2015 Draft Sleepers Who'd Fit Perfectly with the New England Patriots
Every NFL team hopes to hit a home run with its first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
But the difference between good teams and great teams is the prospects they dig up in the second through seventh rounds of the draft.
The New England Patriots have built a dynasty off one of those picks, with Tom Brady proving to be the sleeper of the 2000 NFL draft—and perhaps the sleeper of the century.
A lot of factors play into a sleeper being a success in the NFL, but what plays into a sleeper becoming a sleeper in the first place? Those players may have been injured in their college career at some point, or they may have taken a step back for one reason or another; they may be players whose weaknesses are perceived to be insurmountable; they may also be players with character flaws or whose NFL fit remains unclear.
Here's a look at some of the castoffs who could be making a home for themselves with the Patriots following the draft.
Zach Zenner, RB, South Dakota State
The level of a prospect's competition has to be taken into consideration, but once that player gets to the NFL, it's pretty cut and dried: Either you're good enough to play in the pros, or you're not.
South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner dominated at the small-school level, rushing for more than 2,000 yards in each of the past three seasons and tallying a whopping 58 touchdowns in that span. Of course, he's not likely to put up those video-game-like numbers in the NFL, but his skill should still translate.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein lauds him for his long speed, saying he "will win most footraces once he gets to top gear." Zierlein adds that Zenner "has 'every-down' traits" because he has the requisite toughness and willingness to take on blitzing linebackers, as well as his hands out of the backfield (95 career receptions, 909 yards, eight touchdowns).
The Patriots have filled their stable of running backs over the past year-and-a-half, reigning in the likes of Jonas Gray, James White, Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney and Travaris Cadet in that time. It might be hard for Zenner to find a spot on the roster in that loaded group, but his status as a jack-of-all-trades gives him as good a shot as anyone.
Titus Davis, WR, Central Michigan
Many NFL teams would love to have a fleet of athletic, physical specimens at wide receiver. The Patriots are content rolling with a group of quick-footed, precise route-runners who know how to get open.
Central Michigan wide receiver Titus Davis definitely fits the mold. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein describes him as an "outstanding route-runner" and says he has the "desired football intelligence with understanding of coverages," with the awareness of when to sit down in soft spots in zone coverage and also how to navigate through traffic over the middle on crossing patterns.
At 6'1" and 196 pounds, Davis is not a small receiver and would immediately be one of the bigger bodies in the Patriots' receiving group. He can make tough, leaping catches, like the one we see above, but with 8.25-inch hands, there will be concerns over whether he can consistently hang onto the football against feistier, tougher NFL cornerbacks.
Davis could be one of those players who comes in and dominates in workouts, earning his roster spot and even some playing time as a rookie—but he has to learn the Patriots offense first, and that's no small feat.
Max Valles, OLB, Virginia
Finding the "perfect fit" for a pass-rusher in the draft is hard enough; doing it in the later rounds of the draft can be a thankless task. So many edge defenders are projections; smaller defensive ends and bigger outside linebackers are plugged in as square pegs in round holes on a yearly basis.
Virginia's Eli Harold has been the Cavalier outside linebacker garnering all the attention, but that has caused Max Valles to fly under the radar. The 6'5", 251-pound pass-rusher has many of the traits the Patriots like in their edge-rushers—if he had all of them, he'd probably be a Day 2 pick at least. He has the length (32.6-inch arms) to prevent blockers from getting into his pads and could even add more weight to help shed them if they do get a good push on him.
The Patriots will definitely admire his versatility, as he lined up as both a stand-up linebacker and as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt. The problem is, he's still very raw and will need some coaching to get the most out of his physical tools. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein comments that his "instincts" are an issue, which could be a huge red flag for Bill Belichick.
That being said, if the Patriots are OK with a project at outside linebacker, Valles would be a good value pick in the later rounds. At the very least, he could develop into the rotational piece the Patriots have been looking for to complement Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Tyler Kroft, TE, Rutgers
Belichick loves Rutgers players almost as much as he loves tight ends. Tyler Kroft to the Patriots seems like a match made in heaven.
At 6'5" and 246 pounds with 33-inch arms, Kroft has the size to be a dominant blocker and make a huge impact in the red zone. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein says Kroft has the requisite tenacity and fundamentals (good base, strong hands) as a blocker, but Zierlein also thinks Kroft "appears on tape to have a limited catch radius," possibly due to his tendency to trap the ball against his body rather than pluck it away from his frame.
Kroft has flashed a high ceiling, posting 43 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns in a solid 2013 campaign, but he qualifies as a sleeper because he took a big step back in production in 2014, notching only 24 catches for 269 yards, causing him to fall to a projected mid-round selection on some boards.
The Patriots have made some notable additions at tight end in recent months, trading for Tim Wright from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just days before the 2014 season began and signing former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler just days after free agency began. If they want some more developmental youth for the position, though, Kroft would make a solid addition in the fourth or fifth round.
Jamil Douglas, OG, Arizona State
Without Dan Connolly, one can only assume that the Patriots will be holding an open competition for both guard spots this offseason and in training camp. The competitors: Ryan Wendell, Josh Kline, Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon and anyone else the Patriots may add to the mix between now and then.
Boy, is it just me or does this sound like the beginning of the 2014 season all over again?
The Patriots may be feeling a sense of deja vu, which could push them to draft a guard earlier than later, but if they want to wait for a player who has versatility and could be a steal, Arizona State's Jamil Douglas would be a good fit.
Douglas is not considered a physically imposing guard, but at 6'4" and 304 pounds with 33.4-inch arms, he has the length to add some mass. That being said, right now, he is considered by NFL.com's Lance Zierlein to be a "finesse, left guard-only prospect," while CBSSports.com's Rob Rang describes him as "inconsistent in the running game." He didn't get voted first-team All-Pac 12 by mistake, though, and he managed to do it in a season in which he switched from left guard to left tackle.
Besides, the Patriots will find his skills as a zone-blocking lineman to be a fit for their offense.
Give him a few months in an NFL strength and conditioning program, and he could become a mauler with time. For now, the Patriots would love to get their hands on a skilled, athletic guard who can get out in front of plays and open up holes on screens and perimeter runs.