Teams build their starting rosters through draft picks, free agency, and trades. Something that a lot of fans don’t take into consideration, is the amount of late draft picks that turn into stars. Obviously, first-round picks often end up being the league's future stars, but a lot of times you find stars in unexpected places.
This happens a lot with wide receivers and defensive players. Analysts don’t see them in an NFL setting, and next thing you know they hit the gym, get better and are some of the scariest players to find on Sundays. Sometimes it also comes down to which university you went to. Players that went to the biggest schools in college get a lot more looks than smaller school players. Not that those smaller schools don’t get attention, but they won’t get as much attention as an Oklahoma or Alabama. A big part of that is because scouts can go to those schools and analyze multiple players at a time, rather than going to a small school to see one player.
Then, there’s the criticism that players from small schools excel because they play lesser talent. A lot of times this is the case because small conferences are less talented, but a lot of players are legitimately talented and come from nowhere. Look at Carson Wentz. He was the No. 2 pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, and he came from a school nobody knew about. When you see where some of these players were drafted, you will be surprised.
32 Arizona Cardinals - David Johnson (86th Overall, 2015)
Imagine drafting a running back in the third round, just for them to one season finish with over 2,000 all-purpose yards. In David Johnson’s second season in the NFL, he finished with 1,239 rushing yards and 879 receiving yards. That season he finished with a combined 20 touchdowns. Johnson is one of the best starting running backs in the NFL, and it didn’t take a premium pick to get him. The Cardinals were smart and locked him up early, so they don’t have to worry about his future with them.
31 Atlanta Falcons - Devonta Freeman (103rd Overall, 2014)
Although he missed most of the 2018 season, Devonte Freeman was a steal in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Similar to Johnson, Freeman has played a big part both in the run and pass game. He’s also a scoring machine, with 37 touchdowns through five seasons, and that is with missing nearly the entire 2018 season. While some may feel that Freeman’s job could be in jeopardy due to the emergence of Tevin Coleman, don’t let your recent memory get in the way of what Freeman has done for that offense.
30 Baltimore Ravens - Torrey Smith (58th Overall, 2011)
Even though he’s not in Baltimore anymore, Torrey Smith was a pretty good second round pick. For a team that has struggled to draft good wide receivers, Smith was solid as a Raven, even if he didn’t last past his rookie contract. Smith caught for at least 700 yards in each of his four seasons and even had a 1,000-yard season. Through four seasons in Baltimore, he finished with 30 total touchdowns. After Smith’s career ended as a Raven, he began to decline quite rapidly.
29 Buffalo Bills - Robert Woods (41st Overall, 2013)
Part of the reason why the Bills have always struggled is that even when they have talent on their team, they can’t build around them. Robert Woods was reliable in Buffalo, but they weren’t able to bring him back after his rookie contract. Woods caught for over 500 yards each season in Buffalo. What really makes him a steal, is what the Rams have been able to do with him. While Woods was seen as an overpaid signing by the Rams, he has been very solid in two seasons with the team, surpassing the 1,000 yard mark in 2018.
28 Carolina Panthers - Josh Norman (143rd Overall, 2012)
At least at one point in Josh Norman’s career, he was considered a top-five cornerback. Ironically, that was in his last season with the Panthers in 2015. The former fifth-round pick made four interceptions, taking two back for touchdowns, finished with 18 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Norman was a lot of fun to watch, and he continued to play really well into his first season in Washington. For someone drafted that late, Norman has definitely made the most of his opportunities.
27 Chicago Bears - Jordan Howard (150th Overall, 2016)
Everyone was kind of surprised when fifth-round pick Jordan Howard rushed for 1,000 yards in his rookie season. Howard continued to surprise people when he rushed for over 1,000 yards in his second season. For the first two years of his career, he was one of the best running backs in the game. While he’s not one of the best talent wise, he’s a starting running back who fits really well in a running back committee. The Bears probably didn’t expect to draft a running back committee on day three of the draft.
26 Cincinnati Bengals - Geno Atkins (120th Overall, 2010)
It’s really rare to find starting defensive linemen late in the draft. In the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Bengals selected Geno Atkins. Even in Atkins' ninth season, he has 10 sacks with two more games left in the season. Through his career, he’s finished with over six sacks seven times. That’s pretty impressive considering he’s a defensive tackle. Many consider Atkins to be one of the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. That's not bad for a player drafted in the fourth round.
25 Cleveland Browns - Antonio Callaway (105th Overall, 2018)
There's a reason the Browns were so bad for much of this decade; it didn't matter how many draft picks they had, they always seemed to get it wrong. They haven’t really had much success in the later rounds until they drafted Antonio Callaway in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. Callaway has had a major part in the success of Baker Mayfield and this passing game. In his rookie season, Callaway was able to haul in over 500 receiving yards and four touchdowns. It definitely helps that he came in the league with Mayfield because they’re able to grow off of each other and improve as a duo.
24 Dallas Cowboys - Dak Prescott (135th Overall, 2016)
Whether you love him or feel he's overrated, Dak Prescott took arguably the toughest job in the NFL and through three seasons, has had a winning record each season. It may not have looked pretty all the time, but he’s been a winner. Prescott has done a good job growing as a passer, from a quarterback who never threw for more than 30 touchdowns in a college season. Prescott is set to be the franchise quarterback in Dallas for a long time.
23 Denver Broncos - Julius Thomas (129th Overall, 2011)
It looks like fourth-rounders have had a lot of success in the NFL, as we add another to our list. For two seasons in the NFL, Julius Thomas was arguably a top three tight end. Combined between 2013 and 2014 as a Bronco, Thomas finished with 1,277 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. He was nearly unstoppable. Thomas was still solid in Jacksonville the following season but hit his peak early in his career. It would’ve made more sense if Thomas stayed in Denver.
22 Detroit Lions - Kenny Golladay (96th Overall, 2017)
Rarely do you find No. 1 wide receivers late in drafts, but Kenny Golladay is a recent exception. Nobody expected him to be the top target, but it was clear he would be once the Lions traded Golden Tate. This season, Golladay has surpassed both 70 catches and 1,000 yards. Golladay has been most known for his ability to be a deep ball threat. He can’t do it all, so they obviously need more help, especially so he can grow as a receiver.
21 Green Bay Packers - Davante Adams (53rd Overall, 2014)
All it took was the Packers to release Jordy Nelson, for Davante Adams to reach his full potential. In 2018, Adams has developed into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. This season Adams reached another level, recording over 100 catches and recorded over 1,400 receiving yards. This is his third consecutive season that he has caught over 10 touchdown passes. Expectations are higher for second-round picks, but Adams has exceeded them. At 26 years old, Adams has a bright future.
20 Houston Texans - D'Onta Foreman (89th Overall, 2017)
Unlike most teams, it was really difficult to find a player the Texans drafted in the late rounds who has surprised a lot of people. A lot of the success the Texans have had in their drafts have come on day one and two. A player with a lot of potential was drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, D’Onta Foreman. Foreman may have a good chance at overtaking Lamar Miller’s starting job if he can stay healthy.
19 Indianapolis Colts - T.Y. Hilton (92nd Overall, 2012)
Who would think one of the best wide receivers in the NFL for years would be drafted in the third round? Through his seven-year career, T.Y. Hilton has caught for over 1,000 yards in five of those seasons. While he hasn’t been a touchdown machine, he’s caught for a lot of yards. The most touchdowns he’s caught prior to the 2018 season was in 2012 and 2014 when he caught seven touchdown passes. Hilton’s one of the most impressive receivers in the league, and you would never expect that out of someone coming from FIU.
18 Jacksonville Jaguars - Telvin Smith (144th Overall, 2014)
Lately, the Jaguars have had a lot of success drafting defensive players. None were as surprising as Telvin Smith, who became a fantastic run stopper. In Smith’s five years in the NFL, he’s finished with over 100 tackles each year, at least one sack and one interception. Smith is the type of linebacker that can do it all, one that most teams dream about drafting. Smith played at Florida State, which shows where he may have learned a lot. At least Smith is still playing well even if the Jaguars aren’t.
17 Kansas City Chiefs - Tyreek Hill (165th Overall, 2016)
If you told NFL teams the type of player Tyreek Hill would be today back in 2016, every team would be going crazy for him. The former fifth-round wide receiver may be one of the most explosive players in the NFL. Hill can contribute as a receiver, in the run game with jet sweeps, and as a returner. He can do it all. Hill is one of those special types of players that you can put anywhere on the field, and he’s a factor.
16 Los Angeles Chargers - Keenan Allen (76th Overall, 2013)
Across in the AFC West, another late draft pick has been a large contribution to his team. Keenan Allen has been the best draft pick for Philip Rivers. Allen is a shifty running back with good hands and speed, who can line up all across the offense. Allen is finishing off back to back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He's shown that when healthy, he's among the league's top receivers, as he's just the kind of player who teams can rely on every Sunday.
15 Los Angeles Rams - Lamarcus Joyner (41st Overall, 2014)
A lot of the talent on the Rams was acquired recently. One player who was drafted by the team is Lamarcus Joyner. Analysts talk about all these star safeties in the NFL but don’t give enough credit to Joyner. In 2017, Joyner finished with 49 total tackles and three interceptions. Joyner was a great draft pick that is severely underrated on that defense. Joyner should see his true value this offseason, as he’s set to enter free agency this offseason.
14 Miami Dolphins - Jarvis Landry (63rd Overall, 2014)
A wide receiver from LSU, of course, would have high expectations coming into the league. If they were so high, why was he drafted in the second round? Landry only had one stellar season in college, in his junior year when he caught for 1,193 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. It didn’t take long for Landry to mesh into the NFL. Even a change in teams didn’t affect him. Landry has now caught for over 1,000 yards in two seasons and has yet to catch for under 700 in a season.
13 Minnesota Vikings - Stefon Diggs (146th Overall, 2015)
If you watched the Vikings wide receiving corps, you would never believe where they were drafted. Stefon Diggs was drafted in the fifth round, and Adam Thielen signed with the team as an undrafted free agent. Diggs, out of Maryland, has grown into one of the best route runners in the NFL. His speed and route running skills make him a difficult wide receiver to cover. Diggs had the best season of his career, as he has caught for over 1,000 yards for the first time.
12 New England Patriots - Rob Gronkowski (42nd Overall, 2010)
Tight ends can be so hit or miss in the draft. It doesn’t matter when you draft them, you never completely know what you’re going to get. In 2010, the Patriots gave a tight end from Arizona a shot in the second round. Turns out he would dominate the league for the next nine years. Through his career, Gronkowski has caught for over 1,000 yards four times in his career. Five times throughout his career he’s caught for over 10 touchdown passes, with his season-high being 17 in 2011. He may go down as one of the most talented tight ends in NFL history.
11 New Orleans Saints - Alvin Kamara (67th Overall, 2017)
If teams knew the type of success Alvin Kamara would have in the NFL, he would’ve been the first running back off the boards in the 2017 NFL Draft. Kamara is a special type of player, and exemplifies what the future of the running back position may be. In back to back seasons, Kamara will have finished with over 1,000 all-purpose yards and over 10 total touchdowns. Just imagine what his statistics will look like when he’s the premier running back.
10 New York Giants - Sterling Shepard (40th Overall, 2016)
In New York, it’s easy to get caught up with all the other star athletes in the city. Sterling Shepard may be one of the most underrated players on the Giants. With Odell Beckham Jr. on the opposite side of him, Shepard has finished with at least 600 yards in his first three seasons. Shepard has a lot of potentials, but may be held back due to the number of weapons around the team. One day, Shepard could take off.
9 New York Jets - Quincy Enunwa (209th Overall, 2014)
There’s a bright future for Quincy Enunwa in New York. Enunwa has been solid on the Jets the past two seasons, but may be able to grow even more as Sam Darnold gains more experience. The former sixth-round pick has surprised fans in the NFL. In 2016, he caught 58 passes for 857 yards and scored four touchdowns. If Enunwa can get healthy and improve, he could become a legitimate weapon throughout the rest of Darnold’s career. It’s all about staying healthy for him.
8 Oakland Raiders - Latavius Murray (181st Overall, 2013)
Maybe with the Raiders needing a running back, Latavius Murray will re-sign with the team that drafted him in the sixth round. The former UCF running back came in and was given a chance as the starter in 2015, where he rushed for 1,066 yards and scored six touchdowns. The following season, he rushed for fewer yards but scored 12 touchdowns. Murray isn’t a great running back, but he’s solid. He has the talent to be a starter, although he’s one-dimensional. Murray should see a lot of interest in free agency.
7 Philadelphia Eagles - Nick Foles (88th Overall, 2012)
Although Nick Foles isn’t the permanent starter, he did come in and win when the Eagles needed him to. Foles was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft. If you asked the Eagles front office if they regret that decision, they would say no way. As a backup, Foles was able to take over when Carson Wentz went down towards the end of the 2017 season and led them to win a Super Bowl. His style of play matches perfectly in Philadelphia.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers - Antonio Brown (195th Overall, 2010)
Imagine being one of the teams in the 2010 NFL Draft that passed on Antonio Brown for six rounds. Those teams have to be sick. Nobody would’ve expected the former Central Michigan wide receiver to become arguably the best in the game, but it happened. Brown has caught for over 1,000 yards seven times throughout his career. Four times throughout Brown’s career he’s caught over 10 touchdown passes. There’s no denying that Brown was one of the most overlooked draft picks in NFL history.
5 San Francisco 49ers - George Kittle (TE)
George Kittle looked solid last year, but everyone was caught off guard when he took over the 49ers offense. While they haven’t looked good this season, Kittle has been playing lights out. Not enough people are talking about him because of how the 49ers season unraveled once Jimmy Garoppolo went down for the year. At least when Jimmy Garoppolo comes back, he has a bright spot in the offense to look for. This wasn’t something 49ers fans were expecting out of their former fifth-round draft pick out of Iowa.
4 Seattle Seahawks - Russell Wilson (75th Overall, 2012)
Seahawks fans have been lucky enough to see star players get drafted all throughout the draft. Players like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were drafted on day three, but Russell Wilson is the best draft pick amongst them all. Wilson was a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in the 2012 NFL Draft. Wilson came out of nowhere as a rookie and took the NFL by surprise. Wilson turned out to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for the next seven years.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Kwon Alexander (124th Overall, 2015)
We always talk about how bad the Buccaneers defense is, but we should talk about the bright spot there. Kwon Alexander has been terrific since he was drafted in 2015 in the fourth round out of LSU. Alexander can do it all but has been really good at stopping the run and playing in pass coverage. In 2017, he actually had three sacks. The linebacker position is one of the most difficult in the NFL, and it doesn’t help when those around you struggle. Unfortunately, he recently sustained a major injury.
2 Tennessee Titans - Kevin Byard (64th Overall, 2016)
When Kevin Byard played at Middle Tennessee, he was a ball hog. Things didn’t change when he was drafted by the Titans in the third round of the 2016 draft. Byard had 19 total interceptions through four years in college, never finishing with fewer than four interceptions. Fans really got to see the type of damage Byard can do to opposing offenses, as he finished with eight interceptions. Byard has a lot of potential to be one of the best safeties in the league.
1 Washington Redskins - Kirk Cousins (102nd Overall, 2012)
Say what you want about Kirk Cousins, but it’s not easy to be drafted in the fourth round and go on to be an NFL starter. Cousins had no hype around him in college. He came out of Michigan State, but no one was raving about him. When Cousins was finally given the reins to the starting quarterback position in 2015, he proved that he can sling the football around. He continued to do so. Even though he may not make the best decisions, he’s made the most out of his opportunities.