Anyone can get lucky and draft a Pro Bowler in the first round. It takes an ability to find “diamonds in the rough” in the middle and late rounds to stick as a scout in the NFL, however. Below is a list of players who for whatever reason haven't yet received the attention their physical abilities warrant.
Some of these prospects starred at a lower level of competition, just like Maxx Crosby (Eastern Michigan) and Devin Singletary (Florida Atlantic) – both prominently featured in this article did a year ago – did prior to leading all NFL rookies in sacks and second in rushing yards. Others played at relative FBS powerhouses but injuries, suspension or talent ahead of them on the depth chart kept them relatively overshadowed.
All are hoping to join a list of past sleepers highlighted in this annual article that have gone on to enjoy success in the NFL, including Pro Bowlers in MLB Bobby Wagner (Utah State), WRs Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington) and T.Y. Hilton (Florida International), RB David Johnson (Northern Iowa), NG Brandon Williams (Missouri Southern State) and CB Trumaine Johnson (Montana), among many more.
One player is featured per position with four others listed alphabetically who deserve honorable mention. In keeping with the true sleeper theme, at least one player per position was not invited to the 2020 Scouting Combine. These players are noted with an asterisk.*
James Morgan, Florida International, 6-4, 229, 4.82
Morgan took a strange path to FIU, growing up just outside of Lambeau Field in Wisconsin and beginning his college career at Bowling Green with future Syracuse head coach Dino Babers. Graduating in three years, Morgan opted to transfer when Babers left and he wound up with another highly respected coach in Butch Davis at Florida International. Possessing legitimate NFL size and arm strength, as well the intangibles which helped him earn the team captain role shortly after joining the team, Morgan became an immediate standout for Davis and the Panthers, guiding them to back to back bowl-eligible seasons, as well as a win over cross-town rival Miami. Morgan may have been overshadowed by all the star power at quarterback this year but there are a number of teams who favor him as this year’s most intriguing developmental Day Three quarterback prospect.
Other Quarterbacks to Consider:
Steven Montez, Colorado, 6-4, 231, 4.68
Jake Luton, Oregon State, 6-6, 224, 5.0
Kevin Davidson, Princeton, 6-4, 224, 4.94
Reid Sinnett, San Diego, 6-4, 229, 4.90 (est.)*
Antonio Gibson, Memphis, 6-0, 228, 4.39
Overshadowed by receiver class as deep as the Pacific, the 2020 running back is full of future NFL starters with most demonstrating the ability to be a bell-cow throughout college. Not Gibson, who took the JUCO route to Memphis and was moved to receiver in an attempt to get him on the field with future NFL draft picks Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and Patrick Taylor all ahead of him on the Tigers’ depth chart. Gibson actually caught more passes (44 receptions for 834 yards and 10 touchdowns) at Memphis than he took handoffs (33 rushes for 369 yards and four TDs) but the electric cuts and acceleration he shows with the ball in his hands are what makes him special with route-running only complicating matters. Splitting time between receiver, running back and returner has stunted Gibson’s growth and for that reason he is among the biggest boom or bust prospects in this draft. He will require patience, but Gibson is among the more unique weapons in this draft class with a top 100 selection seemingly growing more likely by the hour.
Other Running Backs to Consider:
Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State, 5-10, 203, 4.41
James Robinson, Illinois State, 5-09, 219,
Pete Guerriero, Monmouth, 5-09, 196, 4.49*
Michael Warren II, Cincinnati, 5-09, 226, 4.65
Isaiah Coulter, Rhode Island, 6-2, 198, 4.45
Besides just possessing a unique blend of speed, strength and toughness, players must possess remarkable self-confidence in order to make the jump from the lower levels to the NFL. Coulter has that, making the rare decision as an FCS player to skip his final season of eligibility and then backing up his bold move by clocking in at a cool 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Combine. Coming up big under the bright lights was nothing new for Coulter. He did that in three games against Power-5 competition, catching touchdowns against Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Connecticut over the past two seasons. Coulter’s spindly frame makes him a durability concern but he’s got a slithery swagger and body control to him that I think helps him stick in a draft class which may yield record numbers of receivers drafted… and cut.
Other Wide Receivers to Consider:
Antonio Gandy-Golden, 6-4, 223, 4.60
John Hightower, Boise State, 6-1, 185, 4.43
Josh Pearson, Jacksonville State, 6-3, 205, 4.49*
Quez Watkins, Southern Mississippi, 6-0, 185, 4.35
Adam Trautman, Dayton, 6-5, 251, 4.80
A late-bloomer who spent his childhood playing quarterback, Trautman emerged as a dominant force for the Flyers, jumping from three touchdown receptions as a redshirt freshman receiver-tight end hybrid to five in 2017, nine in 2018 and 13 this past season while growing into a 6-5, 250 pound monster with good agility and better straight-line speed than his ho-hum 40-yard dash suggests. Like many of the small-schoolers on this list, Trautman helped ease level of competition concerns at the Senior Bowl, where many believe he was the best tight end there.
Other Tight Ends to Consider:
Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic, 6-5, 242, 4.73
Stephen Sullivan, LSU, 6-5, 245, 4.66
Charlie Taumoepeau, Portland State, 6-2, 244, 4.75
Noah Togiai, Oregon State, 6-4, 244, 4.70*
Robert Hunt, OG, Louisiana, 6-5, 310, 5.20 (est.)
With so many college (and high school) teams switching to spread concepts, NFL general managers and head coaches have long bemoaned the lessening technique and raw power of many of today’s young offensive line. Similar to more prominent programs at Iowa and San Diego State, however, the Cajuns at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette line and play old school, downhill football, making their linemen much easier to project to the NFL – at least when they play as aggressively as Hunt (or his roommate and fellow prospect RG Kevin Dotson, for that matter). Hunt has an inspirational backstory of ascending despite poverty and only playing college football at all because he was convinced by an assistant coach at ULL to compete in a camp, earning a scholarship with his performance there. Hunt would go on to start 45 games for the Cajuns over the next four seasons, splitting time at all four exterior positions, enhancing his value to the NFL. Hunt was invited to the Senior Bowl but was unable to participate there due to a nagging groin injury, which required corrective surgery also keeping him from working out at the Combine.
Other Offensive Linemen to Consider:
Netane Muti, OG, Fresno State, 6-3, 315, 5.10
Ben Bartch, OT/OG, Saint Johns, 6-6, 308, 5.10 (est.)
Alex Taylor, OT, South Carolina State, 6-9, 308, 5.09
Kevin Dotson, OG, Louisiana-Lafayette, 6-4, 310, 5.10 (est.)*
Jason Strowbridge, DL, North Carolina, 6-4, 275, 4.89
First, stating the obvious, UNC is hardly a “small school” with Strowbridge succeeding against quality competition in the ACC and at the Senior Bowl, alike. However, because of the unselfish role the undersized Strowbridge played inside for much of his time with the Tar Heels, he sufficiently qualifies as an under-the-radar talent, at least in terms of how scouts view him in comparison to the media. While lacking the elite straight-line speed teams would prefer outside, Strowbridge is quick off the snap, both upfield and laterally, and he has long arms with excellent hand-eye coordination. He showed a knack for getting his hand on the ball, blocking four kicks, tipping three passes and forcing two fumbles over the past three years inside after earning his first career start at end. I like his positional versatility and upside and feel that the experience facing double-teams inside may have already hardened Strowbridge, perhaps giving him a slight advantage as he and his fellow rookies prepare for the increased physicality and speed of the NFL.
Other Defensive Linemen to Consider:
Auzoyah Alufohai, DT, West Georgia, 6-5, 313, 5.32
Austin Edwards, DE, Ferris State, 6-3, 265, 4.85 (est.)*
John Penisini, NG, Utah, 6-1, 318, 5.30 (est.)
Teair Tart, DT, Florida International, 6-3, 304, 5.0 (est.)*
Ron’Dell Carter, DE, James Madison, 6-3, 265, 4.80 (est.)*
Carter began his career at Rutgers but opted to transfer down to the FCS level to play with his brother, Robert, at JMU. Despite not starting any games his first season with the Dukes, Carter flashed his impact ability, logging eight tackles for loss and four sacks among his 28 stops. He developed into a man amongst boys over the next two seasons, racking up a staggering 40 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks over that time. Carter was invited to the NFLPA Collegiate All-Star Game but not the Combine, which was a legitimate snub given this year’s average class of edge rushers. Carter isn’t explosive but he accelerates smoothly and is both long-armed (33 ½”) and heavy-handed, warranting late round consideration.
Other Edge Rushers to Consider:
Tipa Galeai, Utah State, 6-5, 235, 4.70 (est.)*
Alex Highsmith, Charlotte, 6-3, 248, 4.70
Bryce Sterk, Montana State, 6-4, 262, 4.80 (est.)
Derrek Tuszka, North Dakota State, 6-4, 251, 4.78
Akeem Davis-Gaither, OLB, Appalachian State, 6-1, 219, 4.65 (est.)
Perhaps no one on this list better illustrates how the NFL has changed in recent years than Davis-Gaither. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a linebacker weighing less than 220 pounds would be laughed at. Now, with speed such a premium for covering backs and tight ends, teams are willing to sacrifice bulk, especially when those players have shown a knack for coverage, as ADG has with a DB-like 16 combined passes broken up the past two seasons. While a surprisingly powerful tackler for his frame, Davis-Gaither is a classic run and chase linebacker who needs help up front to keep blockers off of him to be at his most effective. He has a Kwon Alexander-like acceleration and core flexibility to dip and slip by blockers and he shows impressive hand-eye coordination to trip up ballcarriers. Davis-Gaither was invited to the Senior Bowl but was unable to participate there due to a stress fracture in his right foot, which required surgery and kept him from working out at the Combine.
Other Linebackers to Consider:
Jason Ferris, OLB, Montana Western, 6-2, 220, 4.65 (est.)*
Dante Olson, ILB, Montana, 6-2, 237, 4.88
Logan Wilson, ILB, Wyoming, 6-2, 241, 4.63
David Woodward, ILB, Utah State, 6-2, 230, 4.79
Amik Robertson, CB, Louisiana Tech, 5-08, 187, 4.55 (est.)
Last but certainly not least among this year’s hidden gems are the defensive backs and this year’s class features several worthy valedictorian candidates with some of the names below ranking among the most impressive small-schoolers invited to the Senior Bowl and Combine, alike. As a junior Robertson was ineligible to attend and his diminutive size will have some crossing him off the list before watching the tape – and that, my football-loving friends – is a mistake, as the young man is an absolute ballhawk, collecting an eye-popping 14 interceptions in just three seasons, taking three of them back for touchdowns. I cannot say it more simply than this, if Robertson were three inches taller, he’d be a first round pick.
Other Defensive Backs to Consider:
Kyle Dugger, S, Lenoir-Rhyne, 6-1, 217, 4.49
Jeremy Chinn, S/OLB, Southern Illinois, 6-3, 219, 4.45
Kindle Vildor, CB, Georgia Southern, 5-10, 185, 4.44
Javin White, S, UNLV, 6-2, 211, 4.55 (est.)*