The 2012 NFL draft is just more than one month away, and as the big day inches closer, front offices are setting up their draft boards and doing whatever they can do get a leg up on the competition.
For some that means digging deep and finding those under-the-radar prospects who are much better than where they might be selected in the draft.
From Tom Brady back in 2000 to DeMarco Murray this past season, we have seen plenty of late picks make a name for themselves in the NFL over the years.
Let's project the biggest steals at each position in the upcoming 2012 NFL draft.
Despite not being a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school, Cousins had a phenomenal college career at Michigan State. He was a three-year starter under Mark Dantonio and led the Spartans to a 27-12 career record, including a 22-5 mark in his final two seasons in Green and White.
In addition to his outstanding record at MSU, Cousins also shattered a number of school passing records. He is MSU’s all-time leader in career passing yards (9.131), passing touchdowns (66) and passing efficiency (146.1).
What makes Cousins such a solid prospect is the fact that he has three years of starting experience while playing against some of the best competition in all of college football in the Big Ten Conference. He also has tremendous arm strength and is one of the brightest quarterbacks in this NFL draft.
But the No. 1 factor that makes Cousin such a steal?
All he does is win.
Cousins’ 27 career wins are the most of any quarterback in Michigan State history. That list includes the likes of Tony Banks, Drew Stanton, Brian Hoyer and plenty other former NFL signal-callers. Look for Cousins to be selected somewhere in the second- to third-round range, but if he gets the chance he will play like a first-round pick at some point.
I know LaMichael James is a big name heading into this year’s NFL draft, but several draft experts believe that this guy will be a third- or even fourth-round draft selection.
How is that even possible?
James was an electric playmaker for one of the top college football programs in America. He has exceptional speed, being clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is the most athletic of any running back in this year’s draft class.
The worry on James seems to be that his 194-pound frame won’t hold up in the NFL. However, in this day and age, every team seems to be going with a two-back system, and if James can have a big, bruising back to complement him, he should be a star in the NFL one day.
Cunningham is the second Spartan to appear on this list, but with good reason.
At 6’1”, 211 pounds, Cunningham has good size to go along with his exceptional hands and route-running ability. He has quick feet that allow him to constantly beat opposing cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage and get into his routes.
It is no secret Justin Blackmon is the gem of this year’s wide receiver class, but after him it is anyone’s guess as to what order the other top wide receivers will fall.
Personally, I would much rather wait until the third round to snag a guy with Cunningham’s ability, experience and upside rather than taking a risk on an overweight Alshon Jeffery or an underachieving Rueben Randle.
Not to mention, Cunningham was a four-year starter at a school that got better every year he was there.
James Hanna never received the hype like a Jermaine Gresham when he left Oklahoma for the NFL draft, but when it comes to catching the football, this kid is scary good.
The ongoing knock on Hanna has been that he isn’t a great blocker, but in this era of football, if you are a tight end who has good height and can catch the ball, teams are going to find a spot for you out on the football field.
As good as Hannah’s hands are, perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game is how fast he proved to be at this year’s NFL combine. Hannah was clocked at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which is near unheard of for a tight end.
If this kid can improve his route running and develop some more toughness when running across the field, the sky could be the limit for him.
Can someone please explain to me how this kid isn’t a lock to be a first-round draft selection?
Not only were his test results extremely impressive at the combine this year, but he has the ability to play both offensive tackle and guard at the next level.
A guy who stands at 6’5”, 345 pounds, can run a 40-yard dash in 5.1 seconds and possesses the size and skill set to play multiple positions sounds like the ideal recipe of a first-round selection to me.
Oh, right, not to mention that he played at Georgia against the top players in the country in the SEC.
Bruce Irvin may have taken a step backwards last year as far as personal numbers were concerned, but make no mistake about it: This guy is a pass-rushing machine who is an absolute menace to opposing quarterbacks.
Irvin recorded 14 sacks in his junior season and followed that up with 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles this past season at West Virginia.
What also is so impressive about Irvin is his speed for someone his size. Standing at 6’3”, 250 pounds, Irvin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at the NFL combine, which was the fastest time recorded by a defensive lineman.
The key here is to figure out which team that runs a 3-4 defense is going to select Irvin. Many believe he is a third-round selection, but any team looking for a 3-4 rush linebacker should jump at the idea of adding Irvin to its defense.
Personally, I believe this is a guy who has a second-round value who will likely get selected way later in the draft than he should.
At the end of last season, Jerel Worthy was said to be the top defensive tackle prospect in the 2012 NFL draft.
Since then, all that's happened was Worthy had a dominant junior season at Michigan State where he was named a first-team All-American, and now all of a sudden he is receiving a second-round grade and believed to be the third- or even fourth-best defensive tackle in the NFL Draft?
Perhaps that would make sense if Worthy had a poor showing at the combine, but he tested great, including running a 5.0 40-yard dash, which is near unthinkable for someone who weighs in excess of 300 pounds.
Worthy is worthy of a first-round selection. It's just a question of which team will realize that first in this April's draft.
Michael Kendricks isn't getting the credit he deserves because this kid is a standout athlete and will succeed in the NFL if given the chance.
Kendricks had 107 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions this past season for the Cal Bears. He has a ton of potential at the next level because of his exceptional speed and his ability to get to opposing quarterbacks.
To give you an idea of how fast Kendricks is, he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, which is good for a running back, no less a linebacker.
Many believe Kendricks will fall past the third round into the fourth- to fifth-round range, but any team that scoops him up that late will be very happy with this pleasant surprise of a player.
Anyone who saw Brandon Boykin play in this year's Outback Bowl knows very well that this kid as a really good football player.
Boykin was a great cover corner this past season for the Bulldogs, recording 55 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
And the beauty with this is that Boykin can play everywhere on the football field.
He played receiver and H-back on offense as well and recorded three touchdowns—two receiving and one rushing. He also returns kicks and punts, and is extremely good at that as well.
Boykin is slated as a third-round pick, partially because he didn't participate in this year's NFL combine because he is recovering from an injury. However, whatever team grabs him will get a huge steal at that spot in the NFL draft.
If you like watching hard-hitting safeties play in the NFL, then you are going to love former LSU safety standout Brandon Taylor.
This is a guy who lives for contact and thrives on making big plays on the ball. He is a fearless player who looks for contact.
Taylor had 71 tackles with 7.5 tackles for a loss, five passes broken up, one sack and two interceptions in 2011. He was often overlooked on a defense that was filled was stars, which is why many believe that he could fall to the third or fourth round.
However, this is a guy who was a three-year starter for one of the best programs in all of college football.
You really can't say enough about a guy with this much talent, skill and experience.