- Todd McShay, Scouts Inc.
Plenty of NFL prospects come out of the draft ready to contribute right away, but plenty more need time to develop into contributors at the next level.
Potential can be found up and down the board, but these five players are the most intriguing developmental prospects in the 2012 class. Some might not see the field much early in their careers, but if they land in the right situations all will offer a good return on investment.
Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler
There are plenty of positives about Osweiler's game, starting with his raw arm talent. When he throws with balance Osweiler makes some impressive throws, and he is a former Gonzaga basketball recruit who has surprising mobility for a 6-foot-67 prospect. Finally, he is a tough, competitive player and all indications are that his work ethic and intangibles are solid.
As for the negatives, start with the fact Osweiler started just 15 games in college and clearly needs work on the finer points of quarterback play. He needs to become more savvy in his reads and progressions, from not telegraphing and/or forcing throws to throwing with better balance and making better decisions. His inexperience is especially evident when he faces top-notch defenses, such as in Arizona State's 56-24 loss to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
However, all of those negatives can be coached up, and if Osweiler lands in the right situation he will flourish. He's the most naturally talented second-round quarterback prospect in recent seasons, but Osweiler needs a good quarterback coach and a spot behind an established veteran where there is no pressure to play for the first couple of seasons.
That will allow Osweiler to watch as things are done the right way, from the meeting/film rooms to the practice field to Sunday afternoons. If that happens, the odds of him reaching his full potential are higher than most other developmental quarterbacks.
Denver would be an ideal place for Osweiler at this point. He would have the opportunity to learn from Peyton Manning, absorbing all the mental and physical processes one of the all-time greats employs. Other good fits include Green Bay now that Matt Flynn is in Seattle; with the Seahawks now that Flynn is penciled in as the starter; and even places like Arizona and Pittsburgh.
SMU DE/TE Taylor Thompson
Thompson was a pass-catcher in high school who bulked up and played defensive end at SMU, but he's a naturally gifted athlete who was down to about 260 pounds at his recent pro day and worked out as a tight end. He ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range and surprised some scouts with his natural route-running and ball skills.
He's clearly raw and would need work as a tight end, but it won't surprise me if a team takes a flyer on him early on Day 3. Thompson has the athleticism and versatility to contribute early on special teams whether he remains on defense or commits to becoming a tight end. A team could also take a shot on him as a rotational defensive lineman who can play fullback and do some other things in short-yardage situations. That upside and flexibility will likely prove intriguing enough for someone to give him a shot in the later rounds.
Auburn OT Brandon Mosley
Another natural athlete, Mosley played linebacker, tight end and punter in high school, and defensive end in junior college. He didn't move to the offensive line until his first season at Auburn in 2010, but ended up claiming a starting spot and played with Cam Newton during the Tigers' national title run.
There are some concerns about his age and mental capacity -- he did not qualify academically out of high school and spent a year in prep school before beginning his juco career -- but Mosley continued to develop in 2011 and has solid size (6-53, 314) and athleticism. The offensive tackle class drops off sharply after the second round, and Mosley would be a good fourth-round option for teams that don't have a pressing need on the offensive line but are looking to add developmental potential.
Teams with aging offensive tackles approaching the end of their careers --- Detroit with Jeff Backus or Baltimore with Bryant McKinnie, for example --- are likely to show interest in Mosley on Day 3.
Oregon State DB Brandon Hardin
Hardin missed all of 2011 with a broken shoulder and would likely move from corner to safety in the NFL, but he has the size (6-25, 222) and natural tools to carve out a role with a team looking for a bigger defensive back who can support the run and has the cover skills to match up with big-body wide receivers and tight ends in coverage.
His technique in coverage needs some polish, but Hardin shows quick feet for his size and closes well on balls thrown in front of him. And while he does have some stiffness in his hips, he's more fluid than expected. Finally, Hardin is physical and aggressive but does not have the great ball skills to be a top playmaker in coverage.
However, his size and speed (4.46 in the 40) give him a unique skill set and his intangibles are said to be solid. Hardin is tough (played through a wrist injury early in his career) and hungry, and he can also contribute on kick coverage. He's another player with the potential to thrive if he lands with the right team in the fourth-round range.
Regina (Canada) DT Akiem Hicks
Hicks began his college career at Sacramento City College and signed with LSU in 2009, but he did not play for the Tigers while his recruitment was under investigation. Hicks was determined to have received impermissible benefits and misled investigators, and he left the program and landed at Regina.
He started nine games in 2010 (24 tackles, 5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), and nine more in 2011 (35 tackles, 8 for loss, 6.5 sacks), flashing the natural gifts that at one time had him headed for the SEC. Hicks has natural athleticism and good size (6-45, 318), long arms (35.1 inches) and good upper-body strength, and he moves pretty well for his size and shows good stamina.
However, he is as raw as it gets. He does not use his hands well, lacks ideal instincts and recognition skills, and has simply gotten away with using his natural tools to dominate lesser players. He also needs to become more explosive and powerful at the point of attack.
Still, all of those flaws can be coached up. The raw ability is there, and Hicks is the kind if Day 3 project defensive line coaches love to get their hands on. You just can't coach his combination of size, length, burst and stamina, and if his game can be polished up Hicks could become a solid rotational player for a team that employs multiple defensive fronts.
Todd McShay's Nickel Package looks at the most intriguing developmental prospects in the NFL draft, including a big-name quarterback.