Wake up! Five sleeper prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft

“Sleeper” is an interesting term in the NFL Draft lexicon. Was quarterback sensation Dak Prescott considered a sleeper? Or is the fourth round too early to be tagged a sleeper? Are we only terming sleepers by how the media values them, how teams value them, or some sort of combination of both?

Today I’ll share five prospects that I believe to be sleepers. To provide context to the reader of this article, I’ll be working from the definition that a sleeper is a player projected as a day three selection or UDFA, who could meaningfully contribute in the NFL past their rookie contract.

Jeremy Cutrer, Defensive Back, Middle Tennessee State

WHY HE’S A SLEEPER

My affection for Jeremy Cutrer shouldn’t be news to you if you’ve kept up with my discussions on Twitter. Cutrer displays rare length at the corner position, with a 6’2 frame coupled with long arms. When you watch the tape, the fluidity in the lower half of his body jumps out. He is an NFL-caliber athlete, with the ability to effortlessly flip his hips and stay glued to receivers in man coverage.

In addition to his athleticism and fluidity, Cutrer can be maddening to quarterbacks and receivers because of his intelligence and anticipation in coverage. Cutrer is keenly aware of where he and everyone else in the secondary are supposed to be at all times. He uses that same intelligence to diagnose routes early and couples it with tremendous instincts to jump the route and make a play on the ball.

WHY HE’LL BE AVAILABLE

He’s very thin. In fact, so think to where you’re having to legitimately ask yourself if he could survive with physical beasts at the next level.

When he first transferred to Middle Tennessee State, Cutrer weighed 161 pounds. He played at 170 for most of his senior season and got up to 181 while training with the fine folks at EXOS. Removed from their program for a few weeks, Cutrer dropped all the way down to 168 pounds for his pro day.

Outside of the weight, Cutrer uses the Alabama shuffle technique and doesn’t always look comfortable in his pedal. There are also a number of instances of Cutrer diving at the ankles of ball-carriers instead of making textbook attempts to tackle.

SUMMATION

Cutrer is likely to be selected within the first half of day three, but the talent is there. I grade him as a second-round talent and believe he could play safety or corner in the NFL. It will be important to get Cutrer in a stable environment with a good strength and conditioning staff that can get him to an NFL weight. My NFL comparison for Jeremy Cutrer is Cincinnati Bengals corner and former top-20 pick Dre Kirkpatrick.

Julién Davenport, Offensive Tackle, Bucknell

WHY HE’S A SLEEPER

Julién Davenport is quite possibly the most nimble, agile offensive lineman available in April’s draft. Davenport’s 3-cone time was third among offensive linemen attending the combine, and his 20-yard short shuttle ranked sixth. When you take into account that he’s 6’7, his agility is all the more impressive.

Davenport is tough to beat in the run game, because he gets to his spot quickly and uses his large frame to eat up space. That same agility coupled with his 36½” arms and 87” wingspan makes him a very difficult match-up in pass protection. Even where technique is lacking, the size and quickness alone makes it difficult for rushers to get around him.

WHY HE’LL BE AVAILABLE

Davenport is a tools guy. He’s exceedingly raw, and a team will need to invest serious time with him on some of the finer technical points of playing tackle.

There are also a few question marks relating to his strength. Davenport is a lean 318 pounds, and only managed 18 reps of 225 pounds at the combine. That strength limitation is evident on his game film, where it didn’t limit him as much against lesser competition. It will be an issue at the next level where he will need to add some bulk.

SUMMATION

Julién Davenport has rare tools at the tackle position. In the last 18 NFL combines, only three tackles of Davenport’s height and weight have timed a faster 3-cone. A patient coaching staff will need to commit to improving his technique and his strength, but his year-to-year growth lends credence to the idea that he’ll adapt. Davenport will likely be picked in the fourth or fifth round, but his athletic ability, massive frame, and steady improvement gives him a ceiling as potentially the best tackle in a weak 2017 class.

I’Tavius Mathers, Running Back, Middle Tennessee State

WHY HE’S A SLEEPER

Middle Tennessee State is a sleeper program in and of itself, so it’s no surprise they’d produce two sleepers for this list. A 4.4 athlete with ‘extra gear’ that running backs need, I’Tavius Mathers is much more than your typical small school burner.

Mathers displays NFL-ready patience and vision, trusting his burst to get him through the tightest of openings. The flexibility in his ankles allows for quick cut-backs at the second level, leaving dumbfounded linebackers lost in over-pursuit. There’s a slipperiness to Mathers and surprising lower-body strength that allows him to pick up extra yards after contact.

The ‘small school competition’ argument also falls flat. Mathers transferred from Ole Miss after his junior season in order to get more playing time. In his three seasons with the Rebels, Mathers averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry on roughly five carries per game.

WHY HE’LL BE AVAILABLE

At 5’10” and 203 pounds, Mathers is one of the leaner runners in this draft class. While no one would question his straight-line speed, Mathers’ 7.17 3-cone gives teams rightful pause about his ability to create when the hole doesn’t materialize.

Also, despite his success in a limited role, there are questions about why he wasn’t able to separate himself from the running back by committee at Ole Miss. Concerns about a prospect’s ability will always be raised when it takes a smaller school transfer for you to win a job and perform at a high level.

SUMMATION

I’Tavius Mathers will likely be selected late in day three or be a priority free agent, but the film shows a player who could be a valuable third down or committee back. Mathers’ speed, shifty lower body, and strong pass-catching abilities make him a versatile threat in the mold of a taller Darren Sproles. He should warrant a close look from teams that are looking for late round value in their backfield.

Chris Odom, Edge, Arkansas State

WHY HE’S A SLEEPER

Chris Odom dominated the Sun Belt competition in his lone season as a starter at Arkansas State, leading the conference with 12.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.

Odom displays good balance around the corner, making tight, low turns to dip under the opposing tackle and get to the quarterback. Using strong hands and a powerful, churning lower body, Odom delivers a powerful bull rush that makes it appear as if an offensive tackle has been shot in the chest.

Odom’s father, Cliff, spent thirteen seasons as an NFL linebacker with the Browns, Colts, and Dolphins. The NFL pedigree is evident when you observe Odom’s fit 6’4”, 263 pound frame.

WHY HE’LL BE AVAILABLE

There is the issue of dominating lower competition. When matched up against teams like Auburn or prospects like Troy’s Antonio Garcia, Odom’s impact was noticeably quieter. Describing Odom as ‘over-matched’ in those games wouldn’t be correct, but the competitive jump in those games did leave me feeling like he was a bit shell-shocked at times.

Odom’s snap reaction is slow enough that even a casual viewer will notice he’s frequently the last out of his stance. Though he displays great balance and is a sound technician, he doesn’t ‘wow’ with his athleticism.

SUMMATION

A number of analysts have Odom as an UDFA, which I don’t believe is correct. There are flaws, and he’s certainly not a top-100 player, but Odom is a smart, powerful edge with the potential to find a home in this league as a reliable left defensive end.

Nate Theaker, Offensive Lineman, Wayne State

WHY HE’S A SLEEPER

Wayne State has had only three players drafted in the school’s history, and none since fullback Tom Beer was selected by the Lions in the seventh round of the 1994 draft. Theaker could and should break that drought in 2017.

Theaker played tackle for Wayne State, but will project better as a guard in the NFL, especially in a zone blocking scheme. His lateral agility is impressive, and Theaker is always seeking out and finishing work in the open field.

Theaker has surprisingly good technique, which isn’t always easy to find in the GLIAC. He plays mean, looking to bury defenders rather than just move them out of the way.

WHY HE’LL BE AVAILABLE

What Theaker brings to the table with his agile lower body, you lose in the form of a brute mauler. At 6’5” and 315 pounds, Theaker is not the big body you’d generally like to have eating up space at guard. With 23 bench press reps at the combine, putting him in the lower third of guards over the last two decades, strength is a sincere issue for Theaker.

The reason a move to guard is a necessity is because he looks skittish going up against edge defenders in pass protection. Theaker timidly leans back on his heels, creating a wobbly base in pass protection. His hands are not quick, so he has an extremely tough time slowing down genuine speed rushers.

SUMMATION

Theaker doesn’t have the footwork to be a tackle in the NFL, so guard may be a better fit for his skill set. His lateral agility and fluid lower body will make it easy for him to pull or get up to the second level and find work.

While concern with his bulk and lack of snaps at guard will likely drop him to the seventh round, an NFL team committed to bulking him up could find themselves with a solid starter at guard for years to come.

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