2019 NFL Draft: Five under-the-radar prospects who could rise into the first round
These impressive but underrated college players should skyrocket up draft boards after big 2018 seasons
Every year a handful of players totally off the first-round radar before the season ultimately become Round 1 selections. And they're not always from obscure small schools.
In 2018, UTSA's Marcus Davenport, UCLA's Kolton Miller, Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch, Maryland's D.J. Moore, and UCF's Mike Hughes parlayed huge final seasons at the collegiate level to hearing their names called among the first 32 picks.
Here are some dark horse prospects who very well may ascend into the first round of the 2019 draft.
Morgan Jr. was the Huskers' prime downfield target last season because of his deceptive long speed, impossible-to-miss strong hands and plus tracking ability. He had 61 grabs for 986 yards (16.2 yards per catch) with 10 touchdowns. Morgan Jr. made one-handed grabs look routine and played with noticeable power as a runner. He beat 2018 No. 4 overall selection Denzel Ward for a 17-yard touchdown against Ohio State and had receptions of 44, 46, 51 and 80 yards in 2017.
At around 6-feet-1 and close to 200 pounds with a chiseled frame, Morgan Jr. has decent size and should up his yards-after-the-catch production in Scott Frost's wide-open offense this season, which will make him more of an appealing prospect for the increased prevalence of quick passing in today's NFL. He reminds me of Packers star wideout Davante Adams.
Khaleke Hudson, S/LB, Michigan
Hudson will again be Michigan's most multi-dimensional defender in 2018, as a blitzing coverage nickel linebacker/safety hybrid with sideline-to-sideline run-stopping ability. Last year for the Wolverines, Hudson had 77 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, two interceptions, a pair of forced fumbles and nine pass breakups. He attacks the ball-carrier with a no-nonsense suddenness and power packed into his 6-0, 205-pound frame. As a pass-rusher and when dealing with run-blocking offensive linemen, his urgency and springy athleticism allow him to consistently bounce off blockers to stay involved in the play.
Michigan lost superstar Maurice Hurst to the NFL but returns the vast majority of its starters from a season ago that was one of the most dominant in the country. The Wolverines allowed 30 touchdowns, and only 10 teams allowed fewer.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown proved to understand how to deploy Hudson to optimize his dynamic skill set, so the defender is primed for a huge, stat-sheet stuffing year in Ann Arbor. In short, he's a more productive version of Jabrill Peppers who went in the first round of the 2017 draft and projects outstandingly to an NFL that's increasingly becoming "positionless."
Based on his play in 2017, Cajuste looked like a mid-round selection, but he makes this list because of his rare athleticism at the left tackle position. Sleeper offensive linemen typically rise into the first round due to light feet or insane measureables. Cajuste fits the latter profile and has good size at 6-5 and 310-plus pounds. He didn't always appear comfortable when he got to the second level last season, but he was quick getting there and had no issues flowing laterally on zone runs. Cajuste's feet led to tremendous positioning in pass protection in 2017.
He'll find himself in the spotlight as Will Grier's left tackle in 2018 and with more assertiveness and anchoring strength, Cajuste's natural athleticism could be the catalyst for the West Virginia blocker to receive first-round consideration in the 2019 draft.
Hakeem Butler, WR, Iowa State
The NFL has seemingly begun to gradually move away from prioritizing tall, jump-ball wide receivers early in the draft (see Courtland Sutton going in Round 2 in 2018), but Butler could be the exception as a freak athlete who stands 6-6 and over 220 pounds and poses a serious threat down the field. In his redshirt sophomore season, Butler reeled in 41 catches for 697 yards (17.0 yards per) with seven touchdowns. He showcased the ability to comfortably make grabs outside his frame, routinely tracked the ball well -- typically using his immense size to his advantage -- and was a load to take to the turf after the catch.
With Allen Lazard to the NFL -- and don't ask me how he went undrafted after his illustrious career and strong combine -- Butler should be in line for the most targets of the Cyclones receiver group, although running back David Montgomery will be the offensive foundation.
After what should be another productive campaign in Ames and what will likely be an outstanding combine, Butler could be on the first-round radar for many teams.
Carl Granderson, EDGE, Wyoming
At 6-5 and almost 250-plus pounds, Granderson passes the eyeball test, and he was all over the field for Wyoming as a junior with 78 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. Many of his behind-the-line production was a byproduct of scary speed-to-power ability and bend and burst around the corner.
I won't call him the next Marcus Davenport just yet, but if there's a edge-rusher outside the Power 5 who could rise into Round 1 of the 2019 draft, it very well could be Granderson. His arms look long too, which will entice scouts and general managers. In 2017, he forced two fumbles and intercepted two passes.
The Cowboys quietly had one of college football's stingiest defenses a season ago, and beyond Granderson, they have a pair of sure-fire NFLers in playmaking safety Andrew Wingard and penetrating defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan who had 15.5 tackles for loss last season. The attention he'll draw inside will likely give Granderson more one-on-one opportunities on the outside.
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