Whether in the first round or by sifting through the undrafted free agent pool, the ability to identify underrated prospects is the primary characteristic that separates the good NFL scouting departments from the great ones.
This year's top steals in the NFL Draft:
1. Brady Quinn, QB, Cleveland Browns -- 1st Round, 22nd Overall
Quinn was in the unfortunate position of being a quarterback in a first round where many teams simply didn't want to use their top pick on that position. With Cleveland, protected by an improved offensive line and running game, Quinn will get the opportunity to compete for playing time immediately. Unlike JaMarcus Russell, selected 21 picks earlier, Quinn enters the league ready to contribute immediately. Quinn's leadership, accuracy, and toughness will make him a quality starter in the NFL, and a rare value in the late first round.
2. Daymeion Hughes, CB, Indianapolis Colts -- 3rd Round, 95th Overall
A shockingly poor 4.74-second 40-yard dash at the Combine cost Hughes millions. Though his time improved to a 4.56 during the Cal Pro Day, the damage had been done. There is no denying that Hughes lacks downfield speed, but his instincts and competitiveness at the position make him one of the draft's better big-play corners. Drafted into the perfect scenario with the Colts, Hughes will be protected with deep coverage in the Tampa-2 scheme, allowing him to break on the ball with the reckless abandon that made him a star in the Pac-10.
3. Michael Bush, RB, Oakland Raiders -- 4th Round, 100th Overall
A broken leg in the season opener and subsequent surgery ended his Cardinals career. After the first surgery to stabilize the injury failed to heal properly, Bush again went under the knife in February. A letter by noted surgeon, Dr. James Andrews characterizing Bush's healing as "99% healed" calmed concerns about his recovery. When healthy, Bush has the tantalizing combination of strength, agility and vision that has led to comparisons to Jerome Bettis and projections as a first-round pick.
4. Troy Smith, QB, Baltimore Ravens -- Fifth Round, 174th Overall
Smith's stock plunged after a poor performance in the National Championship game and continued to drop as he struggled with consistency at the Senior Bowl and in workouts. Pessimists will point out Smith's late-season struggles, as well as his obvious physical limitations at 6-0, 215 pounds. As he realized he was falling down the board, Smith became increasingly frustrated and turned off scouts with a bit of an attitude in interviews and private workouts. Quietly, this competitive fire actually intrigued some teams. Drafted into the perfect scenario at Baltimore, Smith can learn how to harness his natural abilities under the guidance of Steve McNair.
5. Rufus Alexander, OLB, Minnesota Vikings -- 6th Round, 176th Overall
Alexander's lack of size and strength at the point of attack led to his fall. The 6-1, 227 pound Alexander has the speed to make plays on the move and seems particularly well suited to Minnesota's scheme. His struggles in disengaging from blocks will be lessened with the presence of stout defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams in front of him.
6. Brandon Siler, ILB, San Diego Chargers -- 7th Round, 240th Overall
Siler made a questionable decision to leave school early after partially tearing knee ligaments last season. Despite his ability to play and workout through the injury, however, teams red-flagged Siler's knee. Some clubs, in fact, felt that the inside linebacker would have to undergo surgery before seeing the field again and took him completely off their board. When 100 percent, Siler is a difference-maker in the middle. His strength at the point of attack and combination of speed and lateral agility makes him effective on interior and exterior running plays.
Patriots Insider Commentary:
1) Brady Quinn: The Patriots had no interest in Quinn. Although when he slide near to their position, they could have traded their 24th pick to a team desperately seeking a top tier quarterback of the future. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noted that the team was fielding offers for the 24th pick, but opted to stay where they were.
2) Daymeion Hughes: Hughes was one of the prospects to visit Foxborough, along with about a half-dozen other defensive backs, including top names such as Aaron Ross and Chris Houston. If New England was able to secure their top linebacker with their first pick, it's possibility they would have used their third round pick, or traded down to acquire a cornerback they liked, which includes Hughes.
3) Michael Bush: Bush is the big back that the Patriots were looking for to replace the departed Corey Dillon. The Patriots brought Bush in for a closer look to evaluate the progress he has made since having that second surgery. If he slipped a little further, it's possible New England would have used their fourth round pick on him. Instead, the Patriots traded their first fourth round pick (110th overall) to the Raiders in the Randy Moss deal.
4) Troy Smith: There was no real interest shown by the Patriots part toward the Heisman award winner. New England did invite a quarterback to Foxborough, and worked out at least 4 others. The Patriots will need one more quarterback on the roster for minicamp, but, it appears they're looking for more of a Tom Brady clone (big, strong, accurate, quick release) than a smaller mobile QB like Smith.
5) Rufus Alexander: Ironically, when the Patriots entered the Draft they had a glaring need for more depth at linebacker, and had the ammunition in the first round to get some solid players. When they used the first pick on a defensive back and traded away both their remaining first round pick and their third round pick, it was clear they didn't like this year's crop of linebackers. Alexander may have been a bit too small to fit the Patriots scheme well, or it was something about him that they saw which told them he wasn't the right fit. New England saw Alexander at his Pro Day and at the combine.
6) Brandon Siler: New England head coach Bill Belichick and VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli traveled to Florida to work out a number of prospects at the various Universities there. Siler was part of one of those private workouts along with a number of his teammates, including Reggie Nelson and Patriots 4th round pick Kareem Brown. One of Siler's areas in need of improvement is pass coverage -- a characteristic the Patriots surely took note of when they worked him out.