2017 NFL Draft: Early Sleepers to Watch This College Football Season

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2016

2017 NFL Draft: Early Sleepers to Watch This College Football Season

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    Projections for the 2017 NFL draft started almost immediately following the 2016 edition, and a solid list of first-round favorites already exists

    However, many of the early favorite prospects will falter during the 2016 college football season due to things like injuries and surprisingly poor team performance. Naturally, others will rise up to take their spots with strong outings. It's helpful to spotlight the latter party before we enter the season.

    The following slideshow features seven prospects who aren't quite consensus first- or second-round prospects just yet but have the potential to enter that conversation with a strong 2016 campaign.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington

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    Don't be fooled by the lower-level competition; Cooper Kupp is one of the most talented receivers in the 2017 draft class. 

    Kupp's statement game came in the 2015 season opener, when he torched the Oregon secondary for 246 yards and three touchdowns on 15 receptions. 

    Kupp doesn't have the speed to consistently create separation down the field, but he runs crisp routes and has the reliable hands to be a dominant receiver on short and intermediate routes. 

    He'll have his chance to make a statement early in the 2016 season again, as Eastern Washington opens up against Washington State and North Dakota State. With two strong games against his toughest competition, Kupp could cement his status as a future top-100 NFL draft pick.

Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina

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    Ryan Switzer doesn't have the measurables to make him an elite prospect, but if he continues to produce at a high level, he will force the NFL to take notice. 

    Switzer is listed at just 5'10" and 185 pounds, and he doesn't have blazing straight-line speed. However, he makes up for it with incredible athleticism and body control, which makes him one of the most difficult receivers to contain in the open field. 

    For this same reason, Switzer has been one of the most productive return specialists in college football over the past three seasons. In 2013, for instance, he led the nation in punt return yards, average (20.9 per attempt) and touchdowns (five); in 2015, he was back toward the top of the list, proving this was no fluke. NFL teams may covet him for that role alone. 

    Switzer will have to adjust to a new quarterback (Mitch Trubisky) this season, but if he maintains his return numbers and stays active in the offense—he had 693 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 54 receptions last season—he should emerge as one of the top weapons in the 2017 NFL draft.

T.J. Neal, LB, Auburn

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    T.J. Neal was a productive linebacker at Illinois, where he made 25 starts the past two seasons and was among the team's leading tacklers. But before his senior year, Neal decided to transfer to Auburn—as a graduate transfer, so he won't lose a year of eligibility—where he can gain more attention in high-profile games. 

    Neal is an impressive athlete with excellent range as a middle linebacker. He may be an upgrade for Auburn at the position, especially considering two of the Tigers' top tacklers, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, recently graduated.

    Auburn's run defense was a mess in 2015, as it allowed 164 yards per game. If Neal can help improve the unit, he'll start to generate some buzz as a draft prospect. 

    At 6'1" and 235 pounds, Neal doesn't have ideal size for every NFL team, but the recent trend of targeting safety/linebacker hybrids could make Neal a coveted prospect if he's able to show off his athleticism this season.

Hercules Mata'afa, DE, Washington State

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    As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Hercules Mata'afa already appeared to be the most physically dominant player on a developing Washington State defense. While head coach Mike Leach's squad is known for its offensive prowess, Mata'afa leads a young unit that should contribute to the Cougars' 2016 success. 

    He generated 9.5 tackles for loss during his freshman year and could build on that number as he improves his strength. 

    Coming out of high school, Mata'afa was listed at just 220 pounds by Rivals, but he has put on considerable weight since his high school days. Washington State now lists him at 245 pounds

    He appeared to learn how to play with better leverage and use his strength to his advantage in 2015. With refined technique, he could emerge as one of the better draft-eligible pass-rushers during the 2016 college football season.

Dante Booker, LB, Ohio State

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    Dante Booker was Ohio's Mr. Football in 2013, but he has been buried behind Joshua Perry and Darron Lee on the Ohio State depth chart for the past two seasons. 2016 will be his first opportunity to start, and he should step into Perry's starting role at weak-side linebacker. 

    Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com compared Booker to former Ohio State standout and longtime NFL linebacker James Laurinaitis. That's a lofty expectation for Booker to meet, but he should be a dominant force against the run, much like Laurinaitis and Perry during their Ohio State careers. 

    The Buckeyes have churned out strong defensive prospects in recent years, and Booker appears to be next in line.

Davis Webb, QB, California

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    Projecting Davis Webb as a future draft pick is mostly a guess based on his impressive arm strength and measurables. He started as a true freshman for the Red Raiders in 2013 but was up and down throughout his career before eventually losing the job to Patrick Mahomes in 2015. 

    Despite Texas Tech's reputation for producing high-powered offenses, Webb never quite matched the production of many of his predecessors. A graduate transfer, he will now ply his trade at California, where he'll play in a similar offense under head coach Sonny Dykes. 

    If Webb's production remains stagnant, he's a fringe draft prospect at best due to his shaky accuracy and poor decision-making. But he's 6'5" with a strong arm, so the NFL will certainly give him a look. 

    After spending a year backing up Mahomes, it's possible Webb has made the adjustments necessary to finally live up to his potential at Cal.

Tanner Vallejo, LB, Boise State

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    Tanner Vallejo is coming off a disappointing season at Boise State, and Pro Football Focus recently listed him among the players who regressed the most in 2015. His issues may have been health-related, as he missed multiple games with an undisclosed injury, including Boise State's bowl game against Northern Illinois. 

    However, it's also worth noting that Vallejo's dominant sophomore campaign in 2014 came while primarily lining up as an outside linebacker, which allowed him to pad his stats as a pass-rusher (15.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, compared to six and zero in 2015).

    In 2015, Vallejo shifted inside—where he will play in the pros due to his modest size—and his production dropped off considerably.

    Entering the 2016 season, Vallejo will have a year of experience under his belt and should be back to full health, allowing him to regain momentum as a draft prospect.