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For all of the attention paid to marquee quarterbacks and running backs in last year’s NFL draft, the offensive rookie of the year race came down to two third-round picks.
Alvin Kamara, the New Orleans Saints’ all-purpose threat out of the backfield, topped the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, who finished the 2017 season as the league’s rushing champion. The competition served as a reminder that there are always gems to be found after the first 32 selections.
Here’s a look at some players who likely won’t land in the first round but could be sleepers in this year’s draft:
Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond: No one will confuse the Football Championship Subdivision standout and former lacrosse star for one of the more highly-touted, strong-armed quarterbacks likely to fly off the board in the top five picks. Lauletta, however, offers an intriguing alternative for a team needing a starting-caliber option in the near future. The Senior Bowl MVP’s game centers on a rapid release and touch passing. If he lands in a system that emphasizes timing and quick hits over deep passing, he could be a steal even as a Day 2 selection.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn: It’s rare that the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year is overlooked come draft time, but Johnson might not be getting his due. His overall feel for the position might be best in the class, as he displays a rare patience in his running style that has earned comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. An upright, long-striding gait might be cause for concern given the potential for injuries and ball security problems, but Johnson has the tools to be a productive long-term starter.
Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State: While he might not measure up to his competition in this class with his size (6-0, 205 pounds) and speed (4.51-second 40-yard dash), Gallup offers a rare degree of reliability for an incoming rookie. Comfortable with an assortment of routes, he can create separation consistently and also shows impressive body control to give him a catch radius bigger than his frame might indicate. As a Day 2 selection, he should find quick work as a possession receiver.
J’Mon Moore, WR, Missouri: Despite posting consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, he might still have his best days ahead of him thanks to his explosive athleticism. With the frame (6-2, 207 pounds) and burst to be a threat both on deep throws and after the catch, Moore looks to be one of the class’ better big-play threats. Beating physical corners and cutting down on drops will be key points of improvement wherever he lands, but he has big upside as a mid-round selection.
Ian Thomas, TE, Indiana: With just 28 catches in two years, his true ability is difficult to discern. But the former junior college transfer is undoubtedly one of the better athletes in a tight end class short on promising pass catchers. If Thomas can harness his easy athleticism as a target down the seam, he could provide a significant payoff as a Day 2 option.
Alex Cappa, G, Humboldt State: Ragdolling opposing defensive linemen in the NFL will prove more difficult than it was for Cappa in Division II, but he shows the fleet footwork to thrive on more than mere strength. He held his own against top competition at the Senior Bowl, and a move inside to guard should help answer some concerns about his ability to make such a drastic leap in level of competition.
Nathan Shepherd, DT, Fort Hays State: A late bloomer after a nomadic start to his college career, Shepherd has shown he can disrupt on the interior with both speed and power. His ability to wriggle past opposing linemen combined with his forcefulness make him a handful for any offense. If he learns the finer points of pass rushing from the right coaching staff, he should offer significant value as a Day 2 selection.
Kemoko Turay, DE/OLB, Rutgers: It’s easy to overlook the inconsistencies and shortcomings in a pass rusher’s game when one offers the freakish movement skills that Turay does. His experience and overall feel for the position are lacking, as injuries marred his sophomore and junior campaigns. But Turay is the kind of disruptive talent for which teams will make a big leap, and he could find himself drafted ahead of some of the more notable names in this class.
Fred Warner, LB, BYU: For off-ball linebackers, coverage ability and versatility are paramount traits for staying on the field. Warner checks both of those boxes, as he showed excellent range as a multi-talented defender for the Cougars. While he might not wreck opposing attacks as a pass rusher (6½ career sacks), defensive coordinators should have no trouble finding an array of ways to deploy him.
Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State: He might be overpowered by bigger blockers in the NFL, but Sam hasn’t been limited by his size (6-1, 244 pounds) so far. He’s quick to diagnose and consistently slips past his opponents to chase down plays in the backfield (9½ tackles for loss in 2017). As a likely mid-round pick, he could shape up to be an active back-up and key special teams contributor.
Quenton Meeks, CB, Stanford: Both he and safety Justin Reid could qualify as sleepers. Though Meeks will likely be drafted after his former teammate in the Cardinal secondary, the cornerback has the size, savvy and physical approach to catch teams’ attention as a potential starter. Landing in a zone-heavy scheme would help highlight Meeks’ best attributes while helping to accommodate for his wanting recovery speed.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz