I decided to put my Mississippi State DL > Clemson/Auburn DL piece on hold to bring you something I thought would appeal to the masses a little more. Behold, seven players that I consider major sleepers in the prospective 2019 NFL Draft class, as of the second week of August.
DaMarkus Lodge, WR, Ole Miss
You’ll hear a lot about A.J. Brown over the next nine months, and increasingly more about D.K. Metcalf, but I really hope Lodge doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I don’t have exact snap counts, but he was the guy that Ole Miss rarely seemed to bring off the field, relying on him heavily for splash plays down the field.
Lodge has legit speed, as demonstrated by the three times he took Greedy Williams deep and won in their matchup last season. His releases are among the best in the class, and he’s made some exceptional grabs outside his frame as well. Ole Miss didn’t give him many manufactured targets with opportunities after the catch, but when Lodge got a chance to make a play with the ball in his hands, he typically did so.
What Lodge needs to do better is cut down on the drops, develop into a more consistent route runner and finish in contested spots more often. He might not be a round one receiver, but he currently looks like a terrific day two option who can play right away if the role is right. One could definitely make the argument that he’s a safer pick right now than Brown or Metcalf.
Dawson Knox, TE, Ole Miss
It’s pretty uncommon for a first round caliber player to be almost completely undiscussed in national circles, but that might be what we have in Knox. He’s 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, can reportedly run in the 4.5s and has surprisingly natural hands for a converted walk-on quarterback.
Knox plays all over Ole Miss’ offense, seeing time in-line, in the slot and as a wing. He has flashes as a blocker, but understandably still needs work in that area, given that last year was his first collegiate action as a tight end.
But his athleticism, ability to come up with tough catches outside his frame and improving routes are reason for high-end optimism as we approach the college football season. Knox has all the physical and athletic traits teams look for, and his polish at the position for a first-year tight end was impressive last season. If he can stay on the field after a foot injury cut into his 2017 campaign, I think he’ll rise from anonymity into the spotlight this season.
Brian Burns, EDGE, Florida State
Burns has more potential than any player on this list. Based on his tape last season and flashes the year before, the stage is set for the junior to become a top ten pick with a strong third season that will include finally playing in a competent defensive scheme. So why is no one talking about him?
If the three things you look for most in an edge pass rusher as burst, bend/flexibility and hand usage, Burns should be near the top of your board. He can run a tight arc to the pocket, has the stride length to threaten the edge, and works his hands and hips in unison to reduce surface area when cornering.
Burns needs to get stronger and fix the false step issues he has out of his stance, but at 6-foot-5, the frame is there to pack on weight. You can’t teach the traits that Burns’ possesses, and his technique is already growing by leaps and bounds. Expect big things in 2018.
Derrick Baity, CB, Kentucky
I’m not even as high on Baity as other players on this list, but long corners who can run typically see their stock rise, especially if they can garner some ball production. Baity is a senior, but at 6-foot-2, almost 190 pounds and inspector gadget arms, the physical tools are there that teams covet every year.
Baity might not be the smoothest in his transitions, but he can run with most receivers and has the length to make plays at the catch point when he gets his head around. His press technique is polished and patient, and he’s certainly not afraid to come downhill and lower the boom when needed. Baity had a couple of the biggest hits in college football last season.
Consistency is what is needed now, but if Baity can find that this season, as well as add to his five career interceptions, I would expect NFL teams to get very interested come January and into April.
Rashard Lawrence, IDL, LSU
Lawrence has battled injuries throughout his time at LSU, but the talent is there for a breakout year in 2018. His hands are quick and violent, the flashes of pass rush ability are enticing and he’s a load to move in the run game.
A former five-star prospect, Lawrence is reportedly dogged with his work ethic and tough-as-nails as a player. He’s regarded as a leader in the LSU locker room, and has played through injuries before. Not many interior defensive lineman can sport a frame as powerful and compact as Lawrence, who has the power to displace offensive linemen when his pad level and hands are right.
It’s a risk, but right now I’m putting Lawrence over Christian Wilkins, Derrick Brown and Dexter Lawrence on my board. First round potential might be pushing it a bit, but I think his ability outweighs all of theirs based on college tape so far.
Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
Thompson has started just two college football games, each coming in the college football playoff. He looked like a veteran in his play against Clemson and Georgia, allowing only one catch (which he nearly picked off) and making several impressive plays.
At 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, Thompson has the size, range and physicality needed to excel at the safety position. We have yet to see him in man coverage, or simply see him enough in general, but with a full season as a starter in Alabama’s revamped secondary, the redshirt junior has a chance to fly up boards this season.
Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern
Fisher is the smartest and most instinctive linebacker I’ve scouted this summer, and his range and athleticism seem to at least check the box. His processing of schemes and feel in zone coverage are impressive, and he doesn’t back down from the physicality of the game, either.
It’s fair to wonder what his ceiling is athletically, but he moves pretty fluidly for a 6-foot-4, 245-pound linebacker. Fisher’s first season on the college football field was extremely impressive, and he’ll have a chance to vault to the NFL as a redshirt sophomore if he can work onto the national radar more this season.