Prospect X has his duffel bag packed. It’s a Sunday night in early April, and tomorrow he’ll board a flight to a much larger airport, then get on another flight to visit an NFL team in the Midwest, the first stop of a tour—six teams in seven days—that will take him to nearly every region in the country.
He’s bringing his favorite sneakers with him, Jordan 4s and Nike Dunks, which take up most of the room in his carry-on duffel. He doesn’t plan to dress up much for these visits, preferring not to overthink his outfit. “I know if I am in a suit all day, I am not going to be comfortable,” he says. “I am gonna get grumpy and I am going to keep being in my little mood.”
X isn’t stressed by the idea of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back job interviews. Maybe part of the reason for this is that he hates using calendars. Instead, he screenshots emails showing his flight info and outlining his visit schedules and uses those photos to remember when and where he’s supposed to be.
After the Midwest, he’ll head to a team in the Southwest, then a team in the Southeast, then back to the Midwest, one day off at home, then back to the Midwest again, and finally, a team in the Northeast. He’s so busy that one AFC North team couldn’t find a window to squeeze into his schedule before the April 20 deadline for teams to complete their allotted 30-visits. (Each NFL team is allowed to bring 30 prospects to their facility to do medical testing and interviews in the lead-up to the draft.)
This amount of attention is very new for X. He wasn’t on the radar as a legitimate NFL prospect until this past season, his sixth year in college, and his first as a starting linebacker.
When scouts visited his school last year, one of his college coaches said they’d first ask about another linebacker who was already a starter, but then they’d ask about X, because he had the Bobby Wagner–type speed and athleticism that NFL teams are searching for at inside linebacker. “They would always be like, what’s up with him?” the coach says. “And I would always say, ‘He’s a pro. I’m telling you, he’s a pro,’ but there was never enough film at backer before this year for them to really grasp it.”
Injury prevented him from breaking into the starting lineup sooner, and even after an impressive special-teams career and a full season standing out on one of the best defenses in Power-Five college football, he still didn’t get invited to the combine, or a top-tier all-star game. It wasn’t until his pro day workout that NFL teams really started taking him seriously. “It’s like a sigh of relief,” he says.
X says that when he talks to NFL coaches, they’ll ask him why he didn’t play in any all-star games. “I wasn’t invited,” he tells them. “They are all surprised by that.”
And why weren’t you at the combine?
“I wish I could tell you.”
Every March, after the combine and during the heat of pro day season, I crowdsource NFL scouts to find Prospect X, the most overlooked player in the draft. I ask around to get a preliminary list of prospects that fit my criteria: No combine invite, no top-three all-star game invite, small-school product, and a legitimate shot to get drafted. This year, the Prospect X series has a new home at Defector (huge shout out to Sports Illustrated editor Gary Gramling for dreaming up the concept for this series and giving me his blessing to continue it here) and for the first time, I’ve picked a Power Five player.
Each of the last three years, I’ve gone for a true underdog: an FCS player or a D-II player. (Last year’s pick, Christian Elliss, played a spring FCS football season while going through the draft process. Elliss signed with the Vikings after the draft, and spent the majority of the season on the Eagles’ practice squad. He got into one NFL game, Philadelphia’s Week 17 loss to Dallas, and made two tackles.) But this year, the story of a big-program prospect hiding in plain sight caught my attention. How did this guy who should be so visible slip through the cracks? I’ll reveal his name in a follow-up article after draft weekend, but for now—to allow him to be honest about the predraft process—we will protect his identity as best we can. For now, he is simply Prospect X.
In the middle of my hunt for the most overlooked player, one NFC personnel executive texted me X’s name: “Should have been in the combine and [he had] no all-star games. Really like this kid and his pro day was impressive. My top [overlooked] guy.”
“I think he could end up being a starting Will [weak-side] LB in a relatively short amount of time,” another NFC personnel executive texted. “Special teams should be automatic. Be shocked if he makes it to the sixth or seventh round.”
But X is not listed in seven-round mock drafts or 262-player rankings by Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, The Sporting News, or ESPN. He’s not listed among the 200 prospects in PFF’s NFL draft guide or the top 300 prospects in The Athletic’s rankings. Inside the League tracks over 1,200 prospects ahead of the NFL draft, and he’s not one of them.
“He had never started before this year, and he’d been there five years, so you might turn a blind eye to him,” a college scouting director told me about X. “He was in a blindspot.”
Like a lot of his peers in this draft class, X is old. He’s turning 24, because he took advantage of the extra year of eligibility for players who played in the pandemic-wracked 2020 season. At 23 years old, he put his first full season as a starter on tape. He’d always stood out on special teams, but in 2021 he finally got the full workload at inside linebacker too. He earned an honorable mention for all-conference, but it still wasn’t enough to get on the radar of the top all-star games. Half the scouts I asked about him hadn’t heard of him at all, and the other half were sure he’s getting drafted.
“Major snub,” said one, who admitted he hadn’t recommended X to the Senior Bowl staff because his team wanted to keep him under the radar for as long as possible. “Shocked he didn’t get Shrine,” he added referring to the East-West Shrine Bowl, the second-best all-star game.
X thinks part of the reason he’s been snubbed is because his school isn’t afforded much respect from scouts or voters, especially compared to its larger, more historically decorated rivals. “We always have not as many people go to combine, and not as many people go to the all-star games and get national recognition, just because of the logo we have, because we’re [School X] and not [in-state rival] or [neighboring state powerhouse],” he says.
X was invited to one lower-tier all-star game, but he didn’t go because it was scheduled just a week after his bowl game and he needed more time to recover from his season. X’s mom is trying her best to stop googling prospect rankings because she doesn’t like what she finds in the big boards and mock drafts.
“I used to go online all the time and it’s not good,” she says. “I need to stop looking at that. None of that is good, it shows him as an undrafted free agent.”
X was training at a private facility when he found out he wasn’t invited to the combine. Many of the players he trained alongside were in the first wave of invites, and he was sure he’d get invited too. The linebacker he played next to at his school was invited. His team had a good season, and he felt like he’d finally got the exposure he’d been waiting for. When he called his mom to break the news that he’d been left off the list of 324 players, his voice cracked.
“You know when you could tell when someone was about to cry? That sound,” his mother says. “He just knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was going to get picked to go to the combine. ‘Gotta get to the combine and prove myself, show them what I can do,’ that’s all he talked about and then he didn’t get invited. Yeah, that was very hurtful.”
Teams vote for the players they want to see at the combine, and the number of votes needed to score an invite varies by year and by position, but X’s agent says X was right on the bubble. He got 18 votes, one vote short of the threshold for linebackers.
“I’m trying to figure out, why didn’t I get in?” X says. “What was the difference between me and the X other number of people that got an invite? In my eyes, I know they’re not better than me! Seeing 300 people went, I was like, damn, I can’t be one of the top 300 people?”
There’s one play from last season that X is always asked about. It’s the play that has come to define what he has to offer as an NFL prospect. Let’s set the scene: Rivalry game, his team holds a narrow lead very late. It’s fourth-and-10, and his opponents are just outside of field goal range. The rival quarterback takes the shotgun snap and drops back, looking for his options downfield. X’s defense only rushes three, and he stays put on the left side of the defense, about six yards from the line of scrimmage, watching to see where the quarterback will go. The quarterback sees nothing open and before he’s even turned his body to scramble to his left, X is already on the move, anticipating exactly where he will run. X cuts across the field to meet the quarterback about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but the quarterback spins out of his grasp just when he goes in for the sack. X slides off the quarterback’s back leg, and lands on the field as the quarterback keeps running forward, now with a clear path to the first-down marker. Just when you think it’s over, X springs off the ground, like a bullet from a pistol, and runs down the quarterback from behind, five yards short of the first down. When watching the film the next day, his coach said, “It was a defining moment of winning the game. It was like, wow, only he could make that play.”
That’s where X thrives: the spy on the defense, with the smarts to read the unfolding play, the speed to take off and pounce, and the tenacity to play until the whistle.
After the game, X brought his 2-year-old son up to the podium with him. He smiled as he took questions from reporters. “He didn’t give up,” his mom says, remembering the play that had her jumping up and down in the stands. “And that’s [X].”
X’s postgame smiles this past season were a huge change from just two years earlier, when he’d meet his family after games in silence, and then stay up past midnight having serious heart-to-hearts about his football future with his mom, a teammate he was very close to, and his coach.
In 2019, X had offseason surgery for a foot injury and missed the first four games. By the time he was ready to come back, the coaches had solidified a defensive lineup that was working well, and he wasn’t yet back to full strength. “I thought I was going to get more reps than what I was getting,” X says. “That year was the lowest point because I knew I was good enough to play. I won the job the year before and I wasn’t playing. It felt like I was a waste of talent not being utilized by the team.”
His close teammate remembers X venting as they walked back to the car after games. “He just wanted it so bad, and he felt like he was doing everything in his power to do it.”
“He would call or say, ‘I want to talk,’ and I could tell in his voice and the look in his eyes if I needed to get there,” his coach says. His coach did his best to talk him out of transferring to a smaller program. Most times, he’d drive over to X’s dorm right away—it was easier to open up there than at a team facility—and listen as X got emotional about how badly he wanted to play.
“In that setting he could act like he was at home, because he was,” his coach says. “It was just an inner drive in him, he knew what he could do … It wasn’t anger, it was never anger. He just knew he was gonna go somewhere to chase his dream. ‘I am gonna play, coach. I am not going to waste time. I am going to play so I need to leave.’”
X’s mom didn’t want him to transfer. “As a mom, I know he’s good, so I’m like, they have to play him,” she says. “Thank God they did. Thank God they did. It was a little late, but it worked out.”
X doesn’t love to talk about himself, and he downplays the frustration and deep disappointment his mom and coach saw from him those nights. “I was just mad,” he says.
He decided not to transfer. “I am not a person to back out of [anything],” he says. “So I wanted to really just do it to prove other people wrong. And prove to them that I should have been starting from the jump and not waiting on the backburner.”
That December, a teammate who is now in the NFL tweeted out what everyone inside the building already knew about X: Wait until you see the best athlete on the team. It’s gonna get scary.
X’s godbrother remembers him dunking in eighth grade. His mom says X and his younger brother were constantly playing outside when they were young: flipping, tumbling, throwing, running, catching. When they’d get in trouble, she says, “their punishment used to be they couldn’t go outside.”
X was always big, and towered over the other kids his age. “He wasn’t muscular or defined, but he was solid,” his mom says. “He was chubby,” says his godbrother.
But it was the 2020 pandemic season that taught X how to be a pro, because in-person classes and the rest of the college experience were mostly put on hold. He learned to eat right, to work out more efficiently, to immerse himself in the playbook and tape, and he transformed into his peak athletic form. Now he’s finally got a six-pack. “[That year] slowed it down for him,” his coach says. “It gave [X] a feel for what it was like to be a pro. It was all football all day … and a guy like him, he can become a machine.”
The other stuff had always been there. When scouts ask his coach about X’s character, the coach tells them about a walkthrough practice a couple years ago. One of the team’s video employees had a seizure while up in the tower, a two- or three- story-high walkway in the practice facility where the cameras are set up to film practice. The players on the field heard a loud noise as the video employee fell on the walkway. X was the first person to run up the stairs to make sure he was OK until the trainers could reach him.
At my request, one scout checked his team’s notes on X’s character: “Quiet, mature, dependable, not a loner, business-like demeanor, communicates well, raised by two supportive parents, good middle-class upbringing.”
“He is overprotective of who he loves,” his godbrother says. “He puts everybody, a whole family above himself, if we are OK, he’s OK.”
When his mom found out X wasn’t on the combine list, she texted his agent, asking him what it meant. Without the combine, what was the next step? Could her son still get drafted? X’s agent told her that his pro day would be his one shot to show NFL evaluators what he could do. Like any competitor, X used his combine heartbreak to fuel his training.
When his pro day finally arrived, X did exactly what he needed to do to force the NFL to take him seriously. He ran the 40 so fast that he would have been fourth-best for linebackers at the combine, and his vertical jump would have been second-best. His short shuttle and three-cone drill would have been the top time, and his bench was in the top five.
“His pro day forced the scouts to watch his tape, and see, oh, OK, that’s where that 4.4 speed is,” his agent says. “If he ran a 4.6 40, it wouldn’t have forced them to go back and really analyze the film as much as they had to.”
Before his pro day, X had three 30-visits scheduled. After his pro day, he added four more.
“When they see my numbers and see me move, and see me do my drills, I had a lot more interest after that for sure,” X says.
His agent, based off the number of 30-visits and the 15–18 Zoom calls he’s had with teams, expects X will be drafted somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds.
One scout told me his team has him in the sixth round, and another team employee says X has had “a nice little climb” onto his team’s draft board since the season ended.
The scout whose team has him graded in the sixth round said that going into the ‘21 season, his team had X as a priority free agent. He said that BLESTO and NFS, two scouting services that NFL teams pay for, had X graded as an undrafted free agent, but before his pro day numbers posted, both services had upgraded him to the seventh round.
X is one of many players in this draft who used the extra pandemic year to turn themselves from undrafted free agents into draft picks. “I know I deserve to be a draft pick,” he says. “I know I can be better and do better and I know I can go higher. That was the benefit of it, that was probably the best thing that happened to me since I’ve been here.”
“Thank god for the COVID year,” his mom says.
X is exhausted. He’s finally done with his NFL tour, and he’s trying to get back into his routine, working out, eating healthy. He’s frying up mushrooms while talking to me on the phone, updating me on the details. The days were long and tiring but he thinks he did well. When he visited an NFC North team, his flight landed just before 10 p.m., and he had to report to the team facility at 5:45 a.m. to see the team doctor. “I barely slept,” he says.
The first team he visited before his multi-day journey was an NFC East team with premier facilities, and the only one he could fly to direct. In total, he took 14 flights and only missed one of them, a connection back home after his first flight was delayed. “I’m so tired of airports,” he says.
Each team gives the prospects several pieces of gear to take home with them, hats, shirts, sweatshirts. He only had his duffel bag, so he had to use one of the bags he got from a team to carry all the new clothes home.
X says he’s not nervous right now, “just more anxious to see where I go.”
His mom isn’t as calm. “Football is his passion, his love, his everything,” she says. “Today he has so much more faith than I do as a mom. ‘What is your back-up plan?’ That’s me. But he doesn’t know, he has one path. He sees one path, and as a parent, that’s kind of scary because if it doesn’t happen, he is going to be more devastated.”
X won’t admit to a favorite team or predict where he thinks he might end up. “They all have good vibes,” he says, so his only wish for the draft is that he ends up somewhere near his hometown, where his son lives. They Facetime at least twice a day. “He’s all over the place, all over the place, literally,” X says.
He didn’t visit the NFL team in his home state, but at least one team he visited is within driving distance. He has two more Zoom calls scheduled for this week and then there’s nothing more he can do. “You gotta wait for somebody to get you.”
And X can’t wait to get out of his college town. He’s “fed up,” as he puts it, with the limited dining options, mostly fast-food joints. He loves seafood and the seafood selection here is nonexistent. He loves to go duck hunting, and at least the hunting is good in this rural area. Other than that, “there’s nothing here,” he says. “Just the same old, same old.”
“It’s just a small town,” he shrugs. “[This state] is just not for me at all. I’m not a big fan. It has no scenery.”
Prospect X’s scenery is about to change very soon.