Every year, multiple prospects come from the depths of the draft to surprise us. Last year it was an undrafted running back in James Robinson who shocked the NFL. Predicting who it will be this year is more difficult before we know where players will land and what situation faces them, but it’s too fun to look at an all-sleeper team before the draft.
The following are players ranked outside my Top 100 prospects. Because if you’re a top 100 prospect, you’re not really a sleeper, right? But each player has the traits to excel, and in some cases become starters, in the right situations.
Quarterback: Sam Ehlinger, Texas
A starter as a true freshman at Texas, Ehlinger broke school records and is one of two Power 5 quarterbacks to throw for 11,000 yards and rush for 1,500 career yards. And while his throwing mechanics have never been the cleanest, Ehlinger excels as a power quarterback who can execute RPO plays. His experience, leadership and competitiveness are highly attractive at the position. A likely mid-round selection, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ehlinger is a better pro quarterback than collegiate one.
Running Back : Chris Evans, Michigan
Chris Evans never became the breakout running back at Michigan that many expected, but he still has the traits of a good NFL back. Evans sat out the 2019 season due to academic issues then shared carries in a crowded backfield in 2020. But throughout his career and at the Senior Bowl, Evans impressed when given opportunities.
Wide Receivers: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa; Dax Milne, BYU; Jaelon Darden, North Texas
Every year there are talented receivers who slip outside of the top 100. My favorites this year are a diverse group.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette profiles as a deep threat and return man who can be an offensive weapon with the ball in his hands. Dax Milne was an excellent 50/50 ball receiver for BYU who lacks top-end NFL speed, but his toughness and hands are excellent. And finally, Jaelon Darden is undersized (5’8”, 174 lbs) but is electric with the ball in his hands. In the right scheme, where he’ll have manufactured touches, he could be a star.
Tight End: Zach Davidson, Central Missouri
A 6’7”, 245-pound redshirt senior, Davidson still has room to fill out his lean frame at tight end; but he’s also been the team’s punter since his freshman season. Value!
Davidson didn’t get a 2020 season due to Covid-19, but in 2019 he was unstoppable. Teams will have to reconcile his one great year with his lack of impact in the previous seasons, but he has big-time potential as a developmental tight end and emergency punter.
Offensive Tackles: Brady Christensen, BYU; Alaric Jackson, Iowa
Two very different players here. Brady Christensen is a 24-year-old senior with eye-opening athleticism and power. He’s NFL ready early on. Alaric Jackson has a ton of experience at tackle but doesn’t have the athleticism teams want. He’s also played exclusively at left tackle in college and doesn’t have the traits to stay there in the NFL.
If Christensen ends up a rookie starter, don’t be shocked. He reminds me of Braden Smith of the Indianapolis Colts. And if Jackson works his way into a lineup after learning a new position, that wouldn’t be a surprise either.
Offensive Guards: Trey Smith, Tennessee; Ben Cleveland, Georgia
POWER blockers take up the two offensive guard spots. Trey Smith was a starting left tackle as a freshman but blood clots forced him to miss his sophomore season. He started to shake the rust off throughout 2020 though and in the right scheme could be a starter early in his pro career.
Ben Cleveland is just fun. He’s a mauler who is so good at clearing paths in the run game. His pass protection isn’t the prettiest, but he gets the job done.
Center: Drew Dalman, Stanford
I have no idea why Drew Dalman isn’t getting more love—and I say this as someone ranking him outside the top 100. The redshirt junior is a little small (6’3”, 295 lbs) but he’s a technician with good timing, anticipation and quickness. Zone teams should be all over him in the draft.
Edge-Rushers: Cameron Sample, Tulane; William Bradley-King, Baylor
Cameron Sample wowed at the 2021 Senior Bowl. He’s a bit of a ‘tweener at 6’3” and 274 pounds but would fit in on a defensive line that likes versatility up-front. His first-step quickness and power are impressive.
Baylor’s William Bradley-King has production and athleticism on a big 6’4”, 252 pound frame. The former Arkansas State standout is a smart pass-rusher who should make an impact early on in sub-packages.
Defensive Tackles: Tyler Shelvin, LSU; Khyiris Tonga, BYU
This is all about the run-stuffers. Tyler Shelvin’s tape is of a top 75 player but concerns about weight management and conditioning will push him down the board. Some lucky team could steal a Day 1 starting nose tackle because of it.
Khyiris Tonga wowed on tape and at the BYU pro day. He’s a bulldozer of a man and has exceptional strength. He almost left for the draft last year but returned and put together a very solid 2020. What he lacks in pass-rush skills he makes up for as a plug in the run game.
Linebackers: Garrett Wallow, TCU; Charles Snowden III, Virginia; Tony Fields, West Virginia
There’s a lot of versatility in this linebacker group. And all are highly recommended by scouts.
Garrett Wallow is undersized (6’2”, 220 lbs) but is a high-character leader with off-the-charts production in college. He may be a hybrid linebacker-safety player early and a mainstay on special teams, but he’ll see the field.
Charles Snowden III looks the part at 6’6” and 243 pounds with a frame that could fill out more. He’s versatile enough to play linebacker or edge-rusher and has excelled at both spots in college. He’s raw, but the potential is super exciting.
Tony Fields II transfered from Arizona to West Virginia and showed off his ability in space. Built like a big safety at 6’0” and 222 pounds, he could see a lot of nickel and dime duty.
Cornerbacks: Tay Gowan, Central Florida; Mark Gilbert, Duke
The more teams start sharing their grades on players, the more I think these two cornerbacks could be steals.
Tay Gowan has the size teams want at 6’1” and 185 pounds. He doesn’t have great speed, but put him in a press situation and he’ll shine. A former JUCO player, Gowan is still learning how to run with top-tier receivers, but he’s flashed ball skills. Get him in Cover 2 or Cover 3 and watch him ball out.
Mark Gilbert is a former top recruit who has seen his career ravaged by injuries. If his hip and foot have recovered—and I’ve heard positive reports—he’s one to watch for on potential alone. At 6’0” and 186 pounds, Gilbert will be a 24-year-old rookie but his traits are exciting.
Safeties: Ar’Darius Washington, TCU; Christian Uphoff, Illinois State
Put a gold star by both these names, because they’re my dudes.
Ar’Darius Washington is Mighty Mouse at 5’8” and 176 pounds. He’s quick with great vision, instincts and timing. He lived around the football for TCU and is a big-time hitter in a small package. He’ll get on the field immediately in sub-packages.
Christian Uphoff is a hitter. At 6’2” and 209 pounds he plays fast and he plays downhill. He also has coverage range to play post-safety and can line up wherever the defense needs him on the back-end. Watch him work his way into a starting lineup in 2021.