Everyone is excited for the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, when the top picks in a loaded class are announced. While many of this year’s top prospects deserve attention, there are also plenty of NFL Draft sleepers who will be picked later.
Maybe your favorite team is looking for a developmental quarterback, someone to work with for a few seasons before making them the starter. Other clubs are in desperate need of a slot cornerback who can start right away, every general manager wants a high-upside skill player to roll the dice on. Whatever a team is looking for, Day 2 and 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft will offer it.
Many of these underrated prospects won’t be found on top-50 big boards or even put in the conversation in the second round. But we see every year that value can be found in Round 3-7 and we expect that to be the case with some of these players.
Let’s dive into some of the best 2021 NFL Draft sleepers on both sides of the ball.
Jamie Newman, quarterback
Everyone knows about the “Fab Five” of this year’s quarterback class. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Trey Lance will likely all be top-10 picks. The second-tier quarterbacks are starting to generate more buzz, with at least one potential candidate to be the sixth quarterback drafted in Round 1. Let’s look at a player who is flying under the radar.
Jamie Newman starred at Wake Forest in 2019, posting a 26-11 TD-INT ratio and 97.6 passer rating, then transferred to Georgia last spring. Projected to be the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback, Newman opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a massive gamble, but the 6-foot-4 gunslinger is betting he can find success in the NFL.
Newman is more than comfortable standing in the pocket and giving his wide receivers time to get open. When Sage Surratt created separation downfield, Newman’s go-to weapon, he showed outstanding touch on deep throws. While he can be relaxed in the pocket, Newman’s athleticism (826 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns from 2018-’19) also makes him a lethal dual-threat quarterback.
The 23-year-old isn’t ready to start for an NFL team. He operated in a simplistic offense in 2019 and his inexperience means there is a ton of room for improvement reading defenses and with his accuracy. But Newman’s physical tools are undeniable and considering he’ll likely be a Round 4 pick, the value could be outstanding.
Ar’Darius Washington, safety
Size matters to teams, there is no way around it. Every year we see talented draft prospects fall because they don’t have the prototypical height for their position. Even Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, still projected to be a top-15 pick, is undervalued because of his small frame. It’s even worse for TCU Horned Frogs safety Ar’Darius Washington.
Players with Washington’s instincts are on their second NFL contracts, that’s where his football IQ is at. He is so quick reacting to the football and reading quarterbacks’ eyes that he became an elite coverage weapon in college. He can make plays on the football, is willing to lower his shoulder for hits and offers positional versatility.
The problem, Washington is 5-foot-8. The lack of size puts him at a huge disadvantage against big wide receivers, meaning he won’t be trusted on the outside in coverage. It also can make him a bit of a liability against the run, since getting disengaged off blockers is more difficult. But Washington can be an elite nickel corner in the NFL and that is a role with increasing value. He’s a top-70 player on our draft board but might be one of the biggest draft-day steals.
Josh Palmer, wide receiver
The Tennessee Volunteers were a complete train wreck in 2020 and it’s understandable why almost no one could watch this team for more than a few minutes. Quarterback play doomed the Vols’ aerial attack and Josh Palmer paid the price for that. It significantly hurts his draft stock, but not his NFL future.
SEC defenses still feared this 6-foot-1 receiver. He drew one-on-one matchups against Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain II and Eric Stokes. In those matchups, despite having an inaccurate quarterback throwing him the football, Palmer is credited with 11 first downs and four touchdowns. Keep in mind, those are first-round talents he faced.
Palmer ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at his Pro Bay and he shows that explosiveness with some of his big-play ability. He is a vertical threat, but there’s room for him to do even more at the next level. An NFL team is going to find one of this year’s best NFL Draft sleepers late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 and be delighted at how quickly he exceeds his draft value.
Osa Odighizuwa, defensive tackle
Everyone will be looking for talent on the interior defensive line on Day 2 of the NFL Draft. It’s hard to blame them, given this year’s defensive tackle class is alarmingly weak at the top and we might only see one drafted with a first-round pick. For those that miss out on Christian Barmore, Osa Odighizuwa is one of the most intriguing defensive NFL Draft sleepers.
If you’re wondering just how athletic this 6-foot-2 interior lineman is, UCLA gave him multiple off-ball snaps in each of his three seasons with the program. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman listed him as one of the best freak athletes in college football, also boasting insane lower-body strength by squatting 700-plus pounds. He needs NFL coaching to improve his ability to disengage off blocks and his size isn’t ideal, but he will be a better NFL player than we saw in college and he can make an impact as a rookie against the run.
Marco Wilson, cornerback
Florida’s fans are going to remember Marco Wilson for the shoe-throwing incident that proved costly against the LSU Tigers. While they won’t be able to let that go, NFL teams will largely forget it ever happened and focus on this young cornerback’s upside. After highlighting prospects who fly under the radar for not fitting the prototypical mold for their respective positions, Wilson is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
A 6-foot cornerback with great athleticism, there’s a reason Wilson started as a freshman. Not only did he make an impact in his first year on campus, Pro Football Focus credits him with just a 42.% completion rate allowed that season. But Wilson has torn his ACL twice, once in high school and later at Florida. He also made repeated mental mistakes in the Gators’ secondary, often in crucial situations.
This isn’t a player who can be put on the field right away, that’s asking for trouble. But if a team has a defensive backs coach who is willing to put in the time with Wilson, something really good can come out of it. This is a very physically gifted player, one who will be available on Day 3. If he hits, we’re talking about an enormous steal a few years from now.
John Bates, tight end
Kyle Pitts is the Trevor Lawrence of the 2021 NFL Draft and deserves to be a top-five pick. After that, Pat Freirmuth is a quality Day 2 player and profiles as a solid starter at the next level. It’s all projection after that and with so many questions surrounding the second-tier options in this draft class, finding value late is preferred.
We’ll start with the size, a 6-foot-5 tight end is exactly what NFL teams are looking for at the position. He is best operating as an in-line tight end, showing the ability to create separation quickly off the snap. Even if the quarterback’s throw isn’t on the money, Bates’ length and athleticism help him make plays on the football. He won’t be anything close to a YAC weapon and he’s not a great blocker, but Bates’s all-around ability can make him a starter at the next level. Since he’ll be a later Day 3 pick, that certainly makes him one of our NFL Draft sleepers.