Every NFL Draft has familiar storylines. Through months of preparation, there are always productive college players who fall down draft boards more than they should, overshadowed by rising stars with raw ability and potential because of their athleticism. And every year, diehard college football fans shake their heads at some of the early-round snubs.
Being productive in college does not, of course, guarantee any sort of pro success, but often one or two negative traits can be exaggerated to bring down a prospect's stock more than they should. The goal of this article is to identify potential sleepers, from the perspective of a college football writer. These players are unlikely to be first-round picks, but if your preferred NFL team selects one of them on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft, be excited that they could be getting a steal.
QB: Brad Kaaya, Miami. There's no clear answer here, in a class lacking elite quarterbacks. Several QBs may go in the first round, but there is no sure-thing, and players like Patrick Mahomes, DeShone Kizer and Davis Webb have plenty of risk attached to them. Identifying sleeper quarterbacks isn't easy -- nobody was smart enough to take Dak Prescott before the fourth round -- but for a mid-around sleeper who could become a useful NFL player, let's go with Kaaya. A three-year starter at Miami, Kaaya had some very early first-round buzz a year ago but turned out to be another in a line of quarterbacks whose stock faded over the course of their final season. Now, he's viewed as a mid-round player, one who was relatively steady throughout his college career: Every year, he completed around 60 percent for over 3,000 yards and an average of around 8.4 yards per attempt. He limited mistakes the past couple years, but he also lacks mobility and could use work on lower-body mechanics. As a junior, he got lost in the shuffle in an ACC loaded with touted quarterbacks, but he's a skilled, experienced player who has starting potential, even if he's never an NFL star.
RB: Kareem Hunt, Toledo. It's easy for running backs to get overlooked in this loaded draft class filled with college stars from Power Five schools. There are numerous productive Group of Five backs vying for consideration, and one who should absolutely not be overlooked is Hunt. He missed a few games throughout his time at Toledo with some injuries and a short suspension, but Hunt rushed for nearly 5,000 yards in his career. He averaged eight yards per carry in 2014, and he became a well-rounded player as a senior, rushing for 1,475 yards and catching 41 passes. He's a smooth runner with agility, he runs hard and he can beat defenses in a variety of ways.
RB: Jeremy McNichols, Boise State. Underrated nationally when Boise State fell short of high expectations, McNichols has been a prolific player the past two seasons, both as a runner and receiver. He was a workhorse this past season, carrying the ball 314 times for 1,709 yards and 23 TDs and catching 37 passes for 574 yards and four TDs. He left Boise State early and tore up the combine, running a 4.49 40-yard dash while placing fourth among running backs in the three-cone drill.
WR: Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M. Reynolds always seems to be underrated. He didn't get much interest out of high school and ended up going the juco route. At Texas A&M, he was often overshadowed by touted recruits (Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk) expected to star over him, and yet even through a carousel of quarterbacks, Reynolds has always been productive: 164 catches for 2,788 yards and 30 TDs in three seasons, averaging 17 yards per catch. He's an effective 6-foot-3 deep threat with ball skills and solid leaping ability, and he could be a dangerous playmaker drafted in the middle rounds.
WR: Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky. Yes, the Hilltoppers' scheme has led to massive offensive numbers the past few years, but Taylor still deserves plenty of credit and draft attention. The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Taylor was a machine the past two years, including his 98 catches for 1,730 yards and 17 TDs as a senior. He had 14 catches of at least 40 yards, according to cfbstats.com, showing off big-play ability thanks to quickness and elusiveness after the catch (he led all wideouts in the three-cone drill at the combine).
TE: Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech. Hodges is still raw. Listed as a four-star dual-threat quarterback out of high school, Hodges redshirt his first year at Virginia Tech and made the transition to tight end, where he has blossomed. He's 6-foot-6, 257 pounds and ran a 4.57 40 at the combine. While he has a ton of room for improvement as a blocker and route-runner, there's no doubt that the raw talent and athleticism are there. Hodges caught 48 passes for 691 yards and seven TDs as a junior, and he was a combine star with a 39-inch vertical, too. He has a ton of potential as a red-zone target.
OL: Dan Skipper, Arkansas. Skipper's stock is actually hurt by his 6-foot-10 frame, but he had an excellent career at Arkansas under Bret Bielema, who's known for his offensive lines. Skipper started 47 games, with most of his experience coming at left tackle but also time at right tackle and left guard. He's a two-time first-team All-SEC performer.
OL: Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh. Pitt has had terrific offensive lines the past few years, paving the way for productive rushing attacks. Bisnowaty was voted first-team All-ACC each of the past two seasons, starting 43 games in his career as the Panthers' left tackle. Bisnowaty has been an integral part of a unit that leads to consistent rushing outputs, on top of allowing only 10 sacks in 2016.
OL: J.J. Dielman, Utah. Garett Bolles, a possible first-round pick, is now the star Utah offensive linemen, but Dielman shouldn't be forgotten. A second-team All-Pac-12 player at right tackle in 2015, Dielman shifted to center as a senior, only to be lost for the season because of a foot injury after five games. When healthy, he's a versatile player who was an integral part of physical Utes offensive lines that paved the way for productive running games.
OL: Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia. The physical and tough Orlosky was a full-time starter for three seasons, anchoring stellar West Virginia offensive lines. He was among the most consistently effective offensive linemen in the country, starring at center.
OL: Nico Siragusa, San Diego State. A mauler in the running game, Siragusa deserves a chunk of credit for Donnel Pumphrey's record-setting production at San Diego State. A three-year starter at guard, Siragusa had an impressive combine performance, following a decorated college career.
DE: DeMarcus Walker, Florida State. The ACC's defensive player of the year isn't the most explosive athlete off the edge, but he's a complete player who gradually improved his game before breaking out as an impact player as a junior, then becoming an All-American as a senior. There's sometimes a tendency for more raw but athletic pass rushers to be drafted ahead of someone like Walker, but after a senior season that featured 16 sacks (plus the game-winning PAT block at Miami), Walker is going to make whomever drafts him happy.
DE: Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic. Hendrickson has 29 ½ sacks in his FAU career, with 15 tackles for loss in each of his final two seasons (plus five forced fumbles as a junior). Often overlooked in Conference USA, Hendrickson has backed up his production with a stellar pre-draft season, including a 4.64 40-yard dash at 266 pounds, plus the No. 2 time among defensive ends in the 20-yard shuttle at the combine.
DT: Jaleel Johnson, Iowa. The 316-pound Johnson led the Hawkeyes with 10 tackles for loss as a senior and was often underappreciated at the college level. Disruptive with short-area quickness, Johnson deservedly earned a Senior Bowl invitation after he was Iowa's most effective pass rusher in 2016.
DT: Vincent Taylor, Oklahoma State. Very few Big 12 defenders actually stood out last season, but Taylor was one of them. It wasn't just for his penchant for blocking kicks, either. While not huge or overpowering, Taylor is a disruptive interior player who had 13 tackles for loss as a junior.
LB: Ryan Anderson, Alabama. Anderson could end up being a second-round pick, but he's always felt underrated as a member of the Alabama defense. It's easy to get overshadowed by players like Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen. But the 6-foot-2, 253-pound Anderson developed into an integral part of the Alabama defense as a more well-rounded player than Williams, a pass-rush specialist who generated more attention. Anderson led the Crimson Tide in tackles for loss with 19 as a senior, and he also had a pick-six and four forced fumbles.
LB: Marquel Lee, Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons played rock-solid defense the past couple years -- landing coordinator Mike Elko the same job at Notre Dame -- and Lee has been a machine. The two-time team captain is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, had two 100-tackle seasons and is coming off a senior season in which he had 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He finished second among linebackers in the bench press at the combine, and while he's not explosive, he was among the most underrated defenders nationally.
LB: Steven Taylor, Houston. Taylor is undersized (6-foot-1, 225 pounds), but he still stands out as a surprising NFL Combine snub. He was productive doing whatever Houston needed him to do, and while he ended up being overshadowed by stars like Ed Oliver and Tyus Bowser, he had a total of 18 ½ sacks over the past two years and made plays in a variety of ways for excellent Houston defenses.
CB: Damontae Kazee, San Diego State. A small frame may hurt Kazee (5-foot-10, 184 pounds), but he was a shutdown, playmaking cornerback for the Aztecs' terrific defense. He intercepted 15 passes and broke up 15 passes over the past two seasons, in addition to making plays in the backfield and serving as an effective all-around cornerback. He's neither the biggest nor fastest corner, but he has a great track record of having a nose for the ball.
CB: Rasul Douglas, West Virginia. The Mountaineers exceeded expectations defensively with so many new starters in 2016, and Douglas was a huge reason why. A rotational player as a juco transfer in 2015, Douglas stepped into the starting lineup as a senior and became an All-Big 12 player, recording eight interceptions, eight pass breakups and 3 ½ tackles for loss. He was a big-time playmaker, and while his 4.59 40 isn't great, keep in mind that he's a bigger corner at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds.
S: Eddie Jackson, Alabama. Remember him? Jackson ended up being overshadowed by the ridiculous wealth of talent on the Alabama defense, especially after he fractured his leg in October and missed the second half of the season. But the ex-cornerback thrived at safety and as a punt returner, with nine career interceptions (three returned for TDs), plus two punt return TDs as a senior. He's a versatile, productive player who should rebound from his injury to help an NFL team both at safety and on special teams.
S: Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech. A constant game-changing threat in the secondary, Woods intercepted 14 passes over the past three years. Back in 2014, he took six interceptions back for 230 yards and two TDs. He also had 20 ½ tackles for loss in his career, showing off a well-rounded game with a lot of experience and a lot of production. He followed that up with terrific performances in agility drills at the combine.