With the Draft approaching at the end of the month, I figured I’d take a look at draft sleepers, and more specifically which position is most conducive to waiting late in the draft to find starter quality. Every year there are players making big names for themselves after having been drafted late or not at all at the beginning of their career. If you look at the top of the stat sheets you see names like Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Arian Foster. Brady was drafted 199th overall and Welker and Foster were not drafted at all, yet they have made their mark on the league, and Brady is a future Hall-of-Famer.
For this article I decided not to go on a player-by-player basis, but rather I looked at each position as a whole and determined which ones had the greatest potential for finding starter quality late in the draft. Much of the results were not surprising, you shouldn’t wait to draft a Quarterback, Cornerback, or Offensive Tackle, and you should wait to draft Fullbacks and any special teams position, however there were some positions that the results were a bit different than one might expect.
Before I get into which positions you SHOULD wait to draft, there is one position that you should draft in a very specific window if you want starter quality. That position is Tight End, 18 of 32 starting tight ends were drafted in the first two rounds of the draft, and 12 of those were between the 28 and 53 picks. Only 8 starting Tight Ends were drafted later than the 4th round and out of those 8 only Antonio Gates (who was undrafted) has made a Pro-Bowl. So if you want a starting Tight End you better draft him at the end of the first or the beginning of the second round.
Now the positions that you should look to draft late.
On the offensive line, both Guards and Centers can be found late in the draft. Obviously, part of this has to do with value, and most teams are more inclined to spend first round picks on cornerstone positions such as QB, CB, or T, however 14 starting Centers were actually drafted in the 6th round or later, meaning that value can be found very late in the draft. As for guards they have the most undrafted starters of any position with 10. Some notable names of guards and centers drafted late include, Jeff Saturday (undrafted), Brian Waters (undrafted), Carl Nicks (5th Round, #164), and Matt Birk (6th Round, #173). All of these gentleman have made Pro-Bowls and had very successful careers after being drafted very late or not at all.
The top skill position to find sleepers that can start for your franchise is hands-down, without a doubt, Wide Receiver. Yes, there are many all-star Wide-outs that were drafted in the first round, even the top ten picks, but for each one of them there is another that was undrafted or selected very late in the draft. Just look at this list of names: Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Miles Austin, and Malcom Floyd all went undrafted. Brandon Marshall, Brandon Lloyd, Steve Johnson, and Marques Colston all went in the 4th round or later. All of these receivers have finished in the top 10 in receiving at least one year in their careers and most of them have made Pro-Bowls. Wide receiver value seems to last further into the draft than any of the other skill positions, with a chance for great upside all the way outside the draft.
A position that I bet some of you thought would make this list was Running Back, since many argue that any competent guy can run behind a great offensive line. This was not the case though, 13 out 32 starting running backs were drafted in the first round alone, and only 9 were drafted in the 4th round or later. While Arian Foster, Michael Turner, and Fred Jackson all fall in that category, it is pretty safe to say there are a lot more misses than hits outside the first round for Running Backs.
On the whole, sleepers can be found any year at any position. If a player has raw size and/or ability, combined with coaching and a fit for the system he can certainly turn into a future All-Pro. Based on my numbers there is no strong correlation between a team with more high-draft picks having success, in fact out of the 10 teams with the lowest average pick number for their starting line-ups only 5 of them made the playoffs last year (DET, SF, CIN, BAL, and DEN). Many teams are built on low-round draft picks filling their roles and thats why each year we look to the draft and beyond to see who will be the next sleeper player to turn into an All-Pro.