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NFL draft steals: 10 picks that provided best value

Sure, each class is bound to feature some players who outperform their draft slot. But while any franchise would love to secure some comparable version of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback or the Los Angeles Rams wide receiver, the two are extreme outliers in the recent history of mid-to-late-round prospects, most of whom might top out as respectable rotational players. And the depth of talent available in the draft this year was widely questioned, as just 58 early entrants – the lowest total since 2011 – made the jump from the new college football landscape forever shifted by name, image and likeness.

Still, there were several players who landed outside the first round yet look poised to provide substantial returns on the draft capital their respective teams invested in them.

Here are the biggest steals of the 2024 NFL draft:

1. Adonai Mitchell, WR, Indianapolis Colts (second round, No. 52 overall)

Leave it to Reggie Wayne, the former Colts standout pass catcher and current wide receivers coach for the team, to sum up the second-round selection of Mitchell: ‘We just got better. … That’s a steal.’

NFL DRAFT HUB: Latest NFL Draft mock drafts, news, live picks, grades and analysis.

Indeed, using only a second-round selection to secure the 6-2, 205-pound receiver with 4.34-second speed in the 40-yard dash could qualify as the best value grab in the draft. Mitchell’s superlative athleticism isn’t an abstract matter, as he routinely translates his quick-twitch movements into separation from defensive backs, particularly on in-breaking routes. He not only can dust corners on deep targets but also consistently free himself up in the intermediate area.

On the Colts, that skill set should come in handy right away. Michael Pittman Jr. has the No. 1 job locked down, but there’s room for Mitchell to come in and rise as high as the secondary option by the end of the season. He provides a fine contrast in style to Pittman, a reliable but somewhat rigid receiver, and Josh Downs, who can continue to operate underneath as a slot target.

Mitchell also appears to have Chris Ballard squarely in his corner, as the Colts general manager defended his incoming rookie after reports suggested character concerns could be a contributing factor in the Georgia transfer’s slide in the draft.

‘This is a good kid,’ Ballard said in a news conference. ‘For those reports to come out, I said it last year, it’s (expletive).’

The real X-factor here is Richardson. Everything in Indianapolis’ offense orbits around him. If he takes a shine to his new wideout – and here’s guessing the signal-caller will develop an affinity for someone who can easily snare jump balls and salvage errant throws thanks to his body control – then Mitchell’s role will grow as far as the two players push it.

2. Cooper DeJean, CB/S, Philadelphia Eagles (second round, No. 40 overall)

Until Thursday, the Eagles had not selected a cornerback in the first round since 2002, when the team took Lito Sheppard. Howie Roseman could have been forgiven, then, if he had resisted using another premium pick in his secondary after choosing Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell at No. 22 overall, especially with veteran starters Darius Slay and James Bradberry returning. Yet in the second round, DeJean’s talent proved too alluring to pass up.

The 6-0, 203-pound defender is one of this class’ premier playmakers, thanks in large part due to his versatility. At Iowa, he handled duties at outside cornerback and safety as well as in the slot, and his explosive athleticism and natural instincts should allow him to handle matchups at any of those spots in the NFL. That makes him a valuable chess piece, even if he doesn’t quite have a natural home at any place. Roseman said the Eagles wouldn’t box DeJean in as he begins his pro career, and he could be ticketed to handle several different matchups before finding his exact spot.

3. Zach Frazier, C, Pittsburgh Steelers (second round, No. 51 overall)

Had the Steelers selected Frazier in the first round, the move likely would have elicited some mild surprise but not outright shock, as the West Virginia center had been considered by some to be a fringe candidate for the late first round. Instead, Pittsburgh first nabbed another prospect integral to its push up front – offensive tackle Troy Fautanu – and returned with Frazier in the second.

The four-time high school wrestling champion is exactly what many would picture if asked to envision a Steelers center. Rugged to the core, Frazier figures to forklift opponents in the run game, which no doubt will be the driving force of the Steelers’ offense under new coordinator Arthur Smith. He solves what could have been a persistent problem for Pittsburgh and slots in as a savvy starter from the get-go.

4. Payton Wilson, LB, Steelers (third round No. 98 overall)

There’s no way to game out the injury factors that seemingly sunk Wilson’s stock. Despite following up his prolific, Bednarik Award-winning performance last fall with a stellar athletic showcase at the combine, the 6-4, 233-pounder tumbled all the way to the end of the third round. His litany of red flags were mostly widely known after his time at North Carolina State – the Fayetteville Observer and the USA TODAY Network reported last January he had already underwent 10 surgeries – but reports emerged during the draft that he no longer has an interior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

If Wilson can avoid major setbacks early in his career, however, he has all the tools to be a staple at the second level. His hyperactive and instinctive approach was evident in his 138 tackles and six sacks last season. Few linebackers can match his blend of size, speed and playmaking range, both in coverage and against the run. For a franchise that has suffered through subpar linebacker play in recent years yet didn’t look prepared to make a premium investment in the position, that’s plenty to be excited about.

5. Christian Haynes, G, Seattle Seahawks (third round, No. 81 overall)

Concern for the outlook of the Seahawks’ interior offensive line ramped up soon after Damien Lewis departed for the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Seattle signed veteran Laken Tomlinson but entered the draft with a lack of resolution at offensive guard. In Haynes, the team looks to have landed a blocker capable of stepping in straight away to provide some stability.

A four-year starter at UConn, the 6-3, 317-pounder repeatedly took defenders for a ride in the run game. Limited agility is his biggest knock and perhaps the shortcoming that kept him out of the draft’s first two rounds, but the third-round selection otherwise figures to be a strong candidate to beat out 2023 fourth-round pick Anthony Bradford for the starting role at right guard.

6. Troy Franklin, WR, Denver Broncos (fourth round, No. 102 overall)

Almost instantly after he was drafted at No. 12 overall by the Broncos, quarterback Bo Nix began to push back on the notion that he was a deficient deep passer who had been boosted by Oregon’s quick-hitting passing attack. Regardless of the truth, what better way to help him feel more comfortable attacking NFL defenses vertically than by giving him Franklin, his big-play target for the Ducks?

The 6-2, 176-pounder arrives with a built-in rapport with Nix, which should help him settle in early and compensate for an overall lack of refinement to his game. If he can clean up his troubles with drops and prove he can hold up against defensive backs who will try to rough him up, Franklin could be Nix’s No. 2 option before long. And if Courtland Sutton’s discontent with his contract reaches a breaking point, Denver will count on Franklin to dial up his deep speed and run-after-catch skills with regularity at the start of the season.

7. T.J. Tampa, CB, Baltimore Ravens (fourth round, No. 130 overall)

Adding first-rounder Nate Wiggins to a group led by Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Stephens might have been considered enough for Baltimore to stand pat at cornerback for the rest of the draft. But the Ravens looked for additional depth in the secondary and turned to Tampa.

The 6-1, 189-pounder once looked like a solid candidate to land early on Day 2. The Iowa State product’s pre-draft process, however, seemed to do him few favors. A hamstring injury cost him the opportunity to work out at the combine, leaving concerns about his pure straight-line speed as well as his disjointed movements in transition. But Baltimore could be a favorable setting for him to launch his pro career, as a zone-heavy scheme should mask some of his problem areas while showcasing his ball skills. And as a team that has seen how easily a few injuries can sink a season, the Ravens should no doubt value having another highly capable piece on the back end of its defense.

8. Jaden Hicks, S, Kansas City Chiefs (fourth round, No. 133 overall)

The L’Jarius Sneed trade reinforced an unfortunate truism for the two-time defending champions: Tough decisions are always around the corner regarding some of your top contributors. An essential part of this cost-control effort, however, is collecting replacements, ideally with mid-to-late round draft picks. With Hicks, who surprisingly slid all the way to the fourth round, the Chiefs might have identified a piece who could help them recalibrate their roster.

Justin Reid is set to be a free agent next season, and retaining him could be difficult given that defensive tackle Chris Jones already makes top-of-market money and almost assuredly will soon be joined by All-Pro cornerback Trent McDuffie. The Chiefs do already have capable options elsewhere at safety in Bryan Cook, Chamarri Conner and Deon Bush. The 6-2, 211-pound Hicks, however, has the athletic profile of a starter comfortable erasing tight ends in coverage or delivering big hits against the run. If he can become a more consistent tackler and hone his instincts, he could be ready to replace Reid by the start of next season.

9. Brandon Dorlus, DT, Atlanta Falcons (fourth round, No. 109 overall)

A couple of defensive linemen, however, could help alter Atlanta’s outlook up front. Second-rounder Ruke Orhorhoro is the more likely of two to help control the line of scrimmage, but Dorlus has the edge in shooting gaps and finishing plays in the backfield. Still something of a tweener learning how to win on the interior with hand usage rather than wrecking-ball tendencies, the 6-3, 280-pounder could learn from Grady Jarrett before potentially taking over for him in 2025, when the two-time Pro Bowler could be a cut candidate in the final year of his contact.

10. Austin Booker, DE, Chicago Bears (fifth round, No. 144 overall)

After opening the draft with two marquee picks in Caleb Williams and Rome Odunze, the Bears’ efforts appeared to be set to wrap up early, as the puzzling pick of punter Tory Taylor in the fourth round marked their only Day 3 selection. Then, Chicago traded into the fifth round to land Booker.

As a rangy threat off the edge (6-4, 254 pounds) who can close in on the quarterback in a hurry, the late-developing pass rusher has drawn comparisons to Maxx Crosby. Of course, any parallels to a three-time Pro Bowl selection are undoubtedly lofty for a player still finding his footing after Booker wasn’t even a starter in his lone year of substantial playing time. Booker also disappointed at the combine with a subpar testing profile, including a 4.79-second 40-yard dash.

Now, he’ll have the benefit of working under Bears defensive line coach Travis Smith, who helped bring Crosby along when he was an assistant defensive line coach for the Raiders. If Booker can emulate Crosby in getting stronger without compromising the other major advantages afforded to him by his length and agility, he could be a tricky matchup capable of piling up splash plays.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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