With the explosion of media coverage focused on the NFL Draft over the past 5 years 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. Even casual fans of the NFL can be found mouthing the names of WR's slated to go off the board in the 5th or 6th round. 10 years ago with much less coverage and difficult access to raw scouting information, that kind of thing simply was not possible for the average observer.
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 a player currently slated to go in the 4th who really should be closer to the 1st, or a player marked as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) prospect who is definitely worth spending a later-round selection on to secure his services. So 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 offense in the NFL.
- Jake Coker, Alabama - How does the QB of the National Champion make a "sleepers" list? It all comes back to the notion of getting less credit than he deserves. Coker has played behind two 1st round NFL QB's (EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston) and the 3rd player he followed in college (when he arrived in Alabama) also plays as a professional QB (albeit in the CFL - that would be the Alabama single-season passing yards record holder, Blake Sims). That's amazing. Jake's got great size (6'5", 236), a solid if not spectacular arm, underrated athleticism in the pocket and improved every game of his only season as the Tide's starting QB. He peaked in the National Championship game and if scouts were smart, they noticed. I think he has a higher professional ceiling than another of his Alabama predecessors, AJ McCarron, who got some starts for the Bengals last year when Andy Dalton went down.
- Jeff Driskel, Louisiana Tech - Driskel is another player who started out in Florida (Driskel was in Gainesville, while Coker launched in Tallahassee) but had an up and down experience with the Gators. He took a medical redshirt after he broke his leg and eventually transferred to Louisiana Tech for his final campaign. He tore up Conference USA in his single season as the starter, earning Newcomer of the Year honors for posting over 4,000 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions. Driskel is a stunning physical specimen. At 6'4" and 236 pounds he ran the fastest 40 of all the QB's at the combine (4.56 seconds). That's faster than the time reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton posted when he tested at the combine. He's got plenty of arm and just needs to work on his deep ball accuracy. Despite all that success and his impressive physical gifts you do not hear Jeff's name mentioned with the top signal callers in this draft.
- Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky - While Coker and Driskel are tremendous physical talents Doughty found his FBS-leading production through other means. He is 6'3' but is only 213 pounds and lacks the arm strength of a passer like Driskel. Despite that, in the last two seasons leading Western Kentucky he racked up a staggering 9,885 yards passing, 97(!) TD's and a 71.9% completion percentage. That folks is much more than a "game manager" or a "system QB". He will have to overcome questions about his past injuries, lack of deep ball strength and age (he was in college for 6 seasons total - getting a medical redshirt year after spending the better part of 2 seasons injured), but he could certainly find success as a backup given some time to develop.
- Mike Bercovici, Arizona State - If you are a Sun Devil fan you know what Mike Bercovici can do. He's got amazing arm talent and is not afraid to let it rip. That is both the best and worst part of his game. His inconsistency is maddening on tape; one amazing throw followed by another more routine toss that is nowhere near its target. The thing to remember is that early scouting reports on guys like Brett Farve read exactly the same way. If Bercovici can land in a spot with a QB coach who can drill some consistency into his footwork and throttle back his decision-making, Mike could end up being a steal in this draft. If he can't clean up some of his flaws in a hurry, he'll never make a squad. Pure boom or bust.
- Josh Woodrum, Liberty - Josh played for head coach Turner Gill at tiny Liberty University. Based on Gill's success as a running college QB at Nebraska you might think Woodrum is a runner, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Liberty found success with this pure passer at QB. Woodrum was one of the QB's invited to the combine as a "thrower" for all the drills. He spent a lot of time tossing footballs in front of every scout in the league and many of them took notice of his arm. He has some decent physical skills but will need to develop the mental side (pocket presence, route progressions, full field vision) to succeed at the next level.
- Jonathan Williams, Arkansas - Maybe it's a case of "out of sight, out of mind" but after watching Williams on tape this past weekend he is not getting nearly the hype he deserves. He easily shows top-5 ability at the RB position if healthy (he missed this season with a foot injury). He got great news this week with a full medical clearance heading into the medical rechecks later this month. If his foot clears with flying colors expect Williams to make noise immediately as a starting-caliber back in the league next season. He has subtle feet that he uses to set up defenders, great vision, and immense power he employs to churn for extra yards on almost every play. He's a gifted and forceful runner.
- Kelvin Taylor, Florida - Not quite as flashy as his old man (Jaguar great Fred Taylor) Kelvin has a well-rounded set of skills as a back. While he may not be the one-back solution that some teams are looking for, he shows more than enough proficiency in all areas to be a contributor as a sub early in his career. That could easily grow into a larger role if he is able to produce like he did while he was at Florida. Best trait? Ball security: he never fumbled once in over 500 carries in college.
- Dwayne Washington, Washington - No I didn't stutter, Dwayne Washington called the University of Washington home for his college career. He is a target for teams that value raw athleticism over production. He's the RB version of Bercovici: inconsistent. Dwayne has excellent size (6'2", 226) but he runs small like a change-of-pace back. He doesn't show much patience in letting plays develop, but if he hits a seam he is more than willing to flash his 4.4 speed. He has very few carries on his frame but still struggled with injuries. A definite long shot, but one who flashes enough athletic potential he could get a UDFA invite.
- Deandre Washington, Texas Tech - Built like the proverbial fireplug (5'8", 204) this Washington forged a serious role in the ground game on a team that is known for airing it out. He is dangerous and productive. Runs bigger than his size and can contribute both as a runner and a pass catcher (385 receiving yards last season). Particularly effective in the screen game as he accelerates very quickly. May struggle with blocking at the next level but is a candidate to become a successful smaller runner like Devonta Freeman of the Falcons.
- Devon Johnson, Marshall - Massive runner (6', 238) who plays with a legitimate angry streak. Not overly impressive at doing all the little things successful RB's need to at the pro level, but could be an interesting offensive weapon as a moveable matchup problem. If he bulks up just a little and finds a team that can alternate his usage as blocker (his vicious streak shows up regularly in this role) and a short yardage runner/receiver he could be very dangerous; especially around the goal line.
- Daniel Lasco, California - Lasco reminds me of a Derek Henry-lite. He's not as good as the Heisman winner but displays a similar running style, with straight-ahead speed and not a ton of wiggle. On tape he looks much more solid than his listed weight of 209 pounds. Not sure if he could add more mass, but if he was able to I can see him in a hybrid RB/FB/H-back role. That would allow an offense to hand off to either back in the backfield or split Lasco out wide and have him try to exploit slower linebackers in space (Lasco clocked a 4.46 40 at the combine).
- Derek Watt, Wisconsin - If the name/school combination sounds familiar, yes; he is JJ Watt's little brother. He's listed as a fullback but Derek does a little bit of everything, which will help him stick on an NFL roster. He doesn't get as much attention as "Little Gronk" (Glenn Gronkowski) does but he may be a better player. Best hidden skill that could be his ticket to success? He's a long snapper.
- Quinshad Davis, North Carolina - I wrote about Davis last week and really think he is one of the best players to have slipped through the cracks in the leadup to this draft. If he landed on the Bears as a late-round pick (or even better as a UDFA) I would be genuinely excited.
- Michael Thomas, Southern Mississippi - Thomas got a bump in coverage early in the draft season but it seems to have waned a bit as other receivers have risen up lately. I see Thomas consistently ranked near the bottom end of draftable players, which is patently ridiculous. His tape shows a gifted boundary receiver with all of the skills to ascend to a starring role in the NFL in due time. Add a little bulk to his frame, polish up his press release moves a touch and you can have yourself a starting wideout in the 6th round or later.
- Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa - Garrett is another name you just don't hear often enough given his production on tape. He is a load as a WR at 6'3" and 220 pounds and he knows how to use it. He's been derailed twice by injuries in college, but put it all together as a senior to lead the nation in reception yards with 1588. Interestingly, I found him watching cornerbacks. If a team played Tulsa, Garrett was the guy putting up big plays against their CB's time after time. His 28 catches of 20 yards or more this season is an eye-popping stat. He's a long strider who loves the long ball. He's not polished, but if he stays healthy he could be a Martavis Bryant-like weapon in the right offense.
- Chris Moore, Cincinnati - Moore is a beast plain and simple. He's not flashy or particularly quick but he wins down the field. He's tough and unafraid to claim the contested catch. Moore has exceptionally strong hands and uses them to create big plays on a regular basis. He was also one of the best blocking WR's during the Senior Bowl week. More a vertical threat than anything else right now, Moore could be a surprise big-play contributor out of the slot for a team that takes a chance on him.
- Reggie Diggs, Richmond - We are on a roll with big lanky receivers who sport impressive catch radii, so let's just keep it going with Diggs. Reggie is another athlete with an uncanny knack for making catches with defenders draped all over him downfield. It's a good thing too as he is not able to create much separation with his speed or route running. Despite those limitations he made big play after big play for the Spiders this season.
- Jordan Payton - Is there a more perfect athlete name for Chicago than "Jordan Payton"? I think not. Regardless of that this former Bruin can play. He's overshadowed by many receivers in this draft who have a couple of outstanding traits but it's his all-around game that makes me think Payton can be a productive pro. He's got good size, runs nice routes, has capable hands and was very productive at UCLA. His yards-per-target stats were pretty low but that had a lot more to do with the UCLA offense and quarterbacking that it did with his skills. He reminds me of Mohamed Sanu with a little better burst once he takes off. I'd draft that skillset in the 5th or 6th round any day of the week.
- Canaan Severin, Virginia - I talked up this productive senior Cavalier in Draft Bytes last week, but he bears mentioning again. With some fine tuned route running and a consistent pro QB to work with Severin is worth at least a spot on the practice squad if not an active slot on a receiver-needy team.
- Casey Martin - The Golden Eagles had some excellent receiving options last season. Casey's running mate Michael Thomas made the list above, and Martin sneaks on in part due to his teammate's success. When scouts start scouring tape of little-known prospects, occasionally one of their counterparts flashes on film enough to distract even the weariest viewer. Such is the case with Martin. Despite weighing in at only 175 pounds and playing in Thomas' very large shadow, Casey racked up over 900 yards receiving, 7 TD's and averaged almost 12 yards per catch last season. Though small in stature he's big on talent and could do damage from the slot in 4 or 5 WR sets to start off in the pros. He also returned a few punts and versatility sells in the NFL.
- Marquez North, Tennessee - This week I heard North described as the guy you pick first in flag football, and that's mostly accurate. Marquez is a player who is long on traits and short on production. North looks the part at 6'2" and 223 pounds with long arms and big hands. Coming out of high school he was a top-10 rated WR in the country. His receiving numbers started off well as a freshman and he looked poised for big-time SEC stardom, but they declined every year after. He struggled with injuries each year in college and the luster he had entering Tennessee faded as he did. North has great hands but can struggle with beating the jam. If he can regain full health and learn to use his excellent speed (4.42 40 time) and impressive catch radius he could be tremendous redemption story. As it stands he'll be lucky to get drafted before the last round and may have to work through the UDFA process to find a chance with an NFL team.
- Jared Dangerfield, Western Kentucky - Dangerfield is the kind of hard working player who it's difficult not to root for. He persevered through family tragedy and the Junior College circuit to land a spot as receiver on Brandon Doughty's Western Kentucky squad and hasn't stopped working since. He's not the most polished, talented or productive player on the field but he just might be the hardest-working. He can make pretty plays on the ball but he always finishes strong and looks like he was hungry for more, no matter what he gained. He makes his mistakes at full speed and I can see a special teams coach somewhere in the league falling in love with his style and working to make him into the next great gunner on punt coverage. He may never make the Pro Bowl but you'll root for him based on his effort and intensity every week.
- Austin Traylor, Wisconsin - I spotted Traylor in a Badgers game on TV last fall while getting a haircut at my local barbershop. Scouting never sleeps folks. Traylor made 2 nice catches and I thought "He looks pretty good... who is he?" I looked him up when I got home and the reason I'd never heard of him was because he just didn't touch the ball very much. Those 2 catches were his only receptions of the game and a significant part of his 14 total grabs for the entire year. Like a lot of Big 10 TE's he just doesn't get used in the passing game very much. To his credit he did score 4 TD's on those 14 grabs, so he knows how to work the open spots in the endzone. Playing for Wisconsin he also certainly knows how to block and is fairly well built to do so (6'4, 245). Traylor won't blow you away with his athleticism but he moves well. He ran a 4.81 at the Badger's pro day which would have put him 7th at the combine for TE's, right behind Beau Sandland. On a TE-needy team like the Bears, snagging a player like Traylor to develop in the UDFA process would be a low-risk high-reward move for GM Ryan Pace.
- Temarrick Hemingway, South Carolina State - If you are looking for a raw athlete with good size and a ton of developmental potential at TE you can stop looking. Hemingway is 6'5", 244 pounds, has 34 inch arms capped off with 10" hands, ran a 4.7 second 40 and bested all the TE's at the combine with a 6.88 second 3-cone drill. In short, he's big and he can move. He's an easy strider and a hands catcher so there's definitely something there to work with.
- Ben Braunecker, Harvard - If Braunecker played in the SEC we'd be hearing his name with a lot more regularity. He's a heck of an athlete and has decent size as well (6'3", 250 pounds). If you want to see something impressive visit his NFL combine page and note that he has a star next to EVERY result; denoting that was a top-3 performer in every drill for the TE group. Every one. I don't think I've ever seen that before. He'll have to adjust to the level of competition but his athleticism and relentless play indicates that he can.
- Beau Sandland, Montana State - Sandland is a funny case of a highly recruited player who went to a top program (Miami) but things just didn't work out. Then he transferred to Montana State (largely because his father had moved nearby) and everything clicked. If the 6'6" 260-pound Sandland had stayed on starred at Miami we might be talking about him as a top pick. Instead this athletic marvel will likely be chosen at least 2 rounds later and could become one of the true steals of the entire draft.
- Darion Griswold, Arkansas State - Griswold is living proof of the importance of an all-star game invite for small school players. Nobody was talking about him prior to the East-West Shrine game but plenty of people (including Mike Maycock) were afterwards. Griswold is very raw and has a lot of work to do both as a blocker and a receiver, but showed enough athleticism and promise that some team is very likely to spend a late round pick on him as a project TE. That never would have happened if he hadn't flashed on the field in Tampa.
- David Morgan, Texas-San Antonio - Morgan reminds me of another Texas TE who was a focal point of his team's game plan, had good size and lacked blazing speed on film: Jace Amaro. Amaro has done alright for himself with the Jets (when he hasn't been injured). Is Morgan next in line?
- Rico Gathers, Baylor - 6'6", 275 pounds and can move in hurry while tracking a small round ball in the air. Job description for a TE right? Baylor Basketball power forward Rico Gathers thinks so and has been lining up visits with NFL teams for the last month or so, despite not having played organized football since he was 14. If you start laughing at that last sentence, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham would like to have a word with you. Stranger things have happened.
- Parker Ehinger, Cincinnati - Ehringer is another player who forced his way on to my radar screen during the Shrine game week. Reports indicated he won more battles than he lost and was a quick learner; both great qualities for interior O-lineman to have. Parker is a solid technician who will be drafted.
- Joe Thuney, North Carolina State - Thuney has impressive versatility, having played all 5 positions on the Wolfpack's O-line. Although he is a bit of a "tweener" physically (arms are too short for an OT and lacks some core strength for an OG) he still seems to handle the man across from him regularly. There is just something about him. He's smart enough to play center but may end up being a very valuable multi-position backup on an NFL roster.
- Ted Karras, Illinois - This Illinois product had a terrific week at the Shrine game and really opened a lot of people's eyes not only to his own talent but to the potential of his teammates. Many observers overlooked the Illinois program as a talent pool due to their lack of team success. Ted's grit and solid play during the practice week started more than a few conversations and rechecks that led scouts to rethink players like WR Geronimo Allison, DE Jihad Ward and RB Josh Ferguson.
- Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas - Quick tip: When there are 2 running backs slated to get picked off the same college team in the same year in the top half of the draft... start looking at their OL for future NFL players. Tretola opened up a ton of gaping holes for Jonathan Williams before he hurt his foot and plenty more for Alex Collins after he stepped into the lineup and ripped off tons of impressive runs this year. Odds are Sebastian will keep on doing the exact same thing for an NFL franchise next fall.
- Joe Dahl, Washington State - When good players end up on teams that struggle they can be easily overlooked in the vast sea of college football. Dahl qualifies in that category as the Cougars have struggled through several seasons now. Don't let that flavor your opinion of this skilled trench practitioner. Dahl is a very solid run blocker even though WSU is focused on the passing game. Another tough player who gets the job done over and over again, despite lacking "ideal" measurables. As an aside Dahl might have the most massive set of shoulders in this year's draft. He looks like he could snap a small tree in half without using his knee.
- Austin Blythe, Iowa - The University of Iowa and offensive lineman go together like corn and butter: when you see one you expect the other. Blythe is one of those sneaky centers who come from a wrestling background (at Iowa? Shocker) and don't seem to do much on film but almost never get beat. It is all about efficiency, patience, hand placement and angles with Blythe as he is a bit undersized. If you're smart you won't bet against him. I'd wager he ends up having a long career.
- Kyle Friend, Temple The NFL.com scouting report on Friend is football poetry; calling the former Temple center a "Cinder block of power and toughness". Who doesn't want that lineman on their team? Combine that with his reported 46 repetitions on the bench during off season training and you've got a legitimate badass on your hands. Kyle plays with a mean streak and was a team captain 3 times. Remember Temple is in Philly... a town that does not suffer fools or weaklings well. Friend will find a spot on an NFL roster and then dare somebody to knock him off of it. Not sure I know anybody foolish enough to take up that challenge.
- Joe Haeg, North Dakota State - More of a zone blocker and pass protector at this point but has experience playing both tackle spots and is very athletic at 6'6". That's a perfectly nice canvas to start painting a capable future NFL tackle on.
- Spencer Drango, Baylor - Many analysts are predicting Drango will have to move inside in the NFL but I am not so sure. I think he might beat the odds and take snaps at tackle as a backup. Why? Baylor plays some pretty talented teams and passes a ton. Despite that combination Spencer gave up zero sacks and only 6 pressures for the entire season. Some guys can make good things happen on a football field and for most of the Senior Bowl he looked like one of them.
- Dominique Robertson, West Georgia - Standing at a massive 6'5" and 324 pounds Robertson has the necessary frame to play tackle just about wherever he wants. Unfortunately for Div. 2 pass rushers he decided he wanted to play at West Georgia. He simply tormented his less-talented foes all season. Raw but packed with physical upside, Robertson is likely to get drafted.
Next week Draft Bytes will dig deep for players on the defensive side that are still running under the radar.