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The best undrafted players of 2012: The defense

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Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry could be an asset in the right defense. (Getty Images)

You may remember that Doug Baldwin and Victor Cruz had pretty good seasons in 2011. And that Wes Welker guy? He's pretty good, too. Arian Foster is nobody to sneeze at, and London Fletcher is one of the most durable and productive linebackers we've seen in this era. You heard of Tony Romo? Antonio Gates? And we'd better include James Harrison, lest he lay us out with one of those brick-hard hits.

You may know where we're going with this -- none of the players named above heard their names called by any teams in their draft classes. With chips on their shoulders, and the desire to prove everybody wrong, undrafted players will often rise to a level few saw coming. Add in the historical guys -- Kurt Warner, Night Train Lane, John Randle, Rod Smith, Warren Moon, Priest Holmes, Adam Vinatieri, Larry Little, Sam Mills ... the list does go on and on. In that spirit, it's not a reach to assume that one of the players that went undrafted in the 2012 class will wind up making a lot of personnel guys look pretty dumb in time. Here are our favorite undrafteds this year on defense; you can find our favorite undrafted offensive players right here.

Defensive End

Jacquies Smith, Missouri: Aldon Smith's successor as Mizzou's main pass rusher doesn't flash Smith's talent, but he's a high-effort guy who could show out in hybrid defenses. Undrafted due to the deadly trilogy: size concerns, short arms, small hands.

Kourtnei Brown, Clemson: Impressive athlete who scored interception and fumble return touchdowns against North Carolina last season. Has injury and "one-year wonder" concerns, but seems to take the attributes that would make some NFL team look smart.

Jamie Blatnick, Oklahoma State: Kind of a tweener, size-wise, and there are off-field issues to look at. But he does flash potential as a situational blitz player for a team with a solid locker room.

[Jason Cole: Dolphins, Steelers score high AFC draft grades | NFC grades]

Defensive Tackle

Hebron Fangupo, BYU: Interesting story here. Fangupo spent two years on a religious mission in the Philippines after high school, and suffered through an injury-plagued stint at USC following his JUCO transfer. Transferred to BYU after SC and finally showed his stuff. Not a playmaker; more a bowling-ball nose tackle type who can soak up blockers. Will come into the NFL in his late 20s, which seems to be a ding to everyone but Brandon Weeden.

Marcus Forston, Miami: Major injury concerns, but Forston looks the part when he can play. Raw project player with some ability against the run and pass.

Matt Masifulu, Stanford: Masifulu made enough plays in Vic Fangio's multiple defenses to stand out on tape, and did the same after Fangio followed Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers. He'll be reunited with Fangio in San Francisco, and he's a player to watch this preseason. Possible rotation guy.

Inside Linebacker

Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State: Remember in "Bull Durham," when the coaches spoke of Nuke Laloosh as the kid with the million-dollar arm and the five-cent head? Burfict is the football version -- a player with estimable raw talent who was benched multiple times because he couldn't stop racking up stupid penalties. Questionable football sense, to put it kindly.

Shawn Loiseau, Merrimack: Who? Where? Well, there are obviously questions about Loiseau's ability to play against tougher competition -- you don't often impress the NFL by dominating Southern Connecticut State. But his impressive week at the Shrine Game got some interest going. He's the reeeeeeeeally small-school version of Luke Kuechly -- more a rangy space player with great intangibles than a dominant tackler. Signed with the Texans.

Noah Keller, Ohio: Athletic marvel who absolutely blew up his Pro Day and amassed 438 tackles in his collegiate career. Coming off multiple injuries in 2011, which probably kept him out of the late rounds, but fought through them very well.

[Jason Cole: Washington Redskins make NFL draft's winners, losers lists]

Outside Linebacker

Tyler Nielsen, Iowa: Would have been debited for his size more a few years ago, but with the recent run on 'backers weighing 240 or less, Nielsen has a better schematic shot. Coming in at 6-foot-3 makes him a little skinnier, though -- most of the speed guys aren't that tall. Broken vertebrae in his neck suffered in 2010 season has healed, but has to be a concern.

Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Washington State: Undersized, All-Conference player on some really horrible defenses. Versatile defender who will probably have to make his bones in the NFL on special teams.

Braylon Broughton, TCU: Late bloomer and athletic freak who could be a preseason star in the right system. Has the capacity to fire off the edge as a pure pass rusher, but to date, athletic ability has outstripped his production.

Cornerback

Chase Minnifield, Virginia: Son of former Cleveland Browns standout cornerback Frank Minnefield. Smoother than fast, and in an NFL where pure speed is prized at the position, he'll have to benefit from the right scheme.

Ryan Steed, Furman: People wondered about the competition Steed faced until he surprised with a nice week at the Senior Bowl. Good zone corner especially in short and intermediate spaces; could shine as a slot defender.

Leonard Johnson, Iowa State: Dinged because of height concerns (5-foot-10) in an era where shorter cornerbacks aren't as prized as they were in the days when Ronde Barber was seen as the profile. A chippy player who plays the run well and seems a natural in zone coverage.

[Michael Silver: Gus Frerotte gives Kirk Cousins advice in 'Skins' QB race]

Safety

Aaron Henry, Wisconsin: Real sleeper potential here. All-Conference selection who wasn't invited to the combine, and never heard why. Rocked it at his Pro Day, and the game tape matches up with his fairly impressive stats. As a slot/flat defender in a big nickel package, he'd be worth a shot.

Quinton Richardson, Washington: Inconsistent pass defender, but if you saw Washington's pass defense over the last three seasons, "inconsistent" is practically a Heisman watch in comparison. Will get a shot as a DB at the next level for his pure speed -- maxed out at the sub-4.4 level at his Pro Day.

Duke Ihenacho, San Jose State: Three-time All-WAC selection who recovered from a broken foot in 2010 to play well last season. Rangy box player and a good fit for any team looking to expand their front-half concepts.

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