NFL Draft Sleepers
By: Robert Davis
Every year there are players that fly under the radar for a number of reasons. They could have gone to a smaller school, been injured, over shadowed; the reasons are endless. If you follow the draft, chances are you have your own list of sleepers. Players you feel will make it at the next level even though their draft stock is not very high. Here are a few names that I feel could really outplay their draft stock in a few years.
On offense, three players stand out to me as legitimate sleepers: QB Bruce Gradkowski, RB Jerome Harrison, and WR Marques Colston.
Despite the MAC producing a lot of NFL talent at the QB position lately, Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski hasn't generated that much talk. In four seasons with the Rockets(three as a starter), Gradkowski had amazing numbers. He completed 68.2% of his passes for 9,225 yards with a ridiculous TD/INT ratio of 85/20. Just as impressive are his rushing totals, which were 1,018 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gradkowski was not just production either. He possesses all the talent to play quarterback at the next level. He can sit in the pocket and sling it, and has the athleticism and speed to make plays when things break down. At the combine, Gradkowski ran a 4.59 40, which is excellent for a quarterback. Along with the production and talent, Gradkowski also has the intangibles. He is a true leader and his toughness is top notch. He does not have ideal QB size at 6'1 217, but it is not terrible size either. Injuries will be the biggest obstacle Gradkowski must overcome at the next level. He has suffered hand, shoulder, rib and head(concussions) at Toledo. Gradkowski could be a hot commodity on the second day of the draft.
Washington State's Jerome Harrison actually began his college career at Eastern Michigan. He quickly realized that that was not the place for him, and he left school after his first semester. Harrison resurfaced at Pasadena (CA) Community College and got his football career back on track. Despite his team not winning a game his sophomore season, Harrison ran for 1,059 yards and 11 touchdowns. After a solid junior season in Pullman, he took off as a senior and took everyone by surprise. This year alone he ran for 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns. Harrison has excellent quickness and speed. He gets to top gear quickly, cuts well, and has the speed to break off the big play. The knock on Harrison is that he is not big enough to handle the load as a feature back and lacks the bulk to be a threat between the tackles. Do not tell that to Jerome, who carried the ball at least 20 times in every game this year aside from one, and topped the 30 carry mark four times on his way to 308 carries on the season. He's not going to be a guy to pound it between the tackles, but Harrison has the running ability to be a factor in the NFL. His floor is high as well, because his speed and hands will at least allow him to contribute on third downs and special teams.
Many people have not heard the name Marques Colston, but that is a result of playing for D1-AA Hofstra. After sitting out 2004 with an injury, Colston put together an excellent senior campaign, hauling in 70 balls for 975 yards and five touchdowns. That was after a 51/910/7 performance before the injury. Colston is a huge target, checking in at 6'5 224lbs at the combine. He also moves well for a player with those dimensions, as his 4.55 40 at Indy suggests. What makes him stand out though is his body control. Colston knows how to use his size to shield off defenders, and may have the best skills of any wide out in the draft at adjusting to the ball while it's in the air. His combination of size and body control makes him unstoppable in jump ball situations. The knock on Colston's game was that he was playing at a lower level, and that he did not face enough talent on a game to game basis. He put on a show at the East-West Shrine game with players from major schools, and showed that he can play with anyone. He is a work in progress, but he could develop into an excellent intermediate and red zone threat in the NFL.
There are five defensive prospects among my top sleepers: DT Jesse Mahelona, LB Jon Alston, LB Will Derting, LB Torrance Daniels, and S Pat Watkins.
Tennessee DT Jesse Mahelona is a name well known in college football. After two seasons at Orange Coast(CA) College, Mahelona was one of the elite defensive recruits in the nation. He made an immediate impact on the Vols defensive line with 18.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He was a Playboy AA entering the season, but like the entire Tennessee program, he had a disappointing season. Mahelona got a lot of attention from opponents and coupled with his lack of refinement kept him out of the action quite a bit. Mahelona is an excellent prospect from a physical standpoint. He has excellent quickness and speed for a tackle, and is very strong. He has shown the ability to dominate at various times, but needs more technique work to make an impact on a consistent basis. If placed in the right system that will harness Mahelona's athletic talents, he could be a standout in the NFL. The talent and toughness is there, he just needs more work to develop his skills.
LB Jon Alston from Stanford isn't your typical linebacker. He's a tad undersized at 6'1 223, and he's got ridiculous speed, clocking a 4.40 40 at the combine in February. With those measurables, you would immediately think safety, but Alston has been a standout outside linebacker for the Cardinal. He has used that speed and quickness to post 113 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, and 15 sacks over the past two seasons. Alston has the agility and cover ability you would expect of a player with those dimensions, but the sack numbers show he knows how to get to the passer as well. He flies around the football field doing whatever is asked of him, and the result is usually positive. Alston is a linebacker, but with his athletic talent, some teams may view him as a safety. Wherever he plays, he is a playmaker and a name to keep an eye on.
Another Pac-10 linebacker has flown under the radar. Washington State's Will Derting is a football player. That is the only description that does him justice. He is not the biggest, the fastest, or the most athletic, but the guy knows how to play football. Derting's football instincts are second to none. He reads and reacts as quickly as any player in this draft. There are no wasted steps and no hesitation once Derting reads the play. The problem with Derting is his durability. He is a bit undersized for the linebacker position, and is coming off a knee injury that limited his senior season to just six games and only 35 tackles. It is understandable that he only carries a Day Two grade, but if this kid is healthy, he is a guy you will hear a lot about in the NFL.
As deep as this safety class is, Pat Watkins of Florida State may have the most upside of them all. Aside from Vernon Davis, there may not be a better physical specimen in this draft. At the combine in February, Watkins measured up at 6'5 211lbs, ran a 4.42 40, and had a 41" vertical jump. Those numbers are amazing. At that size, and with that jumping ability, he has the potential to be a shutdown performer in the red zone. It will be impossible to throw the ball over the top of Watkins. Watkins is not just a workout wonder. On the field he has shown the ability to cover and come up in run support, and the instincts to diagnose plays. The main flaw in his game is his lack of bulk, as you can see just by looking at him. While he was a very good college player, he never dominated like his talent suggests he should. But the progress he has shown along with his physical talent, he is a player with major potential at the next level.
The token Division II player on this list is Torrance "Tank" Daniels of Harding College. His name is not included just to have a DII player; he is a legitimate talent. Daniels is one of the more versatile defenders in this draft. He was a four year starter at rover, playing a hybrid safety/linebacker role. That is quite a feat for a player that is 6'4 245lbs. Not only has he played roles similar to that of a safety and a linebacker, Daniels has also lined up as a defensive end for the Bison. His career numbers show his versatility: 237 tackles, 34 for loss, 18 sacks, seven interceptions, 27 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries. On the field, Daniels shows the necessary speed and athleticism to play at the next level. He also did not get the nickname "Tank" for no reason, as he has delivered numerous devastating hits during his four year career. Of course, coming from such a small school, there are concerns about how well he projects to the next level. Talent is not the issue, but the speed and pace of the game are. Tank Daniels is the epitome of a developmental prospect. He may not hear his name called in April, but he is a guy that could stick on a practice squad for a year or two, the slowly work his way on to the field, beginning with special teams.
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