The 2018 season has come and gone. The New England Patriots stand atop of the NFL once again, hoisting their sixth Lombardi trophy in franchise history. It has already been a hectic offseason to date; Le'veon Bell has officially become a free agent after not receiving the transition tag from the Pittsburgh Steelers. His teammate, Antonio Brown, requested a trade from the organization, and after meeting with head brass, his wish will come true if the Steelers can find the perfect suitor. After hitting the upright in the NFC Wild Card game, Cody Parkey is now searching for a job after the Bears revealed they will not bring him back for the 2019 campaign. As every franchise starts to tailor their roster this offseason with cuts and “in principle” free agent signings (restricted free agents cannot officially sign with teams until the new league year begins on March 13), the NFL draft and the many college prospects will take the main stage for the coming weeks leading up to the big weekend in late April.
As players started to declare for the NFL draft, the big names always stand out. Kyler Murray, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner, is the biggest name on the market right now after he decided to forego a professional baseball career with the Oakland Athletics. We’ve seen photos of D.K. Metcalf looking like the hulk in a recent weight room photo with teammate and likely first round pick AJ Brown. N’Keal Harry posted an insane 42 inch vertical during a pre-combine workout and is regarded by many NFL scouts as the best receiving prospect in the draft.
So what about the under the radar players? What about the players who were successful at their respective colleges, but weren’t on the national stage for television broadcasts, weren’t on the Alabama’s or the Clemson’s? Here are five players to watch in the upcoming NFL combine and draft process that could and should make an impact on a NFL team very soon.
Justice Hill - Oklahoma State - Running Back
Despite his size (5’9” 190lbs), Hill had a successful and productive career in Stillwater, totaling 1,142 yards as a freshman, 1,462 yards as a sophomore, and 930 yards in a injury-riddled junior campaign. Known for his elusiveness, agility, and sneaky fast speed, Hill also has excellent lateral quickness and contact balance, as many of his runs having the ability to churn out 3-4 more yards after contact on a consistent basis. Look for Hill to possibly have the best 3-cone time for running backs at the 2019 NFL Combine. Hill has underrated vision and his ability to jump cut makes him hard to tackle in open space. Although he was underutilized in the Oklahoma State offense as a pass catcher, his ability to take advantage of targets which come his way will allow him to fit nicely into a pass catching role if need be. Hill also boasts a strong ability to pass block, something teams look for in a potential running back. He may not be a thumper in the middle, but get Hill some space and you’re possibly looking at six points every time he touches the ball.
Ryquell Armstead - Temple - Running Back
Armstead had a decent four-year career at Temple, and finished off his senior season with 210 carries for 1,098 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns. At a sturdy 5’11” and 215 lbs, Armstead has the prototypical running back physique teams are looking for in an early down bruiser. On tape Armstead runs violently and relentlessly and has the aggressiveness to bowl over defenders if he wants to. He may not be the most agile back in the draft, but he has the skill set an NFL team may look for in an early down role or even situational goal line carries. Armstead naturally finds the open running lane at the line of scrimmage and his burst after his initial cut may surprise most defenders who come his way. He’s a liability in the passing game, where he was essentially nonexistent for the Owls. Despite this knock, Armstead may be one of the best bruiser-type running backs in this year’s draft class.
Clayton Thorson - Northwestern - Quarterback
Thorson started 53 games - most in Big Ten history - for the Wildcats and had an up and down career, but his frame at 6’4” 225 pounds is what has the scouts’ mouth watering. His senior season was somewhat of a dud, throwing only 17 touchdowns and being picked off 15 times, the worst touchdown to interception ratio of draft-eligible quarterbacks. Thorson needed to have a solid Senior Bowl week, but was sidelined with a high-ankle sprain which may have hurt his draft stock a little bit. Thorson was never really a consistent quarterback during his tenure at Northwestern, but showed promise in a matchup against Notre Dame. As a 53 game starter, Thorson brings the element of experience to the NFL draft. A team looking for an experienced collegiate signal caller may be calling Thorson this coming April, even as high as a late day two selection.
Anthony Johnson - Wide Receiver - Buffalo
Not often do you have a pedigree in your family like NFL players Jadeveon Clowney and Jonathan Joseph, cousins of Buffalo wide receiver Anthony Johnson. An older draft prospect who skipped around JUCO his first two seasons, Johnson exploded onto the scene his redshirt junior year, amassing over 1,300 yards and 14 scores, earning All-MAC first team honors. Faced with the death of close friend at the beginning of his senior year, Johnson overcame many obstacles - including playing a game with the flu - to finish the year with just over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Johnson at 6’2” 220 lbs is a big frame wide receiving prospect with long arms and huge catch radius. Most of his collegiate work came as a vertical threat, but did see snaps from the slot as his career went on. Johnson will have to work on his footwork and quickness during the draft process to improve his draft stock, but will be a solid pick for a team come April.
Josh Oliver - San Jose St. - Tight End
Originally recruited to be a defensive player, Oliver made the switch to offense when San Jose St. tight ends were ravaged by injury his freshman year. A four-year starter for the Spartans, Oliver finished his senior year with 56 catches (a team high) for 709 yards and four touchdowns, good enough for All-MWC First Team honors. Commanding nearly 40% of the passing target shares, Oliver consistently faced double/bracket coverage. As a combine unknown, Oliver has a polished route running repertoire and uses great balance to fend off linebackers while withstanding hits from safeties. His use of an expanded route tree at San Diego St. should allow for an easy translation to the NFL field, especially for teams who look to attack the second level of a defense. Scouts have noticed his blocking is mediocre and will need to drastically improve to get opportunities in the play-action game of an NFL offense. A tight end needy team looking to find a solid TE2/TE3 option should look no further than Josh Oliver.
Whether these players listed above make a name for themselves or not at the combine, it will be interesting to follow these players and other under the radar prospects leading up to the NFL draft in April.