The secret to any NFL team's success is quite simple: draft well in the later rounds. While this is easier said than done, the fundamental rule holds true: the later you draft a star player, the better. Retaining the talent you have acquired is almost as difficult as acquiring it. As soon as the league is aware you have something worth taking, they immediately begin trying to. Take for example the Chargers from 2001-2006. The Chargers had drafted incredibly well. To list a few of their picks from 2001-2006: Drew Brees (10x Pro Bowler), Darren Sproles( 3x Pro Bowler), Michael Turner (2x Pro Bowler, 2x NFC Rushing Leader), Antonio Cromartie (4x Pro Bowler), Vincent Jackson (3x Pro Bowler), and Shawne Merriman (3x Pro Bowler). This doesn't include other excellent draft picks like Phillip Rivers or Shaun Phillips. So what is the issue with the Chargers? Well, for all that talent, a good chunk of it left early. The longest tenured player on that list was Vincent Jackson, who played seven seasons with the Chargers. Keeping a team is just as important as building one. This is what makes late round players so important, because the low cap hit can allow you to actually field an extremely competitive team. A good way to understand how I've ranked them is to ask if we held the draft they were picked in again, where would they be taken? For that reason, I've included a couple of Undrafted Free Agents (UDFA/UFA's) who had special circumstances. Understanding all that going in, here is the list:
15 The 2011 Seattle Seahawks draft class
"Wait, that is a whole draft class! And it was six years ago!" I'm willing to break the rules ever so slightly to show just how amazing the 2011 draft was for Pete Carroll and the 'Hawks and how one draft class can change everything. The Seahawks had nine draft picks in 2011, seven of them in rounds four or later. Of those seven picks, the Seahawks drafted two Pro Bowlers (CB Richard Sherman and LB K.J. Wright), a Super Bowl MVP(LB Malcolm Smith), and a guy who signed a $63 Million contract with another team in 2015 (CB Byron Maxwell). Unsurprisingly, that kind of draft class puts you in a position for success. While the Seahawks had gone 7-9, 4-12, 4-12 in the previous three years and would go 7-9 again in the rookie year of this draft class, the class kick started a powerhouse. Since this draft six years ago the Seahawks have gone to two Super Bowls, winning one. Since 2012 the Hawks have made it to the divisional round every year, and gone farther than the divisional round twice.
14 Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (#36 overall, 2014)
Can a guy who was drafted #36 overall be considered a "steal?" In my opinion he can be. Value is relative, and when you get a guy who was considered a real possibility for the top #10 in the second round, it screams value. I put Derek Carr lower on this list because of his relatively high draft status, but you can't deny that every team passed on him at least once. Since being the raiders pick in the 2014 draft, Carr has helped to reinvigorate the franchise, leading the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 last year; though Carr missed the playoff game with a serious leg injury. Last year with the two time Pro Bowl signal caller as the starter the Raiders were 12-3. Without him they were 0-2, the two losses coming by a combined score of 51-20. Carr posted an absurd TD/INT ratio of over four to one, throwing 28 touchdowns to just 6 picks during his 15 games in 2016. Carr looks to be a future MVP, and with the additions of WR Cordarrelle Patterson and TE Jared Cook to the already excellent receiving cast of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, the future looks bright for the raiders.
13 Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers (#143 overall, 2012)
Josh Norman is one of the weird cases where the Panthers cost themselves the talent instead of outside teams. After Norman, a fifth round pick in 2012, became a first team All Pro and helped the Panthers go 15-1 with an NFC championship the Panthers did something rare: They rescinded the franchise tag placed on him. The move was shocking, as Norman is considered one of the best corner backs in football and an elite player. Yet that is just what the Panthers did. Norman was signed just two days after his release with the Redskins, a five-year $75 Million contract. Norman grabbed three interceptions and defended 19 passes in his first season with the 'Skins. Norman was a steal for the Panthers at #143, but it remains to be seen if he'll be considered a steal for the Redskins with that lofty $75Mil price tag. The Redskins pass defense went from allowing 30 passing touchdowns in 2015 to allowing 22 in 2016, and their interceptions went from 11 to 13. The Redskins passing yards allowed also stayed at#24 in the league. Norman is here, and now we wait and see what a full offseason with the 'Skins can yield.
12 Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (#63 overall, 2013)
Travis Kelce might be the fourth best tight end in football, depending on who you ask. Though it is near impossible to unseat the golden trio of Gronkowski, Witten, and Graham, Kelce is certainly knocking on the door. The Chiefs offense didn't have a wide receiver catch a touchdown in 2014, yet they had a decent passing attack. That is the kind of effect Kelce can have on an offense. Last year Kelce led all tight ends with 1,125 yards (the next closest being Greg Olson with 1,073), which also put him at #12 in the league. Numbers 1-11 were all wide receivers. Kelce doesn't score a ton of touchdowns, which is a major knock on him but it is tough to say whether that is due to Alex Smith or Kelce or just a standard that is raised too high by Robert Gronkowski. Due to special conditions of the 2013 draft, which included Cleveland taking a player in the supplemental draft, the Chiefs managed to steal Kelce in the third round. A third round pick for the ultimate play maker TE is quite the steal.
11 Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins (#85 overall, 2013)
Jordan Reed is the guy who is usually who people put above Kelce for that #4 spot. Reed is older and more experienced than Kelce, but Kelce might have the more impressive body of work. Whereas Kelce is more consistent and has an overall better body of work, Reed however has had the better career year. In 2015 Reed posted 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns. Reed was also the better value as Reed was drafted 22 spots below Kelce. Reed is also a pro bowl player and even though in previous years his stats weren't always the best, it would be shocking if Reed didn't put up big numbers in 2017 with Kirk Cousins throwing him the ball more often, cheifly because of the loss of wide receiver DeSean Jackson (now with the Buccaneers).
10 Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals (#69 overall, 2013)
Gone are the reckless days of the Honey Badger, in are the days of elite safety play mixed with a strain of the badger. When Tyrann Mathieu is healthy he is not only one of the best safeties in football, he is one of the most dangerous players in the NFL period. The issue is the health bit. Matheiu has never played more than 14 games in a season and he has missed a total of 12 games in the previous four seasons. When he is healthy, we saw what the Cardinals can do with him. In 2015 the Cardinals were 12-2 with him, but after losing him went 2-2, including getting demolished 49-15 in the NFC Championship game. The Cardinals need Mathieu to recover, and there is precedent for him being able to. Mathieu has overcome injury before, and after hurting his should last year he will need to do so again. Time will tell.
9 Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs (#165 overall, 2016)
There were a lot of reasons to not take Tyreek Hill in the early rounds of the 2016 draft. Hill had plenty of off the field issues, but he was also only 5'8" and spent half of his career at a community college program and a division II program. Hill proved his doubters (mostly) wrong, by keeping his nose clean and becoming a dynamic playmaker for the Chiefs in 2016. Hill was a first team All Pro at Punt Returner and also made the NFL All-Rookie team. Hill scored in a multitude of ways, with six receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, and three return touchdowns. Hill also posted nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage without including his hefty return yardage totals. Hill has shown what he can do if he can stay out of trouble for a season, so now the Chiefs(and the NFL) eagerly wait to see if he can do it for a career.
8 David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (#85, 2015)
David Johnson was another excellent pick by the Cardinals. Johnson was a third round pick by the Cardinals in 2015. He started coming into his own in a 2015 game against the Eagles, where he carried the ball 28 times for 187 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up with an incredible 2016 campaign where he scored 20 total touchdowns (16 rushing, four receiving). Johnson is arguably the best back in football and is only in his third season. With Carson Palmer getting older and Larry Fitzgerald supposedly in his final year, expect even bigger things from Johnson in 2017. Regardless of how well he performs next year, he was a steal at number 85.
7 Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (#135 overall, 2016)
It will probably be controversial to put Prescott so low on the list, as he has become a huge star after posting a huge rookie year and being drafted in the fourth round. And at the most important position in football! That seems like the definition of the steal. I'd like to talk about another player in a very similar position to Prescott: Nick Foles. Nick Foles was a third round draft choice in 2012 for the Eagles. In 2013 he posted one of the greatest passing seasons ever, based on a strong run game and a lot of short throws/read options. Sound familiar? Foles ended up throwing an absurd 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions. His fairy tale season ended with a close home playoff loss to a hall of fame QB despite the fact Foles played well. Foles was in a near identical situation to Prescott, and while Prescott has more tools still at his disposal compared to Foles, the underlying issue is the same: How good is Dak as a player? There is a good chance these concerns are unfounded, I mean the guy did 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But there is also a chance his great play had far more to do with having three Pro Bowl lineman, a Pro Bowl receiver, and an All Pro running back. Maybe Dak is the greatest steal of the past 10 years. Maybe someone will be comparing him to someone else like I'm comparing him to Foles right now in the near future. For right now, he remains on the list right here.
6 Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders (#181 overall, 2014)
This list is sorted by how big of a steal they were, not how good of a player they are. That wasn't meant as a knock on Murray but rather an explanation why a running back who isn't an All Pro is rated higher than two franchise players. Murray, the 181st overall pick in the 2014 draft, has been very productive with Oakland. He has averaged at least four yards-per-carry (YPC) in each of his 3 seasons, and averaged a monster 5.2 YPC his rookie year. While Murray dipped from 1,066 yards in 2015 to 788 in '16, his Touchdowns doubled as the Raiders became pass first. Murray scored 12 times in just 14 games and nabbed over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2016. He was signed by the Vikings this offseason to replace long time running back Adrian Peterson, who signed with the Saints. Though the Vikings O-line isn't great right now, there are still reasons to expect Murray to do well for the playoff-contending Vikes.
5 5. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears (#150 overall, 2016)
I've written about Jordan Howard before, and it still surprises me how little respect he receives from non-Bears fans. Howard, a fifth round pick in 2016, ran for 1,300+ yards and six touchdowns in 2016. He was the bright spot on a terrible bears team and is seemingly set up to be the bell cow for the Bears for the next 3+ years. Though he isn't the most well known back, mostly due to being in the draft class as Ezekiel Elliot which cost a lot of "Best Of Rookie X" awards, he should become a house hold name in 2017. Throw in his talent with the fact the Bears are going to want to be a run first team to compensate for the unknown situation at QB, and its realistic to see Howard leading the NFL in some rushing categories next season.
4 4. Landon Collins, New York Giants (#33 overall, 2015)
As I've said, value is relative. And drafting arguably the best safety in football outside of the first round is excellent value. Collins looked like the opposite of a steal in his rookie year, finishing 77th out of 87 in PFF rankings for safeties. Collins had a huge turn around (as did the Giants) in 2016, finishing third in the PFF system and making the all-pro teams of both PFF and the AP. Collins nabbed five interceptions in 2016( compared to one in '15), 125 tackles (compared to 112 in '15), and four sacks(compared to zero in '15). With Collins anchoring the NFL's ninth ranked defense, the Giants went 11-5 and made a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011. Collins is quickly proving he is one of, if not the, greatest safeties in the league. He was an excellent pick at #33.
3 C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos (UDFA, 2013)
C.J. Anderson(and any UDFA) enters the list with an automatic advantage, because you can't beat free. For a guy that didn't cost Denver a draft pick, he has been extremely valuable. Anderson was a huge piece of the 2015 Broncos Championship, including scoring the only offensive touchdown for Denver during Super Bowl 50. Or his 48 yard OT touchdown scamper to help the Manning-less Broncos beat the Patriots in the snow. Anderson isn't a stat guy, in fact he has never broken 1,000 rushing yards. But he has made a Pro Bowl. Anderson's lack of big numbers stems more from lighter user than poor play, as he averages 4.7 YPC in seasons where he starts most games. If you extrapolate Anderson's career average of 4.6 (which is dangerous to due, but Anderson is a special player) and gave him the average carries of the top 10 rushers in the NFL in 2016 (270.9) he would have produced 1,244 yards, putting him at sixth in the league the past year. Anderson played with one of the greatest QBs ever as an accessory to the Bronco's passing attack and is now transitioning to the point where the offense will be based around him. Expect huge things in 2017, from both Anderson and the Broncos.
2 Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (#102 overall, 2012)
Perhaps the best example of anyone on this list to show the principle of "keep the talent" portion. Cousins had a decent rookie year, coming in relief for Robert Griffin III, who was the #2 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Cousins career has been a bit of a roller coaster, from potential trade bait to backup caliber player to franchise player to trade bait to franchise player. Cousins became the full time Redskins starter in 2015 after winning the job from "RG3," and he has been playing well since. In 2015 Cousins threw an excellent 29 scores to just 11 picks and led the Redskins to the playoffs for the first time since 2012; throwing for 329 yards in a postseason loss to the Packers. In 2016 Cousins threw for 4,917 yards (the 15th highest single season yardage total in NFL history) and a respectable 25 touchdowns. However the Redskins missed the playoffs last year, and even though he has thrown for nearly 10,000 yards in the last two years, he has posted a record of just 17-14-1. He became the first QB to be franchise tagged in back to back seasons (2016, and currently 2017) earning him at least $45 million. Despite Washington being as noncommittal as you can be while giving someone $25 million per year, Kirk Cousins appears to be in the long term plans for the 'Skins.
1 Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (#75 overall, 2012)
What is there to be said about Russell Wilson? How often does a team find a Super Bowl winning, Pro Bowl QB in the (mid) third round? Putting Wilson here isn't a surprise, as his career just keeps getting more exciting. A relative over view of Wilson's career. He is drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft by a team that hadn't posted a winning record since 2007. He beats out a higher paid more experienced QB (Matt Flynn) for the starting job as a rookie. He becomes the 12th rookie QB to start a playoff game and just the fifth QB in history to win a playoff game as a rookie. He goes 13-3 as a starter in 2013 and helps deliver the Seahawks their first Super Bowl in franchise history, all while only 25 years old. In 2014 he becomes the first QB to start back to back Super Bowls since Tom Brady a decade prior. He becomes the second highest player in the NFL right before the start of his fourth season. During this time he makes third Pro Bowls and wins eight playoff games. That's quite a career for a third round pick who is only 28. Wilson is on pace for one of the best careers ever for a third rounder, and is the ultimate Seahawks value pick. There is a reason in the past five years the Seahawks are 56-23-1 with two NFC Championships: They're the ultimate draft thieves.
Think we missed someone? Leave a comment below with your list. If you enjoyed the article, follow me on Twitter: @JacobPatelunas.