A year ago, Isiah Pacheco had an uncertain NFL future following a solid but not overwhelming collegiate career at Rutgers. Then, in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Kansas City took a swing on the 5-foot-10 running back with the 251st overall pick. In short order, he became the leading rusher for eventual Super Bowl champions and one of the most valuable late-round selections of recent memory.
Such stories are not unprecedented in the high-stakes realm of the NFL Draft, which is set to begin Thursday night in Kansas City. Long after the prime time glitz of the first round has faded, franchises will be grinding away to find impact players on Saturday in Rounds 4-7.
The hit rate on rookies decreases the deeper teams go into the draft, but Pacheco is a shining example of the gems waiting to be unearthed. Other late-round picks who proved to be productive rookies in 2022 include Colts safety Rodney Thomas II (seventh round), Lions linebacker Malcom Rodriguez (sixth round) and Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier (fifth round).
Who are the potentially overlooked difference-makers in the 2023 NFL Draft pool? Here is a a look at 10 underrated sleepers to watch on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft.
Ivan Pace Jr., LB, Cincinnati
Pace appears to be a polarizing linebacker in this class with projections varying greatly on where he could end up. Considering that he's an undersized former two-star prospect who didn't play in a Power Five conference, that's not surprising. At the end of the day, however, he was an All-American for an elite Group of Five school who had 10 sacks and forced three fumbles in 2022. Wherever the football is, that's where you'll find Pace. Yes, he's only 5-foot-11, but he plays with a mean streak and will be hard to keep off the field even if he slips to the sixth or seventh round.
Chase Brown, RB, Illinois
Brown carried Illinois to its best season in 15 years by amassing 1,643 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging five yards a pop, even when opposing defenses knew he was getting the ball. He also caught 27 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns last season. At 23, he's old for a running back but is durable and versatile. Concerns about Brown's five fumbles in 2022 are also overblown considering how frequently the football was in his hands. There's not much separating him from the more touted backs in this class, and it's easy to envision Brown becoming the secondary back for an NFL franchise as a rookie.
Ford-Wheaton dominated during West Virginia's first two games against Pitt and Kansas in 2022, accumulating 20 catches for 249 yards and four touchdowns in a demonstration of his elite potential. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he's both strong and fast with experience lining up in the slot in addition to his customary spot on the perimeter. There isn't one specific trait that makes Ford-Wheaton pop in a receiver class that features big-name players from brand-name programs who enjoyed more shine in the national spotlight. Still, he has an appealing combination of size, speed and versatility with enough of a collegiate track record to suggest that we will look back and regard him as one of the top 15 receivers from this draft.
Yasir Abdullah, LB, Louisville
Based on his slot at No. 202 in the CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings, Abdullah is on track to be selected in the sixth round. After racking up 19.5 sacks in the ACC over his final two seasons in college, though, Abdullah is worth taking a flyer on in the fourth or fifth round. He's not quite big enough to fit the mold of a traditional edge rusher, but a creative coach will find ways to get Abdullah onto the field and into opposing backfields. He's athletic enough to drop into coverage, and he has the tools and track record to play through any concerns over the "tweener" label that has been attached to his name during the pre-draft process.
Kirkland will be 25 when the season starts, which makes him ancient for a rookie. That partially explains why he's hanging out at No. 167 in the CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings. But after six seasons at Washington that included starts at three different positions, he should be NFL-ready out of the shoot. He anchored the Huskies offensive line as the left tackle over the past two seasons, and the unit allowed just seven sacks in 2022 even as starting QB Michael Penix Jr. attempted a whopping 554 passes. Everything about Kirkland's size, versatility, collegiate success and intangibles point toward him becoming an excellent NFL offensive lineman.
Tyrus Wheat, EDGE, Mississippi State
The 6-foot-2 edge defender consistently produced in three seasons at Mississippi State, concluding his three-year SEC career with 17 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss. Wheat is a former junior college prospect who has flown under the radar at every turn while managing to produce at greater-than-expected levels. That trend appears to be transpiring again; he's projected to be a late-round pick at best. That's likely due, in part, to the fact that he'll turn 24 during his rookie season. Ultimately, Wheat was consistently productive in college football's toughest conference and will find his way into opposing backfields if given a shot in the NFL.
Will Mallory, TE, Miami
Miami's passing offense regressed significantly in 2022, but Mallory's production actually increased with a career-best 42 catches for 538 yards. He's a reliable pass-catcher with good size and athleticism. Mallory is yet another example of a player who will turn 24 during his rookie season, and perhaps that makes him less attractive than the younger prospects ahead of him at the position. But he's on the higher end of the spectrum at tight end in terms of 40-yard dash time and is just as athletic and sure-handed as most of the others at his position. On the heels of a great year for an otherwise struggling Miami offense, Mallory looks like the ultimate late-round sleeper.
SirVocea Dennis, LB, Pitt
Dennis improved each season during his four years after joining Pitt as two-star prospect in the Class of 2019. At 6-foot-1, the knock must be that he's undersized to play linebacker at the next level, because his collegiate track record suggests that he can be a productive NFL player. Dennis consistently made tackles for loss in his three seasons as a regular presence on the field in the ACC, and he has the athletic versatility required to play in space at the next level.
Charlie Jones, WR, Purdue
The easy comparison is to Hunter Renfrow, who has emerged as a consistent target over four seasons with the Raiders after going in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft following four productive seasons at Clemson. Like Renfrow, Jones is undersized and won't wow anyone with his bench press or vertical jump numbers. But he is savvy and sure-handed, as demonstrated by his 110 catches for 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Boilermakers last season. Jones also ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and can break away away from the opposition even after nearly reaching a complete stop to catch the football in a soft spot of the defense.
Patterson remained a stalwart of Notre Dame's offensive line over the past four seasons at center and then guard even while playing through injuries. He's been an All-American and team captain, and he knows every position on the line after projecting as a tackle during his days as a high school prospect. Maybe the high-end potential isn't there, but the floor on Patterson seems higher than his No. 256 prospect ranking suggests. The likelihood that 20-plus interior offensive lineman turn out as better pros than Patterson is a tough sell after the consistency and toughness he demonstrated in college.