The Nerd’s Board: Middle Rounds

Image Credit: Parker Waters/Crescent City Sports

While the early rounds of the NFL Draft are where teams can expect to find their next big superstars, the middle rounds have also boasted some impressive gems throughout history.

Round 3 only happens to boast one of the all-time great players in Joe Montana, who went to San Francisco in 1979 before turning the 49ers into the NFL’s next great dynasty. Other great players to come out of Round 3 range from all-time greats like Terrell Owens (1996), John Lynch (1993) and Jason Taylor (1997), to future Hall of Famers like Frank Gore (2005), Russell Wilson (2012) and Travis Kelce (2013). Meanwhile, the fourth round was the landing spot for all-time great receivers (John Stallworth (1974) and Steve Largent (1976)), quality pass rushers (Charles Haley (1986) and Jared Allen (2004)) and current starting quarterbacks (Kirk Cousins (2012) and Dak Prescott (2016)). All of these names should indicate that, even though players at this range don’t necessarily project such an outcome, there is still serious potential in the middle of the draft.

While the list of prospects worth taking here increase, choosing the right ones still makes a world of difference. There are plenty more options to sort through, but the players listed here would be the ones I would want to highlight. Whether they boast elite athletic traits or play a style that the modern NFL is trending towards, I would have no problem selecting these prospects in the middle of the draft. While there won’t be as much in-depth analysis in order to prevent turning this article into the blog’s version of The Odyssey, there will still be enough information to justify their placements.

Also, if you’re looking for a specific prospect and don’t see them here, check out my board in the early rounds to see who I would take at the beginning of the draft.

So who should your team be looking for to find the next great hidden gem? Let’s find out.

Kendre Miller (RB, TCU) and Israel Abanikanda (RB, Pittsburgh)

There are a lot of quality running backs that can be found in the middle of the draft. Auburn’s Tank Bigsby, Illinois’s Chase Brown, Texas’s Roschon Johnson, and even Northwestern’s Evan Hull would all be fine additions for any running back room. In this article, though, I want to highlight an early favorite and someone who grew on me throughout the pre-draft process.

While an injury prevented Miller from playing in the National Championship against Georgia and prevented him from showcasing at the Combine or TCU’s Pro Day, his game reminds me of one of my favorite runners from last year’s class in Kenneth Walker III. Outperforming a five-star recruit in Zach Evans at TCU, Miller is a decisive runner who is able to see the entire field, come up with a creative plan of attack, and burst through any holes with a combination of explosion and agility. While the versatility in his game isn’t yet there, he has the traits necessary to hold down a third-down back role, and the fact that he’ll only be 21 when the season starts means there will be plenty of time to build that part of his game.

Since torching Virginia Tech for 320 yards and six touchdowns, Abanikanda has seen his stock rise throughout the last several months. Abanikanda is the rare runner that not only has the speed and explosiveness to be a home run threat with each touch, but the patience to diagnose plays and creativity to make each carry efficient. Similar to Miller, there are some questions about versatility, but the tools are there to warrant a three-down role. He’ll also be only 20 when his rookie season begins, so there will be plenty of time for development.

Miller and Abanikanda both stand as bets on potential, but three-down workhorses are becoming a rare breed in the NFL. Securing one with a third-round pick would be tremendous value for a high-ceiling player with minimal tread on the tires.

Tyler Scott (WR, Cincinnati) and Jayden Reed (WR, Michigan State)

Next, let’s take a look at a couple of slot receivers with the potential to become big-play threats with every target.

Scott has been on my radar for the last few months now, and I’m glad to see pundits and NFL scouts coming around on him. While there will be inevitable questions about play strength due to his lean frame (five-foot-eleven, 185 pounds), Scott is more than capable enough to track the ball and make the tough catch against tight coverage. Combined with his natural speed and route running ability, Scott can easily maneuver his way past opposing defensive backs before accelerating downfield. With how much the modern NFL values speed, Scott should be able to fit into most offensive schemes and carve out a role for himself early.

While Scott will likely be gone early in Round 3, Reed could be a quality Plan B in Round 4. Another smaller receiver, Reed also plays bigger than his size suggests with his sure hands and ball tracking. He can also use his route running to achieve separation before running downfield to pick up several yards after the catch. What will attract teams to Reed more than that, however, is his ability to play special teams. Reed has served as Michigan State’s primary return man for the past two seasons, including averaging 21.6 yards per return and two touchdowns on punt returns. If a team wants a receiver who can function on both offense and in the return game, Reed will be a name worth circling on the board.

Zack Kuntz (TE, Old Dominion)

Past the top six or so tight ends in this class, there aren’t really many reliable options out there. If you’re waiting on a tight end in the middle rounds and hoping to hit on a dart throw, Kuntz stands out as a primary target.

While Kuntz is coming off on an injury-shortened 2022, he’s already showcased his dominance the previous year before lighting up the Combine. Between his size (six-foot-six, 255 pounds), speed (4.55 forty-yard dash time) and elite agility, Kuntz was the only tight end this year to earn a perfect 10 Relative Athletic Score. That and having a massive catch radius should be more than enough for a team to take a flier on him, possibly as early as the tail end of Round 3. He may stand out as more of an athletic small-school project, but giving him time to learn the nuances of the position will help Kuntz out dramatically.

Matthew Bergeron (OT, Syracuse)

Maybe calling Bergeron a mid-round sleeper isn’t doing him enough justice, but I wanted to highlight one of my favorite prospects throughout the pre-draft process.

Boasting elite physical traits as well as experience on both sides of the offensive line and facing quality competition, Bergeron already comes equipped with one of the highest floors out of all of the offensive tackles in the class. His explosiveness and fluidity should certainly come in handy in pass protection sets, while Bergeron also has the physicality needed to open up holes in the run game. Bergeron can reasonably play at either offensive tackle spot or even kick over to guard, and his skill set should make him scheme-versatile. While Bergeron will most likely be a solid decade-long starter in the NFL, he has the potential for more. If he slides into the early part of Round 3, the decision on who to draft should take all of ten seconds.

Chandler Zavala (G, NC State) and Anthony Bradford (G, LSU)

Neither Zavala or Bradford really stood out to me prior to the pre-draft process, but strong showings from both had me rethinking where each of their ceilings truly were.

Zavala was a prospect that no one heard about until this past season, but his big draft year breakout has people like myself now convinced he’s worth a Day 2 investment. While Zavala is more known as a run blocker, he improved dramatically in pass protection throughout the past year and, according to PFF, only allowed four pressures on 422 pass-blocking snaps. His amazing performance at NC State’s pro day only helped the Zavala hype train pick up speed, landing in at least the 90th percentile in many drills. That combination of athleticism and production is going to draw attention, and Zavala will possibly hear his name called at the end of Round 3 because of it.

Another athletic marvel that boosted his stock during his pro day is Bradford. While Zavala’s production is impressive, Bradford would have the edge in terms of versatility, having experience at both guard and tackle on both sides of the line. That could remind people of Jamaree Salyer, a sixth-round pick last year drafted at guard only to be the starting left tackle for the Chargers late into the season. Bradford’s mix of explosion, strength, and agility earned him a 9.81 RAS, indicating an elite athlete that can hold his own in the NFL. The expectation for Bradford should be a Round 4 selection, with any lower being an immense value pick.

Olusegun Oluwatimi (C, Michigan)

In an interior offensive line class that doesn’t really have a standout elite talent at the top, the middle rounds would be a place to look. You won’t do much better than the reigning Rimington Award winner Oluwatimi.

On a Wolverines line that was one of the best in the country, Oluwatimi emerged as a quality piece in his lone year at Ann Arbor. A natural center that also has the potential to play guard, Oluwatimi projects as a strong run blocker that can open up space and has adequate explosiveness to change assignments on the fly and reach the second level of the defense. He’s more than powerful enough to stand up to some NFL nose tackles, and can be at least serviceable in pass protection. Expect a team to start looking into him at Round 3 before deciding to take the plunge in Round 4.

Keeanu Benton (DT, Wisconsin) and Moro Ojomo (DT, Texas)

As mentioned in the early board, I’m not a fan of many of the defensive tackles found early in the draft. As such, a quality interior defensive linemen in the middle rounds may be worth reaching for.

A former wrestler, Benton enjoyed a breakout 2022 for the Badgers. His blend of burst and power allows him to dominate one on one matchups against offensive linemen, and Benton was able to showcase his talent both on the field this season and at the Senior Bowl. While he best fits in a 4-3 defensive front instead of being on the nose, Benton should be a force in clogging run lanes and shooting the gap to get into the backfield. A locked-in Day 2 selection, Benton projects as a mid-Round 3 selection that can easily rise up the board.

Another 2022 breakout, Ojomo is an interesting project player. Despite being a fifth-year senior, Ojomo will only be 21 on draft night, so there’s plenty of opportunity for development. Ojomo already stands out as an NFL-ready run defender, and he has the athleticism required for a decent foundation as a pass rusher. The first year or two of his professional career will likely be dedicated to rounding out his game, but a team that unlocks Ojomo’s potential will be rewarded immensely. Well worth a selection in Round 3 or 4.

Isaiah McGuire (EDGE, Missouri)

With as deep an edge rusher class as this year has, prospects need something to help them stand out from the crowd. Throughout this past season and the pre-draft process, McGuire was able to accomplish exactly that.

A toolsy prospect, McGuire has the combination of power and explosiveness that NFL teams covet in their pass rushers. It also helps that McGuire is one of the most refined edge rushers you’ll find in this portion of the draft, coming with an array of pass-rushing moves and the discipline necessary to stop runners from reaching the edge. The Senior Bowl was also a great opportunity for McGuire to stand out, and he could be rewarded with a Round 3 selection because of his efforts. He has some of the best upside in the middle rounds, so keep an eye out for where he lands.

Ivan Pace Jr. (LB, Cincinnati) and Dorian Williams (LB, Tulane)

With linebackers already being good values, it’s time to discuss two of my favorite Group of Five prospects at the position.

If Witherspoon from the first list comes off as a smaller Sauce Gardner, Pace comes off to me as a smaller Micah Parsons. While Pace’s size might put some teams off of him, he has some of the best playmaking instincts of any linebacker in the class. He’s functional enough in coverage, but Pace is at his best when he’s allowed to fly around the field and hunt down the ball carrier. He’ll be a dream for blitz-heavy teams as a run stopper and secondary pass rusher, and his playmaking prowess could net him a spot on special teams units early on. The size could knock him to the fourth round, but that would be a steal for someone who can get to the ball like Pace can.

If you’re looking for a more athletic and versatile prospect, however, Williams will be a better target. The Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP, Williams played a central part in Tulane’s rise as this year’s best Group of Five team. Williams is one of the surest tacklers in the draft, and he also has the prerequisite athleticism to cover running backs and tight ends in the passing game. The consistent progress Williams has shown in the past few seasons indicates plenty of room for growth still, and he should be a quality depth piece with starting potential as a rookie. Much like Pace, the fourth round will be his likely, albeit far too low, landing spot.

DJ Turner II (CB, Michigan) and Riley Moss (CB, Iowa)

While a lot of hype in Ann Arbor in the secondary belongs to future first-round selection Will Johnson, Turner has made some eye-popping displays before. What stands out most about Turner is his 4.26 40-yard dash time, which gives him excellent makeup speed. Turner’s more than just testing numbers, however; he has also shown the potential to be scheme-versatile and efficient in a variety of coverages. His small size will likely mean he’s never going to be a factor in run support, but Turner’s ability in coverage is more than enough to warrant a high selection. Expect to hear his name called early in Round 3.

While Moss has some areas for improvement, there’s also plenty of positives to his game that can offset that. Moss has the versatility to be effective on the outside, in the slot, or even at safety if the team that drafts him sees him as a better fit there. Moss stands out as an effective zone corner with his football IQ and field vision, and that will also help with special teams as he rounds out his game. He’s a comfortable fourth-round prospect.

Anthony Johnson Jr. (S, Iowa State)

It’s rare that a player who picks up a position during their draft year takes to it swimmingly. However, that turned out to be the case with Johnson.

A four-year starter at cornerback for the Cyclones, Johnson transitioned to safety and did so near-seamlessly. While his technique in coverage is a work in progress, the move to safety has allowed Johnson to better embrace his physicality, which shows in his ability to come down from up high and make a big hit on the ball carrier. Johnson’s versatility is also impressive, as he can be used as a deep safety, in the slot, or in the box as a blitzer. Very few safeties can make such a claim, but a sure tackler like Johnson can make his living as a third safety early on while he improves in coverage. Expect him to be a fourth-round selection, but the weakness of the safety class could push him up to the third.


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