The Biggest Sleeper at Every Position in the 2014 NFL Draft
By the third day of the NFL draft, the names become more unrecognizable and the perceived impact of each pick diminishes to the casual fan.
However, NFL teams know that their franchise’s success may hinge on finding a sleeper who can turn a roster’s fortunes.
In an effort to find that potential late-round impact player, I’ve researched each position group’s sleeper, who may end up being the next Richard Sherman or Julius Thomas.
Quarterback: Dustin Vaughan, West Texas A&M
For a 6’5”, 220-pound quarterback who’s produced at a remarkable level for three consecutive seasons at West Texas A&M, Dustin Vaughan certainly deserves more attention than he’s receiving from the scouting community so far.
While stats don’t make a huge impact on final evaluations, they do have an impact on small-school prospects getting NFL attention. Without production, evaluators may not find out about the prospect's talent. And without production, regional scouts won’t be able to “sell” their team’s coaching staff on a prospect’s ability.
Dustin Vaughan has met the production requirement, consistently throwing for over 35 touchdowns and having a touchdown-to-interception ratio of less than 3-1. Combine those necessary thresholds with Vaughan’s rocket arm and ideal NFL body type for a pocket passer, and it’s clear that Vaughan will certainly intrigue NFL teams.
He does pose concerns about his velocity control, and the “level of competition” question mark will be prevalent, but Vaughan will certainly garner late-round interest from NFL teams.
Running Back: Darrin Reaves, UAB
A surprise early entry in the NFL draft, UAB's Darrin Reaves decided to leave school after two-and-a-half years as the feature back for the Blazers. Leaving as UAB’s third-leading rusher in school history, he told AL.com’s Drew Champlin he based the decision to leave school on the feedback he received from NFL scouts that he’s a "draft candidate."
Reaves has been a downhill, zone-blocking running back who had success in college thanks to his patience in the backfield, use of blockers as he works down the field and balance through contact at the second level.
His lack of top-end speed and elusiveness in the open field will make him less valuable than the top seniors or surplus of juniors that are in the 2014 draft class. That being said, he’s a prime candidate to be a late-round pick who could fill an immediate rotational role in the NFL.
Wide Receiver: John Brown, Pittsburg State
In the buildup to the 2014 East-West Shrine Game, John Brown was one of the more intriguing receivers I began to evaluate, as he was an under-the-radar invite who was touted by many associated with the game to be a worthwhile sleeper to check out.
On film, he is an explosive vertical receiver who plays consistently under control as a route-runner and attacks upfield after the catch with plus vision and explosiveness. At the Shrine Game, he showcased his route precision, ability to get off press coverage and ball-grabbing skill at the catch point in traffic to fit as a short-area receiver in a variety of systems.
While he’ll likely go undrafted in this deep receiver class filled with juniors, Brown will be a hot item during the free-agency period after the draft, and I’d bet on him sticking on a roster and potentially making an impact late in his first year.
Tight End: Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State
A well-respected small-school tight end among evaluators since his sophomore year, Dixie State’s Joe Don Duncan has produced and impressed at Dixie State in a big way throughout his career. Invited to the Senior Bowl, Duncan suffered an injury during his offseason training and wasn’t able to attend.
Duncan, who was used as a blocker and pass-catcher in college, has the versatility and experience at multiple positions to provide value to almost every NFL team. Duncan is strong at the catch point, gets consistent separation at both receiver and tight end, and handles physicality well as he attacks defenses vertically. Reminding me of Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Duncan can make an immediate impact with an NFL team as a late-rounder.
Offensive Tackle: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, McGill (Canada)
Every year, the Shrine Game selects two of the better Canadian college prospects to test themselves against the top American talent, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, hailing from McGill University in Canada, made a name for himself at the Shrine Game, impressing against the talented defensive line talent he faced during the week of practice.
While it’s clear he needs ample work with his hand usage, footwork to recover inside on his kick-slide, and physicality initially in the run game before he can have an impact in the NFL, he proved to be a capable athlete and is built well-enough to fit into an NFL offensive line with more development.
Interior Offensive Lineman: Dakota Dozier, Furman
Another Shrine Game invite that impressed during the week of practice, Furman’s Dakota Dozier made the transition from his college position of tackle to the inside spot at guard at a high level. One of the better interior linemen at the Shrine Game after the week of practices concluded, Dozier cemented himself among the best in a class that lacks great upside at the position.
At Furman, he had success as a sturdy, interior pass-blocker that consistently won “in a phone booth” against power-rushers, utilizing his hand strength and control in the short area laterally to control his rusher.
His struggles against speed-rushers weren’t an issue inside at guard during the week of the Shrine Game, and it appears as though he’ll be under strong consideration for man-blocking teams early on Day 3 to play at guard.
Defensive Tackle: E.J. Dunston, UCF
Quarterback Blake Bortles may be the feature attraction at Central Florida when it comes to NFL draft talk, but defensive tackle E.J. Dunston is also worthy of draft-pick status for NFL teams.
While he didn’t produce on the stat sheet or produce any “wow” plays during his senior season, Dunston made his impact felt as a gap-eater on the Knights defensive line that helped lead this team to a BCS berth.
Dunston is quick laterally and adjusts away from his frame on the interior well, consistently directing runners to bounce plays outside and setting up his teammates for easy tackles on the perimeter. Best used as a run defender in a 3-technique role, Dunston’s situational ability isn’t worth a selection in the first four rounds, but he has a home in the NFL and is a worthwhile third-day selection.
Defensive End: Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Colorado
A leader of a program in turmoil the past few years, Colorado’s Chidera Uzo-Diribe was among the handful of Colorado stars to be forgotten about during his senior season by the national media. Despite the program and his lack of production doing him no favors as a prospect, Uzo-Diribe possess NFL talent as a speed rusher, some of which he displayed during the Shrine Game practices.
Possessing plus speed and bend on the edge, Uzo-Diribe has the athleticism to develop as a situational 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL and is a worthwhile late-round, developmental selection. He needs to have wider counter-rushes and utilize his hands better before he can provide a consistent impact to an NFL team.
Linebacker: Roosevelt Nix, Kent State
Kent State’s Roosevelt Nix was one of the school's best defensive linemen throughout his career, as he was the first player in school history to be named first-team, All-MAC conference. The school’s leader in tackles for loss with a whopping 65 total, Nix made his impact felt throughout his career, whether or not he was able to finish the play himself.
However, at just 5’11”, he doesn’t possess the length or size to play his college defensive tackle position in the NFL. And at the inaugural Medal of Honor all-star game, Nix made the necessary transition to inside linebacker.
While the position is certainly a change from what he’s used to, Nix’s skill set can transition to linebacker, especially for 3-4 teams. Nix is active as a rusher, has a strong base to hold up against bigger offensive linemen well, and he’s a strong tackle-finisher when he has the opportunity.
Fitting best in a 3-4 defense on the inside next to a quicker, rangier linebacker, Nix could be a worthwhile late-round pick for a team looking for run defense and an eventual NFL starter with seasoning at his new position.
Cornerback: Pierre Desir, Lindenwood/Walt Aikens, Liberty
The 2014 defensive back class is loaded with small-school talent.
Led by Senior Bowl standouts Pierre Desir of Lindenwood and Walt Aikens of Liberty, NFL teams are likely relying on the non-FBS talents to add depth to a lackluster senior defensive back class. While Jackson State’s Qua Cox was a Day 1 Senior Bowl invite, he was on the watch list all season long and got the late call-up on Thursday to help fill a void on the roster.
Cox has been the best defensive back among the HBCU schools the past two seasons, finishing plays at the catch point and remaining physical with his receiver down the field. While he’s no guarantee to be a draft pick, he fits the mold of the fluid, physical nickel- or dime-coverage cornerback that may be worth a late-round pick for an NFL team.
Safety: Jason Hendricks, Pittsburgh
The leading tackler for Pittsburgh the past two seasons, the athletic and active Jason Hendricks hasn’t received many postseason accolades or any major all-star invites. However, for a well-built, explosive strong safety, Hendricks should be able to make up for his lack of all-star opportunity—which was caused by a shoulder injury—with impressive numbers through the combine tests he’ll be able to do at the Pittsburgh pro day in March.
Hendricks is best in a strong safety, in-the-box tackler role where he can maximize his quick feet, explosiveness in his short-area transitions, and plus underneath coverage ability to be of situational value to start his NFL career and develop into a full-time starter at strong safety in the future.