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The Biggest Day 3 “Sleepers” in the 2021 NFL Draft (Defense)

Taking a look at some lesser known defensive prospects who could be available in the later rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 26 Quick Lane Bowl - Pitt v Eastern Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A few days ago, we discussed the biggest offensive sleepers in the draft, which you can check out here. It is now time to take a closer look at the defensive side of the ball. With the Steelers expected to fill the major holes on offense in the early rounds of the draft, it will be key for the Steelers to find a few gems on day three to bolster the depth on defense.

Being able to retain Tyson Alualu and Vince Williams was huge, but depth is still lacking at outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. After losing Sean Davis and choosing not to sign Karl Joseph, the Steelers will likely be taking a close look at safeties on day three. It is believed that Cameron Sutton will become a boundary cornerback this season, but that leaves a hole at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback is probably the most likely defensive position they take in the first two days, while addressing edge rusher will likely have to wait until day three.

If you have any favorite day three prospects that you think are deserving of more recognition, be sure to mention them in comment section.


Defensive Line

Jaylen Twyman — Pittsburgh

Twyman opted out of the 2020 season, but before the season began, he was getting first round hype. In 2019, he registered 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss as an interior lineman. On tape, Twyman is incredibly twitchy and quick off the snap, and he has excellent hand usage, but he lacks ideal size and functional strength. At about 6’2”, 290 pounds, Twyman struggles to gain leverage on opposing lineman and gets pushed off the ball fairly easily in the run game.

The most difficult thing to figure out is his pro day results. We mentioned his quickness and lack of strength, but Twyman ran an awful 5.51 in the 40 and an 8.00 in the 3-cone. However, he did 40 reps on the bench. The numbers do not make much sense, but we must remember that the tape outweighs pro day numbers. On tape, you see an explosive defensive lineman who lacks ideal strength. His draft stock has fallen to the early day three range, but he brings a ton of upside. Twyman also has the versatility to play either as a 4-3 defensive tackle or as a 3-4 defensive end. He is not ready to start yet, but if he is given time to sit behind a player such as Cameron Heyward and learn the nuances of the position, he could become a solid linemen down the road, even if he is a different style than what the Steelers are accustomed to. Here is his tape against UCF, where he is fairly silent until he records a sack to basically end the game. There are also some highlights of his below.

Other sleepers at defensive line: Darius Stills (West Virginia), Naquan Jones (Michigan State), Quinton Bohanna (Kentucky)


EDGE Rushers

Patrick Johnson — Tulane

Johnson is a versatile pass rusher who lined up all over the place for Tulane. While he did not always play against elite competition, he was successful in every aspect of his game for Tulane, whether it was rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, or stopping the run. Johnson was also quite productive, recording 7 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in only 9 games last season. He has tremendous hand usage and a good repertoire of pass-rushing moves, but his biggest strength may be his ability to process information quickly as a run defender. He also tested very well athletically, recording a 4.59 in the 40, a 35 inch vertical, and a 6.97 in the 3-cone drill. He does a great job of setting the edge in the run game, and he plays bigger than what his 240 frame would suggest.

There are a few instances where he gets pushed off the ball when he is lined up on the strong side of the formation, but he was a relatively consistent run defender. I have a third round grade on him, but he will likely drop to day three. He would be an excellent complement to what Alex Highsmith brings opposite T.J. Watt. Here is his tape against SMU.

Chris Garrett — Concordia St. Paul

Garrett absolutely dominated Division II competition. In only 28 games, Garrett racked up an insane 36.5 sacks, 48 tackles for loss, 18 quarterback hits, and 15 forced fumbles. Even against Division II competition, that is very impressive. Many people will knock the competition level, but it has not affected the draft stock of other small-school prospects in the past. Ben Bartch and Kyle Dugger played well against poor competition as well, but it did not stop teams from inquiring about them as early as day two. Bartch went early day three, while Dugger went in round two. We also expect Quinn Meinerz to be selected on day two this year. An argument could be made that Garrett is more talented and was more productive than any of those players, yet he is being looked at as a priority free agent.

Garrett has tremendous burst off the snap and excellent closing speed, and he shows good awareness in the run game while generally doing a good job making tackles in the open field. To be fair, he relies to much on speed and will need to develop some pass rushing moves when he gets to the NFL. Also, he is about 6’3”, 245 pounds, and his lack of strength is exposed by his inability to set the edge in the run game. Adding a few extra pounds would be helpful. There is no doubt that Garrett will need to be given time to develop, but he has the potential to become a sack artist at the next level.

It is difficult to find anything other than highlights, but I was able to pull up Concordia’s matchup against Minnesota State Mankato in 2018. It is not condensed to only Garrett’s snaps, but if you are a die-hard draft nut and willing to skip through the time that Garrett is not on the field, I highly encourage you to check it out. This was actually one of his lesser impressive games in terms of stats, but he still managed to record 5 total tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 pass defended, and 1 quarterback hit. Below are some highlights from Draft Diamonds as well.

Other sleepers at EDGE rusher: Malcolm Koonce (Buffalo), Jordan Smith (UAB)


Inside Linebackers

Tony Fields II — ILB — West Virginia

Fields is definitely undersized (6’0”, 222 pounds), but he is tackling machine who also has the sideline-to-sideline speed that you want to see in a modern-day linebacker. His big issue is going to be that 222 pound frame. I think he can add a few pounds, but being only 6’0” tall will likely keep him under 240 pounds his entire career. With some players, however, size is almost a non-factor. Fields transferred from Arizona to West Virginia for his senior season and immediately became one of the leaders of the defense. He is a good communicator who flies to the ball, and he is quick to fill gaps when defending the run.

Unfortunately, he may not be a great fit for the Steelers. Pittsburgh is in need of a future BUCK linebacker, and Fields is a MACK linebacker only. He would provide good depth behind Devin Bush, but an argument could be made that depth at the MACK position is not needed with Robert Spillane and Ulysses Gilbert on the roster. Nonetheless, he is an intriguing prospect in the fourth or fifth round. In just the two games shown below, Fields accounted for a combined 22 tackles. You will see how he flies to the ball.

Other sleepers at inside linebacker: Nick Niemann (Iowa), Derrick Barnes (Purdue), Ernest Jones (South Carolina), Garrett Wallow (TCU)


Cornerback

Mac McCain III — North Carolina A&T

McCain burst onto the scene as a freshman but tore his ACL the following season. Before that injury, he accounted for 8 interceptions and 16 passes defended. It took him a while to get back to his usual form, but he has fully recovered, as proven by his pro day numbers. McCain recorded a 4.45 in the 40, a 6.94 in the 3-cone drill. and a 35.5 inch vertical.

I see McCain as the FCS version of Jaycee Horn. He does a great job at pressing receivers at the line and rerouting them, but he has the loose hips and fluidity needed to play zone at a high level as well. He gets a bit grabby at times, but that is a teachable issue. McCain’s aggressive playing style combined with his solid athleticism makes him a prospect that is more than worth a late round flier. He has starter potential as an outside cornerback. This is another prospect that is difficult to find tape on, but I was able to find his freshman highlights. If you want to check out a full-game replay, search for the 2017 and 2019 Celebration Bowls. I have not found any condensed versions.

Ambry Thomas — Michigan

Thomas was a consistently good cornerback for Michigan until the 2019 Citrus Bowl, where DeVonta Smith gashed him all day. Looking at it one year later, how big of a negative are we really going to count that as? Thomas has the awareness and instincts to play zone coverage, but he did not do much of it at Michigan. In Don Brown’s man-to-man scheme, Thomas showed the necessary speed and physicality needed to succeed. The biggest issue for Thomas is his decision to opt out. The last we saw of him was his worst collegiate performance against Alabama. He may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some scouts, but he righted the ship with a solid pro day, recording a 4.37 40 and a 38 inch vertical. He will go early day three, but he has a legitimate chance of becoming a starting cornerback early in his career, whether that be as a boundary corner or slot corner.

Other sleepers at cornerback: Shaun Jolly (Appalachian State), Nate Hobbs (Illinois), Dicaprio Bootle (Nebraska), Deommodore Lenoir (Oregon)


Safety

Talanoa Hufanga — USC

This is a stretch simply because Hufanga could sneak into the third round. However, if he slips to day three, he is a really nice pick. A couple members of BTSC actually brought this guy to my attention, and his tape did not disappoint. When you throw out his testing numbers and look solely at the tape, you see a guy who looks like a young Troy Polomalu. His physical, downhill style of play is fun to watch, as he strikes fear into opposing ball carriers. He can also blitz, cover, and create turnovers all at high levels. This guy is a true playmaking strong safety, but he is not extremely fluid in coverage at this point. He is also not as fast as he looks. He ran a 4.61 at his pro day, but the rest of his testing was not terrible, recording a 36 inch vertical and 6.87 3-cone drill. If he falls to day three, some team may be getting a steal. Here is his 2020 tape against UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon.

Other sleepers at safety: Richard LeCounte III (Georgia), Paris Ford (Pittsburgh)


Who are your favorite defensive sleepers? Do you like any of the prospects mentioned above as potential fits for the Steelers? Be sure to give your thoughts on this in the comment section below, and be sure to follow BTSC closely as we approach the NFL Draft.