The Pac-12 is known for producing plenty of NFL talent, and the 2018 NFL Draft should be no different.
While the majority of the attention will go to first-round stars such as quarterbacks Sam Darnold (USC) and Josh Rosen (UCLA), there also is the potential for a large contingency of sleepers from the Pac-12 in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Here’s a look at four Pac-12 prospects who are rated as mid-to-late-round NFL draft prospects who could turn out to be huge bargains for whoever takes a chance on them:
2018 NFL Draft sleeper: Hercules Mata’afa, Washington State DL
On stats alone, Mata’afa is likely a first-round pick. The junior defensive lineman was the anchor to Washington State’s underrated defense the last two seasons, finishing with 15.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss in 2016-17. But he’s also caught in the classic NFL “tweener” trap. Mata’afa has explosive speed, both off the edge and a quick-burst anticipation to punch gaps in the offensive line and cause all kinds of disruption. But at 6-foot-2, 252 pounds, he’s nowhere near big enough to play defensive line in the NFL.
His best fit may be a team that can use him as a situational pass rusher. A good comp for him may be Elvis Dumervil, a player of similar size and quickness who has put together a great career with more than 100 sacks. If Hercules finds a team that is willing to use his amazing quickness off of the ball, he will be an impact player almost immediately — and an absolute steal anywhere after Round 4.
2018 NFL Draft sleeper: Phillip Lindsay, Colorado RB
Speaking of production, there were only four players in all of college football who amassed more rushing yards in the last two seasons than Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay (2,726). A true three-down workhorse, Lindsay’s tough running style and nose for the end zone (30 rushing touchdowns in 2016-17) was the catalyst for the Buffaloes’ offense. He will be overshadowed by bigger names and was snubbed of a combine invite. But a team in need of a productive rusher who killed the measurables at his pro day (his 4.39-second 40-yard dash would have ranked No. 2 among combine running backs and his 35.5-inch vertical would have ranked No. 9) could do a lot worse than grabbing The Tasmanian Devil in the fifth or sixth round.
2018 NFL Draft sleeper: Kenny Young, UCLA LB
High-character guys coming from schools with great pedigrees of producing pros is always appealing to NFL teams. That’s why UCLA’s Kenny Young has a chance to be a steal anywhere after the fifth round this week. Young was a stat-stuffing linebacker for the Bruins for four years, totaling 304 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 interceptions (1 returned for a TD), 5 passes defended, 5 fumble recoveries and 2 forced fumbles. As a two-year defensive captain, he was the heart and soul of the Bruins defense. He’d be a perfect reserve linebacker to plug into the middle of a defense who can contribute right away on special teams.
2018 NFL Draft sleeper: Deontay Burnett, USC WR
Possessing blazing speed and being a physical specimen as a wide receiver means NOTHING if you don’t know how to get open. That’s why USC’s Deontay Burnett has a great chance to be a mid-round wide receiver who sticks around the NFL for a long time. Burnett was one of the best route runners in all of college football, as evidenced by his Pro Football Focus ratings as an underneath receiver. The passer rating for quarterbacks targeting Burnett on his route tree was 23 points higher than the NCAA average on the hitch, 32 points higher on the quick out, 58 points higher on the out, and a whopping 60 points higher on crossing routes. His suction-cup hands and fluidity in his hips when running routes make him the picture perfect slot wide receiver in the NFL. He will immediately make any team’s wide receiver corps better, and he’s being projected as going anywhere from the fourth to seventh rounds in most mock drafts.