By Chris Roling
Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Unearthing a deep sleeper in an NFL draft is akin to getting a big unexpected bonus.
Neither happens often. Last year, one of the most notable sleepers arrived in Washington in the form of seventh-round safety Kamren Curl. The draft’s 216th pick started 11 games and helped the team surge to an NFC East title, registering 88 tackles and three interceptions while garnering a 68.1 Pro Football Focus grade.
Every team would love to find a player like Curl, but luck plays a big role.
Still, factors like college production, pro upside via measurables and a lack of attention compared to classmates weigh heavily in projecting 2021 sleepers. Injuries and opt-outs only make things more complex.
Here’s a look at a few candidates who have the ability to compete for playing time and contribute immediately.
Cade Johnson, WR, South Dakota State
Few wideouts or draft prospects have flown lower under radar than Cade Johnson.
After all, he played for South Dakota State, so his level of competition is unimpressive. Once the Jackrabbits’ 2020 season was postponed, it only made things harder for the premier wideout prospect to stand out.
That’s unfortunate, considering Johnson piled up 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns on an 18.4-per-catch average across 2018 and 2019. He then had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl against top draft prospects, and at his pro day he measured at a solid 5’11” and 184 pounds.
Johnson’s massive production might give rise to questions given where he played, but the smooth route running, explosiveness and ability to make big plays after the catch means he could play a role in a pro offense if he can win a job in camp.
For now, he’s the 155th-ranked prospect on The Draft Network’s big board.
Javian Hawkins, RB, Louisville
Running backs have a lot working against them because of the position’s devalued nature. That, and a relatively simple pro transition for the spot, makes it somewhat easier for a productive college runner to fall down the order and then shock behind a pro line.
Louisville’s Javian Hawkins can be the next great example of this.
He won’t blow away anyone with his measurables at 5’8″ and 183 pounds, but his explosiveness and versatility will. That led to 2,355 rushing yards and 17 scores on a 5.9 per-carry average over 23 games at a Power Five program. He caught 21 passes during that span, hinting at pro dual-threat potential if he gets the proper usage.
Hawkins slots 232nd at The Draft Network, yet an NFL team will find plenty of use for a back who consistently made players miss and piled up yardage, giving him instant-impact value as part of a rotation.
Walker Little, OT, Stanford
When it comes to overlooked or forgotten prospects, Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little might be the prime example.
He was expected to be a top-flight NFL player based on what he had shown during his college career and how he projected to keep developing. There’s a reason he was tabbed as the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft in an early mock.
But after a season-ending knee injury in 2019 and a 2020 opt-out, Little has played just one game over the last two seasons, which has led to his falling off the map. He’s the 168th-ranked prospect at The Draft Network. Yet the same talent that had him projecting so well remains, and it’s worth pointing out he allowed just one pressure over the final seven games of his 2018 season, according to PFF.
If and when Little falls down the draft board, he’ll get in a camp and show his ability to play starter-level ball.
Tay Gowan, CB, UCF
UCF cornerback Tay Gowan has sleeper written all over him thanks to his talent and lack of meaningful play on film.
He didn’t take the field much in 2017 with Miami (Ohio), missed 2018 because of transfer rules and then opted out of the 2020 season.
But that 2019 campaign was something else.
In it, Gowan appeared in 12 games and had an 80.1 coverage grade at PFF, allowing just 20 catches on 50 targets. Pair the big-time production with good size for a corner (6’1″, 186 pounds), and there’s a ton of believable upside in a prospect who looks like he’s just getting started.
While he slots at No. 211 at The Draft Network, a lack of film doesn’t mean Gowan can’t hit on a developmental upswing while putting his skills to use in a training camp, earning him notable snaps early in his career.
Josh Palmer, WR, Tennessee
Josh Palmer is one of the big-school exceptions to the deep-sleeper list after he spent his collegiate days at Tennessee.
There, the receiver never breached the 500-yard mark in a season over three years of notable playing time. He also scored just seven touchdowns over that span.
But the fact that Palmer averaged 15.3 yards per catch in four years says quite a bit about his role in the Volunteers offense and how he projects as a pro. He’s a 6’1″, 210-pound deep threat who habitually wins on the outside, hence the 81 percent win rate in one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl, per PFF.
Projections for Palmer are all over the place, with The Draft Network slotting him 313th. But once he’s on the field, his combination of size, speed and skill will continue to make him a deep threat and might help him contribute in other areas if pro coaches can unlock more of his route tree over time.