The three-day march to no. 253 starts tonight in Philadelphia with Cleveland’s first pick in the NFL draft.
Where the NFL draft used to be a low-key one day affair has turned into a giant self-congratulatory event that only the very enthusiastic among football fans, pundits, players and executives could sit through in its entirety.
Not that it doesn’t have plenty of drama and the twists and turns of Day 1 deals (there were several last year, including the flipping of the top two picks).
But, finally all the prognostication, vetting of available talent through the combine and endless speculation on players’ character, heart and motivation come down to a three-day marathon of finger-nail chewing for the thousands of prospects vying for 253 spots (7 rounds) in the draft.
The big names like Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen, Leonard Fournette and Mitch Trubisky won’t likely have to wait long to don a cap and NFL jersey with ’17’ on it.
For the majority, it’s a crap shoot and we’ve taken the time to peruse the prospects and find a few players rated from second round and lower who will likely surprise some by being drafted higher and who could later go on to big things in the big league.
Here are 10 sleepers, in order of general ranking from lowest to highest.
10. Grover Stewart, DT – Albany State (Ranked 188th)
We like an underdog as much as anybody and a guy from a small school is even better, as they tend not to be overrated like their brethren from bigger schools. Grover Stewart, a defensive tackle from the Division II Albany State (GA) Golden Rams, is one of the heaviest prospects, rated 188th by the good folks at CBS Sports (whose list we cite here). At 6’4″ and 347 lbs., he’ll be a handful for offensive linemen looking to contain him. He’s comparable in size to freakish NFL DT’s Dontari Poe, B.J. Raji and Haloti Ngata and ran a faster three-cone (7.71 seconds) than any of them before they were drafted. The official draft book on him from NFL.com says that his strengths include “brute force in upper body” and “impressive straight line speed” and “eye-opening reactive quickness.” On the downside, scouts say he’s very raw, but with additional technique work could become a very capable interior defender.
9. Xavier Woods, S – Louisiana Tech (Ranked 156th)
Much of the focus on safeties available for the draft centers around Jamal Adams of LSU, Malik Hooker of Ohio State and Jabrill Peppers of Michigan, among others from big time programs. Way down the list, but no less valuable in our opinion, is Xavier Woods of Louisiana Tech. Woods was a Conference USA first team member in his last three seasons and according to his draft profile is a good hitter with great ball skills (we think the scouts were hard-pressed to find too much fault in his game, according to their write up). From his sophomore season on, the slightly undersized (5’11”) Woods was a monster against schools in his conference like Marshall, Rice, UTEP, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. In his senior season, Woods made a career high 84 tackles (60 solo), a career high three sacks and had five of his 14 career interceptions. One who we think is rated too low.
8. Marlon Mack, RB – South Florida (Ranked 130th)
Other than quarterback, the running back position is the sexiest — and riskiest — for scouts and football executives to analyze. A great running back gives a great quarterback options, but the shelf life of the average runner is too short, most of the time. Thus, bird dogs need be careful when rating the elite backs in college football. Sports Illustrated came up with a list of 15 top running backs and Marlon Mack is 15th on that list, only because he doesn’t come from upstate, like Dalvin Cook at Florida State (who is rated no. 1 by S.I.). The eggheads at CBS have Mack ranked no. 130 heading into the draft but his stats in the American Athletic Conference and performance at the combine say otherwise. He’s a beefy guy at 213 lbs. and ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds, making him the second fastest for a guy his size behind Jeremy McNichols of Boise State. At USF, Mack had three straight seasons of over 1,000 yards (3,610 total) and ran for 32 touchdowns.
7. Shaquill Griffin, CB – Central Florida (Ranked 121st)
Not far down the road from South Florida, where Marlon Mack plays with South Florida, is Orlando’s Central Florida, which also competes in the AAC. Thus, they Knights football program get as much attention (which doesn’t amount to a whole lot) from pro scouts. A shame, really, considering the career safety Shaquill Griffin has had there. Ranked no. 121 by CBS Sports, Griffin is a tall enough corner at a shade under 6’0″, has a 38.5″ vertical, runs the 40 in 4.38 seconds and was beaten by only one other player in NCAA DI football in pass breakups and interceptions this year. While his ranking is low with most, Pro Football Focus actually has him 89th, for good reason. In his final season with the Knights, Griffin made 50 tackles (30 solo), swatted away 19 passes and made four interceptions, one for a pick six. He has been compared to Green Bay’s LaDarius Gunter, which isn’t bad at all.
6. Taywan Taylor, WR – Western Kentucky (Ranked 110th)
Only two other players in NCAA Division I football had more receiving yards than Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor. But, the Hilltoppers’ Taylor gained his 1,730 yards and 17 TDs on far fewer receptions (98, compared to second place Zay Jones of East Carolina, who caught 158 passes for 1,746 yards and only 8 TDs). Twice a Conference USA First Team member, Taylor didn’t just have his good games against scrub teams, as he reeled in nine passes for 128 yards against Alabama’s stout defensive backfield in a game last September. The 110th ranked player for the draft put a sweet finishing touch on his last season at WKU, catching nine passes for 144 yards and a touchdown as the Hilltoppers beat Memphis 51-31 in the Boca Raton Bowl. Scouts say he compares favorably to Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and we couldn’t agree more.
5. Daeshon Hall, DE – Texas A&M (Ranked 107th)
Hall’s draft stock has trended upward since completing his final season with the Aggies. Projected to be a pretty good interior rusher in a 3-4 set, Hall is also very versatile, as he can use his still growing 6’5″, 266 lbs. frame to play linebacker as well. In his last three seasons with A&M, Hall recorded 130 tackles (56 solo), 14 sacks and four fumbles. Added to his growing reputation is the fact he only played one season on the defensive line at A&M after transitioning from linebacker. Despite being ranked as low as no. 107, one AFC scout had this to say “Daeshon Hall is a name that is going to get hot. I didn’t think he had starting potential when he was an outside ‘backer. Now that he’s bigger and stronger and playing with his hand down, I think he’s a different player. I see him as a second-day (Rounds 2-3) guy.” A mover, we think, on day 2.
4. Nathan Peterman, QB – Pittsburgh (Ranked 99th)
Even though quarterbacks tend to have longer careers than running backs, they are harder to project for NFL value and get the most attention in the early rounds. The NFL’s draft history is littered with busts who were overrated from the outset, like Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Art Schlichter and David Carr. That kind of history puts a big load on the shoulders of highly ranked passers for this year’s draft like Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Mitch Trubisky. Down at no. 99, though, is a pro-ready QB from Pitt named Nathan Peterman. At 6’2″ he has the size and after playing in a pro-style passing attack with the Panthers would be a nice fit in a few NFL offences. Peterman was 42nd in the nation among DI pivots, passing for 2,855 yards, 27 TDs and just 7 INTs (which proves his scout-lauded accuracy). The hallmark of his 2016 season was a big win over eventual national champion Clemson on Nov. 12. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns (no INTs) as the Panthers upended the Tigers.
3. Cooper Kupp, WR – Eastern Washington (Ranked 80th)
Somehow, the 80th ranked prospect for the draft (according to CBS Sports), Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington, was also the most prolific pass-catcher in NCAA FCS history, setting all-time records for total receptions (428), receiving yards (6,464), and receiving touchdowns (73). The superb pass-catcher who has been compared to Jarvis Landry rolled up a career high 1,700 yards on 117 reception for the Eagles in 2016, along with 17 touchdowns and eight games of 100-plus yards. Now, he did play mostly against tier 2 competition in the Big Sky Conference, but did scorch rival and elite level Washington State for 12 catches, 206 yards and three TDs in a shocking 45-42 EWU victory last September. Sports Illustrated has him as the ninth rated wideout for the draft. We think they erred on that prediction.
2. Duke Riley, OLB – LSU (Ranked 59th)
He may not be the biggest linebacker in the draft, but his outstanding season with the Tigers can’t be ignored, as he played the most games of his collegiate career (12) in his first starting campaign, registered the most tackles (93), had 1.5 sacks and his first interception. He is following in the footsteps of undersized LSU linebackers who have gone on to NFL success, they being Kwon Alexander of Tampa Bay and Deion Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. Scouts have pointed to his size and lack of experience as a linebacker, however, he has considerable special teams experience, has good coverage balance and great range on the perimeter. With those that have gone before him (Alexander and Jones), it’s a good bet Riley just might find a home in the NFL.
1. Adam Shaheen, TE – Ashland (Ranked 51st)
The man known as “Baby Gronk” just might be the surprise of the 2017 draft. Hailing from tiny DII school Ashland in northeastern Ohio, Adam Shaheen isn’t ranked in Sports Illustrated’s top 10 tight ends for the draft, but is ranked 51st by CBS Sports, which leaves us scratching our heads. At 6’7″ and 277 lbs. he has the requisite size to either catch passes or block effectively and also possesses better than average speed and hands. Playing with the Eagles in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, he played in 11 games this past season, catching 57 passes for 867 yards and a conference high 16 touchdowns. He’s widely considered to be the best DII player in the draft and opened a few eyes in the combine by running a 4.79-second 40 and being a beast on the bench press.