It doesn’t always take a first-round pick to secure a first-round talent in the NFL draft.
With competing philosophies, evaluations and needs crumbling any chance of widespread consensus among teams, the league’s annual “player selection meeting” can often leave promising players waiting well into Days 2 and 3. And for teams with the right eye, there’s an opportunity to find tremendous value beyond their highest selection.
This dynamic was in play last year, as Deebo Samuel (49ers), DK Metcalf (Seahawks), A.J. Brown (Titans) and Terry McLaurin (Redskins) all became key contributors in their debut campaigns. And with the 2020 NFL draft now complete, several more players who didn’t make the cut in Round 1 now look poised to provide their teams handsome returns.
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With that in mind, USA TODAY Sports identified 13 players who could go down as the biggest steals of this year’s draft:
Browns S Grant Delpit (LSU) — second round, No. 44 overall
Kudos to new Browns GM Andrew Berry for maintaining the proper perspective on Delpit that many of his peers lacked. The 6-2, 213-pound safety put forth a fair share of rocky tackling efforts last season, but he attributed the problems primarily to a high-ankle sprain that hindered him for a good portion of the year. Those shortcomings, however, can be cleared up. What can’t be taught are Delpit’s quick breaks in coverage and ball-hawking play, as his rare blend of athleticism and instincts allow him to chase down passes from almost any point on the field. In a few years, Delpit might leave many wondering how he made it out of the first round.
Bears CB Jaylon Johnson (Utah) — second round, No. 50 overall
It’s fitting that Johnson described himself as a “dog” in coverage, as he hounds receivers from the line of scrimmage to the catch point. Cornerbacks with his combination of physicality and ball skills are hard to come by, and his impact might be evident early for an undermanned Bears secondary. In time, he might prove to be the third-best cornerback in this class behind top-10 picks Jeff Okudah (Lions) and C.J. Henderson (Jaguars).
Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs (Alabama) — second round, No. 51 overall
Had the Cowboys selected Diggs with their first-round choice, few would have batted an eye. Instead, they ended up with the suffocating cornerback on Day 2 after grabbing Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb as the headliner of their class. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has said he wants a “swarming” unit that can attack the ball, which sounds like an appropriate fit for Diggs. The former wide receiver also is in line to spark a turnover turnaround for a group that tied for a league low with seven interceptions in 2019.
Jets WR Denzel Mims (Baylor) — second round, No. 59 overall
Upon opting to take Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton with the No. 11 pick rather than begin a run on receivers, the Jets set themselves up for a long wait to find a pass catcher, particularly after trading to the back of the second round. Somehow, Gang Green still ended up with a potential No. 1 target. The 6-3, 207-pound Mims figures to form a potent downfield connection with Sam Darnold, who can trust his new weapon to snag challenging passes. Even if Mims needs an extended adjustment period while he learns the finer points of route running, he had unmatched upside among the Day 2 receivers.
Titans CB Kristian Fulton (LSU) — second round, No. 61 overall
Even in a class rife with starting-caliber cornerbacks, Fulton stands out as the most battle-tested of his peers. He’s a veteran of press coverage and has stood up to college football’s best receivers in his two years as a starter in the Southeastern Conference. While he might have trouble with speed merchants and doesn’t put things together often enough to come down with interceptions consistently, Fulton has a solid shot of being an effective starter, so long as he can continue to remain patient in coverage.
Jets S Ashtyn Davis (Cal) — third round, No. 68 overall
If not for being sidelined for much of the pre-draft process after undergoing groin surgery in December, Davis might have received his due as one of this class’ premier athletes. The former hurdler restricts much of the field for opposing quarterbacks with his outstanding range or makes them pay for testing him. With starter Marcus Maye still in the fold as he enters the final year of his contract, Davis can hone his recognition skills before potentially taking on a larger role as Jamal Adams’ sidekick. Fifth-round cornerback Bryce Hall also could be a boon for the secondary.
Cardinals OT Josh Jones (Houston) — third round, No. 72 overall
Arizona GM Steve Keim didn’t need to second-guess himself in using the No. 8 overall selection on Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, a multitalented defender who can have a massive impact on an outfit that gave up an NFL-worst 402 yards per game in 2019. That approach, however, appeared to concede any chance of landing an offensive tackle who could aid a front that surrendered 48 sacks last season. So when Jones was available when the Cardinals next came on the clock in the third round, the team pounced. Fleet-footed and flexible, the 6-5, 308-pound blocker is a more accomplished pass protector than several other offensive tackles who went in the late first and second rounds, and he might end up a superior starter, too.
Saints LB Zack Baun (Wisconsin) — third round, No. 74 overall
Baun hasn’t operated in the off-ball linebacker role he’s set to occupy in the NFL, but there’s no reason to doubt he can make an effective transition from the edge. His explosiveness as a pass rusher makes him an intriguing piece, especially if Sean Payton’s staff is creative in deploying him. A superb athlete, the 6-2, 238-pound Baun also can match up with running backs and tight ends once he gets more accustomed to his coverage duties.
Rams S Terrell Burgess (Utah) — third round, No. 104 overall
Formidable nickel cornerbacks are a necessity in the NFL, yet the Rams let one leave by not exercising Nickell Robey-Coleman’s option for 2020. The cap-saving move shouldn’t sting quite as badly after Los Angeles picked up Burgess, though. The 5-11, 202-pound defensive back can man the slot from the start, and his versatility should prove valuable when safeties John Johnson III and Taylor Rapp need to be spelled. The Rams also unearthed good value in Alabama pass rusher Terrell Lewis, their other third-round choice.
Cowboys DE Bradlee Anae (Utah) — fifth round, No. 179 overall
After waiting until his penultimate pick to address a position many thought would be a priority for Dallas, Jerry Jones made a shrewd move by diverting from his usual tendencies. The Cowboys have been drawn to rangy, athletic edge rushers in recent years, bringing on the likes of Randy Gregory, Robert Quinn (now on the Bears) and Aldon Smith to complement DeMarcus Lawrence. No one will mistake the workmanlike Anae, who recorded a 4.93-second 40-yard dash, for that type of player. His refined and relentless approach, however, should pay dividends as he wears down opponents and keeps teammates fresh. And if Gregory and Smith aren’t reinstated from indefinite suspensions, Anae can offer more reliability than the typical rookie edge rusher.
Ravens WR James Proche (SMU) — sixth round, No. 201 overall
Baltimore now has used eight picks in the last three drafts on wide receivers and tight ends for Lamar Jackson, with Proche the latest off the board of them all. Don’t be surprised, though, if he finds a way to stick around. Proche is one of the most sure-handed receivers in the draft, and his penchant for fighting for the ball will afford Jackson even more freedom to make daring throws. And though he doesn’t offer as much speed as third-round receiver Devin Duvernay, Proche is particularly dangerous on the crossing routes that have become a staple of the Ravens’ offense.
Bills WR Isaiah Hodgins (Oregon State) — sixth round, No. 207 overall
Pigeonholed by some as merely a possession receiver, Hodgins is now in the right setting to showcase his value. The Bills have made a serious push to give Josh Allen enhanced pass-catching options, trading their first-round pick to have Stefon Diggs join John Brown and Cole Beasley. All three receivers, however, are 6-0 or shorter and weigh under 200 pounds. The 6-4, 210-pound Hodgins is a master of securing contested catches, reeling in all 12 of his red zone targets last year for nine touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. He should be an immediate asset for Allen, who completed just 48% of his passes inside the 20-yard line in 2019, and can also extend his influence to intermediate routes.
Chargers WR K.J. Hill (Ohio State) — seventh round, No. 220 overall
It’s far more typical for a seventh-round receiver to be cut by September than find substantial work as a rookie, but Hill fits nicely into the Chargers’ shifting passing attack. Despite pedestrian physical attributes, the 6-0, 196-pound target became the Buckeyes’ all-time leader in receptions by growing into a masterful route runner. Hill’s ability to create separation is mostly limited to underneath throws, but first-round quarterback Justin Herbert will need a safety valve as he learns to read NFL defenses and put better touch on his throws. Hill can handle that, and his skill set also could be put to use by the risk-averse Tyrod Taylor, should the veteran passer hold down the starting job for a while.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.