2022 NFL Draft: 10 underrated sleepers who won’t be picked early but will turn into quality players

The bulk of the hype entering the NFL Draft is typically centered on who will go in the first round, as fans generate visions of immediate stardom for the players their teams will pick. But the draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday in Las Vegas, is a seven-round affair that offers more than just a single pick for teams to try and get rich quick.

If played right, teams can find value throughout the draft, both with immediate contributors and long-term fits who may have slipped through the cracks of the first round after poor showings at the combine or for other reasons. Take Detroit Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, for example. The former USC star went in the fourth round to the Detroit Lions in last year’s draft and proceeded to catch 90 passes as a rookie.

Defensively, one example of a steal is Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo, who was a third-round pick out of Stanford last season. Adebo made 17 starts as a rookie, picked off three passes and would almost certainly be taken higher in a re-draft of the 2021 class. As it stands, he’s a mid-round steal for the Saints to build around moving forward.

So who are the overlooked potential difference makers in the 2022 NFL Draft pool? Here is a a look at 10 underrated sleepers to watch on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft.

DL DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M

You’re telling me that an Associated Press First-Team All American capable of playing multiple spots on the defensive line after a strong three-year run at a great college program has no chance of going in the first round? That seems to be the consensus among draft experts, which means that Leal is going to be a steal for someone when he is selected. The knock is that he’s something between a defensive end and a defensive tackle, but a franchise with some vision and creativity will look at Leal and see versatility instead of a weakness. His physical tools and collegiate production point to Leal enjoying a productive NFL career.

WR Calvin Austin III, Memphis

Austin proved to be a human highlight reel during his two seasons as Memphis, showing elite breakaway speed in space as a receiver and returner. He is undersized at 5-8 and 170 pounds but proved plenty durable while catching 19 touchdowns over his last two seasons with the Tigers. Perhaps he’ll be more of a role player than a primary target at the next level. But rest assured that he’ll run away from anyone trying to catch him when he gets the football.

TE Charlie Kolar, Iowa State

Kolar was one of the best college tight ends for three consecutive seasons, racking up 157 catches and 20 touchdowns over that span for an Iowa State program on the rise. What sticks out most, though, is his sure-handedness. Kolar dropped just five passes over the past three seasons, according to to TruMedia data, while serving as a primary target for quarterback Brock Purdy. He should be able to help an NFL team right away, much in the same way that Pat Freiermuth became a key cog for the Steelers as a rookie last season after getting selected 55th overall out of Penn State.

CB Coby Bryant, Cincinnati

Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top DB, yet he ranks fairly far down the list of cornerbacks in this draft class in most position rankings. Perhaps some of that is due to his lack of high-end speed and age since he was a redshirt senior in 2021. But, at 6-1, he brings great positional size and enough of a track record to trust as an early contributor. An NFL team that needs help at cornerback in 2022 can draft Bryant and check that box.

WR Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss

Drummond played inside and outside at Ole Miss, blossoming into a star during the 2021 season while following in the footsteps of Elijah Moore as a the primary target for the Rebels. Moore transitioned to the NFL nicely with 43 catches in 11 games after he was selected by the Jets in the second round, and the bet here is that Drummond will do the same. Drummond is not as fast as Moore, but he’s bigger and more versatile. His former coaches gawk at the size of his hands, and he seems to glide almost effortlessly around the field. Detractors point to the fact that he’ll be 25 by the time the season begins, but if that’s the biggest knock on Drummond, then he’s going to make for an absolute steal in the late rounds of this draft.

WR Jalen Nailor, Michigan State

Nailor’s career stats in four seasons at Michigan State don’t jump off the page. He only played in 26 games, and if you boil it down to just the past two seasons, it’s easy to see his potential. In a combined 16 games over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, he caught 63 passes for 1,210 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his last five games alone, Nailor caught 27 passes for 554 yards. Injuries kept him from showing it more consistently over his four seasons with the Spartans, but a healthy Nailor can be an excellent late-round steal for an NFL team.

LB Malcom Rodriguez, Oklahoma State

Despite anchoring one of the nation’s best defenses in 2021 and then breaking out at the combine, Rodriguez still isn’t generating a ton of early-round hype. He fits the bill as a modern linebacker who can play from sideline to sideline without sacrificing any of the toughness required to stuff the run. So, what gives? As a team captain at Oklahoma State and former quarterback in high school, he’s got all the intangibles to go with the tools and has a shot to outplay his mid-round projections early in his NFL career.

CB Kalon Barnes, Baylor

Barnes ran track at Baylor, which helps explain his electric 4.23 40 time at the combine. Speed like that should make up for any concerns about his physicality. If nothing else, Barnes is worth taking a flyer on because, well, he can fly. He may be rough around the edges, but with his attention devoted solely to football, Barnes could thrive under a defensive coordinator willing to get creative with maximizing his elite-level athleticism.

WR Kyle Phillips, UCLA

If Hunter Renfrow can catch 103 passes and make the Pro Bowl in his third season after being a fifth-round draft pick, then Kyle Phillips can absolutely find a home in the league as well. The 5-11 slot receiver logged 59 catches for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021 after making 38 catches in seven games in 2020. His 60 receptions in 2019 were the most by a freshman in UCLA history. His combine numbers and measurable don’t jump off the charts, but he should be a plug-and-play slot receiver who makes an impact as a late-round selection.

RB Ty Davis-Price, LSU

One knock on Davis-Price is that he didn’t show great promise as a receiver out of the backfield at LSU. But the Tigers didn’t target anyone out of the backfield much during his two seasons as the leading rusher, and he should be able to develop the skill if he gets a shot in the NFL. Despite playing behind an offensive line that was mediocre by LSU’s standards, Davis-Price established himself as a quality grinder who can at least be a speciality back. A 287-yard game against Florida last season stands out as a sign of some high-end potential for a player who may end up as a late-round or undrafted steal.

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