South Carolina Football: Ranking the greatest Gamecock hidden gems in NFL Draft history

South Carolina football has had some great players selected late in the NFL Draft. Here is a ranking of the greatest Gamecock hidden gems in NFL Draft history.
South Carolina football alum Ernest Jones with the Los Angeles Rams
South Carolina football alum Ernest Jones with the Los Angeles Rams / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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South Carolina football fans will be paying close attention to April's NFL Draft as the Gamecocks have multiple players who will be selected to begin their NFL journeys. Some, like wide receiver Xavier Legette and quarterback Spencer Rattler, are believed to be taken relatively early in the draft (especially Legette). Other draft hopefuls from Columbia, though, will be taken later in the proceedings if they are selected.

The NFL Draft is just as much about hitting on a few late picks as it is about nailing the higher-profile selections earlier in the draft. In the history of South Carolina football, there have been major NFL contributors who were taken early (Sterling Sharpe, Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, and Jadeveon Clowney were all 1st round picks), and there have been a number of big-time players whose success was a bit of a surprise as they were taken later in the draft.

But which Gamecocks have been the greatest of these NFL Draft hidden gems? This article will take a look at the best NFL Gamecocks who came out of the 3rd round or later in their year's draft.

Honorable Mention

DJ Wonnum: DJ Wonnum (Round 4, Pick 117; Minnesota Vikings; 2020 NFL Draft) was an All-SEC player in Columbia, and he became a contributor for the Vikings quickly. In his first four seasons in the NFL, Wonnum had two separate seasons with 8 sacks each, and as a part-time defensive end/part-time outside linebacker, he became a valuable part of the Minnesota defense. This offseason, he signed a new contract with the Carolina Panthers where he will play opposite of fellow former Gamecock great Jadeveon Clowney.

Andrew Provence: Arguably the greatest defensive tackle in South Carolina football history, Andrew Provence (Round 3, Pick 75; Atlanta Falcons; 1983 NFL Draft) got off to a nice start to his professional career as he made the NFL's All-Rookie team. After his big first year, though, the Falcons started jerking Provence around between defensive tackle and defensive end, and it stunted his development. He didn't start much after that rookie season but still stuck in the league for 7 seasons.

Brandon Shell and AJ Cann: Brandon Shell (Round 5, Pick 158; New York Jets; 2016 NFL Draft) and AJ Cann (Round 3, Pick 67; Jacksonville Jaguars; 2015 NFL Draft) were elite college offensive linemen with the Gamecocks (especially Cann), but neither player could parlay their college successes into being early picks in the NFL Draft.

Even so, the two players stuck in the league for 8 seasons each, primarily as starters. Shell spent time as a starter at both tackle spots with the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Seattle Seahawks, and Cann was a starter at guard for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Cann was a borderline Pro Bowler in his career, and Shell was still a sought-after player when he abruptly retired ahead of the 2023 season.

Arturo Freeman: A member of one of the best secondaries in Gamecock history, Arturo Freeman (Round 5, Pick 152; Miami Dolphins; 2000 NFL Draft) was one of three Gamecocks from the 1999 secondary to be drafted (the fourth was Rashad Faison, a player many consider to be the best safety in school history). Freeman's career was relatively short but solid as he was a primary starter in three of his six years in the league. He also picked off Tom Brady twice in the same season in 2004, prompting the Patriots to sign him in 2005 so that he couldn't do it again.

Undrafted Players: While not exactly "late-round selections," there have been a number of Gamecocks who were not taken on draft day but still had really nice NFL careers. Wide receiver Damiere Byrd, defensive back Darian Stewart, offensive lineman Jamar Nesbit, and wide receiver/running back Dan Reeves all went undrafted.

Byrd is still active in the league and is, remarkably, the longest-tenured NFL receiver to ever come out of USC (he will be in his 10th year this fall). Stewart was a Pro Bowl safety who won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. Nesbit was an NFL lineman for over a decade and won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints. Dan Reeves was a college quarterback drafted to play defensive back but became an All-Pro running back for the Dallas Cowboys before moving to receiver after an injury. He won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys as a player-assistant coach before a legendary coaching career.