NFL'S TOP UNDER-25 TALENT:
Want to be a great NFL organization? Find talent in places where other teams don't. It's one thing to find a great player in the first round of the draft, where talent is unquestioned and success is more a question of scheme and fit than anything else. When teams supplement success in the first round with great work on the final day of the draft and in rookie free agency, they create advantages up and down the roster that other teams simply can't compete with.
Take last year's Green Bay Packers. Thanks to a bevy of injuries, the Packers were forced to plug players with little or no experience into key roles during their title run. Guys like Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson did a lot of the heavy lifting, but the Packers got significant contributions in 2011 from a group of late-round picks, undrafted free agents and practice squad favorites. Thanks to guys like James Starks, Andrew Quarless, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden, the Packers didn't skip many beats when they lost prominent talent on either side of the ball.
Their opponent in the Super Bowl was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got their own set of contributions from players on the bottom of the roster. In addition to former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (an undrafted free agent), an almost comical amount of injuries to their offensive line left the Steelers starting players like undrafted free agent Doug Legursky. And, of course, arguably the best Steelers player in the Super Bowl was the player who ranked No. 1 on our Top 25 Prospects list last year: wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Wallace's breakout 1,257-yard season wasn't the only hit on our list from last year. Running back Arian Foster (19th) led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, while Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw (14th) took over as a starter and exceeded 1,200 yards. On the other side of the ball, Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (23rd) quietly produced 11.5 sacks, exceeding the production of the guy whose job he inherited -- Julius Peppers -- by 3.5 sacks.
Of course, nobody's perfect. The long-awaited breakout season from Jacob Ford (No. 2) never came, with Jason Babin taking his job and picking up 12.5 sacks. At least Ford made his team; cornerback Justin Tryon (No. 5) was traded away for a seventh-round pick, and tight end Marquez Branson (24th) was cut by the lowly Broncos.
For the uninitiated, this list is not like the prospect lists you read about in the world of baseball. Because the top prospects in college football are stars on national television before they get taken in the first round of the NFL draft, there's not much utility in listing them here. Instead, we use a combination of statistics, measurables, context and expected role to compile a list of under-the-radar players whom we expect to make an impact in the NFL, both in 2011 and beyond. To focus on these players, we limit the pool to guys who fit the following criteria:
• Drafted in the third round or later, or signed as a college free agent
• Entered the NFL between 2008 and 2010
• Fewer than five career games started
• Still on a rookie contract
Today we're bringing you Nos. 11-25 on our list, along with some guys who were honorable mentions. Tomorrow, we'll look at the top 10. On Thursday, we'll wrap up the series by ranking all 32 NFL teams by their under-25 talent.
25. David Nelson, WR, Buffalo Bills
Our last cut in turning the Top 26 into a Top 25 last year was WR Steve Johnson of the Bills; while Johnson was best-known for his drop against the Steelers, he had quite the breakout season. We're not going to make the same mistake twice. While the Bills aren't exactly known for having an explosive passing game, Nelson could help make things easier for Johnson and Lee Evans by serving as an effective option out of the slot. Nelson finished his season with touchdowns in three straight games before suffering a season-ending rib injury against the Patriots. With the Bills likely to spend another season trailing in most of their games, Nelson should see a lot of time in three-wide sets.