I'm unveiling my defensive draft sleepers today after revealing my offensive sleepers earlier this week. These prospects might not hear their name called on the first or second day of this year's draft (perhaps not even on the third day), but NFL history is rich with players that were mid- to late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents who went on to become stars in the league.
His 6-foot-6, 271-pound frame makes him look more like an outside linebacker, but Clarke has been a defensive end. He earned a promotion to the Reese's Senior Bowl after a strong showing at the East-West Shrine Game. He has a tremendous motor and never gives up on a play. He's known more for his pass-rushing ability, but he holds the point of attack better than you might expect from a guy his size.
The Ivy Leaguer came into Senior Bowl and acquitted himself nicely, more than holding his own against tougher competition than he's used to facing. Reid did not seem intimidated and made some nice plays during the game when the offense tried to run inside against him. Reid is a thick, stout guy, but he needs to learn how to better use his hands. He doesn't come from a school that produces many NFL prospects -- he would be the third Princeton player drafted since 1990 -- but he could be a mid-round draft pick that surprises at the next level.
Pierre-Louis had a monster combine, finishing the 40-yard dash faster than any other linebacker (4.51 seconds). He also finished tied for third in the bench press (28 reps), third in the vertical jump (39), tied for second in the broad jump (10-8) and second in the 20-yard shuttle (4.02). He's not just a workout warrior -- he was very productive in college, but lacks ideal size (6-0, 232) and is not a name people hear very often. I'd keep an eye out for him, though.
Two prospects at this position are very deserving of the sleeper designation, and I didn't want to leave either one of them out of this post. Jackson made play after play throughout his career with the Hilltoppers and had a nice week at East-West Shrine Game. George is undersized (5-11, 234), but he, too, is consistently making plays every time I see him play.
Gaines was a star of the combine, putting up numbers comparable to those of Oklahoma State Justin Gilbert, who is considered the top corner in the draft. Gaines has good length, and has some strong believers. His defensive coordinator at Rice told me if he played at Alabama, we'd be talking about him as a first-round pick.
Vereen, the younger brother of Patriots RB Shane Vereen, is turning heads with his athleticism. His versatility is helping his stock -- I think he's fast enough to play corner (he ran a 4.47 40, fastest of all the safeties, at the combine) and has the frame for it at 6-0, 199. Zimmerman was not invited to combine, but he was a first-team All-Big 12 performer last season. He's the quintessential coach's kid -- he's always in the right spot. He's a good tackler and ballhawk. There's a place in the league for guys like him who get the job done.