Prospects with the Highest Upside in the 2016 NFL Draft

Luke EasterlingCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2016

Prospects with the Highest Upside in the 2016 NFL Draft

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    The 2016 NFL draft is on the horizon, which means it's time for an onslaught of scouting buzzwords to fill social media feeds and breakdown articles throughout cyberspace and beyond.

    Amid all the jargon that flies around this time of year regarding prospect prognostication, "upside" is arguably the most prevalent. Referring to a player's ceiling or potential, upside is all about projecting how good a college prospect can be at the next level, despite either a lack of production or playing in a position that didn't accentuate their strengths.

    High-upside prospects tend to be those who have rare natural talent, but perhaps haven't been able to maximize their abilities. Off-field incidents can also factor in, driving talented players down draft boards due to the risk of incidents reprising at the pro level.

    Who are some of this year's biggest names in the "upside" department? Let's take a look.

Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The conversation at the top of this year's corner class has centered around Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander, but Eli Apple is the dark horse to be this year's top cover man.

    At 6'1", 200 pounds, Apple has the size to match up physically with the NFL's bigger receivers, something personnel departments value greatly. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein says there's plenty to like about Apple's skill set:

    Good height, weight and arm length combination. Clean footwork in transition with natural ability to mirror and match from press coverage. Won’t open hips early and rarely turned around off line of scrimmage. Has foot quickness in short spaces to maintain feel for his man. Extremely competitive when ball is in the air. Has play strength to redirect receivers from their routes.

    Apple is entering the draft as a redshirt sophomore, so it's not surprising that he's still fairly raw as a prospect. But his natural ability is through the roof, and once he refines his skills, he could develop into a special player. If he's able to reach his full potential at the next level, there's no reason Apple can't be the best corner to come out of this class when all is said and done.

Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh

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    Mississippi's Laquon Treadwell is widely considered this year's top receiver prospect, but there's a logjam in the second tier that includes Ohio State's Michael Thomas, TCU's Josh Doctson, Baylor's Corey Coleman, Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard and Notre Dame's Will Fuller.

    But the one name that seems to be slipping through the cracks is Tyler Boyd, who entered the season near the top of most watch lists for this year's draft.

    Though his 2015 stat line might not jump off the page compared to some others—91 receptions, 926 yards, six touchdowns—he's leaving Pitt a year early as the school's all-time leader in catches and receiving yards.

    Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com points out some of Boyd's strengths:

    Gliding athlete with an instant accelerator to reach his top speed with his initial strides. Sharp cuts and burst off his plant foot, mixing his gears well in his patterns.

    Quick release off the line of scrimmage with natural route running prowess, setting up defenders and selling routes with beautiful body fakes. Easy body control to twist mid-air and adjust to obscure ball placement. Excellent hand-eye coordination with strong hands to pluck, extending his catching radius beyond what most his size can - attacks the ball, doesn't wait for it.

    Prospects are often considered to have "upside" when they have rare natural ability that simply hasn't been fully realized yet. Boyd makes this list for almost the opposite reason in that despite his lack of eye-catching measureables, he wins with the little things that translate well to the pro game.

    Boyd's technique and proficiency in the finer points of his craft should allow him to make an instant impact, making him a potential steal if he starts to slip past some of the more flashy pass-catchers in this year's draft.

DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon

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    If you're looking for prospects with a high ceiling, it shouldn't take long for DeForest Buckner to stand out. At 6'7", 290 pounds, Buckner has an imposing frame with rare athleticism to match, which should have NFL defensive coordinators salivating over what they could do with him on the roster.

    Buckner was named Oregon's Most Outstanding Player after leading the Ducks with 83 tackles as a senior in 2015 while bagging 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Josh Norris of Rotoworld.com notes Buckner's combination of athleticism, versatility and durability as reason for his high projections:

    Has the tools to be extremely disruptive versus the run and rushing the passer. Right now Buckner shines against the run thanks to his size, length and strength to shed. Those tools can work as a pass rusher, but right now the awareness to shed and create space is not there on a consistent basis. He could play a variety of alignments up front based on personnel packages. He played on 85.5% of the school’s snaps this season.

    Regardless of scheme, Buckner is the kind of player every NFL defense should be able to find a place for, and his skill set should allow him to be dominant from anywhere on the defensive line. If he's able to maximize his rare combination of size and athleticism at the next level and continues to stay injury-free, he could quickly develop into one of the league's most dominant front-four defenders.

Laremy Tunsil, OT, Mississippi

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    It's an easy pick to put Tunsil on this list, as he's the early favorite to be this year's top overall selection, but that's just how special he could be at the next level.

    Tunsil has the rare athleticism that made scouts fall in love with Auburn's Greg Robinson back in 2014, but with the polish and technique to match. As Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com points out, durability is the only thing keeping Tunsil from being a nearly flawless prospect:

    Tunsil is a nimble big man with a rare athletic skill-set for the position, showing above average balance and flexibility to easily bend, handle speed and absorb power at the point of attack. He's not a perfect player, but his flaws are more nitpicking than true weaknesses and potential injuries are the only obstacles keeping Tunsil from being one of the better left tackles at the next level.

    At 6'5", 305 pounds, Tunsil's rare combination of power and quickness will allow him to frustrate even some of the NFL's best pass-rushers early in his career. If he can stay healthy, he has the chance to develop into one of the best offensive linemen to come out of the draft in years.

Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky

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    David Stephenson/Associated Press

    A highly touted recruit that began his collegiate career at Ohio State, Spence was declared permanently ineligible by the Buckeyes after a pair of failed drug tests. He missed their 2014 national title run, then transferred to Eastern Kentucky, where he has stayed out of trouble off the field but wreaked plenty of havoc for opposing offenses on it.

    The natural ability to get after the quarterback that made Spence such a coveted recruit is still his calling card, as Jon Ledyard of Draft Wire points out:

    Spence may be the best pure edge rusher in the entire draft, as his ability to gain the corner with quickness, active hands, and exceptional bend is special. Many speed rushers aren’t the most ideal run defenders, but while Spence is far from a finished product, he does a nice job setting the edge against rushers as well.

    There's no denying Spence's on-field talent, but he'll have to convince NFL decision-makers that his drug problems are truly behind him. If he's able to avoid off-field troubles at the next level, he could easily end up being the most productive pass-rusher to come out of this draft.

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

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    After a promising freshman campaign under head coach Bill O'Brien, Christian Hackenberg has regressed in the two seasons since James Franklin took over in Happy Valley, leading the young signal-caller to leave school early and take his chances at the next level.

    Though Hackenberg certainly looks the part with a prototypical frame and live arm, his on-field performance has gotten considerably worse over the past two years. Can he reverse the process and blossom in the NFL? Bleacher Report's own Justis Mosqueda isn't convinced, but certainly leaves the door open, citing one example from the 2015 NFL season:

    So what do we do with Hackenberg? Scouts are going to fall into two categories: Those who do and do not put the blame on Penn State, as a coaching staff and personnel grouping, for ruining the passer.

    Can he become his old self at the professional level? Sure. Carson Palmer was a highly touted player who took five years to turn into the guy while at USC. In the NFL, he turned into a superstar before injury and a personal battle with management led to his fall and trade to the Oakland Raiders, where he hit rock bottom.

    It's simple. Christian Hackenberg isn't who he used to be, which is tricky phrasing for a 20-year-old, but the question of whether he could become who he should is unanswered. That is what is going to keep general managers up at night from now until April.

    There's no getting around how bad Hackenberg has looked these past two seasons. But someone will take a chance on him, and if they can be patient with him—especially if it's O'Brien himself, now the head coach of the Houston Texans—he might be able to develop into the player we saw the potential from as a freshman.

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Mississippi

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    Once considered a top-five lock, Robert Nkemdiche's arrest and subsequent suspension for this year's Sugar Bowl has left many doubting whether he's worth the risk with such a high selection.

    There's no doubt Nkemdiche has the physical tools to be an exceptional player at the next level. At 6'5", 293 pounds, his combination of size and rare athleticism has made him a nightmare for opposing offenses, and he's even flashed his versatility on the offensive side of the ball.

    What could keep the former top recruit from being a top pick in this year's draft? NFL.com's Charles Davis says on-field concerns were there even prior to his off-field issues:

    An AFC personnel director says of Nkemdiche: "I know he gets a ton of attention, but I'm leery ... actually, I would stand on a table and tell my franchise to not take him in the top 15 picks." Why? The personnel director says Nkemdiche is a great talent who can overpower college players with his bull rushes and speed, but he doesn't think Nkemdiche is a natural pass rusher and said he flagged the Rebels' star numerous times for not finishing plays.

    Unfortunately, it's a problem seen far too often with players who have elite physical ability. They rely on their natural talent too often, and the work ethic and consistency simply don't follow.

    Can Nkemdiche live up to his talent? Only if he stays out of trouble off the field and someone lights a fire under him between the lines. If that happens, he could end up being the steal of the draft if he plays up to his true potential.

Su'a Cravens, LB, USC

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    There are other linebackers in this class with plenty of upside, such as UCLA's Myles Jack and Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith. But one who could slip through the cracks and easily outplay his draft spot is USC's Su'a Cravens, a bit of a tweener who could thrive if put in the right spot.

    A hybrid safety/linebacker for the Trojans, Cravens is always around the ball, and makes big plays when he gets there.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein says what used to be a weakness for players like Cravens has now become a strength in today's NFL:

    Players that used to be known as "tweeners" are now called hybrid players, and they carry more value due to their ability to match up against the increasing percentage of sub-packages that offenses are running out on the field. Cravens would have been a devalued box safety in the past, but he might be considered a valuable matchup player in today's game.

    Cravens has the potential to be the next Deone Bucannon; a player with safety size and quickness, but with the toughness and strength of a linebacker. If he's put in a similar role, there's no reason he can't become a productive playmaker early in his career, just as Bucannon has.