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Unheralded but Undeterred: Five Rookies Who Could Surprise in ’09

June 27, 2009

Tom Brady. Terrell Davis. Deacon Jones. Mel Blount.

This short list of players may seem simply a random collection of past and present football greats, but in fact it’s a small selection of late-round NFL picks who have carved out stellar pro careers. The NFL draft, no matter how much it is analyzed, is an inexact science, and every year it seems like a late-round player makes a big splash at the pro level.

In recent years we’ve seen Marques Colston (7th round), Brandon Marshall (4th round) and Ahmad Bradshaw (7th round) make big impacts for their teams, so who will be the next late-round sensation in the NFL? We at PaP have chosen five possible breakout candidates for the 2009 season, and are only taking one candidate per position. Regular readers will know that we are huge supporters of the forgotten men of the NFL, and would rather root for the small-school hopeful than the megabucks wonderkid, so it is in this tradition that we look at these late-round afterthoughts.

Draft analysts once described Drew Brees as “lacking accuracy” and accused him of being a spread-option miracle, so it’s fair to say that they’ve been wrong before. We hope not to be.

Ramses Barden, WR, Cal-Poly: 3rd Round to the New York Giants

Since the Giants released Plaxico Burress after he infamously shot himself in the leg (seriously, I’m still getting over how ridiculous that debacle is), the Giants have had a big hole at the wide receiver position, physically and metaphorically.

To try and fill some egregiously large shoes (or at least part of them), New York’s blue half drafted the 6’6 Barden, a huge physical presence who figures to compete with positional compatriot Hakeem Nicks (1st round, UNC) to try and replace the massive Burress (when he’s not putting the peepol all on fayahhhhh).

Although Nicks has the first-round pedigree, Barden shouldn’t be ignored. He caught 18 TDs in both his junior and senior years in San Luis Obispo (not quite as catchy as Ann Arbor or Columbus, I know) and his final game was a two-touchdown, 108-yard game against Weber State, so the man has some skills. And it’s going to take more than one large man to replicate Plaxico’s production, so we’ve got high hopes for the young man from California Polytechnic.

Honorable mentions: Patrick Turner, USC (4th round to Miami), Mike Wallace, Arizona (3rd round to Pittsburgh) and Johnny Knox, Abilene Christian (5th round to Chicago).

Nic Harris, S/LB, Oklahoma: 5th Round to the Buffalo Bills

Oklahoma is famous football college, but despite coming straight outta Sooner country, Nic Harris doesn’t have the hype surrounding him that many of his fellow alumni have had in the past (though that Adrian Peterson guy turned out pretty good anyway).

Harris, seen here in a delightfully choreographed training camp photo, played safety in college and is moving to linebacker at the pro level, so he is at a disadvantage straightaway.

But don’t be fooled, Harris can play. He was known for his ferocious hitting in college and he looked pretty comfortable playing at linebacker in the Senior Bowl practices, showing a tremendous work ethic and desire to improve. Plus, at 6’2 and almost 240lbs, he can really grow into his frame and maybe become a starting ‘backer in this league.

Honorable mentions: Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina (5th round to Minnesota), Marcus Freeman, Ohio State (5th round to Chicago) and Jason Phillips, TCU (5th round to Baltimore).

Herman Johnson, G, LSU: 5th Round to the Arizona Cardinals

Herman ‘The House’ Johnson is a seriously big dude. At 15lbs, 14oz., he was the biggest baby ever born in the state of Louisiana, and his size continues to be extraordinary even today – at 6’7 and 382lbs, he’s one of the heftiest men in pro sports.

However, The House’s talent has not always equaled his size. In his four-year college career he started 38 games but was always seen as unskilled technically, relying more on bulk than brains.

Big Herm may not be the most polished prospect, but he anchored an offensive line that led the Tigers to a national title and his freakish size makes him a quality project to work on. With some good coaching (which former NFL guard and current Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm is sure to provide), Johnson could easily become an elite interior lineman, and clear the way for fellow Cardinals draftee Chris Wells (RB, 1st round, Ohio State) for years to come.

Honorable mentions: Kraig Urbik, Wisconsin (3rd round to Pittsburgh), Duke Robinson, Oklahoma (5th round to Carolina) and George Bussey, Louisville (5th round to New England).

A.Q. Shipley, C, Penn State: 7th Round to the Pittsburgh Steelers

A.Q. Shipley won the Rimington Trophy as the country’s best collegiate center in 2008. He was also the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He was also an All-American selection. At a glance, it would seem that he would be the first center taken and a hot prospect. But that wasn’t the case in the 2009 draft.

In fact, no-one seemed to want to touch the gifted blocker, as his small stature – he stands just six feet – caused him to tumble down the draft board. He was the last player at his position drafted.

However, more than a few people (myself included) cheered when the Steelers took a chance on him in round 7. Players do not have excellent college careers by accident. Shipley beat out two first-rounders (Louisville’s Eric Wood and California’s Alex Mack) to the Rimington Trophy and is a tenacious blocker inside. He’ll maul anyone who gets near him, and all he ever did at Penn State was block anybody in his eyeline.

So let’s all stand up and give a big hand for the little guy!

Honorable mentions
: Antoine Caldwell, Alabama (3rd round to Houston), Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas (4th round to Cincinnati) and Blake Schleuter, TCU (7th round to Denver).

Rashad Jennings, RB, Liberty: 7th Round to the Jacksonville Jaguars

Rashad Jennings is the ultimate late-round selection: small school, huge production, great work ethic.

The running back played eight games at Pittsburgh in his freshman year but transferred to Liberty College (go Flames!) in Virginia for his final three years to see more of the field. That could turn out to be a very smart move indeed.

While at Liberty, Jennings led the Flames to back-to-back Big South Conference titles and ripped the conference to shreds, scoring a whopping 36 total TDs his final two seasons and amassing 4,051 rushing yards in three years. Needless to say, Jennings has got game.

Ranked by ESPN as their 7th best running back in the draft, Jennings was overlooked by many NFL franchises due to his program’s obscurity, but the Jags may have gotten a huge steal at pick no.250.

Late-round RBs seem the most prone to breakout years (see Washington, Leon amongst others) and Jennings could continue that trend. He may have been an afterthought for many front offices, but he’s not been forgotten by this list.

Honorable mentions: Javon Ringer, Michigan State (5th round to Tennessee), Bernard Scott, Abilene Christian (6th round to Cincinnati) and Chris Ogbonnaya, Texas (7th round to St. Louis).

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