Analysis

How NFL Teams Missed on Some of 2023 Playoffs’ Biggest Stars

It’s always been a truism that the NFL draft is an inexact science. That was proven once again in last weekend’s Wild Card Round and likely will carry forward through the postseason as many players who were under-drafted are making a big impact in helping their teams to victory.

Tom Brady, of course, is the classic example as a 2000 sixth-round pick of the Patriots who has won 35 playoff games, including seven Super Bowls. Last year, Gabriel Davis — the Bills’ fourth-round pick in 2020 — set a playoff record with four touchdown receptions in Buffalo’s overtime loss to Kansas City in the Divisional Round.

Here are nine players proving they were under-drafted as they stand out in this year’s postseason:

Brock Purdy, QB, 49ers

Drafted: Round 7, 2022

The rookie has won all six of his starts since replacing the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. After a somewhat shaky first half in which the 49ers trailed the Seahawks 17-16 and had to settle for three field goals (and one TD), Purdy had a tremendous second half, leading touchdown drives of 75, 70 and 76 yards while completing 9 of 11 passes for 185 yards and two TDs.

His 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown gave the 49ers the lead for good, and he threw a 74-yard TD pass to Deebo Samuel. For the day, Purdy completed 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three TDs (131.5 passer rating).

Purdy has a great supporting cast on offense and an excellent head coach in Kyle Shanahan, who has been a big booster of his young QB since he took over. He plays with veteran poise and his regular-season stats were so impressive — 67 percent completion rate, 13 TDs, four interceptions, no fumbles, and a 107.4 rating. Then he took it up a notch in the 41-23 win over Seattle. Next up is Micah Parsons and the Dallas defense.

It’s truly amazing to think Purdy was the 262nd player selected in the 2022 draft and just became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history with four total touchdowns in a playoff game.

Dalton Schultz, TE, Cowboys

Drafted: Round 4, 2018

Schultz caught two touchdown passes from Dak Prescott in the first half to help jump start the Cowboys to a 31-14 victory at Tampa. Schultz led all Dallas receivers with seven catches for 95 yards and the two scores. He did a great job working free in the end zone on the second TD and had a terrific 26-yard juggling catch with Devin White in tight coverage to help set up a third-quarter TD pass from Prescott to Michael Gallup that put Dallas ahead 24-0.

Schultz played under the one-year franchise tag this season and has helped his negotiating leverage with his performance Monday night along with 198 receptions for 2,000 yards and 17 TDs during the past three seasons. He has not yet been selected to the Pro Bowl but plays like an elite tight end. He’ll surely attract plenty of attention from the 49ers’ top-ranked defense in Sunday night’s Divisional Playoff game.

Isaiah Hodgins, WR, Giants

Drafted: Round 6, 2020

In the Giants’ 31-24 road upset of the Vikings on Sunday, Hodgins played a major role in helping quarterback Daniel Jones to a great performance. Hodgins caught eight passes for a career-high 105 yards and one TD, when he beat veteran corner Patrick Peterson on a 14-yard TD to give the Giants their first lead. On the final drive, he had a tremendous toe-tapping 19-yard reception.

Hodgins had only four receptions with the Bills over his first two-plus seasons before the Bills put him on waivers this past November. Giants GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll were with Hodgins in Buffalo, knew him well, and were happy to claim him.

His Giants regular-season totals were 33 catches, 351 yards and four TDs as he established himself in the receiver mix. Now he’s a prime target for Jones as the G-Men seek an upset against the top-seeded Eagles on Saturday night. Pretty good stuff from a sixth rounder who is more talented than where he was drafted by a team that wound up cutting him.

Matt Milano, LB, Bills

Drafted: Round 5, 2017

Milano was selected first-team All-Pro after a regular season in which this every-down linebacker had 99 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks along with seven QB hits.

He played a critical role as Buffalo held off Miami 34-31 last Sunday. Milano had 10 tackles, two sacks, three QB hits and two tackles for loss. His third-quarter sack was followed by Kaiir Elam’s interception on the next play, leading to the Bills game-winning touchdown.

Milano has been a consistent performer since his rookie year and will go down as one of the Bills’ best later-round picks.

Charles Omenihu, DE, 49ers

Drafted: Round 5, 2019

The 49ers got a steal at the 2021 trade deadline when they sent a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Texans for Omenihu, who was Houston’s fifth-round pick in 2019. He had 4.5 sacks in this past regular season and produced two sacks, including a third-quarter strip sack (recovered by Nick Bosa) on Seattle’s Geno Smith in San Francisco’s wild-card round victory. Coach Kyle Shanahan said that play changed the momentum of the game. Omenihu also had one tackle for loss and one additional QB hit in the win.

Omenihu likes the big stage. He had 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and three QB hits in last season’s wild-card win for the 49ers at Dallas.

It doesn’t hurt his cause to have the NFL sack leader in Bosa rushing from the other side, but Omenihu has established himself as a key pass rusher for the league’s top defense.

Roy Robertson-Harris, DE Jaguars

Drafted: UDFA, 2016

I love to see undrafted players become solid players. My personal favorite was John Randle, whom I signed out of Texas A&M Kingsville for a $5,000 signing bonus when I was the Vikings GM. And 137.5 sacks later, he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Robertson-Harris spent his first four seasons in Chicago with moderate success (7.5 sacks) in a backup role before the Jaguars signed him as a free agent in 2021. He’s now a starter with six sacks and 21 QB hits along with 11 tackles for loss over the past two regular seasons. He had a monster game in Jacksonville’s dramatic 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers last Saturday, notching seven tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, two QB hits and two passes broken up.

After taking down Justin Herbert, Robertson-Harris now sets his sights on Patrick Mahomes this Saturday.

Foye Oluokun, LB, Jaguars

Drafted: Round 6, 2018

Sticking with the Jaguars defenders, Oluokun fell in the 2018 draft due in part to playing in college at non-Power 5 Yale. He had four very productive seasons with the Falcons, including a league-leading 192 tackles in 2021. Jacksonville GM Trent Baalke signed Oluokun for $15 million per year last March, and it’s paid off as he once again led the NFL with 184 combined tackles.

Then in last weekend’s wild-card win, Oluokun had 13 tackles as the Jaguars D held Justin Herbert and Company to only three second-half points. He made the tackle of Joshua Kelley shy of a first down in pass coverage on the Chargers’ final offensive play to force a punt, which led to  Jacksonville’s winning drive.

Jayron Kearse, S, Cowboys

Drafted: Round 7, 2016

Originally drafted by the Vikings in 2016, Kearse had only five starts in four seasons there, but he was a good special-teams player. After spending 2020 in Detroit and Baltimore, he landed in Dallas, where he has thrived as a starting safety the past two seasons with 178 total tackles and three interceptions.

Kearse’s career highlight came Monday night in the second quarter when he came up with Tom Brady’s first red zone interception since 2019. It stopped a 14-play, 70-yard drive with the Cowboys leading by only six points at the time. Dallas’ offense responded with a long touchdown drive to go up by two scores on their way to the big road win. Kearse tweaked his knee in the game but is expected back this week and will be counted on to help control tight end George Kittle along with the other 49er receiving threats and their strong running game.

Logan Wilson, LB, Bengals

Drafted: Round 3, 2020

The biggest play of the season for the Bengals came with 11:54 remaining in a tie game last Sunday night. Wilson punched the ball out of Ravens QB Tyler Huntley’s hands as he attempted to leap into the end zone and break the plane for a TD to take the lead. The forced fumble was scooped up by defensive end Sam Hubbard, who ran 98 yards for the winning score. Wilson also had a game-high 10 tackles to help send the Bengals to Buffalo for a Divisional Round game this Sunday.

Wilson’s fall in the 2020 draft was partly due to playing his college ball at Wyoming. On a team more renowned for its offensive talent, Wilson is a force on an underrated defense with two straight seasons of 100-plus tackles and seven career interceptions.

Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.

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