Seven Sleepers for the 2020 NFL Draft
Every NFL draft is going to have players who slide past the scout’s eyes, falling under-the-radar. In this day and age of technology, it doesn’t happen as often. Scouts and draft projectionists have dozens of tools at their disposal.
There is also the NFL Combine, a place for players to improve their draft stock or have weaknesses revealed. These players who outplay their final draft slot are referred to as sleepers. Some call them long shots.
They are players who either matured late or turn out to be much better than the forecasts projected. We’ve uncovered seven potential sleeper picks in this year’s draft. Let’s take a look at why we think they could outperform projections, plus which teams might help them do just that.
Dante Olson – Linebacker
Dante Olson hasn’t received some mention in mock drafts. One reason could be the competition he played against in college. Olson played inside linebacker for the Montana Grizzlies in the Big Sky Conference, a part of the Football Championship Series. Olson earned elite status as a first-team FCS All-American.
Make no mistake about it; Olson has the talent to play against the ultimate level of competition. He has excellent size for a linebacker at 6’3″ tall and weighing over 240-pounds. Despite playing for a smaller school, Olson earned the Buck Buchanan Award finalist as the top defensive player in the FCS.
Pro teams love talented linebackers with a strong football IQ. He’s a coach’s son. Beyond raw athletic talent, Olson is a smart defensive football player. He also graded well as a potential prospect with a decent score at having the ability to All-Pro caliber.
- Olson has an uncanny instinct for being around the football. It is undoubtedly a product of good size and speed blended with a high football IQ.
- He is aggressive at the point of attack against blockers, which makes him a solid run stopper.
- Played well against the higher levels of competition, including 14 tackles against Division I Oregon.
- One mark against Olson has been a perceived lack of speed and stop-and-start quickness.
- Occasionally his aggressive pursuit can run him out of the play.
Best NFL Player Comparison – Olson has a similar build as Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys. Scouts were also quick to draw the football IQ comparison between the two linebackers.
Best Team Fit – The Las Vegas Raiders are reportedly high on Olson. It always helps the fit with a pro team if they envision a role for you prior to the draft. Olson would fit well in the Raiders’ defensive scheme. He would also be a nice late-round pick by the Steelers.
Worst Team Fit – Olson might not have the speed to fit into the New York Jets 3-4 defensive alignment. The Jets draft one slot before the Raiders, and while they need linebacker help, Olson might not be a good fit.
Strength – 8.5: Solid core strength and good upper body power to attack blockers.
Speed – 7.0: Inside linebacker doesn’t as much speed, but it limits his ability to chase down runners.
Athleticism – 7.5: Stays upright on downfield blocks and changes direction well.
Run Defense – 8.0: Good upper body strength and balance provide a good base to fill lanes and stop runs.
Kyle Dugger – Safety
Our second potential sleeper pick is another solid defensive player from a small school with a funny name. Kyle Dugger played safety for Lenoir-Rhyne. Players who spent their collegiate gridiron days at FCS schools get minimal exposure.
Division II schools receive even less. With Dugger, it does nothing to reduce the raw talent he brings to the football field. Dugger ran roughshod over smaller DII players. He was dominant at times.
Some envision the 220-pound safety from the small North Carolina school with a funny name to be a possible diamond-in-the-rough. He has climbed into the top-50 on many mock drafts. The Seattle Seahawks have whispered an interest.
There is a solid chance he’d be there with Seattle’s first pick at number 27, but to wait until the end of round-two might be a chancy dice roll for a team needing coverage help on their defense.
- Dugger attacks the point of contact with a viciousness necessary to be a run-stopper from the strong safety position.
- His body is chiseled. When Dugger brings a hit, opposing ball carriers will know they’ve been hit.
- Despite being a physical specimen with a solid upper body, Dugger is quick on his feet and fast.
- There is some worry that he has never been tested by comparable athletes.
- Film has shown that Dugger can be undisciplined at times in zone coverage, trying to jump routes too quickly.
Best NFL Player Comparison – Because of his sense for finding the ball and excellent coverage technique, some scouts compare Dugger to 49ers safety Jarquiski Tartt.
Best Team Fit – Since there is some inclination that Dugger is of interest to the Seahawks, we’ll look no further for our best team fit. The fact is that Seattle needs a player with this exact list of skills. In front of them during the second-round is both Minnesota and Dallas, a pair of teams who would fit well with Dugger’s skill-set.
Worst Team Fit – With so much raw talent, it is difficult to find a worst team fit for Dugger in the vicinity of his projected draft spot. He might not produce as well in a more structured Green Bay Packers’ defensive scheme.
Strength – 9.5: Dugger is a physical specimen. He is both strong and limber.
Speed – 8.0: Fast enough to make adjustments from the safety position, but could improve his tracking speed.
Athleticism – 8.5: A tremendous athlete who seems to only lack discipline to harness this athleticism.
Coverage – 6.5: Very little experience being tested by high-level athletes and a tendency to miss assignments
Antonio Gandy-Golden – Wide Receiver
Next on our list of sleepers is from another small-school football program. Antonio Gandy-Golden is anything but a small wide receiver. He played for the Liberty Flames, a Division I school that’s part of the small school sub-division of the BCS.
Liberty started their ascent to the highest level of college football in 2017. Last season, the Flames won their first FBS Bowl appearance, beating Georgia Southern by a touchdown. Teammate Johnny Huntley stole the show with a 57-yard TD, but Gandy-Golden also scored.
In his first prime-time exposure, he caught five balls for 63 yards. During his two full seasons with Liberty, Gandy-Golden topped 1,000 yards both years. Last year, he surpassed 100 yards in seven games, including a 10 catch effort against BYU.
- Gandy-Golden is an excellent route runner, but also has a sense of when to break off a route to secure space.
- He is a large body that is makes it difficult for coverage to alter his route or break up passes he touches.
- This combination of good balance and a strong body make him difficult to tackle. This adds the element of yards-after-catch to his abilities.
- Gandy-Golden lacks the raw speed to be a deep threat in the NFL passing game.
- Hasn’t proven to be a trusted target across a crowded middle defense.
Best NFL Player Comparison – A number of scouts mention DeVante Parker as a player with a similar skill set as Gandy-Golden.
Best Team Fit – Gandy-Golden falls somewhere within the third and fourth rounds on most mock drafts. Some think the New York Jets should be looking towards a pass catcher with their 79th overall pick. Chase Claypool is one option, but Gandy-Golden could be a nice steal.
Worst Team Fit – Just a few spots down the board are the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas has voiced an interest in solidifying their receiving core. However, Gandy-Golden may lack discipline to work the middle in the Cowboys’ offensive scheme.
Speed – 6.5: Gandy-Golden’s speed isn’t projected to turn heads. While he runs well enough, his benefit is from route precision and strength.
Athleticism – 9.0: This is one of his strongest attributes. Gandy-Golden has quick feet and changes directly well. He is a difficult cover, especially on shorter routes.
Hands – 8.0: Early in his college career, the number of dropped balls was a problem. Over the last two seasons, scouts have seen an uncanny improvement in his ability to secure balls, even poorly thrown passes.
Route Precision – 9.5: Of all Gandy-Golden’s NFL ready qualities, this may be his strongest. He has enough speed to blend size and agility that secures space in coverage.
Mitchell Wilcox – Tight End
We’ll now take a look at another offensive weapon, this time from the tight end position. There is some sense that Mitchell Wilcox will be left undrafted after the final bell sounds for this year’s NFL draft.
This could add even more intrigue to his potential as a sleeper. Any undrafted player who lands a roster spot, besides a prominent role, immediately leaps into future conversations about who the best sleepers were in a draft.
Wilcox has good hands and above average speed for a tight end. There are some questions about his body structure in relation to the physical side of playing in the NFL. Wilcox could easily give a team an additional tight end up with an eventual upside as a starter.
- Wilcox moves smoothly through defensive coverage, often able to find an open seam.
- He has big hands and is a big-bodied target for quarterbacks.
- USF shifted Wilcox to various positions on the field, which gives him helpful experience for teams that use multiple offensive looks with their tight end.
- He doesn’t have a solid base and core. This could create problems for him as a blocker at the pro level.
- Film review indicates Wilcox cuts off certain routes too soon. He isn’t deemed a polished route runner.
Best NFL Player Comparison – Wilcox’s ability to find a seam in the middle and catch balls outside his radius have drawn a comparison to current Seahawks tight end Gregg Olsen.
Best Team Fit – Wilcox runs routes in a similar fashion to Zach Ertz. He would be a nice late-round selection for the Philadelphia Eagles. He could work his way into the pro game, using Ertz as a role model. It would also give Wilcox to gradually develop more upper body strength.
Worst Team Fit – There is some slight indication that San Francisco might be looking at Wilcox’s potential, but their offensive scheme seems to require a tight end with more run blocking ability than Wilcox. He might end up squandering his usefulness with the 49ers.
Speed – 7.0: Decent speed for a tight end. Not blazing, but enough foot speed to break away from linebackers.
Athleticism – 7.0: Wilcox has the ability to battle for balls across the middle. The only issue with his overall athleticism is a lack of lower body power.
Hands – 8.0: This is probably his highest valued skill. He showed excellent hands while at USF, often catching passes that an average tight end wouldn’t secure.
Route Precision – 6.5: Ran simple routes in the USF offensive, but has the ability to envision a gap and cut to an opening. He could improve on his standard tight end middle routes.
Akeem Davis-Gaither – Outside Linebacker
Now let’s shift back to the defensive side of the ball and take a look at an intriguing outside linebacker. Appalachian State made some noise as a Power-Five pest. One key to their success against bigger schools was the Mountaineers’ strong defense.
A key to this success was Akeem Davis-Gaither’s play as one outside linebacker. He earned a fourth-team All American selection in 2019. He started all 14 games senior season, wrestling down 14½ tackles for loss to go with five sacks.
Davis-Gather finished last season with 104 total tackles. Scouts like his sense to have a nose for the football. Although Davis-Gather weighs in at what would be considered slightly undersized, he makes up for it with a high level of intensity.
- Davis-Gaither is an aggressive player, someone who plays at full steam on every down.
- Extremely athletic for a linebacker, good instincts and very quick reaction time.
- He has excellent speed for a linebacker and actually shifted outside on occasion to cover wide receivers.
- Had a slight tendency to make mistakes in coverage.
- Currently lacks the size to be a steady early-down run stopper.
Best NFL Player Comparison – Davis-Gaither has a similar build and skill set to current Buffalo Bills linebacker Maurice Alexander. Like Alexander, he is an overachiever who has been frequently looked over in his football pursuits.
Best Team Fit – The Indianapolis Colts have a strong need for help on defense. They could use a tough cover-corner, but are also wanting at outside linebacker. If Davis-Gaither adds a few pounds, he would be a plus for the Colts. In addition, he mentioned that he envisions the challenge of chasing down Deshaun Watson, a twice-a-year Colts opponent.
Worst Team Fit – Fitting into a team in a division with a bulk of heavy run offenses wouldn’t be the best place for Davis-Gaither to land. One team that has a need at his position is the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the heavy run AFC North, Davis-Gaither would have to improve that aspect of his game quickly.
Strength – 8.0: Plays well at the point of attack. Upper body strength sufficient to meet outside run blocks head on.
Speed – 7.0: Davis-Gaither has above average speed for an NFL outside linebacker.
Athleticism – 8.0: Big and agile from the outside linebacker position, quick enough to cover tight ends. Showed an excellent sense for play development and was quick to react.
Run Defense – 7.0: Davis-Gaither is a little undersized, which may create difficulty defending a head-on runner.
Alex Highsmith – Defensive End
Our next players is a defensive end that was so overlooked coming out of high school, he had to walk on at a second-tier university. Alex Highsmith has been playing with that proverbial chip on his shoulder ever since the bigger programs seemed to ignore him.
Highsmith walked on at UNC Charlotte. Part of the reason for his decision was to be close to his family in Wilmington, North Carolina. He also wanted to play football for a Division I school.
Highsmith worked hours in the weight room to add strength and size to his game. There is some sense that with an improvement in speed, he could actually give teams the flexibility of using him at linebacker.
- As an edge rusher, Highsmith runs at full energy every second he is on the field.
- He is explosive at the point of snap. Highsmith gains a distinct first-step advantage as an edge rusher because of this quick reaction time.
- Highsmith is an overachiever who has consistently defied the odds and outplayed every projection attached to him. He plays like he’s on a mission to prove everyone wrong.
- Sometimes his high-motor and over eagerness to jump a play literally jumps him out of position. This was a problem with his rush defense.
- His strength has been questioned, which also makes it difficult for him to ward off straight on attack blocks.
Best NFL Player Comparison – Not only is Julius Peppers one of Highsmith’s childhood idols, he is also a player with a similar skill set. Peppers was a longer defensive end, but played with that same down-to-down constant high level of energy.
Best Team Fit – The Detroit Lions could use this type of defensive energy. Highsmith has good technique and a solid work ethic, both important traits to play for Matt Patricia.
Worst Team Fit – If Highsmith drifts down past the third or fourth rounds, he could end up being an attempt by the Cleveland Browns to find a compliment player for Miles Garrett. He would immediately be a second option and could potentially squander on special teams.
Strength – 7.0: His overall upper body strength is average, but he did score well in hand strength and leg power. This created problems in shedding blockers and stuffing the run game.
Speed – 7.0: He is not going to run with faster players, but his explosive first-step gives him an instant advantage on every snap.
Athleticism – 7.0: Highsmith is a competitive athlete. To improve his athleticism at the next level, he will need to spend some time in the weight room developing lower body balance.
Run Defense – 6.0: This may be his biggest question mark. There are some that feel he could be an excellent pass-only option from the edge, but to be an every-down factor Highsmith will need to improve his run defense.
Case Cookus – Quarterback
For the last sleeper on our list will target a quarterback. Most mock drafts have targeted the highly coveted set of five or six top signal callers. Case Cookus out of Northern Arizona could end up being that quarterback diamond find.
Cookus is a tall quarterback, but he is also rather lean. This may be part of the reason behind his inability to stay healthy the last couple of seasons. When he was playing for the Lumberjacks, he was good.
- Precision type passing skills and throws a tight spiral that is very catchable.
- When Cookus plays, he has been good, very good. There is a sense that the talent is there if he can avoid injuries.
- Cookus graduated from high school listed at 6’1″ and around 160-pounds. He’s now 6’4″ and over 200-pounds. Cookus might not be done maturing into his 23-year-old physique.
- When you go out twice in three seasons, you will immediately generate a discussion about your durability. Obviously, Cookus needs to prove he can stay on the football field.
- While he is frequently mentioned as a dual-threat quarterback, his rushing totals for the last three seasons in college were all negative numbers.
Best NFL Player Comparison – There have been more than one comparison to Jimmy Garoppolo, and even a couple to a fellow with the last name Brady. While he has a long way to go match either of these current NFL starting quarterbacks, especially Brady, Cookus has displayed a similar skill set.
Best Team Fit – There are many projections that have him available for the New England Patriots. Nice way for a situation to develop where New England grabs a Jimmy G type player, long after they parted ways with Jimmy G. In addition, the similarity in style to Tom Brady would be a perfect student-pupil type relationship until the G.O.A.T finally retires.
Worst Team Fit – The Miami Dolphins are another team where whispers have been rumored that Cookus could be the second quarterback they draft. Coming into camp immediately in a competitive situation with another rookie, a higher-priority rookie at that could be problematic.
Pocket Presence – 9.0: The seven interceptions he threw in nine games last year was the most of his career. This is indicative that Cookus doesn’t get rattled to the point he makes bad decisions with the football.
Arm Velocity – 8.0: He is not known as a power-arm quarterback, but he throws a tight and accurate ball. Catchable is the word receivers like to use for quarterbacks who throw a ball with the arm velocity Cookus shows.
Passing Accuracy – One key component of accuracy is how many found the wrong color jersey. During his last season at Northern Arizona, Cookus tossed 27 touchdowns, but only seven of his passes were picked off.
Athleticism – 7.0: The problem here is the injury part of the equation. It is hard to judge his straight athleticism because his maturity and development have been limited. Cookus still has above average mobility and quick feet, essential in today’s NFL.
Decision-Making – 8.0: For quarterbacks, good decision-making is usually a balance of solid completion percentage and limited interceptions. Cookus has both of these high marks statistically. Now, how he adjusts to facing more top-level talent is yet to be determined.
These are seven intriguing sleepers to keep an eye on in this year’s upcoming NFL draft. You can rest assured, these players have already found their way onto NFL scouts’ radar. One question for each of them is how they will adjust to a higher-level of talent.
All played the bulk of their games against non-power five college football teams. However, each one displayed skills and abilities that propelled them above the talent that surrounded them on the field. We’ll see how many scouts were paying attention to this disparity that often turns a sleeper into a superstar.