April 27, 2023   6 MIN READ

Bottom Feeders

DiCecco: These Draft Prospects Could Sneak Into First Round Bottom Half


It happens every year.

The names of 30-to-35 prospects are recycled for two months.

The same names included in seemingly every mock draft published over that span.

For whatever reason, there’s little expansion, nuance, or deviation from what’s considered universal public perception throughout the draft process conversations.

In reality, though, a handful of players each cycle hear their names called on opening night, but to widespread dismay.

While some selections – such as Tennessee-Chatanooga’s Cole Strange, who last year astonishingly went No. 29 to the Patriots – are sure to send the occasional shockwave through the draft community, most that are deemed surprise picks or “reaches” are anything but for those covering the draft beyond the consensus-ranked top-35 players.

Those players might not register as household names to everyone but they’re largely productive at the collegiate level, targeted based on some combination of long-term projection, translatable traits, intriguing measurables, and schematic fit.

Here are five players who have a chance to become the next wave of unfamiliar names to creep into first-round frenzy.

Anton Harrison, OT, Oklahoma

It’s plausible to envision a run on offensive linemen after Paris Johnson, Peter Skoronski, Broderick Jones, and Darnell Wright come off the board Thursday night. Teams needing a tackle are then likely to pivot to Harrison, who should hardly be considered a consolation. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Oklahoma product earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season, starting the season opener at right tackle before returning to his natural position on the left side for the remaining 11 games.

Harrison was particularly exceptional in pass protection during his time in Norman, logging 1,002 sets and allowing just four sacks. In addition to playing a premium position, Harrison clocked a sub-5.0 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.98) and his 34 1/8-inch arms should quell any concerns over his lack of ideal size for playing the position at the pro level.

There are a number of potential fits in the back half of the first round, which is ultimately where I expect Harrison to land.

Joe Tippman

GETTY IMAGES: Joe Tippman, a former Wisconsin C, could sneak into the bottom of the first round.

Joe Tippmann, C, Wisconsin

Former Minnesota Golden Gopher center John Michael Schmitz, a 2022 first-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten is considered the head of the class and has generated some first-round buzz, but for my money, both distinctions belong to Tippmann, a consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last season who served as a two-year starter for the Badgers.

While the 6-foot-6, 313-pound Tippman might not be as technically proficient or offer the floor Schmitz can, he provides an indisputably higher ceiling thanks in large part to his measurables, athleticism, and fluidity in space.

A workout warrior, Tippmann didn’t test during the NFL Scouting Combine. But he did enough to qualify for 28th out of 100 on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freak” list, reportedly squatting 635 pounds, bench pressing 455 pounds, and clocking a 4.31 short-shuttle.

Tippmann, 22, also happens to be two years younger than Schmitz, for what it’s worth. If its athletic upside and versatility on the offensive line that teams covet, Tippmann is their guy. The Giants, picking at No. 25, would be a logical pairing.

Steve Avila, IOL, TCU

Woeful state of offensive line play across the NFL has become an epidemic  in recent years. Teams picking towards the back half of the first round also one missing piece from perhaps a deep postseason run and looking to fortify the trenches will presumably give Avila, a plug-and-play starter at guard and the class of his position, heavy consideration.

The 6-foot-3, 332-pound Avila was a three-year starter at TCU, including two years starting at left guard and center, respectively.

This powerful, nasty, road-grader of an interior lineman anchors well while also exhibiting the requisite lateral agility and quickness to reach the second level and pave running lanes.

Any team selecting Avila acquires a Day 1 starter and the likelihood of reaping early returns on their investment. A team such as the Dallas Cowboys, picking at No. 26, could be a match.

Julius Brents

GETTY IMAGES: Former Kansas State CB Julius Brents has the skill set to creep into Round 1 if there’s an early corner run.

Julius Brents, CB, Kansas State

Supply and demand could come into play, as an early run on cornerbacks could drastically alter the positional landscape. Depending on how you have them graded, maybe those next-up cornerbacks are Michigan’s D.J. Turner – who ran a 4.26 at the NFL Scouting Combine and offers inside-outside versatility – or the slender Emmanuel Forbes of Mississippi State, who corralled six interceptions last season, returning three for touchdowns.

Brents (6-3, 198), however, combines tantalizing measurables – including 34-inch arms and a 41.5-inch vertical – with physicality, fluidity, and instinctiveness that teams covet in perimeter defenders. While Brents can play man or zone, he is most effective playing the latter.

There are areas of his game in need of refinement, but his upside is evident. If there’s a team in need of a cornerback in the back half of the first round, they’ll have options. But I’d suspect there’ll be a team partial to a prospect with high-level developmental traits and freakish physical dimensions.

Keeanu Benton, IDL, Wisconsin

One of my favorite interior defenders in this class, Benton has steadily drawn praise deep into the pre-draft cycle. Initially viewed as a one-dimensional, albeit intriguingly athletic, space-eater out of Wisconsin with limited pass-rush upside, Benton shed any preconceived notions at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, clocking a 5.08 40-yard dash, in addition to registering a 29.5-inch vertical, a staggering 9-foot-3 broad jump, 7.34 three-cone, and yielding 25 reps on the bench press while measuring in at 6-foot-4, 309 pounds.

Aside from his multiple alignment appeal, Benton blends point-of-attack-power, leverage, and swarming run defense with active hands, a relentless motor and moldable pass-rush attributes.

If teams are hesitant to pounce on some of his positional contemporaries – such as the injury riddled and inexperienced Bryan Bresee or undersized Pitt pass-rusher Calijah Kancey – in the first round,  Benton, a three-down tackle boasting scheme versatility, could conceivably be among the surprises to emerge.

– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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