by Matt Waldman
According to most fantasy football writers, the term "Sleeper" is dead, buried, and the wake held in its honor featured a stuffed mushroom dish with creamed spinach and Italian breadcrumbs soaked in butter. Considering that many football writers at the wake sported IV drips topped with Crisco, finger food is always underrated.
Sleepers are still alive in the lexicon of "reality football." Not that this term is somehow more legit than fantasy football.
Why would it be? Reality football has deteriorated into a wild and wooly sub-genre of Reality TV.
Pick a channel or website and there are weekly installments of the NFL’s Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura, only most of them hide in anonymity when dishing their gossip dressed as pop-psychology. Call me when these 20-something prospects finish adolescence.
On another, there’s the salacious he-said-he-said drama between two former Dolphins. Each episode is so popular that Jerry Springer is taking a pounding in the daytime ratings. Those rubber sheets from the investigative report to Commissioner Goodell might come in handy after all.
Reality Football is a five-ring circus of top prospects, current players, media, former players-turned-media, and Twitter all competing for attention. There’s no room for players under the big top who lack the Q Score of the headlining acts.
With the possible exception of Dallas, the actual game of football isn’t played under a circus tent. Once upon a time, even the Cowboys caught some teams sleeping on developmental players like Tony Romo and Miles Austin.
Joique Bell, Marlon Brown, Alfred Morris, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Brian Hoyer are also testaments to the fact that sleepers are alive and well in the NFL. Here are three of mine for the 2014 NFL Draft.
WR Paul Richardson
At 6-foot-1 and a 2013 listed weight of 170 pounds, the receiver from Colorado will be told by NFL beat writers that he needs to go on a two-week diet featuring three squares of two-dozen biscuits sopped in lard, topped with fried Snickers, and chased with heavy cream. It’s the only on-field reason Richardson is not a top prospect at his position.
I anticipate that if he ignores the advice of the keyboard fat farm, he’ll have one of the more impressive 40-times in workouts. This post route below is a great display of speed against a corner playing 10 yards of cushion.
But it’s far more than the speed that I love about the route. Richardson runs a stem that veers just enough to the outside that the cornerback is forced to account for the corner route despite his initial commitment to the post.
The break is also more about horizontal position than vertical separation. The receiver never works past the cornerback before the catch, but his stem creates over three yards of separation to the inside for his break to the post. That’s a monstrous amount of distance. This stripped-down, high-pace style of route running is what works best in the NFL.
Richardson catches the ball with his hands, tucks the ball high under his left arm, and turns on the afterburners. Although his game features a fine display of vertical skill, what stands out most is Richardson’s ferocity when competing for the football.
This next highlight is a dropped pass, but for the sake of accuracy in reporting, some of his drops should be labeled "centimeters from a sick catch."
Once again this a fine route with some shake to avoid press on the shallow end of Cover-2, but it’s how Richardson almost makes a spectacular grab of the point of the football with a safety bearing down that wins him points. The leaping ability, the body control, the hand-eye coordination, and the focus with a hit coming are on display here.
The hit is the reason Richardson drops the ball, but it’s no factor in him coming closer to the catch than most. The very next snap, Richardson demonstrates that he is comfortable with physical play.
This play below is a third-and-13 crossing route where Arizona's cornerback hitches a ride on Richardson for two-thirds of the receiver’s break and Richardson makes it look like another task at the office. Watch the mugging begin at the 2:33-mark of the replay.
Richardson taps the ball skyward with his front arm and then catches it with the back arm while leaning away from the defender. Think he was in a zone or lucked out?
Try again. Here’s Richardson against the same corners who shut down Brandin Cooks’ vertical game in 2013.
The player who couldn’t stop Richardson even after pinning the receiver’s inside arm and earning a defensive pass interference penalty? Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, one of the best cornerbacks in college football.
Richardson posted 134 yards on five receptions against the Ducks. More details about this play here.
Despite his play, Richardson’s weight a legitimate concern. The vertical game is also a punishing game.
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Receivers take big shots from defenders -– even with more protective rules in the NFL. Combine Richardson’s speed, acrobatics, and fiery intensity with hard-hitting opposition, and NFL teams will want the receiver to add more muscle to his frame.
In a lot of respects, Richardson’s game is a shorter but more explosive version of Marquess Wilson, the Bears’ 2014 draft pick who is slated to compete for the third spot in the starting rotation next year. Coach Marc Trestman has praised Wilson’s talent and potential, but made it clear that the 20-year-old receiver has to add weight.
At the same time, Wilson plays in a system that favors big, strong, bullying receivers that win by posting up on defenders and winning after the catch. Richardson is a best match for a team that sees him as a player with DeSean Jackson or Marvin Harrison potential.
Both Jackson and Harrison are examples of successful receivers weighing less than 180 pounds. Even so, I’m hoping Richardson is sporting 10-to-15 pounds of additional muscle this spring without a loss of speed because 170 pounds is small -– even if he’s fierce.
RB Tim Flanders
Refined route skills and competitiveness for the football are two factors that I value with receivers. For running backs, it’s vision and balance -– specifically the runner’s skill to read the line of scrimmage during the exchange with the quarterback and apply his athletic tools that fit the context of the situation.
Flanders, Sam Houston State’s 5-foot-8, 215-pound (listed) running back, possesses these two skills in abundance. If there’s a runner I expect to impress during the preseason –- even if he gets cut and has to hop around the league before finding a home like Joique Bell -– Flanders is one of my top candidates.
Sam Houston State’s ground game features both gap-style plays and zone plays, but I think he’s best-suited for the zone game because he’s a creative runner with excellent maturity and determination. This first run is a good press-and-cut that displays his vision, footwork, and balance.
The replay is a fine angle that showcases Flanders’ press-and-cut as well as the control to squeeze that cut inside and away from the cornerback. Many of Flanders’ runs are examples of this kind of discipline with his angles and it helps him avoid losing yards in situations where most backs would get tackled for loss.
A limitation that this 38-yard run reveals is Flanders' lack of top-end speed. He’s not going to beat a cornerback’s angle in the open field. Still, his burst is good enough to reach the second or third level of a defense –- I’ve seen him do similar things against Texas A&M’s defense.
The second run is a third-and-3 with 1:05 left, with SHSU hanging on to a three-point lead in the FCS Championship Semifinal game after Eastern Washington mounted a fantastic second-half comeback. The density of skill packed into this run makes it one of my favorites of the year.
While the wrap attempts aren’t difficult obstacles when viewed within a vacuum, the fact Flanders maintains his balance in this situation after what takes place in the backfield is a demonstration of great awareness, poise, and athleticism. Moreover, foiling defensive penetration into the backfield is something Flanders makes look routine.
On this play, Flanders reads the corner blitz before he takes the exchange and executes a perfect spin to his right. This is all happening four yards in the backfield –- a step after taking the ball from the quarterback. This is NFL-caliber vision and decision-making.
What will make or break Flanders is pass protection. The runner was not used in this capacity as much as his peers. If he learns this part of the game fast, it will be the difference between making a team –- and earning playing time -– and bouncing around the league.
QB Dustin Vaughan
Bill Parcells compared Saints rookie Khiry Robinson to Curtis Martin. Robinson is from West Texas A&M, where he played with Vaughan, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback with a 62.5 percent completion percentage and 70 touchdowns to 19 interceptions during his 30 career games.
I’m not as enthusiastic about Vaughan as I am Richardson and Flanders, but the quarterback displays the pocket presence, poise, and aggressiveness that many of his more-heralded classmates lack. Combine this with his size and arm, and he’s a player worth developing long-term.
This first-and-10 touchdown pass with 7:42 in the first quarter is a great example of Vaughan’s pocket presence. The play begins with the inside trips man running a jet sweep across the formation as Vaughan extends the ball to the back on the read-option play fake.
The quarterback looks to the middle as he takes his three-step drop and then hitches a step as the pressure bull-rushes Vaughan’s guard up the middle. This is where Vaughan’s skill and poise comes to the fore.
Vaughan does a fine job of reducing his back shoulder from the pressure and climbing the pocket. The entire time he keeps his eyes downfield, anticipates his receiver coming open in the flat, and steps into the throw.
Vaughan delivers a 46-yard throw from pitch to catch that covers 42 yards form the line of scrimmage and hits the receiver in stride over the inside shoulder for a 62-yard score.
Here’s a play at the end of the third quarter against West Georgia where Vaughn executes a designed roll to the left and delivers the ball on a line in the face of pressure. It begins with a read-option fake to the back and a half-roll.
I like how Vaughan slides to the left before throwing the ball and executes this pass with patience despite the defender bearing down. This is a 20-yard throw from the line of scrimmage with velocity, placed between the shallow and deep zones.
These three prospects all demonstrate physical, positional, and conceptual skill for the game that give them long-term potential to help a team. Even so, they’re the names most likely found at the back of a sports page near the box scores on the day after the draft. But when Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth exclaim, "Nobody ever thought these guys would be in the NFL," you’ll know they’re referring to the audience in the circus and not the scouts.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you available for pre-order. If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.