFL mainstay. Borland was the draft’s best value outside of the top 75 this season, and it was a landslide.
2. Corey Linsley (OC-GB, Round 5, Pick 161)
Packers fans may think Linsley deserves the top spot here, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Borland’s pure dominance in just half of season’s worth of starts earned the linebacker the top spot, but Linsley provided impressive consistency in the middle of Green Bay’s offensive line from the moment he stepped into the starting lineup for Week 1.
Replacing an injured JC Tretter, Linsley performed admirably in his NFL debut considering the venue – Seattle’s Centurylink Field. There were certainly growing pains early in the season for the 6-3, 301-pound Ohio State product, but Linsley played like one of the better centers in the NFL from Week 5 on.
While it’s not rare to find success drafting offensive linemen this late in the draft, it is somewhat rare to see one drafted outside the top 150 made such a noticeable impact so soon for a Super Bowl contender. That’s just what Linsley has done, however, excelling against the run and keeping Aaron Rodgers clean.
Linsley allowed just one sack and two QB hits all season, and the Packers have to be ecstatic with the performance and value they’ve gotten out of the newest member of their offensive line. Great centers aren’t easy to find, but Green Bay picked up a very good one extremely late in the 2014 draft.
3. Brandon Linder (OG-Jac, Round 3, Pick 93)
Another first-year offensive lineman that started all 16 games in 2014, Linder had his share of his early struggles, much like Linsley. From Week 3 on, however, Linder was rated as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best guard and did an excellent job opening running lanes on the inside and protecting fellow rookie QB Blake Bortles.
Linder’s best attribute coming out of Miami was his size and strength at 6-5, 311 pounds. Despite showing limited range and heavy feet while with the Hurricanes, Linder proved to be effective on screens this season when given the opportunity to pull into space. His active hands made him very effective against both the pass and the run.
While many starting lineman have been drafted in the late third-round range, Linder’s immediate impact along the Jaguars’ offensive line will continue to be felt heading into the 2015 season. Jacksonville’s guard tandem of Linder and Zane Beadles should remain intact for years to come, but the Jags still need help at both tackle spots and center if they hope for Bortles to take the next step. Hitting like this on another third-round pick would go a long way towards that goal.
4. Martavis Bryant (WR-Pit, Round 4, Pick 118)
Inactive for the season’s first six weeks, Bryant debuted on Monday Night Football against the Texans in Week 7. Targeted five times with the obvious trust of Ben Roethlisberger, Bryant caught two passes for 40 yards, including his first career touchdown from 35 yards out. The Clemson product followed that performance with a five-catch, 83-yard, two-TD game against the Colts, which was broken down here at Draft Insider.
Bryant continued to excel and after just four career games, he had 310 receiving yards and six TDs on just 14 receptions. The 6-4 receiver was held in check down the stretch with exception of a 109-yard performance in Week 14 against the Bengals, but re-emerged in Pittsburgh’s Wild Card loss to Baltimore with five receptions for 61 yards and the team’s only touchdown while playing a career-high 82 percent of the offensive snaps.
It might be a bit surprising to see just one receiver on this list considering the overall depth of the class, especially with Donte Moncrief and John Brown falling outside the top 75 as well. Both players flashed great future potential but had arguably less of an immediate impact than Bryant while also being drafted higher. All three have the potential to be legitimate No. 2 receivers at the NFL level, however, and their teams are certainly happy with the early returns. Outside of Borland and Linder, though, I tried not to include too many top-100 players.
5. E.J. Gaines (CB-StL, Round 6, Pick 188)
There’s a definite dropoff after the top three or four rookies on this list, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the season Gaines put on film. The lowest player drafted on this list, Gaines was thrust into a starting role immediately opposite Janoris Jenkins and arguably had a better season than the 2012 second-rounder.
Like any rookie cornerback, Gaines was up-and-down at times and struggled against veteran quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers. Overall, however, Gaines was impressive in pass defense, allowing a QB rating of 79 on balls thrown in his coverage and ranking in the top five for passes defensed.
While Gaines was knocked out of the Rams’ Week 16 game with a concussion that cost him the season’s final week, he proved to be a great value in this year’s draft. Gaines will have every opportunity to keep his starting role next season after being penalized just three times all year, and he should be looking to improve his consistency next season to truly mark his place as an NFL starter.
6. Branden Oliver (RB-SD, UDFA)
A lack of size (5-7, 202) and breakaway speed (4.59) dropped Oliver out of the draft completely, but his production in four years as a starter at Buffalo was more than enough to get the diminutive runner a look as a free agent. Oliver quickly jumped sixth-round pick Marion Grice into the third spot on the Chargers’ depth chart by the preseason, and burst onto the scene in Week 5 against the Jets.
With starter Ryan Mathews out and backup Donald Brown going down as well, Oliver thrashed what had been an elite run defense through the first month of the season, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown while adding 68 receiving yards and another score, earning a Draft Insider breakdown for his performance. After going over 100 yards again vs. the Raiders in Week 6, Oliver didn’t top 75 yards on the ground for the rest of the season.
The returns of Mathews and Brown ate into Oliver’s role as the season went on, but the rookie was impressive in the chances he did get. Comparisons to Darren Sproles will continue to be made, but Oliver runs with more power on the inside than Sproles does while making a similar impact in the passing game.
Oliver isn’t quite as quick as Sproles, but his play this year solidified his role on passing downs next season, especially if Mathews leaves in free agency. He may not be a player San Diego wants to rely on for more than 8-10 touches per game, but he’s proven his worth as an NFL-caliber player and an undrafted steal.
7. Bene Benwikere (CB-Car, Round 5, Pick 148)
The second late-round cornerback to find his way onto this list, Benwikere has played a very important role in Carolina’s late-season run. In fact, the Panthers have reeled off five straight wins since Benwikere entered the starting lineup, including their Wild Card victory over Arizona.
The release of veteran Antoine Cason after Week 13 gave Benwikere the opportunity to start, and the rookie’s outstanding Week 14 performance against the Saints earned him recognition from us here at Draft Insider. The San Jose State product made an impressive interception in downfield coverage early in the game, an aspect of his game that was questioned during the draft process.
While Benwikere has been adequate as a run defender since taking over, his coverage instincts and ball skills have been a real boon to the Panthers secondary. Benwikere does a nice job of keeping plays in front of him and could have found himself higher on this list with a larger sample size. He’ll be a very interesting player to watch heading into 2015.
8. Devon Kennard (LB-NYG, Round 5, Pick 174)
Like Benwikere, Kennard is another fifth-round rookie who didn’t get his chance to start until late in the season. Taking over as a starter in Week 11 in place of the injured Jacquian Williams, Kennard stepped right in with a nine-tackle showing against the 49ers, which is broken down here. After struggling the following week against Dallas, Kennard finished strong before a toe injury kept him out of the Giants’ final game.
His recognition skills really stood out in his time on the field, and the former USC star even showed some skills as a pass rusher, notching two sacks against both the Jaguars and Titans in Week 13 and 14. Kennard was also opportunistic, as one of those sacks was of the strip-sack variety and he forced another fumble in Week 15 against the Redskins.
Kennard’s lack of great size, strength and speed dropped him in the draft, but he proved to be a good football player when given the opportunity. Much of the Giants’ defense is up in the air heading into 2015, which bodes well for Kennard to have a chance to compete for a starting role next year. While he may not be ideal as one of New York’s top two linebackers, he’s proven to be a nice value pick for the Giants in either one of their final starting spots or as their top backup.
9. Aaron Lynch (LB-SF, Round 5, Pick 150)
Lynch was hyped up as a potential first-round pick after an impressive freshman season at Notre Dame in 2011, but transferred to South Florida and sat out the following season. He returned in 2013 noticeably lighter, which affected his draft projection along with moderate production with the Bulls. As the 49ers generally do, they bet on a talented player late in the draft and so far, it has paid off handsomely.
Lynch has gained back most of the weight he had lost and is back around the 270-pound mark after playing his sophomore season at USF in the 240s. Every other player on this list had at least a short stint in the starting lineup, but Lynch was able to flash his massive potential in a part-time rush role for San Francisco while starting just twice.
In 521 snaps this year, Lynch racked up six sacks and nine tackles for loss, showing off explosive speed and athleticism along with great bend around the edge. The fact that Lynch was able to make such a marked impact on the defensive side of the ball while playing over 50 snaps just twice all season is a testament to the first-round potential many scouts saw in him four years ago.
While Lynch is just ninth on the list this season, he’s quite possibly the most talented player named here. If he can force his way into a starting role, Lynch shows the potential to hit double digits in sacks and might even be able to pull it off in a situational role. This pick is another draft highlight for the 49ers, who continue to nail mid-to-late-round picks under GM Trent Baalke.
10. Telvin Smith (LB-Jac, Round 5, Pick 144)
Coming out of Florida State, there were some who questioned whether Smith should move to safety due to his size, as he weighed in around 220 pounds at the NFL combine. His talent was that of a top-100 player, but those questions dropped him into the fifth round, where Jacksonville was more than happy to draft one of the most talented players available at that spot.
Smith was used mostly in a situation role for the season’s first 10 weeks, and put together a monster performance against the Browns in Week 7, excelling both as a pass rusher and in coverage. Smith had a strip-sack and an interception of Brian Hoyer, while using his 4.5 speed to chase down multiple running players and getting impressive depth to break up numerous passes in coverage.
The first-year linebacker wasn’t officially inserted into the starting lineup until after Jacksonville’s Week 11 bye, and while the big plays disappeared in a full-time role, Smith flashed a great deal of difference-making potential in 2014. Whether he’s better off as a starter or playing mainly in sub-packages, there is an NFL role for Smith and he has the talent to make a greater impact than most fifth-rounders, even if he’s relegated to part-time status.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews and interviewing NFL prospects. He also writes for Optimum Scouting, Yahoo! and Jets 101 and has previously worked at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com.