If there’s one question I always get, especially from my newer agent clients but also from my more seasoned ones, it’s ‘how do you find a sleeper?’ Where are the seniors who come out of nowhere, climb the charts over the last weeks of the season, test well, and wind up on NFL rosters?

I can’t say I have the answer to that. In fact, at last year’s combine, I had lunch with one of the more seasoned scouts in the game, a great guy and a great friend. I asked him this question, and he didn’t really have an answer, either. In discussing it with him, my takeaway was that most teams spend about two-thirds of their time on the guys who’ll be taken in the top third of the draft roughly, i.e., rounds 1-3. Most teams see these guys as the real difference-makers, the players that will make or break their rosters, so they want to spend an inordinate amount of time on these particular players. The ones who go in rounds 4-7 — most typically the players we’d characterize as sleepers — aren’t seen as players who will help you win titles. They may be solid starters in time, and might even develop into stars, but the risk isn’t worth the reward, generally. Teams get busy, they can’t apply the resources to evaluating everybody, and players fall through the cracks.

So what’s the best way to find guys that are ‘under the radar’ or ‘off the grid?’ Here’s my take on it.

  • One way is to find players who were jucos that don’t have a lengthy body of work at the four-year college level and bloom late. I know there is very little evaluation done at the JC level, mostly because players don’t go from a juco to the draft very often.
  • A second way is to find a college basketball player who just switched to football (i.e., the Saints’ Jimmy Graham or Chargers’ Antonio Gates). There’s a tight end at Indianapolis, Erik Swoope, whom we’ve mentioned previously that fits this profile for the 2014 draft class.
  • Another way is to find players who didn’t play football until college, or very little high school ball, especially if they came from other countries (a la Detroit’s Zeke Ansah or Indy’s Bjoern Woerner or Oakland’s Menelik Watson, all from the ‘13 draft class).
  • A fourth way is to find guys who switched to impact positions late (usually before their senior seasons, but maybe even mid-season). These are typically tight ends who move to OT, or maybe DTs who move to OG, or whatever. Less frequently, you find RBs or WRs that move to CB, or even QBs who move to WO. But all of these qualify.
  • The fifth way is to find a good player at an un-sexy position – he’s good, but not high-impact – who plays either in the far Northeast (Maine/New Hampshire/Rhode Island, etc.) or the Southwest/Mountain West (West Texas/Utah/Nevada/New Mexico/Idaho/Montana/Dakotas). A good example for the ’14 draft class is New Mexico C Dillon Farrell, who signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent this spring. They’re trying him at tackle.
  • A sixth way is to find pure track stars that will ‘test out of the gym’ but who aren’t really ‘football players’ yet (but want to give it a try). Florida WR Jeff Demps is an example of this from the ’13 draft class; he’s a guy that’s got great tools that is still developing as a player.

There may be other ways. I know no one has the ‘patent’ on this, but these seem to be the patterns for most players who come out of nowhere, figuratively speaking, and enjoy NFL success.