For all of its preceding months of projections and prognostications, the NFL draft is always ripe for a few surprises.
While the early portion of the first round is dominated by known entities and names that have become fixtures of mock drafts, the back half of the first day can lend itself to some unforeseen developments. That trend could continue Thursday, as a year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding complications in the scouting process could yield even more uncertainty. And with several position groups in this year’s draft lacking a clear pecking order, some players could hear their names called earlier than many expect.
Here are five players who could be surprise first-round picks in this year’s NFL draft:
Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
For some teams, Moore might simply be regarded as a 5-9, 178-pound slot receiver who will complement other pass catchers by getting open on underneath routes. Those willing to be a bit more creative, however, could see a dynamic playmaker with substantial playmaking potential given his downfield speed, strong hands and penchant for shaking free from cornerbacks. While he hasn’t received the consistent buzz that players like Florida’s Kadarius Toney and LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. have, Moore could leapfrog both targets as a potential first-round pick by a receiver-needy team such as the Packers or Ravens.
Joe Tryon, DE, Washington
Like his former Huskies teammate and fellow NFL draft prospect Levi Onwuzurike, Tryon opted out of the 2020 season. Had he played, the 6-5, 259-pound hybrid pass rusher likely would have earned wider recognition as one of college football’s most imposing defenders. Missing that extra year of development and opportunity to expand his pass-rush plan could hinder his draft outlook, but he still has a shot at the first round thanks to his aggressive bull rush.
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Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
The latest in Notre Dame’s string of NFL-bound left tackles, Eichenberg can’t claim the overall athleticism of his first-round predecessors in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Despite a physical profile that might spell a move to offensive guard, the 6-6, 301-pound three-year starter is a refined and savvy blocker who could still get a shot as a blindside protector. Several teams set to make the final few picks of the first round could be drawn in by the stability he offers as a likely starter early in his career.
Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Another study in reliability over flash, Leatherwood has enough tools to be a fixture along a line despite athleticism that’s merely passable. He won’t be mistaken for former Crimson Tide teammate and 2020 first-round pick Jedrick Wills Jr., whose easy footwork made him a natural projection to be a left tackle, but Leatherwood can still neutralize linemen with his length and polished hand usage. He would be a sensible fit for several teams in the final few picks of the first round.
Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia
Demand always outweighs supply when it comes to NFL starting-caliber cornerbacks, particularly for those big and fast enough to handle a wide variety of pass catchers. At 6-1 and 197 pounds with a background in track, Campbell has the physical makeup of a potential top-flight cornerback. He’s far from a finished product, however, as he’s still duped by savvy route runners and struggles to locate the ball in time to make a play. But for teams like the Browns, Saints, Packers and Bills toward the end of the first round, he (as well as former Georgia teammate and fellow future NFL cornerback Eric Stokes) might be an attractive long-term investment.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.