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NFL Draft Top 10: Draft prospects who could be late climbers

04.18.12 at 11:48 am ET
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Ryan Tannehill is the third-ranked quarterback behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (AP)

As we get closer to next week’s NFL draft, projections have begun to solidify. However, each year, there are players who pick up steam late and come off the board much earlier than expected. Here are ten players we expect to hear their names called much earlier than expected.

1. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M – Throughout the entire scouting process, Tannehill has been lurking as one of the top picks as the third-best quarterback prospect in this draft. However, somewhere between January (when he rarely got a sniff as a first-round talent) and now, Tannehill’s stock has skyrocketed to the point where he is projected to go as high as No. 6 overall to the Browns. With teams at the top of the draft scrambling to get their hands on an elite QB prospect, more teams are reaching for players that, in past years would have gone at least at the back end of the first round. Last year’s selections of Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are perfect examples of this.

2. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame Like Tannehill, Floyd was once considered a second-tier prospect at his position, but has been flying up boards with teams looking for a vertical threat. Floyd has answered questions concerning his speed (he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at combine) and character concerns following his a DUI arrest last year. Once considered a fringe first-round player, Floyd could rise as high as the top ten by the time draft day approaches.

3. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina At one point, LSU’s Morris Claiborne and Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick looked untouchable as the top two cornerbacks in this draft, with Janoris Jenkins supposedly following them up. However, Gilmore, who has impressed with his workouts, his 4.40 speed and his size, has reshaped the outlooks for corners in this draft. A few weeks ago, scouts looked at Gilmore as a solid value in the second round. But just last week, ESPN’s Todd McShay listed Gilmore as a possibility for the Panthers at ninth overall.

4. Amini Solatolu, G, Midwestern State A surprise out of Division 2, Solatolu did not take part in the combine or Senior Bowl, but has been rising now that scouts have gotten a better look at his tape and, more importantly, his pro day. Recently tabbed by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. to go to the Patriots at the end of the second round, Solatolu was a rock at left tackle at Midwestern and projects to move inside and would look to emulate the success of another former Division 2 prospect: Saints All-Pro guard Jahri Evans, who played at Bloomsburg.

5. Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame The major beneficiary of a weak class at safety, Smith is a solid prospect who could go sooner than expected to a team desperate for help at the back end of their secondary (the Patriots are possible candidates here). After impressing scouts at the combine and during his workouts, Smith has been steadily rising, and remains the only player to establish himself at the second choice at safety, behind Alabama’s Mark Barron.

6. Shea McClellin, DE/OLB, Boise State Few players have seen their stock rise quite like McClellin recently. When we first looked at him, McClellin was projected to be middling around on day two. Now, though, McClellin has become a trendy pick for teams in the late first round looking for help on the edge — like the Patriots, for example. McClellin brings a combination of solid pass rush skills, the ability to take on blockers, play in space and a reputation as a highly intelligent player.

7. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford There’s a new generation of tight ends out there, and every offensive coordinators wants one. If there is a premiere tight end in this draft, it’s mostly likely Fleener, one of Andrew Luck‘s go-to targets this past season. Not only is Fleener a solid vertical threat, he grades well as a blocker, giving him tremendous upside in addition to the ability to play early on. Once ranked behind the likes of Georgia’s Orson Charles and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen at the tight end spot, Fleener has been projected to go as high as No. 22 to the Browns in certain mock drafts.

8. Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech The undisputed superstar of the 2012 scouting combine, Hill has risen from a mid-round pick to a legitimate first-round selection. Where he goes, though, will rely heavily on how many teams are willing to take a chance on a 6-foot-5 receiver with 4.36 speed and all the upside in the world. After the success of Jason Pierre-Paul for the Giants this past season, taking a chance on a player with limited experience but all-world talent is becoming a more likely move. It wouldn’t be unthinkable for Hill to go in the middle of the first round with a team swinging for the fences.

9. Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State The 6-foot-7 Osweiler is a fascinating prospect. Physically, he looks like a prototype NFL passer, but started only 15 games at Arizona State and showed off some funky throwing mechanics that makes him play a bit shorter. However, after Luck, Robert Griffin III and Tannehill are taken, there will still be teams looking for quarterback help. Along with the 28-year-old Brandon Weeden, Osweiler looks like he could slip into a solid spot on Day 2 with a team looking to find the next Andy Dalton.

10. Mychal Kendricks, LB, California Outside of Boston College’s Luke Kuechly and, later on, Alabama’s Donta Hightower, many of the draft’s top linebackers project more as edge rushers than pure linebacking prospects. This gap in the talent pool could make room for Kendricks. The 2011 Pac-12 defensive player of the year was by far the fastest linebacker at the combine with a 4.47 40-time and has the ability to both blitz and fill gaps in run support. A bit short at 5-foot-11, 240 pounds, Kendricks played inside in Cal’s 3-4 defense, but could end up outside in a 4-3 defense as well.

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