Which NFL Rookies Have the Highest Pro Potential Ceilings?
Fair or unfair, the order in which players are drafted is based less on their accomplishments at the collegiate level and more on their upside in an NFL uniform.
Need evidence? Texas A&M's Damontre Moore was one of the most productive pass-rushers in the SEC, but he was selected 76 spots later than BYU's Ezekiel Ansah, who was not even a starter at the beginning of the season.
Ultimately, college production is not what translates to the NFL. Instead, those who display key athletic traits tend to have the most NFL success.
Here are the 15 rookies who have the the most NFL potential.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Detroit Lions
Prior to the 2012 college football season, "Ziggy" Ansah was not even mentioned in most pre-draft rankings and mock drafts.
After all, the Ghana-born transfer was barely on the field in 2011, recording only seven tackles in limited action.
It was not until an injury to a teammate a month into the season did Ansah find himself in the starting lineup, where he put his raw athleticism on display. His performance at the Senior Bowl (1.5 sacks) and blazing combine numbers (4.63 40) launched him up draft boards. He was eventually taken fifth overall by the Detroit Lions.
However, as athletically gifted as Ansah is, there are varieties of sushi that are not as raw as Ansah. He has no idea how to use his leverage or hands and was not even taught the basic nuances of playing on the defensive line.
Oddly enough, this bit of news likely helped Ansah's draft stock. The fact that he was able to be as productive as he was without knowing the most basic techniques likely further enticed the Lions, who coached him at the Senior Bowl.
Ansah will be the ultimate case study in the debate between taking athletic anomalies over proven college players in the draft.
Lane Johnson, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
As it turns out, there was a quarterback taken in the top five picks of the draft: Lane Johnson was a former high school signal-caller in Texas.
Recruited to Oklahoma as a tight end, Johnson has since been converted to an offensive tackle, where his raw athleticism vaulted him up draft boards. He cemented his value as a top-five pick with a tremendous combine performance, running a 4.69 40-yard dash at 303 pounds and posting a 34" vertical jump—numbers offensive linemen are not supposed to turn in.
Johnson does need to improve his technique and leverage in the run game, but his raw athleticism is readily apparent. Furthermore, he is a terrific fit for Chip Kelly's offense, which has always been predicated on having quick, athletic tackles who can move in space.
With good coaching and a few years of experience, Johnson could eventually surpass Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel as the top offensive lineman to emerge from this class.
Dion Jordan, OLB, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins made a shocking move when they moved up to the third spot to take the Oregon product, but they may have landed a linebacker prospect who could redefine the position.
Dion Jordan put up only five sacks in 2012, but that was not because he was an ineffective pass-rusher. His mediocre sack totals were a result of him being too busy covering slot receivers rather than beating up on offensive tackles snap after snap.
At 6'6" with long arms and a terrific burst, Jordan has all of the makings of a natural sack artist, but his potential is not limited to getting after the quarterback. What separates Jordan as a prospect is how well he moves in space and the incredible amount of versatility he would bring to a defense.
Jordan is big and fast enough to run with tight ends and running backs with enough prowess as a pass-rusher to become a feared player on the edge.
With the increased use of no-huddle spread offenses, having a player like Jordan on the field would be invaluable. He can stay on the field for all three downs and help maximize a defense's versatility by minimizing bad matchups.
Jordan may not be an ideal fit for Miami's 4-3 scheme, but just as the 4-3 Broncos turned a 3-4 collegiate linebacker (Von Miller) into a top NFL defensive player, the Dolphins will recognize that Jordan's talent is too great to be limited by scheme.
Eric Reid, S, San Francisco 49ers
Frankly, based on his performance on tape, Eric Reid was not a first-round safety. He took a lot of bad angles and was easily duped by his over-aggressiveness on play-action plays.
Why, then, did the 49ers move up in the first round to draft Reid?
While it was not always on display under the lights at LSU, Reid is the most fluid, athletic safety in this class. More so than any other player, Reid helped his draft stock the most with his terrific pro day.
Coaches covet players like Reid because their athleticism allows them to cover tight ends and slot receivers, which is becoming a rare commodity in NFL safeties.
As intriguing as all of this athleticism is, Reid has a lot of work to do in terms of improving his tackling angles and ability to diagnose plays. If his raw physical abilities can be harnessed, Reid could wind up as the top safety to come out of this class.
D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders
D.J. Hayden's survival story has been well documented by this point, but lost in his incredible tale is the fact that the former Houston Cougar has the potential to become a tremendous player for the Oakland Raiders.
What gives Hayden, the second corner to come off the board, more pro potential than Dee Milliner, the first corner taken, is his movement skills and ability to make plays on the football.
Specifically, Hayden has the best backpedal out of anyone in this class. He is a very fluid athlete who can explode in and out of breaks to make plays on the ball. He also has great instincts and play-recognition skills.
Hayden does not have a lot of experience in press coverage and may need to add some weight, but those things can be coached and improved upon in the pros. Athleticism and instincts, on the other hand, cannot.
In time, Hayden will be better known for his ability to blanket receivers than his life-threatening accident.
Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets
Once again, another draft comes and goes without the Jets getting the stud linebacker needed to put the finishing touches on their defense.
Still, they landed themselves one of the best pass-rushers in this class.
What made the Jets pick Richardson over supposedly higher-rated prospects such as Star Lotulelei and Sharrif Floyd is his ability to rush the passer from the interior with his great explosiveness and athleticism.
Richardson has a tremendous first step and the lateral movement of a linebacker. He does have some work to do learning how to anchor in the run game, but his technique issues can be taught.
Rex Ryan may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there is no denying his ability to coach up players along the defensive line (he was the defensive line coach of the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens). He turned Muhammad Wilkerson into one of the top defensive ends in football and manufactured 5.5 sacks from rookie Quinton Coples—an impressive total for a part-time interior pass-rusher.
Richardson may not be in an ideal fit in New York's hybrid 3-4 defense, but Ryan will surely find ways get the most out of his top pick's natural gifts.
Dion Sims, TE, Miami Dolphins
Fair or not, players with Dion Sims' size are going to get every possible chance to play in the NFL.
At a massive 6'5", 280 pounds, Sims has all of the tools to be a top-flight two-way tight end—somewhat of a dying breed in today's NFL.
From day one, Sims should be able to step onto the field as a blocker, and not just because of his massive frame. He was used often as a blocker at Michigan State and can more than match up physically with his NFL counterparts.
However, while he is a tremendous red-zone threat who creates size mismatches for linebackers and safeties, Sims has a long way to go in terms of his route running and receiving ability. He is a bit of a clumsy runner who is almost too top-heavy to effectively plant and cut.
As rough as Sims may look in the passing game, route running is a craft that can be taught. If Sims can grasp the nuances of running routes and catching the football, his potential is limitless.
Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Based on talent alone, Christine Michael is the best back in this class. Blessed with a tremendous combination of burst, agility and physicality, it is no surprise that Michael was taken in the second round.
However, Michael was also the fifth runner selected, and with good reason. He is known as much for his immaturity as he is for his punishing finishes.
His role on Texas A&M was virtually severed because of a spat with head coach Kevin Sumlin. He compounded his already poor reputation by oversleeping meetings at the combine. To make matters worse, he has an injury history, including a broken fibia in 2010 and an ACL tear in 2011.
Still, Michael is no criminal, and there was at least one team willing to draft him as high as the second round. If Michael can get over his immaturity, stay healthy and buy into Pete Carroll's system in Seattle, he should have no problem making his way to being one of the better backs in football.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
With the ball in his hands, there was arguably not a more electrifying player in college football last season than Cordarrelle Patterson.
The problem with the former Tennessee Volunteers wideout is that getting the ball into his hands as an NFL rookie could be a bit of a struggle, at least initially.
As explosive of a runner as he is, Patterson is far from a polished receiver. He relies far too much on his superior athletic ability, and this will hurt him at the NFL level.
Initially, the Vikings will have to get creative finding ways to get Patterson involved. Giving him a simple route tree that involves a lot of bubble screens and slant routes will make it easier to put the ball in his hands while he learns the nuances of playing the position.
It may take some time, but if he can become a complete receiver who is able to run a full route tree, Patterson's potential is unlimited.
Sylvester Williams, DT, Denver Broncos
Sylvester Williams may have been the fourth defensive tackle to be chosen, but given his physical gifts, he could wind up as the best player to emerge from this deep class at his position.
Williams uses great initial quickness to penetrate into the opposition's backfield. At 6'3", 320 pounds, Williams can play in either a one- or two-gap system and stay on the field for all three downs.
The problem with Williams is that he tends to have long stretches in which he seems to disappear. In the second half of his 2012 season for North Carolina, he went four games without recording a sack.
He carries with him a tremendous tale of success, having worked at a factory making radiator parts for trucks before he walking the halls of Radio City this April.
If Denver coaches can get the most out of him and get him playing at his best every snap, there is no telling how good of a pro Sylvester can be.
Jonathan Cyprien, S, Jacksonville Jaguars
As a small-school prospect out of Florida International University, Cyprien flew under the radar during the college football season.
Once he stepped on the field at the Senior Bowl, however, it was clear that Cyprien belonged as a future starting safety in the NFL. At 6'0", 217 pounds, Cyprien has the classic "coming off the bus" build of an NFL safety.
Cyprien is well known for his aggressive play and ability to hit, but he is also a fluid athlete capable of covering tight ends at the next level. He has the strength to take on blocks and enough range to play as a center fielder in a Cover 1 system.
The biggest downside to Cyprien's game is that he tends to get a bit too aggressive and find himself out of position to make plays. But just like a quarterback who is willing to make throws into tight windows, Cyprien has a problem plenty of coaches would love to take on.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills raised a lot of eyebrows when they made EJ Manuel the first quarterback taken in the 2013 draft, but there is a method to their madness. As rough as he is in some of the technical areas of his game, Manuel presents more upside as a quarterback in the modern era of the NFL than anyone else in this class.
Manuel has tremendous size for the position at 6'5", 237 pounds. He is a terrific athlete with very good speed for a quarterback (4.59 40) and was often used as a runner in a read-option offense at Florida State. He has a quick release and a strong arm that can stretch the field.
However, there are two glaring issues with Manuel's game: inaccuracy and poor mechanics. Manuel is not a natural thrower and is a bit awkward with his delivery. He therefore struggles with his accuracy, particularly at the intermediate level.
For the most part, accuracy is very difficult to correct (Jake Locker is still very much an inaccurate passer going into his third season), but the Bills appear convinced that cleaning up Manuel's mechanics will improve his ball placement. Plus, his athleticism makes him a terrific fit for the increasingly popular read-option offense.
The Bills certainly did not go the safe route when they took Manuel in the middle of the first round, but if Doug Marrone's coaching staff can get the most out of Manuel's physical tools, the young signal-caller has a chance to be a star.
Tharold Simon, CB, Seattle Seahawks
If you watch enough of Tharold Simon up close, you would likely walk away unimpressed. He has awful balance, stiffness in his hips and poor play-recognition skills. He also takes poor angles to the football.
However, Simon was not drafted because of his production on tape—Simon is a Seattle Seahawk because of the tremendous size and length (6'2", 32.75" arms) he brings to a position at which size is starting to matter more than ever.
With the excellent combination of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, the Seahawks have proved that tall, lanky corners can excel in the NFL, and Simon fits their positional profile perfectly.
Simon will have some work to do in developing a better feel for routes and improving his technique in press coverage. But based on the track record of Pete Carroll's staff of molding late-round prospects into starters, Simon has a chance to be a much better pro than a college player.
Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
Even from the inside linebacker position, Alec Ogletree is arguably the most explosive and physical player in the draft. A former safety, Ogletree is incredibly athletic and comfortable moving in space, and he excels at making "splash" plays in the run game.
Why, then, did he fall all the way to the bottom of the first round?
Ogletree is hardly a clean prospect off the field, as his off-field transgressions have been "highlighted" by his DUI arrest. He is also a bit inconsistent in his effort, as he has a tendency to play down to the level of his competition.
However, the Rams have hardly been hesitant to take troubled yet talented players under Jeff Fisher. While with the Tennessee Titans, Fisher turned the hot-headed Cortland Finnegan (who has since followed Fisher to the Rams) into one of the best corners in football. Albert Haynesworth earned his famously overpriced contract with the Redskins after playing brilliantly for Fisher in Tennessee.
Last year, Fisher and the Rams turned troubled prospect Janoris Jenkins into a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns
How does one get drafted sixth overall after only putting up 4.5 sacks in his final collegiate season?
Answer: With unmatched explosiveness.
"Keke" Mingo was the second outside linebacker prospect selected, but there is not a more explosive pass-rusher in the draft. Despite his underwhelming sack totals, Mingo was a force on every snap and displayed an incredible motor, running down plays that were on the opposite side of the field. He saved his best game for his last, putting up a dominant performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson.
Outside of his lack of production, Mingo does carry a risk as an undersized player who will have to add some bulk in order to hold up in the run game. And he will have to learn how to play in space.
Still, with his athleticism, there is little doubt that Mingo can adjust to a new position as a bigger player.
Ultimately, Mingo was the Browns target with their sixth overall selection because there are not many human beings who can fire off the line of scrimmage as fast as he can.
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