Fifteen players who could be this NFL season's hidden rookie gems
Nolan Carroll was never a star at Maryland, but is turning heads for the Dolphins
Cincy has T.O. and Ochocinco, but Jordan Shipley may be the most reliable WR
Greg Hardy had troubles at Ole Miss, but is working at first team with the Panthers
It's the NFL first-rounders who grab draft-day headlines. But often times late-round picks and undrafted free agents make the biggest impact down the road.
Tom Brady. Jared Allen. Austin Collie. They start their careers unheralded. They end up in the biggest games the NFL knows. For whatever reason -- size, speed, level of competition in college -- players slide down draft boards but emerge as late-round or undrafted steals.
A year ago at this time, few people knew Collie. Just a few months later, the fourth-round pick was starting in the Super Bowl for the Colts, snatching passes out of the air from Peyton Manning.
So who's it going to be this year?
Julian Edelman of the Patriots was one of the unheralded gems highlighted in this spot a year ago. So, too, was the Bears' Johnny Knox. Are there future Pro Bowl and Super Bowl players among the following hidden gems? We're not making any promises, but here's one look at players emerging as potential non-first round impact rookies for 2010:
Nolan Carroll, CB (5th round), Dolphins
Carroll is the epitome of a hidden gem, starting just five games his entire career at Maryland and never scratching his potential. It was mostly because of injury, including breaking his leg in the second game of the 2009 season. But Carroll possesses unreal athletic ability and finally thrived once he got healthy and earned an opportunity.
Carroll ran a 4.3 in his pro day at Maryland, turning heads within the Dolphins' front office. Once he's gotten into uniform, Carroll has only continued to impress, to the point he likely will be the Dolphins' featured kick returner and will press for reps in the secondary.
Chris DeGeare, OG (5th round), Vikings
Millions of people tuned in to watch DeGeare's debut with the Vikings' first-team offense. OK, maybe Brett Favre had something to do with it. But it's subtle, under-the-radar moves like picking this load of an offensive guard (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) that can help the Vikings have another huge season.
DeGeare, a rookie out of Wake Forest, has turned heads from the moment he stepped into uniform. He is not intimidated by the big stage and stepped into a nice role among the offensive linemen. He's worked at left guard and earned reps with the starting unit. His stock is rising and he could be a fixture in the Vikes' offensive line for years.
Jordan Shipley, WR (3rd round), Bengals
With the addition of Terrell Owens, it didn't seem there were even enough No. 81s to go around in Cincinnati, much less footballs. Among Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Antonio Bryant (who sold his No. 81 to Owens) and Jermaine Gresham, where would Shipley fit in?
The answer is, Shipley already might have the most reliable hands on the squad. That's not to say he is the most explosive, but it's clear already that when Carson Palmer needs a sure catch, he's unafraid to turn to Shipley. His routes are precise and anything thrown his way will be caught. He'll also be returning kicks and punts.
Devin Moore, RB/KR (undrafted), Colts
Year-in, year-out, the Colts manage to find players otherwise forgotten, thrown to the scrap heap or pigeonholed as an unlikely NFL contributor because of size or some other factor. Moore was all of that. On the Carolina and Seattle practice squads last year, Moore has found a home in his hometown of Indianapolis.
At 5-9, Moore's size limited prospects, then an inability to make plays despite great speed left his career hanging in the balance. But in the Colts' system, Moore has excelled, returning a punt 49 yards, totaling 32 yards on four kickoff returns and showing flashes of breakaway ability in a preseason game against the Bills.
T.J. Ward S (2nd round), Browns
While second-round picks aren't normally considered a reach, when the Browns selected Ward, the consensus was that they overvalued the athletic safety. Sure, his measurables were strong, but the Browns passed on Taylor Mays to grab a player most mock draft boards considered a third-rounder at best? The draft boards were wrong.
Ward is hardly intimidated by the bright lights. He's making plays in coverage and in run-support, and already has recorded some highlight-reel pops on receivers. Once known to take occasional plays off, Ward seems to be a changed man and could become a staple in the Browns' secondary.
Tony Moeaki, TE (3rd round), Chiefs
How do you say "Gonzalez" in Tongan? OK, maybe that's a stretch. There never will be another Tony Gonzalez in a Chiefs uniform, but Moeaki was drawing attention and forcing his way into the starting lineup, until ... injuries set him back.
Injuries have been the story of Moeaki's career -- foot, ankle, elbow, hand. It's why he dropped to the third-round of the draft. Still, when healthy, Moeaki has been a standout for the Chiefs offense. He was wowing everyone who saw him during OTAs and early in camp. If he can get healthy, the job likely will be his and he may well star. He's THAT talented.
Mike Williams, WR (4th round), Buccaneers
It's never a good thing when apologists say a player is "misunderstood."
That's the company line on the super-talented Williams, who dropped to the fourth round after plenty of academic and behavior issues at Syracuse. Clearly, Williams could be the steal of the entire NFL draft. His talent is ridiculous. His hands and play-making ability are unquestioned. He's been the story of Bucs camp, making play after play.
But the questions will hound him until he proves otherwise. He got caught cheating on a test at Syracuse. He was suspended from the team after being involved in a car accident after curfew, returning from a trip to a casino. He quit the team. It's up to him to mature and become a professional.