The 2022 NFL Draft was defined by sleepers, and there may be a similar theme in 2023. There will be those at the top, dominating the ranks, but the story of the class is almost always told by the sleepers who break out and achieve prominence on the NFL draft stage. Here are five who might follow that trajectory.
2023 NFL Draft sleepers at EDGE
Andre Carter II, Army
NFL draft eligibility for service academy players can be a tricky thing, sometimes impacting the stock of those that do garner NFL Draft interest. But Andre Carter II is too talented to let eligibility rules get in the way of a prospective NFL career. He could be one of the most talented prospects to come out of any service academy school for over a decade. That sounds like hyperbole, but it might not be.
Carter stands at 6’7″, 265 pounds, with a long, flexible frame. For his size, he moves incredibly well, both in space and when rushing the passer. He’s a smart, instinctive player who’s quick off the snap, and can quickly employ violent rushing moves to get himself free.
For his size, Carter also brings excellent ankle flexion. It’s not often that a rusher with Carter’s size can reduce his surface area like Carter can. That’s what led him to amass 14½ sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 2021. If he weren’t at Army, Carter wouldn’t be a 2023 NFL Draft sleeper at all. He’d be on the early-round radar.
Isaiah McGuire, Missouri
Ask someone who the best edge rushers in the SEC are, and the usual names come to mind. Will Anderson Jr. is obviously at the top. After that, players like Georgia’s Nolan Smith, LSU’s BJ Ojulari, and Auburn’s Derick Hall come to mind. Arguably, Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire should be viewed in a similar light.
McGuire doesn’t have the name recognition, but he’s quietly ascending as a 2023 NFL Draft sleeper. In 2021, McGuire was a defensive standout for the Tigers, putting up 55 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and six sacks in a full-time EDGE role.
Listed at 6’4″, 266 pounds, McGuire is in an exciting mold. He wears his weight extremely well and has great play strength, along with excellent power capacity derived from his long arms. Furthermore, McGuire is explosive and twitchy, and can generate ample momentum off his first step. He’s not the most bendy player, but he has a full pallet of traits beyond that.
Nick Hampton, Appalachian State
Nick Hampton is a different type of player than most of the prospects on this list. While the others have size as a calling card, Hampton is just 6’3″, 225 pounds. While he does have good length for his size, Hampton’s frame actively works against him in some situations.
Luckily, there’s a lot more that he brings to the table. That’s why he was able to pick up 11 sacks and 17½ tackles for loss in 2021. And in the right scheme fit, he could be a high-value 2023 NFL Draft sleeper.
At his size, Hampton is more of a stand-up rush linebacker, but he brings the tools to succeed in that role. Hampton is supremely explosive off the snap, with excellent short-area and lateral burst.
With his burst, twitch, and high-energy style, he can quickly displace tackles and then surge past them with acceleration around the apex. Hampton also has an active pass-rush arsenal. He’s shown to generate speed to power and stack combos like chop-rip moves with his amped-up usage.
Jared Verse, Florida State
In actuality, Florida State has two candidates for this list: Derrick McLendon and Jared Verse. Both edge rushers have legitimate NFL qualities and could use the 2022 season as a platform to break out, much like Jermaine Johnson II did in 2021. But if we’re talking sleepers, it makes sense to pick Jared Verse as the bigger one.
McLendon is at least established at Florida State. Verse hasn’t yet played Division 1A football. But the Florida State camp has been buzzing about Verse all offseason.
Listed at 6’4″, 251 pounds, Verse has good size and impressive length, which he can use to generate eye-catching amounts of power on bull rushes and long arms. Verse is also a phenomenal athlete, with great burst off the line and speed in pursuit. At Albany in 2021, he amassed 9½ sacks and 11½ tackles for loss. He’ll look to carry over that production at FSU.
Lukas Van Ness, Iowa
Lukas Van Ness’ status as a 2023 NFL Draft sleeper comes with a couple of caveats. First and foremost, he’s a redshirt sophomore, so the chances of him declaring this cycle are a bit lower. Second, he was used as an interior defensive lineman often by Iowa in 2021, despite standing around 6’5″, 264 pounds. But the crazy thing is, Van Ness was still disruptive even on the interior. And at his natural EDGE position, it’s reasonable to suggest that he could be a force unleashed.
It’s unclear if Iowa will play him on the edge this season, but Van Ness has the tools to be dominant there. His size and length are obvious plus traits, but Van Ness also has a torrid first step off the line. He can generate power, wrench blockers back, and use his lateral agility and ankle flexion to move around blockers and sift through rushing lanes. Van Ness grabbed seven sacks and 8½ tackles for loss as an undersized redshirt freshman interior DL. It’s almost scary to think about what he can do at his natural spot.