NFL Draft Notebook: UNI’s Theo Day leads All-Underrated team

Sep 3, 2022; Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA; Northern Iowa Panthers quarterback Theo Day (12) passes the ball under pressure from Air Force Falcons defensive lineman Caden Blum (87) in the fourth quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2022; Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA; Northern Iowa Panthers quarterback Theo Day (12) passes the ball under pressure from Air Force Falcons defensive lineman Caden Blum (87) in the fourth quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

With the college football season only a month away, it is time to examine what NFL Draft prospects are being overlooked entering the new year. There are a couple of requirements for this list. A prospect must carry a day three or undrafted free agent grade (according to NFL Mock Draft Database). Also, I must be able to see them as a much better prospect than where they are currently rated.

In addition to naming the All-Underrated team, we will preview the 2024 NFL Draft defensive end class led by Jared Verse — one of the top five prospects in the upcoming class. We also review a disappointing 2020 defensive end class, discuss a small-school offensive lineman getting Senior Bowl interest, and much more.

All-Underrated Offense

QB: Theo Day, UNI

My sleeper of the year going into the season is Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day. Day had an extremely productive 2022 campaign by throwing for 3,121 yards and 26 touchdowns. He led the Missouri Valley Conference in passing efficiency, passing yards, total offense, and yards per attempt. Going into this season, Day has already been named a Hero Sports first-team All-American and was also on the East-West Shrine Bowl 1000 list. Despite this production, his NFL size, and impressive accuracy, he is not getting much NFL interest.

RB: Bucky Irving, Oregon

While Oregon’s Bucky Irving is on the small side, coming in at only 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds, he has the talent to be a high-quality NFL running back. Irving’s top trait is his quickness. It allows him to turn three-yard gains into ten-yard runs consistently. He also shows surprising power and contact balance for someone his size. Another positive with Irving — who was named to the preseason All-Pac 12 first team — is his ability in the passing game. Last season, he caught 31 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns.

FB: Jackson Aker, Wisconsin

One player who will be hurt by a coaching change this season at Wisconsin is Jackson Aker. Aker will suffer as he moves from starting fullback to third-team running back. The reason? New offensive coordinator Phil Longo doesn’t feature a fullback in his offense. Still, expect teams to look at Aker’s 2022 film, where he proved he is a physical lead blocker and a solid outlet receiver.

WR: Tahj Washington, USC

Another undersized player is USC wide receiver Tahj Washington, who comes in at only 175 pounds. He is similar to Bucky Irving in that he is a game-breaker with the ball in his hands. Last season, Washington averaged 15.7 yards per catch and was a dynamic kick returner averaging 25 yards per return. Look for him to be one of Caleb Williams‘ favorite targets in 2023.

WR: Adonai Mitchell, Texas

Yet another player on this team who carries an undrafted free agent grade is Texas wide receiver, Adonai Mitchell. The main reason people are overlooking Mitchell is that he missed most of last season with an ankle injury, only catching nine passes for Georgia. However, I expect Mitchell to have a breakout season for the Longhorns in 2023 as he shows the soft hands and ability to catch in traffic to be one of the better receivers in the Big 12 this year.

TE: Benjamin Yurosek, Stanford

One of the best receivers in the 2024 NFL Draft is tight end Benjamin Yurosek. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, he had the most targets of any tight end in college football without a drop. In addition to his consistent hands, he has the athletic ability and speed to create mismatches in the passing game. Look for Yurosek to have an even bigger year compared to the previous campaign when he caught 49 passes. He is the ideal fit for head coach Troy Taylor’s offense that loves to feature the tight end.

OT: Mason Richman, Iowa

While Iowa’s offensive line struggled significantly in 2022, one player who has NFL potential from this group is Mason Richman. What stands out about Richman is his quick feet and 6-foot-6 size. In addition to those traits, he is a smart player that has been named to the Dean’s List four times. If he can get the proper coaching in the NFL, it would not be a surprise if Richman developed into a starting offensive tackle.

OG: Troy Fautanu, Washington

The player viewed the highest by other draftniks is Washington’s Troy Fautanu, who carries a fourth-round grade. However, this is lower than the second-round grade I have on him and the day-two grade he receives from the Senior Bowl. The 2023 Preseason All-Pac 12 pick is a good athlete who has the mobility to be a great fit in a zone-blocking scheme.

C: Christian Haynes, UConn

Going into the 2023 season UConn All-American Christian Haynes is my top center, despite not even carrying a draftable grade from NFL Mock Draft Database. The reason I am so high on him is a tenacity that consistently sees him bury his defender. He also moves well for someone 313 pounds and easily gets to the second level.

OG: Marcus Tate, Clemson

Teams that like big physical offensive guards more than mobile athletic guards will like Clemson’s, Marcus Tate. Tate comes in at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds. He uses this size to engulf defenders as a run blocker. If he can stay healthy this year, he should easily be a day-three pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

OT: LaDarius Henderson, Michigan

While Iowa’s Mason Richman is getting questionable coaching at Iowa, one player will receive elite coaching at his new school. Enter Michigan’s offensive tackle LaDarius Henderson. Henderson transferred from Arizona State this offseason and should benefit from working under offensive line coach Sherrone Moore at Michigan. As a pro prospect, Henderson has the traits to play offensive tackle in the NFL, but also the versatility to move inside to offensive guard.

2024 NFL Draft Defensive End Class Preview

Top Player: Jared Verse, Florida State

Florida State’s Jared Verse is a blue-chip defensive end who should be a top-five pick. His top trait is his explosive burst off the ball, which ranks in the elite category. He is also elite when it comes to effort. He consistently chases down plays in the run game, and when his first move fails as a pass rusher, he keeps going. This red-hot motor helped him pile up nine sacks in 2022. Another trait that stands out with Verse is his flexibility, which allows him to turn the corner against offensive tackles. The Florida State product should be a top-five pick next April and will likely have an All-Pro NFL career.

Guy I Would Stand on the Table for: Donovan Ezeiruaku, Boston College

A player who is being overlooked yet has the talent to contribute in the NFL is Boston College’s, Donovan Ezeiruaku. His top trait as a pro prospect is his explosiveness off the ball. He uses this speed to make up for a lack of length (6-foot-2) and consistently creates plays. He is also a player who can get after the passer, recording seven sacks last year. The Eagle star is a force against the run too, making 60 tackles in 2022. One more positive with Ezeiruaku is his strength despite weighing only 250 pounds.

Overrated: Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington

Washington’s Zion Tupuola-Fetui is widely viewed as a second-round prospect, but I have a day-three grade on him. The main reason is that he only really fits in a 3-4 defense. He lacks the bulk to play defensive end in a 4-3 defense and the agility to play outside linebacker in this scheme. Another concern is his level of play has gone down from his 2020 season when he led the nation in sacks per game. However, since then, he has only accounted for 5.5 sacks. One of the explanations for his lack of production is a ruptured Achilles, which caused him to miss the first five games of the 2021 campaign.

Sleeper: Andre Carter, Indiana

A big, physical, defensive end to monitor in the 2024 NFL Draft is Andre Carter of Indiana. Last season, Carter played at Western Michigan and picked up seven sacks on the way to being named All-MAC second team. As a pro prospect, the first thing that stands out with him is his ideal NFL size, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 273 pounds. This size allows him to be a force vs. the run, evidenced by his 68 tackles in 2022, including 11 against Pittsburgh. As a pass rusher, he wins with power by displaying the ability to bull-rush his way to the quarterback.

Biggest Risk: Xavier Thomas, Clemson

A couple of things make Xavier Thomas a risky pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The first one is that he missed most of last season with a foot injury, which also limited him in spring ball this year. Another concern is his lack of effort, as he tends to give up on plays, and his position coach Lemanski Hall has mentioned keeping him focused as an issue in the past. The last concern is his lack of size, coming in at only 6-foot-2, which puts him on the smaller side for an NFL defensive end.

Breakout Player: Patrick Payton, Florida State

Last year, Florida State’s Patrick Payton was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading all ACC freshmen with five sacks. And he did this without even being a starter. This year the redshirt sophomore should be a full-time starter and could see a major boost in production. When evaluating his game, the first thing that stands out is his impressive length at 6-foot-5. To go along with his length, he also shows impressive athletic ability and surprising strength for a defender who is only 243 pounds.

Top Defensive Ends from the 2020 NFL Draft

It usually takes three years to evaluate a draft class, so over the next few months, NFL Draft Notebook will look back at the 2020 draft class. This week we look at the defensive end position.

1. Alex Highsmith, Pittsburgh Steelers

In a very average draft class for defensive ends, the Pittsburgh Steelers got great value with their selection of Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Highsmith is coming off the best season of his career, having recorded 14.5 sacks last year and leading the league with five forced fumbles. The Steelers showed how impressed they were with him by signing him to a four-year 68 million dollar contract this offseason.

2. Chase Young, Washington Commanders

Coming out of Ohio State, Chase Young was viewed as an elite pass rusher after posting 30.5 career sacks for the Buckeyes. He had a strong rookie season, and as a result, he was named the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, since then, he has had trouble staying on the field, only logging 11 games over the past two seasons

3. Darrell Taylor, Seattle Seahawks

Darrell Taylor’s career got off to a slow start due to a broken leg that caused him to miss his rookie season. He has registered 16 sacks and 41 pressures over the past two seasons, bouncing back from the debilitating injury. Going into this season, he is competing for one of the outside linebacker jobs. But to be an every-down defender, he will need to get stronger vs. the run.

4. Jonathan Greenard, Houston Texans 

The 2022 season was a disappointing season for Houston defensive end Jonathan Greenard, who battled a calf injury most of the season. Overall, he only played in eight games and came away with just 1.5 sacks. However, if he can stay healthy, look for him to put up the type of production he had in 2021 when he got to the quarterback eight times.

5. A.J. Epenesa, Buffalo Bills

Despite having the best season of his career last year Buffalo’s A.J. Epenesa could struggle to see playing time this year. The main reason is that the Bills have outstanding depth at this position. Even if he doesn’t see the field a ton this year, expect some team to give him a significant contract next offseason.

2024 NFL Draft Scouting Notes

— A small-school offensive lineman who is drawing plenty of interest, including from the Senior Bowl, is Yale offensive tackle Kiran Amegadjie. What stands out with Amegadjie is his length, coming in at 6-foot-5 and 36 ¾ inch arms. On the field, he shows the nastiness NFL coaches love, consistently finishing his blocks. One area he can improve this season is his hand use which he likely worked on when he trained with former Bengals’ All-Pro Willie Anderson this summer. I currently have a seventh-round grade, but if he has another strong year and an impressive All-Star performance, Amegadjie could move up to a day-two prospect.

— One skill that Texas defensive end Barryn Sorrell is outstanding at is stopping the run. Last season, he led all Texas edge rushers in run stops. The gifted defender has the traits to thrive at this in the NFL, as well. He shows impressive strength and rarely gets knocked off the ball, which consistently allows him to set the edge. Another positive is how smart he plays. He does a great job of playing disciplined defense and is seldom out of place. While Sorrell is better vs. the run than the pass, his power allowed him to account for five sacks last season.

— While Miami lists Akheem Mesidor as a defensive end, look for most teams to see him more as a defensive tackle. The reason is that he has the size and speed to play inside as a one-gap penetrating defensive tackle. In this role, he shows the quick step off the ball to consistently get to the quarterback, evidenced by his seven sacks last season. One area he will need to improve on is holding up vs. the run.

— A D3 prospect to watch this season is wide receiver Wayne Ruby Jr. of Mount Union. Last season, he caught a ridiculous 30 touchdowns and had two games with four touchdown receptions. He also had a strong 2021 when he hauled in 105 passes for 1,473 yards and 13 touchdowns. While it is unlikely Ruby gets drafted, he has drawn plenty of NFL interest. According to him, 15 to 20 NFL teams have already stopped by Mount Union to get a look. He is an ideal candidate for the East-West Shrine game and will likely be picked up as a priority free agent after the 2024 NFL Draft.

— Look for Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Keondre Coburn to get plenty of playing time this year, despite being a late draft pick. Coburn, who was taken in the sixth round, has already impressed coaches with his energetic playing style. Kansas City doesn’t have much depth at defensive tackle, which is a plus for Coburn. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers of NFL Draft Notebook, as we mentioned him as a sleeper before last year’s draft. He even carried a third-round grade on our draft board.

— One day-two pick from the 2021 NFL Draft pick who is in danger of not making the Atlanta Falcons’ roster is Jalen Mayfield. Mayfield was a highly regarded prospect coming out of Michigan and was seen as a possible first-round draft pick. However, he has struggled since entering the NFL, having received just a 48.7 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2021 and missing the 2022 season due to a back injury.

— For all the latest NFL Draft news make sure to check out The Notebook.

Prediction of the Week

We will see at least nine of the eleven players on this year’s All-Underrated offense get drafted, despite eight of them going into the season with undrafted free agent grades (according to Mock Draft Database).