NFL Draft 2011: Wake Up Guys! Finding the Top Three Sleepers at Every Position

Jake DContributor IIIApril 13, 2011

NFL Draft 2011: Wake Up Guys! Finding the Top Three Sleepers at Every Position

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    NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looks on as he stands on stage during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 22, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Finding a player that is truly special in a place that you certainly did not expect him is a very rare thing. Being able to find potential studs in a draft is truly an art. It's certainly not easy.

    Guys like Tom Brady, Vincent Jackson, LeGarrette Blount, Asante Samuel, Jason Taylor and Jared Allen are recent examples of studs found in the middle to late rounds that excelled when given an opportunity.

    Within every draft, there are truly great players that are underrated, and as a result, end up at the bottom of the draft. This year's crop is as good as other years. Any team that wants to take a chance on a guy could do worse than spend a pick on some of these guys.

    So without further adieu, I give you my thoughts:


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    CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 13:  T.J. Yates #13 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drops back to throw a pass against the Virginia Tech Hokies during their game at Kenan Stadium on November 13, 2010 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Ge
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Top Sleeper: T.J. Yates, North Carolina

    Let me make this perfectly clear. Yates is not going to wow you in any way. He's utterly average, in fact. However, given that he's average, there is very little lacking in his game. His accuracy has increased significantly as he's grown more experienced, he has solid arm strength, and his decision-making skills are about average.

    What makes Yates an exciting sleeper is that he could develop in just about any system. He may not be the franchise quarterback, but given the time and a little coaching, he could develop into a quarterback that can play in literally any offensive system.

    He shows tenacity and poise in the pocket, and while he may not be the league's top rushing quarterback, he would be able to use what an NFL defense gives him to work with. He throws a very pretty deep ball, and has good not great accuracy.

    While Yates' average-ness may be a problem for some, his intangibles make up for it, slightly. He was the unquestioned leader of a North Carolina squad surrounded with scandal and ridicule. He stepped up in a big way this season and deserves fifth or sixth round consideration.

    A sixth round pick for the next Shaun Hill isn't too shabby, is it?

    Best of the Rest:

    • Ricky Stanzi, Iowa
    • Greg McElroy, Alabama

Running Back

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    CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04:  Dion Lewis #28 of the Pittsburgh Panthers runs for a touchdown during the Big East Conference game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Nippert Stadium on December 4, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Pittsburgh won 28-10.  (Photo by
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Top Sleeper: Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh

    I love this guy. I simply can't state it any better.

    There's nothing about his game that doesn't scream "draft me!" to me.

    Lewis is a guy that was a walk-on at Pitt that went on to replace the vacancy left at the position after LeSean McCoy was drafted by the Eagles in 2009.

    Lewis did a more than admirable job, breaking the record previously set by McCoy for most points scored by a Pitt Freshman in the Big East Championship game in 2009, and tallied  17 rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown on the season.

    As if that weren't enough, he was the only freshman and one of four running backs named among 15 "Players to Watch" for the 2009 Walter Camp Player of the Year award. He was also among 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, and was one of ten semifinalists, and the only true freshman, for the Doak Walker Award.

    That's just his freshman year, one where he wasn't even given a scholarship.

    He continued on his successes in his sophomore campaign, and while taking a small step back, he was still an All-Big East Conference player, and at the beginning of the season was a Heisman trophy candidate. Some of his step back can be contributed to a coaching staff that relied to heavily on a broken passing game, led by a rookie quarterback.

    Oh yeah, he's also available in the fifth round. Crazy, isn't it?

    I think so, too.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State
    • Delone Carter, Syracuse

Wide Receiver

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    Top Sleeper: Vincent Brown, San Diego State

    Brown is a guy that's getting overlooked, as he has been given the "small school, weak conference" tag. While this may be true, Brown's skills shouldn't be overlooked because of his team's lack of recognition.

    Brown's true talent lies in his hands. He doesn't drop anything. He's very good at anticipating where the quarterback will throw the ball and is patient enough to wait. He has enough speed to get seperation from defensive backs, go over the middle and catch whatever is thrown at him.

    While he doesn't have elite speed, what he does have works very well for him as he managed to catch 64 balls for over 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010. He was a clear favorite of SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley, and with his hands, it's no wonder.

    Vincent Brown is a guy that I can easily see catching on (no pun intended) in the league. He is patient, has very good hands and can make plays from virtually nothing. He is a very intriguing prospect and one that could easily turn out to be the next Vincent Jackson.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Cecil Shorts III, Mount Union
    • Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State

Tight End

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    Top Sleeper: Julius Thomas, TE Portland State

    Before you stop and say "who?" and begin to laugh at me, take this into consideration.

    He was a walk on to the football team after being a standout college basketball player. With that in mind, let's look at two current NFL TEs; one was a rookie last season and one is an established veteran.

    The New Orleans Saints took a bit of a raw athletically talented tight end last season in Jimmy Graham, a former basketball player at "The U". In some dynasty fantasy football circles, some people used a roster spot nearly all season hoping this guy would get some playing time this season. After all, Shockey was getting old, and Drew Brees was at the helm, he seemed poised for a breakout year. It wasn't until week six that he saw the field.

    After a rookie season that brought him 356 yards and five touchdowns, he is an up-and-coming young prospect who was drafted in the late rounds of the draft. Some thought he wouldn't even make the roster, and he ended up making believers out of some skeptics.

    The other was Antonio Gates, who was a former basketball player at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Like Graham, Gates only played college football for one season but managed to make an impact in that one season. Gates is arguably the best tight end in the National Football League and is one of the great "Cinderella Stories" of the NFL Draft.

    This is what gives me hope that someone like Thomas can succeed. He is certainly athletic and has very soft hands, and while not completely involved in the offense, can boast a 15.6 YPC average and two touchdowns in his one season at Portland State.

    While the success of those that went before him doesn't necessarily mean that he will be, it certainly is credible to say that he COULD succeed. Any team that spends a pick in day three on this guy has a chance to find a truly talented guy for a low pick. Late round picks are mostly supposed to be low risk-high reward guys anyways, and Thomas certainly fits that criteria.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Schuylar Oordt, Northern Iowa
    • Stephen Skelton, Fordham


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    Top Sleeper: Jake Kirkpatrick, TCU

    Kirkpatrick is not receiving nearly the hype that fellow TCU lineman Marcus Cannon is getting, but that is more a testament to Cannon than it is to Kirkpatrick being a bad player. While he is going to be a relatively unfinished product, he has the potential to be a very good player in the league.

    He is a very solid run blocker and possesses good quickness and is above average at getting into position and sealing off the defender. While he lacks the overall "oomph" when he blocks, he shows a very quick first punch.

    The problem with Kirkpatrick is one that could be fixed rather easily within the league. He lacks overall strength in his blocks. His footwork and skill at playing the position are either above average or very good, but one of the areas scouts consistently list as a negative is his overall lack of upper body strength.

    An NFL strength and fitness program would be able to fix this relatively easily; it'd be a matter of him adjusting to the NFL pace, which I don't doubt he could do. Anyone that needs interior line depth in this draft is getting a deal on this guy in the sixth round.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Ryan Bartholomew, Syracuse
    • Kevin Kowalski, Toledo

Offensive Tackle

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    Top Sleeper: Benjamin Ijalana, Villanova

    Ijalana is a serious talent on the offensive line. He could probably play guard, but he's projected to play tackle, which is his natural position. Ijalana is a two time FCS All-American player and helped to anchor a line that did a great job protecting QB Chris Whitney. Villanova went on to win the FCS Championship due in large part to their solid offensive line, who was no doubt led by this guy.

    Ijalana is starting to get out of the "sleeper" category, as NFL teams are starting to project him higher on their draft boards, but I still think he's underrated.

    This guy has everything you could want in an offensive lineman. Bulk, speed and great handwork. He's a pretty finished project, and with a little NFL coaching and some TLC, I can see this big guy doing some great work in the NFL.

    We could be looking at a potential perennial Pro Bowl guy.

    Best of the Rest:

    • James Brewer, Indiana
    • Marcus Gilbert, Florida

Offensive Guard

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    Top Sleeper: Jah Reid, Central Florida

    Reid, like most of the guys on this list, suffers from the "small school/bad conference syndrome"; however, he, like many of them, is a very solid prospect. While he is a little raw in some areas, Reid is literally oozing with potential.

    Apparently, this guy showed up at UCF a 370-pound project guard coming out of high school. He went on to become UCF's most improved player and a two time All-USA conference selection at offensive guard. He anchored the line that helped Central Florida rush for a whopping 35 ground touchdowns last season, split between three backs. Most of these touchdowns came from the right side of the field, where Reid plays.

    Only Wisconsin has three running backs that have scored more than 10 rushing touchdowns each and that is a testament to the skill of the offensive line. He showed up to the combine in good physical shape, and while he didn't overly impress, he put up some solid numbers.

    He's projected to go in the last two rounds of the draft, and you couldn't ask for a better project than this guy; definitely a guy to look for come draft day.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Orlando Franklin, Miami (FL)
    • Justin Boren, Ohio State

Defensive Tackle

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    Top Sleeper: Jerrell Powe, Mississippi

    This guy looks like a freakish athlete. Some scouts are saying that he played better in 2009, but if you look at his tape, he was consistently double-teamed in 2010. This guy looks like a Coke machine with legs. While he looks more like a 3-technique nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, he'd be a solid plug and play guy.

    One of the big negatives is that he'd be a 24-year-old rookie. While he doesn't lack in leadership or tenacity, he would not be able to produce forever, and when you're a third round pick, teams would like to see you in the league for at least a decade.

    Other than that, there's really nothing I don't particularly like about the guy. He has a very high ceiling, and many NFL Scouts are comparing him to Jamal Williams. When you get a little complement like that, it's hard not to like a guy like him.

    He's a third-round pick right now but is part of the "sleeper" category because he is often overlooked and has nearly the ceiling that Hampton's Kenrick Ellis does. Definitely a guy to watch.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Sione Fua, Stanford
    • Terrell McClain, South Florida

Defensive End

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    Top Sleeper: Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh

    There is no way that Romeus should be available of the fourth round. This guy was a two time All-Big East player and was a much better pass rusher than teammate Jabaal Sheard, who is expected to be drafted in the second round.

    Romeus' career at Pitt came to an end when he injured his knee last season. He sat out most of the preseason and missed the first couple of games due to "personal issues", then he began experiencing pain in his back that was found to be a herniated disk. He was completely healthy coming back after surgery and intended to play the rest of his senior season (or what was left of it) before leaving his first game back with a torn ACL.

    With the exception of his senior year, Romeus has been a force on the Pittsburgh defense since his rookie season, when—despite not starting—he managed to account for 28 tackles and four sacks by himself. He took off from there, tallying 94 tackles and 15 sacks over the next two seasons.

    There is nothing about Romeus' game that isn't complete. He's an absolute steal as a fourth rounder and will likely outplay that drafting position once he is in the league.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Pierre Allen, Nebraska
    • Cliff Matthews, South Carolina

Outside Linebacker

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    Top Sleeper: Mario Harvey, Marshall

    While he played middle linebacker at Marshall, this guys talents translate more to an outside linebacker role in the NFL, at least in the 4-3 but he may be effective as an OLB in a 3-4 scheme as well. His speed and nose for the football are very good and he is a very underrated pass rusher, and can do so from any linebacker spot.

    Just watch his tape against Ohio State on YouTube. It seemed like every major tackle in that game he was a part of. He was constantly around the ball and his tackling is fundamental. While he didn't get any sacks on OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor, he did manage to be effective as a pass rusher, keeping pressure on the budding Ohio State star.

    While he is very good on running downs, he is a liability in pass coverage. His small wingspan and stiff hips give him limited range and mobility to be able to make a play in the passing game. He also lacks the top end speed (he plays a lot slower in pads than his 40 time would indicate) to keep up with some tight ends and most running backs, where he needs to become more effective.

    While his speed isn't elite, he does possess very good bulk, maybe in excess, and if Harvey were to sacrifice some bulk, he would most likely be able to get faster and not have to lug as much muscle on his frame, and it is all muscle.

    Harvey has a lot of things going right and few going wrong. He is among the quickest of all of the linebacker prospects in this draft at least as far as straight-line speed goes. Although he may not start this season, he is definitely a solid backup for any team that needs linebacker depth.

    At a seventh round price, you almost can't beat this guy. Definitely a lot of upside.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Brian Rolle, Ohio State
    • Jonas Mouton, Michigan

Inside Linebacker

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    Top Sleeper: Scott Lutrus, Connecticut

    I actually really like this guy. He's quick to shed blockers, make a tackle and takes smart angles to the ball carrier. He tend to rely on arm tackles when he gets beat, but he does a good job in space. He is a hard worker and was a leader on this year's Huskies defense.

    He does have an injury history, including a stinger that continued to pain him all last season, sidelining him for far too much time. While he does have lots of things he'll have to do in order to be a be starter in the league, he is a very good backup and has lots of experience playing the position.

    He has a bit of trouble blitzing, and as a result, isn't the best pass rusher (obviously) and has problems anticipating the snap. He is a little slow off the ball, but once the ball is snapped, he is quick to read the quarterback, diagnose the play and get involved, which is what you'd like to see in an inside linebacker prospect.

    Overall, this guy would be a solid backup and spot starter, but again, projecting him as a full-fledged starter wouldn't be smart, especially because of his injury history.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Ross Homan, Ohio State
    • Bruce Miller, UCF


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    Top Sleeper: Buster Skrine, Chattanooga

    This guy is a little rough, but man, is he speedy. Running a 4.37 40-yard dash and good closing speed make this guy an interesting prospect. Like some of the other prospects on the list, he does a lot of the little things right, but he's going to need some overall improvement.

    This guy is not only fast but has an extremely strong upper body as well. He put up 20 reps at the combine and reportedly was lifting 360 at the Chattanooga training facilities. He has good ball skills and extremely good field awareness.

    He helps out on running downs, and while not the best from tackler on the team, he can get a shoulder down and give a tailback a good pop. His speed, length and vision make him a very good return man option, and he returned one of his five interceptions this season for a touchdown.

    While he may have lots of good qualities, one of the things that really hurts him is his stats, or lack thereof. When you have a player that plays in a small school conference like Chattanooga, you'd like to see a guy that is a consistent and big producer. Skrine doesn't exactly have the numbers to back up his on the field skills, which is more than a little concerning.

    While his skills are still a bit rough, he has the potential to be a high-end No. 2 and a solid No. 1 option at corner.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Chimdi Chekwa, Ohio State
    • Cortez Allen, Citadel


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    CHAPEL HILL, NC - OCTOBER 11:  Deunta Williams #27 of the North Carolina Tar Heels waits on the field against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Kenan Stadium October 11, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Top Sleeper: Deunta Williams, North Carolina

    This might be one of the guys on the North Carolina defense that has been most forgotten about. I can't seem to understand why. He was a part of the alleged "agent scandal" at North Carolina and played all but four games this season.

    He sustained an injury at the Music City Bowl, which has hampered his offseason workouts, but that still doesn't make up for the amount of talent this guy has. He appears to have the whole package: very good coverage, he was a converted wide receiver and has solid ball handling skills and is good fundamentally when tackling.

    Other than his injury, there is very little that this guy is bad at. He at least has second, if not first, round potential. He had six interceptions and eight pass breakups as a junior, but had a pretty severe drop-off this season. However, he only played in nine total games.

    My mind is made up that if he gets drafted in the fifth (where he is projected) he will be a starter just about everywhere, and I've seen this guy on plenty of mock drafts going to the Patriots or Chargers, where he could definitely start.

    Best of the Rest:

    • Eric Hagg, Nebraska
    • Ahmad Black, Florida