Finding potential in the NFL Draft is a dangerous gamble. If an NFL general manager hits on potential, it can make a career. Miss and you'll quickly be out of a job.
Perhaps no general manager in the NFL thrives on potential as much as Jerry Reese of the New York Giants. In the 2010, Reese drafted defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul as much on athletic skill and potential as anything. Don't forget, Pierre-Paul only started seven games during his final year at South Florida and had 6.5 sacks. But it was his athleticism that got him drafted highly and why he's become one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.
Conversely, potential can often fizzle. Countless times players on defense were drafted because of potential. There is no better definer of unmet potential than former Texans defensive lineman Amobi Okoye. He was only 19 as a senior at Louisville and many NFL teams thought his best football was ahead. After starring at the Senior Bowl, Okoye was taken with the 10th overall pick in 2007. Okoye is now a backup journeyman without an NFL team.
The method for defining potential on defense is fairly simple. The expectation for potential is often set by pure untapped skill. Maybe a player didn't get a chance or wasn't put in a good situation to make plays in college. Maybe they're younger than usual. Or had a college career hampered by injury. Maybe they played at a smaller school or had to transfer down a level.
Most of the top defensive players in the draft this year are rated so highly because of potential. We see flashes in Ezekiel Ansah, Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo or Alec Ogletree. It's true, the expectation is for any player in the draft to get better as an NFL player. But by in large, some of the top defensive players this year are going to be picked based on what they'll be in two or three years.
The top players, however, are easy to spot. As are pure athletic marvels like Margus Hunt. Here are some of the players on defense deeper in the draft that could hit based on potential:
Joe Kruger, DE/DT, Utah
How untapped is Kruger's potential? He won't be old enough to drink immediately until June. In three years at Utah, Kruger had just 14 starts. Imagine the criticism if he were a quarterback. In his final year for the Utes, Kruger started seven games at left end, playing in 11. More so than most defensive linemen in the draft this year, Kruger is still growing into his sizable frame. At 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds, Kruger has a frame to get up in the 290-pound range and hold down end in a 3-4 system.
Another defensive tackle: The Georgia defense in 2012 was confounding. It was packed with NFL talent yet couldn't seem to stop anyone. That leaves coaching into question. One curiosity was defensive tackle Kwame Geathers. He was routinely stuck behind John Jenkins, but has some talent. At 342 pounds he surely has the size to be an NFL player. Geathers was a backup because he never developed proper technique as a lineman. If he does, he could have a nice NFL career as a front three piece.
Cornelius Washington, DE, Georgia
To say Washington was non-existent in Georgia's star-studded defense last season is an understatement. Washington played in 14 games for Georgia last season, but had just 22 tackles and only a half sack. But dig a little further. Washington registered 15 quarterback pressures and was often miscast as a five technique. Like many players, Washington will have to be drafted into the right system. But if a team running the wide nine alignment gets Washington, he could develop into something very good. At 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, Washington registered some of the best workout numbers at the NFL Combine in February. Get him in space against an offensive tackle, and he can tap into his natural explosion and agility and get after the quarterback.
Another defensive end: Malliciah Goodman of Clemson had the kind of college career where you just kept waiting and waiting for him to break out. Although he had 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a senior, he never became quite the player most thought. Goodman closed the season well, though, with two sacks against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Goodman may not be a top pass rusher in the NFL, but he has the length to play left end for years and be dependable.
Quanterus Smith, Western Kentucky
Had it not been for a torn ACL late in the 2012 season, we may be talking about Smith as a certain top-50 pick. The potential on Smith is high as long as he comes back healthy. Prior to his injury, Smith was leading the nation in sacks and has a nice burst off the snap. He had 12.5 sacks last season, including three against Alabama when he made D.J. Fluker look more like a guard than a right tackle.
Another linebacker: Jonathan Stewart is to the 2013 NFL Draft as Martez Wilson was to the 2011 draft. Stewart has the athleticism and size to be an outside rush linebacker, but was pushed inside at Texas A&M. Overshadowed by Damontre Moore, Stewart led the Aggies in tackles in 2011 and was second in 2012. At the combine, he had a very good 40 time for 4.68 seconds and was solid in other drills.
Brandon McGee, Miami
Out of high school, McGee was to be the next great Miami defensive back. While that never came to pass, McGee still has potential. He showed it at the combine with a 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds and a better shuttle drill time than Dee Milliner. McGee's size at 5'11 and 193 pounds is good, he was just never developed the skills necessary to be a true shutdown cornerback. The skills – quick feet, solid anticipation – are enough to warrant a pick.
Another defensive back: Rod Sweeting of Georgia Tech doesn't receive a lot of publicity. He didn't stand out at the East-West Shrine Game, but started two full seasons and played in 54 games.