Welcome to Draft Season! Officially, 100 percent, unquestionably Draft Season, now that we're fresh off of that "Super Bowl" -- and, speaking of that game, let's talk sleepers!
Sleepers are a funny topic to discuss, at any point in the process. There's always somebody who knows the guy you're talking about, whether you've tagged him as a sleeper in August or in April -- and that person will be quick to tell you he's not really a sleeper. But sleepers are relative not only to the consensus -- not just your board, sweetheart -- but they're also relative to the buzz surrounding them. They are not only players who are generally underranked (in my eyes), but players who are deserving of more conversation among big Draft media and #DraftTwitter circles alike.
I know none of that will stop you from yelling at me, but I felt it needed to be said regardless. As such, if you're just now stepping into the kaleidoscopic maelstrom that is the NFL Draft, circle these names on your watch sheet. They're deserving of your attention, even if they aren't getting the run that other names have for the last 6+ months.
QB: Jordan Ta'amu, Ole Miss
I've listed Ta'amu as a sleeper before, as has Jon, who's Ta'amu's biggest fan on staff. But it's tricky to find sleeper QBs because of how attentively the position, and all its players, are dissected during the season -- so with Ta'amu we stay.
Ta'amu was a Shrine Game invite who stood out above the rest of the QB field with Boise State QB Brett Rypien -- but they popped for different reasons. Rypien is a smooth thrower with great mechanics and pretty touch to all three levels of the field; Ta'amu is a whip. His mechanics can get a little wild and he doesn't have the same placement, but his arm talent is undeniable, especially when attacking outside of the numbers. Crucially, he's good off of his spot as well -- modern QBs need to handle dirty pockets.
There are a few players who are equally underranked -- I think Gardner Minshew II and Tyree Jackson should both be more competitive in current QB rankings -- but at least you've heard their names more than you've likely heard Ta'amu's.
RB: Elijah Holyfield, Georgia
I just got eyes on Holyfield a couple of days ago -- boy, am I glad I did! Holyfield has gotten sparse attention in Draft circles that see him as the blip on the radar between Georgia's two stud backs of the 2018 cycle -- Nick Chubb and Super Bowl champion Sony Michel -- and their rising junior star in D'Andre Swift.
But Holyfield is a strong runner in his own right -- and in this class, that's enough to vault him to my RB2 slot, which ruffled more than a few feathers when I publicized the ranking. He carries a mid/late second-round grade off of his film, and is a fringe Top-50 player, but he offers the only bellcow profile I've seen in this class besides Alabama's Josh Jacobs. He just never saw that opportunity in the Bulldog backfield.
Holyfield wins with sweet feet, as he remains tethered to the ground through sharp and explosive cuts. He can string together moves, load his lower half to deliver a powerful shot, or pick up steam in a hurry when attacking the outside. His meager pass-catching usage is harrowing, but there's no reason to believe he can't handle more targets and catches -- and for teams that don't heavily feature their backs in the passing game, or already have a strong pass-catching back -- Holyfield makes sense as the "thunder" in a 2-part backfield.
WR: Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia
That D'Andre Swift character I mentioned earlier? He had a 3-star backup RB in high school by the name of Olamide Zaccheaus. That 5-foot-8 runner went to Virginia, floated around the running back depth chart for a year, and then transitioned to slot receiver under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall in 2016.
This year, he set the career reception record for Virginia Cavaliers.
Zaccheaus will end his college career with 79 carries and 251 receptions, and hit 1000 receiving yards for the first time in his final season with the Wahoos. His frame isn't ideal at all (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) and that's probably why NFL teams are out on him. He wasn't a participant in any All-Star games this season, which is typically a good signal that NFL teams don't have much interest.
But Zaccheaus is impossibly quick and separates with ease on underneath routes. An ideal choice route runner who also offers some return experience (35 kick returns, five punt returns), Zaccheaus is a gadget piece that will cause match-up problems in the mold of Tarik Cohen, if he goes to an offense willing to use him as such.
TE: Trevon Wesco, West Virginia
This class is weird. I could list five "sleeper" TEs for you right now, if a sleeper is just a player that I think is undervalued. Isaac Nauta (Georgia), Dax Raymond (Utah State), Alize Mack (Notre Dame), Dawson Knox (Ole Miss), and the player I almost picked for this segment, Jace Sternberger (Texas A&M). But again, I want names that you simply won't see floating around mock drafts and scout quoticles this time of year. So Wesco gets the nod.
Now, Wesco was a Senior Bowl player, and he had a strong week -- so I'm sure NFL teams have their eye on him for Day 3. But we should all turn a closer lens on Wesco, because he could develop into something really exciting. They don't build 'em often like Wesco is slapped together: over 6-foot-3 at a true 270 pounds with an 81" wingspan. That's a healthy build, and he carries his weight very well. Dude's stacked.
Yet Wesco still has great run-after-catch ability because he's a pretty nimble bulldozer. Turn on any West Virginia film, and you'll mostly see him road-paving with great physicality and good angles to the second level, but when he gets little TE pop passes off of RPO action, it takes multiple tacklers to bring him down. He isn't a feature tight end in an NFL that loves speed, but he's a mismatch problem with a high ceiling.
OL: Nate Davis, Charlotte
It's tough to get a sleeper for both OT and iOL, because we generally don't have overhyped prospects at those positions because we don't talk about them as much. Sad reality for the big boys in the trenches, I guess.
That said, Davis is worthy of more attention than he's currently received, and I'm here to plant a flag for the hog mollies. A knockoff version of Will Hernandez from last year's Draft cycle, Davis is a big body bruiser who wins reps early by firing his hands and looks to finish with tremendous grip strength and upper body power. I like the Hernandez comparison because Will, at 340 pounds, was a better mover and climber than you expected -- and the same is true with Davis, at 320 pounds. He has great initial step explosiveness and knows how to frame linebackers in space.
That said, Davis struggles with balance and can get derailed when moving at full speed, so he projects best as a gap/power player -- but he's a Day 2 pick and plug-and-play starter in that sort of scheme, based off of the film I've seen. His experience at tackle boosts his stock.
iDL: Isaiah Buggs, Alabama
A sleeper out of Alabama?! Listen, it's not my fault that nobody's talking about Buggs. The onus has fallen upon me, and I bear the responsibility grimly, but with honor.
Buggs is a bit of a positional question mark, as he played a lot of EDGE at Alabama, came into the Senior Bowl at 295 pounds, and lacks the ideal length for a 2-gapping 4-technique that would play that EDGE/iDL hybrid role. If you draft him, you need a plan for him -- and that plan is most likely play him at under-tackle and work on his first-step explosiveness and pass-rush plan.
But it's understandable why Buggs is currently lacking in those areas, as he was never winning the edge for Alabama at his size, and he lacks the agility to regularly hit counter moves as well. But on the inside, power to push the pocket and disrupt rushing lanes becomes markedly more valuable, and that's where Buggs wins. Dude is a load and a half to handle, with really dynamic hand usage and great power in his lower half. Like Da'Shawn Hand before him, Buggs could prove a better pro than college player -- and I think his ceiling is clearly higher.
EDGE: Justin Hollins, Oregon
Overshadowed by the hype for opposite EDGE Jalen Jelks (hype that never materialized into anything real, much to my chagrin), Justin Hollins profiles perfectly as that Day 3 rusher who sticks on a roster and provides meaningful backup reps in Year 1, and everyone wonders where he came from. Don't miss the train.
Why does Hollins fit the profile? Firstly, because his scheme didn't lend itself to his skill set. Hollins' best rushes came when he could use a strong initial first step to work his inside swim/inside rip -- but Oregon regularly had Hollins reading the backfield, playing the run, or straight dropping into space. His pass-rushes were often delayed, as a result of the reading for which he was responsible, and he lost the advantage of his off-ball explosiveness.
Now, he currently struggles to soften the outside edge with hand usage or by dipping his shoulder, and he's lacking for bend. That will always be a limiting problem -- but he throws counter moves, like the swim and the spin, much better than you'd expect for his limited reps and ineffective cornering skills. He's ready to contribute, as long as you keep his role limited to rush downs.
LB: Ryan Connelly, Wisconsin
If you're a college football fan, you can probably name a Wisconsin linebacker right now -- but for many, it might be T.J. Edwards. Real respect if you pulled Andrew Van Ginkel (he's part EDGE anyway) out of the hat.
Connelly has played second fiddle to Edwards in much of the Badgers' team coverage and national attention, but he's head and shoulders the better prospects. Edwards is lacking the requisite athleticism to affect the game sideline to sideline, while Connelly has some really nice quickness to his game. A great processor who knows how to sniff out play designs with instincts, Connelly affects the backfield often as a strong side 'backer by beating blocks and turning plays back into help immediately.
Now, Connelly is better in space than he is between the tackles, but he lacks the short-area twitchiness to be an overhang/hybrid player. Adding some mass may help him in that regard, but Connelly needs to learn how to fit into the defense when he hasn't sniffed the play out early -- he can give up too many big plays by running himself out of position. That said, he has a plus special-teamer profile and a backup-ready game in Year 1.
CB: Isaiah Johnson, Houston
Johnson is a bang-the-table prospect for me, and has been for the better part of two months now. A WR convert who tipped the scales at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, and a whopping 33 5/8" arms, Johnson has been lauded by the Cougars' staff for his attitude, work ethic, and eagerness when approaching a transition that he himself asked for.
Johnson is a scheme-limited player who will only interest teams who run the "Seattle Cover 3" that lets their corners get up close and personal with boundary receivers at the line of scrimmage -- but he can really shine in that roll. His lack of technical refinement was exposed at the Senior Bowl, especially in red zone drills, but when tasked with a deep third and given the freedom to play with his eyes in the backfield, Johnson's route recognition, ball skills, and athletic ability will all shine.
At the end of the day, it's tough to find high-ceiling corners after Round 3 -- especially in this, a weaker class. You're left gambling on undersized cover men to see if someone sticks. Johnson's physical profile alone is worth a long look; his tape doesn't disappoint.
S: Amani Hooker, Iowa
Hooker is the name du jour in the safety world right now, and with good reason: he was second in the Big 10 this year with four picks, with seven passes defensed tacked on for good measure. Despite those strong numbers, it was widely expected that Hooker would return to school, and he surprised scouts and agents in the area by declaring after his junior season.
But take a walk through his film, and you see a classic Iowa defensive back: not an athlete to write home about, but a technically sound and heady defender who can cause problems in zone coverage. Not unlike the criminally-underdrafted Desmond King, who left the Hawkeyes a productive player and stepped into a key nickel role for the Chargers, Hooker will only make sense for teams who can get him up in the line of scrimmage and let him play hook/curl or curl/flat zones predominately.