Year after year in the NFL Draft cycle, great players are overlooked because of certain faults. Whether they are size outliers, have below-average athletic traits, or lack polish, talented players constantly fall through the cracks. This is where value can be found in the latter half of the draft. Moneyball put this concept best in this iconic scene.
Here are five underrated defensive prospects who could be diamonds in the rough.
Ivan Pace Jr., Linebacker, Cincinnati
Where he’s an outlier: Height
After a breakout junior year at Miami, Ohio, Ivan Pace Jr. transferred to Cincinnati and was one of the best players in the country, regardless of position. He was PFF’s second-highest graded defender and had the second most tackles for loss in the country. Pace does it all as a linebacker. He is a sure tackler and is a violent pass rusher when blitzing downhill.
Standing at 5’10 1/2, he is just under the fourth percentile for linebacker height. Despite his smaller stature, he led all linebackers in run stops in 2022. He has a career 11.8% missed tackle rate, not overly alarming, but something that he could cut back on if he adds more weight.
One player to watch this weekend: Cincinnati LB Ivan Pace Jr (@ivan_pacejr) as he takes on his former team Miami OH
Check out who @SChornobroff, @Marissa_M27, @Kyle_Smith1087 @GavinDownard and I are keeping an eye on for College Football Week 3 @TWSN___ https://t.co/fuIUCQfI5J
— Andrew Little (@little_andrew_3) September 16, 2022
Pace was also one of the nation’s best pass rushers with 12 sacks and 25 quarterback hurries. He further demonstrated this ability by dominating one-on-one blitz drills at the Senior Bowl. At his floor, Pace will still be productive as a situational pass rushing linebacker.
He struggles at times in man coverage due to his frame, but has enough instincts in zone to justify playing on all three downs. If Pace was just two inches taller, he’d be a day two lock and in contention for the first linebacker drafted. With a creative defensive coordinator, he could be a wrecking ball on Sundays.
Yasir Abdullah, Linebacker/Edge Rusher, Louisville
Where he’s an outlier: Height and Weight
A hybrid front-seven defender, Yasir Abdullah was incredibly productive in his last two seasons at Louisville. He had 19.5 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in that span. Abdullah has a full repertoire of pass rush moves to go with terrific get-off. He uses his smaller size to his advantage by beating tackles off the line and out-leveraging them. At the combine, he ran a 4.47 40-yard-dash with a 1.48-second 10-yard split, one of the best linebacker times ever.
Yasir Abdullah (#22) is a hybrid off-ball LB/edge rusher. Slightly undersized but has incredible instincts and burst off the edge.
4.49 40, 9.47 RAS pic.twitter.com/hwAqfKYUWe
— Kyle Smith (@Kyle_Smith1087) March 9, 2023
Abdullah is also uncharacteristically instinctive in coverage for a primary edge rusher. He can immediately slot into a 3-4 system as a hybrid linebacker like Andrew Van Ginkel. Abdullah is one of the best athletes in the class, yet is a projected day-three pick because of his tweener size. In the right system, he could make an immediate impact as a rotational linebacker and has the physical upside to be a productive pass rusher.
Trey Dean, Safety, Florida
Where he’s an outlier: Speed and weight
Florida safety Trey Dean has everything NFL teams could ask for in a versatile safety except for straight-line speed and a few extra pounds. He ran a 4.75 40-yard-dash at the combine, but that can be attributed to a hip injury. He silenced any athleticism concerns with a 97th percentile 6.69 three-cone time. He is on the slim side for a strong safety at 200 pounds, but more than compensates with his strength. He led all defensive backs at the combine with 25 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press.
Dean dominated at the Shrine Bowl and was named the game’s defensive MVP. During the practice week, he flashed tremendous coverage skills and ball production. There, he was also a vocal leader on the field. As a converted cornerback, he was inconsistent at his new position at Florida. He is tall, rangy, and physical as a coverage safety and can be a chess piece in the secondary. The instincts and traits are there for Dean to be one of the highest upside defenders on day three.
Carlton Martial, Linebacker, Troy
Where he’s an outlier: Everywhere
Troy Linebacker, Carlton Martial is this year's winner for best Draft Guide Writeup:
Put Carlton Martial in just an Average Linebacker's body and we're talking about a potential starter. But a 5'7.5", 213 pound linebacker who ran a 4.94 40 yard dash even making…
— Marcus Whitman (@TFG_Football) April 15, 2023
Carlton Martial is one of the greatest success stories in college football history. He started as a walk-on at Troy and earned a scholarship. In his five years as a Trojan, he became the NCAA’s all-time leader in tackles. Martial is also one of the smallest linebackers in NCAA history, measuring at just 5’7 ½ and 213 pounds. He also ran a subpar 4.94 40-yard dash at his pro day.
CARLTON MARTIAL laying down the LAW! Massive hit causes the incompletion! pic.twitter.com/tWDdUOBpdS
— The Trojan Wall (@TrojanWallF5) October 2, 2021
Martial is a tackling machine and overall great football player, but his size will leave him entirely off of many draft boards. He consistently graded out as one of the best run defenders in college football throughout his career. That could be enough for a team to take a chance on him at the end of the draft. His physical limitations will likely prevent him from playing a significant role on defense, but his football IQ and physical play style will make him a welcome addition to any locker room and special teams unit.
Kei’Trel Clark, Cornerback, Louisville
Where he’s an outlier: Arm length and wingspan
An experienced corner both on the perimeter and in the slot, Kei’Trel Clark has everything modern zone defenses are looking for except for size. He is 5’10 and 181 pounds, poor for the position but not catastrophic. Asante Samuel Jr. measured similarly two cycles ago and has been successful playing on the boundary to start his career. However, Clark’s is one of three corners detailed in The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s “The Beast” draft guide with under 30-inch arms, and has the smallest hands in the class.
Kei’Trel Clark (#13) is honestly not getting enough hype. Late Day Two/Early Day 3 pick who could have an instant impact at Nickel and play boundary as needed. Tough as nails and sticky in coverage
4.42 40, 7.42 RAS pic.twitter.com/pFbtWl3LdJ
— Kyle Smith (@Kyle_Smith1087) March 9, 2023
Size concerns will likely cause Clark to slip in the draft, likely into mid-day three. He has the speed and functional athleticism to survive on the outside and is physical despite his size limitations. He has tremendous footwork and a change of direction that allows him to stick with much larger receivers. He started playing in the slot this past year and has lots of room to grow in that area.
He needs to clean up his tackling and is still adjusting to the position. His traits and ball production indicate he can be a successful slot in the NFL. Still, a zone-heavy team willing to take a shot on Clark as an outside corner (like Samuel) will be getting a bargain as many teams with stricter size thresholds will pass on him.