I always marvel at the popularity of the NFL draft. It’s not truly a sporting event in that nothing is being played. It is merely the picking of players who might one day take a snap; these guys might all flop, but we can’t help to watch every moment. It’s fun to watch and wonder what might happen over the coming years; is that quarterback going to become the next Patrick Mahomes? What about the running back? And all those wide receivers? I can confidently say the NFL draft is one of my top-5 sporting events of the year–behind the Super Bowl, the first weekend of March Madness, and not much else in terms of anticipation.
I live for the stories and the promise of a new season. As a Bears fan, I’ve been hoping for that new QB for as long as I’ve been watching. What else do I have but the draft? In that spirit, I wanted to look through the most recent crop of rookies for sleepers–guys you might be overlooking who could become focal points of your team. As a rule, I only selected players outside the top-24 in rookie ADP. I wanted guys who are basically free, but who could prove to be game-changers if things work out the right way. Here are my sleepers from the 2022 rookie class.
Brian Robinson Jr., RB, Rookie ADP 25
Moving past the first two rounds of rookie drafts, one could say the remaining picks are mere shots in the dark. That’s mostly true. Any running backs taken at this point are typically injured, buried on depth charts, in terrible situations, or lacking talent.
Brian Robinson Jr. played for Alabama and sat behind Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, and Najee Harris–three excellent college backs. Robinson has low mileage on his body and has shown improvement as both a runner and a blocker, totaling over 100 carries for just the first time last season.
Robinson should–at the very least–prove a capable runner on a team with only Antonio Gibson in front of him. Robinson will have to earn his role here, but I’ll take my chances on an Alabama running back with fresh legs. It’s also fair to say Gibson hasn’t lived up to expectations and the team wants to spell Gibson with another back. If you can get Robinson around this point, he’s worth the stash.
Khalil Shakir, WR, Rookie ADP 29
Khalil Shakir was the top wide receiver at Boise State, and he comes in second on our list at ADP 29. He is a strong route runner who tested fast at the combine–4.43 speed–though he may lack the ability to be a true deep threat. Shakir shows similarities to Diontate Johnson, unfortunately with the weaknesses included; he has shown lapses of concentration and inconsistent catching technique. He could also stand to put on muscle to help fight off NFL corners.
If Shakir can improve at the catch point and add some bulk while keeping his speed, he could prove to be an excellent receiver and could–in time–become a clear number two behind Stefon Diggs. Shakir may be a hold early on as he adjusts to the league and plays behind Gabriel Davis, Jamison Crowder, and Isaiah McKenzie, but he will prove a value if he and Josh Allen develop a connection.
Calvin Austin III, WR, Rookie ADP 32
Calvin Austin is 32nd in rookie ADP, and one could argue he didn’t get a great landing spot. Austin will be playing in Pittsburgh, behind Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and George Pickens. That’s not to mention that Austin’s quarterback will most likely be rehab project Mitch Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett. Maybe we should run for the hills instead.
So what do I like about Austin? He’s fast. He ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and knows how to use his body when running. If Austin gets free at the line, he is a dangerous weapon. His weaknesses, then, are his size (5’8) and his struggles against press coverage. Still, Austin profiles as a slot receiver–a role vacated by the departure of Juju Smith-Schuster.
Here’s how I see it: Diontae Johnson will probably leave in free agency next season. Kenny Pickett might be a stud, or this team will be a great destination for a veteran quarterback–like Russell Wilson and Denver. If Austin can show his size isn’t a hindrance, he has a role ready for him with the Steelers in the slot. I’ll take a chance in the late third round.
Justyn Ross, Rookie ADP 44
Okay, this one is my favorite pick. Back when Trevor Lawrence was at Clemson, everyone knew who his best receiver was: Justyn Ross. That was on a roster with Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Hunter Renfrow. Ross totaled 46 receptions, 1,000 yards, and 9 TD that first season. It was capped off by 6 receptions, 153 yards, and a touchdown in the national championship win over Alabama. Ross is 6’4 and quick as well. What’s not to like?
Well, everything derailed after that first season–leading to Ross’ UDFA status this year. In his sophomore season, Ross regressed in yardage and touchdowns thanks to inferior QB play. Ross then missed 2020 due to spine and neck issues requiring surgery. In 2021, Ross played through a stress fracture in his foot–limiting his speed and hampering his numbers at the combine.
If Ross is healthy, his potential is sky high and he would have gone early in the draft. If he’s not healthy, he may not last a season in the league. Ross landed on the Chiefs, so he will have all the opportunity he wants to show his stuff. I love Ross as a lottery pick in the fourth round.
Velus Jones Jr, Rookie ADP 47
And we finish off the list with a homer pick. Velus Jones Jr. was a third-round pick by my Chicago Bears–a pick I initially hated as I didn’t have Jones anywhere close to my radar, and I knew how badly the Bears needed a new receiver they could rely on. With the departure of Allen Robinson, Chicago ‘boasts’ Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, and Equanimeous St. Brown as its top receivers. Mooney has proven his mettle, but I can’t just accept Pringle or St. Brown is ready for a bigger role based on what I’ve seen so far.
This tells me one thing: the Bears must have a role in mind. If the Bears can scheme plays for Jones, he could break some big plays and become a hot name early on. If he does, I’d honestly look to trade him for something safer. Velus screams volatility to me. Just hope the good comes first.
(Photo by Tyler Ingham/Icon Sportswire)