The 20 Biggest NFL Rookie Sleepers

Robert HoffmanCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2011

The 20 Biggest NFL Rookie Sleepers

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    With all the trades, veteran cuts and free agents switching teams, it's pretty easy to forget about the primary mechanism by which most NFL teams actually improve their rosters.

    The draft.

    In a recent chat I had with a former NFL employee who worked with the salary cap, he mentioned that on average, 28 players on a 53-man roster are ones drafted by the team. The more successful teams will have closer to 40 players they drafted on the roster.

    Why? Because, for every accrued year of service a player has, he gets a higher base salary. So a backup offensive tackle with seven to nine years service might make roughly double the minimum yearly salary that a backup offensive tackle with just one year of service might make.

    The bottom line is this: If a team doesn't draft well, it will likely have to sign and acquire more veteran free agents to fill the roster. Therefore, are more likely to be up against the cap limit.

    That is why "sleepers" "steals," and undrafted free agent success stories are so imperative and coveted.

    Here is one guess at 20 NFL rookie sleepers who just might be ready to awake and impress their teams.

1. Greg Jones, LB, New York Giants

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    At 5’11", 240 pounds, this fifth-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft doesn’t look like an NFL linebacker. He is also not the fastest player on the field and won’t win any training camp competitions due to his physical attributes.

    What he will do is make play after play. In the mold of the former Miami Dolphins standout Zach Thomas (incidentally, drafted in the same round), Jones is an instinctive football player who knows where to find the ball on virtually every play.

    Despite his frame, Jones didn’t miss a game in college and that durability might be very appealing to a New York team that often seems to have a waiting list of players seeking medical treatment. 

2. Curtis Brown, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    There has been a silent debate among scouts as to which former University of Texas cornerback—Aaron Williams or Curtis Brown—is the better NFL prospect.

    The thought here is that it’s Brown. The Steelers third-round pick has excellent speed, good instincts and is a better overall athlete than his former Longhorn mate.

    He also steps into an ideal setup in Pittsburgh where even though Ike Taylor chose to re-sign, Bryant McFadden is far from a lock to start on the other side. Learning how to be an NFL defensive back from that Polamalu guy at safety won’t hurt either.

3. Rob Housler, TE, Arizona Cardinals

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    There are tight ends that I liked better in the draft than Housler, but so much of a rookie’s success in the NFL is about how he fits in the with the team. The tight end position was a huge weakness for the Cardinals in 2010 and offered virtually nothing in the passing game.

    Well, Arizona has a new quarterback in Kevin Kolb and it’s no surprise to most fans that a reliable tight end is a young signal-caller’s best friend. Mind you, Larry Fitzgerald won’t exactly hurt Kolb’s confidence either.

    Still this surprise third-round pick at 6’5” and 228 pounds is more receiver than tight end, and while he won’t help the running game, he figures to catch his share of passes.

    Update: Arizona signed former Ravens tight end Todd Heap, so Housler might have to wait a little bit for his opportunity.

4. Charles Clay, TE/FB/RB, Miami Dolphins

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    It’s no secret that late-round picks really need to find a niche for a roster spot. So, it’s not surprising that the more a player can do, the better his chance for success.

    Meet Charles Clay.

    The sixth rounder from Tulsa played tailback, fullback, tight end, receiver, defensive end, H-back and even the Wildcat quarterback for the Golden Hurricanes.

    While Clay isn’t dominant in any one facet of the game, his best quality other than versatility is his hands and ability to get open. In Miami, neither the fullback Lousaka Polite, nor the primary tight end Anthony Fasano, excel as receivers. Therefore, Clay has a chance to make an impact.

5. Greg Lloyd, Philadelphia Eagles, ILB

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    The Eagles' current brain trust doesn't like giving big money to linebackers. Instead, they spent a bundle on cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins to make a splash in free agency.

    There has been speculation on talk radio that they are counting on a rookie linebacker with good bloodlines to start at inside linebacker.

    That would be fourth-round pick Casey Matthews, brother of Clay.

    But, I think there is a chance that in the long run, the Eagles will wind up much more fond of another rookie linebacker with good bloodlines in seventh-round choice Greg Lloyd.

    Lloyd might need more time to fully recover from a torn ACL and MCL he suffered in 2009 however, as it usually takes a full two years to get one's mobility back after this type of injury.

    Regardless, the son of a five-time Pro Bowler for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lloyd can lay the wood. Just ask former Notre Dame running back Armando Allen (pictured). 

6. Tandon Doss, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens learned just how important it was to have youth at wide receiver in the playoffs.

    Against Pittsburgh, Baltimore’s veteran core of Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Derrick Mason came up small while the Steelers’ Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders shined.

    Mason has been jettisoned and Houshmandzadeh won’t return. In their place, enters second-round pick Torrey Smith and fourth-round pick Tandon Doss.

    Smith might have the better deep speed, but Doss is the reliable runner and tough after the catch. Most importantly, Doss is 6’3” and has great hands. He sounds like a very comfortable option for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

7. David Arkin, OL, Dallas Cowboys

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    It surprised some “draftniks” when the Dallas Cowboys drafted this small-school kid out of Missouri State in the fourth round. In full disclosure, I might be a little biased because I interviewed Arkin before the draft.

    However, let’s look a little deeper. He is an aggressive consistent player with quick feet for a 6’5”, 300-pound lineman. Arkin could fit in either a power blocking or zone-blocking one.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dallas released one starting guard in Leonard Davis and the team is looking at Arkin to challenge Montrae Holland for the other spot.

8. Johnny White, RB, Buffalo Bills

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    There are two factors that might make White a success in Buffalo. One, the Bills are going to quickly find out that C.J. Spiller is not an every-down running back in the NFL and they were foolish to draft him with the ninth pick overall in the 2010 draft.

    In his rookie year, for all the buzz he generated, Spiller ran the ball only 74 times for 283 yards (a 3.8 average).

    Two, White looks like his best football is in front of him. The fifth-round pick has a good all-around skill set and really impressed with his production in spurts against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Miami (watch his 76-yard touchdown run against the Hurricanes) in 2010.

9. Buster Skrine, CB, Cleveland Browns

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    The little-known cornerback from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga has a real shot to make an impact because of the situation he is stepping into.

    The Browns’ Eric Wright is coming off his worst season and Sheldon Brown, 32 years old, sometimes plays like he is 42.

    Meanwhile, the fifth-round pick runs a sub 4.4 40, isn’t afraid to mix it up with receivers despite his 5’10” frame and has experience as a kick returner.

10. Marcus Cannon, OL, New England Patriots

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    Cannon was not supposed to slide into the fifth round of this April’s draft, but a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma likely led to his draft free fall.

    Cannon has been getting treatment this summer, and while chemotherapy could easily sap his, or anyone’s, strength, his long-term prognosis is good.

    What I can tell you without a doubt is that they don’t grow 6’5”, 358-pound men on trees; and you almost never see ones with Cannon’s athleticism.

    If he is healthy, I actually like his pro prospects better than New England’s first-round pick Nate Solder.

    Here’s hoping Cannon wins his battle with cancer; anything else is a bonus for the young man.

11. Greg Little, WR, Cleveland Browns

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    Call Little my “Mike Williams” pick. If you are not familiar with Williams, he was a fourth-round selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010. He went on to catch 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season.

    Did I mention this was after Williams was suspended for the 2008 season at Syracuse, and then quit the team in 2009 after likely facing another suspension for team rules violation?

    Well, Little has a checkered past as well. He didn’t play any games for the Tar Heels in 2010 after being suspended by the NCAA for lying about travel accommodations and jewelry.

    But Little, like Williams, has elite measurables and athletic ability. Little will haul in a pass and look to punish as he chugs for extra yardage. Did I mention that the Browns' leading receivers a year ago were tight end Benjamin Watson and running back Peyton Hillis?

    To say that Little has an excellent opportunity would be a heck of an understatement.

12. Greg McElroy, QB, New York Jets

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    There are few things to like about McElroy’s chances. The former Alabama star is a smart quarterback with enough arm to make most throws needed to succeed in the NFL. He has been a winner at every level of his football career.

    He doesn’t try to do too much and rarely forces the ball into coverage. The Jets have a 40-year-old going on 90 backup in Mark Brunell and not much else on the roster behind Mark Sanchez.

    Finally, I am not completely sold on Sanchez as the Jets’ future at quarterback, and his two-year average passer rating of 70.2 supports my suspicions about the "Sanchize."

13. Chris Nield, NT, Washington Redskins

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    At 6’2”, 305 pounds, Nield doesn’t have the size that is associated with a standout nose tackle. But, not every successful nose tackle is massive like the Packers' B.J Raji, the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork or the Dolphins’ Paul Soliai.

    Take Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys, who is 6’4” but just over 300 pounds, or Kyle Williams of Buffalo who goes 6’1” and 306 pounds. Can Nield maintain his leverage at the point of attack and not get worn down by double teams over the course of 16 games?

    The Redskins’ seventh-round pick did it for the Mountaineers in college in leading a West Virginia defense that surrendered just 12.8 points a game (second in the nation) and that never gave up more than 21 points in a single matchup during the 2010 regular season.

    Washington doesn’t have very good veteran options at nose tackle and is hoping Nield can do it again.

14. Jurrell Casey, DT, Tennessee Titans

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    Casey (6’1”, 300) is heavier and squatter than Tennessee's incumbent tackle Jovan Haye (6’2",  277) which makes a huge difference to new Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker who is thought to prefer bigger defensive linemen.

    This is another reason why the Titans let their leading pass-rusher Jason Babin, who had 12.5 sacks in 2010, go find greener pastures in Philly. Babin stood only 6’3”, 260 pounds.

    Getting back to Casey, he has good initial quickness at the snap and strength to handle double teams. The third-round pick had 67 tackles, 11 stops for a loss and 4.5 sacks in 2010.

15. Mark LeGree, S, Seattle Seahawks

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    Defensive backs that show a nose for pulling in the football in college are a rarity these days. LeGree has 22 interceptions in his career. Yes, he played at a small school, but Appalachian State is an elite Divison I-AA program.

    At 6’0”, 214 pounds, this fifth-round pick has plenty of size to play safety and should compete for the safety spot in Seattle alongside "star in the making" Earl Thomas when 16-year veteran Lawyer Milloy retires.

16. Aldrick Robinson, WR, Washington Redskins

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    June Jones has turned out some pretty nice NFL wide receivers in the last few years as the head coach at Hawaii and, since 2008, at SMU.

    Davone Bess is one of the best slot receivers in the league for the Miami Dolphins and Emmanuel Sanders looks like a future star for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The bet is that Robinson is the next Jones wideout in line to make the “big leagues.” Robinson had 66 catches for 1,301 receiving yards, scored 14 touchdowns in 2010 and has the breakaway speed so coveted in the NFL.  The question is, who is going to throw the sixth-round pick the ball in Washington?

17. Ricky Elmore, LB, Green Bay Packers

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    As if the Packers need more players—especially talent at the linebacker position. But, that is exactly what they have in Elmore, one of Green Bay’s three sixth-round picks.

    Elmore is not the most physically gifted player, but he is productive and his 11 sacks in 2010 led the Pac-10.

    He is a smart player who gives consistent effort play-in and play-out and should fit in real nice with Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and Co.

18. Pat Devlin, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Devlin was signed as an undrafted free agent, but was clearly a priority for the quarterback-starved Miami Dolphins. I saw Devlin play in high school and was impressed by his moxie and ability to spread the ball to multiple receivers.

    For whatever reason, he didn’t work out at Penn State and then played in a shotgun spread offense at Delaware. Devlin has a legitimate over-the-top delivery with a good release. On the negative side, he doesn’t always throw a spiral and he is not going to fit the ball into tight spots.

    The frequent comparisons to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco isn’t fair, but Devlin’s opportunity to succeed in Miami is more than generous.

19. Delone Carter, RB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Do you want to know one reason why the Indianapolis Colts haven’t been more aggressive in free agency in improving their running game—settling with re-signing Joseph Addai instead?

    That reason is Carter as he helped Syracuse turn its program around by rushing for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He is not an accomplished receiver, but the Colts have plenty of receiving targets for Manning in their high-octane offense.

    Carter, a fourth-round pick, is a north-south runner who relishes picking up yards after contact.

20. Mason Foster, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    One of the biggest mistakes you can make regarding linebackers is judging them solely on sack totals. Inside linebackers in particular need to have a diverse skill set.

    Foster, a third-round draft pick had 10.5 career sacks in college, including 6.5 as a senior.

    But it’s his other abilities that make him a special sleeper. Foster can read the quarterback, especially in zone coverage, he takes the shortest route to the ball by bypassing blockers, and boy he can wrap up and bring the ball-carrier down.

    He had 162 tackles for the University of Washington in 2010.  The Bucs would be happy with half that number in 2011.