T.J. Yates surprised the NFL, going from sleeper to the playoffs.
This phenomenon occurs for a combination of reasons, some of which include: the abundance of talent available relative to the length of the draft (now only seven rounds; it was 12 as recently as 1992), the inherent chaotic difficulty of projecting college players to the NFL, as well as players who flourish and develop later or with certain coaching in a specific system.
Some of the all-time NFL greats who fall into this category are:
Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, a ninth-round selection (102nd pick overall, equivalent to a modern-day fourth-rounder) from the University of Louisville in 1955.
And the most recent ongoing example is future Hall of Fame passer for the New England Patriots and megastar, Tom Brady, who fell all the way to the sixth round in 2001 out of the University of Michigan.
Something else important to keep in mind when tracking the potential of players with this profile is that it rarely happens for them right away. The very nature of their draft slot often means there is something latent to their talent or missing in part from their overall play.
Late-round and undrafted prospects often have to outshine higher-selected players close to their same experience level, not to mention veteran starters, for a longer period of time before getting established. Still, in other cases these guys kick around different leagues before succeeding in the NFL.
Quarterbacks Warren Moon (Canadian Football League), Jeff Garcia (CFL), Kurt Warner (Arena Football League and NFL Europe), defensive end/outside linebacker Cameron Wake (CFL) and feature back Fred Jackson (National Indoor Football League, United Indoor Football and NFL Europe) are starring examples of this refrain.
Three big rookie surprises in the NFL during 2011 all hailed from the fifth round in Houston Texans quarterback T.J. Yates (University of North Carolina), Oakland Raiders wide receiver Denarius Moore (University of Tennessee) and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (Stanford University).
Yates, in particular, rode a tremendous roller coaster from draft sleeper to No. 3 on the depth chart before assuming the reins under center for the Texans down the stretch and into the playoffs, advancing to a tough loss on the road in Baltimore in the divisional round.
This slideshow examines a group of 2012 rookie prospects who are likely to fall onto the draft's third day or beyond it entirely but who I believe have the upside to surprise in the league and enjoy quality careers.
Wilson may need some time but could bloom into a starter.
Russell Wilson, QB, University of Wisconsin, 5'10.5", 205 pounds, redshirt senior, born 11/29/1988
Career: completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 11,720 yards with 109 touchdowns, 30 interceptions and another 23 scores on the ground.
2011: led the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 191.78 passer rating, while hitting on 72.8 percent of his attempts, going for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns against only four picks.
I love this guy a lot. He is totally in command and under control, has great poise and confidence and almost never panics.
He has all the passing tools (velocity, accuracy, ball comes out well) but is just short in height. X-factor athleticism allows him to extend plays and keep his eyes downfield (video :32 mark) but also has the ability to scramble for first downs on 3rd-and-long.
Wilson is a decisive passer who likes to get rid of the ball. He has a quick release because he can just flick his wrist and out comes lasers (video 2:18 mark).
The NFL is very leery of short quarterbacks and Wilson will battle skeptics every step of the way, including within his own selecting organization in all likelihood, which pushes his draft market down. But he has been proving doubters wrong and overcoming the odds for years.
Beyond great athleticism, passing skills and mental/psychological makeup, Wilson also does an excellent job of taking care of the football. His large hands allow him to execute convincing play fakes and he only fumbled once every 20 tackled touches in college, a well above-average figure for a QB, while also posting a career interception percentage right at 2.0.
There are very few successful short quarterbacks to compare him to, but three who come to mind are Seneca Wallace, Doug Flutie and Jeff Blake. To me he comprises the best of all three: Flutie's leadership/toughness that other men will trust and follow him on the field; Wallace's athleticism to escape and create on the move; and Blake's passing skills but with better turnover avoidance.
Ballard's complete skill set points to early playing time.
Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State University, 5'10", 220 pounds, senior, born 7/16/1990
Career: Including his two underclass seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he ran for a total of 4,540 yards and 63 touchdowns in four years.
2011: 193 attempts, 1,189 yards, 6.2 average per attempt with another 20 catches going for 9.3 yards per reception.
Ballard is a rare every-down back prospect who runs with good pad level, power and finish. He is also a capable receiver (video: consecutive plays starting at :15 mark) and blocker.
He is not real elusive or a creator in space but gets to top speed quickly (video at :45 and 3:00 marks) to maximize gains into and past the second level of the defense.
He should have a chance to endear himself to a coaching staff and play earlier than a lot of rookies because he has present skills in the passing game, as both a blocker and receiver. There is not anything overly sexy about his game, but its well-roundedness could land him a complementary role out of camp or ahead of him on the depth chart in the event of an injury.
I see comparisons to Ryan Torain and Pierre Thomas. His size, speed and some other measurables are right around and between these two with a similar running style to Torain, but the overall skill set that Thomas offers.
Jenkins could be the next WR to outrun his draft status.
A.J. Jenkins, WR, University of Illinois, 6'0", 190 pounds, senior, born 9/30/1989
Career: 167 receptions for 2,432 receiving yards, averaging 14.6 yards per catch and 19 touchdowns.
2011: 90 catches at 14.2 yards per reception for 1,276 yards and eight scores.
Jenkins may have some nuance work to do with his patterns and when to sit down or move versus zone coverage but his physical metrics were impressive (arm length, speed, vertical) based on what I saw on film and live at the East-West Shrine Game.
He later put up the following measurables between the combine and his pro day: 4.37 40-yard dash, 38.5" vertical, 10'4" broad jump, low 6.7s in the 3-cone and low 3.8s in the short shuttle.
He is a consistent enough receiver to be more than a home run threat with powerful strides both into the stem of his route and after the catch. Jenkins plays taller than his height because of long arms (32.75-inch arm length), a great vertical and an overall explosive quality to his play.
During the Shrine Game he also displayed good willingness and execution as a blocker, something that not every All-Star prospect wide receiver his size is able to boast.
Jenkins' seeming lack of fanfare throughout the pre-draft process reminds me a lot of the same mainstream regard for Denarius Moore a year ago, who inexplicably went on to fall to Oakland in the fifth round.
Jenkins possesses similar average size and plus speed and, while Moore was a better route runner coming out of Tennessee, Jenkins is the more explosive of the two. I think he can be a playmaker from any of the three primary wideout alignments (Z, X or the slot).
I will mention that longtime draftnik veterans, Russ Lande and Gil Brandt, each have Jenkins in their respective most current top-100 listings, which is where I also think he should reside on boards. But if the consensus opinions prevail, look for Jenkins to be a big overachiever at the next level.
Linthicum's stock should be pointed higher than it is.
Brian Linthicum, TE, Michigan State University, 6'4", 250 pounds, redshirt senior, born 11/28/1987
Career: 80 receptions for 936 yards, an 11.7 receiving average and three touchdowns.
2011: 31 catches but no touchdowns, averaging 11.7 per reception for 364 yards.
He is not an elite-speed, field-stretching tight end but still very athletic and plenty dangerous in the passing game. Linthicum looks a little light in the legs but does get after it in run blocking, including in-line and lead block phone booth assignments that he executes well.
He shows surprising physicality for a tight end with more of a move/joker amount of bulk but also runs savvy routes, is able to pick through the trash after his in-line releases and displays good hands.
The only mainstream draftnik I have read that likes Linthicum more than me is Mel Kiper, Jr., who has listed him as his No. 5 tight end for some time. But other opinions have him rated as lowly as a post-draft priority free agent.
I felt like Linthicum, after he had a nice final year and showed well at the Senior Bowl, was one of the more glaring combine snubs. If he can stay healthy and gets onto the right team, he could develop into a premier No. 2 type like Joel Dreessen, who was a sixth-rounder himself from Colorado State by the Jets before flourishing the last three seasons in Houston.
Part of Linthicum's effectiveness as a blocker, despite what looks like a narrow trunk and thighs, comes from elite upper-body strength, which was on display when he lifted 225 lbs. 28 times at his pro day.
This guy is just a real nice combination of blocking functionality and athleticism as a receiver.
Wolfe could be a pack leader for his drafting team.
Derek Wolfe, DL, University of Cincinnati, 6'5", 280 pounds , senior, born 2/24/1990
Career: 162 total tackles, 37 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks.
2011: 70 total tackles, 21.5 for loss and 9.5 sacks.
I came away very impressed with Wolfe. He is a tremendous playmaker whose quickness/burst off the ball allows him to play in the opponents’ backfield often and wreak havoc.
As such, he causes problems as an interior pass rusher, as well as in run defense. Wolfe also offers great scheme flexibility as a 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 defensive end and even as a 3-4 rush nose tackle.
The reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year plays with tremendous violence due to the rare natural combination of size, strength and quickness he possesses (highlight video, 2:07 in total duration).
He carries a third-round grade from me and, frankly, I would be very surprised if some team did not gladly jump on him in that range after the perceived elite interior defensive line prospects are taken in the first two rounds.
Wolfe offers so much flexibility and versatility. After playing most of the season closer to 300 lbs., he has dropped down to 280 in the pre-draft process but has the frame to add the weight back, positively, if so dictated by his primary role in the NFL.
Bequette provides safety in his likely versatility in the NFL.
Jake Bequette, DE/OLB, University of Arkansas, 6'4.5", 275 pounds, redshirt senior, born 2/21/1989
Career: 126 total tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 23.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles.
2011: 28 total tackles, 10.5 for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles in only 10 games.
He uses his leverage and strength well to hold the point of attack in the run game, as well as employ a penetrating bull rush. Bequette also bends the edge with aplomb in order to shorten the distance between him and the quarterback when rushing the passer.
Rare agility for his size shows up in counter moves and change-of-direction skills, while he also features a good club move to help keep offensive tackles' hands off of him.
Bequette plays with that unteachable quality of great want and desire when motoring towards the ball, a relentlessness he often capitulates with a violent finish to his tackles. He explodes through his sacks and hits, inflicting physical punishment and causing fumbles as a byproduct (throughout this video).
This is another player who possesses all of the ingredients to outplay his draft slot: some rare physical attributes, tremendous football character and quality production in the best conference in college football.
His explosion (34" vertical, 9'5" broad jump) and agility markers (6.90 three-cone drill, 4.07 short shuttle) were elite figures for his position/size at the combine last month. And both talents show up consistently in the pass-rush threat he provides.
It is especially puzzling to me that the draftnik community is not higher on him given the fact that he has also passed all of the eye tests during drills for being a candidate to convert or double in certain schemes as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Bequette is another defender who carries a third-round grade for me but that I have seen largely being discussed as a day-three consideration.
Omar Brown, FS, Marshall University, senior, born 6/6/1988
Career: 288 total tackles, 20 pass breakups, nine interceptions and five forced fumbles.
2011: 113 total tackles with four pass breakups, four picks and four fumbles forced.
Brown is a little undersized but he is also very quick and covers a lot of ground, both in run support and playing center field. He shows the ability to go sideline to sideline.
He dropped the one pick opportunity in this look but history seems to show good ball skills with interceptions and forced fumbles.
Brown is an active player who has some dynamic to him and will stick his nose in the fray. He reads and reacts well to the run and is extremely quick getting to the point of attack but does not always take the soundest angles in pursuit.
This guy is my real dark horse long shot on the list, and his pro day measurements and test results still are not publicly available, so there is even less to go on. Realistically he must be considered an undrafted prospect at this point.
But the tape is intriguing and shows a smaller safety who plays with a big chip on his shoulder, eschewing the finesse tag carried by most defensive backs his size. Brown shows no hesitation or fear in filling the alley in run support and meeting bigger backs in the hole.
This trait combined with the quickness of his game in coverage should get him signed and brought to a team's camp where he will be able to grow in their system, develop his overall game and look to contribute on special teams right away.
Brown shows the tenacity, ball skills for causing turnovers and run/pass combination ability to really surprise the NFL if he can overcome his size obstacle, stay healthy and find a team that believes in him.
As always, I look forward to your comments below and you may follow me on Twitter at @JeffRoemer.