Last week I profiled what was generously described as a "massive" batch of underrated players on offense. This week I'll tackle the defensive side of the ball. Before I get started, a quick reminder that the definition of "sleeper" has changed in the last few years:
With the explosion of media coverage focused on the NFL Draft the term "sleeper" does not really mean the same thing it used to. Months of continuous professional coverage and a booming cottage industry focused solely on the draft means that very few prospects retain their true "unknown" sleeper status. These days when I use the word sleeper I am referring to a player who is not getting the attention or credit they deserve in relation to their talent or potential. With this adjusted definition we could be talking about player currently slated to go in the 4th who really should be closer to the 1st; or a player marked as a UDFA prospect that is definitely worth spending a later-round selection on to secure his services.
With the new definition in mind enjoy a list of some of the less-heralded talents in the 2016 draft who could end up making a lasting impact on defense in the NFL.
- DJ Reader, Clemson - You'd figure that a 324-pound man with first rate athleticism playing on a big-time ACC defensive line would be hard to miss. The sheer depth of this year's defensive line class and the fact that he is flanked by 2 players that will likely be drafted in the first 3 rounds (Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd) make it a little easier to understand why more people are not talking about DJ, but no more excusable. Reader can play and he is a rare pure nose tackle that can rush the passer a little too (Eddie Goldman anyone?). He'll make some team very happy they spent a draft pick on him for years to come.
- Sheldon Day, Notre Dame - Another productive player at a high profile school that is simply not getting the buzz you'd expect. He's not the tallest (6'1") or the heaviest (293 pounds) but Day can create sacks and pressure from the middle of the defensive line; and there is always room for that in the NFL. For a team that still uses a pure 4-3 front Day has legitimate value and staring potential as a penetrating 3-tech tackle.
- Justin Zimmer, Ferris State - Justin Zimmer is a massive player from a tiny school. Standing 6'3" and weighing in over 300 pounds he also happens to be an amazing athlete. His test numbers are astounding: 4.85 40-Yard Dash, a 33.5-inch Vertical Jump, a 7.01 3-Cone Drill and a 9-foot-9 Broad Jump, 44 reps on the Bench Press. If you roll all of those numbers up into something called the Relative Athletic Score (RAS) he is the most athletically gifted DT in the draft for the last 10 years.
- Bronson Kaufusi, BYU - Kaufusi is just starting to get a trickle of attention as the draft looms large. Similar players (like Emanuel Ogbah) have been getting talked up for weeks or months but Kufusi remained mostly in the shadows. If he watch his tape that is the last place he spends his time. Bronson shows up when the bright lights come on and gets after it. He's got a huge frame (6'6", 285 pounds) and can really move and twist for a guy that size. With his excellent length, adequate power and arsenal of rush moves I'd love to see him occupying one of the Bears 5-tech spots on at least a rotational basis. I imagine with a little time in the scheme and NFL training under his belt he'd be a quality starter.
- Dean Lowry, Northwestern - For those of you that remember me stumping for Stanford's Henry Anderson in last year's draft: Lowry is this year's Anderson. He strikingly similar in his play style to Anderson who had a good-looking rookie campaign going for the Colts before he was injured. Lowry (6'6", 296 pounds) is almost a carbon copy of Anderson (6'6", 300 pounds) physically and I think is you swapped their college uniforms nobody might have noticed for quite some time. Both players set the edge quite well while still being able to pursue QB's and bring them down. Anderson was a more gifted natural rusher, but Lowry is not far behind.
- Darius Latham, Indiana - Occasionally you see one player getting a ton of hype while another, who is amazingly alike in both physical size and skills, is getting largely ignored. Such is the case with Latham who is a remarkably similar to one of this year's defensive line darlings, Vernon Butler. Many outlets are gushing over Butler (6'4", 323 pounds) while Latham (6'4", 311 pounds) has been largely unmentioned throughout the entire cycle. Both are massive, disruptive and powerful players on the interior, but are very limited outside the tackle box. Their combine numbers are near perfect overlays of each other, with Latham actually edging Butler in every running drill and Butler taking the jumping events by a paper-thin margin. While Butler may go in the late 1st round and will definitely be off the board in the 2nd, Latham will be there for the taking late into the draft. Darius may actually go undrafted like his linemate from last year, Bobby Richardson (who was on the previous version of my sleepers list), who slipped through the cracks but made the Saints roster as a UDFA.
- Charles Tapper, Oklahoma - A guy who pops on film from time to time. Tapper has not put it all together but his physical skills (4.59 40 time at 271 pounds) and big play flash indicate that he can produce more in the future than he has in the past. Charles struggles with consistent technique but if he lands with a coach that can improve some of his play-to-play basics (like pad level) he could produce dividends in the right system. More of one gap 4-3 DE than a 5- technique, so his value will be higher for teams running that defensive alignment.
- Carl Nassib, Penn State - You like the movie Rudy? Nassib is your guy in this draft. A former walk-on who Bill O'Brien told to give up on the dream of ever playing pro ball was offered a full scholarship 6 months later and will certainly be drafted. I was astounded to find out that Nassib is 6'7". He plays with the balance and bend of much shorter player on film. He does use his length to get under blockers and put his hands on the QB. His rushes are not always pretty, sometimes trend toward gritty, but they are effective. He led the nation in sacks with 15.5 last season.
- Anthony Zettel, Penn State - Two Nittany Lions in a row? Yup. Zettel is a different player entirely from Nassib. Weighing in at the same 277 pounds as his former teammate, but 3 inches shorter and with much shorter arms Zettel finds himself in a bit of defensive line no-man's land. He's not really stout enough to play on the inside (where he did in college) but his short arms leave him a distinct disadvantage against NFL offensive tackles. Despite that lack of a sure fire position I think Zettel ends up on a team that puts his skills to use in a hybrid front (Seattle and New England are prime candidates). He plays with relentless drive and has a solid understanding of his role within the scheme. Random stat? He batted down 6 passes last season. Very JJ Watt-esque.
- Matt Judon, Grand Valley State - Classic Division II player with skills to contribute on a bigger stage. Racked up 20 sacks and forced 3 fumbles last year on top of 81 tackles, which is a ridiculous number for a DE. His physical profile is very intriguing to NFL teams looking for a 4-3 DE. Ripped a off a 4.73 40 yard dash, 30 reps in the bench press and had an explosive vertical jump of 35 inches. Judon will have to adjust to much better talent across the line from him, but his power and production indicate he's up to the task.
- Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland - "Slippery" is a word I have used to describe Ngakoue's pass rush game. He just finds a way to cause pressures, hit QB's and force offenses into poor plays. Yannick has good burst and bend but will need to add strength during his first couple years as a pro. I see him as a rush specialist off the edge in a 3-4 defense early in his career. As a bonus he shows decent ability when asked to lock down his edge against the run which is somewhat surprising given his build. Ngakoue plays with an intensity that suggests he won't be a total liability on passing downs if an opponent audibles a run to his side occasionally.
- Victor Ochi, Stony Brook - Ochi really popped onto scouts radar's at the East West Shrine game this year. His first step quickness surprised many of his peers from major college programs. When combined with his other major strength (a nasty hand punch when making contact with offensive lineman) Victor won a lot of early practice battles at the all-star game in Tampa. He lacks ideal measurables and is not overly talented moving in reverse, but his impressive power and willingness to take on any blocker aggressively means he will certainly end up in an NFL camp this summer. His best position would be as a 4-3 strong side ‘backer or an outside edge setter in a 3-4 alignment. Ochi is likely a sub or a special teamer to start off but could grow into an every down player with some development time.
- Steven Weatherly, Vanderbilt - Weatherly is a player I really wanted to pick late in my 7-round mock draft, but I miscalculated a trade and lost my chance to select him. He was the most impactful player on a defense that was not spectacular, so it will be very interesting to see how much impact he can provide when surrounded by more talented teammates. His physical prowess certainly points towards some serious ability to harass an offense. He's 6'4" and weighs 273 pounds but still ticked off a 4.61 second 40 yard dash. That's as fast as safeties weighing in as much as 70 pounds lighter than Weatherly. His burst to the ball carrier is eye-popping on tape. If a defensive coach can add to his hand fighting arsenal and get him to play without any hesitation, Steven could be an impact player off the edge in a 3-4 alignment. In a draft very light on EDGE talent it is surprising to me that players like Weatherly have not gotten more publicity.
- Tyrone Holmes, Montana - Holmes has picked up quite a bit of notoriety in the past week or so, but before that I had not heard his name during the entire pre-draft cycle. He's another player from a non-power conference who might add some impact to an EDGE class that sorely needs it. Holmes is the opposite of a player like Ochi, as Tyrone plays better in space but struggles with power when he is engaged. To be reach his potential he will have to land with a team that understands his strengths (burst rushing when the scheme frees his release, i.e. stunts and loop rushes) and hides his weaknesses. There is no better team in the league for that than Seattle. The Hawks have a history with Montana LB's (current Seahawk Brock Coyle was a UDFA acquisition for them after spending his college career at Montana) and Holmes would be a low-cost option to audition in departed free agent Bruce Irvin's old role.
NOTE: WCG user LostInSTL has a thing for UCLA ‘backer Aaron Wallace but I won't steal his thunder... Lost will tell you all about him in the comments section.
- Steven Daniels, Boston College - I called Daniels a "poor-man's Reggie Ragland" on Twitter and am perfectly fine with sticking to that assessment. Although Daniels does not show Ragland's skills against the pass (Ragland has more ability there than you've been led to believe) he shows plenty of similarities in destroying run plays with crushing tackles. Steven is a force and he'd look very good on the inside of a 3-4 defense coming downhill against any foe trying to run the ball. Due to his lower profile he'll also be available at a fraction of the cost of Ragland in terms of draft capital.
- Deon King, Norfolk State - I spotted King last year while scouting another Norfolk State (NSU) player, Lynden Trail. Even on grainy and poorly lit game films King's prowess on defense shone through clearly. He upstaged his more famous teammate time and again. King is a tackling machine. He led all players in Division I with 14.8 tackles per game in 2015. Division I represents 254 total schools and Deon amassed more stops than any other player anywhere. As NSU is not sporting any other NFL prospects this year, King had to take his pre-draft show on the road to the Old Dominion and William & Mary's pro days last month. His 4.6 second 40 yard dash and impressive ability to track down ball carriers make him a terrific candidate for an ILB job with a team like the Bears; where he could learn behind newly-acquired starters Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.
- Antwione Williams, Georgia Southern - Another ILB candidate from a small school with impressive college production. Williams is a heady player who is solid against the run and in zone coverage. He stood out to me at the Senior Bowl for calling out shifts and diagnosing passing plays (correctly) from pre-snap reads after only a couple of days working with his teammates. He has work to do on technique but his frame (6'3", 245 pounds) and length offer plenty of raw tools to work with as a developmental prospect.
- Montese Overton, East Carolina - Deion Jones from LSU has had praise heaped on him since the very beginning of this draft cycle. He is an undersized LB (6'1", 222 pounds) with speed (4.59 40 time) who has some skills against the pass and as such is being proclaimed as a "modern linebacker". Meanwhile, Overton is an undersized LB (6'2", 223 pounds) with speed (4.61 40 time) who boasts impressive production (70 stops, 10 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks) and skills against the pass (7 passes broken up last season) whose name you probably have not heard once this year. For my money I'll take Overton as a 7th round pick or UDFA ten times out of ten over Jones in the 2nd or 3rd round.
- Nick Vigil, Utah State - If I told you there a was a linebacker in this year's' draft who had starts on both offense (as an RB) and defense (as an MLB) in 2014 you'd probably say that player was UCLA's Myles Jack. Jack played RB in 2014 (28 carries), but did not start. Nick Vigil did. While Nick's RB stats are not terribly notable (41 rushes, 152 yards and 3 TD's), his stats as an MLB are headline-worthy. He racked up 267 tackles and 30 tackles for loss over the past 2 seasons. He's not the athlete that Jack is (few are) but he is smart, productive and very tough.
- Kalan Reed, Southern Mississippi - If there was only a single player I highlighted as a sleeper on either offense or defense this year, Kalan Reed would be it. I will say this in all seriousness, once, and very clearly: if CB's Hargreaves, Jackson and Alexander are off the board I would have absolutely no issue with the Bears picking Reed in the 2nd round. None. He's that good. He checks every single box:
- Size: 5'11", 199 pounds
- Speed: 4.38 second 40 yard dash
- Explosiveness: 41.5" vertical jump (would have tied for the highest mark at the combine this year for any position)
- Ball skills: According to PFF "Reed either intercepted or broke up a pass with a deflection on 20.2 percent of his targets this past season - one of the highest rates in the nation". You read that correctly; Reed touched 1 out of every 5 throws that came his way last season. That's astounding.
There is simply no valid reason he is not being talked about as one of the earliest corners selected in this draft. Based on his tape and his testing results, there is no logical way to consider selecting a player like Artie Burns before Kalan Reed.
- Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State - Peterson is physically undersized (he is a thin 181 pounds at 5'10") but he does not lack confidence or aggression in his play. Kevin made my list when I was watching WR tapes. He played well against two of my favorite receivers in this draft; Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman. He held his own against Doctson (which is notable because Kevin gives up 4" and 22 pounds to Josh), but his game against Coleman really sold me on his skills. Corey beat Peterson early on for a long gain and it looked like the rout was going to be on, as it was in many of Baylor's games. But then a funny thing happened: this spunky, wiry corner, who was facing one of the most explosive WR's in the nation, manned up and played him to a standstill for almost the entire rest of the game. Peterson so frustrated Coleman with his persistently tough play that Coleman looked visibly defeated later in the game, and almost seemed to give up on some snaps. Peterson needs to add strength and learn to limit his physical contact downfield, but he certainly has the skills and all-around game to make several CB-needy teams in the league.
- Will Redmond, Mississippi State - Redmond is somewhat of a forgotten player after tearing his ACL last season. I heard an interesting comparison this week that made me re-think my early impression of Redmond:
Why aren't more draftniks talking about Will Redmond? He's Bradley Roby with a torn ACL. That's still a great prospect.— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) April 11, 2016
- Nick VanHoose, Northwestern - "Goofy" is a word I had in my notes regarding VanHoose, so how does he make a sleeper list? It's a style thing. Nick just moves semi-awkwardly on tape. He is not overly smooth but strangely it does not seem to affect his play that much. He gets where he needs to go and makes plays when he arrives. He just looks a bit unconventional doing it. Once you get past that you see a smart player with desirable size (6'1", 190 pounds) and good production versus quality opponents. I could see him as a nickel corner or even as a 3rd safety early on in his playing career. He's not much of a hitter but he gets guys on the ground.
- James Bradberry, Samford - I love a good small school corner and there are a few to choose from this year. Harlan Miller tops my list this season but he's been talked about a fair bit and many think Bradberry might end up as a better pro after the initial adjustment period to NFL competition. Bradberry has the size to attract the eyes of scouts (6'1", 211 pounds) but if he stays at CB he'll need a lot of work. His press coverage is unsure at best (he's more natural playing off or straight zone) and his footwork (the bedrock of solid corner play in the pros) is not pretty. Still there is enough there to work with that Bradberry will definitely be selected during the draft.
- LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah - Sims' teammate Miles Killebrew is getting all the buzz this year but don't sleep on LeShaun. He's got great size (6', 203 pounds) and uses it to excel at press man coverage. He's aggressive and pesky versus every WR he faces. His adjustment to NFL-level opponents will be significant but he showed well at the Senior Bowl against some of the top players in the nation, so he can do it. Sims fits the size and play style profile of corners that Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell have favored at their previous stops in the league.
- Justin Simmons, Boston College - Simmons is a terrific player who I believe is simply ranked way too low on most draft lists I see. His talent and production demand earlier consideration but he just doesn't get it. That's fine by me as long as the Bears brass isn't sleeping on his skills and can acquire him later on in the draft. His explosion and change of direction numbers from the combine drills are particularly notable: 40" vertical jump and 126" broad jump (both were top numbers for safeties in Indianapolis), 6.58 second 3-cone drill and 3.85 second 20-yard shuttle. All those numbers back up what you see on Justin's film: a quick, sure-handed player who is always around the ball and makes plays. Biggest bonus? He might be the best open field tackler in this draft.
- Kent London, SE Oklahoma State - London is a true sleeper but he won't be after he's drafted; and he will be drafted. He started as a junior college player and then played at Houston for one season before landing at SE Oklahoma State for his final 2 years. He moves very well at 6'1 and 215 pounds and hits like a ton of bricks. He picked off 5 balls last year so he has dual-threat skills as a safety. He could step right into the role of box safety for an NFL squad and cover TE's with his physical style of play.
- Okezie Alozie, Buffalo - Speaking of physical play styles, Alozie is a musclebound missile of a hitter. If you liked watching Jeremy Cash at Duke and wouldn't mind a player who makes a similar impact on (and behind) the line of scrimmage, Okezie is your guy. I also happen to think he is a slightly better coverage player than Cash. The real bonus is that Alozie will be available long after Cash is off the board.
- AJ Stamps, Kentucky - Stamps is not a flashy safety but definitely falls into the "solid" category and could be overlooked for some more physically imposing players in this draft. He's a nice coverage player and supports the run with intention. I think he fits as a 4th or 5th defensive back regardless of the scheme, and can do well contesting mid-range routes and backing the edge against wide run plays.