It's never too early to be thinking about next year's NFL draft, with junior and senior college players alike looking to prove themselves to the NFL. While Andrew Luck is the clear No.1 pick, there are many other college players in the 2012 draft who will make an impact in the NFL.
Here are 10 college players that I believe are underrated and could be a steal for NFL teams that pick them in the 2012 draft.
Some players on this list have the disadvantage of playing for a lesser-known school, and Burris is one of those players. Burris is coming off a fantastic season where he recorded 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 20 tackles for a loss. He possesses incredible speed and athleticism, despite not being ranked very high on the draft board. If Burris has another year like he did in 2010, he may very well rise to the top.
Williams is considered the most athletic lineman on his team and has posted solid numbers, recording 4.5 sacks and 46 tackles last year. So far this season, however, Williams has been nursing a knee injury, so his impact for 2011 is questionable. But if he can bounce back from his injury, he has the potential to improve on his 2010 year and consequently rise to the top of the 2012 draft class.
In 2010, Fletcher led his team with five interceptions, which also ranked No. 11 nationally. At 6"11 and 195 pounds, Fletcher possesses good size but only average speed. He may not make the big plays for your team, but he possesses good awareness and ball skills. He certainly has the capacity and the talent to improve, and if he has another solid year this year, he should certainly be considered a solid prospect for an NFL team.
Rainey might be higher on this list if he wasn't dealing with some character issues. Rainey has proved himself to be a dual threat, as he is the runningback for the Gators but has seen time as a receiver, as well. Rainey has put up great numbers in both receptions and rushing yards, proving himself a very versatile player for any offense.
However—as noted before—he is dealing with some demons—he was suspended after being charged with the stalking of his ex-girlfriend. However, if he can stay out of trouble this year, he could find himself rising to the top.
Another player from a team that isn't one of the more highly-scouted schools, Wolfe is a rising college star, as he has so far put together a great season. Last week, he recorded two sacks and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Last year he was no slouch either, recording 48 tackles and four sacks.
Wolfe is an improving player that could find himself high on the draft board in 2012 if he comes up with another great year.
B.J. Cunningham is already looking to have a fantastic 2011 season. So far, he has already amassed 26 receptions for 361 yards, and last year, he led his team with nine touchdown receptions. Cunningham is a speedy, 6'5" receiver, which makes him a huge down-the-field threat. If he can keep putting up the numbers he has so far, you can bet he will be ranked higher by April.
Dontari Poe is a huge, 350-pound, 6'5" defensive tackle. His size and athletic ability should put him up in one of the top defensive players in the draft, but like some of the guys on this list, Poe is on a team that is not scouted for talent like other college teams.
Still, Poe is considered to be the top talent on his team, which has given him a little bit of attention, but because his team was 1-11 last year, it may not be enough.
McKnight is another big-time receiver who came off a great season last year in Minnesota, leading the team with 46 receptions for 706 yards and 10 touchdowns. McKnight is an athletic receiver who puts up numbers, but with all of the receivers that are available in the draft, he may be overlooked. However, his talent should serve well for an NFL team that is willing to take a flyer on him.
Russell Wilson transferred from NC State to Wisconsin, replacing Scott Tolzien after he moved on to the NFL. In NC State, Wilson put up brilliant numbers, eventually winning MVP for his team. This year, Russell has picked up right where he left off, leading the explosive Wisconsin offense to big numbers already.
Wilson isn't projected to be one of the top quarterbacks in this draft, but if he leads Wisconsin to even more success than they had last year, it might be hard for NFL teams to pass him up.
Vanderbilt may be one of the weaker teams in the SEC, but Casey Hayward is making a name for himself already in 2011. Last week, Hayward recorded two interceptions, making his total 12 on his college career, tying the Vanderbilt record. Hayward looks to be one of the stars on his team, and if he continues to build on his success, he will surely rise to the top of the draft.