NFL Draft Deep Sleepers: Defense

2015 NFL Draft

Everyone knows the big names in the draft, but these players are all off the board by day three of the draft. The last few rounds of the draft may seem insignificant, but in reality they are far from it. The goal of every team is to find a contributor with one of these picks.

The term “sleeper” is thrown around a lot when looking at draft prospects. Most of the time, “sleepers” end up being mid-round picks. Deep sleepers are players that likely won’t be drafted until at least the sixth round. A player or two may end up being selected in the mid-rounds, but most will go in the sixth, seventh or even undrafted.

Here is a look at 11 defensive players who you may not have heard of until now, but you should get to know in time for the draft.

Defensive Line

Christian Covington, Rice (#177 on Fanspeak Big Board)
Of all the players listed here, Covington is likely to be drafted the highest. In three seasons at Rice, he recorded 11.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position. If he didn’t tear his ACL late in the season, he would be considered a better prospect. (He could have stayed in school, but decided to declare anyway.) At Rice, he showed that he has the talent to be an NFL defensive lineman, but a torn ACL is going to drop him on draft day.

Terry Williams, East Carolina (#299)
A prototypical nose tackle, Williams weighed in at 329 lbs at his Pro Day after playing at 353 lbs during his senior season for the Pirates. In his time at East Carolina, Williams performed very well, dominating opposing interior offensive linemen at times. Due to his size, there are substantial conditioning concerns. Playing at a weight of 329 lbs would be much better for him. The other concern is a drug-related arrest that caused him to miss multiple games. If Williams can keep his weight down, he could be an NFL-caliber nose tackle.

Carlif Taylor, Southern Connecticut (Unranked)
Playing at the FCS level with the Owls, Taylor dominated the competition, recording 73 tackles, 11 for a loss, as a senior. During his time at Southern Connecticut, he played all over the defensive line in 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. This versatility and productivity are sure to catch the eye of NFL talent evaluators. At 315 lbs, his best fit at the next level is as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense or anywhere on a 3-4 defensive line.

Edge Defenders

Zack Wagenmann, Montana (#213)
Another FCS product, Wagenmann was even more productive against the lower competition, recording 37 sacks and 52 tackles for a loss as a three-year starter for the Grizzlies. A top performer at the NFL Combine, his athleticism is evident when watching him play, with his burst off the line. He is a relentless pass rusher with plenty of success bringing down the quarterback. He will fit in as a pass rush specialist for a team that runs a 3-4 defense.

Xzavier Dickson, Alabama (#247)
Nick Saban’s Alabama defenses have received plenty of hype over the last few years, but Dickson is flying under the radar this draft season. In 2014, he recorded nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss. The fact that he couldn’t really hold down a starting job at Alabama is concerning (nine starts in 2014, none in 2013 and six in 2012), but the Crimson Tide roster is ripe with talent. Dickson isn’t a flash player, but he knows how to get the job done.

Tavaris Barnes, Clemson (Unranked)
With only four starts in his career with the Tigers, Barnes isn’t your normal draft prospect. This trend continues when looking at his stats as his best season (2014) saw him record 19 tackles (five for a loss) with three sacks. However, he has great size (6-foot-4, 282 lbs) and quality athleticism. He is a very raw player, but he caught my eye multiple times when I was watching tape on his teammate Vic Beasley.


Bryce Hager, Baylor (#218)
In four seasons––three as a starter––with the Bears, Hager was an ultra-productive inside linebacker for Baylor, recording 322 tackles, including two seasons with over 100 tackles (114 as a senior and 124 as a sophomore). He is an instinctive linebacker who isn’t a great athlete, but is athletic enough to get the job done. On the negative side, he isn’t very aggressive and will struggle if he doesn’t have a direct lane to the ball carriers. Put him behind a good defensive line and he can make some plays.


Imoan Claiborne, Northwestern State (#206)
Continuing the trend of FCS players on this list, Claiborne nabbed seven interceptions during his time at Northwestern State. At 5-foot-11, 187 lbs, he has adequate NFL size, though he may not be a good fit for certain teams. He is a capable cover cornerback who shut down opposing wide receivers. However, a lack of speed (4.56 and 4.59 forty-yard dash at his Pro Day) combined with his size and quality tackling ability have some people projecting him to safety at the next level. His position will depend on the team that drafts him.

Bobby McCain, Memphis (#231)
At 5-foot-9, McCain projects solely as a slot cornerback in the NFL, but he has the ability to become a very good one. An aggressive, quick cornerback, he is a willing run defender and intercepted 12 passes during his career with the Tigers (11 in the last two seasons). This aggressiveness makes him a perfect fit as a slot cornerback, as run defense and ball skills are two of the main traits teams look for at this position. Add in McCain’s kick returning ability and you get a player who should be able to stick around in the league for a while.

Troy Hill, Oregon (#298)
Another likely slot cornerback, Hill (5-foot-10) started all 14 games for the Ducks last season, recording only one interception, but breaking up 18 passes. His 19 passes defensed ranked third in the nation. He is an instinctive cornerback with great ball skills. At 182 lbs, his frame is a concern and teams will hope to bulk him up. In 2013, he was arrested after a dispute with his girlfriend and eventually pled guilty to misdemeanor menacing and was given three years probation. Teams will have to look into his character, but he has skills to work with on the field.


Dean Marlowe, James Madison (#226)
Wrapping up the article is Marlowe, a four-year starter for the James Madison Dukes at the FCS level. During his four seasons, he moved all over the defense, lining up as a single-high safety and in the box. With 11 interceptions, he was a playmaker on the backend of the Dukes defense. At 6-foot-1, 203 lbs, he looks the part of an NFL safety, but he is a limited athlete whose technique needs refinement.

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