Searching for hidden rookie gems as team training camps open
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Tom Brady was a sixth-round NFL draft pick in 2000.
Colts' Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis was a fifth-rounder in 2003. There was Jared Allen taken 126th overall in 2004, Donald Driver picked 213th in 1999, Zach Thomas going 154th in 1996 and Joe Horn 135th in 1996.
The list is a long one. Impact players, stars and superstars can be found where you least expect it in NFL draft. It happens every year. So, where are the hidden gems this year? We're not promising any future Hall of Famers or Pro Bowl locks. But here's one writer's team-by-team look at non-first round impact rookies as we head into training camps:
Atlanta -- Lawrence Sidbury Jr. (4th round, 125th overall)
The Falcons are pretty set along the defensive line, but when Sidbury fell to them in the fourth round, it was impossible not to take him. It may be equally impossible to keep him off the field.
Though he hails from Division I-AA Richmond and is undersized, Sidbury already is turning heads with consistent playmaking skills. He's always around the ball and in the backfield disrupting things. He never quits and when he gets to the ball-carrier, he's a sure tackler. He may not start, but it will be impossible for the Falcons not to use him.
Arizona -- Rashad Johnson (3rd round, 95th overall)
It's impossible not to like Johnson's work ethic and dedication. All his life, he's been proving he's better than some give him credit for, having turned down several other scholarship offers to walk on at Alabama, where he became an All-American.
His knowledge of the game is superb, he puts in the time and is more professional than a lot of players in the league right now. Some already are quietly comparing Johnson to Adrian Wilson. He won't start, but Johnson is always around the ball and is a playmaker.
Baltimore -- Paul Kruger (2nd round, 57th overall)
There simply may not be a better story of perseverance on the field and off. Kruger nearly died in January, 2008, when he and three friends were attacked by 15-20 gang members while leaving a party in Salt Lake City.
Kruger was stabbed at least twice in the abdomen, lost a severe amount of blood and suffered severe internal injuries. Ultimately, 50-staples were required to close the wound and surgical incisions. Kruger recovered fully, but lost 20-pounds and much strength. He ultimately returned and became a beast of a defensive end. Ravens coaches love his maturity, aggressiveness and willingness to pick up the system. It will be impossible, ultimately, to keep him off the field.
Buffalo -- Jairus Byrd (2nd round, 42nd overall)
All the attributes that made Byrd a huge impact player at Oregon are translating well thus far to the bigger stage. He has proved to be one of those rare instinctive players who just always manages to get his hands on the football (17 career interceptions for the Ducks).
He will play and he will find a way to be around the ball. With good size at 210-pounds and the bloodlines to match (father, Gill, was a Pro Bowler for the Chargers), Byrd may have been a surprising pick considering the Bills had other needs, but he simply was too good to pass up. He's showing he's too good to pass against, too.
Carolina -- Mike Goodson (4th round, 111th overall)
Goodson was quite the tease at Texas A&M. One moment he would show brilliant game-breaking ability, the next he would look lost on the field and, worse, disinterested.
Thus far, however, the Panthers have been nothing but pleased with Goodson's work ethic and performance on the field. He's a game-breaker cut in the mold of another A&M-ex, Dante Hall. If he matures and works hard now that his livelihood depends on it, Goodson may well have landed in the perfect spot. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have nothing to worry about in the backfield, but Goodson could break games wide open out of the slot or on kick returns.
Chicago -- Johnny Knox (5th round, 140th overall)
Jay Cutler is going to have some young talent at the receiver position, no doubt. Third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma has the pedigree and size, and exceeded expectations in OTAs. But Knox had heads spinning with his blazing speed.
Clocked at 4.34 during the draft combine, Knox's speed has translated well. He made play after play during the spring, flashing good hands, as well. There's no doubt he could become a contributor in the slot, if not a game-breaker in special teams.
Cincinnati -- Bernard Scott (6th round, 209th overall)
Scott has been arrested five times and was kicked out of the University of Central Arkansas for allegedly punching a coach. Sounds like a match made in heaven for the strife-riddled Bengals, right?
Actually, this could become one of the more compelling NFL stories if Scott truly has matured and straightened out his life as he claims. Scott has first-round talent -- an amazing set of skills and instincts. But he's been a first-rate knucklehead.
His NFL future is a clean slate right now; what he does with it is entirely up to him.
Cleveland -- David Veikune (2nd round, 52nd overall)
It's a long way from the sunny shores of Hawaii to the bitter howling winds of Cleveland, but Veikune has made a habit of adjusting nicely to change.
A college defensive end, Veikune has a lot coming at him as he is making the switch to inside linebacker. So far, so good. Even without a firm grasp on NFL linebacking schemes and the demands of the job, Veikune has shown nice, instinctive playmaking ability. He's another one of those high-octane players always looking for contact, which should play well in Cleveland.
Dallas -- David Buehler (5th round, 172nd overall)
David Buehler's day off (sorry, had to do it) will come when the Cowboys face teams that do not possess dangerous return men. Buehler is the ultimate in specialty players. He will be called upon for kickoffs, and unless Nick Folk suddenly slumps, his kicking chores will be only kickoffs.
That alone makes Buehler special and valuable, though. His leg is possibly the strongest in the league already. Forty-eight of his 88 kickoffs at USC were touchbacks. But Buehler is rare in another way, too: He runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and has played numerous roles in special teams, including covering and rushing kicks. The Cowboys have told him they will try to find ways to use him in special teams, as well.
Denver -- Blake Schlueter (7th round, 225th overall), Broncos
Where have Broncos heard this before? Schlueter is an athletic, but somewhat short offensive lineman with a motor that won't stop and toughness that literally knocks opponents to (if not at) their knees.
Don't be surprised if Schlueter works his way to a productive 12- or 15-year career despite being taken so low in the draft. He ran an almost unheard-of 4.8-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Thus far in Denver, coaches love every part of Schlueter's game.
Detroit -- Louis Delmas (2nd round, 33rd overall)
All right, so the first pick of the second-round pick wouldn't exactly be considered a "sleeper."
Just three of the 13 second-round picks the Lions have had since 2000 figure to be starters in 2009. Delmas will get there, too. He is brash, skilled, a good study and by all accounts has looked great, not good, thus far.
Green Bay -- T.J. Lang (4th round, 109th overall)
Lang already has quarterback Aaron Rodgers' stamp of approval. Rodgers raved about Lang's abilities during mini-camp, repeatedly crediting Lang for good work up front.
There is so much for Lang still to learn. The shoulder pads are just coming on. But at 6-4, 316-pounds, Lang has the footwork and power skills that could carry him a long way. Already, Packers coaches consider Lang a lock for significant playing time, if not a starting role.
Houston -- Glover Quin (4th round, 112th overall)
The Texans have been looking for depth and help on the defensive side of the ball since their 2008 campaign ended. Certainly first-rounder Brian Cushing and second-rounder Connor Barwin have gotten more deserved attention, but Quin is confident and a big-time playmaker (five interceptions, 11 pass-breakups at New Mexico).
Quin also could play safety and excel on special teams with his physical nature. As a fourth-rounder, there frankly wasn't better value out there for a team.
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