Uncovering NFL’s Hidden Gems: Execs & Coaches Reveal Biggest Rookie Sleepers

Darnell Washington

Getty Darnell Washington makes a catch for Georgia against Mississippi State.

The 2023 NFL draft is over, but the careers of the 259 players chosen over the course of draft weekend are only beginning.

All eyes will undoubtedly be on the quarterbacks chosen in the first round; Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson, as well as some of the potentially game-altering defenders such as Jalen Carter, Nolan Smith, Devon Witherspoon, and Joey Porter Jr.

But, there will be several players who emerge from this class — as there always are — who turn out to be true diamonds in the rough, sleepers, undervalued prospects who develop into consistent franchise contributors.

So, who were the steals of this year’s class? Which players will outperform their pre-draft scouting reports throughout their NFL careers? Heavy Sports spoke to dozen current NFL executives and scouts to find out.

Darnell Washington, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers

“Darnell Washington is the freak of all freaks in this class, the Steelers got a playmaker.” – NFL personnel director

In 2022, the Pittsburgh Steelers ran 12 personnel on 26% of first downs, and after a big-time addition of tight end Darnell Washington in Round 3, that could increase in a big way in 2023.

Washington not only has the imposing physical presence, at 6-foot-6 and 264 pounds, to be a red zone weapon, but he also showed the ability to stretch the field in the Bulldogs’ passing game by hauling in three deep passes in 2023. Pairing Washington, who caught 28 passes for 454 yards and 2 touchdowns during the 2022 campaign, opposite Pat Freiermuth, adds another security blanket with big-play ability to second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett’s arsenal.

Zach Evans, RB, Los Angeles Rams

“Look out for Zach Evans. He has tons of talent, and wasn’t overused in college. Character issues pushed him down some boards, but that won’t matter in the NFL.” – AFC personnel executive

Evans, the Los Angeles Rams‘ sixth-round pick, has the potential to add significant value to a backfield that’s headlined by an injury-prone Cam Akers with only former fifth-round pick Kyren Williams standing in the Ole Miss alum’s way of emerging as Akers’ top handcuff.

With some of the best vision and burst in this class, Evans averaged 6.9 yards per carry and has the frame and skill set to eventually be a three-down workhorse. In 2022, Evans rushed for 930 yards with 9 touchdowns, while also flashing loads of versatility as a pass-rusher out of the backfield, averaging 0.94 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus.

Drew Sanders, LB, Denver Broncos

“Sanders was the steal of the third round. He’ll be an instant starter for the Broncos.” – NFL scouting director

The Denver Broncos added one of the more versatile front-seven defenders in the entire draft. Sanders has spent time as a pass-rusher off the edge, and standing up as an off-ball linebacker, where he’ll likely begin his career in the middle of the Broncos’ defense.

Sanders is a thumper, who produced 90 total tackles last season with 26 run-stops at Arkansas in 2022.

Bijan Robinson, RB, Atlanta Falcons

“He might not be a sleeper, but the people criticizing the Falcons taking Bijan Robinson will be eating crow. Bijan’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Marshall Faulk.” – AFC scout

The debate over whether to take a running back in the first round was renewed when the Atlanta Falcons made the somewhat surprising selection of Bijan Robinson at No. 8 overall.

Robinson is one of the more versatile and explosive prospects to enter the draft in recent memory, after rushing for 1,575 yards while averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring 18 touchdowns last season. What makes Robinson so dangerous is the fact that Pro Football Focus credits him with a best-in-class 104 forced missed tackles and 1,071 yards after contact.

In Atlanta, Robinson joins a dynamic collection of offensive skill-position players, alongside wide receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts, setting the Falcons up to make a true evaluation of second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. An added bonus to taking Robinson is the fact that if Ridder falters, and the Falcons wind up taking a quarterback high in the 2024 class, that young passer will be inheriting a ready-made and potentially prolific offense.

Dawand Jones, OL, Cleveland Browns

“Dawand can play inside right now, and eventually move to right tackle and fill a big need.” – AFC personnel executive

The Browns needed to emerge from draft weekend having fortified the offensive line in front of Deshaun Watson, and came away with an absolute mauler to drop into the starting lineup this fall in Ohio State’s Dawand Jones.

Jones, 6-foot-8 and 374 pounds, is a behemoth, and he was one of the standouts during his time at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Going all of 2022 without allowing a sack, while garnering an 82.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus during the 2022 campaign, Jones has the chance to make an immediate impact along the Browns’ offensive line.

Matt Lombardo Column

Quote of the (Draft) Week

“He’s so versatile. He just will fit in and be a great addition. And really, we’re gonna find out how far he can take it in terms of the receiving part of it. We know he’s really good at it. But so is Kenneth, so those guys will be battling,” – Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll on RB Zach Charbonnet

One of the more under-the-radar selections of the 2023 NFL draft was the moment the Seattle Seahawks chose former UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet in the second round. Because of course they did.

Seattle, of course, already boasts explosive second-year star Kenneth Walker, who rushed for 1,050 yards with 9 touchdowns as a rookie in 2022. While Charbonnet arriving in the Emerald City on the surface feels a bit excessive, it’s easy to see how head coach Pete Carroll and Shane Waldron will be able to dictate to defenses with both backs.

Charbonnet will not only keep Walker fresh late in games and late in the season, but after averaging 8.7 yards per reception in 2022 with only 2 drops and scoring 14 total touchdowns, there’s no reason the UCLA product and Walker can’t be on the field together at once.

The Seahawks were one of the runaway winners of this year’s draft; landing arguably the premier cornerback in Devon Witherspoon, top wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but Charbonnet shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.

Quarterback Geno Smith will have a versatile and explosive supporting cast around him this fall, and the Seahawks’ offense is a worthy counterpunch to the 49ers’ punishing defense that ended their season in the NFC Wild Card round in 2022.

Final Thought: The Packers QB Transition Is Official

The Aaron Rodgers Circus Train has folded the tent and made its way eastward to New Jersey, and the Green Bay Packers are now Jordan Love’s team. Officially.

Tuesday, just eight days after the Packers and Jets agreed to terms on a long-awaited trade that sent the future Hall of Famer to Broadway, Green Bay came to terms with Love on a one-year contract extension worth $22.5 million.

“It’s a really nice deal,” a former NFL GM with ties to the Packers told Heavy. “They didn’t have to pick up his fifth-year option to put him in the spotlight. And, they have three years total to feel good about him, before making a bigger decision.”

Beyond a tacit commitment that gives Love the chance to audition for the role as the Packers’ long-term solution — and a long-term contract as one of the league’s highest-paid quarterbacks — Green Bay also committed to building around Love in a way only Rodgers could envy, during the NFL draft.

Love has appeared in 10 games since being chosen No. 26 overall in the 2020 draft, passing for 606 yards with 3 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. For Love, the stakes have never been higher. For the Packers, the commitment to creating a prolific offense has seemingly never been stronger.

Already with Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson in tow, the Packers invested a pair of premium selections — second-round picks — in tight end Luke Musgrave and wide receiver Jayden Reed, who have the potential to be building block players in Love’s supporting cast. Musgrave should allow Love to push the ball downfield over the middle, after averaging 12.4 average depth of target in 2022, while Reed is a season removed from catching 10 touchdown passes in 2021.

By beefing up Love’s supporting cast, and showing a commitment financially that makes him the 18th-highest-paid quarterback in the league by AAV, the Packers are raising the 24-year-old’s ceiling in 2023 and upside by production and earnings in future years. In a division where every team is in a varying degree of retooling, the Packers have set their young quarterback up to capitalize. Now, it’s up to Love to maximize all that talent around him.

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