Sleepers to Watch at the NFL Scouting Combine

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 22, 2018

Sleepers to Watch at the NFL Scouting Combine

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The NFL Scouting Combine provides prospects with an opportunity to emerge into a full-fledged draft sleeper. 

    To do so, said prospects need to build on their 2017 college seasons and show the physical ability to make a smooth transition to the NFL. Most of all, they need to make a splash while establishing themselves among the other brighter names.

    Once the combine gets rolling on March 2, wide receivers like Korey Robertson and Jaleel Scott will look to draw attention by posting impressive test scores. Small-school prospects like running back Roc Thomas will set out to prove they can contribute quickly, while gifted athletes like tight end Ian Thomas will aim to demonstrate why they're intriguing even though their college production might not pop off the page.

    Here's a look at 10 such potential sleepers as we approach the combine, a time when overlooked prospects can catapult up draft boards with strong performances.

Darius Leonard, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    It was hard to forget Darius Leonard's name during the Senior Bowl. His number and name plate may have been a blur, but the linebacker was always hovering around the ball.

    The South Carolina State product pushed himself further into draft conversations after racking up 14 tackles at the Senior Bowl. He also showed his skill as a dynamic defender throughout the preceding week of practice.

    Leonard was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in two consecutive seasons to end his collegiate career. He earned that honor with 124 tackles (14.5 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in 2016, followed by 114 tackles (12.0 for a loss), 8.5 sacks and another two picks in 2017.

    During the Senior Bowl, Leonard's fluid movement and comfort in coverage stood out. He'll further look to showcase his athleticism at the combine.

    "Unlike most college linebackers who face guard most of the time, Leonard displayed defensive back-level ball skills," Tony Pauline of Draft Analyst noted following the Senior Bowl. "He easily ran with opposing tight ends or running backs both laterally and down the field, tracked the ball in the air and made good, clean pass breakups." 

    At 6'2" and 213 pounds, Leonard lacks a prototypical NFL build. His stature forced him to rely on versatility to make an impact, which is what he'll again look to do at the next level.

Roc Thomas, Running Back

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    Small-school prospects are typically ground zero for buried gems in most drafts. In this case, it's a former 5-star recruit who Auburn once hotly pursued, one who eventually thrived at Jacksonville State.

    Running back Roc Thomas escaped a crowded Auburn backfield for an opportunity at a lower level and some familiarity. At Jacksonville State, he reunited with John Grass, his high school head coach who moved on to the same position with the Gamecocks. That connection and Thomas' fit in the offense helped the versatile back churn out 1,309 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 2017.

    At 5'11 and 193 pounds, Thomas is nimble enough to maneuver around contact, yet he's also powerful enough to drive through it. His game film shows a confident runner up the middle who accelerates quickly to burst through the hole.

    "Thomas runs with outstanding balance, and his plus athleticism is apparent on basically every run," CBSSports.com draft analyst Chris Trapasso noted.

    Those athletic traits guided Thomas to a per-carry average of 6.0 yards in 2017 and five games with 100-plus rushing yards.

Kemoko Turay, Defensive End/outside Linebacker

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    Kemoko Turay's college career has years of nothingness sandwiched between two sharp rises. The Rutgers product now might be set to rise yet again.

    The 6'5", 252-pound defensive end soared as a freshman in 2014 for the Scarlet Knights, leading the team with 7.5 sacks as a reserve. That earned him freshman All-American honors, but he then recorded just four sacks over the next two years while missing time and battling injuries. He bounced back in 2017 while notching 60 tackles, easily a career single-season high.

    Turay's injury-induced inconsistencies in college make it difficult to evaluate him based on production. But his power as a pass-rusher is clearly evident while watching him in drills or on tape.

    Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting called Turay "unblockable" during the final day of Senior Bowl practice, adding the 22-year-old could have pushed himself up to early in the second round or even late in the first.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein was slightly more conservative in his draft projection, slotting Turay in as a third-round pick. However, he compared him to Yannick Ngakoue, which is high praise considering the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end has logged 20 sacks over just two seasons.

    He's an "explosive edge defender with the coveted traits of an NFL pass-rusher," Zierlein wrote. "Turay is still behind on feel and skill in that area and will need to develop a go-to move and a workable counter to beat NFL tackles. However, his ability to chase and tackle could translate right away."

Fred Warner, Linebacker

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    Fred Warner was one player of value amid a raging tire fire at BYU in 2017.

    Overall, the Cougars' woeful defense allowed 24.7 points per game. But Warner was the shining star, as he led the team in tackles with 87, marking his second straight year with 80-plus tackles. Over four years at BYU, he finished with 262 tackles, 32.5 of which went for a loss, along with 6.5 sacks, seven interceptions and 13 passes defensed.

    Warner has demonstrated quality instincts to excel both against the run and as a pass defender, giving him three-down potential in the NFL. His snagged a career-high three interceptions in 2016, but since BYU had him dropping back into coverage so often, there were some questions about Warner's run defense heading into the Senior Bowl.

    He quickly answered said questions. Jon Ledyard of NDT Scouting broke down Warner's practice film and marveled at how well he read and reacted to plays while trusting his instincts.

    "Once he sees an alley to get to the ball-carrier, Warner chooses his track quickly and explodes upfield into the runner," Ledyard wrote. "... The ability to play fast but not reckless is rare, but that's what Warner showed all week long. Throttle up and throttle down with ease."

    He covers a lot of ground quickly for 6'3", 230-pound linebacker, which should lead to eye-catching test results at the combine and a rising draft outlook.

Korey Robertson, Wide Receiver

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    Wide receiver Korey Robertson did more than break out in 2017. He took all of his previous single-season receiving highs and shattered them into pieces.

    As a junior, Robertson racked up 78 catches for 1,106 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, a scoring total that placed him among the top 10 in the nation. The prior season, he finished with only 37 catches for 437 yards and three touchdowns.

    Robertson's athleticism to win contested catches propelled that leap forward. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, he has the requisite size to be an imposing physical threat on the outside, too.

    In mid-January, Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller listed Robertson as one of his draft sleepers and gave him a third-round grade. Whether he rises further or falls rests largely with his 40-yard dash time at the combine. Teams want to know Roberson can separate, as putting his athletic ability to good use at the next level otherwise could prove difficult.

Kameron Kelly, Cornerback

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    Kameron Kelly is capable of being a hybrid defensive back after playing both safety and cornerback for San Diego State. That multifaceted skill always has appeal, especially with defensive coordinators often wanting to get creative and craving a movable chess piece for their weekly scheming.

    However, Kelly is best suited to be a cornerback. That's partly because of his 6'2", 200-pound frame, as he has both the length and bulk to match up well against the NFL's towering wide receivers. He also has begun to rise up draft boards as a corner because he's seemed more comfortable at the position and is capable of making game-altering plays.

    After switching from safety to cornerback in 2017, he notched a single-season high seven passes defensed. On 64 targets in coverage, Kelly allowed only 34 receptions, per Pro Football Focus. He became a secret weapon of sorts as a pass-rusher, too, recording two sacks and four pressures on only eight pass-rush snaps, according to PFF.

    Kelly finished his collegiate career with nine interceptions, seven of which came during his junior and senior seasons. At the end of 2017, Pauline projected Kelly could vault himself into the second round with a strong showing at the combine, which remains true. Having a combination of size and ball skills often will lead to your name being called early at the draft.

Ian Thomas, Tight End

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    Tight end Ian Thomas spent the first two years of his collegiate career at Nassau Community College. After his second season there, during which he notched 433 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 23 catches in eight games, he was rated as the nation's second-best JUCO tight end, according to Zierlein.

    When Thomas moved on to Indiana, he needed to work his way into a starting role at first, and injuries later held him back during his senior season. As a result, he finished with just 404 receiving yards and five touchdowns over two years with the Hoosiers.

    Thomas' lack of production at Indiana could work out well for a general manager looking for a bargain on an offensive weapon in the middle rounds. The 6'5", 250-pounder has an ideal NFL frame, one that will make him an imposing mismatch.

    "Thomas is among those who could come off the board earlier than expected on draft weekend," Draft Wire's Luke Easterling wrote. "With a solid frame that could still add some quality bulk, Thomas has the size and catch radius to frustrate opposing defenders."

    Thomas needs to demonstrate sufficient speed at the combine and the fluid movement to run precise routes and separate. If he checks off those boxes, he might climb out of the draft's discount bin.

Jaleel Scott, Wide Receiver

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    Jaleel Scott produces the sort of highlights that don't seem possible. 

    A prime example of his brilliance for New Mexico State came in Week 1 of the 2017 season. Scott was targeted at the back corner of the end zone against Arizona State, but the ball was thrown too high even for his giant 6'6", 215-pound frame.

    Or so it seemed at first. Then Scott skied with one hand to pull it in for a touchdown.

    He's an acrobatic, ball-snatching, single-man circus, and his height gives him an enormous catch radius. Those two attributes lead to automatic Alshon Jeffery comparisons, as the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver has made a career out of dazzling midair displays.

    Pauline labeled Scott as both a sleeper and "one of the hottest names in the scouting community" back in early November. Scott then finished the season with four 130-plus-yard games and 1,079 yards overall on 76 catches. He also scored nine times. 

    When a receiver has immense size, there's often an assumption he'll thrive in the red zone but may struggle with the speed and sudden movement to gain separation elsewhere. But as Trapasso highlighted while breaking down Scott's 2017 game film, the South Carolina native is surprisingly smooth in his route running.

Breeland Speaks, Defensive End

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    Breeland Speaks is more than just an on-field GIF creator. He's a powerful defensive end who can set the edge and pressure the passer.

    Speaks displayed those skills with the Ole Miss Rebels on his way to seven sacks in 2017 along with 61 tackles, both of which single-season career highs. The 2017 second-team All-SEC defender has an explosive first step that allows him to collapse the pocket consistently.

    Because of his power and speed combination at 6'3" and 285 pounds, Pauline believes Speaks could be used as a three-technique tackle or a two-gap defensive end. Whether NFL teams agree will rest largely with Speaks' combine measurements to confirm his height and weight, which places additional importance on that part of the proceedings.

    WalterFootball.com currently projects Speaks as a possible Day 2 talent, while Miller considers him a fourth-round pick.

Godwin Igwebuike, Safety

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    When Godwin Igwebuike isn't throttling receivers and ball-carriers, he can be found painting and singing. He is beyond well-rounded, though that may be viewed as a negative in a league that wants players to focus on football every waking moment.

    On the field, he's a classic hard-hitting safety. He unleashed plenty of punishment for the Northwestern Wildcats over four seasons, finishing his collegiate career with 324 tackles. A sizable chunk of those came in 2016, when he finished with a single-season career-high 108 tackles, six of which went for a loss.

    During that 2016 season, Igwebuike gave up just 26 catches on 46 targets in coverage, per PFF. He also allowed only two receptions that gained 20-plus yards.

    Igwebuike has a wide wingspan at 6'0" and 212 pounds, which will show up first during measurements and then again on the field when he shows off his explosiveness to break up contested catches. His burst contributed to seven interceptions and 23 passes defensed throughout his time at Northwestern.

    Igwebuike's best NFL fit early on likely will be as a box safety, putting his run-stuffing instincts to good use. Heading into the combine, Zierlein  projects him as a fourth-round pick and believes the 2017 second-team All-Big Ten selection eventually could develop into a solid starter.