With the 2018 NFL Draft now only 8 more days from now, Saints fans by now have become very familiar with the big-name players expected to be selected in the event's early rounds.
But as it usually seems to happen at this very same time every single year, it’s the young men who are chosen later in the Draft on that end up making the biggest impact.
A common term used to describe such players is a "sleeper" or a “diamond in the rough", but in most cases a more accurate description would be "underappreciated" or perhaps even "overlooked".
Which players will end up being considered a "steal"? Which players will rise from being virtually unknown and playing in relative obscurity, only to go on and have tremendous NFL careers?
That's often not easy to predict, because much of it depends on WHICH NFL team that a player ends up with.
With that in mind, here are 5 very underappreciated / overlooked players in this year's class, that in our eyes here at the Saints News Network, would make great picks for the New Orleans Saints.
Beginning first with......
DUKE EJIOFOR, EDGE PASS RUSHER / DEFENSIVE END, WAKE FOREST
In his four-year career at Wake Forest, Ejiofor totaled 23.5 sacks; and he earned second-team All-ACC honors after finishing fourth in the conference with 14.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt senior in 2017.
The 6-foot-4, 275 pound Ejiofor is considered by some analysts to possess some of the very best pass-rushing moves in the draft that are on par with this year's top EDGE rusher Bradley Chubb of North Carolina State, and "technique-wise" likely has the most active and best hands of any edge rusher in the class.
The main reason why Ejiofor may be overlooked by most teams (and why he'll still be available in Round 3 or later) is because the 22-year old (he turns 23 next week) had labrum surgery after the college season which ultimately held him from competing at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine (both of which he was invited to).
CBS Sports NFL Draft Analyst Chris Trapasso says that Ejiofor has NFL defensive end size and immense length. Beyond that, his hands are awesomely active, and he converts speed to power around the corner. While not very bendy, he gets to the quarterback with explosiveness and refined pass-rushing moves — most notable a nasty "swim move" — and is a force against the run mainly due to his hard-to-move frame.
A son of Nigerian immigrants, Ejiofor projects as a 4-3 rush end at the next level; and would be a great player to put on the opposite outside edge at weakside / right defensive end in Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's defensive scheme, as a complement to All-Pro strongside defensive end Cam Jordan.
DEADRIN SENAT, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA
While getting another defensive tackle to add to the Saints interior defensive pass rush to essentially "replace" former Saints veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley isn't exactly a priority for team brass this off-season (since they still have Tyeler Davison and back-up David Onyemata to put alongside 2016 top draft pick Sheldon Rankins in the interior of the Saints D-Line), it doesn't mean that they aren't still looking to add one.
One player who is perhaps being underappreciated or overlooked and likely not to get taken until Round 3 or later because of concerns that he's "too small", is University of South Florida defensive tackle Deadrin Senat. The 6-foot, 322 pound Senat has drawn many comparisons to L.A. Rams DT and reigning 2017 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald because of his lack of height, but has shown everyone in the past several months leading up to next week's Draft that he is more than capable of becoming a very good player at the next level.
Senat was named second-team All-AAC as a junior after totaling 49 tackles (seven for loss) with his first career sack. He also had a forced fumble in a Birmingham Bowl win over South Carolina. Senat saw his production increase as a senior in 2017, totaling a career-high 66 total tackles, including 10.5 for loss, and becoming a nuisance for quarterbacks with six sacks on the year. He was named 1st-team All-AAC for his excellent campaign.
FanSided's KC Kingdom NFL Draft expert Ben Almquist says that Senat is a powerful interior lineman who holds up well at the point of attack. He’s got a quick-twitch that allows him to get off the ball quickly and gain his leverage. Senat can get into the backfield and create havoc, especially if he isn’t getting double-teamed. Additionally: he's tenacious as a pass rusher and can get to the quarterback.
The biggest concern is that Senat is often swallowed up by larger / taller offensive linemen. His lack of height also prevents him from being a threat to knock down any passes or disrupt the passing lane. He is generally considered a two-down lineman who would likely come off the field in passing situations. Nevertheless, that (being a 2-down player capable of generating pressure on the QB) is an accurate description of what Fairley brought to the Saints defense during his time in New Orleans; and picking a player with Senat's capabilities would adequately fill that role.
IAN THOMAS, TIGHT END, INDIANA
Another player perhaps being underappreciated based on his current draft projection (Round 3) essentially because he was a "late bloomer", Indiana University tight end Ian Thomas proved to be a valuable big-play threat for the Hoosiers in 2017, averaging 15 yards per catch and hauling in a touchdown every five receptions. He spent the first two seasons of his career at Nassau Community College; where he caught 27 passes before transferring to the Hoosiers.
He played sparingly as a junior in 2016, but last year caught 25 passes for 376 yards and five touchdowns on his way to being named All-Big Ten honorable mention. In all, he played for three head coaches and three offensive coordinators during his college career. USA TODAY / The Draft Wire NFL Draft analyst Luke Easterling notes that with a big frame that could still add some quality bulk, and an impressive catch radius, the 6-foot-4, 260 pound Thomas has all the physical tools to create mismatches at the next level.
Compared often to former University of Oklahoma and former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, the 21-year old Thomas is considered a raw prospect, which means he’s not totally refined but also has a much higher potential ceiling. NFL.com's Chris Trapasso says that Thomas is the most fluid athlete in this tight end class. He says that Thomas glides in an out of his breaks without losing much speed, and believes that he'll be a productive player on option routes over the middle. Thomas' biggest weaknesses (and the reason why he'll still likely be available on Day 3) are his blocking ability and route-running, which isn't that surprising for a "raw" player who's still essentially learning HOW to play the position.
But his "upside" is that scouts believe that he will be a legitimate threat in the receiving game and can develop the traits that he lacks, with the proper amount of coaching at the next level. For a Saints team that clearly could use some "new blood" at the TE position, Thomas would be a great selection for New Orleans. And the fact that he could be "mentored" by long-time veteran Saints tight end Ben Watson as a rookie? A huge plus.
PARRY NICKERSON, CORNERBACK, TULANE
Saints fans living in South Louisiana and especially the local New Orleans metro area surely have heard of local star and Tulane University CB Parry Nickerson, who grew up on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish (Harvey) and attended West Jefferson High School.
Nickerson was a first-team All-AAC player in his senior year after racking up a career-high 55 total tackles (two for loss) and intercepting six more passes, giving him 16 interceptions in his collegiate career. He had a pick in each of his last three games to close the season in strong fashion heading into a potential NFL career.
The 6-0, 180-pound corner was THE FASTEST player at last month's 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, when he ran a 4.32 second 40-yard dash. He was also one of the toughest CB's in ALL of college football the past two seasons, yielding a passer rating of only just 41.0 and 32.5 in 2017 and 2016 respectively, according to Pro Football Focus.
NFL.com Draft Analyst Daniel Jeremiah says that Nickerson has an uncanny ability to locate and play the ball when it's in the air. Nickerson lines up primarily outside, but he has the right skill set to play inside or outside at the next level.
He projects as more of a slot corner at the NFL level; a position at which the Saints filled recently in Free Agency with the signing of Patrick Robinson. But a Nickerson selection by New Orleans would give the Saints added depth at the position, and give them one of the more talented CB groups in the entire NFL.
KEY'VANTANIE "KEKE" COUTEE, TEXAS TECH
A wide receiver who can play in the slot and return kicks, Texas Tech University WR Key'vantanie "KeKe" Coutee is yet another big-time play-maker who is underappreciated or that is being overlooked, because of his diminutive (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) size. But make no mistake about it: "KeKe" can "straight-up ball" at the next level.
Coutee "broke out" as a sophomore in 2016, earning an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection after catching 55 passes for 890 yards and seven TDs. But then Coutee exploded for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 catches as a junior last season in 2017, and also returned a kick for a TD as he racked up 315 yards on 10 kick returns.
CBS Sports.com Draft Analyst R.J. White says that Coutee is an agility-based slot wideout who's quicker than fast but possesses quality long speed. He notes that Coutee has adequate elusiveness and balance in the open field for a receiver at his smaller size, but also possesses "plus" return kick skills. White believes that Coutee will become a "niche offensive weapon" once he gets to the NFL — and we already know how much Saints head coach Sean Payton likes to have more weapons in his offensive arsenal.
Pro Football Focus Draft Analyst Josh Liskiewitz says that "Keke" will become an explosive playmaker for some lucky NFL team at the slot WR position, given that he racked up 1,265 yards from the slot at Texas Tech last year (best in this year's 2018 WR class), and forced 39 combined missed tackles after the catch in 2016 and 2017. He was also one of the top deep threats in college football, putting up 542 receiving yards on targets at least 20 yards downfield on just 18 deep targets.
It’s most likely Coutee will be taken by a team that needs a second wide receiver, or in the case of the Saints, might be looking to add more depth at the position. But make no mistake about it: putting Coutee in the same offense with Alvin Kamara, would give NFL defenses nightmares for many years to come.....