NFL Draft 2014: Analyzing Biggest Sleeper Candidates in Draft Class

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NFL Draft 2014: Analyzing Biggest Sleeper Candidates in Draft Class
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The 2014 NFL draft is deep at just about every position, so it will be easy for players to fall through the cracks and net a fortunate franchise some significant value well after May 8's first round is completed.

Sifting through the static and determining which players do indeed translate well to the pros is a difficult exercise, especially with so many talented prospects to choose from in this year's class. Since the modern game is driven more than ever by passing attacks, it's worth focusing on a couple incoming rookies who figure to bolster the aerial game for their future teams—and one who will try to stop them.

Sleepers in the 2014 draft won't drop due to their talents, but there will rather be differing needs that front offices will address earlier in the order. There is also such a fine line between so many players. But given the ability these sleepers have shown, the extra motivation that often comes with falling in the draft should only help them thrive in the league.

Below is a closer examination of a wide receiver, a cornerback and a long shot but nevertheless possible franchise quarterback.

 

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

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What a prospect does in college can only be taken into account to a certain degree. That is, unless we're talking about Matthews, who became the leading receiver in SEC history as a senior. He racked up 262 receptions and 3,759 yards—both all-time records in the best conference in the country.

The fewest number of receptions Matthews totaled in a game in his final season with the Commodores was five (twice). One of those instances came against Florida's stacked secondary, and the other was versus Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl. But Matthews had 143 yards on those five receptions. He also scored two touchdowns in closing out his career in Nashville with a 41-24 victory and a dominant individual performance.

NBC Sports' Josh Norris likes Matthews, though he doesn't feel he's worth a first-round pick:

Any criticism about a lack of elite speed should have been extinguished when Matthews blazed to a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Measuring in at 6'3" with massive 10.375" hands and weighing 212 pounds at Lucas Oil Stadium certainly helped his cause as well.

Yet there isn't much buzz surrounding Matthews even this close to the draft. Why? Are we missing something here? He has some of the surest hands in the nation, a big frame, strong route-running ability and put up as much production at Vanderbilt as any talent evaluator could have hoped for.

Matthews may be flying under the radar, but some organization is going to be thrilled when he falls into its lap on Day 2.

 

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska

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The Seattle Seahawks proved what having a tall, physical defensive backfield can do in Super Bowl XLVIII. With the right personnel and confidence, it can shut down even one of the most explosive offenses in league history, as it did to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

Jean-Baptiste fits the mold of a Cover 2 corner who is also big enough to play safety, with a height of 6'3" and weight of 218 pounds. Perhaps most impressive about Jean-Baptiste's combine performance was his 41" vertical leap, where he showed off just how much ground he's capable of covering.

Chris Peters of 247 Sports' Huskers Illustrated observed how ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. had Jean-Baptiste going to Seattle in Round 3, but then elevated him significantly in his next mock:

Last season at Nebraska, the versatile defensive back broke up 12 passes and intercepted four, proving Jean-Baptiste has the requisite ball skills to thrive in the NFL. Also, at 6'3", with the ability to high point the ball as a former receiver and his huge vertical, how many wideouts are going to beat him in a jump-ball scenario consistently?

Probably not many. That suggests a comparison to Seahawks superstar Richard Sherman, but Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller prefers Sherman's former teammate and current New England Patriot Brandon Browner:

Speedier receivers may get behind Jean-Baptiste from time to time, since he doesn't possess the fleetest feet or smoothest change of direction.

That won't matter too much, because his skill set gives him an amazing knack to recover and make up ground. Since he's also big enough to support versus the run, Jean-Baptiste should be more highly coveted than many of his peers at cornerback.

 

Tom Savage, QB, Pittsburgh

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The former Panthers signal-caller may be generating the most buzz of any second-tier quarterback prospect ahead of the draft. Savage played with a limited supporting cast at Pitt, mostly hampered by a bad offensive line and a meager running game.

Despite raw physical tools, questionable accuracy and a lack of production in college, it seems that Savage could go as early as Day 2. Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com—the site whose prospect rankings have the QB projected in the fourth or fifth round—had Savage going to the Houston Texans at No. 33 overall in a mock draft:

Gil Brandt of NFL.com provided his analysis on Savage's supposedly soaring stock, as did CBS Sports' Pete Prisco when he learned that Savage was invited to New York City for the draft:

Anyone who ascends so much this late in the process has to be considered a sleeper. Many didn't know who Savage was until the predraft hype and offseason began.

The importance on the quarterback position and the lack of surefire stars among the top prospects in this year's class also inflates Savage's profile. It should be mighty interesting to see just how bold teams are willing to be in taking on such a perceived project under center.

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Among this trio, it's pretty clear that Matthews is the most polished product and appears best suited to make an immediate impact. However, with big receivers like Matthews, there's a demand for players like Baptiste to match up with them on the outside. And for teams to take advantage of their sizable wideouts, they need a big-armed QB to stretch the field with them.

All three of these prospects are connected and, other than in the case of Savage's lack of mobility, project well to where the future of the game is going. None of them should creep into the first round, but they all possess the upside to produce at the level of those expectations within a few short years.

Deception and smokescreens go up at this late stage of the predraft formalities. There's nothing mysterious about these three, and there are plenty of other sleepers to keep fans tuned in to even the later rounds of this uniquely gifted draft pool.

 

NFL Scouting Combine results provided by NFL.com.

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