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2021 NFL Draft: 10 underrated sleepers who won’t be picked early but will turn into quality players

A big key to managing a 50-man roster with a salary cap in the NFL is by drafting well. You always want to hit on your first-round selection, but to be successful, you have to have some good fortune with your picks in Rounds 2-7. Take a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example. Yes, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette were the big signings, but other playmakers were built through the draft. Receiver Mike Evans and DT Vita Vea were first-round picks, but guys like safety Antoine Winfield (second round), receivers Chris Godwin (third round) and Scotty Miller (sixth round) are good examples of how you can fill out your roster successfully with later-round draft picks. 

Below, we’ve sifted through and identified 10 players from this year’s class who aren’t getting Day 1 chatter but should be on a roster come Week 1. A lot of them have had injury problems, opted out, had to change positions or didn’t have much playing time. But when they were at their best, they were among the tops in the country. This is a group of college players I enjoyed watching and think they’re underrated relative to their projected draft position. That’s not to say every player on here is going to be a star; a lot of professional team sports is finding your role, but that’s perfectly OK. 

There are more players that fit that description than I can reasonably fit, but here are the 10 that stood out with some honorable mentions. 

My guess is whichever team drafts Little drafts a starter. And hey, if you can get a starter on Day 2, even better. The main knock is that he’s missed basically the last two seasons due to a knee injury (2019) and then opting out (2020). Before that, though, he was considered one of the best players in the country at his position and a likely first-round choice. He was the first true freshman to start at left tackle for the Cardinal since 2000 and earned Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year honors. Little followed that up by being named as a first team Pac-12 selection in 2018. PFF had him as one of the three best tackles in the country going into 2020. Teams may be spooked by questions about his development, but what he’s shown had draft people excited about his potential. 

We’re going to get to some more wide receivers before this list is over, as plenty of draft pundits have heaped praise on this year’s wide receiver class. It’s true because it’s phenomenal. But part of the reason is because it’s so deep. Rondale Moore is exactly what offenses are looking for in terms of receiving and running. He’s a college football fan favorite and probably a Day 2 guy. That may not make him as underrated as some others on this list, but if he had played more in the past two seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have flirted with Day 1. I saw him, with my own two eyes, make an absolute mockery of Ohio State’s defense as a freshman in 2018 with 12 catches, 170 yards and two touchdowns. He was the best player on the field that night, without question. Since then, he’s been hampered by injuries and initially opted out of the 2020 season. That’s caused his stock to fall a bit, but he is as unstoppable with the ball in his hand as any player in this draft. 

If you’re looking for a motor dude, look no further. Ossai is the kind of relentless defender that can be a nightmare for pass protection. Outside linebacker is his natural position, but he’s only played one full season there. He made the most of it with five sacks and 16 tackles for loss, the latter of which tied for third nationally. He’s best in a 3-4 scheme and will need some polishing, but if you’re looking for a relentless, to-the-ball guy, Ossai is the player you want. He’s come up huge in pivotal moments for the Longhorns on more than one occasion. He was a nightmare for Oklahoma State in a 41-34 win last October with 12 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. The Pokes didn’t have a good offensive line, but Ossai made them pay for it. He has a real chance to be a difference-maker in the league, and one organization is going to get a really good player. 

Outside of Kyle Pitts, Jordan was my favorite tight end in college football last year. And even that isn’t totally fair to Jordan because no one, pound for pound, was touching Pitts’ game-changing ability at that position. But at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Jordan is built within the same type of mold that makes up the modern football tight end. He’s had some injury problems and I don’t know if he’ll ever be the complete blocking tight end, but he’s a good slot option that’s hard to cover in the open field. He’ll make some big plays, and that should cement him as a reliable part of a tight end rotation. 

The Tigers have churned out quality wide receivers and running backs over the past several years. Gainwell was certainly one of the more exciting ones. He burst out in 2019 as a redshirt freshman with 1,459 yards — ranking 12th nationally and second among freshmen — and 13 touchdowns. He opted out of the 2020 season, so there’s really only one season on him. But the season he did have was spectacular with six 100-yard games and a 200-yard showing. He displayed more of his receiving chops in the Cotton Bowl against Penn State with seven catches for 78 yards. Again, there’s use for a multi-tool guy in offenses now. Gainwell is explosive — he averaged 6.32 yards per carry — and capable of picking up chunk yards regularly. 

Let’s put it this way: UCLA would be one of my teams to watch in 2021 if Felton used his free year of eligibility to return for one more season. As it is, he’s better served to turn pro anyway. For being a senior, he doesn’t have a lot of miles on his tires. This past year was the first time he eclipsed 100 carries in a season. At the next level, however, his primary position may be wide receiver. He’s a good route-runner who’s only getting better. In fact, he was a pretty productive pass-catcher in college with nearly 100 grabs and eight touchdowns in the past three years. He’ll give a team late-round value with his versatility. He can run, he can catch and he can play special teams, so he’ll carve out a place for himself on a team. 

I actually like Wallace and his teammate, running back Chuba Hubbard, as late-round picks. Hubbard’s choice to come back hurt his stock, as he was hampered by injuries all year. But he was so productive in 2019 I have to believe he’ll find a niche on a roster. But now, on to Wallace. What I love most about his game is that he plays bigger than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame. He has a good catch radius and is a physical player who can win 50-50 balls. He took over games routinely and Oklahoma State’s offense just wasn’t as effective when he wasn’t on the field. Injuries have hurt his stock the most and I don’t know if he’ll ever be a true No. 1 wideout in the NFL, but he can be a 10-year guy in the league. 

Cisco was one of the most aggressive safeties in college football. He tied for first nationally with seven interceptions as a freshman and earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He made All-ACC second-team in 2018 and missed most of this past season with an ACL injury after a freak accident in warmups early in the year. The injury is a concern and his stats were best as a freshman. Some might interpret that as meaning his best days are behind him. Based on his body of work, his ball-hawking, nose-to-the-football-type of game, there’s at least a special teams/backup role for someone like him. But he’s just been one of those active guys who seems like he’s going to have a productive career. 

Shelvin’s value is that he can give an NFL franchise a Day 2 talent with Day 3 money. His biggest knock is that he was a late-bloomer production-wise and hasn’t played a lot of football at the college level, appearing in only six games in 2018 and sitting out this past year. He was also hurt by some weight issues, but he was a monster during LSU’s 2019 national title run in which he had 39 tackles and three TFLs from a true nose tackle position. If he can keep his weight in check, he has the frame and athleticism to be an actual disruption along the interior of the trenches. 

Practically every time I tuned into an Auburn game last season, even for a moment, Williams would be making a play. He had some spectacular grabs, especially in the red zone. The knock on him is he didn’t do enough of that. But Williams is a dude and he had a good career, starting as freshman with 26 catches for 534 yards and five touchdowns (tied for team-best). Then he led the Tigers in receiving yards and touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. At one point in 2019 he had at least one receiving touchdown in five straight games. The question is whether Williams, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, can develop. He’s tremendous in the red zone and can make all the hard catches, but his consistency is what scouts are worried about. Some of that is him, some of that is because of the offenses at Auburn in the last few years. In any case, Williams’ knack for big plays makes me think he’ll be an active part of a receiving group sooner rather than later. 

Honorable mentions: RB Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State; DT Darius Stills, West Virginia; LB Dylan Moses, Alabama; OL Trey Smith, Tennessee; WR Amari Rodgers, Clemson; DE Carlos Basham, Wake Forest; RB Travis Etienne, Clemson; C Landon Dickerson, Alabama; CB Paulson Adebo, Stanford; QB Kyle Trask, Florida; WR Elijah Moore, Ole Miss

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