The first round of the NFL Draft monopolizes coverage in the media and fan’s minds alike. While the first 32 picks are important and generally feature the most elite talents, the best organizations in football are competitive year after year because of quality middle round work.
Alfred Morris rushed for 1,613 yards and was a sixth-round pick. Russell Wilson posted one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history as a third-round pick. Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks were all second-rounders and the trio of linebackers totaled 353 total tackles last season. Round three was also kind to wide receivers, as T.Y. Hilton (50), Chris Givens (42) and T.J. Graham (31) were fourth, sixth and seventh among rookie wideouts in receptions in 2012.
The point is most NFL championships are built mostly between rounds two and five. Consistent winners in Green Bay, New England, Indianapolis and the New York Giants are perfect examples of how to win the draft each year.
So who should NFL teams be targeting in the middle rounds in 2013?
Here are 15 sleepers guaranteed to outperform their draft stock this fall:
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State (6-2, 185)
There is a chance that this lengthy corner goes late in the first round, but assuming he drops past the first day, he will be a steal. He has tremendous length and physicality and is a perfect fit in a Tampa-2 cover scheme. He plays the run well and once he adds some weight to his frame, should be capable of battling with the bigger, more physical NFL wide receivers. He was a three-year starter at Mississippi State and a leader of a team that went to three straight bowl games.
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina (5-8, 202)
NFL.com has 12 mock drafts posted in its Mock Draft Central and not one has Bernard listed in the first round. He isn’t a workhorse back, but that type of player has gone the way of the Dodo bird in the pass-happy NFL. Bernard brings a complete skill set to any offense, as he is an elite receiver and return man as well as running back. He has great quickness, burst and toughness to go with a compact frame that is difficult to hit. He also is a solid pass protector, giving him the chance to start right away. Other than Marcus Lattimore, Bernard might be the most talented runner in this draft.
Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers (6-1, 241)
Pitt running back Ray Graham’s half brother is a full-fledged NFL sleeper. One of the Big East’s top playmakers on defense the last three seasons, Greene posted nearly 400 tackles (387) in his decorated college career at Rutgers. He led what was one of the league’s best defenses and earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors as both a junior and senior. His tremendous speed and athletic ability make him a prototype 4-3 weak-side backer — a position that always delivers value in the middle rounds.
Zavier Gooden, LB, Missouri (6-1, 234)
Playing a lot of hybrid safety/linebacker at Missouri has given Gooden a unique skill set. He has excellent speed to cover loads of ground, both in run pursuit and pass coverage. He will have to battle the ‘undersized’ moniker as he lacks elite size for a linebacker, but more than makes up for it with toughness and athletic ability. His agility and speed should allow him to stick around for some time on the NFL level. Gooden isn’t a second-round pick but could be a steal in Rounds 3-5.
Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin (6-4, 312)
In a weak interior offensive line class, Frederick has a chance to be the best center in the draft. He has a thick body and versatility, excelling as both a guard and center at OL-friendly Wisconsin. He has been extremely well-coached, uses excellent technique and provides leadership and toughness up front. The Badgers have produced some big-time blockers under Bret Bielema of late and Frederick should be the next one as a potential second- or third-round pick.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (6-4, 306)
Few players have ever been as decorated and successful as Jones. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top offensive lineman in 2011 and has been an All-SEC performer at tackle, guard and center against the nation’s best defensive linemen. He was a huge part of three national championships at Alabama and there is no reason to think he won’t stick in the NFL. He is a little undersized and has dealt with plenty of small injuries, however, his work ethic, leadership, versatility, intelligence and toughness should keep him in the NFL for years.
Corey Lemonier, DE/LB, Auburn (6-3, 255)
There was only one bright spot for the Tigers the last two seasons and his last name was Lemonier. He has tremendous athleticism for his size and will fit into any scheme on the next level. He proved himself as an undersized down lineman who wreaked havoc in opposing backfields — try 24.0 tackles for a loss and 17.0 sacks in just two years of starting. He will need to add bulk and power if he wants to play with his hand in the dirt, but could also stand up as a hybrid 3-4 OLB/DE type. He was an elite recruit who starred in college and there is no reason to think he won’t be a capable defender on Sundays.
Sio Moore, LB, UConn (6-1, 245)
Normally, top combine performers don’t impress me. But Moore’s numbers stand out considering how productive he was in college. He led most linebackers in 40-time (4.65), bench reps (29), vertical jump (38.0”) and broad jump (127.0”). He led a defense that was the Big East’s best a year ago while consistently battling against teams with dramatically more talent. When he left Storrs, Moore had 274 total tackles, an absurd 43.0 tackles for loss and 16.0 sacks. Sign me up.
Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State (6-0, 190)
The Oregon State Beavers cornerback might be the best defensive player in the history of the program. He has more than adequate size, dynamic return ability and a knack for making big plays on defense. He has an excellent football IQ and will lead by example on any roster. He isn’t an elite overall athlete but that shouldn't take away from the fact that he is a great football player. Look for Poyer to be a steal in the Round 3-5 range.
John Simon, DE, Ohio State (6-1, 257)
The book on Simon is pretty straight forward. He is undersized and lacks the elite explosiveness to be considered a first-round talent. However, he owns every major weight lifting record at Ohio State and was the unquestioned leader of an unbeaten Buckeyes team in 2012. He has one of the best motors in the draft, plays fundamentally sound football and maximizes his talent on every play. His toughness will allow him to play on the next level, ideally in a multiple front scheme. He wouldn’t be the first sawed-off defensive lineman to outperform his draft stock (see LaMarr Woodley or Robert Mathis).
Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M (6-0, 205)
Swope never stood out as a game-changer at any point in his career, but when he left College Station he was the most productive receiver in Texas A&M history. He is a gritty, tough-nosed, handsy receiver who isn’t scared of contact and will lead by example. He has plenty of speed and can make plays down the field. Swope is a guy whose sum of the parts is better than the whole. Think Marvin Harrison (NOT Wes Welker!)
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford (5-9, 215)
This is a loaded running back class with as many as a dozen quality sleeper candidates and Taylor is one of them. He isn’t flashy or explosive, but he is extremely productive and rarely misses assignments. He posted three straight 1,000-yards seasons and touched the ball 881 times over the last three seasons. His durability isn’t in question either as he never missed a game over that span. He is a true workhorse back who picks up the blitz, catches the ball well and wins a ton of games.
Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky (6-3, 332)
The best player on the Kentucky roster the last two years has been Warford. On a team that provided him zero support on either side of the ball, this big blocker was consistently honored as one of the SEC’s best. He is a mauler and will physically control the point of attack on the next level just like he did against the best defensive lines in the nation. Guards don’t normally go in the first round, but 2013 could see two in Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper, however, Warford isn’t too far behind.
Terrance Williams, WR, Baylor (6-2, 208)
Great speed. Tremendous body control and ball skills. Excellent size and strength. Ridiculous levels of production. Leadership and intelligence. What’s not to like about Williams? In fact, it almost seems odd that Williams doesn’t get mentioned with names like De Andre Hopkins, Cordarrelle Patterson or Tavon Austin. He is much bigger and stronger than Austin and more polished and game-ready than Patterson. Expect a big first year from this likely second-round pick.
Robert Woods, WR, USC (6-1, 201)
Had Woods been allowed to come out as a sophomore, he would have easily been a first-round pick. All those records teammate Marqise Lee broke in 2012 were set the year before by Woods. The star wideout plays with a toughness that few receivers possess and has been extremely productive. He has adequate size, great hands, a tremendous feel for the game and speed to burn. If he falls out of the first round, fans can bet Woods will be a steal.
Other names we like:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (5-10, 214)
Matt Barkley, QB, USC (6-2, 227)
Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee (6-6, 230)
Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State (5-11, 190)
Kawann Short, DT, Purdue (6-3, 299)
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State (6-6, 280)
Kyle Long, OG, Oregon (6-6, 313)
Tony Jefferson, S, Oklahoma (5-11, 213)
Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA (5-10, 205)
Phillip Lutzenkirchen, TE, Auburn (6-3, 260)