Sports fans are plenty familiar with the idea of a top prospects list. The lists, 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 One.
So a list considering 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. 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 to 7 or signed as an undrafted free agent
• Have started fewer than five career games in the NFL
• Still 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 our advanced statistics like DVOA (explained here), but we also include 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. No. 1 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 had 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 10 on. Players like Josh Sitton, Pierre Garcon, Cliff Avril, Josh Morgan, Michael Bush and Zack Bowman also emerged as valuable players for their 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 going from No. 10 down to No. 1; Tuesday we did No. 25 down to No. 11. Our No. 1 prospect this year is another wide receiver, one with huge shoes to fill both on this list and in his own organization. Following a Pro Bowl season by a guy like Austin is tough enough, but our No. 1 prospect will have to replace a Super Bowl MVP -- without his usual starting quarterback for the first four to six weeks of the year.
10. Gary Barnidge, TE, Carolina Panthers
For seven years now, the Panthers have failed to find a pass-catcher at tight end who could follow in the footsteps of the retired Wesley Walls. Kris Mangum couldn't run. Jermaine Wiggins went from eight catches in 2003 as a Panther to 71 in 2004 as a Viking. Mike Seidman and Michael Gaines never developed. Dante Rosario only teases, and Jeff King is a blocker first, second and third. Barnidge, a fifth-round pick out of Louisville in 2008, is the guy they've been waiting for. He has the speed to effectively run up the seam and take out the Cover 2. He also has the hands to hold onto the ball when Darren Sharper hits him or LaRon Landry breezes past him. He's the Panthers' second-best receiver. Once Carolina realizes it, Barnidge immediately becomes a sleeper tight end for fantasy purposes.