I've received many questions about who are my sleepers in the 2012 NFL Draft class. A sleeper prospect is basically a player who gets drafted later but proves to be a steal.
For example, in 2009, my favorite prospect was Ole Miss wide receiver Mike Wallace. He went late in the third round to the Steelers and now is one of the best receivers in the NFL. A year later, my sleeper prospect to go after the first round was Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes. He's becoming a good player for New England. We'll see if any of the players below turn out to be on the level of Wallace or Spikes.
Here is a breakdown of a sleeper prospect at each position. All the players will be prospects who are going on the second or third day of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Derek Wolfe, DE/DT, Cincinnati
Of the sleepers listed on offense and defense, Wolfe would be top choice as a draft-day steal. He can play either end or tackle. A 3-4 defense would definitely have Wolfe as a five-technique defensive end. A 4-3 defense could play Wolfe at end on running downs and have him rush the passer from the inside in passing situations. In either defense, I think he could thrive, and if I had to pick one, I would put him in a 3-4.
Wolfe overwhelms offensive linemen with his strength and speed at the point of attack. He closes on the quarterback quickly and plays the run extremely well. Wolfe has a nice repertoire of pass-rushing moves and uses a strong rip move. He has the length to set the edge well for a 3-4 defense.
Playing as a 4-3 defensive tackle for Cincinnati, Wolfe was a dangerous pass rusher. He used power and physicality to rock offensive linemen with the speed to run down the quarterback. Wolfe had an excellent senior season with 70 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and 9.5 sacks. As a junior and a sophomore, he had some decent production with five sacks and four sacks, respectively.
Wolfe performed well, yet flew under the radar, at both the Combine and the Senior Bowl. He was said to mature a lot over his last year at Cincinnati and became a serious player. Wolfe is slated to be a second-day pick in 2012. He could be a super steal and a fantastic value.
Nick Jean-Baptiste, DT, Baylor
When watching Baylor primarily for its offensive prospects, the one player on the Bears' defense who constantly stood out and made his presence felt was Jean-Baptiste. He was a force at the line of scrimmage who was capable of stuffing interior runs and collapsing the pocket with a pass rush. The Baylor defense was generally terrible, and Jean-Baptiste was the only player who was a difference-maker. He totaled 36 tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and three passes broken up this year.
Jean-Baptiste (6-1, 335) was dominant at the East-West Shrine. He showed major potential to be a nose tackle in a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Jean-Baptiste was like a bowling ball all week, rolling through offensive linemen to cause disruption in the backfield. Every lineman who went against him had problems with his bull rush.
Jean-Baptiste has natural pad level and consistently gets underneath the pads of offensive linemen to push them straight back. The need for nose tackles for a 3-4 defense should help him, but he did not work out at the Combine. Jean-Baptiste looks more like a third-day pick, but a team could consider him in the third round.
Danny Trevathan, OLB, Kentucky
It was disappointing that Trevathan was not at the Senior Bowl, and a hamstring injury limited him at the Combine. The Kentucky playmaker was all over the field in 2011. Trevathan recorded 143 tackles with 11.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, four interceptions, five forced fumbles and five passes broken up. He finished sixth in the nation in total tackles even though Kentucky didn't qualify for a bowl game.
Trevathan is a tough run defender who is very good against the pass. He plays zone coverage well with enough ball skills to make some interceptions. Trevathan blitzes well and is a hard hitter.
The knock on Trevathan (6-0, 237) was his size, but he has added bulk to his frame since the end of the season. Trevathan obviously has played well against the best possible competition after leading the SEC in tackles the past two seasons. He is expected to be a third-day pick, but could be a steal for a 4-3 defense looking for an outside linebacker.
Tank Carder, ILB, TCU
Carder is one prospect who had a great Combine but have it go under the radar. He blazed a 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash which shows some serious sideline-to-sideline speed. Carder was slowed by injury early in his senior season but came on to be the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year. Against his best competition, Boise State, Carder looked very good. In the passing-focused NFL, there is a real demand for linebackers who can get deep and cover the amount of ground that he seems capable of.
Carder finished 2011 with 70 tackles with 4.5 tackles for a loss and two pick-sixes. He had 60 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery the year before. Carder was a Second-Team AP All-American and the Rose Bowl MVP in 2010 too.
Since the end of this season, Carder has put on a lot of weight and now is checking in at 6-foot-2, 236-pounds. Given that he has maintained his speed at the heavier weight, it is a good sign that he could continue to get bigger to man the middle in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Carder could go as high as the third round and has real starting potential.
Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt
If a team wants a cornerback with ball skills who can be a reliable player to create turnovers, then Hayward should be on its short list of prospects. He has some of the best ball skills of any corner in the 2012 NFL Draft class and is a pure ballhawk. Hayward had seven interceptions, 60 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 10 passes broken up this season. And it could have been even better. Hayward dropped three interceptions and totaled six passes broken up against Arkansas.
Hayward excels in zone coverage, but also has some man-coverage skills. The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder is a strong defender against the run. In addition to his good size, Hayward showed some real speed at the Combine with a 4.53 time in the 40-yard dash. He also was one of the defensive back leaders on the bench press with 19 reps. That is the same total reps as Ohio State left tackle Mike Adams and one more rep than Wisconsin center Peter Konz.
Hayward will fall to the second day of the draft, but he is going to reward the team that drafts him, and I believe will turn into a solid NFL starter.
Brandon Taylor, S, LSU
In a weak safety class, it is surprising that Taylor hasn't seen his stock rise. He played well in 2011 and is very underrated. Even with a lot of playmakers around him, Taylor still produced. He had 71 tackles with 7.5 tackles for a loss, five passes broken up, one sack and two interceptions this season. Taylor had strong games against West Virginia, Florida and Alabama. Fast and physical, he was the third-leading tackler for LSU in 2011.
Taylor is hard hitter who looks to punish receivers. He is fast and doesn't shy away from getting physical near the line of scrimmage. At the Senior Bowl, his physicality stood out along with quality instincts and anticipation. His Combine 40-yard dash time of 4.50 was very impressive as well.
Taylor could be an ideal safety for the current NFL. He has the quickness and agility to play the centerfield free safety type with the strength and striking ability to defend the run in the box. Taylor can play strong or free safety, and many defenses view the safety positions as interchangeable. He is very underrated and could surprise in the NFL.