Who Is the Safest Pick in the 2013 NFL Draft?

Nick KostoraContributor IIIApril 12, 2013

Sep 29, 2012; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies offensive linesman Luke Joeckel (76) blocks against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the second quarter at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Proclaiming someone to be the safest pick in any draft is a scary proposition, but this year's crop of NFL rookies offer up very few surefire stars.

The question of who is the safest pick in the draft would have been much easier to answer last year. Very few doubted that Andrew Luck would have success at the NFL level.

He ran a pro-style offense at Stanford, had multiple years of starting experience under his belt and possessed every physical characteristic needed to succeed.

So where does one turn when looking for the safest pick in 2013?

To figure out the answer, let's first think about what we are looking for here. The safest pick is not someone who will be taken in the second, third or fourth round. This is someone that is going to be taken near the top of the draft because he can be expected to contribute and excel immediately.

We have seen this moniker work and fail at nearly every position in the past.

For every Andrew Luck there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Calvin Johnson there is a Charles Rogers. For every Jake Long there is a Robert Gallery. And for every LaVar Arrington there is an Aaron Curry. 

The point being is that no position is immune from having someone who is considered a safe pick fall into the bust category.

This year, there are no quarterbacks considered to be an elite prospect. Geno Smith is considered the top QB prospect, and he may not even go in the first round. Eddie Lacy is the best running back on the board, but his pro day just left a lot to be desired.

For now it appears that the top pick in the draft is going to be a left tackle, but which one? There are two potential bookend starters likely to go in the top 10 who can anchor an offensive line for the next decade.

While Eric Fisher of Central Michigan University is a bona fide top-five selection, he is not as safe a pick as Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M.

NFL Network's draft guru Mike Mayock currently has Fisher rated higher than Joeckel on his big board because of his relative potential: "There's a little more upside with Eric Fisher. He's longer, he's got better feet and he's a little bit more athletic," Mayock said.

Fisher may indeed have that upside, but there is more risk to him as well. He played in the Mid-American Conference and didn't exactly compete against elite competition each week. 

Joeckel started all 39 games of his three-year career as the Aggies' left tackle. There are relatively no injury concerns to speak of, and he has always been a high-character player that leaves everything on the field.

Simply look at the way that he protected freshman Johnny Manziel during to the quarterback's Heisman Trophy season last year. Joeckel has quick feet and long arms and is the best pass protector in this year's class. 

This clip showcases how Joeckel refuses to allow defenders to rush off the edge. His technique is near perfect as he shifts his feet with the rushers, but keeps his hands centered to thwart off spin moves and bull rushes.

There are few moves that are going to fool Joeckel. He faced elite SEC speed in 2012 and yet was able to keep up with even the fastest defensive ends that the conference had to offer. Furthermore, he is able to get to the second level and always plays through to the whistle.

So where does this safe pick struggle? The reality is that there are few legitimate weaknesses to his game. He could develop better upper-body strength as his career progresses, and he needs to be consistently quicker off the snap. However, his technique and recovery ability almost completel mask those flaws.

This makes Joeckel both very enticing and yet scary. We have seen these near-perfect prospects before.

Earlier, I referenced linebacker Aaron Curry. He was the fourth overall selection by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2009 draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper said the following about Curry prior to the draft: "He's a complete OLB with great character and work ethic, which is why it was no surprise when he nailed his combine workout." Kiper even compared him to Keith Bulluck.

Todd McShay echoed similar sentiments, saying, "Curry is the best defensive player in this year's [2009] draft."

Those predictions clearly have not panned out to this point, as Curry was traded from Seattle to the Oakland Raiders in 2011. Oakland then released him in 2012. In four seasons, Curry has recorded 5.5 sacks and 163 tackles. Not exactly the kind of production you expect from a "cant-miss" prospect.

How about someone more comparable to Joeckel?

Remember the excitement surrounding Robert Gallery in 2004? He was selected No. 2 by the Raiders in that year's draft. Sports Illustrated's Peter King called him, "the best lineman to come out of college in years."

Gallery proceeded to flounder at tackle before being permanently moved to left guard. He was serviceable at best as a guard before retiring last season.

Other top linemen prospects, such as Joe Thomas in 2007 and Jake Long in 2008, have proven the critics right and become All-Pro left tackles and anchors to their teams' offensive lines.

No one is guaranteed to excel at the pro level. But Joeckel provides the lowest risk of the players at the top of the draft.  

In a draft full of uncertainty, Joeckel is the player with the highest chance of prolonged success. He is the safest possible pick in 2013, but history has taught us that the concept of a "sure thing" is more of a myth than a reality.