Diamonds in the Rough – Introducing my favorite sleepers for the 2019 NFL Draft
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 starred at a lower level of competition, just like Kareem Hunt (Toledo) and Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington) – both prominently featured in this article two years ago – did prior to leading all NFL rookies in rushing and receiving yards in 2017.
Others played at relative FBS powerhouses but injuries, suspension, a lack of preferred size or talent ahead of them on the depth chart kept them relatively overshadowed. That was the case with Phillip Lindsay, who rushed for 1,037 yards for the Denver Broncos and was the first undrafted offensive player in NFL history to be voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after going undrafted. Lindsay, you may recall, was even more successful for the Colorado Buffaloes against quality Pac-12 competition, but he fell out of last year’s draft presumably because scouts didn’t think the 5-07, 185-pounder could duplicate his success against the greater size and physicality of the NFL.
One player is featured per position with five 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 2019 Scouting Combine. These players are noted with an asterisk.*
Jacob Dolegala, 6-7, 242, 4.91, Central Connecticut State*
With even fewer “sure things” at quarterback in this draft than most years, savvy clubs willing to invest some time will want to take a look at Dolegala, a record-breaking four-year starter with prototypical size, arm strength and even NFL bloodlines. He was widely regarded as a D-I talent prior to tearing his labrum as a high school senior and fell through the recruiting cracks, getting his only scholarship offer from the Blue Devils, an FCS program. Despite leaving CCSU as the program’s all-time leading passer (8,129 yards, 48 TDs vs. 29 interceptions), Dolegala was not invited to any of the top all-star games or the Combine, perhaps because the Blue Devils’ run-heavy attack limited his statistics. However, he turned heads at the University of Buffalo Pro Day (competing alongside fellow Diamond Tyree Jackson) as well as his own subsequent on-campus workout.
Five Other Quarterbacks to Consider:
Taylor Cornelius, 6-6, 224, 4.70, Oklahoma State*
Tyree Jackson, 6-7, 249, 4.59, Buffalo
Gardner Minshew II, 6-1, 225, 4.97, Washington State
Brett Rypien, 6-1, 210, 4.91, Boise State
Easton Stick, 6-1, 224, 4.62, North Dakota State
Alexander Mattison, 5-11, 221, 4.67, Boise State
I’ve long argued that the most overrated element when evaluating running backs is 40-yard dash time, whereas the most underrated characteristics are balance through contact and the determination to truly finish runs. In many ways, Mattison reminds me of former Bronco and NFL standout Jay Ajayi with his competitive running. He was a three-year producer for Boise State – rushing for over 1,000 yards and a touchdown a game each of the past two seasons, including 1,415 yards and 17 scores (both career-highs) before opting to give up his final year of eligibility to make the NFL jump.
Five Other Running Backs to Consider:
Alex Barnes, 6-0, 226, 4.59, Kansas State
Damarea Crockett, 5-10, 225, 4.50, Missouri*
Jalin Moore, 5-10, 212, 4.53, Appalachian State
Tony Pollard, 6-0, 210, 4.52, Memphis
Darwin Thompson, 5-8, 200, 4.47, Utah State*
Andy Isabella, 5-9, 188, 4.31, Massachusetts
Given his size, skin pigment and New England roots, Isabella has been unfairly typecast as a “just” a slot receiver throughout much of his career. As his 40-yard dash time emphatically proves, however, Isabella possesses the straight-line speed to offer legitimate big play ability. Of course, savvy scouts already knew that after watching him outrun a talented Georgia defense for 15 grabs for 219 yards and two scores in the 2018 season opener, as well against top competition at the Senior Bowl. Further, while short by NFL standards, Isabella is well-built and tough, showing the courage to catch passes across the middle and the determination to pinball off would-be tacklers.
Five Other Wide Receivers to Consider:
Keelan Doss, 6-2, 211, 4.50, California-Davis
Jazz Ferguson, 6-5, 227, 4.45, Northwestern State (Louisiana)
Travis Fulgham, 6-3, 215, 4.58, Old Dominion
Jalen Guyton, 6-1, 212, 4.44, North Texas*
David Ungerer, 5-10, 170, 4.55, Idaho*
Kahale Warring, 6-5, 252, 4.67, San Diego State
One of the reasons why you can expect to hear plenty of other tight ends mentioned by anonymous scouts in the build-up to the 2019 NFL draft is that they may be trying to keep Warring – an ascending prospect who played just one year of high school football - a secret. Warring spent most of his prep career playing other sports, earning league MVP honors in basketball as a senior and previously all-league honors in water polo while also competing in swimming, tennis, and cross country. He caught just 21 passes (but for 548 yards) in his breakout 2018 campaign for the run-heavy Aztecs, showing off the physicality as a blocker and athleticism before, during and after the catch to suggest that his best football is still to come.
Five Other Tight Ends to Consider:
Keenan Brown, 6-3, 250, 4.75, Texas State
Dawson Knox, 6-4, 254, 4.55, Mississippi
Josh Oliver, 6-5, 249, 4.63, San Jose State
Donald Parham, 6-8, 240, 4.65, Stetson*
Dax Raymond, 6-5, 255, 4.73, Utah State
Tytus Howard, 6-5, 322, 5.05, Alabama State
Lost in all of the hype about this year’s dominant defensive line class is an above average crop of offensive tackles with Howard – a former high school quarterback and tight end as recently as 2014 – ranking among this year’s top sleeper prospects, not only among blockers but regardless of position.
Despite hailing from the talent-rich state of Alabama, Howard fell through the recruiting cracks while focusing more on basketball and wound up at Alabama State as a tight end. Four years and roughly 85 pounds later with stellar performances at Auburn, the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine, however, and Howard is well on his way to joining his former linemate Jylan Ware (a seventh round pick by Oakland in 2017) as an NFL draft pick and possibly the highest selection from the Hornets since another former quarterback – Tarvaris Jackson – was picked 64th overall by Minnesota back in 2006.
Five Other Offensive Tackles to Consider:
Brandon Hitner, 6-6, 305, 5.10, Villanova*
Devon Johnson, 6-7, 338, 5.16, Ferris State
Tyler Roemer, 6-6, 312, 5.21, San Diego State
Max Scharping, 6-6, 327, 5.29, Northern Illinois
Oli Udoh, 6-6, 323, 5.05, Elon
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
Nate Davis, 6-3, 316, 5.23, Charlotte
Poor grades contributed to Davis winding up at Charlotte, where he was forced to sit out his first season to get his grades in order. Once he did so, however, Davis was a fixture in the 49ers’ starting lineup, spending the next three years at right guard before switching outside to right tackle in 2018. Like he did when his 49ers faced Temple (2016), Louisville (2016), Kansas State (2017) and Tennessee (2018) as out of conference opponents over the past three years, the power-packed Davis impressed me at the Senior Bowl. Despite his experience, Davis is fundamentally raw, with even his initial stance drawing criticism from offensive line gurus. The raw power and use of leverage is there, however, to project Davis as a future right guard in the NFL.
Five Other Interior Offensive Linemen to Consider:
B.J. Autry, 6-3, 337, 5.58, Jacksonville State*
Hjalte Froholdt, 6-5, 306, 5.20, Arkansas
Drew Forbes, 6-5, 308, 5.05, Southeast Missouri*
Ethan Greenidge, 6-4, 327, 5.47, Villanova
Iosua Opeta, 6-4, 301, 5.02, Weber State
Maxx Crosby, 6-5, 255, 4.66, Eastern Michigan
Crosby wowed during Combine workouts with his raw explosiveness (ranking third among all down defensive linemen with a 36” vertical jump) and change of direction and leading his position group in both the 3-cone drill (6.89) and short shuttle (4.13). Better yet, these numbers simply quantify what savvy scouts see on the field, where Crosby’s initial burst and lateral agility to elude made blocking him like trying to wrap your hands around smoke. There is no denying that he is raw. Physically-speaking, Crosby is still just a pup, needing to grow into his lanky frame before some of the tricks he pulled in the MAC are going to work against NFL-caliber blockers. His needs to get stronger and his hands need plenty of work, as well. But don’t be surprised if a club invests a Day Two selection in the hopes this pup grows into a pack leader.
Five Other Edge Rushers to Consider:
Jaylon Ferguson, 6-5, 271, 4.82, Louisiana Tech
Carl Granderson, 6-5, 254, 4.79, Wyoming
Daryll Johnson, 6-6, 253, 4.82, North Carolina A&T
Corbin Kaufusi, 6-9, 279, 4.89, BYU*
Oshane Ximines, 6-4, 253, 4.78, Old Dominion
Khalen Saunders, 6-0, 324, 5.01, Western Illinois
Saunders made quite the impression at the Senior Bowl, opting to compete in it while his wife delivered the couple's first child (a little girl named Kambridge), turning heads with an impromptu gymnastics routine following practice in which the 320+ pound completed a dazzling over-head backflip and flashing the initial quickness and lateral agility which helped him earn a reputation as the "Aaron Donald of the FCS." As his flip and eye-popping production (204 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and four forced fumbles) suggest, Saunders is a fantastic athlete, projecting as a middle round prospect who may very well outplay some of the more traditionally-built defensive tackles selected ahead of him.
Five Other Defensive Linemen to Consider:
Ed Alexander, 6-1, 319, 5.26, LSU*
L.J. Collier, 6-3, 283, 4.91, TCU
John Cominsky, 6-5, 286, 4.69, Charleston
Albert Huggins, 6-3, 305, 5.12, Clemson
Renell Wren, 6-5, 318, 5.01, Arizona State
TRADITIONAL OFF-BALL LINEBACKERS
Kaden Elliss, 6-2, 238, 4.62, Idaho*
While I believe only two traditional off-ball linebackers (LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush) are likely to crack the top 32 in the 2019 draft, the depth at this position is encouraging with several of the “other” linebackers listed below worthy of earning this featured position. Each of them, however, were invited to prominent all-star games, the Combine, or both, which Elliss was not despite posting impressive statistics (278 tackles, including 47 for loss, 17 sacks, six forced fumbles and five interceptions), as well as possessing an NFL frame, athleticism and bloodlines. Elliss won’t be the first player on this list to get drafted but make no mistake, he will be drafted. In fact, I believe he will be the first player selected this year who was not invited to the Combine, making him the unofficial captain of this year’s Diamonds in the Rough squad.
Five Other Off-Ball Linebackers to Consider:
Dre Greenlaw, 6-0, 237, 4.58, Arkansas
Terrill Hanks, 6-2, 242, 4.98, New Mexico State
Sutton Smith, 6-0, 233, 4.69, Northern Illinois
Sione Takitaki, 6-1, 238, 4.63, BYU
Jahlani Tavai, 6-2, 250, 4.86, Hawaii
Sean Bunting, 6-0, 195, 4.42, Central Michigan
Despite playing his prep ball in the football-loving state of Michigan, Bunting fell through the recruiting tracks, only earning a scholarship from CMU after showing up on campus to talk to coaches in person and forgoing offers from programs at lower divisions. He started off at safety and even saw some time at wide receiver during an initial redshirt season before committing to cornerback, where he proved a standout the past two seasons, earning the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2018 before answering any doubts about his size and athleticism at the Combine.
Five Other Cornerbacks to Consider:
Corey Ballentine, 5-11, 196, 4.47, Washburn
Blace Brown, 6-0, 194, 4.75, Troy
Jordan Brown, 6-0, 201, 4.51, South Dakota State
Joejuan Williams, 6-4, 211, 4.65, Vanderbilt
Jimmy Moreland, 5-10, 180, 4.49, James Madison*
Nasir Adderley, 6-0, 205, 4.49, Delaware
Among the first players announced this year as invited to the prestigious Senior Bowl, Adderley is viewed by many as the year's elite "small school" prospect and I fully expect him to be the first player in this article to be selected in the 2019 draft. He started every game the past four seasons - the first two at cornerback, the final two at free safety - earning all-conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior, as well as being honored as a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award (the top overall player in this division of football) in 2018. Like several others on this list, Adderley has NFL bloodlines. His cousin, Herb Adderley, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a cornerback in 1980, winning three Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
Five Other Safeties to Consider:
Ugo Amadi, 5-10, 201, 4.50, Oregon
Marquise Blair, 6-1, 195, 4.48, Utah
Stephen Denmark, 6-3, 220, 4.50, Valdosta State*
Malik Gant, 6-0, 209, 4.63, Marshall
Andrew Wingard, 5-11, 214, 4.55, Wyoming