Everybody loves a first-round pick. First-round picks are more likely to become NFL stars than players chosen in the second round, second-round picks are more likely to become NFL stars than players chosen in the third round and so on. However, those first-round stars aren't enough to build a championship team. The best teams know how to mine for additional talent, both when choosing in the late rounds of the draft and when dialing up undrafted free agents when the draft is over. This kind of talent collection takes quality scouting, combined with an understanding of how to fit players with limitations into your team's offensive and defensive schemes.
It also takes a little bit of luck, like stumbling upon an undrafted wide receiver with so much skill at running option routes that he can gain 1,500 yards in his first full season. Find yourself a Victor Cruz, and you could end the season holding up the Lombardi Trophy, just like Giants general manager Jerry Reese. It doesn't hurt that Reese also found useful players in Round 6 (Greg Jones) and Round 7 (Ahmad Bradshaw), to go with quality undrafted free agents like Jake Ballard, Mark Herzlich and Cruz.
Each year, Football Outsiders looks for similar hidden talents who haven't yet made their impact on the league with our top 25 prospects list. For the uninitiated, our top prospects list isn't 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. Everyone knows Andrew Luck is a top prospect who is likely to succeed in the NFL.
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 2012 and beyond.
We limit the pool to players who fit the following criteria:
• Drafted in the third round or later, or signed as an undrafted free agent
• Entered the NFL between 2009 and 2011
• Fewer than five career games started
• Still on their initial contract
• Age 26 or younger in 2012
That last item is new for this season, and is meant to ensure that we list players who could play a significant role in the NFL over the next few years, not just in 2012. To give two examples, running backs Bernard Scott and Isaac Redman are definitely important to their teams' plans this season. But, as each of them is already 28, they aren't really promising players for the long term. Other players who would have made the list if not for the age limit include Jacksonville running back Rashad Jennings, Detroit defensive end Willie Young and Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta.
In the past, our No. 1 prospects have included wideouts Miles Austin (2009) and Mike Wallace (2010). However, this isn't strictly a fantasy football list; in fact, last year it was the defensive players who made the biggest impact. DT Geno Atkins (sixth) made the Pro Bowl; CB Lardarius Webb (ninth) started 15 games and had 22 passes defensed, earning a huge contract from Baltimore in the offseason; S Morgan Burnett (second) and LB Erik Walden (16th) started most of the year for a team that nearly went undefeated (although Walden will likely lose his starting job to rookie Nick Perry in 2012). Even one of last year's honorable mention defenders, Seattle S Kam Chancellor, made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement.
You'll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about that and other FO stats on this page.
Here are Football Outsiders' top 25 prospects:
It feels like cheating to include Baldwin on our top prospects list; after all, this is the guy who led Seattle receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He was the first player since the AFL-NFL merger to lead his team in receiving yards as an undrafted rookie. Just for good measure, Baldwin also had 14.2 percent DVOA while every other Seattle receiver with at least 10 targets was below zero. Nevertheless, Baldwin only started one game last year, because he was used strictly as a slot receiver. Out of Baldwin's 86 targets, only two came with just two wide receivers in the formation -- and on one of those plays, Baldwin was actually in the backfield, so the personnel was still three wide receivers. Baldwin is tough going for passes over the middle despite his small size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds). He's good at running precise routes and finding soft spots in zones. The next test is working on the perimeter from two-receiver sets against starting corners instead of nickelbacks.