NFL draft sleeper watch: Every team's best late-round pick or UDFA signing
- These 32 players didn't hear their names called until Saturday of draft weekend, but you should learn them now. From Malachi Dupre to Fish Smithson, every NFL team has a potential sleeper on its hands.
So much of the NFL draft is focused on the early-round star power, but it’s on Day 3 and beyond when teams round out their rosters with important, albeit often unheralded, pieces. There always are a handful of surprise stars that emerge from those late rounds and the undrafted free agent frenzy.
So, which under-the-radar prospects are worth remembering this year? Drawing a cutoff line between Rounds 4 and 5, here is one player per team with a shot to make an impact:
Arizona Cardinals: Collin Bevins, DT, Northwest Missouri State (UDFA)
Bevins was a highly productive player in college: 34 career sacks and nearly 60 tackles for loss over his four years at Northwest Missouri State. He’s a high-effort guy—the exact type of player who can bully his way onto a roster by excelling during preseason and training camp. The Cardinals could use a little more depth along their D-line, and at 6' 6" and 285 pounds, Bevins fits as a 3–4 DE.
Atlanta Falcons: Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State (Round 5, No. 149 overall)
Two inches shy and about five hundreths of a second off his 40 time from being an easy Day 2 selection, Kazee (5' 10" with 4.54 speed) should be able to live up to his early-Round 5 billing and then some. In an odd twist, current Falcons nickel corner Brian Poole announced the selection of Kazee, who figures to be Poole’s fiercest competition.
Baltimore Ravens: Tim White, WR, Arizona State (UDFA)
White (5' 11", 175 pounds) is a really intriguing athlete—he competed at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials as a long jumper and finished fourth in the NCAA outdoor competition for that same event. Likely a slot receiver with over-the-top speed, White would seem to fit the Ravens’ passing-game M.O.
Buffalo Bills: Matt Milano, LB, Boston College (Round 5, No. 163)
Buffalo was believed to be a possible landing spot for Haason Reddick or Reuben Foster in Round 1, so the linebackers the Bills took later deserve a little more attention by default. Milano (6' 0", 223) isn’t an elite athlete, but he reads the ball well and flies toward the action. Don’t be surprised if he’s picking up significant snaps as a rookie.
Carolina Panthers: Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson (UDFA)
Boulware (6' 0", 238) definitely does not lack for confidence or emotion. He admitted to ESPN that ”it hurt a little bit” that the Panthers used their final pick on a kicker and then signed Boulware as a UDFA. So, he’s got a little chip on his shoulder. A star in January’s national title game, Boulware always has outperformed his measurables.
Chicago Bears: Tanner Gentry, WR, Wyoming (UDFA)
The Bears did not draft a receiver, and their depth chart at the position is a hodgepodge of options—Cameron Meredith, undrafted in 2015, actually led the team in receiving last year. There is opportunity, then, for Gentry, a 6' 1", 200-pounder with sticky hands. He produced 1,300-plus yards and 14 TDs last season.
Cincinnati Bengals: Josh Tupou, DT, Colorado (UDFA)
Tupou (6' 3", 353) fits the bill as a run-stuffing nose tackle. The Bengals have a couple of big bodies inside (Pat Sims, Andrew Billings) and just drafted 300-pounder Ryan Glasgow, but they also bid farewell to Domata Peko. There could be playing time available.
Cleveland Browns: Channing Stribling, CB, Michigan (UDFA)
Michigan opponents that did not want to challenge new Cowboy Jourdan Lewis last season often turned their attention to Stribling. He didn’t make life much easier, knocking down 17 passes and picking off four. He’s lanky with good height (6' 1", 188) and can bury receivers into the sideline.
Dallas Cowboys: Xavier Woods, S, Louisiana Tech (Round 6, No. 191)
We won’t know for months, possibly even years, but upon first glance this pick looked like one of the better bargains of the 2017 draft. Woods (5' 11", 197) coughs up the occasional big play, but he also makes plenty himself—eight combined INTs the past two years, including a pick-six in Louisiana Tech’s bowl game.
Denver Broncos: Isaiah McKenzie, WR, Georgia (Round 5, No. 172)
The Broncos put a clear emphasis on adding big-play potential to their offense, and they did so twice over during the draft with Carlos Henderson and McKenzie. The former’s presence could limit the latter’s reps, but McKenzie (5' 7", 173, 4.42 40) at least can be a weapon as a punt returner.
Detroit Lions: Pat O’Connor, DE, Eastern Michigan (Round 7, No. 250)
Aside from signing Cornelius Washington (3.0 career sacks), the Lions have done little to address a trouble spot at defensive end. That alone gives O’Connor (6' 4", 270) a chance to open some eyes in camp. He won’t lose the effort battle, so if he can show any pro-caliber pass-rushing traits, he might be able to stick on the roster.
Green Bay Packers: Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU (Round 7, No. 247)
A lot to like about this fit. Maybe it doesn’t work out, as it’s a seventh-rounder landing on a roster with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and a handful of other options. But Dupre’s the latest LSU receiver who could be more productive in the pros than he was in school. He has good size (6' 2", 196), plus a 39-inch vertical.
Houston Texans: Joe Mathis, OLB, Washington (UDFA)
A foot injury ended Mathis’s 2016 season early, kept him out of the NFLPA Bowl and no doubt played a significant role in his undrafted status. Healthy, he carries some pop in his 6' 2", 266-pound frame, and he was averaging almost a sack per game prior to his injury. He can provide Houston some depth off the edge.
Indianapolis Colts: Anthony Walker Jr., LB, Northwestern (Round 5, No. 161)
The Colts’ defensive depth chart looks a lot more complete than it did a season ago, but the ILB spots are still thin. Hence the selection of Walker (6’1”, 238) in the fifth round. His play in 2016 didn’t match the hype he carried into the season, but he still has three-down potential and a nose for the football.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Myrick, CB, Minnesota (Round 7, No. 222)
That 4.28 40 Myrick ran at the combine opened some eyes, but his speed always showed up as the best aspect of his game. If Myrick (5' 10", 200) can bring the rest of his game along, he could be a playmaker out of the slot. He made a ton of plays on the ball at Minnesota and showed off serious kick-return chops, too.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jordan Sterns, S, Oklahoma State (UDFA)
Check out these tackle numbers from the past three seasons: 103, 108 and 101, respectively. Sterns (5' 11", 198) has done more than enough in that regard to be a possible in-the-box option. Keep in mind that Kansas City bumped S Daniel Sorensen down to linebacker last season, after injuries hit.
Los Angeles Chargers: Isaac Rochell, DT, Notre Dame (Round 7, No. 225)
Thanks to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Chargers are working from a position of strength on passing downs. Rochell (6' 4", 280) can help make forcing offenses into those passing downs a little easier. He doesn’t mind mixing it up, and Gus Bradley can drop him in multiple spots up front.
Los Angeles Rams: Tanzel Smart, DT, Tulane (Round 6, No. 189)
A three-tech without ideal size for the position. Where have we heard that one before? Oh right, Aaron Donald. Smart (6' 1", 296) has not yet earned—nor does he need to be saddled by—Donald comps, but there are some similarities. Smart wins with quickness, both in his feet and hands.
Miami Dolphins: Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech (Round 7, No. 237)
There was a time not all that long ago when Ford (6' 1", 194) looked like a Day 2 pick, maybe even a Day 1 sleeper. And then he ran a 4.62 40 at the combine. Still, a Round 7 landing spot turns him into a potentially ridiculous value. He’s a reliable pass catcher who consistently worked his way free over the top of defenses.
Minnesota Vikings: Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State (Round 7, No. 232)
A productive defender at Kansas State, with 110 tackles a year ago, Lee (6' 3", 228) has no problem working laterally sideline-to-sideline to hunt down a ballcarrier. The Vikings have built an interesting collection of second-teamers at linebacker: Lee, fourth-rounder Ben Gedeon and 2016 draft pick Kentrell Brothers. Any of them could hold the fort in a pinch.
New England Patriots: Harvey Langi, LB, BYU (UDFA)
The Patriots made a rather significant commitment to Langi as a undrafted free agent, reportedly handing him $115,000 in guaranteed money. That won’t ensure him a roster spot, but it’s a decent indication New England believes in his abilities. He’s not a defensive end, as BYU used him at times (ditto for RB—he had 20 carries for 79 yards last season). As an inside linebacker, though, he could provide a little depth behind Dont’a Hightower.
New Orleans Saints: Art Maulet, S, Memphis (UDFA)
He’s a 5' 10", 189-pound cornerback with 4.62 speed, so his tumble out of the draft doesn’t come as a surprise. Nevertheless, he plays with enough of a physical edge and an understanding of how to read quarterbacks that he has a future in the slot. The Saints’ top returning CB, Delvin Breaux, was an undrafted player himself.
New York Giants: Jadar Johnson, S, Clemson (UDFA)
Johnson (6' 0", 206) looked more the part of an early-Day 3 pick than a UDFA. A one-year starter at Clemson, he picked off five passes and broke up a dozen more. He’s not much of a threat vs. the run, but considering how much teams value playmakers at the free safety spot, it’s a minor upset he did not hear his name called.
New York Jets: Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State (UDFA)
Marks (5’11”, 189) racked up nearly 2,100 combined receiving yards over the 2015-16 seasons, as a top target in Washington State’s up-tempo passing attack. He’ll find a crowded WR depth chart with the Jets, including 2017 draft picks ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen. But his reliability out of the slot could set him up for a strong preseason, and perhaps an opportunity elsewhere if New York doesn’t have room.
Oakland Raiders: Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest (Round 5, No. 168)
The Raiders now have a prospective MLB from each of the past three draft classes: Ben Heeney (2015), Cory James (2016) and now Lee. That might be a wide-open competition headed into the preseason. Lee (6' 3", 240) could help inside or outside, and he at least will be penciled in on special teams. How well he adjusts to defending the pass will dictate his value in Oakland.
Philadelphia Eagles: Elijah Qualls, DT, Washington (Round 6, No. 214)
QB Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech) is another one to file away here, although there obviously is not an opening at his position here anytime in the near future. Qualls (6' 1", 313), though, can work into the rotation along Jim Schwartz’s defensive line, as a plus run defender with the versatility to play from the nose on out.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Keion Adams, OLB, Western Michigan (Round 7, No. 248)
This is an ideal fit for Adams (6' 2", 245), whose NFL future has to be as a 3–4 rush linebacker. He had 7.5 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss a season ago at Western Michigan. T.J. Watt’s presence should put the Steelers in better position off the edge than they have been of late, but Adams’s ability to turn the corner could let him steal some sub-package snaps.
San Francisco 49ers: Lorenzo Jerome, S, St. Francis (UDFA)
Baylore WR KD Cannon initially occupied this spot, but the 49ers sent him packing after rookie minicamp—a rather damning indictment of Cannon, who received a not-insignificant $45,000 in guaranteed money to sign in San Francisco. Jerome should stick around a lot longer. He could even work his way into playing time at free safety, where the 49ers have Jimmie Ward and then a lack of usable depth. That’s always an important position, and even more so as the 49ers try to mimic Seattle’s defensive scheme. Jerome is raw and a bit undersized (5' 10", 204), but he has impressive ball skills.
Seattle Seahawks: Justin Senior, OT, Mississippi State (Round 6, No. 210)
Who knows what the Seahawks ultimately decide to do at right tackle. Maybe Germain Ifedi kicks back out there from his guard spot, maybe Ethan Pocic lands there instead of center. Or, perhaps, Senior (6' 5", 331) excels in camp enough to be in the mix. He has experience there, and with his size and arm length (34") chews up a lot of space.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Antony Auclair, TE, Laval (UDFA)
A little love for our neighbors up north (Side note: I’m on the Oilers playoff bandwagon). Auclair (6' 6", 254) faces the obvious challenge of a Canadian college football-to-NFL jump, but he has the skill set to make it work. His time at the Shrine Game helped. Behind Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, Auclair might be able to settle in deep down the depth chart and develop.
Tennessee Titans: Jayon Brown, LB, UCLA (Round 5, No. 155)
Size is the issue for the 6' 0", 231-pound Brown, but he is an excellent cover linebacker and a dynamo on special teams. The Titans aren’t exactly swimming in depth behind Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson inside, so Brown fits a need and might even be able to spell those players in sub-packages.
Washington Redskins: Fish Smithson, S, Kansas (UDFA)
Easy to overlook a player off Kansas’s defense, but Smithson (5’11”, 190) was a standout without much help around him. He brings the prerequisite versatility needed at safety, especially in coverage—he can play high or match up man-on-man in the slot. He may be a practice-squad guy as a rookie, or latch on elsewhere, but there’s NFL-caliber ability in his game.