This NFL offseason has revolved around Tom Brady.
The greatest quarterback in league history signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency after 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, in turn dominating headlines and setting in motion some changes that extend well beyond those two organizations.
Well, because Brady was a sixth-round pick, chosen 199th overall out of Michigan in 2000. To say he’s exceeded expectations — going from dark-horse quarterback prospect to NFL legend — would be the understatement of the century. And one must look no further for evidence that every selection is important — even in the later rounds.
Of course, Brady is an extreme example. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll consider a “sleeper” prospect to be any player with a mid- to late-round projection who has a solid chance of outperforming his draft standing at the NFL level based on the information that’s available.
James Morgan, QB, Florida International
Morgan’s name has popped up in headlines recently, most notably in connection with the Patriots, who obviously have a huge question mark under center in wake of Brady’s departure. ESPN’s Mike Reiss even reported Sunday the Patriots held a video conference call with Morgan, a 6-foot-4 gunslinger who finished out his college career at FIU after spending two seasons at Bowling Green, although you never can quite tell which way New England is leaning, especially when it comes to quarterback draft prospects.
So, what’s to like about Morgan? Well, his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine confirmed he’s not the most athletic guy on the planet. Nor is he the most accurate passer. But NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein pointed to arm strength and toughness as two strengths for Morgan, who received the Pat Tillman Award, given annually to the East-West Shrine Game participant who “best exemplifies character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service.”
J.J. Taylor, RB, Arizona
Taylor, listed at 5-foot-5 and 185 pounds, lacks size. He’s also far from the fastest running back in the draft, posting an underwhelming 4.61-second 40-yard dash time at the combine. But former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew — who was undersized himself at 5-foot-7 — suggested this week Taylor could fill a Dion Lews/James White-type of role, meaning he’s capable of doing damage, particularly in the passing game, thanks to quickness and toughness that largely offset his apparent deficiencies as an NFL prospect. That’ll play, in some capacity, at the next level, so long as Taylor lands with a team that can get creative offensively.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, Liberty
This year’s wide receiver class is absolutely stacked, to the point where Gandy-Golden might get lost in the shuffle. He shouldn’t. Because even though there are questions about his speed and overall explosiveness relative to his peers, Gandy-Golden has excellent size (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) and agility, making him a threat in potential jump-ball situations and in open space after the catch.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. pointed to Gandy-Golden as the most underrated offensive player in the draft expected to be picked in the third round or later, while NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein pointed to Miami Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker as a player comparison for the young wideout.
Harrison Bryant, TE, Florida Atlantic
Tight end is considered one of the weakest position groups in this year’s draft, with very little depth, but Bryant is an intriguing prospect thanks to his pass-catching prowess and hard-nosed blocking ability. Bryant led all FBS tight ends in 2019 with 65 catches for 1,004 yards, earning him the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. (Other notable recent recipients include Mark Andrews in 2017 and Hunter Henry in 2015.)
Zierlein pointed to George Kittle for a player comparison, and praise really doesn’t come much higher than that when you’re talking about tight ends. The NFL draft analyst wrote: “Bryant could become an early starter and has the talent to be a high volume pass-catching target as a move tight end.”
James Lynch, DT, Baylor
Lynch, listed at 6-foot-4 and 289 pounds, was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for 2019 after finishing sixth in the nation in sacks (13.5). There’s some debate regarding his future role — he could play inside or move out to the end depending on his new team’s defensive scheme — but his college production shows the type of disruptive asset he could be at the NFL level if installed correctly.
Curtis Weaver, Edge, Boise State
Kiper acknowledged this week he once thought Weaver had the potential to be a top-20 pick. But Weaver’s draft stock dropped in wake of the combine, making the middle rounds a more realistic projection for the former Mountain West standout who totaled an impressive 13.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2019.
What Weaver lacks in explosiveness, he seemingly makes up for with intelligence. Bleacher Report’s Maurice Moton wrote recently: “He’s an instinctive pass-rusher without strong physical tools.”
In other words, don’t expect a three-down star or an elite run stuffer. A team’s best bet might just be to let Weaver pin his ears back and attack the quarterback in passing situations, in which case he’ll thrive.
Geno Stone, S, Iowa
Stone has been lauded for his football IQ and overall ability to digest and react to what’s happening on the field, making up for whatever shortcomings he has in the size and strength department. Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner wrote in late March: ” … His instincts are on par with any other defensive player in this draft class.” Sounds like the type of player who could be very useful on the back end.
Thumbnail photo via Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports Images