Every NFL Team's Biggest Sleeper Heading into Training Camps
For an NFL team to have success, it needs at least a few stars—anchors for the roster. If one happens to be a quarterback, so much the better.
Bur for things to really come together, a team needs sleepers too. Pleasant surprises.
Sleepers take many forms. Rookies who win a starting job in training camp. Veterans who step in to fill a void created by a free-agent departure. Guys who go from role players to budding stars. All can have immense value to an NFL team.
Some of the players listed in this piece are well known to the fans of their teams, even if they have yet to get national publicity. Others are new faces who have yet to take the field in an NFL game that counts.
But they all have one thing in common: They have the mixture of talent and opportunity to make a sizable dent in the 2021 season.
Each of these sleepers is about to wake up.
Arizona Cardinals: Safety Jalen Thompson
The Arizona defense has no shortage of big names, whether it's defensive end J.J. Watt, edge-rusher Chandler Jones or safety Budda Baker.
Jalen Thompson is far from a household name. But the third-year safety could make a sizable impact for the Cardinals in 2021.
Thompson holds an interesting distinction—since the last two supplemental drafts were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is the last player to enter the league via that route. He looked like quite the find as a rookie, starting nine games and amassing 57 total tackles. But injuries wrecked his second season, limiting him to five games.
Thompson was solid in coverage last year, allowing a passer rating against of 85.1. Provided the 22-year-old can show he's healthy in training camp, he appears to have the inside track to be the starting box safety for a Cardinals team with lofty expectations in 2021.
Atlanta Falcons: Wide Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus
You may not have heard, but the Atlanta Falcons have an opening at wide receiver.
With Julio Jones gone, there is little doubt Calvin Ridley is the No. 1 receiver in Atlanta. Or that rookie tight end Kyle Pitts will garner a big target share. And the prevailing belief is Russell Gage will slot into the other starting spot at wideout.
But third-year pro Olamide Zaccheaus will see a lot more work as well. As the season progresses, it wouldn't be surprising if he pushes Gage for the role of Ridley's sidekick.
Zaccheaus hasn't posted big numbers in his first two seasons—23 catches for 389 yards and two scores. But the undrafted free agent from Virginia has shown the ability to take the top off a defense, catching a pass of 50-plus yards in both seasons, including a 93-yard score as a rookie.
Gage may be the more proven commodity, but Zaccheaus offers more pop in the passing game.
After trading Jones, the Falcons need all the pop they can get.
Baltimore Ravens: Edge-Rusher Tyus Bowser
It might seem odd to call edge-rusher Tyus Bowser a "sleeper." He may well be the highest-paid player in this piece after inking a four-year extension worth up to $27 million in March.
But the reality is Bowser has been mostly asleep as a professional. Over four seasons, the 2017 second-round pick out of Houston has managed just 10.5 sacks, including two last year.
The Ravens badly need him to wake up. The departure of edge-rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency leaves the team thin at the position. Baltimore used a 2021 first-round pick on a pass-rusher in Penn State's Odafe Oweh, but the position often carries a steep learning curve.
Bowser knows he needs to improve his game.
"I've always had that mindset of going out there and proving myself each and every day," he told reporters last month. "Besides the contract, that's great, I'm thankful for it and I'm glad to be here. But that doesn't mean to relax."
For the Ravens to make a deep playoff run in 2021, Bowser needs to be an anchor of the pass rush.
Buffalo Bills: Wide Receiver Gabriel Davis
After Gabriel Davis caught seven touchdown passes in 2020, the "sleeper" status of the Buffalo wide receiver is tenuous.
But unless you're a Bills fan or a fantasy football enthusiast, Davis likely isn't a player you're familiar with. As good as he was as a rookie, Davis' exploits were overshadowed by even bigger first seasons from Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings and Chase Claypool of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The coming-out party is imminent, though. As Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski wrote, Davis showed a knack for beating defenses deep as a rookie.
"According to Pro Football Focus, Davis led all rookies last season with five touchdowns of 20 or more yards downfield," he said. "More importantly, he didn't register a single drop on those targets."
The Bills have brought in veteran Emmanuel Sanders to replace the departed John Brown, and Sanders has long been a capable pro. But it wouldn't be surprising come season's end if Davis has emerged as Buffalo's No. 2 receiver.
Carolina Panthers: Linebacker Denzel Perryman
Denzel Perryman's NFL career has been an exercise in what could have been. As a rookie with the Chargers in 2015, Perryman made nine starts and logged 73 total tackles and two sacks. The young linebacker's star appeared to be on the rise.
But then came the injuries.
In each of Perryman's seasons in the NFL, the 28-year-old has missed time, including seven or more games twice. By the 2020 season, he was reduced to a rotational role with the Chargers.
Perryman is getting a second chance to be a starter after inking a two-year deal with the Panthers. Shaq Thompson is entrenched as one of the every-down linebackers, but Perryman has a path to a three-down role if he can stay on the field.
If he starts in the middle for the Panthers, he'll blaze past that 73-tackle high-water mark. And the acclaim we thought was inevitable all those years ago may finally come.
Chicago Bears: Tight End Cole Kmet
Like much of last year's rookie class, Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet started his professional career at a disadvantage. Without the benefit of OTAs or the preseason, the second-round pick's first season was unimpressive—28 receptions for 243 yards and two scores.
However, the 6'6", 262-pounder out of Notre Dame has a year's experience under his belt and a more normal offseason with which to prepare. He told reporters last month he expects that to make a massive difference in 2021.
"After being a year in the offense and understanding what Coach [Matt] Nagy and Coach [Bill] Lazor are doing with this offense, I'm a lot more comfortable with it," Kmet said. "I'm stronger. I feel like I'm quicker and faster right now. Just a lot of confidence going in with the offense and in myself."
His production picked up late in his rookie season, and while veteran Jimmy Graham is still on the roster, Kmet should see a sizable bump over last year's 44 targets.
Whether it's Andy Dalton or Justin Fields under center for the Bears, Chicago's quarterback will need a big-bodied target over the middle and in the red zone.
Cincinnati Bengals: Linebacker Logan Wilson
Whether at the University of Wyoming or in Cincinnati, flying under the radar is what Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson is used to. He told Geoff Hobson of the team's website he's been doing it his entire career.
"That's what my whole career has been like. Nothing new to me," Wilson said. "Under the radar. I don't think I bring attention to myself on purpose."
However, the time has come for Wilson to step into the spotlight. After a quiet rookie season with two starts, 343 snaps and 33 total tackles, he has been tabbed as the starting "Mike" linebacker and defensive play-caller.
Wilson was a machine in college, piling up over 400 stops in four years as a starter for the Cowboys. The Bengals need his tenacity and athleticism to improve on last year's rankings of 26th in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense.
Without that improvement, Cincy has no chance of breaking out of the AFC North basement.
Cleveland Browns: Safety Grant Delpit
The Cleveland Browns took a buzz saw to the defense in 2021, adding pieces at all three levels in free agency and the draft. It's quite the list—Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney up front. Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker. And Troy Hill, Greg Newsome II and John Johnson III in the secondary.
The biggest addition may wind up being a guy who was already on the team.
In 2019, safety Grant Delpit was the Thorpe Award winner as the top defensive back in college football. But he wasn't able to show what he can do in the NFL—his rookie season ended in the first week of training camp when he tore his Achilles.
Delpit admitted in April that the 2020 campaign was a frustrating one.
"The toughest part was just knowing that you work your whole life just to get somewhere, and then anything can happen off the wall and you're forced to sit back and watch," he told Best Podcast Available (per Anthony Poisal of the team site). "That's the toughest part, but it's life, so it happens."
Delpit is on track to be 100 percent for camp. Provided he's healthy, he has a good chance to win the starting job at safety opposite Johnson for a Browns defense with big-time aspirations in 2021.
Dallas Cowboys: Tight End Blake Jarwin
The Dallas Cowboys offense should be among the most potent in the NFL this year. The team's trio of wide receivers (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup) is as good as any in the league.
But Dak Prescott could be on the verge of leading an even more loaded passing game.
This isn't the first time we've been down this road with Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin. The fifth-year pro was a trendy pick as a breakout candidate in 2020 after posting a 31/365/3 stat line in 2019. But that breakout season ended almost before it began—Jarwin tore his ACL in the season opener against the Rams.
But Jarwin is back, and the 6'5", 260-pounder told reporters he's eager to show the $22 million contract extension he signed last year isn't wasted money.
"I'm excited, and my goal is to be the best I've ever been by day one of training camp and carry that into the season, and let's just roll from there," he said.
Denver Broncos: Defensive Lineman Dre'Mont Jones
The Denver Broncos have no shortage of talent on defense, whether it's Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edge or Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Kyle Fuller in the secondary.
The Broncos defense is the engine that drives the team. The key to success in 2021. And a big ugly up front could be on the verge of a breakout season.
Dre'Mont Jones put together a solid sophomore season in 2020. The former Ohio State standout's snap count nearly doubled, and Jones responded, piling up 41 total tackles and 6.5 sacks. He has bigger and better things in mind for his third season.
"I think 10 sacks is very attainable," Jones told reporters. "Guys like Chris Jones and Grady Jarrett and Cam Heyward and Aaron Donald made it cool to be an inside guy and get 10 sacks. It's very attainable."
If Jones can approach the 10-sack mark, his days of anonymity behind Chubb, Miller and Shelby Harris will be over.
Detroit Lions: Wide Receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown
The Detroit Lions are in the opening stages of a ground-up rebuild. There's a new quarterback in the Motor City in Jared Goff. The wide receiver corps was rocked by the departures of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. in free agency.
The team signed veterans Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman, but those players aren't world-beaters, creating an ideal situation for a rookie wideout.
The Lions didn't draft Amon-Ra St. Brown in the first round in April. Or on Day 2. But the fourth-rounder has an excellent opportunity to play early, and he told Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports he's been busy trying to develop a rapport with his new quarterback.
"I love Jared. He's awesome, awesome dude. Great quarterback who understands the game," St. Brown said. "He's taught me some things about certain routes and things Cooper Kupp did with him back with the Rams that he loved. He checks in on me."
The proverbial door is wide open for St. Brown to make a major dent as a rookie.
All he has to do is run through it.
Green Bay Packers: Wide Receiver Amari Rodgers
Things are up in the air in Titletown, which doesn't make picking a sleeper any easier. But we'll single out a player who could solve the problem that caused Green Bay's current conundrum.
The Packers have a megastar wideout in Davante Adams. But while players like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard have flashed at times, Green Bay has long sought a reliable, consistent complement to Adams in the passing game.
Matt Schneidman of The Athletic believes rookie Amari Rodgers can be that complement—and a breakout player in 2021.
"The rookie third-round pick out of Clemson is a natural slot receiver, something the Packers lacked, and a skilled punt returner, another tool the Packers were missing," he wrote. "Rodgers, who stands only 5'9" but 212 pounds, can also serve as a gadget piece out of the backfield on jet sweeps, reverses and other motion action."
Now if Green Bay can just convince that other Rodgers guy to drop his trade demands and come to camp.
Houston Texans: Quarterback Davis Mills
The Houston Texans are a hot mess—from the quarterback position right on down the roster.
The future of Deshaun Watson in Houston is murky at best. Even if Watson avoids a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the 25-year-old has reportedly made it abundantly clear he wants no part of playing another game for the Texans.
That leaves veteran backup Tyrod Taylor as the presumptive front-runner to be the Week 1 starter in Houston—and opens a window of opportunity for the first player the Texans drafted in 2021.
Texans general manager Nick Caserio told reporters the looming chaos under center in Houston wasn't the sole reason the team selected Stanford's Davis Mills in the third round.
The kid can play.
"[Davis] played for a good program, played for a really good coach in Coach [David] Shaw, who's had a really good offense," Caserio said. "Good size, fairly accurate thrower, gets rid of the ball fairly quickly. Real smart. So, when you look at the attributes that go into playing the quarterback position, we felt that he had a lot of those qualities."
Taylor is a known commodity—a low-ceiling journeyman. Mills should be afforded plenty of first-team reps in camp…and a legitimate chance at wresting the starting job from Taylor.
Indianapolis Colts: Wide Receiver Zach Pascal
When folks talk about the wide receivers in Indianapolis, the conversation starts with veteran T.Y. Hilton. Then it moves on to second-year pro Michael Pittman Jr. Parris Campbell might get some run too, although he's been more injuries than excitement in his professional career.
More likely than not, Zach Pascal won't be mentioned. But that might change.
Pascal's numbers weren't especially impressive in 2020—44 catches on 71 targets for 629 yards and five scores. But Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire thought enough of Pascal's play to name the 26-year-old one of the 10 best slot receivers in the game:
"Pascal is probably the least-known receiver on this list, but he caught 33 of 48 slot targets for 397 yards and five touchdowns with a quarterback in Philip Rivers who was clearly at the end of the road. Not that the Redemption Edition of Carson Wentz gives Pascal more explosive opportunities, but the third-year man from Old Dominion has the route and leverage understanding to drive slot defenders nuts, and that should at least help Wentz along the way."
Indy has uncertainty up and down the depth chart, whether it's Hilton's age or Campbell's durability. A career year from Pascal is a possibility in the Colts' new-look offense in 2021.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Safety Andre Cisco
The Jacksonville Jaguars are undergoing seismic changes on both sides of the ball under new head coach Urban Meyer. Offensively, the team has a new leader in rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Defensively, Jacksonville has a new coordinator, a new scheme and a revamped back end that includes veteran free-agent cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins.
Both will be starters in 2021, and the consensus is that Jarrod Wilson has the inside track to start opposite Jenkins. But a youngster who's breathing down Wilson's neck could win the job in training camp.
In 2019, Andre Cisco was one of the better safeties in college football, piling up 65 total tackles and picking off five passes at Syracuse. He was an even bigger ball hawk the season before, intercepting seven passes as a freshman.
Injuries have been an issue for the 6'0", 209-pounder—Cisco missed three games two years ago and most of the 2020 season. But the Jags thought well enough of him to make him a third-round pick, and he has a dynamic element to his game that Wilson can't match.
Kansas City Chiefs: Wide Receiver Byron Pringle
There is zero question who the top two options are in the passing game for the Kansas City Chiefs: wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and then everyone else. But after the departure of veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency, the Chiefs have a void in the passing-game pecking order.
If practices are any indication, Byron Pringle may be about to step into that void. Per Nate Taylor of The Athletic, Pringle drew most of Patrick Mahomes' attention on the field at OTAs.
To say Pringle's first three professional seasons have been quiet is an understatement. The 27-year-old has yet to catch 15 passes or log 175 receiving yards in a season. The Chiefs also have speedster Mecole Hardman, who they drafted in the second round in 2019.
But while Hardman has occasionally been explosive, he has also been erratic. If Pringle can show Mahomes he can be a dependable chain-mover, then he could shatter his career highs across the board in the upcoming season.
Las Vegas Raiders: Center Andre James
The Las Vegas Raiders sent a few eyebrows skyward when they blew up the offensive line with a trio of trades. The most shocking was the pact that sent Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson to the Arizona Cardinals.
Hudson has been snapping the ball to quarterback Derek Carr since the latter's second season in the league. Now that task will fall to third-year pro Andre James, who has played all of 116 snaps over the last two years combined. Despite that lack of experience, Carr told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN he's confident James can do the job.
"Really, during the season when Rodney would [not] practice on Wednesdays, I was with Andre anyway," Carr said. "Andre started a game for us, and Andre is a good player. Obviously, time will tell for him, what he's going to be. And he'll let his play do that talking, but he's a heck of player, and I'm excited about him."
If James can't handle the role, the entire Vegas offense could be in trouble. And there's no margin for error if the Raiders want to threaten the Chiefs in the AFC West.
Los Angeles Chargers: Edge-Rusher Uchenna Nwosu
This is it for Los Angeles Chargers edge-rusher Uchenna Nwosu.
The 48th overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Nwosu has had a quiet career with 10 sacks in three seasons. But with Melvin Ingram III no longer on the team, it falls to the 24-year-old to start on the edge opposite the great Joey Bosa.
Nwosu told reporters he's trying to use the defense of new head coach Brandon Staley as a springboard by studying tape of players who have thrived in it:
"Definitely have been watching a lot of Rams tape and what he did with [Rams OLB] Leonard Floyd. He was the defensive coordinator over there. That's where he just came from, so I've been watching a lot of that and seeing how Floyd has been getting free, making plays, what he's been doing and try to incorporate that into my game a little bit."
Since Bosa draws so much attention from opponents, Nwosu should see a ton of single-teams in 2021. But with that opportunity comes pressure. Post another pedestrian stat line, and his next contract is apt to be with another team.
Los Angeles Rams: Edge-Rusher Terrell Lewis
Last year, no team in the NFL had a better defense than the Los Angeles Rams. That defense is anchored by all-everything tackle Aaron Donald. Donald had help getting after the quarterback last year from Leonard Floyd, who was re-upped after setting a career high with 10.5 sacks.
Get beyond Floyd, though, and the consistent pass-rushers dry up. After Samson Ebukam bolted for San Francisco in free agency, the Rams will be rolling out a new starter opposite Floyd.
Contenders include third-year pro Justin Hollins, 2018 fifth-round pick Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Terrell Lewis, a third-round pick in 2020.
Based on talent, it looked like the Rams got a steal with Lewis, who showed flashes of difference-making ability at Alabama. The problem is those flashes were interspersed with serious injuries. In 2017, he missed 10 games with an arm injury, and the following season was wiped out by an ACL tear.
Lewis also missed half his rookie season, although he did notch two sacks in 124 snaps.
If Lewis can stay on the field, he has the most potential of this trio.
Miami Dolphins: WR Lynn Bowden Jr.
Lynn Bowden Jr. won't be the No. 1 wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins in 2021. Or the No. 2 wide receiver. Or the No. 3 wide receiver. Those roles belong to William Fuller V, DeVante Parker and rookie Jaylen Waddle in some order.
But the passing game still has room for Bowden to do damage in 2021.
A third-round pick of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, Bowden was drafted as a running back after playing option quarterback at the University of Kentucky. But things didn't work out for Bowden in Sin City, and he was shipped before the season to the Dolphins, who flipped the 5'11", 204-pounder to wide receiver.
Bowden made three starts for Miami at the tail end of the 2020 season (four total). While his numbers weren't great, he did post an impressive catch rate of 75.7 percent.
With a full offseason to continue his conversion to wideout, Bowden could be set for a much bigger second season. His ability in the open field and experience in the running game give him a skill set unique among Miami's pass-catchers.
Minnesota Vikings: Wide Receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette
There's no question who the top two wide receivers are in Minnesota. Adam Thielen is the team's veteran leader, while Justin Jefferson is an explosive youngster who's coming off a record-setting rookie season.
However, the WR3 spot in the Twin Cities is another story. Veteran Chad Beebe is a capable slot option, but a challenger is hot on his heels.
A fifth-round pick of the Vikings this year, Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette has caught the eye of coaches. Team play-by-play man Paul Allen said on KFAN FM (h/t Sean Borman of Vikings Territory) that some in the organization believe Smith-Marsette has "untapped talent" and is "being given every opportunity" to beat out Beebe in three-wide sets.
An All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2020 as both a wideout and a kick returner, Smith-Marsette told the team's website after the draft that he was eager to show he's more than a return man.
"I always view myself as a receiver first that's excellent at returning kicks. I can do punt return too," Smith-Marsette said. "I definitely see myself as a wide receiver first and then a return man after that, but I'm somebody that takes pride in the return game too."
It looks like the Vikings might feel the same way.
New England Patriots: Defensive Back Jalen Mills
Jalen Mills is an elder statesman among the players in this piece. The 2021 campaign will mark his sixth in the pros.
It will be his first in New England, however. Among all the signings and trades the Pats made in a hectic offseason, Mills has gotten lost in the shuffle. That's what earns the 27-year-old "sleeper" status.
He won't keep it long, though. His ability to play anywhere in the secondary is making an impression on his new teammates, as free safety Devin McCourty told reporters:
"He's showing a lot of versatility so far. He's super competitive. He's talking, he's having fun. I think he's been a great addition for us just because of his ability to do different things — whether it's playing safety, covering tight ends, covering in the slot, playing outside corner, deep safety, strong safety. I just think that versatility ... allows the coaching staff to do so many different things."
With Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson at cornerback and McCourty and Adrian Phillips at safety, Mills doesn't have a clear path to a "starting" spot with his new team. But NFL teams spend 70 percent or more of the time in sub-packages, and Bill Belichick is sure to value Mills' ability to move around the back end.
This could become one of the biggest value signings in free agency.
New Orleans Saints: Wide Receiver Marquez Callaway
Amassing 21 catches for 213 yards might not appear impressive for New Orleans Saints wideout Marquez Callaway. But those numbers look a lot more impressive when you consider the former Tennessee standout did that as an undrafted rookie.
With Emmanuel Sanders no longer on the team, the depth chart behind Michael Thomas is wide open. Callaway told the media he's more comfortable with a year of experience under his belt:
"Now I've got a full year under my belt, so I'm a little more comfortable back there, and the older guys helped me out a lot as well as the younger guys, relying on them to help me. They pushed me through a lot. They pushed a lot of the young guys through. It just helped me being able to play back then when I was still kind of a little nervous trying to get used to everything, but they were a big help, coaches and the players."
Fourth-year pro Tre'Quan Smith stands between Callaway and the starting lineup, but it's not a sure thing he'll stay there. In any event, Callaway is a safe bet to see a bump in targets in 2021.
New York Giants: Safety Xavier McKinney
Among the players listed in this piece, no one was drafted earlier than New York Giants safety Xavier McKinney.
McKinney was one of the highest-ranked safeties in the class of 2020, and the Giants made the former Alabama star the fourth pick in Round 2.
However, his rookie season didn't live up to the billing. After breaking his foot in the preseason, McKinney landed on injured reserve to start the year. When he finally got on the field in Week 12, the rust was evident. He played in over 80 percent of the Giants' snaps only once—in Week 17.
Meanwhile, converted cornerback Logan Ryan played well at free safety, creating a quandary for the G-Men in 2021. They have a potential impact defender but nowhere to put him.
Still, more and more NFL teams feature three-safety sets. If McKinney can show he's 100 percent healthy in 2021, either he or Ryan will likely spend a lot of time in the slot.
New York Jets: Running Back Michael Carter
No one likes "sleepers" more than fantasy football fanatics. That's doubly true at the running back position.
That's why Michael Carter has been a hot name in those circles from the moment the Jets drafted him in the fourth round in April.
Carter paced the North Carolina Tar Heels last year in rushing yards, outgaining teammate Javonte Williams. He told DJ Bien-Aime II of the New York Daily News he has every intention of making a similar impact as a rookie:
"My plan is to contribute in a big way going into the year. We have a really good running back room. I feel like people write these guys off because they don't have the most popular name. We got some real talent in our room and I just think that we all have one goal in mind and that's just a win. Of course you want to be the starting running back. I'll be a fool to sit up on this call and be like 'Naw I don't want to be the starting running back.' I just think that it is a great competition. I think competition is going to turn us all into better players."
Carter may not be the most experienced back in that room, but he's arguably the most explosive. Provided he picks up the offense and can pass-protect decently, his days as a sleeper may be numbered.
Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerback Zech McPhearson
The Philadelphia Eagles know veteran Darius Slay will hold down one of the starting cornerback spots. The other one is unsettled. Veteran Avonte Maddox is penciled in as the starter, but after he allowed a passer rating against of 108.3 last year, his grip on the gig is far from firm.
The Eagles added a corner in this year's draft, selecting Texas Tech's Zech McPhearson in the fourth round. Defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson lauded McPhearson's toughness and tackling to the media while allowing that the youngster has a lot to learn.
"You could tell he dedicated himself to [tackling], and he worked on it," Wilson said. "And obviously, you can see the top-end speed and the explosiveness. The guy, he's young, he doesn't know what he doesn't know right now, but he's willing to work."
McPhearson has a good mixture of size and speed, and he displayed ball skills at Texas Tech. The opportunity is there (with an impressive training camp) for him to play a substantial role as a rookie—and possibly start.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge-Rusher Alex Highsmith
Much has been said of the issues the Pittsburgh Steelers face on the offensive line. But that's not the only issue. Two of Pittsburgh's top cornerbacks are gone. So is edge-rusher Bud Dupree.
That last one ramps up the pressure on edge-rusher Alex Highsmith to break out in 2021.
A third-round pick last year out of Charlotte, Highsmith had a quiet rookie year. He played solidly enough against the run (48 tackles) but managed just a pair of sacks despite playing 437 snaps.
With that said, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports believes Highsmith has what it takes to go from sleeper to star this year:
"Is he going to completely replace Bud Dupree from a production standpoint? Maybe not. Dupree blossomed into an elite pass rusher the past two season. But with the star power on this defense and with T.J. Watt on the other side, and with this staff and franchise that seems to always cultivate impact linebackers – and with a full and normal offseason and preseason – can he take major leaps forward? I wouldn't bet against it."
The Steelers need Highsmith to generate pressure opposite T.J. Watt. Otherwise, the latter will be double- and triple-teamed constantly.
San Francisco 49ers: Running Back Trey Sermon
As noted earlier, the fantasy football community is enamored with New York Jets running back Michael Carter as a "sleeper" pick in 2021. If that bunch is enamored with Carter, they are head-over-heels for Trey Sermon, the Ohio State running back who was a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in April.
Per Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area, Sermon has done nothing but impress since joining the team, making the most of the first-team work he got as the team limited Raheem Mostert's reps.
"Trey's been great," head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Each week he's gotten more and more reps, and as we cooled it down with Raheem a little bit here, the last couple of weeks, it's given him even more opportunities."
Mostert remains the team's No. 1 back (at least for now), and Jeff Wilson Jr. could figure into the mix as well. But Mostert's balky knees have long been an issue, and Wilson is out indefinitely with a meniscus tear.
If Sermon gets the lead job and performs like the player who set a school record for rushing yards in a game in last year's Big Ten title game, he won't be giving it back.
Seattle Seahawks: Defensive Tackle Bryan Mone
The Seattle Seahawks roster doesn't have a lot of uncertainty, for better or worse. Most of the starters are sorted out. A few question areas remain, however—biggest among them the defensive tackles after Jarran Reed left the team in free agency.
After three seasons in Seattle, Poona Ford appears to be locked into one starting spot. The other is less sure with journeyman veteran Al Woods and third-year pro Bryan Mone set to vie for the spot.
Were the Seahawks to have their druthers, the spot would likely go to Mone. An undrafted free agent out of Michigan, the 6'3", 366-pounder is an excellent run-stuffer. The issue has been staying healthy—Mone has missed 18 of a possible 32 games.
This isn't to say he'll blossom into a Pro Bowler. But Seattle apparently has enough confidence in him to have passed on upgrading the position, and even league-average play would be a big boost for the cap-strapped Seahawks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Running Back Giovani Bernard
Calling running back Giovani Bernard a "sleeper" gives the term a pretty thorough stretching—the 2021 season will be his ninth in the league.
But not much is different in Tampa this year. All 22 starters from last year's Super Bowl team will be back when the Bucs open the season against the Dallas Cowboys.
That status quo has been the big storyline. Bernard's addition hasn't generated a ton of run. But this could be an instance where the quantity of Tampa Bay's signings means less than the quality.
Per Greg Auman of The Athletic, Bernard has made a positive impression in his new home:
"Until the draft, Bernard was the lone newcomer on the Bucs' roster, having spent eight years with the Bengals and still waiting for his first career playoff win. That should change this season, and the 29-year-old came as advertised, impressively deciding to attend both voluntary OTAs and Tom Brady's unofficial workouts as he tries to learn a new offense and new teammates."
Brady has long been fond of throwing to his backs. While the last few years haven't been as good at the ones before them, Bernard caught 47 passes and topped 750 total yards in 2020.
Tennessee Titans: Tight End Anthony Firkser
The Tennessee Titans are undergoing major changes to the passing game. The team bid goodbye to wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency, but that first loss was more than offset by the arrival of Julio Jones in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons.
Where Smith's departure was concerned, the Titans will hope a young tight end can go from part-time producer to full-time star.
In his three NFL seasons, Anthony Firkser has shown flashes of considerable upside, including an 8/113/1 stat line against the Houston Texans in Week 5 last year. Longtime Titans tight end Delanie Walker said Wednesday on the Talking with TD podcast with Turron Davenport (via Grant Gordon of NFL.com) that he thinks Firkser has what it takes to be one of the league's best at tight end:
"He sat under me for years and I tried to teach him everything I know, but the dude got wiggles. He can get open, he can catch the ball. I think he going to be elite. Just adding Julio [Jones], it's gonna open, have more opportunities for him. Over the middle. With matchups against linebackers. And that's gonna be hard for them to cover him, cause he destroys linebackers within seconds. It's gonna be good."
If Firkser can duplicate Smith's level of play, the Titans will be a hard team to match up with defensively. If he's even better, the Tennessee offense will be lethal.
Washington Football Team: Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste
The Washington Football Team could field one of the league's best defenses—maybe the best. And for the most part, the starting spots on that defense are locked down before training camp.
However, in OTAs, one youngster made a compelling case that he deserves to join veterans William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller as one of Washington's top three cornerbacks.
As Chris Russell reported for SI.com, third-round rookie Benjamin St-Juste has stood out on the practice field in early workouts:
"In one team period of 11-on-11, St-Juste had three pass breakups by my count and they looked mostly clean (on time and no DPI). St-Juste was harassing Dyami Brown all day and unofficially had five passes defended on the morning.
"On one St-Juste defended pass over the middle, a coach yelled out, 'Oh yeah...that's what I'm talking about.'"
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has also taken notice of the former Minnesota standout.
"He's got exceptional quickness. He had a 6.6 3-cone [drill], which is unheard of," Del Rio told reporters. "And so for a guy [who is] 6'3" to do that shows you the short-area quickness."
It's quite the head of steam to build up heading into training camp.