Biggest Sleepers Heading into the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 25, 2017

Biggest Sleepers Heading into the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    There's a relentless pursuit of value in the months leading up to the NFL draft. But what, exactly, does value mean?

    The most obvious definition would be to get, say, a first-round talent in the fifth round. It's the Seattle Seahawks drafting Richard Sherman in the middle of Day 3 and then watching as he became one of the league's best cornerbacks and a four-time Pro Bowler.

    But, more broadly, savvy general managers want to maximize every pick and get the most talent possible each time their teams are on the clock. That means being well-versed in the less-heralded prospects who perhaps come from smaller schools.

    Those players continually have higher hills to climb throughout the predraft process. Plenty of high-end talents have already been given their golden ticket to the first round. But at the scouting combine, sleepers need to start waking up to prove they belong and rise up the draft board.

    Who are these elusive sleepers? Let's look at 10 names to keep your eye on as the NFL prepares to descend on Indianapolis for the 2017 combine.

Adam Shaheen, Tight End

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    Photo used with permission of Ashland University Athletics

    Tight end could be treated like the most popular holiday season gift during the 2017 draft. There's plenty of appealing, drool-worthy talent for tight end-needy teams to gobble up early, with possibly four prospects at the position set to be snatched in the opening two rounds.

    What if, however, you're a general manager who needs to bolster his roster at tight end but you also have greater needs in the first few rounds? That general manager should know Adam Shaheen.

    There are whispers that if the Ashland University standout impresses at the scouting combine, he could vault all the way into the first round, alongside the likes of Alabama's O.J. Howard.

    "He's clearly the third-best tight end in this year's class, and I think you'll start to hear first-round buzz about him by the time his workout is finished," a team executive told NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "It's hard to find tight ends with his combination of size, speed and toughness. He's a unique talent."

    Slotting a small-school prospect into the first round is high praise. And the anonymous executive wasn't off in his assessment, as Shaheen is indeed a massive human.

    He's 6'6" and 277 pounds, so it's easy to assume Shaheen is more of a bounding target who specializes in winning jump balls. But Shaheen can also separate, and the Ohio native's most impressive skill—which is simply not normal for someone his size—is how smoothly he breaks away from defenders in the open field for yards after the catch.

    Shaheen led Division II tight ends in receptions (57), yards (867) and touchdowns (16) in 2016, and watching the highlights is a great way to spend three minutes of your time. That trademark breakaway speed is on full display at the 57-second mark.

Taywan Taylor, Wide Receiver

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Much like Shaheen, wide receiver Taywan Taylor is a prospect who might not sleep much longer.

    And much like fantasy football managers whose draft blueprints are obliterated when their supersleepers come off the board far too soon, some NFL scouts aren't too pleased that Taylor is leaving the shadow of his secret status.

    "He can do it all," an AFC scout told Jeremiah during the Senior Bowl. "He is a natural pass-catcher who can run all of the routes. He can make plays on vertical throws or make it happen on catch-and-run tosses. Plus, he can play inside or outside in a pro-style scheme. I loved him on tape and like him even more after watching him down here. ... I'm just mad that the secret is out on my sleeper."

    Taylor is still being touted as a Day 3 prospect. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranks him 26th among wide receivers, and CBSSports.com slots him 16th. But that could change quickly if he showcases his natural athleticism under the bright combine spotlight.

    He has blazing vertical speed and adjusts well to the ball in the air on deep throws. That's led to Taylor being compared to the Arizona Cardinals' John Brown, a connection made by Rotoworld's Josh Norris. Taylor also accelerates quickly after the catch to pile up chunk yards, making him a dynamic threat who can sting opposing defenses in multiple ways.

    His 1,730 receiving yards ranked third in the nation in 2016, as did his 17 touchdown receptions.

Lorenzo Jerome, Safety

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    A Day 3 prospect needing time to develop isn't a setback. It's accepted, and usually expected. But the ideal situation is when that player can still make a meaningful contribution while working to hone his craft.

    Safety Lorenzo Jerome can be that guy because he's more than, well, just a safety.

    Jerome has quality instincts and the vision to break on balls to disrupt plays and create turnovers. He leaned on that skill base during his time with the St. Francis Red Flash, recording six interceptions, 11 passes defensed and 59 tackles during his senior season. Jerome finished his collegiate career with 18 interceptions and was named a first-team FCS All-American by the Associated Press in 2016.

    He put an exclamation point on his rise by beginning the draft season with two interceptions during an MVP performance in the NFLPA Bowl. So there's plenty to fuel his continued ascent as we march toward the combine. But Jerome will be valuable on any roster as a kick returner even if he's a mid- to late-round pick and doesn't have a starting opportunity immediately on defense.

    In addition to earning All-Northeast Conference first-team honors four times as a safety, Jerome was named to the team as a return specialist in 2016 for the second time (he was also a second-teamer in 2014) after averaging 28.9 yards per kick return—the second-best FCS mark in the country.

    He's the kind of promising player who can grow to become a multifaceted difference-maker.

John Johnson, Safety

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    John Johnson is another potential mid-round value pick at safety who could climb up the draft ladder with a solid combine showing. Or is he a cornerback?

    He played safety at Boston College in 2016 and had an excellent season, finishing with three interceptions, nine passes defensed and 77 tackles. He excelled in that role with his physicality, repeatedly showing the instincts to anticipate plays.

    "Read-and-react time is solid," FanSided's Erik Lambert wrote. "Gets to the football with urgency once he figures out where it's going. Not prone to bad mental mistakes."

    He's a hybrid and possibly a tweener, though, but maybe not in a bad way. At 6'1" and 205 pounds, he has safety size and can match up with tight ends.

    But Johnson could be better off as a larger cornerback in today's NFL, with its emphasis on muscular telephone poles at wide receiver. He has experience at that position in college, too, and spent part of 2015 playing on the outside. Johnson's cornerback background shows in his quality footwork and coverage skills.

    Maybe it won't matter where he plays. There's lots of room in the league for large-bodied and physical defensive backs who can line up at different positions. Now it's up to Johnson to prove he's one of those guys.

Jessamen Dunker, Guard

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If Jessamen Dunker didn't have an off-field misstep, he might be on the Day 2 draft radar or, at worst, early Day 3.

    But after being charged with grand theft auto and driving with a suspended license, Dunker transferred from the Florida Gators to the Tennessee State Tigers in 2013. That's when he began to quietly plug away and try to make his off-field mistake a memory.

    And, for now, he's exactly what any offensive line-needy team would want from a mid-round pick. At 6'4" and 306 pounds, he has the physical build to play either guard or tackle, though for now Dunker is more likely to be an interior lineman. He often shows quality technique and a fundamental blocking base.

    Those skills are raw, though, and as Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline noted at the Senior Bowl, the next frontier for Dunker will be turning his frequent flashes into more consistent high-end play.

    "Dunker displayed a lot of next-level ability the first two days of practice, although he was inconsistent," Pauline wrote in his assessment. "He's strong and explosive but also lacked balance and was often beaten."

    The tools are there, and, at minimum, Dunker has shown enough to raise scouting eyebrows, as he could be developed into something more.

Jordan Morgan, Guard

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Jordan Morgan made history when he arrived in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl as the first Kutztown University prospect at the game since John Mobley in 1996.

    That alone shows there could be something special about this offensive lineman. Morgan earned the invite by nabbing the Gene Upshaw Award, which is given annually to the best Division II lineman.

    And all that from someone who has only played football for a handful of years after picking up the sport for the first time as a senior in high school. And Morgan didn't realize he could call football a career until his sophomore year at Kutztown.

    "I'd say around my sophomore year of college, as I started to become a better player, I started to realize that I could do some things that not just any other player could," he told KYW Newsradio in January (via Matt Leon of CBS Philly). "From that point on, it became more of, 'OK, I really need to figure [out] how great I can be because I haven't seen a ceiling yet. I can do all these things in such a short amount of time that some guys who have been playing their whole life haven't even gotten to.' As I started to see that more, I started to become more excited, and that was pretty much my motivator throughout college in me developing my skill."

    There are plenty of unknowns with Morgan, and any team that drafts him will be like a kid reaching into a cereal box hoping they'll get a really cool toy.

    There's reason to have confidence, especially after Morgan became the first offensive lineman to be named offensive player of the year in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

    Pause for a moment to absorb what that means. No matter the division or conference, an offensive lineman isn't supposed to win offensive player of the year.

    But Morgan did, and now he's a lower-tier prospect only because there are a lot of talent evaluators who still need to learn about a guy who likely isn't remotely close to his ceiling. They'll get that chance soon.

Brendan Langley, Cornerback

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Brendan Langley's position path in college could give you whiplash. He was shifted back and forth between wide receiver and cornerback so often that it's remarkable the Lamar standout finally found footing at either position.

    The Georgia Bulldogs originally signed Langley as a top-25 cornerback recruit. Then they asked him to move to wide receiver before his freshman year. He did but still played intermittently at cornerback, even starting five games over two years.

    He transferred to Lamar in search of more playing time. He found it and became a consistent starter at cornerback, though even then Langley was still given scattered snaps at wide receiver.

    But his speed and coverage skills—he had six interceptions as a senior, tied for third-best in the nation among FCS players—have led to Langley's rising status throughout the predraft buildup.

    He's still raw in many ways, which should be expected for a prospect who hasn't logged much starting time yet at his position. That leaves Langley's canvas relatively blank, though—an inviting prospect for the right position coach to mold to their liking.

    And, as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted, Langley's wide receiver background may help him on the defensive side of the ball.

    "Former wide receiver with excellent ball skills," Zierlein wrote in his scouting report. "Uses well-timed leaps to high-point the football like a basketball rebounder. Comfortable from bail coverage and shows the eye discipline to manage his man and the quarterback's eyes at the same time."

    Langley's flaws are rooted in his form and technique, which can be addressed with NFL coaching. But his athleticism can't be taught.

Julie'n Davenport, Offensive Tackle

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Julie'n Davenport comes from a school that hasn't had a player drafted since 1969. But that's about to change—and possibly within the first 100 picks.

    How much Davenport climbs beyond that depends on both his combine showing and, perhaps more importantly, if league decision-makers think he can handle the significant jump in competition level.

    Here's what we can say for sure, though: He has the body and physical makeup to be an NFL bulldozer.

    Davenport stands 6'7" and weighs 310 pounds. His 36-inch arms were over an inch longer than those of any other player measured at the Senior Bowl.

    "There's very few people on this earth walking around with his length and his athletic ability," Bucknell offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton told Ed Valentine of Big Blue View.

    Davenport's size and strength alone could vault him into consideration to be drafted late on Day 2. The area in need of development is a common one for small-school offensive lineman: He must hone the consistent technique that will allow him to sustain and finish blocks.

    "Plays with inconsistent base width and balance," Zierlein wrote. "Will allow secure blocks to slip out of the side door due to poor footwork."

    Stapleton echoed those concerns, saying that though Davenport has solid technique, there are times when he needs to put an exclamation point on a play.

    "I'm not going to say he's a finesse guy, but you never want to be labeled one of those," he said. "He's got to continue to improve upon his ultimate finishing of a play or finishing of a defender, which he's grown in strides over the last three years."

    There's plenty of reason to believe that growth can continue; the 44-game starter at left tackle was named an all-conference player four times.

Dylan Donahue, Defensive Lineman

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Projecting whether college production will translate to the NFL is the difficulty with many of the prospects on this list so far. But if he's owning his conference, no matter the level of competition, a player is deserving of time, attention and resources from NFL front offices during the predraft process.

    For West Georgia defensive end Dylan Donahue, that conference was the Gulf South, and he set a record with 13.5 sacks in 2016.

    He also finished his final college season with 20 tackles for loss. His game film is filled with examples of how well he can use his speed off the edge to create a sharp angle to the quarterback and then lean on impressive agility to bend around that corner with ease.

    Donahue would be taking more than a step up in competition from the Gulf South Conference to the NFL; he'd be climbing a mountain guarded by offensive tackles who are much more fluid in their movements than his collegiate opponents. But at 6'3" and 240 pounds, he has ample size, and Pauline reported his 40-yard dash time is around 4.7 seconds.

    That's scary speed and size—the kind that can lead to production at any level.

Keionta Davis, Defensive End

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    At 6'3" and 274 pounds, Keionta Davis sauntered into the Senior Bowl as a promising large-bodied people-mover. That size combined with his quickness led to 24 sacks over his final two seasons at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

    Then he answered emphatically the familiar question of how he'd fare against a higher caliber of competition. Davis left the Senior Bowl with six tackles and one sack.

    If Davis tests well physically at the combine, he could rise up the draft board. On tape, he shows the power to set the edge, and NFL Network's Mike Mayock compared his body type to that of the Seahawks' Frank Clark.

    Davis has more than enough college production, including no less than 10.5 tackles for loss and six passes defensed in each of the last three seasons. Where he's drafted will depend on both his combine testing and how teams view his position fit.