2019 NFL Draft: Top Sleepers Still Flying Under the Radar with a Month to Go
A "sleeper" is someone whose perceived value is lower than what it should be, meaning he could become a steal in the NFL draft. These guys may slide to Day 3, and some even go undrafted.
Ultimately, they can sometimes be as effective as "premium" players.
Be it poor athletic testing, lackluster production, unrefined skills or a difficult scheme projection, prospects fall for a number of reasons. What sets them apart from the rest of their Day 3 counterparts is they possess a trait or profile that suggests they can overcome their low draft slot.
Let's take a look at some of this year's underappreciated prospects who could prove to be steals.
Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
This isn't the first time Justice Hill has been underappreciated. Coming out of high school in 2016, he was a 3-star recruit who barely eked into 247Sports' top-1,000 composite rankings. He went on to start immediately at Oklahoma State.
As a freshman, Hill racked up over 1,000 rushing yards at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry with six rushing touchdowns. He took it a step further the following season with nearly 1,500 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, both of which were first in the Big 12, while maintaining his 5.5 yards per carry. Hill missed a few games his junior season because of a minor rib injury but had a 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
His only statistical blemish is a lack of receiving production. He caught just 49 passes for 304 yards and one touchdown, never proving to be more than an emergency checkdown option.
At 5'9⅝" and 198 pounds, he ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, which ranked in the 93rd percentile among all running backs. His 40-inch vertical jump placed in the 93rd percentile too, and his 130-inch broad jump reached into the 96th percentile.
Hill is an explosive player with home run speed, and the film backs this up. He is a short, compact runner with excellent lateral burst and the ability to seamlessly return to top speed after making a move. He also possesses quietly impressive strength and balance for a smaller back.
Additionally, Hill runs with ample vision and patience across and through the line of scrimmage. Throughout his time at Oklahoma State, they mixed in a good deal of zone concepts with man and gap looks, so he should be able to slot into any scheme fit.
Hill's size and mediocre receiving production may lead to a slide in the draft as far as into Day 3, but he will become a productive back. His athleticism and vision make for a useful combination.
Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State
Quarterbacks with both supreme physical talent and requisite mental capabilities rarely fall in the draft, save for unique cases like Russell Wilson. And a majority of "project" quarterbacks will fail to develop into anything valuable—a scenario that plays out every season.
The goal in drafting a quarterback outside the top 50 is to aim for a player with the baseline skills to be an NFL starter who may have slipped for not having great arm strength, athleticism or size.
Enter Brett Rypien, a four-year starter from Boise State. In all four seasons, he ranked in the top two in passing yards and in the top three in adjusted yards per attempt in the Mountain West. His career 8.7 adjusted yards per attempt is second all time in the Mountain West, trailing only Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (8.8). He is also the leader in career passing yards all time in the Mountain West with 13,578.
What separates Rypien from the pack of other mid- or late-round quarterbacks is how prepared he is. Not only does he have NFL pedigree through his uncle Mark Rypien, formerly of the Washington Redskins, but he played in a pro-style system at Boise State that tasked him with a lot of responsibility.
The offense featured a boatload of formations, both under center and shotgun, as well as a number of shifts, motions and pre-snap adjustments that Rypien was responsible for understanding and orchestrating. Boise State's offense also huddled more often than not, which is not something most college offenses do anymore. He is used to receiving the play call and delivering it to his huddle the way NFL teams will commonly ask of him.
As a passer, Rypien does not dazzle, but he does all the things a capable NFL quarterback needs to do. He is accurate enough to all levels of the field, shows fortitude within the pocket, and does an impressive job of remaining on schedule with his progression reads.
The concern with Rypien's film is that he does not flash top-tier arm strength and has a tendency to be too confident in his pre-snap reads at times, leading to foolish interceptions. Sprinkle that on top of not playing in a Power Five conference, and it becomes clear why he is likely to slide.
If Rypien falls to Day 3, he will be a steal. He possesses all the skills of a reliable backup, with the potential to grow into a low-end starter. That may not sound like a sexy pick, but competent quarterback play is tough to come by, much less so late.
Emanuel Hall, WR, Missouri
The 2019 wide receiver class is loaded. From athletes such as D.K. Metcalf and Parris Campbell to technicians such as Deebo Samuel and N'Keal Harry, quality wide receivers can be found up and down the draft. Because of that, a handful will surely be had at value as compared to where they would go in a normal class.
When drafting on Day 3, sometimes the best approach is to get a player with a specific skill set. Well-rounded prospects with impressive athletic ability don't tend to fall.
Missouri's Emanuel Hall fits the bill, as he can be a fantastic deep threat if utilized properly. Not only did he produce at a decent clip in college, but he also tore up the combine.
Since he did not break out until his junior season and missed a handful of games during his senior season, Hall's career 2,016 yards and 16 touchdowns are not terribly impressive. However, he averaged a whopping 23.5 yards per reception over his final two seasons.
He was on pace to break 1,000 yards during his senior season if not for a minor groin injury that sidelined him for five games. Missouri went 1-4 in Hall's absence, though losses to Alabama and Georgia were likely to happen with or without him.
At the combine, Hall further cemented his status. Not only did he run a 4.39-second 40-yard dash (87th percentile) at 6'1⅞", 201 pounds, he also reached 43.5 inches in the vertical jump (98th) and 141 inches in the broad jump (99th). Those marks would be impressive for a wide receiver of any size, much less someone with a slightly above-average build.
For teams with a hankering for a pure deep threat, Hall is their guy. Some drop issues and a one-trick-pony style of play may hinder his overall production, but vertical or spread teams such as the Cardinals, Buccaneers and Chiefs could find value in Hall.
Ben Banogu, EDGE, TCU
Athleticism is paramount as an edge-rusher. A handful of high-level players such as Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers can get by with exceptional strength and technique, but they are not the norm. By and large, rushing the passer is about being a better athlete than the opponent and understanding how to maximize that athleticism.
Of course, pass-rushers with that kind of athleticism, as well as the understanding of how to maximize it, do not often fall in the draft. Florida State's Brian Burns, for example, is an excellent athlete with good technique and an array of pass-rush moves to boot. Those players go in the first round.
Less refined athletes like TCU's Ben Banogu, however, can fall.
Banogu did not score worse than the 80th percentile in any of the drills at the combine. In fact, his 4.62-second 40-yard dash (90th percentile) and 134-inch broad jump (99th) were among the best in this class for edge defenders. His 7.02-second three-cone drill (80th) wasn't too shabby, either.
The athletic testing lines up with what Banogu shows on tape. He is an explosive, fluid pass-rusher who can fly off the line and work around the edge. TCU also asked him to loop inside on "twist" calls quite often to take advantage of his agility and speed in the open field. The arsenal of pass-rush moves and versatility in his approach are not there yet, but he has the athletic tools to be a force if he can learn them.
Banogu's downfall, on top of his lack of refinement, is his middling play strength. At 6'3½" and 250 pounds, he is on the lighter side for edge players, and it shows on film sometimes. For as many times as he flies off the ball and gets into the backfield, he also gets pummeled by offensive linemen who get a good grip on him from the start. That may limit his role, especially early on, if he cannot add weight and/or strength.
That said, Banogu's athletic profile and quality production are too enticing for a player who may get pushed to Day 3. He checks all the non-film boxes as a prospect, and even his film, though imperfect, shows potential. A team with the luxury of being able to develop a pass-rusher behind established starters may eventually get a star in Banogu.
Ryan Bates, OL, Penn State
Touting a player from running back Saquon Barkley's notoriously bad Penn State offensive line as a sleeper may feel out of place, but Ryan Bates has a few traits that stand out.
He started most of his career at left tackle but also started a few games at right tackle in 2018 and a handful of games at left guard in 2016.
Considering most NFL teams only activate about eight offensive linemen on game day, which is not enough for a full two-deep, having offensive linemen who can comfortably play multiple positions is valuable. It can save an active roster spot for extra help on defense, elsewhere on offense or on special teams.
Bates can play multiple positions in part because he is an impressive athlete. He did not jump particularly well at the combine, but his 7.45-second three-cone drill (88th percentile) and 4.53-second short shuttle drill (87th) served to highlight his mobility in space.
His 5.09-second 40-yard dash was also among the best in his group. For offensive linemen, showcasing that level of agility and short-area quickness is the most important aspect of the combine because they will have to keep up with faster, lighter players than them in the NFL.
The concern with Bates is his play strength. He is not the meanest offensive lineman out there, nor does he have the strength to be that even if he tried. That is not to say Bates gets bullied on the regular, but he doesn't have the power to simply move defenders off their spot.
Bates' instant value as a multiposition player coupled with his athletic potential makes him a candidate to be a Day 3 steal. It may take a couple of seasons for him to adjust and strengthen up before he blossoms in the NFL, but he has the versatility and athleticism to end up better than some of his college tape showed.
Tony Pollard, OW, Memphis
Top running back Darrell Henderson is not the only explosive offensive player coming out of Memphis. His teammate, Tony Pollard, is also a devastating big-play threat.
Pollard's role at Memphis was more ambiguous than Henderson's. Henderson was a true running back with some receiving responsibilities, but Pollard was a do-it-all player who lined up all over.
He does not excel at any one thing, but he can play a variety of roles at a baseline level. As such, he could be found in the backfield like a typical running back, in the slot as a receiver or even taking the snap as a wildcat quarterback.
He was also a fantastic kick returner, as he returned seven kicks for touchdowns on 87 career attempts.
Pollard can be used as a decoy or "formation-setter" for creative offenses. The Patriots, for example, like to split their running backs out as receivers or motion them in and out of the backfield before the snap to force the defense to reveal its coverage shell. That's where Pollard will have value.
More likely than not, he will be had at a discount late on Day 3. Pollard's athletic profile is average, and his production was below average because he was overshadowed by Henderson. Those two factors combined with Pollard's vague position status make him a tough projection by traditional standards.
That said, the amount of creativity he opens up for a coordinator should be enticing. He would also be an efficient roster spot, as he can play running back and receiver, and he can also return kicks.
Foster Moreau, TE, LSU
Sometimes players fall in the draft because their college tape was misrepresentative of what they will be in the NFL. In other words, it is possible for a player to be miscast in their college scheme only to be unleashed in a more fitting role in the NFL.
LSU tight end Foster Moreau is a victim of this.
First, understand how capable an athlete Moreau is to appreciate how misused he was. He measured in at 6'4⅛" and 253 pounds at the NFL combine and subsequently excelled in most of the drills.
He ran a 4.66-second 40-yard dash (76th percentile), jumped out of the facility with a 36.5-inch vertical jump (86th) and 121-inch broad jump (85th), and he showcased excellent agility with a class-best 4.11-second short shuttle drill (95th). That is not Vernon Davis-level athleticism, but Moreau is a capable athlete who should be a mismatch nightmare in the pass game.
Instead, he was primarily a blocking tight end for LSU's heavy-personnel offense. Even on passing downs, LSU often held him back as a sixth pass protector to give time for the offense to rip it down the field on long play-action shot plays. LSU's offense was decent with this style, but it severely hindered what Moreau could show in the open field.
Moreau only caught 46 passes for 550 yards and five touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter. In the few chances he got to be a receiving threat, he flashed the open-field mobility and catch radius to be a good tight end in the pros.
It is understandable for teams to be wary of the small sample and push Moreau down their draft boards, and he will likely fall to the back end of the third round or into Day 3. To get a starting tight end at that value—which he projects to be if used more as a receiving and mismatch problem—is a bargain.
Trevon Wesco, H/TE, West Virginia
West Virginia's Trevon Wesco is the embodiment of where "bully" spread offenses with heavier personnel sets are moving toward.
Though listed as a tight end for ranking purposes, Wesco is not a tight end in the traditional sense. He does not line up as an in-line player on the line of scrimmage often. Instead, he can be a fullback, a wing tight end removed from the line of scrimmage or a "big slot" receiver.
He may sprint down the seam for an explosive gain on one play and then line up in the backfield and lead-block on the next play. In some sense, he was the skeleton key that unlocked everything for the West Virginia offense.
Wesco is not an elite pass-catcher, but he holds his own. He is at his best in the short and intermediate areas of the field when operating in traffic. The strength and catch radius he flashed made him a tough matchup in the Big 12.
More of his value comes from his blocking capabilities, both in the run game and in pass protection. He can line up anywhere in or near the backfield and be a plus blocker, even if not a dominant one. Between his blocking skills and flexibility to line up anywhere, it is tough to get a read on what an offense wants to do with Wesco on the field.
The drawback is he has no clear calling card or true position. He is not a true fullback, nor is he a legitimate tight end. Likewise, Wesco is a good but not overwhelming blocker, yet he does not have the high-end receiving skills to make up the gap. The ambiguity of exactly what Wesco is and can accomplish will lead to a fall in the draft.
That said, there will be a creative offensive coordinator who gets ahold of him and turns him into a valuable player. Hybrid players with Wesco's capabilities can be sneaky good in offenses that cater to their multiplicity. Teams like the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Bengals could get value out of a player like him, either because of spread tendencies or an affinity for versatile offensive players.
Sean Bunting, CB, Central Michigan
The University of Michigan is not the only school in the state producing defensive talent. Across the way, Central Michigan cornerback Sean Bunting is an under-the-radar option for teams seeking secondary help.
Bunting has a clear schematic fit moving forward, which is a plus for late-round picks like him. He is a deep-third and press-man cornerback who's at his best matching receivers vertically and fighting for the ball downfield. His ability to use the sideline is impressive, as are his ball skills. In three years as a starter, he snagged nine interceptions.
However, Bunting's lack of schematic versatility will make him a fit for only a certain portion of the league.
He is not one who does well to click and close on quick route breaks. He also does not quite have the smooth hips to keep up with some of the crisper route runners he will face in the NFL. While Bunting is quite good at his particular style of play, it will hurt his draft standing that he cannot transition into other systems.
That said, he will quietly be a good pick for teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Falcons that will mostly ask him to play in deep-third zones. His clear scheme fit and ball skills could make him a contributor right away.