The early rounds are what excites the fans about the draft, but the late rounds are where the scouts make their money.
Where would the Patriots and Bill Belichick be without Tom Brady? Would the Packers have won the first Super Bowl without Bart Starr? How feared would the vaunted 1985 Bears defense have been without Richard Dent? The similarity between these three Hall of Fame-level players? They were all drafted much later than they would be now. Even all-time greats like Kurt Warner and Antonio Gates weren’t even drafted at all. While it’s obviously exciting to hit on a first-round prospect, it feels even better to see that late-round or undrafted rookie pop up out of nowhere to be a major contributor.
However, even more options on Day 3 requires a different format. With players from each position standing out as quality choices, the best way to go about this would be to create a team of sleepers. With that in mind, I’m going to construct an entire offense and defense consisting entirely of my favorite Day 3 sleepers of the class. Including players of all positions, I will also be including a couple of flex players to indicate more versatile prospects worthy of mentioning.
If there’s a prospect you don’t find, be sure to check out my early and middle-round boards to see if I have your favorite rookies on those lists.
So who could potentially be your team’s next great sleeper? Let’s find out
QB: Jake Haener (Fresno State)
While Houston’s Clayton Tune and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett were very close to claiming this spot, I have to give the QB spot to one of my favorites in the entire group.
Haener doesn’t have the elite traits that the top quarterbacks in the class have, but he combines decent athleticism with toughness and one of the best football IQs in the draft. Haener scored just behind Bryce Young to have the second-highest grade on the Wonderlic test, showcasing that his ability to process defenses and let plays develop is legit. Fresno State’s offense looked much worse without him, showing just how much of a leader Haener was for the Bulldogs. Haener will likely be a better version of Taylor Heinicke or Mike White as a high-end backup who can start in spurts, but I think his ceiling is similar to Brock Purdy. Definitely worth taking a stab in Round 5 or 6.
RB: Deneric Prince (Tulsa)
If you asked an NFL general manager what their ideal running back would look and play like, odds are they’d come up with someone like Prince. Prince has the frame of a standard power back (five-foot-eleven, 216 pounds), but combines that with surprising speed (4.41 40-yard dash time) and underrated third-down ability. Last year saw similar players like Dameon Pierce and Isiah Pacheco go from Day 3 picks to the lead backs for Houston and Kansas City, respectively. With teams always on the hunt for cheaper production in the backfield, Prince will make for a fine sleeper option for someone in need of depth at the running back room.
WR: Matt Landers (Arkansas), David Durden (West Florida)
Landers is my football version of Filip Gustavsson: he is the under-the-radar prospect I am absolutely convinced is going to have a successful career. While Landers is on the older side of prospects where he’ll be 24 when the season begins, very few prospects have his combination of size, speed, and athleticism. Six-foot four, 200 pound men typically don’t run a sub-4.4 at the 40 yard dash, but Landers proceeded to do exactly that at the Combine. Along with stringing together a good performance in the pre-draft process, Landers shows that he has the potential to be a force in the league while being drafted a round or two below similarly-freakish athletes at the position.
Meanwhile, if you want to take a chance on an undrafted receiver, there aren’t many better bets than Durden in this class. While Durden faces a steep learning curve between Division II and the NFL, the fact he’s even mentioned shows how dominant he was at that level. Durden also possesses a strong combination of size (six-foot-one, 204 pounds) and speed (4.45 40-yard dash time), and he regularly displayed that against much-weaker competition. Not only does Durden have his receiving chops, but he was also a willing blocker and served as both a returner and gunner on special teams. A team could fall in love with Durden’s traits and draft him with one of the final picks, but he’s also a prime candidate to break onto a 53-man roster as a UDFA.
TE: Griffin Hebert (Louisiana Tech)
I wasn’t sure if I should put Hebert here or in the flex spot due to his non-traditional tight end build, but a prospect who scored a perfect 10 RAS is one that’s near-impossible to ignore.
Hebert would qualify as an H-back, which means he would be tasked with multiple roles on offense, and I feel good about his ability to be successful in almost all of them. Need a fullback who can be an option for carries out of the backfield? Check. Need a receiving option that can be deployed practically anywhere on the field? Check. Need a blocker that will give enough effort to disrupt blitzers and pass rushers? Check. With Hebert able to be successful in these roles, he’d be a perfect fit for teams that like to run creative offenses (or still value the fullback). He’s a fun last-round dart throw.
Flex: Keaton Mitchell (RB, East Carolina)
One of the absolute best sleepers you will find in this draft, hands down.
To sum Mitchell up in one word is easy: speed. The 4.37 40-yard dash time only confirmed what scouts already knew about Mitchell being one of the most explosive backs in the entire class. His small frame might limit him from being a true three-down back, but there are very few players in this class who are deadlier in space. The best thing for Mitchell’s development right now would be to work on his receiving chops. His hands and route running can be helped by an experienced offensive coaching staff, but Mitchell already has the unteachable aspects down pat. Teams that covet speed will want to look at Mitchell around Round 5 or 6.
OT: Warren McClendon (Georgia), Jake Witt (Northern Michigan)
When looking at late-round offensive linemen, versatility is always a plus. With experience playing both sides of the line and the ability to play guard, McClendon has that in spades. Concerns about knee injuries will persist, but McClendon is a hard-working offensive lineman who will do whatever is asked of him in protection. He’s also one of the younger prospects in the class at 22, so there is time for him to grow stronger and develop into a more well-rounded player. Expect him to be a safe Round 5 bet.
Most people never heard of Witt or Northern Michigan until he popped up at Central Michigan’s pro day and outright dominated the drills. Converting from tight end means Witt has a limited sample size of offensive tackle play, but prospects with his level of athleticism don’t come around very often. His 40-yard dash time, broad jump, and vertical jump were better than any offensive tackle at the combine this year, and he did this all at six-foot-seven and 302 pounds. Witt is without question one of the most interesting late-round fliers of this class.
IOL: McClendon Curtis (OG, Chattanooga), Sidy Sow (OG, Eastern Michigan), Ricky Stromberg (C, Arkansas)
Curtis and Sow are similar prospects in the vein of having the versatility to play at guard and tackle, but they will likely be asked to play more of the former in the pros. Curtis is a nasty blocker that combines his size and mean streak with a strong understanding of the fundamentals. He’s already a projectable run blocker, and I imagine pass protection won’t be too much of an issue. Meanwhile, Sow has a nice blend of size and experience to rely on, giving him a good track record of production headed into the draft. His pro day also boasted some good numbers, indicating an athletic base to complement his on-field prowess. Both are comfortable bets to go on Day 3 at some point.
Stromberg also boasts some versatility, playing at center and both guard spots for the Razorbacks. With enough dynamism to pair with his aggression and strong football knowledge, Stromberg can make the block wherever it’s needed. Maybe teams don’t think he’s built like an NFL center, but being able to slide over to guard should give him a fair shot at an NFL future in some capacity. Similar to Curtis and Sow, a fifth or sixth round pick sounds like a fair investment.
DT: Kobie Turner (Wake Forest), Dante Stills (West Virginia)
While Turner only has one year of high-level production due to transferring from FCS program Richmond, he responded well in his one year against Power 5 competition and in Shrine Bowl practices. His size will likely limit him to being an option for 4-3 fronts only, but Turner projects as a quality run defender who can also be adequate in pass rush.
Another Shrine Bowl standout, Stills certainly has the experience edge on Turner. A four-year starter for the Mountaineers, Stills was able to carry his production and translate it to the Combine, where his speed and strength were put on full display. It’s unclear if he’s best suited for a defensive end or defensive tackle spot, but the athleticism and production should warrant Stills a spot on an NFL roster. A last-round selection would be a great value investment.
EDGE: Viliami Fehoko (San Jose State), B.J. Thompson (Stephen F. Austin)Very few defensive linemen play the position with such tenacity and ferocity as Fehoko. One of the best defensive linemen the Group of 5 has to offer, Fehoko has the strength necessary to bully his was past opposing offensive linemen. He could stand to add more muscle, but an NFL weight room should only help Fehoko hold his own against stronger offensive tackles and make him more versatile. He’s worth a fifth or sixth-round selection.
While Thompson was surprisingly not invited to the Combine, he showed enough at his pro day to warrant being a small-school draft choice. A 3-4 edge rusher, Thompson has a great combination of length, athleticism, and an array of pass-rushing moves. It may be difficult for him to crack a pass-rushing rotation immediately, but Thompson’s freakish athleticism and straight-line speed could make him a worthy project at special teams until his game develops. For a sixth or seventh-round selection, that’s not bad at all.
LB: Ben VanSumeren (Michigan State) Aubrey Miller Jr. (Jackson State)
VanSumeren is an interesting case of tools over production. He only has one year of top-level production, but VanSumeren’s pro day opened questions about high his ceiling can truly be. VanSumeren proved he has a strong combination of speed, explosiveness, and strength to warrant interest from defensive coordinators. The question will be what role VanSumeren is best suited to play, but the team that succeeds in this goal will be pleased by the results. A solid sixth or seventh-round investment.
While Jackson State has a couple of other noteworthy prospects in Dallas Daniels and Isaiah Bolden, I’m willing to say that Miller will be the first draft pick Deion Sanders has ever coached. Wearing the green dot for Coach Prime, Miller was a leader on both defense and special teams for the Tigers. He was also amongst one of the defensive standouts at the Senior Bowl, further boosting his stock in the eyes of scouts. A ready-made tackler with requisite athleticism for coverage, Miller has potential to outperform his draft selection and become a three-down player for whoever selects him.
CB: Kaleb Hayes (BYU), Starling Thomas V (UAB)
Hayes is another pro day performer that is going to stand out as one of the most interesting last-round dart throws. An Oregon State transfer, Hayes has been able to be productive over the last couple of years. While his playmaking needs some work, Hayes has some quality athleticism to pair with his defensive instincts. He offers a versatile project for defensive coordinators, who can mold him into a legitimate cornerback in a year or two’s time.
A prospect who popped up on my radar only a month or so ago, Thomas has emerged as one of my favorite sleepers of the class. He possesses one of the best combinations of athleticism and instincts of the secondary group, and he backed up his success at UAB with promising performances in the Shrine Bowl. He mostly played on the outside at UAB, but Thomas also has the feistiness required to be an effective slot corner, as well. Lock him in as a fifth-round pick.
S: Jason Taylor II (Oklahoma State), Marte Mapu (Sacramento State)
After opening a ton of eyes at the Combine, Taylor is going to be an interesting project for someone after the draft. What Taylor has over similarly-graded safeties is that he’s a torpedo coming down from his safety position to the ball carrier, and that same aggressiveness carries over to special teams as well. Coverage is still a work in progress, but his combination of burst, explosiveness, and instincts gives him a nice foundation to work with. A strong choice for a sixth-round selection.
A safety/linebacker hybrid, Mapu stands as one of the FCS’s better chances at landing a draft pick. Sacramento State has been a force in the FCS ranks over the past couple of seasons, and Mapu’s performance on defense has been instrumental in that endeavor. He has proven to be effective in stopping the run and sticking in coverage, which teams can use to their advantage. A torn pectoral will likely cause a small slide, but Mapu is still a worthy draft candidate.
Flex: Mekhi Blackmon (CB, USC)
A cornerback with plenty of experience, Blackmon was the only cornerback to finish with a top-five grade in man and zone coverage for PFF. While his lean build might put some teams off, he plays much feistier than his size would suggest, so Blackmon has the chance at being a versatile piece on defense. There is some need for improvement in terms of technique, but Blackmon’s strong track record of production make it a worthwhile investment for a defensive coordinator. A fifth-round pick used on a potential contributor early is a sound investment.