Project Players Who Are Bound To Payoff: Defense


A big misconception about the NFL draft is that teams are expecting their picks to be productive right away. While that may be true for a select few of the top picks, most of the players selected are done with a mindset toward the future. It is unrealistic to believe that a player fresh out of college will be able to step right in and contribute at a high level on day one.

Instead, teams will put these players in situations where they can grow and develop so that two or three years down the road, they can contribute to the team’s successes in a major way. Nevertheless, this isn’t a perfect science as most players selected in the draft don’t amount to much. They struggle to find playing time and they can’t seem to develop the requisite skills to make a large impact for their team.

The players that do develop into great contributors are ones that have specific skill sets, which lend themselves to the NFL. Furthermore, the places that they are lacking in their skill sets are areas that are easier to develop.

In the 2015 NFL draft, there were a plethora of players selected who have little chance to make a big impact for their team right away; however, they have skill sets that will allow them to develop and grow into very good players. With that being said, let’s take a look at the defensive players who will be projects initially, but will pay off in the end.

Eli Harold, Arizona Cardinals

Athletically and physically, Eli Harold is everything you want in a developmental edge-rusher. He has the quickness, flexibility and quick twitch tendencies to wreck havoc on opposing offenses for years to come. Despite those facts, Harold has a long way to technically when it comes to playing on the edge.

Harold displayed some of the best speed rushes in all of college football last year; however, he didn’t produce the way he should have because of his inability to disengage off blocks. The primary reason for Harold struggling in this respect is that he largely has no idea what to do his hands when engaged at the point of attack. If Harold doesn’t win early, he doesn’t win at all, which will be a huge problem early on in his NFL career.

Under the tutelage of the Arizona coaching staff, Harold should be able to develop his hand use significantly over his first couple of seasons in the NFL. Once Harold figures out how to use his hand to disengage off linemen, he will be a force as a pass rusher for the Cardinals.

Randy Gregory, Dallas Cowboys

Some people may believe that it is a stretch to put Randy Gregory on this list of players who are projects but will pay off in the end. He was supposed to be a top-10 pick until off-field issues caused his stock to go into free fall. Despite his immense, Gregory is still very much a project at this point.

First off, he is extremely light for the position at around 240 pounds; therefore, it is extremely unlikely that he will hold up in the run game until he puts on a significant amount of weight. Also, Gregory has a ton of wasted motion when he executes some of his pass rushes. For example, he doesn’t flip his hips when he executes a swim move; instead, he tends to shuffle through the move, which makes it a lot less effective.

The good news is that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is the best teacher in the NFL when it comes to defensive linemen, so Gregory should improve a ton in that respect. Once Gregory cleans up his technique and gains some weight, he could be an elite defensive end in the NFL.

Gerod Holliman, Pittsburgh Steelers

Gerod Holliman is an unathletic safety who is an awful tackler. When you look at those two traits, you begin to wonder if Holliman will even make the Steelers, let alone become a great contributor down the road, especially on a team that values tackling and toughness as much as the Steelers do.

Nevertheless, the trait that Holliman possesses just so happens to be the most important trait to become a great safety and the hardest one of the find, instincts. Holliman has an innate feel for playing safety and predicting where the ball will go. This is how Holliman will make up for his subpar athleticism. Furthermore, Holliman is a ball hawk with excellent ball skills that go hand and hand with his instincts.

There is no doubt that Holliman will have to learn how to tackle if he wants to get any playing time, but once he figures that out he could be a fantastic free safety for the Steelers down the road.

Tye Smith, Seattle Seahawks

Every year you can basically copy and paste a late-round cornerback the Seahawks selects and predict that he will become a very good cornerback and you would be right a majority of the time. This year is no different as Tye Smith meets every criterion that the Seahawks look for in a cornerback.

He is a tall and physical cornerback who is smart and rangy. He will fit extremely well into the Seahawks Cover 1 and 3 defenses as he does a great job defending vertical routes down the field. Smith will struggle initially with playing underneath routes and routes that break inside, but the Seahawks’ scheme will cover up a majority of those warts.

The Seahawks know how to develop cornerbacks and Smith will be the next one who prospers under the Seattle coaching staff’s tutelage.

Ben Heeney, Oakland Raiders

Ben Heeney is an athletic and instinctive linebacker who was extremely productive at Kansas. He was always around the ball and he displayed great toughness and mental grit. However, he struggles mightily when taking on blocks and he misses way too many tackles for a linebacker.

Furthermore, he struggles in space in coverage, but that isn’t due to a lack of instincts in athleticism, it is because of unrefined technique as he tends to round his breaks and takes a lot of false steps.

If the Raiders coaching staff can clean up Heeney’s technique in coverage and when tackling, he could become a tackling machine for them in the future.

About John Owning

John Owning

John Owning is a NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has years of experience covering the NFL, NFL draft and NCAA football. John's work has been featured on the Bleacher Report and