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Meet Prospect X, The NFL Draft’s Best-Kept Secret

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Prospect X wakes up at 7:30 a.m. He’s back home at his mom’s house for draft weekend. He gets dressed and hops in his car to go to Chick-fil-A to get a big tray of Chick-n-minis and hash browns. His close teammate from college and his godbrother are at his house too for the big day, and his toddler son and three high school friends are coming over. 

When he gets back with the warm trays, everyone gathers in the kitchen, eating the honey glazed chicken sandwiches and trying not to get too anxious. 

Before day three of the draft kicks off with the fourth round, X gets a text from someone with the Cowboys, the first team he visited. He talked to so many people there he doesn’t even remember if this person is a coach or a scout, and he only knows them by their first name, or at least he thinks it’s their first name: “Ryan.” 

Today is the big day. Stay patient.

He’s excited, but decides not to make a big deal out of it because he’s received several texts just like it, even on Friday before rounds two and three. He got one from the Seahawks and the Jets, and several other teams he can’t keep track of. They’re all of the could be today, could be tomorrow, get ready variety. It’s impossible to extract any real meaning from them, so he doesn’t even text Cowboys Ryan back.

X’s mom can’t stand the endless waiting in between each pick, so she tries to distract herself with her 1,000-piece puzzle instead. She loves eagles (the bird, not the team, she’s actually been a Cowboys fan since high school) and this puzzle has five different eagle heads on it. She doesn’t make much progress, though, because she can’t stop looking up at the TV, or across the living room at X, who is holding his phone tightly. 

The sixth round starts and X’s mom starts to worry. She sees the nerves on her son’s face. He and his close teammate, godbrother, and friends are talking about how his school finished in the top 10, with a top-five defense, but nobody from their talented defense has been drafted yet. 

“As a defense we were No. 2 and No. 1 in some categories,” X says to his pals. “That’s just crazy. You got kickers going, you got people who haven’t played against good talent; we’re the highest conference and everything!”

X’s mom goes back to the puzzle and forces another piece into place. 

At the end of the fifth round, the Cowboys pick flashes on the screen. It’s a different linebacker, LSU’s Damone Clark. X now knows for sure that Dallas won’t be picking him. He thinks they are set at the position. Every time a linebacker gets picked, he gets a little more anxious. He knows he’s better than them, but he notices that most of them are taller, and he knows that teams prioritize size. 

His godbrother becomes convinced that Baltimore is going to be the team to take him, because X visited the Ravens and the godbrother thinks X plays a lot like Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen. X starts thinking it’s going to be the Colts instead, because he visited them and they haven’t yet taken a linebacker. 

With the ninth pick in the sixth round, Detroit takes X’s teammate, a linebacker who was invited to the combine and put up 36 reps on the bench press at their pro day. OK, maybe now it’s my time, he thinks. 

The Colts have a pick coming up, and so do the Cowboys. Indianapolis picks a tight end from Youngstown State, a non-combine player like X. The Seahawks, Niners, and Rams are all texting him trying to start the conversation about free agent deals. He has one response for those texts: We’ll talk about that if I don’t get drafted. He’s not willing to give up yet. 

X’s two-and-a-half-year-old son wears an NFL draft t-shirt with his dad’s name and number on the back. He’s playing with his soft orange basketball, bouncing it all around the living room.

Dallas is on the clock with pick 193, their last draft pick. 

X’s phone rings, and his son starts smiling and yelling, running around even faster than he was before. His mom jumps up out of the big brown leather recliner.

X answers the phone after just one ring and immediately puts it on speaker for everyone in the room to hear. 

“Devin?” says the voice on the other end. 

“Yes sir, how you doing?” X says, his words rushed together with anticipation. 

“This is Will McClay with the Cowboys. I’ve got someone who wants to talk to you.” 

A second later, a very familiar, very slow southern drawl fills up the room. 

“Jerry Jones with the Cowboys.” 

Devin Harper celebrates after beating Texas at Texas last season. Photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images
AUSTIN, TEXAS - OCTOBER 16: Devin Harper #16 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys celebrates after defeating the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

As many of you correctly guessed in our comment section and on Twitter and Reddit, Prospect X is Devin Harper, who played linebacker for Oklahoma State. 

Harper grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. and played both running back and linebacker at Karns High School. Oklahoma State was the only Power Five school to give him a scholarship offer, and he enrolled there in 2016. He redshirted his freshman year, played special teams and a little bit of linebacker the next year, and by the end of 2018, he won the starting job. That offseason, he broke the navicular bone in his right foot while doing non-contact drills in practice. He got surgery that summer and ended up missing the first four games of the 2019 season. When he came back, he wasn’t playing as much as he had been in 2018. 

Harper’s close teammate who stayed up late with him in his dorm that year, convincing him not to transfer and see it through? That’s "Lil Harp," Thomas Harper, Devin’s younger brother, a safety for the Cowboys who is headed into his (real) senior season. “That [year] might have been for the good, to get him refocused and locked in again,” Thomas says.  

As a super-super senior in 2021, Devin broke out with eight sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Oklahoma State’s defense finished third in the country by yards per game, and second in Football Outsiders’ total defense rankings. 

“It was for sure the best year I had and the most exciting year as a whole,” Devin says. “We won 12 games, we had one of the best records in school history, the best record since I have been here and we also went to the Big 12 [championship game] which we haven't done since the very beginning. Everything fell into place.” 

Harper’s most important play of the season, the one where he missed the sack and then got back up to make the fourth-down stop like he was a bullet shot from a pistol, happened at the end of the Cowboys’ 37-33 win over their in-state powerhouse rival, Oklahoma. 

Look at him go!

Devin thinks his Cowboys are perpetually disrespected, and one NFL scout agreed with him, sort of. “They get overlooked because I don't think there is a single 4 or 5 star on that roster,” the scout said. “Oklahoma and Texas have all those guys, but Oklahoma State still wins.” 

The scout said Oklahoma State is one of those schools that he visits every year and wonders, How is this team undefeated? “They are very well coached but they are much better as a group than they are as individuals,” he says. 

The Oklahoma State Cowboys played at the Dallas Cowboys' home field in the Big 12 Championship game against Baylor in December. The Pokes lost, but Harper is excited to get back to Dallas. “It’s crazy,” he says. “The Cowboys continues.”

X’s mom quickly dials her older sister, who made her a Cowboys fan, and scream-whispers: “It’s the Cowboys!” before she hangs up to listen to Jones talk to her son.  

“If you work as hard as I know you did in what they evaluate you as, what I know you as, you work that hard up here, you’ll have a great career,” Jones says. “And I want you to have it here with the Cowboys.” 

Devin’s son Camden keeps yelling and jumping around in the living room, getting louder while everyone else in the room is dead quiet to listen. Jones passes the phone to head coach Mike McCarthy. 

“We’re ecstatic to have you here,” he says. “You’re a great fit, and we’re very very fortunate that you’re still around at this point in the draft. So, enjoy!” 

Devin talks to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn next and then hangs up the phone. His mom shouts and claps and Devin puts on the blue Cowboys hat that he brought with him on the trip from Stillwater. He made sure to pack all the team gear he got on each of his seven visits, just in case. 

A few minutes go by, and Devin’s highlights flash across the living room TV. The CBS online draft tracker has “no grade analysis” and “no analysis” available for him, but ESPN’s broadcast crew are prepared. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick notes that Harper is the teammate to Malcolm Rodriguez, who had just been drafted. 

“And I may like Devin Harper even more,” he says. “You want to talk about measurables? Traits? Six-foot, 235, 4.4 40, 40.5 inch vertical, he had eight sacks and 13 QB hits. 18 hurries in 89 pass rush snaps in 2021. According to PFF, that 39 percent pass rush win rate is first among FBS defenders with at least 30 pass rush snaps. That’s insane efficiency. “

Riddick keeps going with his enthusiasm for Harper. “Dallas has a bunch of good athletes at linebacker right now, headed by Micah Parsons. Adding this kind of guy in the sixth round that can run and hit like this, this is awesome!” he says. “This is flat out awesome for them. I know we say that about a lot of picks. But if you turn on the tape and watch this young man play, it’s undeniable. He plays to his traits.”

Video: ESPN

The Cowboys liked Harper so much and so early that they were the first team to schedule a visit with him, weeks before his huge pro day performance caught the eye of so many other NFL teams. Harper was in the very first group of 8-10 players that Dallas hosted at The Star, and that was all part of the team’s strategy.

“We did want to get him in here before everybody else did,” Cowboys VP of player personnel Will McClay says now. “Thinking that the momentum may not catch on but we knew what we felt he was.” 

McClay says Harper wasn’t overlooked, rather “late-noticed” because he hadn’t stood out until his sixth year in college, and he was stuck with a label from NFS and BLESTO, the scouting services teams use, that didn’t factor in the traits that Riddick gushed about— his bend, his burst, his speed. Cowboys area scout Klein Kubiak first started paying serious attention to him during training camp last fall. Kubiak and national scout Mitch LaPoint liked his quickness and what McClay says Dallas calls, “his reactionary athleticism.”  

So back before the 2021 college season started “there was a bit of glimmer about [him]” McClay says.

Then, in draft meetings in December, Harper’s name kept coming up when they discussed linebackers. Combine invite or not, the Cowboys were very interested in this prospect who fit their definition of a Will linebacker, and they wanted to make a move on their head start before the rest of the NFL saw his testing numbers. 

Each  team has their own height and weight minimums for each position, and McClay knew Harper’s testing numbers would likely set off alarms within teams that would prompt them to give him a second look. “If he lights up all the analytics marks, then somebody in analytics is going to tell somebody in football,” McClay says. “And now the area guy has proof that he’s right and now that starts the chain. I feel like we were ahead of it a little bit, just in that we were talking about him before that time and we got him on the first visit.”

One particular trait that set Harper apart for Dallas: Arm length. Harper is six feet tall, and most 6-foot guys have 29-30 inch arms, which McClay says would be an issue at linebacker. But Harper’s arms measure 32.7 inches, “damn near 33 arms” McClay says. “So there was another little check mark.”

Dallas knew if they didn’t draft him, Harper wouldn’t be there to woo in free agency. After they made the pick, McClay says he and some of his scouts who went through the southwest area that includes Oklahoma State got several jealous texts about Harper from their friends who scout for other teams. 

Oh, we were looking at getting him with the next pick. 

On Monday morning after the draft, Harper is outside in his mom’s yard supervising Camden as he bikes around the driveway. Camden laughs and yells. When teams asked him any variation of the question, why do you play football? Camden was always his answer. 

As he watches his son pedal around, Harper is still processing the fact he was really drafted. “I was just in a surreal moment,” he says. “This is really happening. It hit me but it still ain’t hit me yet.” 

Harper’s mom, Alacia, had her doubts about his NFL future before and wanted him to have a backup plan. As a mom, she’ll always want him to have a backup plan in place, but she says she has more faith now. “Because I know his work ethic,” she says. “Even since he's been home, Devin goes to the gym and the field. Every day he does things on his own. He's dedicated. I know he's going to be okay.” 

Of the 36 linebackers who were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, only 21 were drafted. According to Inside The League's draft grid, Harper is one of 38 non-combine draftees this year. Harper is one of only eight of the non-combine players drafted who didn't attend an all-star game.

“That's what they get for doubting me,” Harper says. “And I have a lot to prove.”

Alacia is proud of Devin, but she’d rather not put her nerves through his rollercoaster of a process again. "Well one thing I told my youngest son is be ready, do what he has to do and do it better, because I don't want to stress again,” she says. 

Devin will head to Dallas in a week. And he’s so ready to leave boring old Stillwater’s bland food scene behind. “Dallas food is way better,” he says. “Even when I was there for two days just at the Cowboys facility, I had some of the best food.”

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