Any general manager worth his salt will tell you that an NFL personnel executive's salary is earned in the second and third days of the draft. Anyone can throw a dart and hit pretty well in the first round (at least generally), but to add key players to your roster in the later rounds, it takes a keen set of scouting eyes, an understanding of how to weld talent to your scheme and the ability to bypass any biases to find the best prospects on a no-matter-what basis.
The 2014 draft class has its own array of players who, for various reasons, will likely find themselves going off the board when the overall selection process hits three digits. That doesn't mean that they won't succeed; just that they will have to find the right opportunity to transcend their current limitations. It happens all the time; and it could happen to some of the names on this list, as well. Below are our defensive sleepers. The list of offensive players can be found here.
DE Ethan Westbrooks, West Texas A&M
Westbrooks came to Division II by way of Sacramento City College, and hit the national radar when he amassed 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in 2012. With every opponent lining up to over-block him in 2013, he still grabbed seven sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, and he further proved his worth when he was named the Defensive MVP of the East-West Shrine Game with two sacks against tougher competition. Westbrooks flies off the handle at times (he's known for an obscene amount of offside penalties), but he's strong, very quick and could turn into a dominant NFL strongside defensive end who can move inside to five-tech tackle in the right environment.
DE/DT Taylor Hart, Oregon
The 6-foot-6, 281-pound Hart has proven to be a tremendous and versatile athlete, lining up everywhere from nose tackle to endbacker for the Ducks. In an NFL sense, he probably projects best as an end in a 3-4 base front, or as a super-sized strong-side end in a 4-3 -- he was physically overwhelmed at times when asked to take double-teams in Oregon's wide line splits. But he understands how to shoot through gaps, and he has the capacity to cover in space. Needs to be more aggressive with his hands -- he tends to wrestle more than he pursues on occasion -- but some team will see him as raw clay to mold.
DT Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech
You'd expect Ellis to be a pure inside earthdog at 6-2 and 334 pounds, but the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl star is a lot more versatile than his size would seem to indicate. He tends to get overpowered by bigger, stronger lines when he comes off the snap late, but Ellis can move people and penetrate gaps from the one- and three-tech positions when he times it right. He's consistently dynamic and aggressive, and he will occasionally just clown an opposing offensive lineman with a devastating swim move. One of my favorite under the radar players to watch this year.
DT George Uko, USC
In the third round of the 2011 draft, the Titans took a shot on USC defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, and watched him become one of the league's most disruptive forces at his position. Uko replaced Casey as the Trojans' primary undertackle, and he's been pretty disruptive himself, racking up five sacks in each of his last two seasons. Uko is a different type of player -- he's two inches taller and 15 pounds lighter than Casey, and as a result, he's not as powerful against double teams. But he's quick and agile around the edge, and could be a real force in any line involving heavy stunts and twists.
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ILB Andrew Jackson, Western Kentucky
An All-Sun Belt team regular over the last three years, Jackson really impressed bigger schools and sterner competition throughout his time with the Hilltoppers. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones told his own A.J. Johnson that when the two teams played last season, Johnson would “get to play on the same field as an NFL linebacker," later intimating that his own son wanted Jackson's autograph. On the field, Jackson proves to be equally adept at sifting through blockers to stop the run, and breaking off to cover tight ends and slot receivers.
ILB Lamin Barrow, LSU
The NFL has continued to trend toward the lighter, faster linebacker to counter the increasing percentage of shotgun, multi-receiver sets. At 6-1 and 237 pounds, Lamin Barrow certainly fits the profile. Barrow plays at linebacker depth, but he looks like a really big safety at times -- he's probably more attuned to coverage than he is a natural thumper against the run. He's fast across the field, and he gets upfield against tight ends very quickly. He led the SEC in assisted tackles in 2013 with 68.
OLB Jordan Tripp, Montana
Tripp was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best small-school defender in the FCS. And he put himself further in the conversation as a legitimate NFL prospect with a good week at the Senior Bowl. What makes Tripp interesting is that he has tremendous field speed, whether blitzing, stopping the run at the line of scrimmage or climbing up into coverage. He'll need to work on his tackling technique -- no linebacker wants to be pegged with the "finesse player" label -- but in a scheme where he's able to use his spatial awareness and closing speed, he's got a real shot to make a difference at the next level.
OLB Howard Jones, Shepherd
Jones is more an endbacker than a guy who's going to roam around at linebacker depth, and though he dominated lesser competition through his college career, he also showed why several bigger programs recruited him out of high school before academics got in the way. He's a bit of a hybrid player at 6-3 and 235 pounds -- not quite big enough to be a pure pass rusher in the NFL, and perhaps not as well-developed as a pure 'backer to make that move. However, he could stick and stay on a roster with a few extra pounds on his frame, more advanced pass-rushing moves and a higher level of coaching.
CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
It may be a stretch to call Desir a sleeper at this point in time; he's recently been featured on several media platforms, and people are coming around to his size (6-1, 198), field speed and aggressive press coverage style. The Haitian-born, lightly-recruited Desir showed up with a bang at the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, and though some will focus too much on his strength of competition, a good look at his tape shows a player with the raw skills to be a real asset.
CB Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech
Thomas backed up Morgan Burnett as a true freshman in the "rover" position -- basically, a defensive back who plays everywhere from outside corner, to the slot, to linebacker depth to the line of scrimmage. He redshirted in 2010, but established himself over the subsequent three seasons as a guy who played a lot bigger than his actual size (5-9, 192). Thomas will lose some battles to bigger receivers, but he's a kick to watch, because he tends to stick to his targets like glue and he delivers some really ferocious hits. Amassed 234 tackles, nine interceptions, 28 passes defensed and three forced fumbles in his collegiate career. Thomas could be a dominant slot cornerback in the NFL.
CB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State
Like Thomas, Reynolds will be dinged by some teams for his size (5-10, 189), but he has a lot of skills that bigger cornerbacks simply don't have. Watch him backpedal, flip his hips and trail receivers, jumping routes along the way, and it's clear that he's a technician with a lot of potential. He reminds me a bit of Houston's D.J. Hayden, who went 12th overall to the Raiders in the 2013 draft. Reynolds had 38 solo tackles, six interceptions, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles last season.
S Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin
Nobody has played more games for the Badgers than Southward (54), which makes it unfair that a medical issue stopped him from participating in combine drills. But at his pro day, Southward ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at 6-0 and 211 pounds. He started playing football as a senior in high school, so there are technical refinements needed before he stars in the NFL, but he flies around the field from just about every possible angle, and he'd fit nicely in any pro defense which requires such versatility from its safeties.
S Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
The 6-0, 212-pound Dixon is more of a pure box safety at this point. He tends to struggle in deep coverage concepts, but he's a real downhill thumper. In 2011 and '12, he played in more of a hybrid linebacker/safety position, switching to pure safety last season. Dixon has the athleticism to trail receivers, though, so this could be a matter of time and coaching.
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