Prognosticators have their opinions on the players rising in the draft, but what about the people inside the league who make the decisions? There are always a number of surprises throughout the draft's seven rounds, as players gain momentum late in the process and move up boards. Here are 15 names to remember, some well-known and others true sleepers, who could be drafted much earlier than most project.
Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State: Several NFL teams have privately stated they believe Cox will be the best defensive player to come from the 2012 draft. Teams continue to fall in love with his versatility and potential. Cox could end up as a top-six choice.
Mark Barron, S, Alabama: Barron stands head and shoulders above any safety in this draft, and teams believe his talents have been understated. He was once pigeonholed exclusively at strong safety, but more and more decision-makers feel Barron can handle the duties of free safety. He's presently rated as the draft's sixth-best player on a number of boards around the league.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina: Gilmore was initially graded as a late first-round pick when he declared for the draft. The junior then measured over 6-feet tall and ran 4.41 seconds at the combine, which pushed him up boards. He presently ranks as the second cornerback and may sneak into the draft's first 12 selections.
Shea McCellin, DE/OLB, Boise State: McClellin continues to build upon the momentum he gained during his senior season. Teams feel he's a three-down defender who can be used as both an inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. McClellin has solidified himself as a late first-round choice.
Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford: The NFL is a copycat league and, with more teams looking for a big pass-catching tight end to create mismatches in the secondary, Fleener continues to watch his stock rise. He'll be off the board before the 30th pick of the draft.
Amini Silatolu, OL, Midwestern State: The small-school lineman has made a big jump up boards and could squeeze into the late part of round one. Silatolu is rough around the edges but strong, athletic and a prospect many think could be a Pro Bowl lineman for years to come.
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse: Jones missed much of the 2011 season with a knee injury, but teams love his natural pass rushing skills. The more tape they watch of the junior the more they like him. Jones is another who will make his way into the late part of round one.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Utah State: Wagner offers a complete game and is one of the few three-down linebackers in the draft. He can effectively be used at several linebacker spots, and scouts expect him to be off the board prior to the draft's 37th selection.
Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: Shutdown cornerbacks are always a priority on draft day, and Hayward offers some of the most polished ball skills at the position. His rise into the early portion of round two is a result of better-than-expected 40 times at the combine as well as the falling draft stock of cornerbacks who were formerly rated as first-round prospects.
AJ Jenkins, WR, Illinois: Jenkins capped off an ultra-productive senior season by breaking the 4.4-second barrier in the 40 at the combine. Teams are so enamored with Jenkins they traveled to privately work him out this weekend. Expect the reliable pass catcher to be selected somewhere in the middle of round two.
Brandon Hardin, S, Oregon State: Hardin missed the entire 2011 campaign with a broken shoulder, then returned briefly to participate in the Shrine Game. The college cornerback later performed brilliantly at his pro day and has since made 14 official pre-draft visits the past three weeks. Hardin is presently graded as a third-round choice by a number of teams.
Jeremy Lane, CB, Northwestern State: Lane was mentioned last week in our article focusing on small-school sleepers. Teams are no longer sleeping on the shutdown corner. He's crisscrossed the country to visit nine different franchises, and teams privately worked out Lane through the weekend. He's now projected to be drafted as early as the third round and should be off the board by the fifth frame.
Korey Toomer, OLB, Idaho: Toomer was not on the scouting radar at the start of the season but has since caught fire. After a terrific senior campaign and knockout pro day, he traveled to visit a dozen franchises around the league. Toomer is another expected to land between rounds three and five.
Tim Fugger, DE/OLB, Vanderbilt: Fugger is another talented pass rusher in the draft with the ability to line up at multiple positions on defense. He's getting a lot of love from teams that prefer small but explosive defensive ends. Fugger is slotted as an early third-day pick by several teams.
Gino Gradkowski, C, Delaware: The void of talent at center has teams projecting players to the position from all areas. Gradkowski, formerly rated as a free agent guard, has moved into the late rounds as teams think he'll easily make the adjustment to center at the next level.