Every NFL fan knows about the big names like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but it is often the more unheralded players who ultimately develop into stars. Every year there are a few players who receive little publicity during the college football season or during the run up to the draft, but for one reason or another, they are picked in the first round.
All it takes is for one team to have interest in a player, and that player becomes a first-rounder. Surprising first-round picks have worked to varying degrees as such wild cards can either be Pro Bowlers or busts, but that is the nature of the NFL Draft. Aside from a few select players, you simply never know what you're going to get.
In addition to a full, first-round mock draft, here are my predictions for some dark-horse candidates to be selected late in the first round.
1. Indianapolis Colts (2-14): Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
The Colts have toyed with the idea of taking Robert Griffin III No. 1 overall, but Luck is the best player in the draft and he'll certainly be the selection.
2. Washington Redskins (5-11): Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (via STL)
Washington obviously had every intention of nabbing Griffin when it traded up from the No. 6 spot and the Redskins won't hesitate to make it happen.
3. Minnesota Vikings (3-13): Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Although the Vikings have plenty of holes to fill, the most glaring is at left tackle, so Kalil has to be the top prospect on their radar.
4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
The Browns have whiffed at every turn to improve at quarterback, but with Peyton Hillis out of the picture, they'll take the top running back in the draft in Richardson.
Which dark horse is most likely to be taken in the first round?
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Claiborne's low Wonderlic score has been all the rage as of late, but he is a supreme athlete who can be a shut-down corner, so Tampa will jump on him.
6. St. Louis Rams (2-14): Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (via WAS)
The Rams were in an advantageous spot at No. 2 and after trading down to No. 6, they'll still get Sam Bradford an elite weapon in Blackmon.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): Quinton Coples, DE, UNC
Jacksonville has had a pretty bad track record as of late when it comes to taking defensive linemen early, but Coples is too talented to pass up.
8. Miami Dolphins (6-10): Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
There has been some speculation that the Dolphins might reach for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but I expect them to go for a safe offensive lineman like Reiff.
9. Carolina Panthers (6-10): Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
Most mocks have the Panthers taking defensive tackle Dontari Poe, but he simply doesn't fit a 4-3 defense like the penetrating Brockers does.
10. Buffalo Bills (6-10): Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
The Bills appear to be on the verge of playoff contention, and getting a complement to Stevie Johnson in Floyd would be another step in the right direction.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9): Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Kansas City is a deep team, but the offensive line lacks in consistency, so a solid tackle in the form of Martin is a logical pick.
12. Seattle Seahawks (7-9): Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
The Seahawks were very inconsistent when it came to pressuring the quarterback last season, but Ingram should certainly bolster the pass rush.
13. Arizona Cardinals (8-8): Luke Kuechly, ILB, Boston College
Arizona's defense has really struggled since the departure of linebacker Carlos Dansby, but Kuechly will give the Cardinals a new heart and soul on that side of the ball.
14. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick doesn't come without risk after an offseason marijuana arrest, but the Cowboys will gamble on his skill to fill a position of need.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8): Mark Barron, S, Alabama
While linebacker is probably a bigger problem area, the Eagles' secondary struggled last season as well, but Barron can be an enforcer that receivers fear.
16. New York Jets (8-8): Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama
Aaron Maybin emerged as a decent pass-rusher for the Jets last season, but they need someone with more substance, such as Upshaw.
17. Cincinnati Bengals (via OAK 8-8): Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
The Bengals have a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball, and they'll give quarterback Andy Dalton some more help by nabbing the speedy Wright.
Which WR is most deserving of being a first-round pick?
18. San Diego Chargers (8-8): David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
It seems like the Chargers are too often drawn in by flash and dash with their first-rounders, but they'll take an honest blocker in DeCastro this year.
19. Chicago Bears (8-8): Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
The Bears obviously missed center Olin Kreutz greatly last season, so they will leap at the chance to get the next great line general in Konz.
20. Tennessee Titans (9-7): Nick Perry, DE, USC
Tennessee has a host of decent pass-rushers, but nobody that can take over a game. Perry has to be the pick since he has that potential.
21. Cincinnati Bengals (9-7): Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
With Leon Hall on the shelf due to an Achilles injury, the Bengals need a corner desperately and Jenkins has top-10 ability.
22. Cleveland Browns (via ATL 10-6): Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State
If the Browns are ever going to get out of the AFC North basement, it starts in the trenches. Adams would give Cleveland one of the league's better offensive lines.
23. Detroit Lions (10-6): Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
If it wasn't already apparent, the final two games of the Detroit Lions' 2011 season proved that they needed to make drastic changes in the secondary. They were absolutely victimized by Matt Flynn and the Green Bay Packers in the final game of the regular season, and Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs, so improvements are a must.
At this point, most of the consensus first-round cornerbacks should be gone, so if Detroit wants to fill that hole then it will need to reach a bit. That makes South Carolina corner Stephon Gilmore a very real option for the Lions. Gilmore is viewed as a borderline player in terms of the first or second round, but because of Detroit's desperation, he should go higher than anticipated.
At 6'0" and 190 lbs., Gilmore is a fairly big corner, so he won't get pushed around by physical receivers, but he can also keep up with the speedsters as well. Gilmore may not be spectacular in any one area, but he is solid at everything, which is exactly the type of player that Detroit desperately needs.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): Dontari Poe, NT, Memphis
With Casey Hampton aging and nursing an ACL injury, the Steelers will get their nose tackle of the future by snagging Poe.
25. Denver Broncos (8-8): Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia
Peyton Manning is now in the fold and the main focus should be on protecting him, so bolstering the line with Glenn is an obvious move to make.
26. Houston Texans (10-6): Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
Following the college football season it's unlikely that most fans had ever even heard of Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill, but over the past couple months he has really made a name for himself. The 6'5" pass catcher dazzled at the combine as he ran the fastest 40 while also excelling in the leaping drills. He was once considered to be a third-round prospect at best, but seems likely to go in the first at this point.
Hill's career stats in college were underwhelming, but that had everything to do with Georgia Tech's offensive system. Because of their option attack, they rarely threw the ball, so Hill caught just 28 passes last season. The kicker is that he averaged nearly 30 yards per reception, so it is quite clear that he has plenty of talent.
If put in an offense that is better tailored to his skill set, he could be a superstar, The Houston Texans have been searching for a complement to Andre Johnson for quite some time, and Hill would seem to be the perfect solution. With much of the attention being paid to Johnson, Hill could have an immediate impact.
27. New England Patriots (via NO 13-3): Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
The cupboard is suddenly barren for the Patriots when it comes to quality pass-rushers, so taking Mercilus at this juncture is a no-brainer.
28. Green Bay Packers (15-1): Devon Still, DL, Penn State
The Packers defense took a huge step backwards last season, but a space eater like Still at defensive end could open a lot of things up.
29. Baltimore Ravens (12-4): Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
The Ravens don't necessarily need to add anything to the defense, but with Ray Lewis getting up there in age, Hightower could be the heir apparent.
30. San Francisco 49ers (13-3): Bobby Massie, OT, Ole Miss
It's tough to say that any team in the NFL is without a hole on the roster, but the most complete team in the league would have to be the San Francisco 49ers. Their biggest need heading into the offseason was at wide receiver, but after signing Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, that no longer seems to be an issue.
Aside from that, the Niners' only weak point is on the right side of the offensive line. Anthony Davis has had some struggles at right tackle and could easily be improved upon. With that in mind, the 49ers are likely to go off the board a bit and select Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie. At 6'6" and 316 lbs., Massie is a physical specimen and he appeared to impress a lot of scouts at his pro day.
He would have to be considered a sleeper to make it into the first round, but with all of the other worthy tackles off the board, I expect the Niners to go after him. Massie may be a project as it could take some time to develop him and harness his raw skill, but in terms of pure talent, he is deserving of a first-round selection.
31. New England Patriots (13-3): Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State
New England has lost a lot of depth along the defensive line over the past few seasons, but Cox would be a great addition in that regard.
32. New York Giants (9-7): Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
With both Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum injured, the Giants could use another tight end, and Fleener has emerged as the best in the class.