Sports fans are plenty familiar with the idea of "top prospects lists." These, compiled by prospect mavens in baseball, are useful because they highlight talent that most fans aren't yet aware of. In football, though, top prospects are superstars before they ever play a pro down because of the national exposure enjoyed by college football. In addition, while the vast majority of baseball players have a minor league career before jumping to the big leagues, top NFL picks are expected to contribute from Day 1.
So a list including players like Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh "prospects" would be a waste of everyone's time, and a list that includes players like Jake Locker and Gabe Carimi is already taken care of by our compatriots Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. Instead, Football Outsiders chose to focus our Top 25 Prospects list on players who are already in the NFL, but haven't yet become starters and don't have the pedigree of being a high draft pick. The rules for making our Top 25 Prospects list state that players must meet these criteria:
• Be in the second, third, or fourth year of their pro career
• Have been drafted in Rounds 3-7 or signed as an undrafted free agent
• Have started fewer than five career games in the NFL
• Still be on their rookie contract
The resulting list focuses on players who have performed well in a limited amount of time as an ancillary player or an injury replacement. To rate players, we use advanced statistics like DVOA (explained here), but we also included our college-projection statistics and a healthy dollop of scouting reports and consideration of each player's upside.
Of course, compiling a list is irrelevant unless it actually does a good job of identifying breakout players. That's where our 2009 Top Prospects list comes in. Number one on our list was a Dallas Cowboys wideout who had repeatedly posted fantastic DVOA figures in limited time, but had 18 career catches and sat fourth on the team's depth chart. Although we noted that he had Pro Bowl potential if he could ever get his hamstrings right, not even we expected that the player in question -- Miles Austin -- would be a Pro Bowler that very season.
Austin wasn't the only player who unexpectedly emerged from our list. Jerome Harrison (No. 6) nearly ran for 300 yards in Week 14 for the Cleveland Browns, and hit 561 yards over the final three games of the year. Jamaal Charles (No. 13) was right alongside Chris Johnson as the league's best running back over the second half of the season, running for 968 yards from Week 9 on. Players like Josh Sitton, Pierre Garcon, Cliff Avril, Josh Morgan, Michael Bush, and Zackary Bowman also emerged as valuable players for their respective teams.
On the other hand, this isn't a foolproof list: Martin Rucker (No. 19) and Chauncey Washington (No. 21) were cut by their teams in training camp, while Harry Douglas (No. 11) tore his ACL in camp and William Gay (No. 5) had a disappointing debut season as a starter. Because so many players emerged from last year's list as NFL starters, this year's group is mostly new; only three of the players on the 2010 Top 25 Prospects list were on the list a year ago.
Today we're bringing you players 11-25 on our list, along with some players who made honorable mention. Tomorrow, we'll look at the top 10, led by a man who has to fill some big shoes -- not just those of Austin at the top of our list, but those of a Super Bowl MVP on his own team.
25. Chase Daniel, QB, New Orleans Saints
The departure of Mark Brunell says that the Saints -- who, you may remember, won the Super Bowl last year -- are willing to hand the reins over to Daniel in the case that Drew Brees gets hurt. That's brave of them, but it also suggests that they think Daniel's worth holding onto. The former Missouri star wouldn't work in many of the league's systems, but his accuracy is more important for the Saints than his relative lack of arm strength or height. He's yet to take an NFL snap, but he could be a fun test of what it's like to have a replacement-level quarterback surrounded by elite talent. One thing's for sure: He can't be much worse on fake field goals than Brunell was last year.