NFL Draft 2019: All-Sleeper Team
What constitutes an NFL draft sleeper? The designation has changed over the years as the event has become widely covered.
Draft coverage has grown from a cottage industry of part-time writers interested in the league's talent acquisition process into a three-day gala simulcast on three major networks (including ABC for the first time this year).
Formerly, prospects no one knew anything about were deemed sleepers. Today, "sleeper" is a euphemism for lesser-known prospects who are usually selected in the later rounds but have the potential to contribute.
Diamonds in the rough are difficult to unearth thanks to the expansive coverage, but they're still out there. For example, no one foresaw the reigning Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman, who played quarterback at Kent State, as a future star. Someone on the New England Patriots did, though.
Sight beyond sight is needed to identify talented performers who aren't highly regarded.
For Bleacher Report's purposes, the 2019 NFL Draft All-Sleeper Team will be exclusively made up of projected Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) prospects who don't receive much attention despite their obvious talent.
Quarterback: Easton Stick, North Dakota State
The North Dakota State Bison program developed into a powerhouse at the FCS level by winning seven national championships in the last eight seasons. In doing so, the Bison benefited from an impressive string of quarterback talent.
Brock Jensen led the team to three championships before cups of coffee in the NFL and CFL. Carson Wentz took over, then became the second overall pick in the 2016 draft. Easton Stick developed into the most successful as the winningest quarterback in FCS history.
"I've been fortunate to learn the process of winning and what it looks like, there's a lot that goes into it," Stick said, per Andrew DiCecco of USA Today's Eagles Wire. "I was fortunate to learn a process that works and the mentality you have to have."
Stick's skill set falls between the two quarterbacks he succeeded. Statistically, Stick left the program as its all-time leader in passing yardage (8,693) and touchdown passes (88). The incoming prospect also ran the ball for 2,523 career yards and 41 touchdowns.
The program prepares its quarterbacks for the next level. They're under center, given plenty of pre-snap responsibilities and asked to make difficult NFL-caliber throws. Stick isn't Wentz, but he's good enough to develop into a long-term backup or potential starter.
Running Back: James Williams, Washington State
A third-down back or scatback designation used to carry negative connotations. As the game evolved, the value of certain running back traits changed.
Of course, every team wants a complete back capable of carrying the load and serving as a weapon in the passing game. However, teams are now taking advantage of mismatches with their running backs as primary targets.
Teams like the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns feature James White and Duke Johnson even though they're not every-down options.
Washington State's James Williams is the most natural receiver of any back in the upcoming draft class. The early entrant caught 202 passes in three seasons.
The 6'0", 205-pound back is also a slashing runner, who led Wazzu's Air Raid attack in rushing yardage two of the last three seasons.
"I feel like I'm going to get no better, because I'm going to come back and catch a bunch of balls and probably rush for 500 yards next season," Williams said, per the Spokane Spokesman-Review's Theo Lawson. "That could be different. I could get hurt—I mean, I could get hurt walking down the street right now out there. I'm healthy, so that's my main thing."
Wide Receiver: Jalen Hurd, Baylor
A position change rarely goes as smoothly as it did for Baylor's Jalen Hurd.
Hurd entered the collegiate ranks as one of the nation's most sought-after running backs. The 4-star recruit chose his home-state Tennessee Volunteers and managed 1,288 rushing yards during his sophomore campaign. Tennessee's coaching staff used Hurd more than Alvin Kamara that year.
The talented back decided to transfer after the 2016 campaign, sat out the '17 season and converted to wide receiver in Baylor's offense as a senior.
"He's such a team guy, he'll do whatever you need him to do," head coach Matt Rhule said in October, per the Tennessean's Mike Organ. "He hasn't done it in a while, so kind of getting him back in the swing of it here and there. When you need that tough yard, just (Hurd's) size alone, if he just falls forward it might get us an extra yard."
The 6'4", 217-pound Hurd is a body-beautiful slot receiver with the size to create mismatches against smaller corners. The transfer led the Bears with 69 receptions for 946 yards in his lone season as a receiver, and he's only going to get better once he learns to convert his natural athleticism into nuanced route-running.
Tight End: Donald Parham, Stetson
The trend Tony Gonzalez started as a basketball player/tight end will carry well beyond his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Teams are still searching for the right body type to convert.
Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Rico Gathers, Eric Swoope and Adam Shaheen continued the tradition.
Stetson's Donald Parham will be the next to add his name to the list, even though he took a slightly different path. Parham played only one year of high school football. The basketball standout then chose to continue his career on the gridiron instead of the hard court.
He developed from an afterthought on the roster to the Hatters' leading receiver. The FCS consensus All-American snagged 85 receptions for 1,319 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.
Parham's size sets him apart as an instant mismatch at the next level. He's every bit of 6'8" and 240 pounds. His length and ball skills instantly make him a red-zone or downfield option.
Like many young tight ends, he's far from a finished product. His in-line blocking is suspect. Basically, Parham is an oversized slot receiver. But his physical tools automatically provide a role in a professional scheme.
Offensive Tackle: Ryan Pope, San Diego State
Generally, NFL teams carry eight offensive linemen on their 53-man rosters with seven active on game days. Once the top prospects come off the board in the early rounds, versatility becomes a major factor in a blocker's overall value.
San Diego State's Ryan Pope started 21 games at right tackle before sliding to the blind side for his final three games. Pope continued to show his versatility by playing both positions in the East-West Shrine Game.
At 6'7" and 315 pounds with 35¼-inch arms, Pope is a massive blocker with the requisite measurements.
More importantly, the second-team All-Mountain West performer brings a nasty disposition. San Diego State linemen know how to run block. Pope blocked for Donnel Pumphrey, who ranks third in FBS history in yards, before Rashaad Penny took over and led major college football with 2,248 rushing yards in 2017.
Pope moves well for his size, too. He displays a fluid and natural deep set, though he could be a more effective pass-blocker with more patience and better balance.
Guard: Terronne Prescod, North Carolina State
Sometimes NFL franchises want tough and relentless interior blockers to win at the point of attack. North Carolina State's Terronne Prescod fits the description.
Some may view this as an old-school train of thought. However, rock-solid interior play doesn't just apply to the running game. A guard or center's ability to anchor and set the depth of the pocket for a quarterback to step into is more important than ever.
As such, bigger and more physical guards who can take on athletic defensive linemen without ceding ground make offenses better.
At 6'5" and 334 pounds, Prescod already has the girth to move people and hold his ground. He's not going to be driven into the backfield. Usually, the opposite happens with defenders being placed on roller skates.
According to Pro Football Focus, Prescod rated as college football's best guard and top run-blocker at the end of the regular season.
The North Carolina State offensive line featured three standouts this year. Garrett Bradbury is among the top three center prospects. Tyler Jones is draftable with tackle-guard versatility. Yet Prescod graded the best among the trio.
Center: Lamont Gaillard, Georgia
Three center prospects dominate the positions rankings, but Georgia's Lamont Gaillard isn't among them.
Mississippi State's Elgton Jenkins is a powerful interior presence, North Carolina State's Garrett Bradbury is an ideal zone-blocking pivot and Texas A&M's Erik McCoy falls between those two points as the most well-rounded.
A perceived drop-off occurs beyond those possibilities. A handful of quality centers will be found later in the process, though.
Gaillard started for three seasons in the country's toughest conference and has experience at guard and center after converting from defensive tackle.
"He came in as a defensive lineman and moved to the offensive line, so he understands what we do, and that helps give him an advantage on the offensive line," former teammate and defensive lineman Michael Barnett said before last season, per DawgNation's Mike Griffith.
The first-team All-SEC performer is a tad undersized at a listed 6'2" and 308 pounds, but that's generally fine for a center, especially one with his movement skills and playing strength.
"I have great technique and leverage," Gaillard said, per NFL Draft Blitz's Alex Khvatov.
Higher profile center prospects will come off the board earlier even though Gaillard could work his way into a starting lineup.
Edge-Rusher: Justin Hollins, Oregon
Justin Hollins' continued development as a member of the Oregon Ducks makes him one of the class' most intriguing edge-rusher prospects.
While Jalen Jelks entered the season as the program's top defensive prospect, Hollins set career highs with 14.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and six passes defended.
"The dude is just super athletic," former teammate Troy Dye said, per the Daily Emerald's Maggie Vanoni. "He's big, strong, physical, fast. He's everything you want in an outside linebacker and then some."
Forget Hollins' specific designation for a moment; he's an edge-defender. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded Hollins as the Pac-12's best edge-defender.
NFL teams will view him as everything from a "Sam" linebacker to a 3-4 outside linebacker to a wide-9 to a pass-rush specialist. What matters is he harasses opposing quarterback thanks to a combination of impressive length (6'5" and 245 pounds with a 79⅝-inch wingspan), lower-body flexibility to turn the corner and relentless hustle. If he doesn't get to the quarterback, he's adept at knocking down passes.
Defensive Tackle: Matt Nelson, Iowa
Matt Nelson's teammate, Anthony Nelson, will draw far more attention as an edge-rusher, but the interior defender is solid in his own right with the ability to step into a lineup as a 1-, 3- or 5-technique because of his size, length and stellar technique.
At 6'8" and 295 pounds, Nelson doesn't look like a typical defensive tackle. He began his career at defensive end before moving inside during the 2017 campaign. Nelson has been well-coached by Kirk Ferentz's staff. His ability to stack and shed blockers ranks among the class' best.
Whichever team acquires Matt Nelson will know two things: He has options and interests outside of football—medical school—and he's a sponge. The defensive lineman is a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.
"He's a remarkable kid in so many ways," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said, per Hawk Central's Chad Leistikow. "He is probably the most selfless person on the team. He has no ego."
Matt Nelson's injury history will affect his draft status, though. He's had three surgeries, including shoulder surgery after the 2017 season. Even so, this future physician played 13 games in each of his four seasons and recorded 111 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Linebacker: Ulysees Gilbert III, Akron
The speed at which the game is played gets faster with every generation. Lighter, more athletic defenders are needed to counteract wide-open passing attacks. Linebackers, in particular, have been affected. Snarling, downhill run defenders have been phased out of the game.
The heavy reliance on sub-packages mandates more athleticism at the position and comfort to work in space.
Akron's Ulysees Gilbert III is one of the class' fastest defenders.
"He's very, very good," former Akron head coach Terry Bowden told The Athletic's Chris Vannini. "I had Takeo Spikes [at Auburn]. He's not quite Takeo, but Ulysses has such great talent. He's very fast. For a 230-pound linebacker, he'll run under a 4.5 every time."
Speed is only part of the equation. Gilbert is a reliable and productive linebacker with above-average instincts. The two-time All-MAC selection piled up 353 tackles and 28.5 tackles for loss in 50 career games.
"He's a talented player who will play in the NFL because of his skill and size," Bowden added. "... He's good enough."
Cornerback: Jimmy Moreland, James Madison
Ball skills matter.
Defensive schemes are built around creating turnovers to offset chunk plays by explosive passing attacks. As a result, a greater focus is placed on defensive prospects who can tilt the field in the opposite direction.
Jimmy Moreland left James Madison as the program's all-time interceptions leader with 18.
"You have to get three and outs or cause a turnover on defense," Moreland told NFL Draft Blitz's Alex Khvatov. "... Getting a turnover is a good motivator for the offense. I try to help the offense get the ball quicker and score."
Two issues will hold the talented corner back despite his nose for the football.
First, he's undersized at 5'10" and 179 pounds with 29½-inch arms. However, the Carolina Panthers used a second-round pick on Donte Jackson in 2018 despite similar measurables. Also, Moreland missed the 2015 campaign after he was dismissed from the program following a petit larceny charge.
It's hard to overlook a prospect like Moreland, who defended 63 passes and scored six defensive touchdowns.
Safety: Malik Gant, Marshall
A year ago, a former walk-on became the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Marshall's Malik Gant will go a few rounds later than Baker Mayfield did, but his rise from a recruit with zero FBS offers to an early entrant in the NFL draft is quite impressive.
"Most of the things that they wanted me to improve on were weight-wise, and goals, as far as build and certain attributes, were attainable," Gant said of feedback from the NFL, per the Herald-Dispatch's Grant Taylor. "It really helped me to make the decision as to whether I wanted to come back or declare for the draft. It pushed me more toward declaring for the draft."
The 6'2", 200-pound safety stuffed the stat sheet with 89 tackles, nine tackles for loss, eight passes defended and two interceptions in 2018.
He is at his best when working near the line of scrimmage with the ball in front of him. Gant is also a technically sound yet violent tackler.
While he excels playing downhill, he is solid in coverage as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Gant allowed only 0.5 yards per coverage snap.