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Fifteen players who could be this NFL season's hidden rookie gems


Tom Brady. Jared Allen. Austin Collie. They start their careers unheralded. They end up in the biggest games the NFL knows. For whatever reason -- size, speed, level of competition in college -- players slide down draft boards but emerge as late-round or undrafted steals.

A year ago at this time, few people knew Collie. Just a few months later, the fourth-round pick was starting in the Super Bowl for the Colts, snatching passes out of the air from Peyton Manning.

So who's it going to be this year?

Julian Edelman of the Patriots was one of the unheralded gems highlighted in this spot a year ago. So, too, was the Bears' Johnny Knox. Are there future Pro Bowl and Super Bowl players among the following hidden gems? We're not making any promises, but here's one look at players emerging as potential non-first round impact rookies for 2010:

Nolan Carroll, CB (5th round), Dolphins

Carroll is the epitome of a hidden gem, starting just five games his entire career at Maryland and never scratching his potential. It was mostly because of injury, including breaking his leg in the second game of the 2009 season. But Carroll possesses unreal athletic ability and finally thrived once he got healthy and earned an opportunity.

Carroll ran a 4.3 in his pro day at Maryland, turning heads within the Dolphins' front office. Once he's gotten into uniform, Carroll has only continued to impress, to the point he likely will be the Dolphins' featured kick returner and will press for reps in the secondary.

Chris DeGeare, OG (5th round), Vikings

Millions of people tuned in to watch DeGeare's debut with the Vikings' first-team offense. OK, maybe Brett Favre had something to do with it. But it's subtle, under-the-radar moves like picking this load of an offensive guard (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) that can help the Vikings have another huge season.

DeGeare, a rookie out of Wake Forest, has turned heads from the moment he stepped into uniform. He is not intimidated by the big stage and stepped into a nice role among the offensive linemen. He's worked at left guard and earned reps with the starting unit. His stock is rising and he could be a fixture in the Vikes' offensive line for years.

Jordan Shipley, WR (3rd round), Bengals

With the addition of Terrell Owens, it didn't seem there were even enough No. 81s to go around in Cincinnati, much less footballs. Among Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Antonio Bryant (who sold his No. 81 to Owens) and Jermaine Gresham, where would Shipley fit in?

The answer is, Shipley already might have the most reliable hands on the squad. That's not to say he is the most explosive, but it's clear already that when Carson Palmer needs a sure catch, he's unafraid to turn to Shipley. His routes are precise and anything thrown his way will be caught. He'll also be returning kicks and punts.

Devin Moore, RB/KR (undrafted), Colts

Year-in, year-out, the Colts manage to find players otherwise forgotten, thrown to the scrap heap or pigeonholed as an unlikely NFL contributor because of size or some other factor. Moore was all of that. On the Carolina and Seattle practice squads last year, Moore has found a home in his hometown of Indianapolis.

At 5-9, Moore's size limited prospects, then an inability to make plays despite great speed left his career hanging in the balance. But in the Colts' system, Moore has excelled, returning a punt 49 yards, totaling 32 yards on four kickoff returns and showing flashes of breakaway ability in a preseason game against the Bills.

T.J. Ward S (2nd round), Browns

While second-round picks aren't normally considered a reach, when the Browns selected Ward, the consensus was that they overvalued the athletic safety. Sure, his measurables were strong, but the Browns passed on Taylor Mays to grab a player most mock draft boards considered a third-rounder at best? The draft boards were wrong.

Ward is hardly intimidated by the bright lights. He's making plays in coverage and in run-support, and already has recorded some highlight-reel pops on receivers. Once known to take occasional plays off, Ward seems to be a changed man and could become a staple in the Browns' secondary.

Tony Moeaki, TE (3rd round), Chiefs

How do you say "Gonzalez" in Tongan? OK, maybe that's a stretch. There never will be another Tony Gonzalez in a Chiefs uniform, but Moeaki was drawing attention and forcing his way into the starting lineup, until ... injuries set him back.

Injuries have been the story of Moeaki's career -- foot, ankle, elbow, hand. It's why he dropped to the third-round of the draft. Still, when healthy, Moeaki has been a standout for the Chiefs offense. He was wowing everyone who saw him during OTAs and early in camp. If he can get healthy, the job likely will be his and he may well star. He's THAT talented.

Mike Williams, WR (4th round), Buccaneers

It's never a good thing when apologists say a player is "misunderstood."

That's the company line on the super-talented Williams, who dropped to the fourth round after plenty of academic and behavior issues at Syracuse. Clearly, Williams could be the steal of the entire NFL draft. His talent is ridiculous. His hands and play-making ability are unquestioned. He's been the story of Bucs camp, making play after play.

But the questions will hound him until he proves otherwise. He got caught cheating on a test at Syracuse. He was suspended from the team after being involved in a car accident after curfew, returning from a trip to a casino. He quit the team. It's up to him to mature and become a professional.

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Victor Cruz, WR (undrafted), Giants

Can a player go from the next great sensation to yesterday's news in the span of a week? Welcome to New York, Victor.

Cruz was the back-page feel good story of the Big Apple in the preseason opener, shredding RexRyan's defense for six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. A week later against the Steelers, he played only with the second-teamers, caught two balls and muffed a punt.

Still, Cruz will be a contributor on a contender, having showed smarts, elusiveness and playmaking ability. He could be the perfect complementary change-of-pace player for the Giants.

Anthony Dixon, RB (6th round), 49ers

Once mentioned in the same breath as power backs Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate and Jonathan Dwyer, Dixon's draft stock plummeted because of subpar measurables. The 49ers scooped him up on the hopes he could develop down the road. But Glen Coffee surprisingly retired and Dixon has played better than expected.

Niners coach Mike Singletary demands power running and has been hard on Dixon, who's slated to back up Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook. He might do more than that, however. After rushing for 100 yards against the Colts, Dixon showed good downhill instincts and power in another solid effort against the Vikings.

Greg Hardy, DE (6th round), Panthers

When a draftable player earns a reputation -- good or bad -- it can be almost impossible to keep the story from spreading out of control. You have to wonder if that's what happened in the case of Hardy, an immensely talented end considered a top-10 pick before his senior season.

Somehow, a couple of injuries and reports of a bad attitude turned the entire league on Hardy, whose physical skills (6-4, 280) could not be more impressive. His stock dropped like a rock. Ever since, he's been dropping quarterbacks much the same way, and behavior or effort have not been a problem.

Hardy had two sacks, two tackles for loss and tied for the team lead in tackles with five in his preseason debut. Of late, he's been working with the first team at defensive end. It could be a big, big year for the former Ole Miss Rebel.

Barry Church, S (undrafted), Cowboys

Even before a shoulder injury sidelined Gerald Sensabaugh for three to four weeks, Church, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo, was making a name for himself in camp. His knack for being around the ball and making plays has been evident from the start of camp.

He also has great size (6-1, 220) and decent speed, although being tackled shy of a touchdown by Philip Rivers after picking up a fumble in a preseason game against the Chargers was a bit embarrassing. The Cowboys like Church. And they need him. He definitely will get snaps and play in special teams. He appears to always be in the thick of big plays.

Zoltan Mesko, P (5th round), Patriots

There's no one more unheralded than a punter, is there? But often times, there's no one more important. At the University of Michigan, Mesko was called, in beautiful redundant fashion, the "Space Emperor Of Space." Of Romanian descent, the Space Emperor speaks five languages, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and was dubbed the most interesting man in the NFL by the Wall Street Journal. When asked what he took from the NFL combine, Mesko responded, "an M.R.I. machine."

Still, it comes down to talent and Mesko has it. With a huge leg and accuracy, Mesko is the only punter in Patriots camp and could prove to be huge in the ever-important field-position battles of blustery fall afternoons.

Austin Howard, OT, (undrafted), Eagles

It's amazing that in a league that values tackles more than just about any other position on the field, the mammoth and quick Howard (6-7, 335 pounds) went undrafted. The Eagles have found a gem, all right, in this first season with Kevin Kolb as the full-time starter.

Howard, who played tight end his first two seasons at Division I-AA Northern Iowa, won't be in the starting lineup to open the season, but rest assured he'll get there. He's stepped in and been physical, quick and shown good hands in every practice and preseason game.

Perrish Cox, DB/KR, (5th round), Broncos

Cox was something of a problem child at Oklahoma State, so much so that when the Broncos took a chance on him, coach Josh McDaniels said, "He's got to live up to his end of the bargain."

He has. He was the other big star at OSU next to Dez Bryant. At Denver, there's another rookie -- Tim Somebody -- making most of the headlines. But Cox has earned reps with the first-team defense at cornerback as Champ Bailey battles injuries and has proved to be a terrific cover corner. He also broke a 65-yard punt return in the second preseason game. He'll make plays all year long for the Broncos, presuming he continues to live up to his end of the bargain.

Darryl Sharpton, LB (4th round), Texans

Can Al Sharpton's nephew keep playoff hope alive for the Texans. Yes, we're mixing Reverend references, but even Jesse Jackson would agree that there's a gaping hole in the Texans' defense left by 2009 Defensive Rookie Of The Year Brian Cushing's four-game suspension to start the year.

No one's crazy about starting a pair of rookies defensively for a team that fancies itself a playoff contender (first-round CB Kareem Jackson is the other), but the former Miami Hurricane has stepped in and impressed, making the most of an unlikely opportunity. Also, presumed backups Xavier Adibi and Danny Clark have been fighting injuries through camp.

Sharpton has responded by impressing during the offseason and making big plays in the Texans' first preseason game, before an uneven effort in the second. He's got the eye of coaches, though, no doubt.