"Devin Gardner"

Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports

We’ve barely closed the books on the 2013 NFL Draft and everyone’s attention has already turned to 2014. By now, we are all familiar with the names of Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater. They are the two headliners of the 2014 NFL Draft class, despite both being underclassmen.

This is a talented class with some nice top end talent. Everything that the 2013 class lacked at the top, this one has in spades. As we know by now draft classes are made or broken by the under the radar talent that slowly but surely rises to the top during the college football season. In 2011, Robert Griffin III electrified college football and secured his status as the second elite prospect in a loaded draft class.

At this point, the search for those capable of a meteoric rise up the draft board is officially on. During the summer of 2011, when many were talking about Robert Griffin as a WR prospect, we went out on a limb and called him a first half of the first day quarterback. Our prediction turned out to be on the light end of his final draft spot but it is the never ending pursuit of those types of players that makes NFL’s Future go.

Today we take a look at seven prospects that are flying under the radar but could emerge as prospects to challenge the top of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

When we released our first 2014 NFL Draft rankings, flocks lined up to call me nuts when I ranked Gardner ahead of Johnny Football and directly behind Teddy Ballgame. This isn’t some shot in the dark. I spent a couple of days at U of M this spring and Gardner has it all. Arm strength – check, Size – double check, Smarts – check , Accuracy – half check.

Gardner will have an opportunity to lead a more “pro-style” offense as Brady Hoke transitions from the post-Denard Michigan football. The spread isn’t dead at Michigan but we will get a chance to see Gardner work from under center with more ‘timing’ passes and an NFL-like playbook chock full of NFL terminology.

Gardner is a specimen at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. He moves with grace and ease as he will be able to extend and make plays with his feet.

With so many NFL teams looking for an edge Gardner is a guy that you have to account for as a passer and runner. Make no mistakes about it, Gardner is a pass first quarterback that will hang in the pocket until it’s an absolute necessity to take off with the ball.

Gardner came in relief of an injured Denard Robinson after starting the season as a wide receiver. Not ironically, Michigan’s offense became less one-dimensional as Gardner provided a much needed passing threat to what was the Denard Robinson show. Gardner threw at a near 60% clip with 11 TD’s to 5 INT’s and 7 TD’s with his feet. For those counting that’s 18 TD’s in five games for a guy that was snagging passes (to the tune of 16 receptions-266 yards-4 TD’s) the first eight games of the season.

Gardner will have to cut down on the costly mistakes and improve his accuracy but the rest of his game is NFL ready. The biggest knock on Gardner will be, if he enters, he will only have a year and a half of starting experience under his belt. That could be washed to the wayside if Gardner explodes this season with just adequate weapons around him.

Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo

Mack has been a terror in MAC backfields since the 2010 season, his redshirt freshman season. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Mack has ideal size to line up as a rush linebacker at the next level.

You can tick all the boxes in terms of physical gifts with Mack. He has plenty of size, speed, and strength combined with an insatiable motor for the quarterback. He’s nasty and wants to take games over single-handedly. There’s one problem for Mack. He was suspended for a fight with a teammate that he will be forced to answer to during the evaluation process. This shouldn’t be an issue for this big time talent that flashes consistently during every Buffalo game.

MAC defenses have become accustomed to accounting an extra blocker to Mack’s side but it hasn’t much mattered as Mack has had his way with double teams and running backs chipping him.

Most important for Mack is the big, giant chip he carries on his shoulder from the NCAA teams that passed him over. Something tells me he won’t have to wait too long to hear his name called next April.

"Brett Hundley"

Kirby Lee – USA TODAY Sports

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Hundley’s debut as a Bruin was almost unbelievable. While many around college football were focusing on Johnny Football and Marcus Mariota, Hundley flew under the radar as a redshirt freshman.

Hundley burst onto the national stage in his first collegiate start and never looked back. At 6-foot-3 and almost 230 pounds with the feet and legs to make plays he’s an ideal fit in today’s NFL. Hundley is being groomed under Jim Mora Jr., who’s NFL ties will pay dividends for this signal caller.

Hundley will have to cut down on the mistakes this season but could be the rare redshirt sophomore to declare early for the draft with another solid season under his belt. With Hundley’s tool and two years of starting experience in the PAC-12, there’s no reason to believe he could be considered a top pick when it’s all said and done.

Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU

Bennie Logan’s early departure to the NFL left a hole next to up and coming star Anthony Johnson along the LSU defensive line. That hole will be plugged by Ego Ferguson, who has people close to the program taking note of his play in the absence of Logan.

Ferguson was a depth player the last two seasons but has emerged as a leader and force along Les Miles’ front four. Ferguson is known for his size (6’3”, 310) and ability to plug holes but it was ability to move the pocket that has some buzzing about him after spring ball.

Ferguson has appeared in 26 games but has yet to be a starter in his career. It’s probably a longshot that this junior would declare early for the draft but he’s certainly one to watch heading into the season.

Ishaq Williams, OLB, Notre Dame

The Brooklyn, NY native is prime for a breakout season in 2013. Williams was a contributor in 2012 but will be a full-time starter this season.

At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, Williams possesses an NFL ready body to go with enough speed to bend the edge at the next level. Williams game is based on strength and his ability to use leverage and power to bull rush. If Williams can show a better ability to turn speed to power this season, he’s going to catch the eye of NFL talent evaluators.

Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri

Every Missouri pass rusher will live in the shadow of Aldon Smith and comparisons will run rampant. Ealy is the latest to draw those comparisons.

His production hasn’t matched his talent level but could be primed for a breakout season in 2013 as a redshirt junior. Ealy has a similar physical build to Smith at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. Ealy combines an explosive burst with power and length.

If Ealy can add numbers to his overwhelming skill set he could push his name into the top twenty talk for teams craving length and speed at the rush linebacker spot.

Dri Archer, RB/WR, Kent State

The Tavon Austin effect. Archer may not be Tavon Austin but this season could further help him be more Austin than Dexter McCluster.

Archer became a bit of a household name (at least for avid college football fans) last season. He was a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands. Towards the end of the season teams loaded up to stop Archer but still couldn’t control his ability to take it for long distances with every touch.

I was able to watch him firsthand against Bowling Green. BG spent most of the day chasing Archer all over the field as he was breaking off big carry after big carry.

Archer and De’Anthony Thomas are this year’s Tavon Austin candidates as both bring electrifying speed and agility to the game and will be watching the success of Austin in the NFL very closely.

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