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.
Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State
Osweiler has not enjoyed the positive press of other quarterback prospects like Brandon Weeden or Kirk Cousins. Unlike them, he was unable to participate in the Senior Bowl or Combine.
Missing those events hurt Osweiler's stock in being able to show off his rare skill set. The 6-foot-7, 242-pound signal-caller is a big-armed pocket passer who has surprising mobility. He has the arm strength to make all the throws and hit passes deep downfield. While Osweiler looks like he would struggle to move around at his height, the former basketball player is surprisingly athletic.
Osweiler is quick and is very adept at scrambling out of the pocket to avoid sacks. He also can pick up yards on the ground, so he is a dangerous weapon on third down. With Osweiler's running ability at his height, he is a real oddity as an athlete at quarterback.
Like Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, Osweiler is short on starting experience. He was the Sun Devils' starter as a junior, but had only two starts before 2011. Osweiler completed 63 percent of his passes for 4,036 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this season. He also ran for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Osweiler set the school record for yards, completions and attempts.
Osweiler has the physical tools to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It would be best for him to go to a team that has a veteran starter whom he can learn from for a few years before breaking into the lineup. Osweiler should go in the second or third round. In a few years, he could have the potential to surprise.
Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State
It has become commonplace in the NFL for a mid-round back to explode on the scene and provide an instant impact. In 2011, Dallas benefited from that with running back DeMarco Murray.
Ballard is my pick to be that draft-day steal in 2012. He is a tough downhill runner who gets yards after contact. He is a big, bruising back who is quick to the hole and the second level of the defense. He has deceptive speed that is surprising for a back with his build.
The 5-foot-10, 219-pounder carried his team the past two seasons and could have been even more effective if he had received more help. Mississippi State had terrible quarterback play, so defenses loaded the box to take out Ballard, daring the Bulldogs to beat them through the air.
Ballard fought for his yardage and still averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 2011. He totaled 1,189 yards and 10 touchdowns. After playing junior college, Ballard had a nice debut for Mississippi State in 2010. He ran for 968 yards on 186 carries (5.3 average) with 19 touchdowns.
Ballard is capable of logging a large amount of carries and could be a workhorse back in the NFL. Right now, he looks like a third-day pick, although if a team thinks like I do, he could sneak into the third round. If I had to pick one back to be the draft-day steal like Murray or Arian Foster, I would go with Ballard.
Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
It was a tough call to go with McNutt over Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. However, the latter is a more high-profile prospect who should go in the top-50 picks. Therefore, McNutt is a bigger sleeper. The Iowa playmaker has gone under the radar, and his productive career has been undervalued by many pundits.
McNutt consistently produced despite playing in an offense that had an emphasis on the running game. In 2011, he made 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns. McNutt produced big plays in all levels of the defense. He beat secondaries with a combination of size and quickness.
McNutt had a solid Senior Bowl week and illustrated for scouts that he is a very polished receiver entering the NFL. The knock on McNutt has been that he isn't fast enough to duplicate his statistics in the NFL. Well, McNutt had an impressive run in the 40-yard dash at 4.54 seconds at the Combine. That is a very good time for a wide receiver who is 6-foot-3 and 216-pounds.
McNutt has deceptive quickness, good hands and solid route-running ability. He is capable of making big plays downfield. Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn told Walterfootball.com last September that McNutt is a star in the making.
It wouldn't surprise this analyst if Clayborn is proven right. McNutt is a second-day sleeper who could be a real weapon in the NFL.
Evan Rodriguez, TE, Temple
This was the hardest position to pick a sleeper for because it is the weakest group in the 2012 draft. However, Rodriguez has been solid in every step along the way toward the 2012 NFL Draft. He played well in 2011, looked good at the East-West Shrine, and ran well at the Combine in the 40 and position drills. Rodriguez was Temple's leading receiver in 2011, catching 35 balls for 479 yards and two touchdowns.
Rodriguez is a fluid receiver who picks up yards after the catch. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder has the athleticism to be an h-back type in the NFL. He also was a quality blocker for running back Bernard Pierce.
The biggest knock on Rodriguez was a lack of foot speed, but he surprised with a 4.58 40 at the Combine. He will probably go on the third day of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he could provide a nice reward.
Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California <
Schwartz is a second-day prospect who could be a starting right tackle in the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 318-pounder had a really impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl. He did well in the pass rushing one-on-ones and was a tough run blocker.
Schwartz was primarily a left tackle at California, although he played on the right side as well. Given his size and athleticism, he would be a better fit on the right side of the offensive line rather than protecting the blind side.
Schwartz's experience will, at the very least, make him a valuable swing tackle backup on game days. He could play that role for a year or two while being developed to eventually start on the right side.
Schwartz could be a good value in the second or third round.
Tony Bergstrom, G, Utah
Another player who showed some ability at the Senior Bowl was Bergstrom. He was a first-team all PAC-12 selection in 2011. Bergstrom was a three-year starter at right tackle, but the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder looks like a better fit at guard in the NFL.
Bergstrom showed showed off some nice power and quality athleticism at the Senior Bowl. He held his own against the defensive linemen whom other All-Stars were struggling with.
Bergstrom has the strength to anchor against bull rushes, while his time playing on the edge would help him to slide with speed rushers. He could be a second- or third-round pick who makes his way into the lineup quickly while turning into a quality NFL starter.
Garth Gerhart, C, Arizona State
After tight end, this was the second-hardest position to pick a sleeper prospect for.
Gerhart looked better during his senior season than he did at the Senior Bowl or Combine. The 6-foot-1, 305-pounder had some struggles in the practices in Mobile, but he is a scrappy player.
Gerhart performs with relentless effort and is a physical player. He fights through the whistle and has some developmental potential. He needs to improve his pass blocking and his awareness, but is further along as run blocker. He combo blocks well to open up running lanes along with having the ability to pull and hit blocks on the run.
Gerhart is likely to go on the third day of the draft, and he could turn into a decent center over time.