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Ravens' Pernell McPhee Among Top NFL Prospects

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According to a story by Football Outsiders on ESPN Insider, Baltimore Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee is among the top prospects in the NFL. The 2nd year player drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Mississippi State product was a relative unknown even to most Ravens fans when his name was called on the final day of the three-day draft.

However, McPhee earned a roster spot and a lot more than just that, finished second on the team with six quarterback sacks. Now he is mentioned as the next man up in the hope to replace the 14 sacks that OLB Terrell Suggs had last year. While he won't be moving into Suggs' position, he is one of the few players the team is looking to in order to make up those stats.

The story ranked McPhee the sixth best NFL prospect in the league, under specific criteria such as only rating players drafted in the third round or later and were drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009 or later. Click on the 'Jump' to read the article's specific criteria as well the first six players ranked, which includes McPhee.

Everybody loves a first-round pick. First-round picks are more likely to become NFL stars than players chosen in the second round, second-round picks are more likely to become NFL stars than players chosen in the third round and so on. However, those first-round stars aren't enough to build a championship team. The best teams know how to mine for additional talent, both when choosing in the late rounds of the draft and when dialing up undrafted free agents when the draft is over. This kind of talent collection takes quality scouting, combined with an understanding of how to fit players with limitations into your team's offensive and defensive schemes.

It also takes a little bit of luck, like stumbling upon an undrafted wide receiver with so much skill at running option routes that he can gain 1,500 yards in his first full season. Find yourself aVictor Cruz, and you could end the season holding up the Lombardi Trophy, just like Giants general manager Jerry Reese. It doesn't hurt that Reese also found useful players in Round 6 (Greg Jones) and Round 7 (Ahmad Bradshaw), to go with quality undrafted free agents like Jake Ballard, Mark Herzlich and Cruz.

Each year, Football Outsiders looks for similar hidden talents who haven't yet made their impact on the league with our top 25 prospects list. For the uninitiated, our top prospects list isn't like the prospect lists you read about in the world of baseball. Because the top prospects in college football are stars on national television before they get taken in the first round of the NFL draft, there's not much utility in listing them here. Everyone knows Andrew Luck is a top prospect who is likely to succeed in the NFL.

Instead, we use a combination of statistics, measurables, context and expected role to compile a list of under-the-radar players whom we expect to make an impact in the NFL, both in 2012 and beyond.

We limit the pool to players who fit the following criteria:

• Drafted in the third round or later, or signed as an undrafted free agent
• Entered the NFL between 2009 and 2011
• Fewer than five career games started
• Still on their initial contract
• Age 26 or younger in 2012

That last item is new for this season, and is meant to ensure that we list players who could play a significant role in the NFL over the next few years, not just in 2012. To give two examples, running backs Bernard Scott and Isaac Redman are definitely important to their teams' plans this season. But, as each of them is already 28, they aren't really promising players for the long term. Other players who would have made the list if not for the age limit include Jacksonville running back Rashad Jennings, Detroit defensive end Willie Young and Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta.

In the past, our No. 1 prospects have included wideouts Miles Austin (2009) and Mike Wallace(2010). However, this isn't strictly a fantasy football list; in fact, last year it was the defensive players who made the biggest impact. DT Geno Atkins (sixth) made the Pro Bowl; CB Lardarius Webb (ninth) started 15 games and had 22 passes defensed, earning a huge contract from Baltimore in the offseason; S Morgan Burnett (second) and LB Erik Walden (16th) started most of the year for a team that nearly went undefeated (although Walden will likely lose his starting job to rookie Nick Perry in 2012). Even one of last year's honorable mention defenders, Seattle SKam Chancellor, made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement.

You'll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about that and other FO statson this page.

Here are Football Outsiders' top 25 prospects:

1. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks

It feels like cheating to include Baldwin on our top prospects list; after all, this is the guy who led Seattle receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He was the first player since the AFL-NFL merger to lead his team in receiving yards as an undrafted rookie. Just for good measure, Baldwin also had 14.2 percent DVOA while every other Seattle receiver with at least 10 targets was below zero. Nevertheless, Baldwin only started one game last year, because he was used strictly as a slot receiver. Out of Baldwin's 86 targets, only two came with just two wide receivers in the formation -- and on one of those plays, Baldwin was actually in the backfield, so the personnel was still three wide receivers. Baldwin is tough going for passes over the middle despite his small size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds). He's good at running precise routes and finding soft spots in zones. The next test is working on the perimeter from two-receiver sets against starting corners instead of nickelbacks.

2. Martez Wilson, DE-LB, New Orleans Saints

Wilson played sparingly in 2011. He produced just one major highlight, sackingCam Newton on a blitz up the middle for a 16-yard loss. The old regime used Wilson as a situational blitz-package player, when they used him at all. Steve Spagnuolo has moved Wilson from linebacker to defensive end, a more natural position for a player with a Jevon Kearse-meets-Jason Pierre-Paul body type. Wilson, a third-round pick in 2011, played middle linebacker at Illinois, a sign that college and pro coaches have been baffled about where to put a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder with 4.4-range 40-times, 36-inch arms and an over 10-foot standing broad jump. If any coach knows how to get the most out of that kind of player, it's Spagnuolo.

3. Everson Griffen, DE-LB, Minnesota Vikings

Once thought to be a second- or even first-round talent, Griffen ended up falling to Minnesota in the fourth round of the 2010 draft due to worries about his off-field decorum more than his raw technique. The former still may be a problem (he was arrested for public intoxication in January 2011) but the latter is becoming more polished. That means it may finally be time for Griffen's breakout. As a part-time pass-rusher in 2011, Griffen had four sacks, nine hurries, three quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. He's supremely talented, with an explosive burst off the edge and good inside quickness. He provides coverage almost as readily as pass-rushing prowess, which is very important for a team that likes to drop defensive ends into coverage as often as Minnesota does. The Vikings are trying to figure out ways to get Griffen on the field more often, and may use him as a linebacker in some packages next season.

4. Cortez Allen, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

When the Steelers drafted Allen in the fourth round out of The Citadel, he was considered by many to be a long-term project at corner. The Steelers had success picking Ike Taylor in the fourth round in similar circumstances. As a rookie, it was Allen who saw playing time in dime packages while third-round cornerback Curtis Brown stuck to special teams. In the Steelers' Week 8 win over the Patriots, Pittsburgh used Allen regularly to cover New England's athletic tight ends. Allen has long limbs, a very smooth backpedal and can play physical. He should move up to the nickel back role this year, but don't be surprised if he beats out Keenan Lewis for a starting CB job in training camp.

5. Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots

Ridley has good lower-body control and balance with a powerful stride, although he's not the fastest back out there. (He has a speed score of 95.4, where 100 is generally average). The Pats really started to use him in the last five weeks of the regular season, when he had 5.2 yards per carry and a 57 percent success rate. He needs work on blocking and receiving, which limits his ability to play on third downs but also makes him a nice complement to Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead. Of course, he also needs work on his hands after fumbling in back-to-back games near the end of his rookie season, which put him on the bench for most of the playoffs. But he didn't have fumble problems at LSU, and there's a good chance that the back-to-back fumbles were just random chance, not evidence of a real issue.

6. Pernell McPhee, DE, Baltimore Ravens

As a rookie in 2011, McPhee took advantage of offenses worrying about Terrell Suggs to notch six sacks as a situational pass-rusher. McPhee primarily came on the field in clear passing situations, particularly on third downs, and really came alive in the second half of the year. Although he had three sacks through Week 9 and his other three sacks afterwards, 15 of his 16.5 regular-season hurries came in Baltimore's final eight games. McPhee is all about motor, and his technique is still developing. He came out of Mississippi State as a better athlete than football player. McPhee had minor arthroscopic surgery this offseason but should be healthy in time for training camp, where he will battle Arthur Jones for the starting spot at defensive end vacated by Cory Redding. It will be interesting to see how McPhee fits as a 5-technique in the Ravens' base defense, because he's much more suited to the more conventional way the Ravens use their defensive ends in nickel packages.