NFL Draft Preview: Six Sleeper Prospects You Shouldn’t Overlook In 2021

These dark-horse players could exceed expectations at the next level

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Most of the scuttlebutt surrounding the 2021 NFL Draft involves the best quarterbacks.

Understandable. The position never has been more important thanks to the league becoming so pass-happy. And the rise of dual-threat QBs truly is revolutionizing football.

But let’s say the top five signal-callers — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones — come off the board in the top 10 picks. What then? What other players deserve your attention?

Well, this year’s class features some excellent wide receivers. Some really good cornerbacks, too. And oh yeah, a possible generational talent at tight end.

But drafts often are won and lost in the later rounds, when the teams that did their homework can find the most bang for their buck and land players who will carve out meaningful roles in the NFL despite flying under the radar.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll consider a “sleeper” prospect — or a “dark-horse” prospect — to be any player with a mid- to late-round projection who has a decent chance of outperforming his draft standing in the NFL based on the information that’s available.

Feleipe Franks, QB, Arkansas
Franks has two traits that make him a desirable project quarterback: A strong frame (6-foot-7, 234 pounds) and a live arm. He’s also a really good athlete, evident by him being drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 31st round of the 2019 Major League Baseball draft. Franks will need to improve his decision-making and overall command of the offense, but he can put serious zip on his throws and pass downfield with ease. There’s plenty of raw talent to work with here.

Elijah Mitchell, RB, Louisiana
Mitchell, listed at 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds with a 4.35-second 40-yard dash, is coming off a very productive career with the Ragin’ Cajuns, earning First-Team All-Sun Belt as a senior. According to NBC Sports’ Eric Froton, Mitchell’s 118.2 career average elusiveness rating ranks sixth-best among draft-eligible running backs, while his 4.04 yards after contact average is tied for eighth-best. What Mitchell lacks in flash, he makes up for with decisive running. And his receiving ability out of the backfield is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Josh Palmer, WR, Tennessee
Palmer’s production on Rocky Top doesn’t jump off the page. But if you dig a little deeper, consider the inconsistent quarterback play during his Tennessee tenure and isolate his performance against top-tier competition, it’s easy to adopt a favorable outlook on a player whose pre-draft grade is 12th among wide receivers on NFL.com but who ranks 31st among draft-eligible wideouts on ESPN.com.

Palmer, whose dad played in the CFL, is listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds. He’s neither a burner nor an overpowering force. But his route-running and pass-catching ability could allow him to exceed expectations at the next level.

Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech
Williams earned First-Team All-Conference honors in 2020 while emerging as one of the top defensive players in Conference USA. Yet, due to both the competition he faced and being somewhat undersized for his position (6-foot-3, 284 pounds), Williams didn’t garner much pre-draft hype until his testing numbers pointed to a player who could be one of the best all-around athletes in the class. Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski even wrote Thursday about how Williams’ pre-draft profile compares to that of Los Angeles Rams superstar Aaron Donald. Anything outside of the first or second round probably is too low for Williams to fall.

Chris Rumph II, EDGE, Duke
Rumph, listed at 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, is a tough prospect to read, largely because he’s a versatile defender whose size isn’t exactly conducive to setting the edge but whose pass-rushing prowess can’t be denied.

“There is no question that his lean frame and lack of play strength will cause him to take some bad losses, but that shouldn’t overshadow his ability to make plays on the other side of the line despite his strength deficiencies,” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein wrote in his pre-draft profile of Rumph. “He’s an instinctive rusher with the skill and traits to win outside or inside and can activate a long-arm bull rush from a position of leverage from time to time. He has the talent to play off the ball on occasion as a chase linebacker and can be activated as a rusher from a variety of entry points to further stress the protection.”

In other words, Rumph has a low floor, seeing as his success in the NFL could hinge on his ability to disrupt opposing quarterbacks. But if he succeeds in doing so, whichever team drafts him will have a real steal on its hands.

Robert Rochell, CB, Central Arkansas
Rochell, listed at 6-foot and 193 pounds, is another prospect whose surrounding questions stem largely from the competition he faced in college. And reports suggest he did little to alleviate those concerns at the Senior Bowl. But Rochell’s athleticism and explosiveness are enough to dream on, especially if he can hone his craft in a way that allows those strengths to flourish as a ball-hawking defensive back.

“Rochell has long arms, excellent top-end speed and average size,” ESPN.com’s pre-draft profile reads. “There aren’t many receivers whom he can’t physically turn and run with in press.”

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