NFL Draft 2015: Identifying the Biggest Sleeper at Every Position

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IJanuary 26, 2015

NFL Draft 2015: Identifying the Biggest Sleeper at Every Position

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    JASON DECROW/Associated Press

    With the NFL offseason in full swing, it is time to focus firmly on the 2015 NFL draft.

    This is the time where pundits and writers break down every subtlety and nuance of the top prospects. However, today we won't talk about Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.

    This time around, we're going to break down the top sleeper candidates for the upcoming draft.

    Just the very concept of a "sleeper" is interesting in this day and age. With all of the technology at our disposal, prospects couldn’t stay hidden if they wanted to. The network of available information and game videos means every player who wants teams to see him can do so with relative ease.

    This is great for teams and prospects, but it makes the task of digging up some guys who are still relative unknowns even more daunting.

    The focus here is on players who aren’t getting the publicity they deserve yet still have NFL potential. There was a time when a player like Norfolk State edge-rusher Lynden Trail would be considered a deep sleeper, but the Reese’s Senior Bowl made sure that everyone knows this budding star's name.

    Another misconception of the sleeper is he must play for a small school. While that is the case for some prospects, a sleeper can also be a good player playing for a big program who is either buried on the depth chart, suffered an injury during the season that dropped him on draft boards or is undervalued by the draft community and will far outplay his draft spot.

    Regardless of the reason, here is the top sleeper at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

    Player stats and data courtesy of the college football section of Sports-Reference.com.

Quarterback

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Nick Marshall, Auburn

    Oh boy. If your team is in need of a quarterback, this is not your year. Even the prospects at the top have some legitimate concerns, so if you're stable at the position, be thankful.

    The top sleeper is really just hiding in plain sight in the quarterback crop. According to James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser, Auburn's Nick Marshall is planning a change to cornerback, which started at the Senior Bowl.

    However, as Luke Easterling of Draft Breakdown so astutely tweeted, had Marshall participated as a quarterback, he’d have likely been the best one there. This is as much a comment on the rest of this position pool as it is on Marshall.

    So while I respect Marshall’s choice to maximize his earning potential in the NFL, that doesn’t discount his ability to play quarterback.

    Marshall threw for 4,508 yards in two seasons at Auburn in an offense that was run-heavy but showcased his powerful arm. I had the good fortune of watching him play several times at Garden City Community College, and his level of athleticism rivaled any JUCO quarterback I’d studied, including Cam Newton when he was at Blinn College.

    Marshall’s game is raw, but all the physical gifts are there (minus ideal height; he's 6'1''). His upper-body mechanics are solid and his release is tight, which helps him generate tremendous velocity. His footwork is sketchy, primarily because he is always looking to make a play with his feet, but when he sets and delivers he can squeeze it into tiny windows.

    The team that brings Marshall in could easily create a package of plays that maximizes his physical gifts. It might find itself with a truly elite weapon on offense.

    In a game where teams rarely dress three quarterbacks but can never dress enough defensive backs, Marshall would be able to double-dip into the skills he brings to the table. I could just as easily have included Marshall as the sleeper cornerback on this list due to his 13 games at the position for Georgia and his dominant physical gifts.

Running Back

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    John Crockett, North Dakota State

    Isn’t every running back a sleeper?

    I kid, but unless we're talking about Georgia’s Todd Gurley or Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, there’s a good chance the rest of these running backs are relative unknowns to large chunks of the NFL community.

    This is fantastic news for NFL teams because it is possible to find production late in the draft. At the same time, it makes picking that one sleeper something of a challenge.

    My sleeper pick at running back is North Dakota State’s John Crockett. Crockett qualifies as a sleeper primarily because this running back class is just so deep. Even though he is one of the stars of the most dominant FCS team in the country the past four years, his game seems to be getting lost in the wash.

    That means some team can snatch up Crockett very late and get one of the most NFL-ready backs in the country. He has NFL size (6’0”, 202 pounds) and possesses a lean, physical build.

    His patience and burst stand out on film. Crockett does a great job setting his blockers up and finding seams to expose. However, he has no problem using his agile feet and change of direction to improvise in a pinch, another aspect of his game that should be especially appealing to NFL teams.

    If an NFL team runs a zone-blocking scheme, they could do much worse than bring in the productive and confident Crockett.

Tight End

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Blake Bell, Oklahoma

    Just like the quarterback class, beyond the top tier, this class of tight ends is rather underwhelming. There is some potential there, but the value of a tight end has as much to do with his role with a particular team as anything else.

    Most teams cannot count on a uni-tasker at tight end in a starting role. They have backups who are primarily blockers, but if you want to start in this league, you need to be able to do it all.

    This makes finding a sleeper prospect even more challenging, but not impossible: I give you Oklahoma’s Blake Bell.

    Bell has had a soap opera career during his time with the Sooners. Out of high school, he was one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the country, a skinny, 210-pound gunslinger.

    Fast-forward to now, and Bell has made three position changes and is entering the draft as a bruising 259-pound tight end with the mentality of a fullback. He slides due to only having one year of experience at the position, but when you think about a sleeper, you have to weigh risk against reward.

    Bell’s ceiling as an H-Back in the right offense is huge. His strength makes him a devastating blocker and short-yardage back, and his length and hands make him capable of attacking a defense in the red zone.

    Some teams won’t even consider Bell because they don’t know what to do with him, but a creative offensive coordinator can work with this kind of talent.

Wide Receiver

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Austin Hill, Arizona

    The 2015 wide receiver class is shaping up to be excellent. I am not prepared to say that it can rival the 2014 class, however.

    In 2014, 10 rookie wide receivers had at least 46 receptions. Three had more than 1,000 yards receiving, and two of them caught more than 10 touchdowns. The bar is set high, but this class might just be up to the task.

    What’s a loaded class mean? It means that guys will be missed. Just as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant slid to the fourth round in 2014, some prospects will slip through the cracks as well.

    My guy to slip this year and sneak up on the league in 2015 is Arizona wide receiver Austin Hill.

    If you want to properly evaluate Hill, it's going to take a little work. Just looking at his 2014 season, you see a player that spent the bulk of the year getting back to full health after tearing his ACL in 2013.

    However, as the season started to wind down, the 2012 Hill finally started to make an appearance: The one who had 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hill’s game is predicated on his physical frame (6’3”, 212 pounds) and his ability to overwhelm defenders.

    Prior to the injury, Hill showed crisp, precise routes and nice agility in the open field. This was something that just started to reappear at the end of the 2014 season, but you can see that in his year off, he committed to getting stronger and becoming a more powerful slot wide receiver.

    This might not light up the highlight reels like his 2012 film did, but in a league that covets the slot receiver, Hill could be a star.

Offensive Tackle

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    Cole Manhart, Nebraska-Kearney

    Finding a great NFL offensive tackle is one of the most important jobs a front office has. Other than quarterback, there’s no position more vital than the offensive tackle who protects the signal-caller. These players are drafted early and often.

    My sleeper tackle from this group is Cole Manhart from Division II Nebraska-Kearney.

    I had the good fortune of watching Manhart live from the sideline in 2014, and he was impressive. At 6’6” and 310 pounds, he certainly passes the eyeball test for an NFL tackle.

    Manhart’s standout trait is how athletic he is for a man his size. His movement in space is outstanding, so much so the Lopers even play him as an H-Back in some specialized sets. His lower-body power is excellent, but he will need to get stronger up top. If he doesn’t get that outside step and set his feet, he doesn’t always extend well enough and can be overwhelmed.

    But saying all that, Manhart has real NFL potential. The three-year starter plays with a nasty disposition and finishes his plays. His flaws are coachable, and he could come in and play guard right away while he learns the nuances of playing NFL tackle against top competition.

Guard

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Aundrey Walker, USC

    Finding a sleeper to play guard poses something of a challenge. In many cases, the best guards are tackles who kick inside. So when you're looking for a sleeper to play inside, finding a swing player who never really settled in one spot can often reap rewards.

    My sleeper guard prospect is USC lineman Aundrey Walker.

    Walker has moved all over the offensive line during his four years at USC. This has been a mixed bag, because while he has shown some versatility, it hurts his draft stock in the sense that he never really maximized his potential. 

    Walker is a powerful drive-blocker and strong finisher. Unfortunately, an ankle injury and lack of motivation have made his career something of a disappointment overall.

    I offer you Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson. When he was at his best, he was a dominant blocker. However, because we didn’t see enough of it, he fell to the seventh round. 

    Henderson got to Buffalo, flipped his switch and he earned 16 starts at tackle, beating out second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio.

    When I watch Walker, I get that same sort of vibe. He is going to get to the NFL, get into a stable spot, get healthy and finally live up to all that potential.

Center

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Elliott Porter, LSU

    Every team needs a great center. With so many teams playing 3-4 base defenses, more and more centers are now responsible for dealing with a massive two-gap nose tackle right on top of them. Centers also make the offensive-line checks and blocking assignments before the snap.

    When I think about a sleeper prospect at center, I want a guy who has built up a strong resume against top-flight competition. This puts LSU center Elliott Porter at the top of my list.

    There’s little chance Porter gets drafted, but some team is going to give him a shot. He is strong and smart with a physical style and high football acumen. He has a tremendous punch and plays with a strong, low base. Other than outstanding athleticism, there isn’t much not to like about his game.

    Nevertheless, center is a spot that is typically undervalued, and when you mix in a domestic violence arrest, Porter is going to have to fight hard to get a shot.

Defensive End

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    Christopher Jackson/Associated Press

    Mike Reilly, William & Mary

    Whether a team plays a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, finding players who can come off the edge is paramount to a defense’s success. Every team needs them as pass-rushers or to be physical enough to set the edge against the run.

    My sleeper pick at defensive end is William & Mary’s Mike Reilly.

    Reilly is 265 pounds of intensity, and his game is predicated on being absolutely relentless on every snap. He plays low to the ground with great leverage and goes all the way through the whistle.

    It will be interesting to see if Reilly projects higher as a traditional 4-3 defensive end, or whether teams think he can stand up, drop and cover as a 3-4 outside linebacker. I think that in the proper scheme, Reilly can have success in a 3-4 because he’s a smart player with adequate athletic ability.

    However, his best fit is probably in a 4-3 in which he can keep his hand on the ground and play downhill, where he’s so disruptive.

Defensive Tackle

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    Charles Tuaau, Texas A&M-Commerce

    If you are looking for a defensive tackle no one is talking about, I give you Texas A&M-Commerce defensive tackle Charlie Tuaau.

    Tuaau has proven to be one of the most productive defensive linemen in Division II. He’ll be a natural 1-technique in the NFL with his exceptional strength and explosion. He has the frame to carry 10 or 15 more pounds without a problem, so moving to a 3-4 nose tackle could help his draft stock as well.

    Tuaau is a 316-pound, natural one-gap penetrator with violent hands and a high motor. He has a strong punch at the line of scrimmage and uses a nice first step to split double-teams.

    Unfortunately for Tuaau, after a dominant 2013 season where he racked up 25 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, 2014 marked a huge drop in production due to some minor injuries. Nevertheless, he's fallen out of favor with the league and will need to earn a spot on a roster.

Outside Linebacker

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    David Helton, Duke

    The NFL is filled with productive outside linebackers who came into the league with minimal fanfare. The Atlanta Falcons have two great examples. Linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu both went undrafted but have been the two best linebackers on the team the past two seasons.

    My candidate this year is Duke outside linebacker David Helton. He appears a little undersized despite being listed at 6’4” and 240 pounds, but his frame looks like it could hold 10 or 12 more pounds without losing any speed on the field.

    Helton is a downhill tackling machine. Only 17 players in college football averaged more than 10 tackles per game in 2014.

    Helton won’t wow you with his triangle numbers, which will disappoint some of the draft media. Nevertheless, when you put on the film you see No. 48 all over the field. He makes defensive calls, lines up inside and outside and is always making plays going forward.

Inside Linebacker

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    ELI LUCERO/Associated Press

    Zach Vigil, Utah State

    As with Helton at outside linebacker, when you want a sleeper inside linebacker, look for production. If a guy can make plays in college, you hope that it translates.

    So many players are drafted early based on things that they haven’t done in college, but in the later rounds, teams steal guys who have already shown they can make plays, even if they don’t have that wow factor.

    This time around, that player is Utah State linebacker Zach Vigil. If you want to see a player who pops every time you put on the tape, just watch Vigil. He plays going forward and is a finisher. He also does a great job of keeping his head up, breaking down the play and wasting very few steps.

    One thing that really stands out is how versatile Vigil is. The Aggies moved him around a ton, and he never looked uncomfortable. Vigil is a very strong A-gap blitzer, but doesn’t look out of place dropping into coverage and reading the quarterback.

    Some team is going to snatch up Vigil late and get a kid who will be a key backup and spot starter to spark a defense.

Cornerback

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    Cam Thomas, Western Kentucky

    The 2015 cornerback class is deep. Like ridiculously deep.

    I have studied 28 cornerbacks and given them a draftable grade. It is doubtful all 28 will be drafted, so there are going to be plenty of sleeper prospects near the bottom of the rankings who will get long looks by NFL teams.

    If you want a name to jot down, let’s go with Cam Thomas from Western Kentucky. In fact, if there is a sleeper on this list to not be known as a sleeper by the draft, it is probably Thomas.

    Thomas measures in at a solid 6’1”, 190 pounds and flashes impressive skills. He played primarily zone at Western Kentucky and proved to be good at assignment football, knowing when to hand off coverage and when to stay with his man. He keeps his hips low and has enough confidence in his speed and change of direction to hold his backpedal deep into coverage.

    Thomas also does a good job getting his head around and locating the football, even thought it only netted two interceptions.

    Thomas is a decent tackler, but needs to wrap up better and doesn’t show great potential in run support. But if you are looking at a long, rangy cornerback with solid technique, you can’t ding him too hard for not coming up and playing the run like a strong safety.

Safety

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    Sam Carter, TCU

    I suppose when you talk about a sleeper safety, you have to ask yourself what you want him to be able to do. Many NFL teams employ lots of single-high free safeties with the strong safety up closer to the line of scrimmage.

    This is all well and good, but with so many NFL offenses using multiple wide receiver sets, even your strong safety had better be ready to drop into coverage. So for a sleeper safety, coverage skills are the priority.

    TCU’s Sam Carter isn't getting much attention, mainly because he is so overshadowed by fellow Horned Frogs linebacker Paul Dawson and fellow safety Chris Hackett.

    But don’t sell Carter short on what he can do. He has adequate size and is more athletic on the field than the triangle numbers would indicate.

    I view Carter as a player who can play up around the line of scrimmage, yet still have the short-area quickness to drop and cover a back or tight end. He uses his eyes well, and there are several highlights of his adjusting to a thrown ball and making an athletic play. He is also a willing run defender and solid tackler.

    Carter may never be a deep-center safety. However, he can stay up closer to the line and not be a liability in coverage.

Special Teams

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    J.J. Nelson, UAB

    I suppose there are a couple of ways to look at a sleeper special teams player.

    It could mean a punter or kicker who is destined for stardom. It could be a defensive player who might not be talented enough to start on defense but could really spark a coverage unit.

    However, in this case, the sleeper in question is a kick return specialist. When a team can shorten the field with a dynamic return game, it makes the job of the other two units so much easier.

    And who is the best return specialist in this draft? That’s easy: UAB wide receiver J.J. Nelson.

    Nelson averaged 10.65 yards per return on punts and 38.32 yards per return on kickoffs with four return touchdowns. He is undersized at 5’11” and 160 pounds, but in his role, his speed and acceleration fit perfectly. He sees the field well and is a gear faster than everyone else. 

    And if you are worried that drafting Nelson means a roster spot for just a return specialist, don’t fret: He is also a pretty talented wide receiver, although in the NFL, he'll likely be a No. 4 wide receiver on the inside on those go routes.

    Still, you draft Nelson because he can do so much for you in the return game.

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