Splash: A Look at PFF’s Draft Sleepers

Going by traditional draft verbiage, a handful of these players are not technically sleepers, but Pro Football Focus believes these players will not be drafted where they should be

Josh Jones, tackle, Houston

Jones is generally considered to be the fifth-best tackle behind Jedrick Wills, Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, and Mekhi Becton. PFF ranks Jones over Becton, a fine consideration based on Jones being more of a sure-thing while Becton is a physical specimen. Jones does not fit the sleeper role, and he is a likely first-round pick, but there is reason to believe he will be better than at least one of the tackles drafted ahead of him.

As a member of a Group of Five team, Jones did not face the sorts of competition that the other four did, but he was absurdly good in pass protection and run blocking. He has room to grow, and he could be a future Pro Bowl-level tackle.

Prediction: late first-round

Laviska Shenault Jr., wide receiver, Colorado

Frankly, Shenault is my draft crush. He is not scheme-proof like the top receivers (Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Henry Ruggs III), but if a team is willing to manufacture touches for Shenault, he should be an electric NFL player. The “playmaker” receiver role has backfired in the past with Tavon Austin as the poster child. However, Shenault is likely to have a quarterback that is better than Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens, Nick Foles, or Case Keenum throwing him the ball. He has his flaws, and he has an injury history, but Shenault will make plays at the next level.

If he ends up in a scheme such as Philadelphia’s, Baltimore’s, or San Francisco’s, Shenault could explode as a playmaker while he improves as a route runner.

Prediction: early second-round

Jordan Elliott, interior defensive line, Missouri

PFF loves Elliott. They are entranced by his consistency against the run and the pass as he was the only Power Five interior lineman to grade out as elite against the run and the pass. The traditional production metrics, such as tackles for loss and sacks, paint Elliott as a consistent force but not as overpowering as PFF portrays. In 2018, the Mizzou man had eight tackles for loss and three sacks. In 2019, he had 8.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Both years seem productive, but all of his 2018 sacks and half of his tackles for loss came in one game against the 2-10 Arkansas Razorbacks.

Elliott should be a solid player at the next level.

Prediction: mid-third-round

Curtis Weaver, EDGE, Boise State

From his first moments on the blue turf, Weaver excelled at getting to the quarterback. As a freshman, he had 11 sacks to go with 13 tackles for loss. In 2018, it was much of the same. He had 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. In 2019, Weaver had 19.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. In terms of production, Weaver has very few contemporaries. Per PFF, only Chase Young was better, and Young is generally regarded as the best defensive prospect in years.

Athletically speaking, Weaver is not as gifted as others, but he has an unquestioned technique.

Prediction: late second-round

Julian Okwara, EDGE, Notre Dame

The opposite of Weaver in many ways, Okwara did not post jaw-dropping numbers at Notre Dame. In his 35 games in South Bend, Okwara posted 15.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. However, he is an absurd athlete. His athleticism could be hampered by a fibula injury in his senior season, but he projects as a freak in the NFL. PFF oohs and aahs over his nation-high 19.1 percent pressure rate. They grade Okwara as a first-round prospect, but many draft sites see Okwara squarely as a Day 2 pick.

Okwara has all the tools to be great in the NFL, but injuries could result in him being off some teams’ boards.

Prediction: early third-round

Willie Gay, Jr., linebacker, Mississippi State

In PFF’s eyes, Gay would be a potential first-round pick if it was not for character concerns off the field. Gay projects as a terrific coverage backer, and if he cleans up his off-the-field act, Gay should be an NFL star. PFF gave Gay a 93.9 grade in coverage over his three years with the Bulldogs. Gay also exploded at the NFL Combine with an off-the-charts vertical jump, broad jump, 40-yard dash, and 10-yard dash.

Without the ability to meet face-to-face with some teams, Gay could be left off some draft boards, but he should be a good pick for those interested.

Prediction: mid-third-round

Geno Stone, safety, Iowa

Stone was tied for second in the Big Ten with four interceptions in 2018. In three years at Iowa, Stone had six interceptions, one pick-six, seven passes defended, and four forced fumbles. PFF loves his instincts and his ability to erase the big play when he is manning the backend. PFF has him as a Day 2 pick, but many other sites pencil him as a Day 3 selection.

Whoever drafts Stone will get a great player to lead the defensive backfield. He may not be as valued as the likes of Xavier McKinney or Grant Delpit, but Stone should stick in the NFL.

Prediction: mid-fourth-round

Michael Pittman, Jr., wide receiver, USC

USC has been a hotbed for wide receiver talent in the last 30 years, and Pittman is just another potentially dominant pass catcher. With recent studs in Robert Woods and JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC has a reputation for solid receivers. Pittman has a ceiling higher than either as he comes into the NFL as a polished route runner with his 6-foot-4 frame. He only has one year of elite production, leading the Pac-12 in receptions and yards in 2019, but PFF is giddy over him. He only dropped 2.8 percent of catchable targets.

Pittman performed well at the combine, and he should hear his name called in the first 50 picks.

Prediction: mid-second-round

Tyler Johnson, wide receiver, Minnesota

A top 50 prospect in PFF’s eyes, Johnson recorded almost 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns in his final two years for the Golden Gophers. In 2019, Johnson led the Big Ten in receptions, yards, and touchdowns after a 2018 that saw him finish third in catches, second in yards, and tops in touchdowns. Few players can match his production, but his athleticism is lacking. Instead of pure speed, Johnson uses tight route running to get separation from cornerbacks. PFF contends Johnson is one of the most effective receivers at generating separation against single coverage and the single best at hauling in contested passes.

In other classes, Johnson is likely a Day 2 pick, but this loaded receiver class hurts him.

Prediction: mid-fourth-round

Kristian Fulton, cornerback, LSU

Fulton has a stat that jumps off the page: he forced an incompletion on targets at a 30.5 percent clip, the only corner to surpass 25 percent by a wide margin. Fulton has fallen down draft boards as the likes of C.J. Henderson, Jeff Gladney, and Jaylon Johnson have received praise. Fulton is my CB2 (behind Jeff Okudah) and could be a top-20 pick. There is another universe that he slips into the second round, offering fantastic value for the team that drafts him.

Fulton’s draft stock is likely hurt by the presence of Okudah, but Fulton was not the best cornerback on his team. In an eerily similar circumstance to wide receiver (and teammate) Justin Jefferson, Fulton should be a first-round pick despite not being the best player at his position on his team. Jefferson played second fiddle to Ja’Marr Chase, the best receiver in college football. Fulton played second fiddle to the best cornerback in college football, Derek Stingley Jr.

Prediction: late first-round

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