In the recent weeks, there have been a lot of questions about who are my value picks in the 2017 NFL Draft class. A value or sleeper prospect is basically a player who gets drafted after the first round and proves to be a steal. The second day of the draft is where the men are separated from the boys among NFL general managers. All the players have strengths and flaws, but the top evaluators find future starters and team building blocks on Day 2. Every year, I pick my favorite second-day values. Here is my record.
2008: Brandon Flowers, CB, Virginia Tech 2009: Mike Wallace, WR, Ole Miss 2010: Brian Price, DT, UCLA & Brandon Spikes, ILB, Florida 2011: Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia 2012: Derek Wolfe, DL, Cincinnati 2013: Larry Warford, G, Kentucky 2014: Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU 2015: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT Texas A&M, & Ronald Darby, CB Florida State 2016: Jaylon Smith, LB Notre Dame & Sheldon Day, DT Notre Dame 2017: Gerald Everett, TE South Alabama (Runner-up: Akhello Witherspoon, CB Colorado)
This year, my choice came down to Gerald Everett and Colorado cornerback Akhello Witherspoon. I think Witherspoon could be a huge steal with the potential to be a No. 1 corner in the NFL. I honestly think he has Pro Bowl potential. However, there are some questions around Witherspoon's willingness to tackle, ability to be coached, and being a nerdy know-it-all. Hence, maybe he clash in his NFL locker room depending on his coaching staff and teammates. I think Everett could be a dynamic pass-receiving tight end in the NFL. It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes one of the better mismatch receiving weapons and a Pro Bowler.
Overall, this list is very strong with the one exception being Brian Price. Unfortunately family tragedies robbed him of being able to put an NFL career together. Flowers has had a Pro Bowl career. Wallace has been a good pro receiver and helped get the Steelers to a Super Bowl. Houston is a pass-rushing terror for the Chiefs, while Wolfe has turned into a very good pro for the Broncos. Warford is one of the better guards in the NFL. Warford has been better than top-10 picks at guard in the same draft class, Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper. Hill flashed as a rookie and could right his career.
In 2015, I went with Cedric Ogbuehi with Ronald Darby being my backup. Since Ogbuehi was selected in the first round, he doesn't count for the long-term track record. Darby has played really well for Buffalo in his first two years and looks like he'll have a very good NFL career. It is too early to say how last year's selection will work out.
Here is a breakdown of a sleeper prospect at each position for the draft class. All the players will be prospects who are likely going on the second or third day of the 2017 NFL Draft. If a player is a possible late first-round pick, I generally don't include them as an option.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
From an athletic skill-set perspective, McDowell is one of the stars of the 2017 NFL Draft class. In fact among the defensive line, I would say only Myles Garrett has a more freaky skill set. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound McDowell is extremely fast at the point of attack with natural size, length and strength.
In the pass rush, McDowell has a quick get-off with speed to close. He is faster than expected, and often his speed catches offensive linemen by surprise. He can use his speed to dart by guards, or fly around the corner to beat offensive tackles. McDowell has shocking speed for such a big defensive lineman. Even more shocking is his ability to bend and dip around the corner. Most tall defensive linemen aren't as agile as McDowell. On the other hand, he is raw as he needs to be taught technique and pass-rushing moves. The Michigan State coaching staff didn't teach McDowell well, and his lack of development is absurd given the immense physical talent those coaches had the good fortune of working with.
McDowell is also a tough run defender. He can use his his quickness to get upfield, or use his strength to get off a block and tackle the back close to the line of scrimmage. With his speed, McDowell can fire his gap and get penetration into the backfield. After getting by guards, McDowell has a nice ability to close.
The only thing that can stop McDowell is himself, and that is why he's projected to the second day of the 2017 NFL Draft. Teams question his effort, work ethic, and football character. He is a young kid who could mature. If the light comes on, I think he could be one of the best five-technique 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. He also will be very good in a 4-3. McDowell could be a mega-steal for some team.
Previous Picks 2016: Sheldon Day 2015: Michael Bennett 2014: Dominique Easley & Taylor Hart
Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Most teams are projecting Cunningham to the second day of the 2017 NFL Draft. Hence, I feel comfortable putting him in this article. Cunningham does everything well that the NFL could want, and there isn't a serious weakness to his game. In run defense, he defends sideline-to-sideline with the quickness to track down ball-carriers. Cunningham has very good instincts. He is very good at reading his keys and exploding through the scrum to take down running backs. Cunningham is also big enough to defend against downhill runs coming straight at him. In terms of getting off blocks though, Cunningham is a mixed story. There have been plays where he is very impassive to shed blocks and then make a tackle. Other times, he tries to run around blockers rather than taking them on. He needs to improve at more consistently taking on blocks in the NFL. Adding some more muscle to his lean frame could help him to execute that.
Cunningham is very well-suited to today's NFL in terms of pass coverage. As a professional, he could be an asset as a linebacker weapon to neutralize receiving threat tight ends in man-to-man coverage. Cunningham has good height and length to match up on tight ends with the speed to get down the seam. He was very good in coverage for Vanderbilt last season. For running backs out of the backfield, Cunningham is also able to blanket them. In zone coverage, Cunningham is skilled to pick up receivers coming into his area and keeping them from getting open. He also flashed as a blitzer when given the opportunity to rush the passer. Cunningham should be a true three-down defender in the NFL.
Previous Picks 2016: Jaylon Smith 2015: Denzel Perryman 2014: Kyle Van Noy
Akhello Witherspoon, CB, Colorado
This was a tough choice between Witherspoon and Jalen Tabor. I chose Witherspoon because I think he has special cover skills, while Tabor has some limitations. Tabor has great instincts and is a ballhawk, but his issues with deep speed could be amplified in the NFL. I think Witherspoon could end up being a No. 1 cornerback who is adept at blanketing receivers and preventing separation.
At 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, Witherspoon has great size to matchup on tall receivers. He also is very fast and showed the ability to run with speedy wideouts. Witherspoon is a fluid athlete with the looseness to turn and run, yet still use his size to win jump balls. Another thing that I love about Witherspoon is that he is a tremendous asset in the red zone. Teams went after him last year, and he was phenomenal at taking away precious downs to do his part to prevent touchdowns. Witherspoon is very smart and has a ton of athletic upside. I think he will be one of the steals of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Previous Picks 2016: Kendall Fuller 2015: Ronald Darby 2014: Marcus Roberson
Marcus Maye, S, Florida
This is a very good safety draft, so this was a tough call. My finalists were Maye and Utah's Marcus Williams. I chose Maye because he is bigger, stronger, and a better run defender. Hence, I think Maye is more versatile and well-rounded for the NFL.
In pass coverage, Maye has the potential to be a real asset in the NFL. He has the speed, size, and ball skills to be a single-high deep free safety. As the deep center fielder, he can break on the ball well and is dangerous to pick it off or slap it away. Maye is rangy, and is adept at making some big plays downfield because he is very instinctive. He covers a lot of ground in the deep part of the field, plus has the size to battle big wide receivers and tight ends. Maye also has some man-coverage ability to defend pass-receiving tight ends who cause mismatch problems for most teams.
In run defense, Maye can be a solid defender as he has the size to tackle and will make some clutch open-field stops. Maye may have sufficient flexiblity to play both strong and free safety in the NFL. He has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety that flips responsibilities pre-snap. Teams love that kind of safety.
Routinely, Maye makes some tremendous plays. Plays that make you say "Wow" and give him the look of a first-round pick. On the flip side, he has consistent hiccups that are extremely painful for his team. I think those mistakes can be reduced with good coaching to fix some vision and eye-discipline issues. If that happens, Maye could be a Pro Bowl player and one of the steals of the 2017 NFL Draft.