Every year a late-round prospect or two emerges to become an impact player during his rookie season. Tom Brady, Marques Colston and, more recently, Alfred Morris have all defied the negative attributes bestowed upon them by draft experts and become leaders at their respective positions.
Fans always enjoy analyzing who will be the next Brady or Colston, combing through endless amounts of data on small school and otherwise overshadowed players to find the next gem in the NFL draft.
As Brady’s case shows, being from a small school is not the only qualification for being a sleeper in the draft. Players are looked over for a variety of reasons, ranging from size and speed to lack of competition in college or maybe just not being used the right way yet.
Not much of that matters when it comes to making an NFL team as a late-round player, as the only thing that will get you there is hard work and determination.
The following 15 players vary in shapes and sizes, but all have been discounted when it comes to making an immediate impact at the next level.
Brad Sorensen is one of the more intriguing quarterback prospects in the latter part of the draft this year. Sorensen found success as a three-year starter at Southern Utah after spending one season as a walk-on at Brigham Young University.
He put together quite a career at the FCS level by throwing for over 9,000 yards while averaging 20.3 touchdowns to only nine interceptions per season. His record with the Thunderbirds is not extremely impressive (17-16), but Sorensen led the team to wins over top-ranked Eastern Washington and No. 11 Northern Arizona, as well as playing California close until halftime.
He possesses the qualities NFL teams crave out of their project quarterbacks: a big frame and bigger arm. At 6’5”, Sorensen can see the entire field and is accurate—as long as he has time.
Sorensen is in a similar mold of Joe Flacco and John Skelton—a big quarterback who can throw a country mile but did not play against top competition in college. Although like Skelton, Sorensen will be victim to high sack totals because he is not as agile as Flacco.
Any team that takes a chance on Sorensen in the last few rounds will need to have patience as he continues to develop his decision-making skills and secondary reads. Sorensen is not a prospect who will be able to jump right into the NFL and start right away, but a few years behind a talented veteran could do wonders for the rocket-armed quarterback.
“Judging from what the scouts have been conveying to me, he has all the physical tools,” Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said to Steve Luhm of The Salt Lake Tribune. “It sounds like many of them believe his abilities transfer best to the NFL—for teams with a pocket-passing game.”
Miguel Maysonet’s path to the draft has been full of twists and turns, but he has the opportunity to be the first player from Stony Brook to ever be drafted. Maysonet began his college career with the now-defunct Hofstra football program and then transferred without penalty to nearby Stony Brook.
From the moment Maysonet stepped on the Long Island campus, he took control of the offense with a steady diet of hard-nosed running. A runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, given to the best player in the Football Championship Subdivision, Maysonet piled up over 4,500 yards on the ground in three seasons with the Seawolves.
Nothing quite stands out about Maysonet from a measureable standpoint, but the results he’s put on tape cannot be ignored. He ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in late March, but he reportedly looked much quicker during field drills, which would back up what scouts have seen on game tape.
Maysonet embraces contact and is one of those tough, in-between-the-tackles types of running backs that will constantly fight for extra yardage. Larger backs that fight for extra yards tend to have turnover issues, but Maysonet’s compact, muscular frame limits those issues.
Ace Sanders may have gone to a premier college football program, but he is far from a top prospect at his position. The diminutive Sanders racked up solid, but unspectacular numbers as a receiver with the Gamecocks before surprisingly declaring for the draft after his junior season.
Sanders may be banking on his final collegiate game, the Outback Bowl versus Michigan, which saw him claim the MVP award for the contest. He lit up the Wolverines defense with nine catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders also added a 63-yard punt return that he took to the end zone for good measure.
Standing at only 5’7”, Sanders is extremely small for an NFL-quality receiver, even for a player who primarily works in the slot. His size-speed combination makes him an above-average player in special teams, which would allow him to carve out more playing time at the next level.
That said, Sanders could still be a valuable commodity as an interior receiver if a team is willing to take that chance. According to John Pollard of STATS LLC, Sanders was one of only two players with a minimum of 40 targets to not drop a pass in 2012. Sanders had 73 balls thrown his way last season.
With solid speed and top-notch hands, a receiver-needy team would be wise to take a long look at the undersized Sanders.
Flipping to the opposite end of the spectrum, Marcus Davis is one of the biggest receiver prospects in the draft. He is also one of the bigger mysteries.
Davis has an NFL-ready body for a receiver at 6’3” and 233 pounds, but questions about his consistency on the field have led him to receive a low-round tag. Davis improved every season that he was in Blacksburg, including recording 51 catches for 953 yards as a senior with the Hokies. He led the team in all receiving categories except for touchdowns, but he still managed to pull in five scores.
Davis has a tough background story, which may have led to a lack of responsibility on and off the field, but teams may be willing to give the talented athlete a chance. Comparisons to Terrell Owens are spot-on considering Owens came from similarly tough beginnings and had a reported attitude problem coming out of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Davis is not as fast as Owens, but he possesses many of the same tools that made T.O. a great NFL receiver.
Late-round projects usually have one quality that has a team dreaming of great potential. For Joseph Fauria, that quality is height.
The nephew of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria, Joseph checks in somewhere between 6’7” and 6’8”, depending on who you ask. As a pass-catching tight end, the younger Fauria is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, especially in the red zone.
Fauria caught 20 touchdowns in three seasons with the Bruins, including an eye-popping 12 last season, which put him among the leaders in the Pac-12. He was expected to be a high-volume reception candidate entering his senior season, but he never became a consistent part of the offense despite his attributes.
Minus the speed, Fauria is scarily similar to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham when he was coming out of Miami a few years ago. The two players are exactly the same height and weight at the time they entered the draft, which makes Fauria an intriguing late find.
Do not be alarmed if you have never heard of Luke Marquardt or Azusa Pacific University, because you will not be alone. Azusa Pacific sits to the northwest of the Los Angeles metro area and is home to nearly 9,000 students. The Cougars compete in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, a NCAA Division II conference, against teams like Alaska-Anchorage and Central Washington.
Needless to say, Marquardt is not competing at the highest level of football in the country. However, one look at Marquardt would make anyone believe that he could compete at that level.
A converted tight end, Marquardt towers over his competition at 6’8” and 315 pounds, which allowed him to dominate at the D-II level. Marquardt has a freakish combination of size, strength and quickness that could make him a serviceable tackle with plenty of upside for greater things.
Aside from collegiate competition level, the other qualm about Marquardt’s game is inexperience and leverage on the line. Smaller defensive ends or bull-rushers can have success finding leverage underneath Marquardt’s mammoth frame and drive him back into the pocket.
One team is going to fall in love with Marquardt’s measureables, and he could be one of the best late gems in the fantastic offensive tackle draft class.
Edmund Kugbila is the second “small-school” offensive lineman to make the sleepers list—and with good reason.
Kugbila, a native of Ghana, was a major part of a Valdosta State offense that capped off its 2012 season with a dominating run through the D-II playoffs. Valdosta State won all four games in the bracket-style playoff by double digits, including the national championship game against previously-unbeaten Winston-Salem. The Blazers outscored their opponents 582-280 during their title season.
The underrated offensive guard punishes opponents with a 6’4”, 320-pound frame, which made him one of the premier run-blockers in Division-II this season. He has played all spots on the line besides center, but he projects to be a guard in the NFL.
Kugbila was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in March and performed well enough there to see his stock rise from UDFA-status to a potential late-round selection. He was named a Third-Team All-American as a junior and Second-Team All-American as a senior, according to d2football.com, being trumped only by his fellow linemate Ryan Schraeder.
Kugbila will likely struggle to make an active roster in his rookie season, but his intangibles alone make him worth a priority practice squad stash.
Gilbert Pena was the anchor for one of the most improved defenses in the country last season.
Ole Miss finished a dismal 2011 season with bad results on both sides of the football, but especially on the defensive end. Pena only started six games during his junior year in 2011, but was a full-time starter for the Rebels at nose tackle last season.
Despite posting 34 tackles and two sacks from the nose, Pena was not invited to either of the more prestigious postseason bowls for eligible seniors. Instead, he was selected to the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic at the Crampton Bowl Complex in Montgomery, Alabama. There, Pena shined during the week and capped it off with an impressive showing during the game itself.
Pena is about the size of your prototypical run-stuffer in the middle, standing at 6’2” and weighing 330 pounds with room for growth. He also has the non-stop motor that teams will be craving in the later rounds. His pro day at Ole Miss was status quo for him, but he did show good lateral quickness, which makes him an interesting talent in the middle of the line.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com had this to say about Pena:
He had a 24-inch vertical jump and a 8-foot broad jump. He also had 23 lifts of 225 pounds on the bench press. Pena could be selected as high as the seventh round in the 2013 NFL Draft, or be a priority free agent at the draft's conclusion.
Missouri Western could have quite a time in the draft this year with standouts like Division-II Offensive Player of the Year Michael Hill and teammates Ben Pister and David Bass all entering their names in the ring. All three players were All-Americans, according to d2football.com, but Bass has the chance to be the highest drafted of the three.
His round projections at the time of publication range from the fifth round to the seventh, with the slight chance of being a priority free agent. The odds of Bass falling all the way out of the draft are not likely, as his athletic upside is too great.
Bass was a four-year starter for the Griffons, which should immediately perk up some ears. He also is the school record-setter in career sacks and starts, with 39.5 and 50, respectively. He relied on 4.8 speed from his end spot to wreak havoc on Division-II competition, but scouts wanted to see how he would perform against much better offensive linemen.
Bass delivered results when matched up against talented players in the East-West Shrine Game, showing that he could play with the big boys.
Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com had this to say about Bass’ week in St. Petersburg, Fla.:
Bass dominated the Division-II ranks, bringing a productive resume to the NFL with 56 tackles for loss and 39.5 sacks over his career. And playing next to FBS-prospects in St. Pete's, he didn't look out of place with the quickness and hand strength to defeat blocks and find his way to the ballcarrier. Bass has room to refine his pass rush moves to be more effective, but he flashed in practice why he was able to be so productive in college.
Bass has the motor to be a pass-rusher in the NFL, but he does not have a set position at the next level. He could fit as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker, but there does not seem to be a consensus on either position.
Due to that, Bass is a bit of a risky selection any earlier than the late fifth round. Whoever gets their hands on him after that could be getting quite a steal, though.
Brandon Hepburn is a player from the FCS ranks who does not strike you as an incredible player right away. Hepburn is not extremely fast—with a 4.55, 40-yard time—but he has a nose for the football at his inside linebacker spot. He is an explosive athlete that looks the part when surrounded by his peers at higher levels of competition.
Hepburn is deceptively quick in coverage and turns his hips rather fluidly for a late-round prospect, which could make him an instant depth contributor, as well as someone who can carve out a niche in specialty passing packages.
During his senior season, Heburn was asked to do a little bit of everything. He finished first on the team in sacks (5.5) and second in tackles for loss (9.5), as well as passes-defensed (seven). His ability to be an inside blitzer on one play and a good man in coverage the next is what makes him a valuable commodity at the next level.
Heburn also has the size and athleticism necessary to keep up with bigger tight ends in the NFL, standing at 6’4” and 240 pounds. He is a big thumper in the middle of the defense who will wrap up his assignment without extra yardage on most plays.
He will likely begin his career as a special teams ace, but do not be surprised to see Hepburn become a contributor on an NFL defense in the near future.
Vernon Kearney is another Division-II All-American who will be a late-round pick because of where he played instead of how he played. If you rank Kearney based on size, potential and pure athleticism, he would be somewhere in the top half of the draft. Instead, Kearney will be lucky to hear his name higher than the seventh round.
At 6’2” and 185 pounds, Kearney packs a bit of a punch from his corner spot. He was asked to cover opponents’ No. 1 receiver all season long, and he shut down a new player every week.
The size is something that NFL executives are craving, but the size-to-speed ratio that Kearney possesses is what should really have him higher in projected draft rankings. Kearney recently ran a 4.45 at the Tennessee-Martin pro day, which is very good considering his size.
With that speed, Kearney is also an extremely smooth athlete. He backpedals with ease and can get out of his breaks quickly to make plays that are initially 10 yards away from him. He combines those assets with sound tackling technique and is very good at jarring balls loose from receivers by using his big frame to initiate contact.
Kearney may be better suited as a safety eventually, but he performed well enough at his pro day to be drafted as a corner.
While B.W. Webb and Robert Alford have stolen the small-school limelight, Charles James has quietly put together a nice offseason for himself.
James walked on at Charleston Southern after being very lightly recruited as a 2-star athlete out of the Jacksonville area. Coaches immediately liked what they saw from the small corner, according to an interview with NFL Draft Zone's Damond Talbot, and he saw plenty of playing time in his first two seasons with the Bucs. He finished his four-year career with 12 interceptions, returning one for a touchdown during his freshman season.
After being snubbed by the combine committee, James went to the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic and looked like one of the best corners in Montgomery. There was concern about whether James could play against wide receivers from better competition considering his 5’9” size, but he answered all questions during the all-star week of practice.
James has played well against the handful of Division-I teams he has seen in his four-year career. He picked off E.J. Manuel and almost returned it for a touchdown against Florida State, also picking off two passes in a game against Hawaii.
The main area of concern with James is obviously his size. Small, quick-twitch corners are not as common in the NFL as they once were because of the size of receivers. James did not see many towering receivers during his time in the FCS level, which means that he would probably have to kick inside as a slot corner.
Still, James provides value with extremely good hands and a great vertical for a player his size. He also was an above-average punt returner in college, where he used the same vision that gave him so many turnovers during a four-year career.
There is plenty of need for a guy that can run a 4.4, 40-yard dash combined with good technique from the corner spot.
Saying that Cooper Taylor is a gigantic safety would be an understatement. The 6’4” Richmond product is one of the largest secondary prospects in this year’s draft. Taylor is a transfer from Georgia Tech, where he was named Second-Team All-ACC by Rivals.com during his freshman season. After being diagnosed with a rare disorder, Parkinson-White Syndrome, Taylor decided to sit out a year and transfer to Richmond.
There Taylor would go on to be a star for the Spiders. He recorded 141 tackles in his final two collegiate seasons and had seven takeaways as a senior—four interceptions and three forced fumbles—that led to him being named an All-FCS player.
Taylor has a lot going on for him as a football player despite not being a combine invitee this past March. He has the ability to diagnose plays quickly from center field and often comes down in the box to deliver punishing hits on ballcarriers. His football IQ and instincts are top-notch.
Teams may be worried about his lack of top-end speed, but Taylor did run a 4.49 at the Richmond pro day in 35-degree weather last week. A time that fast, combined with his size and other attributes, could make him a scary steal in the seventh round.
Said Gil Brandt of NFL.com:
Coaches worked Taylor out as a linebacker. His official position will be strong safety, but he's one of those guys who could possibly bulk up and play outside linebacker. Reminiscent of Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks.
Rontez Miles is another player who has taken an interesting path to the draft. A heavily recruited player coming out of high school, Miles elected to play with his brother at Kent State. He was kicked off the team for drug charges, which were later dismissed, but issues like this have been bad omens for talented players in the past.
Miles had an outstanding career for the Vulcans with 11 career interceptions and was twice named an All-American in Division II. He showed good range and athleticism at Cal-Pa, but needs to get better with his reads.
“Miles cheated up at the small-school level and relied on his natural athletic ability to make plays, which will not work in the NFL,” said Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller in his 2013 NFL Pro-Projections series . “He has got to refine his technique, but from an athletic standpoint there is quite a bit to like.”
If Miles can work through his coverage issues and be coachable at the next level, then he has the chance to be a great free safety in the NFL.