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Mark Lindquist

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NFL Draft Deep Sleepers

Friday, April 13, 2018


We decided we would write this column with one hand tied behind our back. It's easy to call a prospect a sleeper without any real parameters to prevent it. For our purposes, a fourth-round prospect is not a sleeper, though. Neither is a fifth-rounder. Or a sixth-rounder. No, we're going seriously, legitimately deep for the below list. In order to keep ourselves honest, what we've done is cross-referenced against three expanded mock drafts in seven-round exercises by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and NFLDraftScout's Dane Brugler, plus a six-round exercise by Walter Football's Charlie Cambpell. We forebode ourselves from selecting any player who appeared prior to Round 7 in those mocks. 

 

 

Quarterback

 

Chase Litton (Marshall) -- Consider him a discount Josh Allen. Like a deep, deep discount. Like one of those shelves at Walmart stocked with a sad assortment of food on the verge of expiration. But it’s almost free. Make no mistake, Allen is the far, far superior prospect. We’re not trying to conflate the two, even for all of Allen’s drawbacks. The similarities are there, though. Litton offers a base and build to dream on, with a palatable frame at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and an NFL-caliber arm to pair with a quick release. At his best, he’ll slice-and-dice you underneath before burning you with the big toss down the sideline. His fearlessness to take risks deep appeals and he loses none of his arm strength when throwing on the run.


There’s moldable ability, here, but that will need to rise above Litton’s disconcerting tendencies toward the turnover. We saw him crash and burn several times down the stretch in 2017, notably in a four-interception debacle against FAU, the second game in what finished as a six-game streak with at least one interception thrown. Litton does not demonstrate any sort of particularly advanced vision and often worked as a one-read-and-done passer in college. And while he did consistently show nice arm strength when rolling out, the rollouts themselves could sometimes best be described as robotic or by-the-book. Still, there’s enough to work with here that in the dark, late hours of Day 3, when war rooms are running solely on caffeine fumes, Litton’s is a name which should have real appeal as a talented project.


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Running back


Ito Smith (Southern Miss) -- A peek behind the curtain. When my colleague Thor Nystrom and I were initially kicking around this column idea, it blossomed out of our discussions regarding Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who workhorsed his way through college overlooked and showed out surprisingly at the combine while again being overlooked. So we decided it would be fun to dive in with the Justin Jacksons of the world, the seventh-rounders and ignored football misfits who could potentially find surprise success in the NFL.


Unfortunately, Justin Jackson, the patron saint of this column, is not actually eligible for it based on our parameters, as NFLDraftScout’s Dane Brugler has cruelly thrown water on what would have been a glowing breakdown by mocking him to the Ravens in the sixth round of his seven-round exercise. We thus cast our eyes to another undersized back, one whom played outside the Power 5, but like Jackson, tested well athletically this evaluating season and offers intrigue as a potential third-down back for the pros. That’s Southern Miss’ Ito Smith.


While he measures in at just 5-foot-9, 202 pounds, Smith has plenty of Mighty Mouse in him, which he showed off on pro day with 22 reps on the bench press. He’s a tough back who plays a little bigger than you might expect, with a decent kick in the motor. If you’re using a late pick on Smith, though, there’s one big reason for that -- he’s phenomenal catching the ball out of the backfield. Like seriously phenomenal. Smith caught 40 passes each of his final three seasons at Southern Miss. To put that in context, ASU’s Kalen Ballage (considered one of the better receiving backs in the class) had 44 catches in 2016 but failed to amass 40 total catches for the rest of his career with the Sun Devils, while Sony Michel never caught more than 30 passes in a campaign. Not only does Smith possess soft hands, he’s also got a nice feel for his routes which should keep on improving if he can settle into a pro offense.


His size will be problematic for many teams and Smith doesn’t necessarily offer the kind of jitterbug shake-and-bake which you’d like or expect with a player in his mold, but he offers a clear plus-attribute as a pass-catcher and is a better athlete than perceived.



Wide receiver


Marquez Valdes-Scantling (USF) -- Valdes-Scantling offers the premium package for a late draft flier, in that he’s got the height at 6-foot-4, 206 pounds and can fly, fly, fly. No surprise there for the track runner. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Valdes-Scantling showed off his straight-line speed on a 4.37-second sprint in the 40-yard dash. That speed played on the field, too, as his collegiate career was peppered with long receptions and big plays deep. Overall, he tested in the 54th percentile of NFL receivers. All of this was a winded way of saying that Valdes-Scantling has both the height and athletic profile for NFL success. He’s the kind of receiver you can see putting together a fun little career if you squint. And squint you’d best, because beyond his outward looks-and-runs-like-pro-receiver gleam, there are some flaws in the ointment, here.


One of the most noteworthy of these is that Valdes-Scantling, for all of his athletic ability, had a troubling issue with drops in college. Some of this can be chalked up to what appear on film to be sometime-lapses in concentration, some can be chalked up to his catching technique. He had issues with timing, dropping catchable passes simply because the ball ate him up at times. He also has plenty of work to do in learning a route tree and tightening up the routes he already runs.  And while he possesses palatable height, his frame is very much on the thinner side. That’s not to say that he’s a pushover against more physical corners -- he showed plenty of fight in those situations -- but it is to say that more physical corners can and did get the better at times simply because they had the ability to box him out.


You won’t be able to coach Valdes-Scantling into having a larger frame -- he’s always going to be of a thinner build, even if/after he packs on weight in an NFL conditioning program -- but his technique is something that we think can be tweaked to the positive, both in terms of how he catches and anticipates the ball and in how he runs his routes. His deep speed is intriguing.



Tight end


Deon Yelder (Western Kentucky) -- Ready to take a gamble on a prospect with almost no track record of success at the college level? Rock ‘n’ roll, let’s talk about Deon Yelder. The former walk-on didn’t even receive his scholarship from the Hilltoppers until his final collegiate year. And he hadn’t even logged a catch prior to this season. No matter, as he come on to post a 52-688-7 receiving line in 2017. And it should be noted that came in a WKU offense which sagged for long stretches. The lack of any sort of a background which would suggest an NFL future has consistently put him behind the eight-ball during the evaluating season. Like a champ, though, he’s just rolled with it.


Yelder has done as well as could be expected with limited opportunity, impressing in practices after receiving an injury-replacement invite to the Senior Bowl -- he had previously only been invited to the much less illustrious NFLPA Collegiate Bowl  -- and breezing past a lack of a combine invite with a smooth pro day performance (in rainy conditions, because of course). This very long and winding way toward a potential NFL career encapsulates what we love about Yelder. He’s the kind of tight end who will eat a nail and then ask for another. There’s an innate toughness that was noticeable in film review, from his tenacity as a blocker to his run-through-you attitude once he catches the ball. He’s not the crispest of performers on a technical level but we firmly view these as traits which can be molded by a smart coaching staff. A team like the Rams might be one to watch for Yelder -- not only for Sean McVay’s obvious tight-end whisperer qualities, but also for the fact that they drafted fellow Hilltopper TE Tyler Higbee two years ago.



Tackle


Jaryd Jones-Smith (Pitt) -- The Panthers tossed a pair of project tackles to the NFL this winter. The first is Brian O’Neill, who crushed athletic testing at the combine and will be long gone by the time the draft is winding down. Not so with Jones-Smith, who should very much be a candidate for a seventh-round selection or priority UDFA draw. He’s not nearly the athlete of counterpart O’Neill, putting up a composite athletic testing score in just the 34th percentile of NFL lineman while at the combine, but he did best his Pitt brother in one particularly intriguing avenue: Dude has really long arms. Like really long. Like longer than those of any offensive lineman in Indianapolis. There are few times when the word “wingspan” should really apply for something that does not fly, but in Jones-Smith’s case, it’s very much warranted -- he checks in with a wingspan of 88 ½ inches. About as long as that of a very large bald eagle.


We love the length if he could only figure out what exactly to do with it. He’s all over the map on film, showcasing at various times poor balance, poor hand usage, clunky feet and the general feeling that he’s less playing tackle and more just being a large human being. That lack of polish is an obvious concern, likewise an uncertain medical background. Jones-Smith nearly lost his right leg after sustaining a serious, serious knee injury in the summer of 2015. Three ligaments were torn in the incident. That he recovered and has now reached the door of the NFL is admirable, even if the seriousness of his previous knee injury could give teams real pause (especially if the medicals do not check out).


But still, that length, man. That size. Those are clear NFL attributes. It’s just going to take some work to make them work.




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Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.
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