2022 NFL Draft: Late-Round Sleepers Who Could Surprise Right AwayApril 24, 2022
2022 NFL Draft: Late-Round Sleepers Who Could Surprise Right Away
Everyone wants to be a first-round pick. But the backbone of NFL rosters is built upon late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. According to Spotrac, 47 percent of those who made an initial 2021 roster coming out of training camp and the preseason either heard their names called no earlier than the fifth round or went completely undrafted.
The identification of talent beyond the draft's first two days is absolutely vital to a roster's health and a team's overall success.
For those outside of the teams' walls, late-round gems are often referred to as "sleepers," because they're not as widely known to the general public. But the league's talent evaluators have scoured the country over the last nine months to find the best available talent, even when the odds of acquiring an instant contributor are far greater.
Last year's class saw the likes of guard Trey Smith, cornerback Nate Hobbs, safety Talanoa Hufanga, and running backs Elijah Mitchell and Khalil Herbert become vital contributors as rookies. More will be found in this year's class.
Those chosen fell outside of the top 150 prospects from Bleacher Report Scouting Department's most recent rankings without expectations of going drastically higher in the process once the draft actually begins. Each can be a surprise rookie contributor. Maybe the surprise aspect is ruined now. Oh well.
RB Tyler Goodson, Iowa
Running backs are a dime a dozen, or so the NFL wants everyone to believe. Well, more accurately, the majority of those around the league understand a productive back can be found without making a significant investment in the position.
Eight of the league's top 10 rushers last season weren't first-round picks. Day 2 tends to be the sweet spot for the position, but quality contributors are consistently found much later in the process.
Iowa's Tyler Goodson isn't prepared to take over as a lead back at the professional level, though he led the Hawkeyes in rushing in each of the last three seasons. In fact, Goodson's workload increased every year during that stretch and culminated with a 256-carry, 1,151-yard effort last season. For comparison, teams tasked nine runners with more carries in 2021.
The 5'9", 199-pound back's value derives in playing as a part of a zone-heavy, pro-style running game, his overall quickness and versatility as a pass-catcher.
Kirk Ferentz's program is known for churning out quality prospects who are prepared to play upon arrival. Part of the reason why is the Hawkeyes have been essentially employing the same schemes for 20-plus years, which the coach originally brought to Iowa City from the NFL. Goodson is a capable runner who can turn the corner on the outside zone or bend it back for chunk plays. He presents an extra gear with 4.42-second 40-yard-dash speed.
Goodson is also comfortable working in the passing game. The underclassman caught 70 passes during his three-year career.
WR Jerreth Sterns, Western Kentucky
All of the typical slights will be levied against Western Kentucky wide receiver Jerreth Sterns.
"He's too small."
No one is going to deny the fact Sterns stands 5'7" and weighs 183 pounds. While his build isn't preferable, it's also not a complete liability.
"He's not fast enough."
Sterns may not be a traditional burner, but he's plenty fast enough. According to College Heights Herald's Rob Holmes, Sterns ran in the 4.4-second range during his 40-yard-dash effort at the Hilltoppers' pro day. Some variance will exist within pro-day times depending on who is holding the stopwatch and the fact that the receiver might not have a top-end gear, but Sterns shouldn't be considered slow.
"He's a product of the system."
Yes, Western Kentucky featured a wide-open passing offense that allowed Sterns to benefit. At the same time, the wide receiver consistently served as a reliable and available target for record-setting quarterback Bailey Zappe, hence why Sterns went on to lead the FBS with 150 receptions, 1,902 yards and 17 touchdowns in his one year with the program after transferring from the FCS' Houston Baptist Huskies. Amazingly, he caught 45 more passes than any other receiver last season.
Quite simply, Sterns knows how to get open. He may be small and lacks a top-end gear, but he has the short-area quickness and route-running ability to create separation and serve as a security blanket for a quarterback. An emergence as some team's slot receiver won't come as a surprise at all.
TE Grant Calcaterra, SMU
Rewind to four years ago when tight end Grant Calcaterra looked like a star-in-the-making.
At Oklahoma, Calcaterra immediately contributed as a true freshman and even became an All-Big 12 honorable mention. A year later, he served as one of Kyler Murray's favorite targets. During the 2018 campaign, Calcaterra finished third on the Sooners (behind future first-round picks Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb) with 26 receptions.
Unfortunately, a series of concussions caused Calcaterra to step away from the game during the 2019 season. He finished his communications degree, completed EMT training and worked construction. He still felt the pull of the game, though. Ultimately, Calcaterra chose to return and transferred to SMU.
Did he really make the right decision after three documented concussions?
"Crazy that I stopped playing football right before I was going to be a top pick," he told USA Today's Jori Epstein, "and then it's also crazy to come back."
"Like, 'Are you kidding me, dude? You're an idiot.'"
Calcaterra flourished in his new surroundings by setting career highs with 38 receptions for 465 yards. The concussion history will always be scary, and the situation likely drives the tight end's value down significantly. Yet teams will see a 6'4", 241-pound target who can stretch the seam with his 4.62-second 40-yard-dash speed and make tough catches thanks to excellent ball skills.
"Great frame, long arms and his ability to high-point the ball and catch it with his hands, that's just a God-given talent he has," former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield told Epstein. "He's this guy who comes out of Southern California, has got the luscious locks, kind of looks like Sunshine from Remember the Titans. [But] he's a tough dude."
"When he steps on the field, it's not that laidback, Southern California lifestyle."
OL Justin Shaffer, Georgia
The 2022 NFL draft class is top-heavy with multiple offensive tackles expected to be selected in the first round. However, the incoming crop of interior blockers is a much deeper position group.
Starting-caliber guards and centers tend to be found later in the process anyhow. Wyatt Teller, Shaq Mason and Halapoulivaati Vaitai are counted among the league's highest-paid guards, and they heard their names called during the draft's third day.
The offensive interior simply isn't valued as much as its tackle brethren.
So, the idea of Justin Shaffer not garnering as much attention as others on the Georgia Bulldogs' loaded squad isn't surprising in the least. Georgia featured stars at every level, and left tackle Jamaree Salyer has been a higher-regarded prospect throughout the entire process. But Shaffer's viability as a possible starting guard is legit.
Shaffer started two seasons for the Bulldogs with experience at right and left guard. He and Salyer formed a formidable duo on the left side of this past season's offensive front. The second-team All-SEC performer is a rugged and powerful blocker at the point of attack.
The 6'4", 314-pound lineman isn't a great athlete, though. Shaffer ran an impressive 5.14-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but he's at his best as a phone-booth blocker asked to uproot and move the man in front of him. He can be sluggish out of his stance and with his lateral movement.
As a whole, Shaffer is a mauler with the potential to be an early starter if placed in a situation where gap principles are more often used. He showed he could hang and even flourish in the nation's best conference. He can do so in the NFL too.
DL Christopher Hinton Jr., Michigan
Michigan's Christopher Hinton Jr. presents the type of profile NFL scouts tend to love.
First, he's a former 5-star recruit. Teams don't forget. They always believe they can maximize a player's potential, even if he didn't thrive as a collegian. In Hinton's case, he started two of his three seasons on campus but primarily served as a two-gapping space-eater to open up room for the Wolverines' talented edge-rushers (Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo) to work.
Secondly, Hinton is only 21. He entered this year's draft as an underclassman. Considering he's a younger prospect with only two years of starting experience, his growth potential is significant. The All-Big Ten honorable mention has showed the ability to shoot gaps and be a disruptive player. In the right system, he could become a more well-rounded interior defender. At worst, he steps in as a 1-technique to hold the point of attack.
Finally, the incoming lineman brings NFL bloodlines. Hinton's father, Chris Sr., played 13 seasons in the NFL, and the Indianapolis Colts even named the left tackle to their Ring of Honor. The family knows what it takes to be in and excel in a professional atmosphere.
The younger Hinton is a marginal athlete, and he must do a better job consistently firing off the ball. Even so, he should be ready for the NFL with the type of upside teams love, particularly late in the draft process.
CB Jaylen Watson, Washington State
Jaylen Watson's value as a cornerback prospect will be in the eye of the beholder. Watson is a long and physical corner best-suited to play in Cover 2- or 3-heavy schemes.
The Washington State product isn't going to be a lockdown man-cover option, because he lacks the speed with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and fluidity to excel in those situations.
However, his 6'2" frame, 32¼" arms and aggressive demeanor should allow the Washington State product to thrive when asked to press or play near the line of scrimmage in certain zone-heavy systems.
The defensive back provides a physical brand of football and consistently plays through the catch point. Furthermore, Watson's toughness can't be questioned.
"Played with a broken shoulder all season and held my own against the best of the best," Watson tweeted. "Couldn't lift a one-pound dumbbell for two weeks and held my own."
Despite the injury, the cornerback didn't miss a single game during the 2021 campaign.
System fit isn't discussed enough when it comes to evaluations. Certain players will be downgraded or won't even appear on team boards because they don't have the traits the accompanying teams prefer. But the proper fit and right situation through good scouting can maximize a prospect's capabilities.
In Watson's case, he clearly needs to be placed in a specific defensive approach. If that occurs, the former JUCO transfer can thrive.
S Sterling Weatherford, Miami (OH)
The NFL loves big, fast and athletic prospects, which is exactly why Sterling Weatherford's combine snub came as a surprise.
In three seasons with the RedHawks, the defensive back started three seasons and accumulated 182 total tackles, three interceptions and 21 defended passes in 29 games. Weatherford clearly played well enough not to be considered a complete project. After all, he earned an invitation from the Senior Bowl, where he competed against some of the best incoming draft talent.
When his athletic profile is factored in the equation, the decision not to invite him to Indianapolis is stunning.
At Miami's pro day, the 6'4", 224-pound defender posted a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical jump, 4.28-second short shuttle and 6.98-second three-cone time. For comparison among massive safeties, Weatherford is taller, faster and more explosive than former Seattle Seahawks standout Kam Chancellor.
Obviously, Chancellor went on to become the standard-bearer for strong safeties and the game continued to change, but the comparison places Weatherford's physical tools into context.
Athleticism is only one part of the evaluation, though. At Weatherford's size, he can be an ideal hybrid defender. He's played both safety spots, linebacker and nickel. In today's sub-package world, the second-team All-MAC performer is a potential chess piece who can help the defense in a variety of manners.
Even if Weatherford doesn't immediately crack the defensive lineup, he can be an effective piece in another phase of the game. Special teams will almost certainly become Weatherford's calling card. He can be an immediate core-four contributor with a motor that runs hot.