2017 NFL Draft: Who Are This Year's Biggest Sleepers?

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Who Are This Year's Biggest Sleepers?

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    The NFL draft used to be just a personnel meeting in a hotel. Now, it's a three-day event that has taken over New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia in the past four years. 

    Because it's a three day event, the analysis, at best, reflects those splits. More than a third of the coverage is centered around the first 32 picks of the draft, the first round. About a third of the coverage is centered around the next two rounds, Day 2, which is 75 picks long this year.

    Then come the Day 3 prospects, a whole different world. Last year, the television networks struggled to find video of Tyreek Hill, a former Oklahoma State skill player who transferred to West Alabama and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round. The year before, Rodney Gunter of Delaware State was taken with the 17th pick of the third day of the draft, when he had fringe free-agent grades at best on most NFL draft websites, like NFL Draft Scout. Often, even media members are left scratching their heads, asking, "Who is that?"

    The NFL draft is a 256-pick event, but the vast emphasis is spent on analyzing, understandably so, the first 100 or so selections. In a late attempt to break that mold, we'll dig up some Day 3 gems you should know on draft weekend, including why they're being undervalued so you have something to root for and track during Day 3's 149-pick stretch on April 29.

    These eight players are this year's candidates to be the next David Bakhtiari, Jay Ajayi or Dak Prescott.

Phillip Walker, QB, Temple

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Former New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells has well-documented criteria for bringing in college quarterbacks. He wanted a senior with three years of starting experience and at least 23 wins under his belt.

    Phillip Walker of Temple led the Owls to back-to-back double-digit-win seasons for the first time in school history. In conference, the team went 14-2 over the last two years—the first back-to-back seasons in which Temple had more than twice as many wins as losses since the 1978-1979 stretch. Walker is a "winner" and a senior quarterback.

    NFL Draft Scout claims that Walker is 5'11" and change, which is likely why he wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game. There are certain teams that take shots at smaller quarterbacks, though. Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle noted that Walker was an official invite for the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.

    Green Bay was a team that once flirted with the idea of Michael Vick, a sub-6'0" quarterback with a rocket arm, according to Mike Perrin of the Birmingham News, and general manager Ted Thompson was also in Seattle when the Seahawks drafted Seneca Wallace, another sub-6'0" quarterback, who had a cup of tea and even started in Green Bay.

    John Schneider, a former Green Bay front office member, is now the general manager of the Seahawks, the team whose quarterback depth chart has just two names: Russell Wilson and Trevone Boykin. Both quarterbacks measure under 6'0". If Green Bay's influence really does spread around the league, then it makes sense that the Giants would look at Walker since head coach Ben McAdoo spent 2004 through 2013 with Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, including from 2006 on in Green Bay.

    Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo's starting quarterback, was measured in at 6'0" and change during his predraft process. It makes since that the Bills would be in the market for someone who can emulate Taylor's athleticism, and Walker's pro day three-cone time of 6.90 seconds would only have been bested by three running backs at this year's combine, had he been invited.

    Walker has thrown for over 10,000 passing yards and 83 total touchdowns in his college career. In each of the last two years, he's taken steady increases in completion percentage from 53.3 percent to 56.7 percent and eventually 58.2 percent. Plenty of draftable quarterbacks have to overcome more than just height to be a successful passer in the NFL.

Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    If you ever get a chance to watch Marlon Mack of South Florida run the ball, just think of LeSean McCoy. Not only is their build fairly similar, but Mack's playing style of wanting to one-on-one shake a player in space is very similar to McCoy. How he holds the ball, like it's a load of bread, also makes the comparison even tighter.

    If you look at their athletic profiles, with McCoy's coming from his pro day on NFL Draft Scout, Mack is actually more explosive for his size.

    • Marlon Mack: 5'11, 213, 4.50
    • LeSean McCoy: 5'10, 198, 4.50

    According to Pro Football Focus, Mack has the fifth-best "breakaway percentage" of running backs eligible for the 2017 draft. That's at 213 pounds. Only one running back, Jeremy McNichols of Boise State, was both heavier and faster than Mack at the combine, and that was by 0.01 seconds in the 40-yard dash and just one pound heavier.

    After three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and earning his head coach a call up from South Florida to Oregon, Mack felt like he had nothing left to prove in Tampa and declared a year early for the draft. For whatever reason, the draft community just has never come around for the Mack narrative with all of the action around Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Cook, Kamara and Mixon this winter and spring.

Will Holden, OT, Vanderbilt

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    If you're looking for a 6'7" offensive lineman in the first four rounds with a 4.72-second short shuttle and a 7.71-second three-cone, you're going to get frustrated. It's not easy to find those bodies, but they do pay massive returns when you find them.

    Since 2008, these are the offensive linemen who fit that mold in the first four rounds of the draft:

    • Eric Fisher, first pick in the 2013 draft
    • Taylor Lewan, 11th pick in the 2014 draft
    • Nate Solder, 17th pick in the 2011 draft
    • Anthony Castonzo, 22nd pick in the 2011 draft
    • Sebastian Vollmer, 58th pick in the 2009 draft
    • Jared Veldheer, 69th pick in the 2010 draft

    Collectively, the five linemen not on rookie contracts make north of $44 million per season on their current deals, which on average makes them all paid like top-20 offensive tackles in a sport with 64 starters at that position alone. That's not including Lewan, who is in for a huge payday soon after making the Pro Bowl as a 25-year-old.The next player who is going to be added to that list will be Will Holden, who was a standout left tackle for Vanderbilt. He participated in the East-West Shrine Game, and he was also a late call-up for the Senior Bowl.

    He only played in one practice and the game in Mobile, Alabama, but when I watched him firsthand, he was one of the more impressive offensive linemen at the event the moment he put his helmet on. On the last rep of the offensive line's run drills in the week, again Holden's first time through a Senior Bowl practice, he and Troy's Antonio Garcia drove Keionta Davis of Tennessee-Chattanooga directly into the Cleveland Browns defensive line coach and folded him, to the applause of everyone in Ladd Peebles Stadium.

    He may take some elbow grease early on, but Holden will be a starting-caliber bookend, and that means he will be a value for whichever team takes him outside of the first two rounds.

Chase Roullier, IOL, Wyoming

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Interior offensive line may be the most overlooked position in the sport in terms of how much focus the fans have on it. It's obvious you guys don't want jargon at a position that you're going to overlook anyway, so here are some numbers for you.

    These are the selections from the first four rounds since 2007 who measured over 6'3.5" to 6'4"-flat with a short shuttle of at least 4.75 seconds and a three-cone of at least 7.75 seconds:

    • Ryan Kelly, 18th pick in 2016 draft
    • Alex Mack, 21st pick in 2009 draft
    • Eric Wood, 28th pick in 2009 draft
    • Cody Whitehair, 56th pick in 2016 draft
    • Ali Marpet, 61st pick in 2015 draft
    • Jamon Brown, 72nd pick in 2015 draft
    • Isaac Seumalo, 79th pick in 2016 draft
    • Marshal Yanda, 86th pick in 2007 draft
    • Allen Barbre, 119th pick in 2007 draft
    • J.C. Tretter, 122nd pick in 2013 draft
    • Josh Sitton, 135th pick in 2008 draft

    Agility numbers matter a lot for offensive linemen, even at center. The centers on that list are Kelly, Mack, Wood, Whitehair and Tretter, all players who look to be hits at the moment, though Seumalo did play center in college. Chase Roullier of Wyoming, with experience at both guard and center, has a chance to add himself to that list this year.

    Roullier played in Wyoming's pro-style system under Craig Bohls, the same head coach who brought in Carson Wentz to North Dakota State and built that overlooked program into an FCS powerhouse. Roullier is a featured offensive lineman, pulling, folding and overall playing like the Cowboys' Jason Kelce.

    In the last two years, Wyoming's top back, Brian Hill, another 2017 draft prospect, rushed for 3,491 yards, including 22 for paydirt in just 2016 alone. Pro Football Focus, a site that grades prospects on on-field production, not combine athleticism, has Roullier ranked as the second-best center in the class.

    Lastly, here are all of the offensive linemen in the first four rounds since 2007 who have posted a 4.47-second short shuttle or better:

    • Eric Fisher, first pick in 2013 draft
    • Jake Matthews, sixth pick in 2014 draft
    • Taylor Lewan, 11th pick in the 2014 draft
    • Nate Solder, 17th pick in 2011 draft
    • Anthony Castonzo, 22nd pick in 2011 draft
    • Joe Staley, 28th pick in 2007 draft
    • Xavier Su'a-Filo, 33rd pick in the 2014 draft
    • Joel Bitonio, 35th pick in the 2014 draft
    • Jason Spriggs, 48th pick in the 2016 draft
    • Jake Fisher, 53rd pick in the 2015 draft
    • Ryan Kalil, 59th pick in the 2007 draft
    • Mike Pollak, 59th pick in the 2008 draft
    • Samson Stele, 60th pick in the 2007 draft
    • Ali Marpet, 61st pick in the 2015 draft
    • T.J. Lang, 109th pick in the 2009 draft

    Roullier has rare traits, production, experience and played in a pro-style system. "Wyoming" next to his name is going to make him a value for a smart general manager.

Grover Stewart, DL, Albany State

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    According to Mock Draftable's database, which stretches back to 1999, there are only four defensive linemen who are heavier than Albany State's Grover Stewart on the site. The difference between Stewart and, say, a Terrence Cody or a Daniel McCullers? First, the Division II prospect won't be overrated for playing in the Southeastern Conference, and second, he's much more athletic than those two monster nose tackles.

    For a reference, here's what Stewart looks like when compared to Dontari Poe, B.J. Raji, Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams, the top-100 freak nose tackles in this generation of football:

    • Grover Stewart: 347 lbs, 7.71 3-cone
    • Dontari Poe: 346 lbs, 7.90 3-cone
    • B.J. Raji: 337 lbs, 7.90 3-cone
    • Haloti Ngata: 338 lbs, 7.97 3-cone
    • Brandon Williams: 335 lbs, 8.09 3-cone

    Already, he seems to be a noted riser. Tony Pauline of Draft Analyst stated that there was an expectation that every NFL franchise would have a representative at Albany State's pro day. That usually doesn't happen at some Power Five schools, let alone a Division II school. Stewart was clearly a combine snub, as the league is interested.

    The best comparison to Stewart's game is likely Akiem Hicks, a former LSU commit who never stuck and had to play football in Canada for Regina. He was the New Orleans Saints' first overall pick in the 2012 draft after the Bountygate scandal and recently recorded a suspiciously quiet seven-sack season with the Chicago Bears at 336 pounds.

    • Grover Stewart: 6'4, 347 lbs, 7.71 3-cone
    • Akiem Hicks: 6'5, 318 lbs, 7.75 3-cone

    Stewart is like Hicks, a freak athlete nose tackle playing against lower-quality opponents, but he's even thicker and more explosive.

Vince Biegel, EDGE, Wisconsin

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Vince Biegel has had the misfortune of playing opposite Joe Schobert and T.J. Watt over the last few seasons. Schobert was a first-team All-American and Butkus Award winner. Watt was a second-team All-American and is the brother of NFL superstar J.J.

    It's understandable that happens, especially considering the man-blitz style of play that Wisconsin fields defensively, where outside linebackers are in coverage just as often as they are going after the passer. Really, no one is to blame, it's just unfortunate for Biegel as an individual.

    Teams that will pay attention, though, will notice something very interesting. If they weren't distracted by Watt's combine numbers alone, they will realize how rare Biegel's combine times were, too.

    Since 2005, in the first four rounds of the draft, there have only been nine college pass-rushers who have:

    1. posted at least a 4.67-second 40-yard dash time
    2. were at least 245 pounds or heavier
    3. posted at least a 6.92-second three-cone time

    Here are those players:

    • Von Miller, second pick in 2011 draft
    • Vic Beasley, eighth pick in 2015 draft
    • Anthony Barr, ninth pick in 2014 draft
    • DeMarcus Ware, 11th pick in 2005 draft
    • Bruce Irvin, 15th pick in 2012 draft
    • Connor Barwin, 46th pick in 2009 draft
    • Cliff Avril, 92nd pick in 2008 draft
    • Zak DeOssie, 116th pick in 2007 draft

    Miller, Beasley, Ware, Barwin and Avril were all fear pass-rushers at different points in their careers. Barr and Irvin are top-tier outside linebackers after being moved off the ball as professionals. Even DeOssie, the one black eye on this list, has been to two Pro Bowls as a special-teamer.

    Pro Football Focus has Biegel listed as a top-100 player for them, noting his 99 pressures over the last two years. Biegel also has a better pass-rush-attempt grade (+24.3 pass rush on 242 rush plays) than Watt does (+26.0 pass rush grade on 278 rush plays) on Wisconsin's grade page. Biegel also recorded five more quarterback hurries than Watt did, on fewer reps.

    Who does this sound like? Which hyper-athletic pass-rusher was overlooked in his linebacker unit in college and had a lack of production but obvious talent? In 2009, four USC linebackers were drafted in the first four rounds: Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava.

    • Vince Biegel: 6'3, 246, 4.67, 6.92, 15 college sacks
    • Clay Matthews: 6'3, 240, 4.67, 6.90, 5.5 college sacks

    Biegel is about as close to Matthews as you can get in college, number and all, but since Watt is the one with the famous last name this time, he's going to be a fringe Day 2-Day 3 prospect but a potential double-digit-sack talent.

Shaquill Griffin, CB, Central Florida

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Shaquill Griffin of Central Florida is in today's mold of cornerbacks. Teams want them long, fast and quick to play man or zone down the sideline. Ball skills are also a premium for outside cornerbacks, who are tested down the sideline and must make teams think twice about going deep against man coverage with no safety help or only middle-of-the-field safety help.

    He checks off every single one of those boxes. He's a quarter-inch short of 6'0"-flat. He ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. He ran a 6.87-second three-cone. He ran a 4.14-second short shuttle. There are the athleticism boxes.

    He also had a 38.5" vertical, and the only player in college football with more pass breakups and interceptions than him was Tedric Thompson of Colorado, a safety. There's the ball skills box.

    Pro Football Focus has Griffin ranked as their 89th overall player, much higher than most media outlets. There's where production and athleticism meet up. The problem is he's also their 18th overall cornerback in the deep draft class at the position, which is why Griffin is going to linger on draft day. That's how and why talent slips.

    For reference, there are only five defensive backs since 2010 drafted in the first four rounds who can match Griffin's 40-yard-dash and agility times from the combine:

    • Patrick Peterson, fifth pick in 2011 draft
    • Desmond Trufant, 22nd pick in 2013 draft
    • Jason Verrett, 25th pick in 2014 draft
    • Josh Robinson, 66th pick in 2012 draft
    • Phillip Gaines, 87th pick in 2014 draft

    He has more in common with Pro Bowl cornerbacks than some defensive backs who have been mocked in the first round at various points in the draft cycle. Griffin's time has just never come around. It will in the NFL.

Xavier Woods, S, Louisiana Tech

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    Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

    Xavier Woods does everything for Louisiana Tech. He plays single-high safety, he plays in an overhang role like a slot cornerback or strong safety, and he plays a boundary safety role, the one that made Damarious Randall a first-round cornerback prospect.

    After Malik Hooker of Ohio State and Budda Baker of Washington, the best single-high-coverage prospect very well might be Woods in this draft. After three-straight first-team All-Conference USA teams, you'd think Woods would be getting more hype in this draft class. Unfortunately, defensive back is too deep for eyes to focus in on Ruston, Louisiana.

    At the combine, Woods measured in a quarter-inch short of 5'11" with a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, a 6.72-second three-cone and a 4.13-second short shuttle. Here are the seven top-100 defensive backs to hit or beat those numbers since 2010:

    • Patrick Peterson, fifth pick in 2011 draft
    • Stephon Gilmore, 10th pick in 2012 draft
    • Desmond Trufant, 22nd pick in 2013 draft
    • Devin McCourty, 27th pick in 2010 draft
    • Eric Rowe, 47th pick in 2015 draft
    • Phillip Gaines, 87th pick in 2014 draft
    • Will Davis, 93rd pick in 2013 draft

    That's it. Of those seven players, all but McCourty are cornerbacks, and McCourty has even flirted with the position at points in his career. It's also worth noting that Gilmore, McCourty and Rowe are all on the New England Patriots roster.

    If you compare Woods and McCourty head-to-head, it's easy to label the Bulldog a "poor man's McCourty."

    • Xavier Woods: 5'11, 197, 4.54, 6.72, 4.13
    • Devin McCourty: 5'11, 193, 4.48, 6.70, 4.07

    In three years, everyone will be wondering how Woods' name wasn't mentioned as at least a Day 2 prospect.


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