The NFL draft is an exercise in immediate returns and delayed gratification.
Take any draft prospect—anyone at all—and it's possible to fit them on a sliding scale where one extreme is "plug-and-play" (meaning: ready for the NFL) while the other is "raw untapped physical tools." Ideally, draft prospects should be right in the middle. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Trent Richardson were guys who had that trait.
However, when the elite prospects are off the board, much of a team's draft strategy hinges on what they're looking for on that scale. Sure, the untapped talent looks promising, but is it worth the risk? Grabbing guys with high talent floors is "safe" and appealing, but can you give up the high ceiling?
Different teams will have very different strategies—even more so depending on which round they're drafting in.
Take the quarterback position, for example. If a general manager is confident in his job and trusts his offensive coaching staff, it's logical that he would take a shot at a raw quarterback with higher upside. On the other hand, if that general manager is building around a strong defense or trying to save his job, the guy who can come in and not hurt the team may be more enticing.
It is with that in mind that I unveil the top prospects at each position on my board. Some of them are more ready than more-athletic prospects who are higher on other media boards; others are diamonds ready to be polished. Most, however, offer the best of both qualities at their given position.
Geno Smith offers a lot of upside and is ready to play immediately.
Tyler Bray has the most raw arm talent, but he's immature and his play is sporadic at best. E.J. Manuel has the most tools in his tool belt, but he still needs to learn to be a craftsman. Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib both offer high levels of football IQ and intangibles, but they struggle with deep throws and throws to the outside—which Smith makes with ease.
Smith isn't a perfect quarterback prospect; comparing him to Luck or RGIII is both unfair and a complete non sequitur. Smith is the best quarterback in this class with the size, arm strength, decision-making and poise to succeed in the NFL from his very first snap.
A fuller scouting report on Lacy can be found here, but here's the skinny.
Lacy isn't as elite a prospect as former Alabama running backs Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram. However, he's a talented back in his own right with natural running ability, good lateral agility and great balance in the open field. While he's known as a power back, his nickname of "Circle Button" (the PlayStation control for a spin move) speaks to the wiggle in his waggle.
Lacy isn't going to carry a team like Adrian Peterson, but he can be a very valuable piece to a contender. Look for him to be the first back taken and probably the only back to go in the first round.
Keenan Allen was my No. 1 receiver heading into "draft season," and I've seen no reason to move him down.
While the sheer athleticism of Cordarrelle Patterson or the unreal shiftiness of Tavon Austin may get them drafted first, I believe Allen will have the greatest impact in the NFL. Slowed by a knee injury, he couldn't break 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine, but the tape on him shows a much faster player.
Allen exhibits elusiveness and body control to gain separation when cornerbacks are on his hip. He also tracks the ball over his shoulder better than any receiver in this draft class, which makes him a better downfield threat than his speedier peers.
His injury has allowed him to float under the radar, but expect teams to be a lot more attentive to him on the first night of the draft.
If all positions were created equal, Tyler Eifert would be in the discussion for the first overall pick with Alabama guard Chance Warmack. However, since NFL teams don't value tight ends in the top 15, Eifert may have to wait until the end of the first night to hear his name called.
That doesn't change the fact that he's an absolute stud.
He's not the same player, but Eifert has the highest tight end grade I've given out since Rob Gronkowski. In fact, if you took all the players I've graded at all positions in the last five years, Eifert would come out relatively near the top. He's that athletically gifted.
Moreover, Eifert is incredibly polished for a collegiate tight end. In an era that sees tight ends more as movable chess pieces, Eifert has a well-rounded game that allows him to run a full route tree, stand up blitzers at the line of scrimmage and use his hands and body to create separation in the middle of the field.
Wherever Eifert lands, he will be an immediate mismatch for opposing defenses.
As I mentioned on the previous slide, Warmack would have a shot at the top pick if he played a different position. However, as a guard, he's still receiving top-10 consideration, which is a wonderful honor in its own right. Once the premium tackles (Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson) go off the board, it would be crazy for a team to reach for a lesser prospect at tackle rather than go with the uber-talented Warmack.
Run blocking is his specialty, as Warmack can grade roads with the best of them. Yet, as much as Jonathan Cooper (North Carolina) is the more-talented pass protector, it would be incorrect to assume that Warmack doesn't have NFL-caliber ability in that regard. He also has the sheer athleticism to succeed at it and could easily improve in an atmosphere that doesn't emphasize the run as much as Alabama did.
It depends on how the board falls, but Warmack is a top-15 prospect who should immediately make his mark on the NFL...and on some defensive linemen.
This may have been the most difficult decision on the list, as Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher have extremely similar grades in my system, and I believe that Fisher has more upside.
That's a bit of a misleading statement, though, because anytime someone says something like "Prospect A has more X than Prospect B" the majority of readers/hearers come away with the impression that "Prospect B" doesn't have any "X" at all.
Let's settle it: Joeckel is more polished than Fisher and has a smoother kick slide, while Fisher is still extremely polished and has a phenomenal kick slide. Joeckel has better hand placement and overall upper-body control; Fisher has great hand placement and very good upper-body control.
See how that works?
So, when people say that Fisher is the better athlete and has more upside, they're correct. But that shouldn't detract from Joeckel, who is a great athlete and has plenty of upside. He's got as good a shot as anyone to go No. 1 and will be a great player wherever he lands.
With a clean bill of health, it's time for Star Lotulelei to begin getting the publicity he deserves as the top defensive lineman in this draft class.
The biggest knock that people throw around with Lotulelei is that he "takes plays off." That, my dear readers, is nonsense.
Fun fact: Every defensive lineman takes plays off. In the NFL and at major colleges, that is achieved through a rotation. It's rare for a defensive lineman to play as many snaps as their offensive counterparts. No one plays 100 percent of the snaps unless they just hopped out of a time machine from the '50s.
Utah desperately needed Lotulelei, who played "95 percent" of the Utes' defensive snaps last season (Note: I've seen slightly lower numbers cited in the past and believe the scout at that link was rounding up). So, while Sharrif Floyd and other top tackles were literally taking plays off on the bench, Lotulelei was still helping his team on the field—drawing double-teams and making an impact even if he wasn't at his best on every snap.
In the NFL, in a rotation, at constant full speed, Lotulelei will be a force to be reckoned with.
Of all the players on this list, Ezekiel Ansah is the "least safe" of the prospects and the one I am most conflicted about including. While I believe that Ansah's incredible athleticism will shine at the next level, his lack of comfort in space and overall lack of refinement make me admit that he has a higher bust rate than most.
At best, he's Jason Pierre-Paul. At worst, he's Vernon Gholston. That's a pretty huge margin for error, and frankly, there's little room for him in between those two extremes.
What Ansah brings to the table is freakish natural ability combined with an almost uncanny feel for the position that belies his time spent almost running from the sport. (He tried track and basketball after coming to America as others urged him toward the gridiron.)
The team that drafts Ansah better have a talented tutor in place for him in order to maximize his abilities. If his talent go to waste, he could end up being one of the bigger busts in recent memory.
On a list like this, I would normally combine outside linebacker and defensive end, but it's worth noting that Jordan is not a great defensive line prospect. Sure, there are teams that would play him there (the Detroit Lions in their Wide 9 scheme or the Dallas Cowboys with their Tampa 2), but it would be a waste of his ability in space to put his hand in the dirt.
So, Jordan is actually the rarer type of prospect who fits as an outside linebacker in both a 3-4 and a 4-3. He is a talented pass-rusher when he is let loose, and he fights off blocks reasonably well in the run game. As I mentioned, though, his best asset is in space, where he showcases loose hips in man coverage and fantastic awareness in zone.
As long as the team that selects him doesn't foolishly move him out of position, he should be an immediate starter and a valuable player with Pro Bowl potential in his rookie season.
Even though Manti Te'o has received all of the headlines (and then some) as the "top" linebacker of this draft class, Kevin Minter has managed to put up better tape and have a better pre-draft season—yet none of the same recognition.
Minter isn't going to go in the top 15 and maybe not even in the first round. However, his ability to pick through traffic, shed blocks and make plays in the box is going to entice a lot of NFL teams. Minter is a sure tackler who has better-than-expected blitzing ability and can cover backs and tight ends as well.
He may be undersized and lack the elite athletic ability of other linebackers like Luke Kuechly or Patrick Willis, but Minter is a very talented linebacker who will be a star on Sundays.
Dee Milliner hasn't wavered as the consensus top cornerback on just about everyone's board, and for good reason. He burst onto the scene in 2012—not that he hadn't played before, but on a stacked Alabama team, it's easy for talented players to be overshadowed—displaying hard-nosed, physical play that had NFL fans salivating from the very first week of the college football season.
The only potential pitfall was the combine 40, where some thought he would underwhelm. Then, he turned in one of the best times in Indianapolis (4.37) and solidified his stock.
Like any cornerback, it will be an uphill battle for Milliner to cover NFL-caliber receivers in his rookie season. Down the road, however, he could be a superstar.
Although his ascent wasn't quite as stark as Milliner's, Kenny Vaccaro has had a similar stranglehold on the top safety spot in this class. His double whammy of ability to cover the deep ball and willingness to throw his body around in run support is simply too rare to pass up in a free safety prospect.
Vaccaro isn't the perfect safety. He could pick off more of the passes that he makes a play on, and he'll need to be smarter about throwing his body around at the next level, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Look for Vaccaro to go high in the first round and start terrorizing NFL passers from day one.
There are plenty of off-the-field issues with Brad Wing, but he's the only kicking specialist I would draft in this class. To be fair, I have draftable grades on a few, including UCLA punter Jeff Locke and Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis, but more so than the others, Wing is a special player worth spending a draft pick on.
Wing was born to kick a football and has more power and accuracy than many punters in the NFL right now. His rookie year might not be quite as phenomenal as Bryan Anger's of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Wing will be a fantastic addition to any team—as long as he keeps clean.
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.