What makes a dark horse? Everyone has their own definition and opinion, but the most common shared theme is a player whose hype ranks far below his performance.
Which rookies have that? And how do you judge where the hype ranks?
This slide show will attempt to look at it based on the criteria of being drafted later than the second round (and preferably on Day Three) while making a significant contribution, even if it doesn’t involve making an impact that will show up on the box score.
Each player will have their position and where they were drafted listed beside the name.
Arizona looked to shore up its front seven as a way to stop the talent bleed that saw Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, and Anquan Boldin, even Neil Rackers, all depart the team this offseason.
That included bringing on pass-rush specialist Joey Porter as one of the key free agents. Much is expected of Porter, but the former Steeler and Dolphin is 33 and coming off a disappointing year, in which his field time was reduced more and more as the season wore on.
Schofield is a second-round talent who dropped because he will likely miss most of training camp after tearing his ACL in Senior Bowl practices.
In the second half of the season, however, if Porter cannot prove to be the dominant force he was in years past, Schofield may just start seeing action as a test run for a lead role in 2011.
With a few perceived reaches (Joe Hawley/Kerry Meier) sandwiching him, Franks looks like he may be a steal going a full round (possibly two) below value. Dunta Robinson may be the corner everyone watches in Atlanta, but in an increasingly pass-happy league, nickel and dime DBs are getting more and more important.
Franks could easily secure that extra-DB role while looking to eventually push the ball-hawking but undersized Brent Grimes for time opposite Robinson.
Jones had the talent to be a first- or second-round pick, but fell in large part because of concerns over a lack of effort.
If there is a team that can get a defender motivated it is the Baltimore Ravens, whose tradition of high-effort defense has kept them consistently among the league’s best for the past decade.
With a big D-line, including Haloti Ngata (340 lbs) and Terrence Cody (350 lbs), having solid bodies available to rotate in and keep starters fresh is key, which could give Jones plenty of field time to prove his worth as a potential successor to the 34-year-old Trevor Price.
One of the bigger surprises out of the Buffalo Bills camp this draft was how long they waited before addressing a glaring hole in their offensive line. Many pundits had them selecting Anthony Davis or Brian Bulaga in the first round.
The Bills were content to address concerns elsewhere until they landed Wang at 140. With injury concerns for Demtrius Bell, along with the surprise retirement of Brad Butler, Wang could find himself stepping into the starting lineup sooner rather than later, and it could be a trial by fire for the athletic tackle.
Many of the high-upside players fit into one of three categories: talented "project" guy who won’t be ready for a few years, character/effort concern guy who hasn’t maximized his talent, and the guy hampered by injury in college.
Hardy falls into that last category. He has tremendous talent that could have been parlayed into a possible second-round selection had he managed to stay healthy.
Instead, the Panthers may have landed a great value at 175 in a pass-rusher who may just be a better fit to replace Juilius Peppers than the player Carolina chose before him (DE/LB Eric Norwood at 124).
He should have plenty of opportunity to make an impact with Carolina’s long-time pass rushing leader finally getting the change of venue he had sought for the past few years.
When your first pick doesn’t come until 74 players have come off the draft board, more is generally expected of one’s mid-round selections. Wright and Wootton could easily have made the list if Chicago had been picking from the first round on, but given the constraints, it seems apropos to go a little further down the list.
With Nathan Vasher released this offseason, a space was opened up in the depth chart for Moore to step through. Even in securing a nickel or dime role he should see extensive action on a team that will face Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre twice apiece.
While seeking to remain mostly within the ranks of the Day Three picks, Ghee stands out as one of the few third-round entries to this piece for a few reasons.
Being a compensatory selection, Ghee was the third-to-last player chosen on Day Two. Also, the more realistic reason—Ghee has great potential to make an impact.
Cincinnati was fairly solid at the two starting corner positions, but very much needed an upgrade over Morgan Trent at the nickel position. Ghee is a corner that slipped out of the second round due more to the depth of the CB class than by any fault of his own.
He should land that starting nickel role from Day One, and has the talent to eventually supplant Leon Hall, especially going up against some of the bigger, stronger AFC North receivers (Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward).
The Browns have cobbled together a solid number of decent receivers, but they really don’t have anything resembling a true go-to guy.
The top three of Josh Cribbs, Chansi Stuckey, and Mohammed Massaquoi combined for a total of 84 catches for 1,117 yards, or roughly the equivalent of Roddy White or Hines Ward by themselves.
That means Cleveland’s receiving corps is hungry for a playmaker. Mitchell, while raw and unpolished, has the size and physical ability to be a solid playmaker for the team by combining a 6’3", 215-lb frame with a 4.40 40 on his pro day.
Dallas had needs at both cornerback depth and free safety. Owusu-Ansah has the build and skill set to cover both of those roles, which should dramatically increase his potential to see solid field time in 2010.
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah is a big (6’1", 207 lbs) cover man with great speed (4.31 pro-day 40) and strength (a solid 21 reps at 225 lbs) who also proved a highly capable return man in college.
His varied abilities may make it hard for Dallas to peg down what exactly they want to do with him at first, but they open up a wide variety of ways for him to make an impact before he is settled into his (probable) free safety role.
As stated before, the attempt has been made to mostly shy away from third-round selections in this context. That said, Decker’s situation is too ideally situated to pass up.
The Denver Broncos took a risk by selecting physically talented but highly unpolished Demaryius Thomas to be Brandon Marshall’s heir apparent. He has the tools to eventually be that person, but his mediocre hands and poor route running won’t be overcome in one training camp.
Decker doesn’t have the long-term upside of Thomas, but he is much more NFL-ready and should be able to contribute right away.
Should Thomas struggle early, don’t be surprised if Decker steps over him on the depth chart, while his possession receiver’s mentality could make him a popular target for the less than cannon-armed Kyle Orton.
It was tempting to insert Amari Spievey in here, with a description quite similar to the Cincy/Brandon Ghee slide.
That said, it is far more interesting to go further down the ladder, especially on a team with enough holes that later picks and undrafted free agents can have plenty of opportunity to secure solid roles on the team.
Willie Young could easily be one of those later picks who steps into a sizable role.
Even though Detroit brought in Kyle Vanden Bosch to help shore up the defensive end position, the truth is that Detroit had virtually no pass rush last year (no player put up more than 5.5 sacks), which could open up a space for Young.
His size and skill set make him a liability against the run, but as a pass-rushing specialist, he could quickly emerge as the Detroit Lions version of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, stepping in front of Jason Hunter on obvious passing downs.
The biggest knock on the Green Bay Packers offense the past two years has been Aaron Rodgers running for his life. While his own tendency to hold the football is worthy of some blame, the reality is that the offensive line could also use some help.
Newhouse has great size and physical ability, which could help to give the Green Bay Packers a great rookie tandem with him standing beside first-round selection Brian Bulaga.
It’s odd to call a special teams guy a dark horse, but Holliday makes the list for a couple reasons.
The first is that Houston’s draft felt very mediocre in the mid to late rounds. The other is that when a team drafts a player viewed only as a return man he had better be darn good at that role, and Holliday is.
At 5’5", 161 lbs, he is a blazing speedster who should instantly upgrade Houston’s middle-of-the-road (16th ranked) return game, as well as provide Schaub and Johnson even more open field to work with.
It could go a long way towards giving Houston the playoff berth it has continually appeared to be on the verge of.
When a team puts up one or two wins (St. Louis, Detroit) there is plenty of room for an impressive late-rounder to land a significant role.
When a team nearly goes undefeated and plays in the Super Bowl, that is generally not the case.
Yet, Indianapolis had plenty of room to find a later-round gem with five selections between 129 and 246. Interestingly enough, the best late pickup by Indianapolis may not have come in the draft at all.
Peyton Manning has shown time and time again the ability to make stars out of his receiving corps. Future Hall-of-Famer Marvin Harrison was seamlessly replaced, while Anthony Gonzalez’ injury made revelations of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie.
The Colts receiving corps is deep and talented, which could make it hard for White to break onto the field, but if he does, look for Manning to make the most of the Michigan State standout with good size (6’2", 205 lbs) and speed (4.42).
The temptation is to pick Deji Karim simply, because he wasn’t a defensive lineman, but with Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings, he will be hard pressed to see much action, barring injury.
Instead Lane is the choice because he, at 153, is quite possibly the second best lineman the Jaguars selected despite being the fourth one they took. Lane should be a significant pass-rushing upgrade to versatile but blue-collar Derrick Harvey, as well as be able to easily leapfrog fellow rookie end Larry Hart.
Kansas City gets a pass on the attempts to avoid third round selections for two reasons. First is that the Chiefs only selected two players the entire third day, neither of which appear overly impressive.
The second is that Moeaki may have been a third-round choice, but he was the fifth player taken by the Chiefs after holding three selections in a 32-pick span.
Moeaki slipped to the back of Round Three, because he had a hard time staying healthy at Iowa. Talented tight ends who can catch the ball often put up good numbers for teams like Kansas City, because they give Matt Cassell a great safety valve, especially considering his modest arm strength.
The ghost of Tony Gonzalez may make anything short of Pro Bowl numbers appear disappointing, but look for Moeaki to rank second behind Dwayne Bowe among Chiefs receivers at the end of the year.
With Gibril Wilson gone, Tyrone Culver is currently listed as the starting free safety—but Darren Sharper or Ed Reed he is not. Jones has something of a free/strong tweener build at 6’1", 214 lbs, but he runs well and has shown a nice leaping ability that is suited to the more coverage-centric free safety position.
Dropping this late in the draft is something of a surprise for Jones, who has late Day Two talent, without any of the usual baggage that can cause a player to drop.
It would not be surprising to see Jones step into Miami’s starting FS role for opening day of the regular season.
In addition to Favre and Williams, Minnesota may also have to start thinking about Ray Edwards as the talented DE who might be difficult to re-sign in 2011.
Griffen steps in as an instant heir to the role, with first round talent that could make him a draft steal if high-motor Jared Allen can rub off on the former Trojan.
As the year winds down, Minnesota could begin to give Griffen more and more field time as a test run for how he will do in a starting role.
With teams focusing their attentions on Jared Allen, that could open up plenty of room for Griffen to put up good numbers in a rotational role.
With Randy Moss’ age creeping up and Wes Welker’s injury leaving his status in doubt, Brady may very well need an additional outlet. Hernandez could be that guy as a pass-catching tight end that could become a new safety valve for Brady.
Alge Crumpler’s days as a receiving threat are over, while Gronkowski’s balanced skill set may see him slid into a blocking role in light of Hernandez’ ball skills.
New England has shown the ability to adapt to different personnel and styles over the years, so passing out of two tight-end sets is also not that impossible for the chameleonic Patriots offense.
It was tempting to look at Jimmy Graham given his physical talent and Shockey’s propensity for injury. That said he is still probably too raw to step in right away, and the Saints have more than enough weapons to work around the tight end position if need be.
Tennant, however, could find himself starting before the year is out. Easily the second- or third-best center prospect out there, Tennant could quickly supplant current starter Jonathan Goodwin, who is far from the best piece of the Saints offensive line.
If he can establish a good rapport with Brees in training camp, Tennant could very well be starting before training camp breaks and could give the Saints much better speed and athleticism in the middle.
The decline of the front seven was a big reason for New York’s disappointing 2009 campaign in which a fast start sputtered to an 8-8 finish. Among the casualties of this was middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who was released in the offseason.
That opens up a sizable hole that could be Dillard’s for the taking.
His skill set and style are well suited to new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s system, and high-effort/modest talent Clint Sintim is far from entrenched in the middle.
With only four picks in the draft (and only two after the initial two rounds), the New York Jets didn’t have a particularly deep pool to draw from for this subject.
The selection of John Conner could be a great under-the-radar move for a team that made its identity in 2009 with a power-rushing attack that led the league in ground yardage.
Tony Richardson did an admirable job opening holes for Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, but at 38 years old, he is likely playing on borrowed time.
Conner is a block-first pile driver who should step into Richardson’s shoes nicely and keep the Jets ground game going for years to come.
While Bruce Campbell is perceived as a steal this late in the draft, the air of inevitability surrounding his being drafted by Oakland makes him a bit too high-profile.
Ford, on the other hand, is a subtle pickup who could pay big dividends for the Oakland Raiders.
The instant impact should come in the return game, where Oakland put up a dismal 18.2 yards on kickoffs, 4.9 on punts.
Given the inconsistency of the Raiders' young receiving corps, and the level ground of every wideout working to establish a rapport with a brand new quarterback, Ford could become the perfect option in the slot between the larger Chaz Schilens and Larry Murphy, unless Heyward-Bey can take a quantum leap in his development.
Philadelphia had a lot to work with on Day Three of the draft, with 10 selections between 105 and 244. With that many picks, it would seem like the Eagles should have half a dozen names presenting here.
Instead, the Eagles made several unusual selections that muddied the waters of this pick, gorging on defensive ends while getting suspect value in players like Trevard Lindley and Mike Kafka.
Charles Scott could be a highly underrated pick in Round Six, however. Westbrook will no longer be donning Philadelphia colors in 2010 and his replacement is a sub 200-pound speedster not built for a huge number of carries.
Mike Bell was brought in to give them one hard-nosed running back, but the bigger, stronger Scott could quickly become a short-yardage and goal-line specialist, who won’t put up jaw-dropping yardage, but could put up a good number of TDs for the eagles offense.
It is tempting to go another direction simply, because this one is so obvious (and follows two of the last three slides taking place in the offensive backfield).
Dwyer was once considered a late first-round talent and aligned with teams like Houston and San Diego before a poor combine caused his stock to drop irreparably.
It makes sense that questions surround his ability to play outside of Georgia Tech’s scheme, conditioning concerns dropped him off the boards of teams looking for a new starter as well. But Dwyer still brings a good blend of burst and power that could make him a great piece of a tandem backfield.
Pittsburgh may just be the perfect team to offer up that tandem role. With Ben Roethlissberger shelved for four to six games and Willie Parker getting a pink slip, the Steelers could end up counting heavily upon Dwyer’s ability to pair with starter Rashard Mendenhall—especially early in the year.
Dwyer made many of the late-round steals lists for a reason, and could see well over 100 carries in the upcoming year.
It was tempting to go with fifth-round selection Cam Thomas, but Stuckey is much more of an under-the-radar player who could easily find his way into the starting lineup before the season is over, taking over for the hard-working but athletically limited Kevin Ellison.
Stuckey is a talented safety with a nose for making plays who slipped a round because of his size, which, interestingly enough, is almost identical to Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu.
Mike Singletary appears to be remaking the 49ers in his own image, a hard-nosed, smash-mouth unit that pounds the opposing team on both sides of the football.
That mindset, coupled with the questionable quarterback play of Alex Smith and the drafting of a quality backup in Anthony Dixon, could make the 49ers rely even more on their running game.
Vernon Davis is a Pro Bowl receiving tight end, but not much of a blocker.
Enter Byham, easily the second- or third-best blocker among rookie tight ends, Byham could be paired with FB Moran Norris to clear room for Frank Gore, Glen Coffey, and Anthony Dixon to run free and take the pressure off Alex Smith.
There is no better way to scout a player than to be their college coach last season.
Pete Carroll proved that he will seek out the best available rather than "his" guys by passing over former Trojan Taylor Mays, in favor of Earl Thomas.
With McCoy as the only USC alum Carroll drafted, it is obvious he has confidence in the young player with plenty of talent but off-field concerns that allowed him to drop this far.
John Carlson put up respectable numbers playing tight end for a woeful Seattle offense in 2009. In an offense starved of weapons, Carroll could end up making solid use of the Seahawk's trio of talented tight ends, in order to offer up plenty of outlet options so Matt Hasselbeck can unload the football and avoid too many big hits.
It may not be a stretch to say there’s about three safe jobs on the St. Louis Rams roster. St. Louis not only outpaced teams like Detroit and Tampa Bay for the worst record in the NFL, but clearly looked to have the longest road back to respectability among them.
The temptation is thus to look to the six or seventh round (George Selvie?) for the Rams dark horse, just to highlight the number of rookies that could be seeing a lot more playing time than they would anywhere else.
But Gilyard steps into this space because of a St. Louis receiving corps that couldn’t manage 50 catches or 600 yards out of any wideout in 2009.
It would not be a stretch for Gilyard to translate a good training camp into a starting role opposite Donnie Avery.
He may not come in as highly touted as Dez Bryant or Golden Tate, but given the overall situation, Gilyard should be among the leading rookie receivers in 2010, fairly impressive for a fourth-round draft pick.
Mike Williams could be the surprise of the Bucs at 101, but I won’t buy into him being an attitude upgrade over Antonio Bryant until I see it.
Watson is not nearly as flashy a choice as Williams, but Watson could become a major contributor on the Bucs as a late Day Two talent that dropped all the way to the seventh round of the draft. He is a little smallish for an outside linebacker, but blazing fast and well suited to Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme.
Something else to note: Other undersized weak-side linebackers that hailed from Florida State? Derrick Brooks and Ernie Sims.
Given the flux in Tennessee's defense over the past two years, there is a definite opening for leaders in that defense.
Rolle is a great-value pick at 207, and has the intelligence and potential to be a quarterback for the Titans defensive unit.
His athleticism has been knocked as well as his departing football to be a Rhodes scholar, but for sheer football instincts, it is hard to find a better DB after the first round.
Capers is more of a long-term potential find in the seventh round, but I just could not bring myself to name any of their other selections, which range from ill-fits (Perry Riley) to probably going undrafted if not for Washington (Terrence Austin).
It would be a surprise for Capers to lock down a starting role but he brings a lot of upside, and it would be a surprise for any draft pick after Trent Williams to play a significant role in 2010.