NFL draft 2022: 10 sleeper prospects that will keep teams up at night

Jaylon Thompson
USA TODAY Sports+

While eyes will center on the first round of the 2022 NFL draft to catch a glimpse of the league’s next superstars Thursday, the mid-round selections can bring a special spark to their new teams.

Michigan’s defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux are near the top of every team’s draft board. And others like Liberty quarterback Malik Willis and Georgia defensive lineman Travon Walker saw their draft stock skyrocket.

But don't overlook potential gems on the second and third days of the draft. 

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Western Michigan wide receiver Skyy Moore runs by Nevada defensive tackle Dom Peterson during the first half of the Quick Lane Bowl on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, at Ford Field.

In simple terms: First-round picks draw headlines, but mid-rounders win football games.

Every team has a player that wasn’t highly rated but blossomed into a key starter or Pro Bowl talent — the sleeper.

Need an example? For every Christian McCaffrey, there is an Aaron Jones.

Both players were selected in the 2017 NFL draft. McCaffrey went eighth overall, while Jones didn’t get picked until the fifth round. They each have one Pro Bowl selection and two 1,000-yard seasons. Both are top running backs in the league.

In addition to scouting the top talent every year, teams focus on identifying those players with tong-term potential.

Here are the top sleepers in the 2022 NFL draft with the potential to elevate any team:

Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State

Strong offers immediate big-play ability after he dominated the FCS ranks. He racked up three 1,000-yard seasons and scored 40 touchdowns during his college career. Strong's vision allows him to make swift cuts and get downhill with authority. He also tested well at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.37 40-yard dash.

Strong offers rare skills to fuse speed with power. He has legitimate NFL talent and proved it at the East-West Shrine Game with a 65-yard touchdown reception. With the right team, Strong could emerge as a leader of a backfield committee. 

David Bell, WR, Purdue

He may not blow you away with speed and quickness, but Bell has a nose for the football. Bell wins with competitiveness both in and out of his breaks. He is a smooth route runner and has good footwork. Last season, he hauled in 93 catches for 1,286 yards and six touchdowns.

NFL teams look for tireless workers. Bell is savvy and works at his craft to overcome a lack of top-end athleticism. His 40-yard dash time will likely push him down the boards, but every team needs a reliable playmaker. Bell will make the contested catch and could find his way into a key role as he continues to develop.

WHAT TO KNOW: Learn more about NFL Draft prospect David Bell 

"Every receiver has their minuses and pluses," Bell told the Indianapolis Star ahead of the NFL Draft. "My minus is the speed aspect, but I definitely have a plus in catching and contested catching, being able to play inside and outside and being able to show up in big games when I can."

Zyon McCollum, CB, Sam Houston State

NFL teams are constantly looking for big cornerbacks. At 6-foot-2, McCollum has good size and tested well at the combine. He registered a 4.33 40-yard dash and a 39.5-inch vertical jump. During his career, McCollum had 13 interceptions and six forced fumbles. He knows how to make plays on the football as well.

However, there are questions about whether McCollum can transition to the NFL from the FCS level. He will need to land in the right defensive system to refine his skills. Still, teams cannot teach raw physical traits and McCollum has plenty. He may start on special teams, but don’t be surprised to see McCollum blossom into a valuable defensive back.

Abraham Lucas, OL, Washington State

The 2022 NFL draft has a lot of offensive line talent. Teams that wait until Day 2 could find value in Washington State's Abraham Lucas. The standout right tackle is a strong pass blocker and can hold his own against top defenders.

Lucas wins with his size and length along the interior of the line. NFL teams could also view him as a potential offensive guard. His versatility will be key at the next level as he continues to learn and develop. Lucas' athleticism at 315-pounds could help him push for a defined role within an offensive rotation.

Jan 1, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baylor Bears quarterback Gerry Bohanon (11) is pursued by Mississippi Rebels defensive lineman Sam Williams (7) in the third quarter of the 2022 Sugar Bowl at the Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Williams, DE, Ole Miss

Williams might not be a household name, but NFL teams know about his terrific skill set. Williams will make his money getting to the quarterback. Last season, he registered 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles for the Ole Miss Rebels.

Williams is quick off the football and routinely finds his way into the backfield. He ran 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine. There is room for improvement as a run stopper but that can be rectified in training camp. Williams will thrive if he lands in a defense that allows him to attack at will.

Chad Muma, LB, Wyoming

Muma will fill a key role at his next destination and could become a special teams star. He thrives as a tackler and has physical traits to accelerate his development. He recorded 142 total tackles last season and NFL teams see consistency in his game.

Still, his technique needs work and that might slide him into the middle rounds of the draft. If things break right, Muma could have a long career and become a valuable NFL starter.

Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong (12) throws as San Diego State Aztecs linebacker Garret Fountain (39) moves in during the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park.

Carson Strong, QB, Nevada

Carson Strong has good NFL size. He stands at 6 feet, 3 inches and has the arm talent to stretch opposing defenses. He throws with accuracy and has the leadership skills needed for the position. Last season, Strong threw for 4,175 yards and 36 touchdowns in 12 starts.

NFL teams don’t question his talent. However, there are concerns about his medical history after multiple knee injuries. Strong is a pocket-passer and struggles with his mobility on off-platform throws. 

Skyy Moore, WR, Western Michigan

Moore is the rare NFL receiver that can play across the formation. As a former cornerback, Moore understands defensive tendencies and how to win individual matchups. He can line up outside or in the slot and be productive. Last season, Moore hauled in 95 receptions for 1,292 yards and 10 touchdowns.

He relies on his vertical speed, and his big-play potential makes him a sleeper because he is still learning the nuances of the position. However, his talent suggests he will have a prosperous NFL career.

SKYY MILES: Could the Cleveland Browns be interested the Western Michigan product?

Travis Jones, DL, University of Connecticut

Travis Jones turned heads with an impressive Senior Bowl performance. He constantly beat interior offensive lineman with added punch and power. He lands as a sleeper because of the sheer depth of defensive talent in this year's draft class.

Just look at the numbers. Jones registered 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks from his defensive tackle position. NFL teams that miss out on fellow 2022 prospect Jordan Davis could be interested. As a result, Jones might squeeze into the first round. His ability to be a run stopper and two-gap penetrator will make him valuable in hybrid fronts and 3-4 defensive sets.

Boye Mafe, DE, Minnesota

Mafe is another name that could jump into the first round. He dominated the Senior Bowl and flashed the key skills needed to contribute immediately. Mafe could fit in a 4-3 as a base defensive end or possibly a 3-4 linebacker as well.

He ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine and that speed could help him see the field early. Pair him with NFL veterans and watch Mafe grow into a dynamic starter down the line.