COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Florida State at Pitt
Getty Images

A year ago, Ivan Pace Jr. went undrafted as a 5-foot-11 linebacker who finished his career at Cincinnati after three seasons in the MAC at Miami (Ohio). He was undersized, unheralded and went totally overlooked. Pace proceeded to make 63 solo tackles as a rookie for the Minnesota Vikings, which was more than all but one player who was drafted.

Pace earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 14 and stood out as an absolute steal for Minnesota. The hit rate on rookies decreases as the NFL Draft continues, and it's especially slim with undrafted free agents. But Pace is a glimmering example of the gems that can be unearthed in the late rounds of the draft or even after the draft concludes.

Long after the spotlight of Thursday night's first round fades, NFL front offices executives will be grinding away to maximize their late-round picks and free-agent additions. That work can pay off in a big way. Just look at Puka Nacua from the 2023 class as another example. He slipped to No. 177 overall as the final pick of the fifth round but exploded with 105 receptions for 1,486 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie with the Rams.

Who are the potentially overlooked difference-makers in the 2023 NFL Draft pool? Here is a look at 10 underrated sleepers to watch on Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft.

Cedric Gray, LB, North Carolina

Gray racked up 365 tackles over his final three seasons at North Carolina while establishing himself as one of college football's top linebackers. As an athletic player with a strong football IQ, he's got the makings of a potential longtime NFL player. Gray was a receiver and basketball player in high school who was merely considered an "athlete" by 247Sports in the Class of 2020. He was also a team captain in both high school and in college. With off-the-charts intangibles and solid physical tools, the smart money is on Gray figuring it out and shining as a mid-to-late round pick.

Kalen DeLoach, LB, Florida State

DeLoach is an impressive athlete who picked up 10.5 tackles for loss in a nasty Florida State defense as a fifth-year senior in 2023. He was the second-fastest linebacker clocked in the 40-yard dash at the combine (4.47 seconds) and proved impressively durable for an undersized player in college. Given his physical tools — it would be easy to mistake him for a safety at first glance — DeLoach also has upside in pass coverage.

Cody Schrader, RB, Missouri

Schrader will turn 25 early in the 2024 season, so he's already deep into his professional clock at a position notorious for producing short careers. But he's a bruiser who proved himself at the highest level of college football by averaging 5.9 yards per carry at Missouri in 2023. Schrader is also a competent pass catcher. After beginning his college career redshirting at Division II Truman State, Schrader has overcome the odds to even reach this point. Don't count him out now.

Sione Vaki, S, Utah

Can a safety who clocked a 4.62 40-yard dash at the NFL Draft Combine find a home in the league? Yes, actually. Kamren Curl ran a 4.60 out of Arkansas at the 2020 combine and was taken by Washington in the seventh round. He was a major contributor for the Commanders during his first four seasons in the league and recently signed a two-year contract with the Chargers. After earning All-American honors in just his second season of college football, Vaki could follow that script. He even played some running back for the Utes in 2023.

Jared Wiley, TE, TCU

Wiley was a bright spot during a letdown season for TCU as he racked up 47 catches for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. At 6-7 and 260 pounds, he's not going to break any speed records for the position. But he has upside as a blocker, great hands and the frame to make contested catches. Wiley went early in the fourth round of Josh Edwards' recent mock draft. But he's No. 210 in the CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings, which is late sixth round territory. He will be a steal if he slips that far.

Beanie Bishop Jr., CB, West Virginia

Bishop wasn't even at the NFL Draft Combine, but he clocked a 4.39 40-yard dash at the Big 12 Combine, which is faster than the combine times posted by highly touted corners such as Terrion Arnold (4.50) and Kris Abrams-Draine (4.44). He'll be 25 before the season ends, which is another reason why Bishop's stock is low. But after earning honorable mention All-American honors from CBS Sports with four interceptions and a whopping 20 deflections in 2023, he's absolutely worth a late-round pick.

Isaiah Williams, WR, Illinois

Williams went undrafted in Josh Edwards' recent seven-round mock draft, which isn't surprising given that he's just No. 258 in the CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings. With a mere 4.63 40-yard dash, he's not electric. But he's a reliable slot target who snagged 82 passes in back-to-back seasons in the Big Ten. Hunter Renfrow profiled similarly in the 2019 draft class and went on to catch 103 passes for 1,038 yards during his third year in the league.

Nelson Ceaser, DL, Houston

If collegiate productivity is of interest, then Caesar has a body of work that compares quite favorably to many of his peers who are considered better prospects. Amid Houston's transition from the AAC to the Big 12, he racked up 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Predictions for when he could be taken are all over the board. But if he goes undrafted as he did in Josh Edwards' recent full mock draft, then whoever snags him will have discovered a potential pass-rushing gem.

Edefuan Ulofoshio, LB, Washington

Ulofoshio ranks No. 174 in the CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings after racking up 94 tackles, including eight tackles for loss, while helping lead Washington to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He was in college for six years, so a 10-year NFL career may be unlikely for the 24-year old Ulofoshio. But he can make an impact in the NFL after earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Lideatrick Griffin, WR, Mississippi State

Griffin proved in 2023 that he is more than just an air raid stat machine and kick returner. With Mississippi State using a pro-style system, Griffin upped his production in 2023 to catch 50 passes for 658 yards out of the slot. He's got serious speed and played as an outside receiver earlier in his career. And, yes, he's a big-time kick returner. Griffin averaged 30.4 yards per return on 54 attempts with a pair of touchdowns in four college seasons. As the NFL adopts new kick return rules designed to increase the number of kick returns, that speciality could help Griffin stand out.