As the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams turn their attention to Super Bowl 56, the league’s other 30 teams are already thinking about the 2022 NFL Draft. Many of the players who will hear their names called this spring have an opportunity to boost their stock at the 2022 Senior Bowl, which will take place on Saturday, Feb. 5.
Unlike the NFL Combine, not every player attending the Senior Bowl is guaranteed to be drafted. For every first-round pick participating in the game, there are plenty of late-round prospects who have an opportunity to stand out and prove why they deserve to be on an NFL roster next season. Now feels like the perfect time to analyze some defensive prospects who are sleepers entering this year’s Senior Bowl.
For this list, we tried to exclude players who are widely known, such as Florida State pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson, and prospects who are currently considered near-locks to be drafted in the first round. This sleeper list does include players from Power 5 programs as opposed to only featuring Group of 5 players or “small-school” prospects.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the most intriguing Senior Bowl defensive sleepers rank as follows:
6. Myjai Sanders, DE, Cincinnati
Sanders, who turns 22 on Feb. 27, only had 2.5 sacks in 2021 after totaling 11 in his previous two seasons. However, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound pass-rusher is a fascinating prospect, especially after the Tigers became the first Group of 5 team to reach the College Football Playoff last season.
A three-year starter, Sanders earned first-team All-AAC honors in 2020 and 2021 and is currently projected to go on the draft’s second day. An impressive performance in the Senior Bowl could seal his place as a second-round pick.
5. Tariq Woolen, CB, UTSA
Although Cincinnati was understandably the most prominent Group of 5 football team in 2021, UTSA dominated foes all season en route to a 12-2 finish and its first Conference USA title. Woolen, a 6-foot-4 cornerback, broke up five passes and snagged an interception last year. Although he missed several weeks with a hand injury, he returned in time for the Roadrunners’ C-USA Championship Game victory over Western Kentucky.
Not only is Woolen healthy, but he earned rave reviews in the pre-draft process for his speed and athleticism. After switching from receiver to cornerback in 2019, the former UTSA standout is a projected Day 3 selection in the upcoming draft.
4. D’Marco Jackson, LB, Appalachian State
A first-team All-Sun Belt selection in 2021, Jackson tallied 119 total tackles, 20 for a loss, and six sacks in 14 games. However, Bleacher Report’s NFL Scouting Department expressed concerns about his size (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and his ability to hold his own against blockers.
A strong Senior Bowl outing likely won’t be enough to propel Jackson into discussions as a Day 2 prospect. He can nonetheless use the all-star game to solidify his place as not only a draftable player but someone who has the potential to survive final cuts next summer.
3. JT Woods, S, Baylor
A standout track runner in high school, Woods showcased his speed throughout his time at Baylor. After spending his first two seasons as a rotational option and spot starter, the 6-foot-2 defender became a significant piece of the Bears’ defense. He ended his college career in style, picking off three passes in a Big 12 Championship Game victory over Oklahoma State and a Sugar Bowl win over Ole Miss.
Woods has size, speed, and experience, all of which could appeal to NFL teams. Although Woods is currently projected to either be selected on Day 3 or go undrafted entirely, he has the intangibles to work his way onto an NFL roster.
2. DeAngelo Malone, EDGE, Western Kentucky
Malone spent parts of five seasons terrorizing Conference USA defenses, tallying 34 sacks and nine sacks during his Western Kentucky career. The two-time CUSA Defensive Player of the Year helped the Hilltoppers to four bowl games and arrived at the Senior Bowl as a late-round prospect.
Although Malone is 6-foot-4, he has a 240-pound frame and a history of success in Conference USA, a mid-major league, working against him. Some NFL teams might rather have a 250-pound pass-rusher from an SEC school than someone who thrived against G5 teams. However, Malone could stil find himself on an NFL roster as a developmental prospect and pass-rush specialist. The Senior Bowl is an excellent opportunity for him to prove what he can do against offensive linemen with legitimate NFL futures.
1. Marcus Jones, CB, Houston
After beginning his career at Troy, Jones transferred to Houston and found a home on the Cougars’ defense. Although he is only 5-foot-8 and under 190 pounds, the explosive cornerback used his speed to snag five interceptions and break up 13 passes last season. He also recorded nearly 3,000 total return yards in college and brought back nine of his returns (six kickoffs, three punts) for touchdowns.
Two decades ago, Jones would likely have found himself on an NFL roster as a return specialist. However, being an NFL punt or kick returner isn’t what it once was, and Jones, who is currently projected as a mid-round pick, must use the Senior Bowl to assert himself as a viable NFL defensive back.