Which 2013 NFL draft prospects are most likely to succeed?
Perhaps a better question would be: What does it mean when a prospect is considered "safe"?
People often misunderstand it to mean that there is little chance a player busts. While that is certainly approaching the truth, it's a little more nuanced than that. Every player has some chance of being a disappointment because of the myriad variables that could contribute—attitude, fit, environment, coaching, injury, effort, etc.
"Safe" is a term that still allows for a player busting—not being nearly as good as teams thought he would be—because it speaks to the talent floor of a player, not necessarily the ceiling. Think of a player like Robert Gallery, who clearly "busted" as a franchise left tackle but was able to contribute as a guard and put together a decent eight-year career.
So, to find out who is most likely to succeed in this draft class, let's take a look at some of the safest prospects who also have a lot of upside. For the most part, these are high-character guys who should fit in a number of systems. No one is guaranteeing their future spot in the Hall of Fame, but assuming the injury bug doesn't hit and their respective teams don't fall apart around them, these players should put together some pretty great careers.
Get out your gel pens and get ready to sign some yearbooks. Here is the 2013 draft class' most likely to succeed.
Really, as much as people deride Geno Smith, this is the only real choice.
I'm tempted to go with Tyler Wilson, but his concussion issues are a big problem. The quarterback with the most tools is E.J. Manuel, but he'll need the right fit and coaching to make the most of his natural ability. Ryan Nassib and Matt Barkley should both have good careers, but they lack the upside that Smith brings to the table.
Smith has the physical tools to bridge the gap between where he is and where he needs to be as an NFL quarterback, and he's a lot closer than his critics want us to believe.
Is he going to come into the league like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson? Probably not, but the team that selects him gets a fantastic young talent to grow around, and there is little doubt Smith should put together a nice career.
I've been in Johnathan "Jetski" Franklin's corner since day one of the Senior Bowl practices, when I noted that:
Good burst, solid footwork, nice agility—Johnathan Franklin showed more than any other running back on the North team on Monday and set himself apart from a bunch of bigger names.
He's "safe" because he can fit in either a power-rushing or a zone-blocking scheme, and he's such a hard runner that he could tear both ACLs tomorrow and still find rushing yards that other backs wouldn't dream of. He's also one of the great character stories of the draft and shouldn't have any problem fitting into a new locker room.
While Franklin isn't my top-rated back, he has as much upside, a much higher floor and less injury history than other top backs.
There are so many Notre Dame tight ends floating around in the NFL that it's almost tempting to say, "The worst he could do is John Carlson," and move on.
However, Tyler Eifert might be the most talented of the Fighting Irish tight end factory and could end up the best of the bunch in a hurry. He is much less of the traditional mold and more apt to split out and attack the seam—picking up much larger chunks of yards and getting more after the catch.
He's a decent enough blocker both in line and on the move, so there's little reason for the team that drafts him to take him off the field. There are a ton of great tight ends in the league these days as the position is evolving, but Eifert has a chance to take home honors as a rookie and start getting yearly free trips to Hawaii soon after.
This year's wide receiver crop is ridiculously deep. Out of all the positions (save, maybe, quarterback) this spot gave me the most pause.
Keenan Allen is dealing with an injury but is still my top-ranked receiver off of his junior and senior tape. While I think he's been seriously overlooked, I have to wonder if he'll be the same player when he's healthy. Tavon Austin should be fantastic in the NFL, but he's really small and I'm worried about both durability and whether he'll have as much open-field success at the next level. Cordarrelle Patterson has the most upside but also a high bust potential since he is so raw.
That leaves DeAndre Hopkins, but believe me when I tell you that neither I nor the team that drafts him would be "settling" for this selection.
When players have a large catch radius and seemingly will the ball into their hands, it portends good things at the next level. Hopkins' routes could be better, but he wasn't asked to be Jerry Rice in the Clemson offense. He also had a quarterback that didn't always put the ball where it should be, and he still excelled. He's a tough blocker and even tougher over the middle.
It's that combination of natural talent, acquired skills and will to win that makes Hopkins the most likely to succeed.
The two choices here are North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack from Alabama. I have Warmack as the higher of the two guards on my board and think that he should be the better of the two elite guards in the NFL.
However, the more I look at refining my mock drafts, the more I find myself slotting Cooper higher and higher to teams that will value his pass-protecting prowess. Warmack is a decent pass-blocker, but Cooper is off the charts in that regard. If all else fails in Cooper's career, he could end up with a team like the Patriots, come out of a two-point stance and never give up an interior sack for the rest of his career.
Warmack has better skill in run blocking, which is still awfully important for an offensive guard, but as the NFL continues to move to a pass-heavy game, it might be less needed—especially on the left side as the guard positions continue to evolve as well.
So, while I think both prospects should be great, Cooper gets the nod, but I wouldn't argue too vehemently with the Alabama fans sure to flock to the comments section below.
If this were the list of "most upside," I would be conflicted because both Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson have as much (if not more) upside than Luke Joeckel.
The Aggies prospect is so technically sound that he may be more topped out in regard to potential. This is why no one should be surprised if Fisher ends up in a Kansas City Chiefs uniform, even though Joeckel is the relatively higher-ranked prospect right now.
Still, the reason Joeckel is so highly ranked is because he is so talented and such a smart player. So often, we talk about these attributes in degrees and fans blow up increments into huge wide-sweeping statements.
So, note: Joeckel still has upside even if Fisher and Johnson have more. Fisher and Johnson both have pretty good chances to succeed even if Joeckel has a better one. All three should be great players.
Joeckel gets the pick here because he could conceivably play either tackle position if things go awry and because he should be a good player even if he lands in a spot with poor coaching. He should end up going No. 1 and will be a good cornerstone to build a franchise around.
With reports coming back that Star Lotulelei has had nine different heart tests that all came back clean, it's time for him to start rising back up draft boards. Teams tell me (and have done so since the combine) that the situation gives them pause, but each team doctor will have a chance to look at him and it's unlikely at this point that anyone would find anything wrong.
In the end, this whole heart condition thing seems to be either a faulty test or a viral infection that shouldn't have any bearing on Lotulelei's future.
That should re-establish him at the year's top tackle prospect and slide names like Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson back down draft boards where they belong.
This is another example of those wide-sweeping statements that come out of nuanced remarks in scouting reports. Somewhere along the line, "Not as athletic as Ezekial Ansah" has turned into "Bjoern Werner isn't athletic." The first statement is true; the second is patently false.
In many ways, Werner uses his athleticism more naturally and fluidly than the other top ends in this class and has much better lateral agility, which is pretty important when one is on a football field rather than a track.
Long story short: Werner is more than athletic enough to succeed in the NFL at either defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. The ascent of more explosive ends has dropped Werner down some media draft boards, but people will be surprised how highly he is drafted and how much of an impact he'll make on this league.
Dion Jordan gets lumped into the 3-4 OLB/4-3 DE crowd when, in reality, he is probably a lot closer to a Von Miller-type prospect who would play linebacker in either scheme. While pass rushing is certainly his specialty, I don't think many people give him enough credit in space where he is also very talented and comfortable.
Put another way: Even if a team is running a strict 4-3 scheme and has zero plans to ever rush the passer with their outside linebacker, I would still prefer Jordan's athleticism and upside over guys like Alec Ogletree or Manti Te'o and have little doubt he would excel.
Of course, Jordan is certainly going to get plenty of chances to rush the passer in the NFL, and that just makes this choice that much easier.
Speaking of easy choices...
Dee Milliner would be the top corner prospect even if he had had a terrible pre-draft season. He could've run an historically low 40 time and told combine interviewers where they could shove their whiteboard and teams would still shrug their shoulders and put him on top of a very deep cornerback class.
That said, he had a fantastic combine, has more linear speed than anyone expected and has wowed teams with how well he knows defensive schemes—pretty much par for the course for a Nick Saban-taught defensive prospect.
Corners always take a little while to get acclimated to the NFL. Patrick Peterson is finally taking that step—although he had some speed bumps—and Morris Claiborne went through some big rough patches. So don't expect Milliner to step right on to an All-Pro team. Because of his physical style of play, however, he shouldn't have any trouble making the transition to Sundays.
Safeties have to be a lot of things in today's NFL. Spread offenses and a new breed of tight ends have left a lot of safety prospects out in the cold when they aren't able to sit back in a zone, cover the seam and support the run—all while reading the quarterback's eyes, keying on blocking and calling out defenses, of course.
Kenny Vaccaro is one of the more well-rounded safety prospects we've seen in years. He has the size and speed to defend against both the run and the pass and could conceivably play either safety position if asked. With more and more teams making their safeties interchangeable, that makes Vaccaro all the more valuable.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.