NFL Draft 2017: Biggest Sleepers with 1 Month to Go
The story writes itself: A complete unknown emerges from nowhere to become a superstar in his respective sport, while the failing scout who found this hidden gem is suddenly rejuvenated.
Several Hollywood films are based on this premise, no matter how far-fetched. True NFL draft sleepers become more difficult to unearth with each passing year.
The event's coverage makes it nearly impossible for an unheralded prospect to take the draft by storm. Once the draft developed into a cottage industry, almost every available player and storyline is covered.
A few individuals do still fall through the cracks to a certain degree, however. This year, 330 players were invited to attend the NFL combine, but only 253 will be selected in April's draft. A handful of those who didn't attend the combine will be chosen, too.
Today's sleepers are those with a legitimate chance of hearing their name called despite not receiving the same recognition during the draft process as more highly regarded prospects.
QB Alek Torgersen, Penn
Everyone is looking for a quarterback.
Once the teams flock to the top prospects and pick them over like vultures, franchises will inevitably search for the next Dak Prescott. It's unlikely anyone will emulate the success Prescott achieved last season with the Dallas Cowboys, but he's what every team will aim for if it can't land a top talent early in the draft.
This year's quarterback class has been dissected from top to bottom. Even so, Penn's Alek Torgersen has traits that should intrigue teams later in the draft.
The 6'3", 230-pound Torgersen left Penn as the program's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (52), total yardage (7,937) and completion percentage (65.1). He's also the Ivy League's all-time leader in completion percentage during conference games at 67.4 percent.
After a rocky sophomore campaign, the three-year starter threw 36 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions over the last two seasons. His play led to an East-West Shrine Game invitation, and the California native proved to be the best quarterback there with his tight release, accuracy and decisiveness.
The Ivy League product will soon experience a drastic jump in both level of competition and learning an NFL offense, but his combination of natural tools and intelligence make him an ideal late-round prospect to develop.
WR Austin Carr, Northwestern
Some of the NFL's best wide receivers operate out of the slot. There's no longer a stigma around third receivers because the targets may be too small or slow to play outside the numbers.
Instead, slot receivers thrive in today's wide-open passing games. A different skill set is required to work over the middle of the field, separate in short areas and be able to consistently get open against more physical defensive backs.
Northwestern's Austin Carr is among the top slot receivers in this year's class. East Carolina's Zay Jones, Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, North Carolina Ryan Switzer and Louisiana Tech's Trent Taylor may receive more attention, but Carr is on their level as a top prospect for the role.
Carr is a fascinating young man. He came from a musically inclined family, and he's already an experienced actor, composer, singer and pianist. The former walk-on earned All-Academic honors during his collegiate career and developed as the Big Ten's best wide receiver. He was also a Fred Biletnikoff Award finalist after exploding on to the scene as a senior with 90 receptions for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Pro Football Focus graded the 6'1", 194-pound target as a top-three wide receiver in 2016.
At his pro day, Carr posted a 4.04-second short shuttle, per Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm. That number falls in line with Switzer, Jones, Taylor and Kupp, who all ran the event in 4.00 to 4.08 seconds at the combine.
WR Chad Williams, Grambling State
Go big or go home. That's what Grambling State's Chad Williams did this offseason.
Williams wasn't the best or most dynamic wide receiver at the Reese's Senior Bowl, but his ability and attitude caught everyone's attention, especially when he didn't back down from the nation's top defensive backs and even got into a fight.
"His body is just as big as those other guys'," Grambling State head coach Broderick Fobbs said, per the News Star's Sean Isabella. "He's just as fast as those other guys. He catches the ball just as well as those other guys, and he gets open."
Williams led Grambling State last season with 96 receptions for 1,420 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also has the physical tools to succeed as an NFL target.
According to NFL Media's Gil Brandt, the 6'1", 207-pound receiver posted strong numbers at Grambling's pro day with a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, a 38.5-inch vertical and 26 complete reps on bench—three more than any receiver had at the combine.
An off-the-field incident could hold Williams back, though. He was arrested last May for simple possession of marijuana and possession of a firearm, per Isabella.
TE Antony Auclair, Laval
Canadian prospects have become more prevalent in recent years.
In February, guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif signed a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. The organization originally selected the talented blocker in the sixth round after he showed promise at the East-West Shrine Game.
Much like Duvernay-Tardif, Laval's Antony Auclair made a name for himself at the Shrine Game. NFL teams are interested in the developmental prospect because he fits the ideal mold of a tight end.
At his pro day, Auclair measured nearly 6'6", weighed 256 pounds, benched 225 pounds 21 times, ran a 4.86-second 40-yard dash and 4.31-second short shuttle, recorded a 7.40-second three-cone drill and posted a 34-inch vertical and 9'6" broad jump, per NFL Media's Gil Brandt. He did all of that while dealing with a hamstring issue.
"He's got everything you want: perfect size, tenacious blocker, soft hands, smarts and runs well enough," a CFL evaluator told Sportsnet's Justin Dunk. "... Auclair's unique in that he might be a more valuable commodity south of the border than he would be up here because of the different styles of play."
Few tight ends coming into the league are viewed as capable of receiving and blocking well. Auclair has the potential to be a legitimate all-around tight end.
OG Kyle Kalis, Michigan
LeCharles Bentley is the O-line whisperer. The former Pro Bowl blocker turned a career-ending injury into an opportunity to find his calling: developing the next generation of offensive linemen.
Ohio State's Pat Elflein and Michigan's Kyle Kalis are his current projects. Elflein is considered this year's top center prospect. Predraft evaluations haven't been as kind to Kalis despite his potential to be an NFL starter.
Kalis leaves the Wolverines program as a three-year starter at right guard. He played in 50 games during his Michigan career, 43 of which he started.
After the season ended, the 6'4", 308-pound blocker appeared at both the East-West Shrine Game and the Reese's Senior Bowl and fared well against the best defensive talent collegiate football had to offer. Kalis is a technician who grew stronger with each passing season. He may even project to center for a few franchises.
NFL decision-makers will also love Kalis' bloodlines. His father, Todd, played eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
Kalis' development is in good hands.
DT DeAngelo Brown, Louisville
Two-down defenders don't hold much value in today's NFL. Since it's now a pass-first league, there's less attraction to players whose skill sets are best suited to stopping the run. As a result, strong run defenders like Louisville's DeAngelo Brown are downgraded.
Even so, there's still a place for nose tackles like Damon Harrison, Brandon Williams, Linval Joseph, etc.
Brown is a potential nose tackle/1-technique who is a bull at the point of attack. The 6'1", 310-pound defensive lineman was perhaps college football's strongest player in 2016, as he benched 315 pounds an astounding 21 times last offseason, according to Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman.
Brown isn't just a workout warrior, though. The defensive tackle led the Cardinals with 14.0 tackles for loss in 2016, and his play translated to the East-West Shrine Game, too. He was impossible to move in the middle against some of college football's best blockers and made multiple key tackles during the contest. The Georgia native finished with five defensive stops, per Pro Football Focus.
Being able to re-establish the line of scrimmage is just as important now as it's ever been. Brown should be able to carve out a role in the NFL, even if a team primarily uses him as a specialist.
LB Jimmie Gilbert, Colorado
Potential is a tricky topic when discussing prospects. Potential gets coaches fired if they don't develop young players who have the raw ability to play in the league. This year's class is littered with top prospects who only performed at a high level for a year or two.
Colorado's Jimmie Gilbert falls into that category.
As a senior, Gilbert finally became a full-time starter, and he didn't disappoint. The outside linebacker finished his final campaign in Boulder with 10.5 sacks, 16 more quarterback pressures and six forced fumbles, which leads all edge-rushers in this year's class.
The 6'5", 230-pound defender started 13 games across his first three seasons with the Buffs and led the team in sacks (six) in 2015. Yet he never played more than 517 snaps prior to the 2016 campaign, per Pro Football Focus. A bigger opportunity led to far more production.
Gilbert also performed well at Colorado's pro day, recording a 37.5-inch vertical and 4.62-second 40-yard dash before tweaking a hamstring, per Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline.
"Nobody wants to go free agent," Gilbert said after the pro day, per BuffZone.com's Brian Howell. "It happens, but everyone wants to hear their name called on TV. That's the goal. If I can make that happen, I'll be ecstatic."
LB Elijah Lee, Kansas State
Kansas State's Elijah Lee earned the designation of biggest combine snub. He was a first-team All-Big 12 selection after a junior campaign in which he led the Wildcats with 110 tackles and added 6.5 tackles for loss, three pass deflections, 1.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions.
Lee transitioned from defensive end to linebacker prior to the 2015 campaign, so he's still learning the position. He's also only 229 pounds, which means he needs to add bulk as he prepares to take on NFL blockers.
"I just want to show them my athletic ability," Lee told the Wichita Eagle's Kellis Robinett after he declared for the draft. "I am going to work on my size, add muscle and pass the eye test. That's my biggest goal."
According to NFL Media's Gil Brandt, Lee posted a 4.71-second 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical and 10'2" broad jump, a 4.36-second short shuttle and 7.14-second three-cone drill at his pro day. With those numbers, the Kansas State product finished among the top linebackers at the combine in multiple categories.
Lee is a work in progress, but his natural talent and production are undeniable.
CB Najee Murray, Kent State
A good nickel corner is more valuable than ever since NFL defenses rely so heavily on the the usage of sub-packages. More often than not, the nickel is on the field instead of a third linebacker. Thus, the defensive back's ability to cover while doubling as a reliable run defender is vital to a defense's success.
In a deep secondary class, Kent State's Najee Murray won't be found among the the top-rated cornerback prospects. His ability to cover slot receivers ranks among the best in the class, though.
"My physicality is what I could bring to a team, and I'm able to run with slot receivers," Murray told Raphael Haynes of the 3 Point Conversion.
The 5'9", 180-pound corner graded as the top defensive back working out of the slot last season, per Pro Football Focus, and finished 13th among all corners in overall coverage grade. The former Ohio State recruit was also tied for ninth overall at the FBS level in passes defended, according to his school bio.
At Friday's pro day, Murray ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, per KentWired's Jack Kopanski. The first-team All-MAC performer may not have the size or length NFL teams prefer, but he fits a specific role in the pros.
S David Jones, Richmond
Size matters, particularly in the secondary.
As the game continues to change, NFL teams search for defensive backs with plenty of length. The days when sub-6'0" cornerbacks dominated are long gone. The Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor, who stands 6'3" and 225 pounds, is the archetype of what many want in one of their safeties.
Richmond's David Jones isn't as big as Chancellor, but at 6'3" and 210 pounds, he's still a large safety. The Florida native also has the speed to play multiple positions. According to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, Jones ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at Richmond's pro day, and he also completed a 34-inch vertical and a 10'9" broad jump. All three marks would have qualified among the top 10 safeties at the NFL combine.
Jones entered the 2016 campaign as a highly regarded small-school prospect after leading the FCS level in interceptions (nine) during the previous season. However, his draft status took a hit when he fractured his left forearm for a second time in September. Now, he must rebuild his brand.
The preseason Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year started his career at cornerback before transitioning to safety. With his length, speed, versatility and ball-hawking skills, Jones fits everything organizations want in a modern safety.
All stats via CFBStats.com or school bios, unless otherwise noted.