|Arkansas' Tremaine Thomas is one of many low-key players scouts are closely watching. (US Presswire)|
NFL scouts have identified the elite talent available in the 2012 draft.
Most of the pre-draft media attention will focus on those players, from Stanford QB Andrew Luck to CB Morris Claiborne of LSU.
Scouts are just as excited about their favorite diamonds in the rough -- under-the-radar talents who provide immense value -- as they're about accurately projecting first-round picks. Super Bowl winners, after all, aren't built with just first-round picks. The players drafted in the middle and late rounds (and even signed as undrafted free agents) make up the vast majority of team rosters.
The expanded television coverage of college football today means that more than ever some of those middle- and late-round prospects are recognizable names to casual football fans.
Here are the top 10 underrated prospects scouts believe could wind up as top 100 picks in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Players are listed alphabetically.
DT Hebron Fangupo, BYU: With only 22 tackles at press time (including 5.5 tackles for loss), Fangupo lacks the statistics to convince anyone that he's a future NFL standout. Following his transfer from Southern California, however, the 6-1, 330-pound Fangupo has quietly emerged as one of the country's top run stuffers. Scouts love his power and intensity and feel that he's one of the more underrated defensive linemen in a senior class lacking standouts. Fangupo's ability to hold up against double-team blocking makes him equally attractive to teams operating out of a three- or four-man front.
QB Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Considering that he's the starting quarterback for the No. 1 team in the country, Jefferson is easily the most recognizable name on this list. Even so, many question whether Jefferson will be able to transfer his skills to the pro game. With Michael Vick, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow proving how dangerous mobile quarterbacks with strong arms can be, don't be surprised if a team is willing to look past Jefferson's career 59 percent completion percentage and instead focus on the 6-4, 223 pound senior's upside. Jefferson may never develop into an NFL starting quarterback, but his ability to challenge defenses with his feet as well as his arm could make him a valuable addition to a team willing to think outside of the box.
CB Leonard Johnson, Iowa State: Scouts love to see players step up their level of play in big games and that is precisely what Johnson has been able to do over his career, including putting forth a tremendous effort against reigning Biletnikof winner Justin Blackmon in the Cyclones' stunning upset over Oklahoma State. The 5-10, 202 pound Johnson doesn't have the elite athleticism to wow scouts, but his competitiveness and reliable open field tackling skills make him one of the more highly thought of prospects among the second-tier of cornerbacks.
WR Rishard Matthews, Nevada: When Matthews emerged as Nevada's top receiver last season after transferring in from Bakersfield Junior College, most attributed his success to Colin Kaepernick's passing and head coach Chris Ault's highly aggressive offense. With Kaepernick now in San Francisco, Matthews hasn't taken a step back but progressed further, leading the WAC with 1,250 receiving yards on 79 receptions. At 6-1, 205 pounds Matthews has good speed and can contribute in a variety of ways, including as a kick and punt returner. With a combined 15 touchdowns over his two seasons, Matthews may just be the country's best game-breaker whose name you don't know ... until now, at least.
OG Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State: From Jahri Evans (Bloomsburg) to Mike Iupati (Idaho) to Jared Veldheer (Hillsdale), NFL teams have learned to expect at least one "small school" offensive lineman to emerge as a legitimate middle-round pick. An All-American left tackle at Midwestern State, the 6-3, 324 pound Silatolu projects best inside where his good, but not elite lateral agility can be protected. Once inside, however, Silatolu's power and aggressive nature could ultimately make him an upper level NFL starter. Some scouts believe an opportunity at the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game is all Silatolu needs to leap to the top of the senior guard class.
FS Tramaine Thomas, Arkansas: The talented defensive backfields at Alabama and LSU may have taken some of the limelight away from Thomas, who entered this season a reigning Second Team All-SEC pick. Despite being even more productive this year than last, as well as showing an ability to step up his level of play in big games (see LSU, Auburn), many outside of the Southeastern Conference don't know Thomas. The 6-0, 204 Thomas is athletic, instinctive and a proven playmaker. One might be surprised to know that Thomas is tied with Alabama's Mark Barron as the SEC senior with the most career interceptions (12). Thomas also has forced six fumbles over his career.
RB Robert Turbin, Utah State: Turbin is the lone underclassmen on this list, though if sources are correct, the Aggie may as well be a senior as he's planning on being part of the 2012 draft. Listed at 5-10, 216 pounds but appearing much stouter on tape, Turbin is a powerful runner with surprising lateral agility and straight-line speed. With 1,318 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in 11 games this season, Turbin is among the nation's most productive backs -- and that isn't coming against just teams in the WAC. Turbin ran for 72 yards and two scores in Utah State's shockingly close 42-38 loss to Auburn to start the season. Turbin is hardly just a bowling ball of a running back, either. He's caught 65 passes for 817 yards and 10 scores, as well. Some scouts compare Turbin to a lighter, quicker version of current San Diego Chargers running back Mike Tolbert
CB Trevin Wade, Arizona: A breakout sophomore season (five interceptions, 14 passes defensed) earned Wade a spot on the Pac-10's second team all-conference unit in 2009. A deep left thigh bruise hampered Wade much of his junior season and he struggled through a disappointing campaign. As such, he entered his senior season a bit lower on the rankings than perhaps he should have been. This year, Wade has been as effective in coverage as any cornerback in the Pac-12. He is currently tied for the conference lead with 13 passes broken up and intercepted two more this season despite opponents often ignoring his side of the field. A three-year starter at a program known for producing NFL-caliber defensive backs, Wade's career totals (32 PBUs and 12 interceptions) are undeniable.
OT Dustin Waldron, Portland State: NFL teams are hopeful that several members of a strong junior class of offensive tackles will fortify an average senior crop at the position. If they (primarily Southern California's Matt Kalil, Iowa's Riley Reiff, Stanford's Jonathan Martin, etc.) fail to do so, developmental prospects like Waldron will be pushed up the board. At 6-6, 290, Waldron has a legitimate NFL frame and he plays with the nastiness scouts like to see. A four-year starting left tackle, Waldron will almost surely be asked to move inside or to right tackle in the NFL, but he appears to have the work ethic to handle the conversion.
OG Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Considering the amount of attention heaped upon Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt last year and the build-up around Wisconsin junior center Peter Konz this season, it has been difficult for Zeitler to gain the attention his play warrants. A highly touted prep prospect who quickly worked his way into the Badgers' starting lineup at right guard, the 6-4, 318 pound Zeitler is alert and active in pass protection and is the mauler in the running game you'd expect from a team averaging nearly 247 yards rushing per game. Zeitler's last name made him the last player on this list, but in terms of NFL-readiness, he may rank first.
Rob Rang is a Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.