NFL Draft 2017: 10 biggest sleepers from non-Power Five schools
Every NFL Draft yields plenty of sleepers that end up producing big in the pros. Which players from non-Power Five schools could bust draft boards in 2017?
In an era with more attention on football than ever before, players still fall through the cracks. While most of the NFL’s talent comes from Power Five schools, there are plenty of sleepers out there that were lightly recruited and ended up at Group of Five and FCS programs.
NFL franchises have become increasingly adept at scouting these lower levels. Fans, however, still tend to gravitate toward the big names at powerhouse programs. Once a player manages to reach the pros, though, where he played college ball matters little.
This year’s draft is no different. Plenty of mid-major and FCS talent will be selected by NFL teams looking to meet specific needs on their rosters. Click ahead to see a dozen among this year’s crop of sleepers who could emerge as future stars at the next level.
CB, San Diego State
Last year no team had more interceptions than San Diego State. A key part of the Aztecs’ secondary was cornerback Damontae Kazee, who finished tied for third nationally in interceptions. Kazee hauled in seven of SDSU’s 26 picks, returning one for a touchdown. He also broke up eight passes, forced a fumble, and finished with 67 total tackles. He also forced quarterbacks to look elsewhere, allowing his talented teammates to capitalize with their own turnover production.
Kazee has spent the past four years as a cornerstone of SDSU’s defensive backfield. Last year he ranked second nationally in interceptions, and finished his Aztec career with 17 interceptions and six forced fumbles.
Given the rising reliance of NFL offenses on their passing games, teams increasingly need more cornerbacks to fill their secondary rotation. Kazee offers immediate help for any NFL team as a situational player and should have a fruitful career.
Teams in the NFL are always looking for values on the offensive line. Given the value placed on protecting quarterbacks, finding a tackle that can protect the blind side remains critical. Not every team can land a Cam Robinson, Ryan Ramczyk, or Garett Bolles from a Power Five program. One of the most intriguing prospects available at the position hails from a Sun Belt school that led the nation in fewest sacks allowed in 2016.
Antonio Garcia started 37 consecutive games at Troy at left tackle over the past three seasons. Garcia came back strong after suffering an injury that cut his redshirt freshman year short in 2013.
There should be no questions about his fitness after the past three years. Garcia was part of the line that helped Brandon Silvers set the FBS freshman record for QB completion percentage in 2014, helped Brandon Burks become a 1000-yard rusher in 2015, and was a key component of Troy’s first 10-win season at the FBS level.
A knee injury derailed Jamaal Williams’ junior season in 2014, forcing him to take a year off. He came back to BYU in 2016 and picked right up where he had left off in Provo.
Williams finished the season ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game. He finished off his college career with one of the bowl season’s biggest rushing performances, piling up 210 yards and a touchdown against Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Williams, though, did not have a great Combine performance among sleepers at running back. Aside from a decent broad jump, Williams finished outside the top 20 running backs in every drill in which he participated.
That will likely cause him to fall to the lower rounds of this year’s NFL Draft. But on the field, the BYU rusher has demonstrated the capability to burst for highlight-reel plays. The team that eventually picks him up will receive a strong runner who will serve any platoon situation well.
DE/LB, Youngstown State
Sleepers from outside the FBS at least have the advantage of broader coverage than ever before. As a four-year starter at Youngstown State, Derek Rivers was an instrumental part of the Penguins’ run to the FCS National Championship Game last year. He ranked second in the country at the FCS level with 13 solo sacks. Over the course of his career, Rivers has 35 solo sacks and five more assisted sacks. Rivers has also racked up 51 solo tackles for loss and assisted on 11 more takedowns in the backfield.
At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds, he would likely be best suited to play at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. But Rivers has been a consistent producer at his position, and he should be able to add some bulk in the pros. He put up 30 reps in the bench press at the NFL Combine and finished with the fourth-best 40-yard dash time among defensive line prospects.
Rivers is poised to make some team very happy that they took a chance on one of the most intriguing defensive sleepers of this year’s Draft.
WR, Louisiana Tech
Most teams will probably look first at Corey Davis and Zay Jones among Group of Five receivers. Yet the most dynamic and versatile of the mid-major sleepers just might be Carlos Henderson, the burner for Louisiana Tech. Last year the Bulldog receiver finished as the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year.
Despite missing a few games with an ankle injury last year, Henderson finished fourth nationally in total touchdowns, fourth in all-purpose yardage, and tied for first in receiving touchdowns.
Henderson didn’t put up the biggest of numbers at the NFL Combine. He did, however, finish well in the shuttle and cone drills and finished eighth in the broad jump among receivers.
Last year the Tech star scored a touchdown every fifth time he touched the football, by far the highest rate among FBS players. He will probably be a second-day pick, but within a few years Henderson could offer a first-round level of talent to whichever team selects him this year.
RB, South Florida
Running back is one of those positions at which there is a massive glut. Every team would love to find the next Ezekiel Elliott.
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As a result, we are likely going to see some teams reach up in the first round for players like Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. But there are plenty of sleepers who could potentially offer even better value this year. One such back is South Florida’s Marlon Mack, who has been overshadowed even by other Group of Five rushers.
Mack finished 12th in the FBS in rushing yards per carry, averaging 6.82 yards with each handoff. He racked up at least 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons with the Bulls, displaying a level of consistency over time that should be appreciated by NFL scouts.
At 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, Mack is a compact runner who leaves college as the Bulls’ all-time leading rusher. Franchises are always looking for a steal in the backfield, and Mack could step in and produce immediately for whichever team picks him up this year.
RB, San Diego State
No player has rushed for more yards in FBS history than Donnel Pumphrey, who broke Ron Dayne’s record in his final college game and capped a 2000-yard season. He also surpassed all of Marshall Faulk’s school rushing records during his senior year as San Diego State won the MWC title for the second straight season.
The problem for Pumphrey is size. NFL teams might think twice about taking a 5-foot-8 back who weighs just 175 pounds.
Teams that follow this logic will miss out on a prolific talent. Pumphrey ranked in the top seven in rushing yards each of the past three seasons and rushed for at least 100 yards in 33 of his 54 career games. He will need to bulk up a bit to sustain the punishment of NFL play, but height has never been a prerequisite to succeed as an NFL tailback. The franchise that picks up Pumphrey will be getting a proven performer at his position.
CB, Central Florida
Sometimes the Combine can drop a player’s status on draft boards. Sometimes the Combine can make stars out of sleepers. Shaquill Griffin falls in the latter camp. The UCF cornerback finished last year with four interceptions, including one returned 33 yards for a touchdown against Tulane. He also broke up a dozen more passes and finished with 48 total tackles.
Though he finished fifth nationally in total passes defensed, it was his Combine performance that vaulted him into second-day consideration.
Among the cornerbacks that congregated in Indianapolis, none had a more impressive all-around performance than Griffin. The Knights defensive back showed off his leaping ability, his speed, and his ability to shift directions.
Measuring somewhere between 6-foot and 6-foot-1 depending on the source, and with a 38.5-inch vertical leap, Griffin has the size and skill to match up with larger receivers. The team that nabs Griffin will get a still-raw talent who could develop into an All-Pro.
WR, Eastern Washington
Plenty of great receivers have come from outside the FBS ranks. Jerry Rice played his college ball at Mississippi Valley State, after all, and other sleepers such as Donald Driver and Marques Colston have transitioned from the FCS to the NFL and enjoyed long careers as well.
Cooper Kupp surpassed all their numbers at the FCS level, setting new benchmarks over his four-year career in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
Kupp didn’t just rack up his numbers against overmatched foes. Last year at Washington State, Kupp finished with 12 catches for 206 yards and three scores. In 2015, he set Autzen Stadium records with 15 receptions and 246 yards against the Ducks, scoring two touchdowns in the process.
At Washington in 2014, Kupp went off for 145 yards and three TDs. And as a freshman in 2013, he helped the Eagles upset Oregon State in Corvallis with 115 yards and two scores. Kupp is among the most polished sleepers available in this year’s NFL Draft.
RB, Boise State
Certain Group of Five schools seem to have a knack for turning underrecruited talent into NFL sleepers. Boise State has been a factory for running backs in recent years, with both Doug Martin and Jay Ajayi demonstrating an ability to produce at the next level.
The next great tailback to come out of the Mountain West powerhouse, Jeremy McNichols, could be even more versatile in a pro offense thanks to his adeptness in the passing game. McNichols finished fifth in the FBS in all-purpose yards despite rarely participating on special teams.
McNichols offers teams a threat as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. He finished his last year in college with 27 touchdowns and nearly 2200 yards from scrimmage as Boise State completed another 10-win season. In a conference with several great backs (look out as well for Brian Hill from Wyoming, who just missed this list), McNichols has been the top scorer in the Mountain West each of the past two years.
Though he is only 5-foot-9 he carries 215 pounds on his frame, and should provide a durable option for teams searching for rushing sleepers.
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