Searching for hidden rookie gems as team training camps open

Publish date:

Colts' Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis was a fifth-rounder in 2003. There was Jared Allen taken 126th overall in 2004, Donald Driver picked 213th in 1999, Zach Thomas going 154th in 1996 and Joe Horn 135th in 1996.

The list is a long one. Impact players, stars and superstars can be found where you least expect it in NFL draft. It happens every year. So, where are the hidden gems this year? We're not promising any future Hall of Famers or Pro Bowl locks. But here's one writer's team-by-team look at non-first round impact rookies as we head into training camps:

Atlanta -- Lawrence Sidbury Jr. (4th round, 125th overall)

The Falcons are pretty set along the defensive line, but when Sidbury fell to them in the fourth round, it was impossible not to take him. It may be equally impossible to keep him off the field.

Though he hails from Division I-AA Richmond and is undersized, Sidbury already is turning heads with consistent playmaking skills. He's always around the ball and in the backfield disrupting things. He never quits and when he gets to the ball-carrier, he's a sure tackler. He may not start, but it will be impossible for the Falcons not to use him.

Arizona -- Rashad Johnson (3rd round, 95th overall)

It's impossible not to like Johnson's work ethic and dedication. All his life, he's been proving he's better than some give him credit for, having turned down several other scholarship offers to walk on at Alabama, where he became an All-American.

His knowledge of the game is superb, he puts in the time and is more professional than a lot of players in the league right now. Some already are quietly comparing Johnson to Adrian Wilson. He won't start, but Johnson is always around the ball and is a playmaker.

Baltimore --Paul Kruger (2nd round, 57th overall)

There simply may not be a better story of perseverance on the field and off. Kruger nearly died in January, 2008, when he and three friends were attacked by 15-20 gang members while leaving a party in Salt Lake City.

Kruger was stabbed at least twice in the abdomen, lost a severe amount of blood and suffered severe internal injuries. Ultimately, 50-staples were required to close the wound and surgical incisions. Kruger recovered fully, but lost 20-pounds and much strength. He ultimately returned and became a beast of a defensive end. Ravens coaches love his maturity, aggressiveness and willingness to pick up the system. It will be impossible, ultimately, to keep him off the field.

Buffalo -- Jairus Byrd (2nd round, 42nd overall)

All the attributes that made Byrd a huge impact player at Oregon are translating well thus far to the bigger stage. He has proved to be one of those rare instinctive players who just always manages to get his hands on the football (17 career interceptions for the Ducks).

He will play and he will find a way to be around the ball. With good size at 210-pounds and the bloodlines to match (father, Gill, was a Pro Bowler for the Chargers), Byrd may have been a surprising pick considering the Bills had other needs, but he simply was too good to pass up. He's showing he's too good to pass against, too.

Carolina -- Mike Goodson (4th round, 111th overall)

Goodson was quite the tease at Texas A&M. One moment he would show brilliant game-breaking ability, the next he would look lost on the field and, worse, disinterested.

Thus far, however, the Panthers have been nothing but pleased with Goodson's work ethic and performance on the field. He's a game-breaker cut in the mold of another A&M-ex, Dante Hall. If he matures and works hard now that his livelihood depends on it, Goodson may well have landed in the perfect spot. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have nothing to worry about in the backfield, but Goodson could break games wide open out of the slot or on kick returns.

Chicago -- Johnny Knox (5th round, 140th overall)

Jay Cutler is going to have some young talent at the receiver position, no doubt. Third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma has the pedigree and size, and exceeded expectations in OTAs. But Knox had heads spinning with his blazing speed.

Clocked at 4.34 during the draft combine, Knox's speed has translated well. He made play after play during the spring, flashing good hands, as well. There's no doubt he could become a contributor in the slot, if not a game-breaker in special teams.

Cincinnati -- Bernard Scott (6th round, 209th overall)

Scott has been arrested five times and was kicked out of the University of Central Arkansas for allegedly punching a coach. Sounds like a match made in heaven for the strife-riddled Bengals, right?

Actually, this could become one of the more compelling NFL stories if Scott truly has matured and straightened out his life as he claims. Scott has first-round talent -- an amazing set of skills and instincts. But he's been a first-rate knucklehead.

His NFL future is a clean slate right now; what he does with it is entirely up to him.

Cleveland -- David Veikune (2nd round, 52nd overall)

It's a long way from the sunny shores of Hawaii to the bitter howling winds of Cleveland, but Veikune has made a habit of adjusting nicely to change.

A college defensive end, Veikune has a lot coming at him as he is making the switch to inside linebacker. So far, so good. Even without a firm grasp on NFL linebacking schemes and the demands of the job, Veikune has shown nice, instinctive playmaking ability. He's another one of those high-octane players always looking for contact, which should play well in Cleveland.

Dallas -- David Buehler (5th round, 172nd overall)

David Buehler's day off (sorry, had to do it) will come when the Cowboys face teams that do not possess dangerous return men. Buehler is the ultimate in specialty players. He will be called upon for kickoffs, and unless Nick Folk suddenly slumps, his kicking chores will be only kickoffs.

That alone makes Buehler special and valuable, though. His leg is possibly the strongest in the league already. Forty-eight of his 88 kickoffs at USC were touchbacks. But Buehler is rare in another way, too: He runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and has played numerous roles in special teams, including covering and rushing kicks. The Cowboys have told him they will try to find ways to use him in special teams, as well.

Denver -- Blake Schlueter (7th round, 225th overall), Broncos

Where have Broncos heard this before? Schlueter is an athletic, but somewhat short offensive lineman with a motor that won't stop and toughness that literally knocks opponents to (if not at) their knees.

Don't be surprised if Schlueter works his way to a productive 12- or 15-year career despite being taken so low in the draft. He ran an almost unheard-of 4.8-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Thus far in Denver, coaches love every part of Schlueter's game.

Detroit -- Louis Delmas (2nd round, 33rd overall)

All right, so the first pick of the second-round pick wouldn't exactly be considered a "sleeper."

But keep in mind, the Lions have notoriously blown second-round picks. And we're talking BLOWN -- anyone remember Barrett Green or Kalimba Edwards?

Just three of the 13 second-round picks the Lions have had since 2000 figure to be starters in 2009. Delmas will get there, too. He is brash, skilled, a good study and by all accounts has looked great, not good, thus far.

Green Bay -- T.J. Lang (4th round, 109th overall)

Lang already has quarterback Aaron Rodgers' stamp of approval. Rodgers raved about Lang's abilities during mini-camp, repeatedly crediting Lang for good work up front.

There is so much for Lang still to learn. The shoulder pads are just coming on. But at 6-4, 316-pounds, Lang has the footwork and power skills that could carry him a long way. Already, Packers coaches consider Lang a lock for significant playing time, if not a starting role.

Houston -- Glover Quin (4th round, 112th overall)

The Texans have been looking for depth and help on the defensive side of the ball since their 2008 campaign ended. Certainly first-rounder Brian Cushing and second-rounder Connor Barwin have gotten more deserved attention, but Quin is confident and a big-time playmaker (five interceptions, 11 pass-breakups at New Mexico).

Quin also could play safety and excel on special teams with his physical nature. As a fourth-rounder, there frankly wasn't better value out there for a team.

Indianapolis -- Fili Moala (2nd round, 56th overall)

The Colts desperately need an impact defensive tackle. Moala fills the need, in more ways than one.

He has better size than the Colts are accustomed to using in their gap-penetration scheme. That signals a change in philosophy. The Colts often were manhandled at the point of attack.

That the Colts were willing to trade two picks in order to move up five spots and get Moala tells you just how highly they think of him, and the kind of impact this physical, quick, nasty tackle can have.

Jacksonville -- Jarett Dillard (5th round, 144th overall)

Jaguars fans have had more than their share of headaches with receivers under-achieving, getting in trouble or both.

Dillard is a high-class, high-character playmaker who could erase a lot of bad memories. Dropping to the fifth round was predictable for a kid coming out of Rice, with "measurables" that don't quite measure up (5-10, 191 pounds). Dillard should get some time opposite Torry Holt and, given the chance, he will make the big plays.

Kansas City -- Quinten Lawrence (6th round, 175th overall), Chiefs

Chiefs coach Todd Haley has made no mistake about the fact that Lawrence has a long way to go, hailing from McNeese State, where he missed a big chunk of the year because of injury.

It's going to be tough breaking in and becoming a regular NFL contributor. But he can get there.

Lawrence certainly can contribute on special teams and should find playing time at receiver eventually, with speed and after-the-catch elusiveness. The Chiefs have been in need of help at receiver, and they may have just found it.

Miami -- Chris Clemons (5th round, 165th overall)

He won't be a starter this season, but Clemons has a knack for the ball and versatility that should keep him in the league for a long time.

During OTAs and off-season drills, Dolphins coach Tony Sparano singled out Clemons several times for his demeanor, work ethic and playmaking ability.

Clemons also has that streak of nastiness that, coupled with good size (6-foot, 208 pounds), could eventually make him much more than a special-teams player and situational contributor.

Minnesota -- Phil Loadholt (2nd round, 54th overall)

Loadholt isn't much of a sleeper pick, per se. But he is expected to start on Opening Day.

That's asking a lot. This mammoth young man, however, already has matched his impressive size (6-foot-8, 332 pounds), with an impressive array of skills during off-season and OTA activities.

Vikings right tackle Ryan Cook was subpar on the right side last year. While Loadholt's size would indicate he might not have the quick feet to hand NFL rush ends. And that is one part of his game that needs work. But just watch. He can knock players off their feet with brute strength.

New England -- Julian Edelman (7th round, 232nd overall)

Why in the world would the Patriots be interested in Michael Vick when they're already working on the legend of Julian Edelman?

OK, so that may be a stretch, but among rookies coming into camp you would have been hard-pressed to find any Patriot who made a bigger impression.

A record-setting quarterback at Kent State, Edelman has been converted to a receiver and figures to gradually work his way into a significant role. He could be a "Wildcat"-type player immediately.

New Orleans -- Chip Vaughn (4th round, 116th overall)

The Saints were the oldest team in the NFL last year and in desperate need of some young blood and attitude -- especially on the defensive end.

Vaughn is older than most rookies (23), but he fulfills a big need in youth and approach.

Sure, the Saints have proven experience at safety. But at 6-1, 221 pounds and having been clocked at 4.38 in the 40-yard dash, Vaughn is a tremendous specimen with obvious upside. Sean Payton has singled out Vaughn for his playmaking and plans to use him as a free safety, which could be the perfect spot for him.

New York Giants -- Ramses Barden (3rd round, 85th overall)

Who needs Plaxico Burress when you can have a close approximation with better character, a higher football IQ and those intangible qualities that just make him likeable inside the locker room and out?

That's Barden (6-6, 229 pounds). It won't come overnight, but expect Barden to make all the right adjustments to the NFL, adjust to the speed and size of the league and then start making plays. He is raw, but has very good hands and, with his size, he could become a favorite of Eli Manning's around the end zone.

New York Jets -- Shonn Greene (3rd round, 65th overall)

Mark Sanchez is the coverboy rookie, but Greene has earned just as many raves in the early going from Jets coach Rex Ryan.

With Thomas Jones unhappiness with his contract situation and Leon Washington in the same boat, the Jets have found someone willing and able to push for time in the backfield. At 227 pounds, Greene has the strength and power to run between the tackles and help wear down opposing defenses. No one is saying it publicly just yet, but the Jets have to be thinking the Sanchez-Greene combination could become something special down the road.

Oakland -- Louis Murphy (4th round, 124th overall)

Darrius Heyward-Bey was the premier receiver selection for the Raiders, but coach Tom Cable at one point cited Murphy as the most impressive rookie during OTAs. If Heyward-Bey and Murphy both hit it big, the Raiders could be well on their way to glory with JaMarcus Russell and DarrenMcFadden in the backfield as well.

The Raiders passed on several offensive linemen that could have helped the offense in order to get Murphy. He has not disappointed with great study habits and a knack for making plays and big catches.

He also is cut from the classic Raiders mold, with superb speed and size (6-2, 203 pounds).

Philadelphia -- LeSean McCoy (2nd round, 53rd overall)

While there are questions on just how effective Brian Westbrook will be coming off ankle surgery and still not fully participating in drills, the Eagles do not seem too concerned. McCoy is the reason why.

Fans may be clamoring for the club to find an experienced backup, but McCoy has the front office confident he will be in the mix and able to contribute. The fourth all-time leading rusher in Pitt's history, McCoy has done nothing but impress coaches, fans and, especially, quarterback DonovanMcNabb with his great instincts and ability to find space.

Pittsburgh -- Keenan Lewis (3rd round, 96th overall)

Mike Tomlin clearly has been impressed with the plays and attitude Lewis has brought to the world champs. You can't get a better start to your NFL career than that.

He won't be in the rotation to start the year, but Lewis will get every chance. In Pittsburgh, it's all about making plays, which is Lewis' strong suit. Another of his strengths is one that cannot be taught: size (6-foot, 208 pounds). He already has drawn comparisons to current Steelers corner Ike Taylor. Several observers of Steelers activities this summer say Lewis was clearly the most impressive of any rookie.

St. Louis -- Dorell Scott (4th round, 103rd overall)

Versatility is the key if you are an NFL interior defensive lineman and Scott has got it. He can play gaps, a 4-3 or 3-4. He's strong enough to take on two blockers and clog running lanes.

The one thing that slowed Scott from shooting up the draft board was a knee injury his senior season that limited production. He came along late in the year for Clemson, though, and the Rams feel they finally have found a guy who can step right into the rotation, stop the run and put pressure on quarterbacks.

San Diego -- Louis Vasquez (3rd round, 78th overall)

The Chargers have not given the starting right guard position to Vasquez just yet, but they're dropping a lot of hints that Vasquez is everything and more than they imagined he'd be.

Norv Turner consistently has complimented Vasquez's athletic ability considering his size (6-5, 333 pounds), while teammates have talked about the professionalism and attitude Vasquez has brought from Texas Tech.

He'll battle it out with former Pro Bowler Kyle Forney, but don't bet against Vasquez. He could be another of those mid-round gems that pays off for a dozen years or more.

San Francisco -- Glen Coffee (3rd round, 74th overall)

Coffee clearly does not read press clippings -- especially those that said the 49ers drafted him to be a slow-to-develop, little-used backup to Frank Gore.

Make no mistake, Gore is the man. And Coffee has some skills that need polishing -- namely footwork, cutting and vision in traffic.

But Niners coach Mike Singletary is going to love this kid, if he doesn't already. Coffee came into off-season drills and mini-camp determined to make an impact and force his way onto the field. He's done a good job of it.

He's tough, willing to put his head down and scratch out every inch of turf. In space, he's proved capable of going the distance. He also is a high-character player.

Seattle -- Deon Butler (3rd round, 91st overall)

While No. 4 overall pick and monster talent Aaron Curry was doing all the interviews during off-season work and minicamp, Butler stole the show on the field. When you hear things like 4.28 speed, it's almost impossible to believe that it's real. But there are a lot of believers in Seattle now, after seeing this guy up-close.

It may be awhile before Butler becomes a starter, but his skills are too explosive to keep off the field. The Seahawks have been in need of a big-play receiver. If he puts in the work on his route-running and adapts to the NFL game, they've found their guy.

Tampa Bay -- Sammie Stroughter (7th round, 233rd overall)

Perhaps the longest of shots to make it big, don't bet against Stroughter. Already in drills and minicamp, Stroughter has showed polished pass-catching ability.

He has hands, speed, instincts and the ability to make plays. If it translates when the pads come on and the games are real, Stroughter could be the perfect slot complement to Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton.

The only thing he does not have is size (5-9, 189 pounds), but he has long arms for his height, and with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons at Oregon State, he proved he's unafraid to go over the middle.

Tennessee -- Jared Cook (3rd round, 89th overall)

No one should be happier about the production Cook could bring than quarterback Kerry Collins. For all the things the Titans do well, they still lack a receiving threat who can go upfield.

Cook is that guy, and the opportunity is there. The Titans often use two-tight-end sets and, though Bo Scaife is the regular, Alge Crumpler has fought injuries and is not the player he once was. During minicamp, no one made as many dazzling catches as Cook. He's a one-trick pony right now, but that trick -- catching balls and keeping the middle of the defense honest -- is exactly what the Titans need.

Washington -- Kevin Barnes (3rd round, 80th overall)

Fred Smoot's production has steadily dropped. He loves to talk trash and bark, and is a popular figure. But more and more, the eight-year veteran has not been backing it up.

Barnes wowed coaches during OTAs. Yeah, it's a whole different world come Sundays in the fall, but Barnes should threaten for playing time in Nickel packages, certainly, and maybe more. He also has the size to compete with the NFC East's bigger receivers.

TUCKER: Top 10 positional battles at camp

LOPEZ: Top storylines to watch for

KING:Postcard from Bills' training camp