The NFL Draft is just around the corner as we’re only two weeks away from the big night. The draft spans three days, but many of the top players will be gone by the end of the first round.
A handful of prospects have risen fairly quickly over the past month and have vaulted their names into the first-round conversation. Whether it was their performance at the Combine, or the realization that these guys are better than first perceived, they could find themselves taken in Round 1.
Here are 10 sleepers to watch when the first round gets underway -- players who could easily be top-32 picks when it’s all said and done.
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Kansas State DE Jordan Willis
Willis has skyrocketed up draft boards in recent weeks after putting together a solid performance at the Combine. What makes him even more attractive as a first-round pick is his versatility. He can stand up in a 3-4 or put his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 left end, rushing against right tackles all day long in the NFL. He produced at Kansas State, too, recording 25.5 sacks in four seasons.
Willis has done enough to get selected in the first round, whether it’s by the Falcons (31) or Saints (32) – or possibly by a team ahead of them.
Ole Miss TE Evan Engram
Engram looks like a wide receiver and moves like one too. At 6-3, 234 pounds, Engram has good size to go along with great speed (4.42 40-yard dash), which is what makes him an interesting player. Some teams might view him as a big wide receiver, but most will see him as a Jordan Reed-type – someone you can split out wide and also play on the line as a traditional tight end.
A team will fall in love with his potential at the end of the first round and will want to experiment with him at multiple spots. Few things are better than having a piece on offense that you can line up in the slot or on the line in two-tight end sets. The Saints at No. 32 are a great fit after Coby Fleener didn’t produce the way New Orleans had hoped. You can never go wrong with giving Drew Brees another weapon, especially with Brandin Cooks gone.
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Youngstown State DE Derek Rivers
Seeing Rivers go in the first round wouldn’t be a complete surprise. This class isn’t as deep at edge rusher as it is at, say, cornerback, so teams might reach to get their guy. Rivers is a player who would make sense for a lot of teams, namely the Falcons (31), Saints (32), Chiefs (27) and Steelers (30).
Now, there may be better options on the board when it comes time for those teams to pick – possibly Charles Harris, Carl Lawson or the troubled Tim Williams – but Rivers has good potential thanks to his athleticism. By working on his pass-rush moves and improving against the run as a well-rounded defender, Rivers can become great. That’s one of the main reasons he’ll likely have his name called within the first 32 picks.
UConn S Obi Melifonwu
At this point in the draft process, Melifonwu isn’t a huge sleeper. He had an all-time great performance at the Combine, putting his name on the map of many casual fans. However, he’s still far from a lock to go in Round 1. Yes, his athleticism is off the charts, but is he a first-round talent?
When push comes to shove, though, I think he does land in the first round. He can play safety or cornerback in a Cover 3 scheme, which increases the number of teams that could be interested in his services. The Seahawks (26) are an obvious fit with Richard Sherman possibly being traded, but a team as high as the Buccaneers at No. 19 could take a chance on Melifonwu.
When you’re this athletic, teams take notice.
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USC CB Adoree’ Jackson
This is a loaded draft class at cornerback, and there are at least six players who could go in the first round. Jackson is on the fringe of being in that group, but ultimately I think he sneaks into Round 1. The NFL is a pass-first league, so you can never have enough cornerbacks.
Plus the team that drafts Jackson will be getting more than a cornerback. He’s electric with the ball in his hands, whether it’s on punt returns or on offense. Finding the right fit will be key for Jackson to have success, mainly because he doesn’t have the size to hold up as a boundary corner. He’ll need to play the slot, and in order for a team to maximize his value, it’ll need to use him on special teams, too. Keep an eye on the Cowboys (28) as they’ve showed interest in the USC corner.
Western Kentucky G Forrest Lamp
In a class that’s relatively weak on the offensive line, Lamp has a good chance of going in the first round. It won’t be early, and it may not happen at all, but Lamp has the potential to be a great guard in the NFL, or even a good tackle. Because of the fact that there isn’t a lot of depth at either position, a team will value his versatility.
Guards aren’t often prioritized in the draft, but we’ve seen teams pay big money for them in free agency. Drafting Lamp in the first round will give a team a solid guard for a low price – and for five years thanks to the fifth-year option.
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Houston OLB Tyus Bowser
Bowser is one of the best all-around athletes in the draft, and that fact alone could push him into first-round consideration. He had the best vertical of any linebacker (37.5 inches), and his 3-cone drill was also tops at his position this year (6.75 seconds). Those two numbers show the explosiveness and quickness that Bowser possesses as an edge rusher.
It remains to be seen whether he can hold up as an every-down rusher, though. He fits best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, which limits his options in the first round. The Steelers (30) are an ideal fit, as are the Chiefs (27). Both teams need a pass rusher.
Utah S Marcus Williams
Williams is a true free safety in a draft class that has several versatile players at the position. He’s at his best when he’s playing in single-high looks as the center fielder, ranging from sideline to sideline.
With 11 career interceptions, Williams has terrific ball skills – arguably the best of any safety in this class. Although there are plenty of first-round talents at safety this year, Williams could sneak into the first round for a team like the Cowboys (28), Steelers (30) or Packers (29). Safeties will be coveted in this year’s draft because of the way they’re utilized in today’s pass-happy NFL.
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Washington CB Kevin King
If not for injuries to his teammate Sidney Jones and UCLA corner Fabian Moreau, King may not be in many first-round discussions. However, with their draft stocks falling, and King boasting elite quickness for his size (6-3), teams will covet his potential. He’s far from a polished corner and may never be a lockdown guy, but it’s hard not to drool over his ability.
He posted a 39.5-inch vertical and had the best 3-cone and short shuttle times of any corner at the Combine. Such short-area quickness from a corner that tall (6-foot-3) is what makes him so intriguing. Keep an eye on the Seahawks (26) and Chiefs (27) as potential fits toward the end of Round 1.
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Cal QB Davis Webb
This is an interesting quarterback class because there isn’t one who stands head and shoulders above the rest. There are a handful of guys who could be the first quarterback taken, but it won’t be Webb. He’s not expected to be taken in the first round, so why is he on this list? Because teams value quarterbacks more than players at any other position.
If there’s an early run on quarterbacks, a team could feel the need to trade up from the second round to take Webb. We saw it happen with Paxton Lynch last year and with Teddy Bridgewater back in 2014.
Webb will be a prime candidate to be scooped up late in the first round, potentially by a team like the Cardinals (trading up or down) or Chiefs (27).