Every year in the NFL, a handful of relatively unknown rookies emerge from the shadows of training camp obscurity. These are players who come into the league with no real public expectation to start or make an immediate impact, but often times outperform their more highly drafted peers on the field.
In 2009, the best example of exceeding expectations was Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie, who maximized his opportunity after slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez went down with an injury. Considered a mere product of Brigham Young's high octane spread offense, Collie was drafted in round four despite leading the FBS with 105 receptions in 2008.
All that Collie did was produce 60 receptions and seven touchdowns in the regular season, while adding six receptions in the Super Bowl. Compare Collie's stats with those of Oakland first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall selection, who amassed a whopping nine catches with bad hands and no Peyton Manning throwing the ball.
Other notable surprise rookies who made major contributions in 2009 were Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, Jacksonville cornerback Derek Cox and defensive tackle Terrence Knighton, Green Bay linebacker Brad Jones, and Philadelphia linebacker Moise Fokou. Additional receivers who made impacts were Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace, Miami's Brian Hartline, Chicago's Johnny Knox and New England's Julian Edelman, a converted quarterback from Kent State.
Without the Prophet Daniel to assist in foreseeing the future, it is impossible to know every scenario which might develop during the season. However, there are some serious candidates to be chosen among those low profile rookies who could see plenty of playing time in 2010. The following players were all chosen in round three or later.
1) Eric Decker - WR- Denver (3rd round): Decker has been nursing a foot injury which ended his senior season at Minnesota, but he is a big, tough guy with great hands. He is a good athlete who was also a pro baseball prospect. Willing and able to make the tough catch in traffic. With Brandon Marshall gone from Denver, Decker could steal some playing time from the veteran receivers on the team, but only if his foot proves to be healthy.
2) Tony Moeaki - TE - Kansas City (3rd round): No offense meant, but after trading All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, I believe the Chiefs replacements last year were a snapping turtle, a mango tree and a stack of fire wood. In other words, there was a big drop-off in production at the position. Moeaki, who also battled a few injuries at Iowa, has the talent and hands to be a good mid-range threat. He is versatile enough to stay in and block or slide into zone routes behind the linebackers.
3) Amari Spievey - CB - Detroit (3rd round): If Spievey wanted playing time as a rookie, he was drafted by the right team. With a cast of sojourner veterans at cornerback in 2009, the Lions' secondary had more leaks than a spaghetti strainer. Currently in a training camp battle with Jonathan Wade at right corner, Spievey is another Iowa product who is physical with good football instincts. He might struggle initially with man coverage, but has good size and a competitive attitude.
4) Geno Atkins - DT - Cincinnati (4th round): Although currently playing with the third team in camp, Atkins made a great first impression in the Hall of Fame game against Dallas on Sunday night. He showed the ability to penetrate gaps and get into the backfield in a hurry, something that has been missing in Cincinnati's recent memory. He will not be a run stuffer, but has the quickness to shed blocks and make tackles. Don't be surprised to see Atkins on many passing downs this fall.
5) Jacoby Ford - WR - Oakland (4th round): If Al Davis thought Derrius Heyward-Bey was fast last year, he must have had flashbacks of Cliff Branch when scouting Ford, who ran a 4.24 40-yard time in pre-draft workouts. Ford is a raw talent who needs to refine his route running and consistency. He is a bit short at 5-9, but is a typical Raiders draft pick with speed to burn in the vertical passing game. At the very least, Ford should get his feet wet as a threat on kick or punt returns.
6) Riley Cooper - WR - Philadelphia (5th round): For many years, the achilles heel for the Eagles was the lack of big-play talent at wide receiver. Now, new quarterback Kevin Kolb has a nice choice of young wideouts to choose from. Cooper, who was Tim Tebow's roommate at Florida, is the newest addition to the flock. Previously drafted to play pro baseball, he is a good athlete with nice size and outside speed. Cooper has been a pleasant surprise at training camp and should be able to secure a roster spot.
7) Phillip Adams - CB - San Francisco (7th round): For avid NFL draft fans, this may be the one guy in this short list you do not recognize. Coming from South Carolina State, Adams is far from a blue-chip name, but was a superior defender in the MEAC conference. He has a strong physical build and has proven in training camp that he is not afraid to hit. It is possible that Adams could get caught in the numbers game. However, if he begins on the practice squad, it probably won't be for long.
Other rookies to watch: Brandon LaFell - WR (Carolina), Jordan Shipley - WR (Cincinnati), Dorin Dickerson - WR (Houston), Dennis Pitta - TE (Baltimore), J.D. Walton - C (Denver), Shawn Lauvao - OG (Cleveland), Jared Veldheer - OT (Oakland), Austen Lane - DE (Jacksonville), Greg Hardy - DE (Carolina), Earl Mitchell - DT (Houston), Rennie Curran - OLB (Tennessee), Phillip Dillard - MLB (NYGiants), Nate Triplett - MLB (Minnesota), Kurt Coleman - S (Philadelphia), Kam Chancellor - S (Seattle), Kyle Williams - KR (San Francisco).