They come to the NFL every year, from all over the country. They rise up from the ranks of the late rounds or the undrafted, and many of them will confound even their own coaches with their abilities to get things done at the NFL level. Last year, Baltimore cornerback LaDarius Webb (Nicholls State), Chicago receiver Johnny Knox(notes) (Abilene Christian), Detroit defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill (Stillman), and Jacksonville defensive tackle Terrance Knighton(notes) (Temple) each made a professional impact. Here are 10 prospects that could do the same thing in 2010 and beyond.
1. OT Jared Veldheer, Hillsdale - Veldheer probably gained his first national recognition at the Texas vs. The Nation game, but he's been on the radar of scouts for a while now. He was among the top performers at the Combine for his position, and there's a growing sense that in the right system, he's got the same potential as New England's Sebastian Vollmer(notes), a second-round pick in 2009 who wound up looking like a starter sooner than expected. At 6-foot-8 and 312 pounds, Veldheer has all the measurables. Don't be surprised if the Browns, whose GM Tom Heckert is a Hillsdale alum, take a flyer on Veldheer as a developmental pick despite having Joe Thomas(notes) on the left side.
Projected Round: 2-3
2. DT Torell Troup, UCF - Troup has managed to keep his name out there in a completely stacked defensive tackle class through a combination of size (6-foot-3, 314), speed, and pure explosion off the snap. UCF's defense ranked very high in 2009, and Troup was the main reason. He'd be a great option for teams in need of a big gap-plugger inside, but don't sleep on his ability to disrupt despite facing double teams. Last year, the Jaguars and Lions scored big with Terrance Knighton and Sammie Lee Hill, respectively - Troup could make the same kind of impact.
Projected Round: 2-3
3. CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana (Pa) - He may have the most unpronounceable cornerback monicker since Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), but Owusu-Ansah's is a name worth learning - it means "Born on Sunday" in Ghana, which works for his future profession. At 6-foot-0 and 207 pounds, he played cornerback and safety in college, toughed it out through a shoulder injury in 2009, and has matching man and zone cover skills. The question is how quickly he'll get up to speed with better NFL receivers running more complex routes, but those who have seen Owusu-Ansah's game tape don't doubt his raw potential. He's also one of the NCAA's best return men.
Projected Round: 2-4
4. WR Andre Roberts. Citadel - Any team looking for a fast slot guy and incendiary return man would be wise to give Roberts a good look. He's got legitimate sub-4.4 speed, and finished 2009 with some impressive national rankings: first in punt returns, second in receptions per game and total receiving yards, fourth in receiving yards per game, 11th in scoring and 14th in all-purpose running. He dropped just six of the 383 passes thrown to him over his time, and he seems to have everything it takes to succeed in the right NFL system.
Projected Round: 2-5
5. DE Austen Lane, Murray State - At 6-foot-6 and 276 pounds, Lane has awesome physical tools - he's been clocked at under 4.6 in the occasional 40, and he possesses rare burst to get to the quarterback. Questions about his ability to deal with stronger competition were laid to rest with a strong Senior Bowl performance. Lane gained 50 pounds during his time in college - he's played in 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, and his talents are still developing. With a team that sees him as a developmental player, he could reward with elite potential.
Projected Round: 3-4
6. QB John Skelton, Fordham - Opinions were mixed on Skelton's Combine performance - some scouts liked what they saw on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, while some reporters (yours truly included) weren't all that impressed with Skelton's scattershot delivery. Still, he's getting a lot of press as a potential NFL player. Teams like his size (6-foot-6, 243 pounds), arm strength, and release mechanics. Though he played primarily out of the shotgun at Fordham, Skelton seems to have the ability to play pro-style with a team that shows patience with his potential.
Projected Round: 3-5
7. RB Joique Bell, Wayne State - This Michigan native was recruited by major schools, but as a defensive back. Bell wanted to be a running back, so he stayed close to home and excelled for Wayne State instead. He put up over 2,000 rushing yards in two different seasons, and he's another player whose Senior Bowl week dispelled questions about his level of play. While his slow 40 times at the Combine and in private workouts may have some teams discounting him in the draft, his short-area quickness and balance will have other teams looking at him as a third-day bargain.
Projected Round: 3-6
8. FB Clay Harbor, Missouri State - He's projected as the #1 fullback on many lists, but Harbor may have a brighter NFL future as a move fullback/H-back hybrid. He caught 150 passes for Missouri State, and blew up the Combine with a vertical jump of 40 inches, and a position-leading 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Harbor's worked hard on his blocking, has learned to get open in zones, and would be a great asset in any two-tight end set.
Projected Round: 3-6
9. OT Tony Washington, Abilene Christian - Though he went through college with no off-field incidents, Washington's conviction as a sex offender in high school (the details of which can be found here) will put some NFL teams off. Still, Abilene Christian has been a hotbed of NFL talent in recent years, and Washington may be another gem. Once teams have done their due diligence, the next step will be to overcome Washington's relative lack of experience blocking near-elite defenders after only two seasons at ACU (he spent the two years previous in junior college). But the raw ability is there, and worth drafting.
Projected Round: 3-FA
10. WR Joe Webb, UAB - Why is a small-school player with two catches for 12 yards over the last two seasons on the lists of every major scout as a receiver? Because Webb, who actually caught 30 passes for 459 yards and three scores in 2007, played quarterback the last two seasons as the coaching staff chose to put their best athlete at that position. Now, it's just a question of where he lands. Teams know he has crazy skills - he's the only player in college football history to throw for over 2,000 yards and run for over 1,000 more in consecutive seasons. Most project him as a receiver; a guy with major potential at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds.
Projected Round: 3-FA