At this point we know the big names in the NFL Draft. The quarterbacks to keep an eye on, the abundance of pass rushers, and offensive tackles who can help improve a team. What about the sleepers? The guys who could easily fall into late day two, or even day three and could easily be the gems of the draft.
Succeeding in the draft is rarely about simply finding excellent players in the first round. The best teams are able to consistently find starting-caliber talent throughout the draft, which eases their spending in free agency and ensures they get the best of players during their best years.
Here’s who we’re keeping an eye on in 2023, and their ranking in our 2023 top 200 big board.
Sam LaPorta, TE — Iowa (Rank No. 64)
This is an extremely TE-heavy draft class, and that’s kind of pushed Sam LaPorta out of the top round picture. Now likely going in rounds three or four, he’s the kind of guy with legitimate potential to become a very productive TE.
LaPorta reminds me T.J. Hockenson, who also came out of Iowa and was taken in the top 10. Just a solid, do-everything tight end who won’t make any spectacular catches, but become a solid chain-mover and plus in the blocking game.
Jordan Battle, S — Alabama (Rank No. 97)
Safety is in an odd position in the NFL right now. Even as the league has moved almost entirely to passing offenses, the concept of needing that big, superstar safety has fallen out of favor. This isn’t the era of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu anymore, but rather getting smart, reliable players who won’t give up big plays and can quite literally be the safety net of a defense.
Alabama’s Jordan Battle needs some work, no question. His tackling needs to be refined, and he can be over-aggressive at times. That said, he’s got great size, good instincts, and has a feel for where the play is going. I think he could definitely fall into the mid-rounds and come out the other side being a starting safety in the NFL.
Keaton Mitchell, RB — East Carolina (Rank No. 155)
Mitchell is one of my favorite sleepers in this draft class. He will absolutely be a late round pick and a lot of teams will be terrified of his 5’8, 179 pound frame — but he defines explosiveness.
This isn’t a case of finding a three down back, but rather a guy with a 4.37 40, with ludicrous acceleration (typified by his 1.48 10-yard split), who can bounce the ball to the edges or catch in the backfield and eat up YAC. There’s a little bit of Mecole Hardman to his game and with 7.2 yards-per-carry for ECU this season he’s a player to watch at the back-end of the class.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB — UCLA (Rank No. 137)
Some of the hype behind DTR is a little silly, but there is some merit to being excited for the UCLA passer — assuming you have a very solid idea of what you’re getting, and where. This is not a player you take in the third, or even fourth round of the draft, but if you’re a team like New Orleans or Minnesota who can indulge a project and have an established starter, then Thompson-Robinson could be a guy to watch.
On paper he looks incredible. 3,154 passing yards, 70 percent completion, decent size, rushing ability. DTR ticks all the boxes. However, he played in a Chip Kelly offense which doesn’t really translate to the NFL, needs significant work on his throwing mechanics, and has less-than-ideal arm strength. Still, there’s a feel for the game that’s undeniable — and if you’re picking in the 6th or 7th round, why not see what you can get here?
Lonnie Phelps, EDGE — Kansas (Rank No. 156)
When I see Lonnie Phelps play, I see a guy with a lot of small, correctible issues — paired with traits that can’t be taught. He’s an above-average athlete at the NFL level and is extremely tough as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. With 16.5 sacks over the last two years the production is there too.
The concern is whether he’ll get swallowed in traffic. At 6’3, 245 pounds he’s leaner than the ideal for the position but has that dog in him that leads to a relentless motor and a desire to produce. I could easily see him being picked in the 5th round or later and become a solid rotational pass rusher who can make noise on third down.
Sidy Sow, OG — Central Michigan (Rank No. 152)
Sow has a lot of reps under his belt … a lot of reps. Playing for team Canada, the Quebec native was the No. 3 ranked prospect in the CFL Draft before attempting to enter the NFL. He’s a big, prototypical guard who can eat a lot of space with 6’5”, 323-pound frame.
In addition, he’s a plus-level athlete for a man his size, ranking 2nd among all guards at the combine in athleticism score. There’s rough edges and technique issues you’d expect from having less-than-stellar coaching for much of his football career, but that also means there’s opportunity here for someone to find a gem.
Puka Nacua, WR — BYU (Rank No. 171)
In what might be a down year at the wide receiver position, at least at the top, there are some intriguing options later in the draft at the position. One of those is Puka Nacua, the BYU wide receiver. One of the questions on this class is whether there is a true boundary, “X” receiver type, and Nacua is that kind of player. He is extremely tough at the catch point, but also offers explosiveness after the catch.
There might be questions regarding how he will adjust to life in the NFL, as he struggled against Notre Dame in the face of more aggressive press coverage and was held without a reception. But teams looking for a boundary receiver, and with some patience to let him develop, might love what they find.
Andre Carter II, EDGE — Army (Rank No. 182)
It was not the best pre-draft cycle for Andre Carter II, who for a very brief moment this cycle looked like he might be the Army prospect drafted in the first round of the NFL draft since Glenn “Mr. Outside” Davis and Tex Coulter back in 1947.
Carter’s stock dropped, however, thanks in part to an underwhelming performance during the Senior Bowl. While he feasted with his size and athleticism at Army, he struggled going up against tougher competition in Mobile.
Still, as I noted in this piece on Carter earlier in the season, his size, frame, and explosiveness could still make him a productive player in the NFL, even if it takes more time to come together. At one point ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him as his 22nd-ranked player overall, and had this to say about the Army pass rusher: “His wingspan is incredible. His length is his strength. He’s lean. He’s smart. When you watch his tape, it’s like you’re rewinding and watching the same play over and over because he’s that consistent. Because of that, I think he will be able to step into any defensive scheme and make an impact.”
Carter likely waits until Day 3 but has a good chance at being the first Army player since 1947 drafted before the seventh round.
And he still has a chance to contribute at the next level.
Stetson Bennett, QB — Georgia (Rank No. 185)
We all know the jokes. We’ve probably even made some. Stetson Bennett will someday be the best Audi dealer in the state of Georgia. His first major endorsement will be with the AARP.
I get it.
And yes, Georgia did not ask him to do much in their offense. There was a lot of bubble screens, designed throws to the flat, and a general sentiment of “[l]ook Stetson, just don’t make mistakes and we will be fine.”
When you watch the moments where he is asked to take on bigger challenges in Georgia’s offense, he handled those well. In this deeper dive I did on him from December, you can see examples of him making elite plays from the pocket, against tough SEC competition.
So when the New England Patriots draft him around pick 192 on Saturday, will I quietly be excited to see what happens?