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Who are the top 2018 NFL draft sleeper prospects this early in the process?

Who are the top 2018 NFL draft sleeper prospects this early in the process?Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After a two-week absence and brief hospital stay (not recommended), I’m back. And this week’s Scouting Notebook will get you caught up on all things NFL draft. If you’re wondering when a new mock draft is coming out, you’ll be getting a new one on Monday morning, so be sure you’ve downloaded the B/R app and have subscribed to the NFL draft channel to get the alert!

Now, on to the column.

You’ve all heard since August about the big names in this draft class. You might even be tired of talking about Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. I get it, because it happens to me too. In an effort to expand our horizons as draft season truly kicks off, this week we’re going to look at 10 sleepers you’ll want to start learning about.

A sleeper to me might not be one to you, or vice versa. Depending on how in tune you are with the world of the draft, some of these names might be old news to you. But for those just starting to dive into the offseason, the names below are a good introduction to some of the talent outside the first round I’ll be watching closely either at the Senior Bowl or NFL Scouting Combine. 

Marcus Davenport, EDGE, UT-San Antonio

An athlete at the edge-rusher position, Marcus Davenport has an exciting blend of size (6’7″, 255 lbs) and production (8.5 sacks, 17.5 TFLs) that will turn heads at the Senior Bowl. He needs to add some strength, but players his size rarely have the bend in their hips or the agility that he’s shown. A second-round grade isn’t unreasonable for the UTSA star coming out of the Senior Bowl in two weeks.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

A junior entry into the draft class, Leighton Vander Esch currently sits at No. 50 overall on my big board. He’s an instinctive, athletic linebacker with the range to lock down the run game outside the hash marks and to drop into zone coverage from the middle of the field. He’s a heat-seeking missile against the run, too. Vander Esch should be in play early in Round 2 for teams like New England or Miami that need an upgrade at linebacker.

Desmond Harrison, OT, West Georgia

After transferring to Texas from Contra Costa Community College (California) in 2013, Desmond Harrison was one of a handful of players dismissed from the team by former head coach Charlie Strong. He landed on his feet at West Georgia, and his tape there has been impressive against small-time talent. Harrison will be at the Senior Bowl and has a chance to build on the hype surrounding his athleticism at left tackle.

Will Hernandez, OG, UTEP

UTEP's Will Hernandez

UTEP’s Will HernandezSue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

One of the meanest blockers in the entire draft class, don’t let the fact that Will Hernandez plays at UTEP turn you away. He has a legitimate chance to be the second or third guard off the board and carries a solid Round 2 grade. Teams that want to improve their toughness and run blocking at guard should be all over Hernandez.

Korey Robertson, WR, Southern Miss

Korey Robertson was a surprise early entry into the 2018 draft class, but his athleticism, production and size stand out. At 6’1″ and 210 pounds, he’s expected to run in the low 4.4 range and has shown the physicality to fight for jump balls. Robertson posted 76 catches for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. I currently have a third-round grade on him.

Breeland Speaks, DL, Ole Miss

A junior entry into the draft, Breeland Speaks will impress you with his first-step quickness and ability to shoot gaps as a pass-rusher. He fits the ideal 3-technique (or under tackle) size at 6’3″ and 285 pounds. Put him in the B-gap of a 4-3 defense and he’s going to make plays for you. Speaks has a Round 3-4 grade before we get to see him at the combine.

Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, EDGE, Toledo

I have no idea how to say this name, but I sure do like watching the player. Adeniyi (6’2″, 248 lbs) had a monster season off the edge for Toledo, wracking up 20 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He’s quick, shows ideal leverage and can dip to get under the hands of blockers in the MAC. A junior entry, Adeniyi has a chance to really boost his stock at the combine.

Mike Hughes, CB, UCF

UCF went undefeated this season and Hughes tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

UCF went undefeated this season and Hughes tied for the team lead with four interceptions.Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press/Associated Press

Not only is Mike Hughes a national champion (wink, wink), but he’s also a really good cornerback. The 5’11”, 185-pound junior entry has ideal size to match up against outside receivers in the NFL, and he’s shown the quickness to handle the job in man coverage. A former North Carolina recruit, Hughes played a year there, then went to Garden City Community College (Kansas) before landing at UCF for one season. There will be questions about his production (four INTs this year) and limited tape, but he looks like a potential starter.

Alex Cappa, OT, Humboldt State

A standout at a small school, Alex Cappa has the tools to be a starter in the NFL within a season or two. The good news is he’s already working with famed offensive line coach LeCharles Bentley in his preparation for the Senior Bowl and the NFL draft. To go from Humboldt to the NFL, you need a little extra help, but Cappa has the foundation to be very good and is now getting the right guidance.

Kameron Kelly, DB, San Diego State

With the build of a safety (6’2″, 200 lbs) and experience at every spot in the secondary, Kameron Kelly has the versatility to be a matchup player in NFL secondaries. Teams running the Seattle-style defense (Jacksonville, Atlanta, San Francisco) should be all over Kelly given his ability to play outside cornerback at 6’2″ and with the length to jam up receivers at the line of scrimmage.

       


Stay up-to-date on every mock draft, big board and Stick to Football podcast episode throughout the season with the new B/R app.


Here’s what else is going on this week:

  • News, rumors and notes from around the league
  • Updated Senior Bowl attendees
  • A theory on the Patriots’ defensive coordinator job
  • Stick to Football Episode 40: Guests Malik Jefferson and Connor Williams, top landing spots for free agents, College Football Playoff National Championship review

           

 Ohio State has become a strong candidate for the title of “DBU” in recent years with five defensive backs selected in the first round in the last four draft classes. That streak will continue this year with cornerback Denzel Ward. The 5’10”, 191-pound junior cornerback is a lock to go in the top 15, according to multiple NFL scouts and executives I spoke to this week. Said one scout, “Ward might run a high 4.2 and will interview like a Boy Scout.”

Calvin Ridley announced this week he’ll leave Alabama for the NFL draft. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, Ridley is the top receiver in this year’s class. At 6’1″ and 190 pounds, he doesn’t have standout size, but his route running is special. I expect, based on tape and conversations with scouts, he’ll be a top-15 pick.

Calvin Ridley could be a mainstay in the end zone at the next level.

Calvin Ridley could be a mainstay in the end zone at the next level.David Goldman/Associated Press/Associated Press

• North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb isn’t just the top senior on my board; he might also be the first defender drafted. After talking to one general manager this weekend, he said Chubb has the size (6’4 1/2″, 275 lbs), agility and strength to be a top-five pick.

 Major front office news: Senior director of college and pro personnel Will McClay is staying with the Dallas Cowboys, and Eliot Wolf has decided to leave Green Bay to serve as assistant GM for the Cleveland Browns. McClay is widely respected in scouting circles and is often pointed to as the man who turned the Cowboys around. Wolf, the son of former Packers architect Ron Wolf, has interviewed for general manager openings in the past but was not given the vacant position in Green Bay this offseason. Both are names to watch next offseason for general manager jobs.

• Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne went off against Georgia in a game many fans believe pushed him into the first round. Here’s the thing: Payne was always considered a late first-rounder. The Georgia game was his best performance ever, to be sure, but it only highlighted the potential that’s always been there. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Payne is the first defensive tackle off the board in April.

• Nick Saban is a master recruiter, and one of the best jobs he’s done this year is selling running back Damien Harris on returning to Alabama for his senior season. Rarely do we see running backs play for four seasons in college, but Harris has seen limited wear and tear while sharing carries for the Crimson Tide. He’ll have a shot at being RB1 next year.

 News we expected and have said before was going to happen, but still, big news: Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl. How can Allen, a junior, do this? He graduated from Wyoming in December, which makes him eligible to play in the all-star game.


     

10. Chicago Bears fans should be excited about the Matt Nagy era. I know I am.

New Bears coach Matt Nagy's priority will be to get the most out of QB Mitchell Trubisky.

New Bears coach Matt Nagy’s priority will be to get the most out of QB Mitchell Trubisky.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

Nagy is a smart, innovative offensive mind and will develop a scheme that fits Mitch Trubisky’s strengths. Expect a lot of run-pass option, a zone-blocking scheme up front and the Bears to utilize Trubisky’s athleticism to get him on the move making throws. 

One thing Nagy is doing that should be praised is thinking outside the box with his hires. Already he’s gone to the college ranks to grab a great offensive line coach (Harry Hiestand) from Notre Dame and hired Mark Helfrich to be his offensive coordinator. Instead of fearing the spread offense and the college game, Nagy is embracing it and building a staff that will not only teach and develop the players but can also build and evolve an offensive scheme.

9. The New York Giants were a mess in 2017. We can point the finger at a lot of people for this, but something I read this week from a Landon Collins interview really stuck out. Per Zach Braziller of the New York Post, Collins was asked about having Bill Belichick as a head coach and said:

The way he runs his organization, I’ve been through that process. I don’t like it. It’s too strict. …. He’s a great winner, he’s a great coach. I don’t know if [his style] is what the organization really wants.

I talked to guys who played for [his] team. They love winning, but at the same time, they don’t want to be on the team.

You can’t win a ring without being willing to work for it. Would you rather win and play for a strict coach or lose and play for a friend?

8. This is just me connecting dots, but here’s a theory: If New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia takes a head coaching job (and he’s expected to), the Patriots should hire Ohio State’s Greg Schiano as defensive coordinator.

Bill Belichick and Schiano are well-known friends (look at how many players of Schiano’s the Patriots have drafted) and would be a natural fit to come in and run the same system in New England that Belichick and Patricia run. It’s as close to a seamless transition as you can get. 

7. The East-West Shrine Game kicks off next week with practices in St. Petersburg, Florida. I won’t be in attendance due to travel to the Senior Bowl and Super Bowl in back-to-back weeks, but here are the players I’ll be checking in on that week:

East Roster: QB Riley Ferguson (Memphis), WR DaeSean Hamilton (Penn State), RB Chase Edmonds (Fordham), OT KC McDermott (Miami), TE Cam Serigne (Wake Forest), CB Deatrick Nichols (South Florida), CB Brandon Facyson (Virginia Tech), DE Chad Thomas (Miami)

Memphis QB Riley Ferguson

Memphis QB Riley FergusonMark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press

West Roster: WR Jake Wieneke (South Dakota State), OT Zachary Crabtree (Oklahoma State), OT Brett Toth (Army), LB/QB Joel Lanning (Iowa State), S Godwin Igwebuike (Northwestern), CB Malik Reaves (Villanova), DE Joe Ostman (Central Michigan), CB Josh Kalu (Nebraska), DT Poona Ford (Texas)

          

6. NFL Draft Riser: Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds. On previous Big Boards, Edmunds wasn’t even ranked because a school source told me they expected he’d stay in school. That changed, with Edmunds joining the 2018 draft class. He’s a big linebacker (6’5″, 250 lbs) with scary range and agility. He could have a Leonard Floyd-type rise up boards. He’s definitely a first-rounder.

      

5. NFL Draft Faller: Georgia RB Nick Chubb. I wrote last week in my Big Board that Chubb wasn’t in my top 10 running backs. That opinion was widely disagreed with at first, but anyone watching the title game Monday night surely saw that Chubb doesn’t have the quickness to get the edge. And that was against a college (albeit a great college) defense. Chubb is still solid between the tackles, but his lack of speed is a concern.

            

4. Which underclassmen are declaring for the 2018 NFL draft? We’re only one week away from the Jan. 15 deadline, so the list is getting close to final. More than 90 players have already declared. Note: Only those players confirmed, not rumored, are listed here.

 RB Josh Adams, Notre Dame

 EDGE Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Toledo

 CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville

 QB Josh Allen, Wyoming

 TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma

 EDGE Dorance Armstrong, Kansas

 LB Jerome Baker, Ohio State

 RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

 S Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest

 OT Orlando Brown, Oklahoma

 DT Taven Bryan, Florida

 WR Deontay Burnett, USC

 WR Deon Cain, Clemson

 WR Simmie Cobbs Jr., Indiana

 WR Keke Coutee, Texas Tech

 C James Daniels, Iowa

 QB Sam Darnold, USC

 CB Carlton Davis, Auburn

 P Michael Dickson, Texas

 S Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech

 LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

 S DeShon Elliott, Texas

 OT Nick Gates, Nebraska

 CB Rashaan Gaulden, Tennessee

 LB Frank Ginda, San Jose State

 RB Derrius Guice, LSU

 OG Taylor Hearn, Clemson

 WR Quadree Henderson, Pitt

 CB Holton Hill, Texas

 EDGE Jeff Holland, Auburn

 EDGE Sam Hubbard, Ohio State

 CB Mike Hughes, UCF

 TE Hayden Hurst, South Carolina

 TE Ryan Izzo, Florida State

 CB Donte Jackson, LSU

 CB Josh Jackson, Iowa

 CB J.C. Jackson, Maryland

 QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

 S Derwin James, Florida State

 WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State

 LB Malik Jefferson, Texas

 RB Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

 RB Ronald Jones, USC

 OG Sam Jones, Arizona State

 RB John Kelly, Tennessee

 EDGE Arden Key, LSU

 WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

 DL Du’Vonta Lampkin, Oklahoma

 WR Jordan Lasley, UCLA

 QB Tanner Lee, Nebraska

 DL Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State

 WR Ray-Ray McCloud, Clemson

 CB Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State

 DL RJ McIntosh, Miami (Fla.)

 DL Kahlil McKenzie, Tennessee

 CB Quenton Meeks, Stanford

 OT Kolton Miller, UCLA

 WR DJ Moore, Maryland

 RB Ryan Nall, Colorado State

 CB Nick Nelson, Wisconsin

 OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

 DL Kendrick Norton, Miami (Fla.)

 CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado

 OT Brian O’Neill, Pitt

 RB Kamryn Pettway, Auburn

 DL Harrison Phillips, Stanford

 K Eddy Pineiro, Florida

 WR Byron Pringle, Kansas State

 WR Trey Quinn, SMU

 CB DJ Reed, Kansas State

 S Justin Reid, Stanford

 WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama

 WR Korey Robertson, Southern Miss

 QB Josh Rosen, UCLA

 LB Christian Sam, Arizona State

 TE Dalton Schultz, Stanford

 DL Tim Settle, Arizona State

 LB Andre Smith, North Carolina

 WR Tre’Quan Smith, UCF

 S Van Smith, Clemson

 DL Breeland Speaks, Ole Miss

 WR Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame

 WR Courtland Sutton, SMU

 EDGE Josh Sweat, Florida State

 WR Auden Tate, Florida State

 OG Maea Teuhema, SE Louisiana

 CB Kevin Toliver, LSU

 LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

 DL Vita Vea, Washington

 RB Mark Walton, Miami (Fla.)

 CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State

 OT Toby Weathersby, LSU

 S Jordan Whitehead, Pitt

 DL JoJo Wicker, Arizona State

 EDGE Jalen Wilkerson, Florida State

 OT Connor Williams, Texas

      

3. We’re down to the final three weeks of the NFL season. Here’s a look at the draft order with two weekends of playoffs and the Super Bowl left.

1. Cleveland Browns (0-16)

2. New York Giants (3-13) 

3. Indianapolis Colts (4-12)  

4. Cleveland (from Houston Texans 4-12)   

5. Denver Broncos (5-11)

6. New York Jets (5-11)  

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

8. Chicago Bears (5-11)     

9/10. San Francisco 49ers (6-10) 

9/10. Oakland Raiders (6-10)  

11. Miami Dolphins (6-10)  

12. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

13. Washington (7-9)   

14. Green Bay Packers (7-9) 

15. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)     

16. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

17. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)  

18. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)     

19. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)   

20. Detroit Lions (9-7)   

(Draft order is determined by playoff exit and not record for the following teams:)

21. Buffalo Bills (9-7)      

22. Buffalo (from Kansas City Chiefs 10-6)       

23. Los Angeles Rams (11-5)   

24. Carolina Panthers (11-5)   

25. Tennessee Titans (9-7) 

26. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) 

27. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

28. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

29. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)  

30. Minnesota Vikings (13-3)   

31. New England Patriots (13-3)  

32. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2)

        

2. More Senior Bowl attendees have been announced as we get closer to the January 22 kickoff of the week in Mobile, and so far, this group looks good. Players with a first-round grade are in bold.

  • S Marcus Allen, Penn State
  • QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
  • WR Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State
  • CB Anthony Averett, Alabama
  • PK Michael Badgley, Miami (Fla.)
  • RB Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
  • FB Nick Bawden, San Diego State
  • LB Davin Bellamy, Georgia
  • QB Kurt Benkert, Virginia
  • WR Braxton Berrios, Miami (Fla.)
  • S Quin Blanding, Virginia
  • TE Adam Breneman, UMass
  • DE Andrew Brown, Virginia
  • DE Christian Campbell, Penn State
  • OT Alex Cappa, Humboldt State
  • LS Tanner Carew, Oregon
  • K Daniel Carlson, Auburn
  • WR Darren Carrington, Utah
  • WR D.J. Chark, LSU
  • OC Mason Cole, Michigan
  • TE Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan
  • C Austin Corbett, Nevada
  • OT Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
  • DE Marcus Davenport, UT-San Antonio
  • CB Duke Dawson, Florida
  • LB Nick DeLuca, North Dakota State
  • LB Garret Dooley, Wisconsin
  • DE Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
  • LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
  • QB Luke Falk, Washington State
  • DE Kylie Fitts, Utah
  • FB Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma
  • RB Royce Freeman, Oregon
  • TE Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin
  • WR Michael Gallup, Colorado State
  • TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State
  • TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
  • LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama
  • DL Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama
  • OT Desmond Harrison, West Georgia
  • DE Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
  • OG Taylor Hearns, Clemson
  • S Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii
  • G Will Hernandez, UTEP
  • TE Chris Herndon, Miami (Fla.)
  • DT B.J. Hill, North Carolina State
  • DE Jalyn Holmes, Ohio State
  • DL Maurice Hurst, Michigan
  • CB Danny Johnson, Southern
  • CB Taron Johnson, Weber State
  • DT Justin Jones, North Carolina State
  • CB Michael Joseph, Dubuque
  • CB Kameron Kelly, San Diego State
  • LB Micah Kiser, Virginia
  • DE Harold Landry, Boston College
  • QB Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
  • WR Allen Lazard, Iowa State
  • LB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
  • DE Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
  • OT Cole Madison, Washington State
  • S Tray Matthews, Auburn
  • QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
  • LB Mike McCray, Michigan
  • WR Anthony Miller, Memphis
  • CB Kamrin Moore, Boston College
  • WR J’Mon Moore, Missouri
  • LB Skai Moore, South Carolina
  • CB Siran Neal, Jacksonville State
  • DT Derrick Nnadi, FSU
  • OT Joe Notebloom, TCU
  • LB Uchenna Nwosu, USC
  • OT Brian O’Neill, Pitt
  • OT Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan
  • EDGE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma
  • OT Brandon Parker, North Carolina A&T
  • OT Timon Parris, Stony Brook
  • RB Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
  • OG Skyler Phillips, Idaho State
  • CB Darius Phillips, Western Michigan
  • DL Harrison Phillips, Stanford
  • LS Ike Powell, Auburn
  • C Scott Quessenberry, UCLA
  • C Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
  • OT Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State
  • S Jeremy Reaves, South Alabama
  • QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
  • FB Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State
  • WR Jaleel Scott, New Mexico State
  • DT Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
  • QB Brandon Silvers, Troy
  • RB Ito Smith, Southern Miss
  • TE Durham Smythe, Notre Dame
  • CB M.J. Stewart, North Carolina
  • CB Chandon Sullivan, Georgia State
  • OG Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech
  • TE Ian Thomas, Indiana
  • OT Brett Toth, Army
  • P Johnny Townsend, Florida
  • DE Kemoko Turay, Rutgers
  • CB D’Montre Wade, Murray State
  • RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa
  • CB Levi Wallace, Alabama
  • LB Fred Warner, BYU
  • WR James Washington, Oklahoma State
  • S Armani Watts, Texas A&M
  • OG Sean Welsh, Iowa
  • S Kyzir White, West Virginia
  • QB Mike White, Western Kentucky
  • LB Tre’ Williams, Auburn
  • WR Cedrick Wilson, Boise State
  • OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia
  • CB Isaac Yiadom, Boston College

                

1. Stick to Football Episode 40 is ready for download—and if you haven’t already, go ahead and subscribe and leave a five-star review!

This week, Connor Rogers and I were joined by former Texas Longhorns Connor Williams and Malik Jefferson to talk about leaving Austin a year early for the NFL and how they’re preparing for the combine. We also talked all things NFL draft with news, notes and rumors from around the league. And because we’re gluttons for punishment, we went ahead and listed our ideal landing spots for the top 10 free agents.

        

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.

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