Ranking the Top 50 Players Invited to the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine
The NFL Scouting Combine is an important step of the draft process as it collects the nation's top collegiate talent in Indianapolis from Feb. 23 to Feb. 29.
But the workouts are only a piece of the puzzle.
While 40-yard dash times and bench-press numbers will be discussed ad nauseam, the most important aspects of the event will occur outside of the media's watchful eye. Medical evaluations and player interviews still serve as the primary reason for the event.
The upcoming performances aren't meant to determine a player's draft status.
Individual workout numbers are merely confirmation of what should have already been seen on film. If a player surprises with performances in either direction, teams often go back to the coaches' tape to see if they missed something.
The combine does present an opportunity for many talented individuals to compete under the scrutiny of NFL decision-makers, though.
All of the top prospects were invited: 332 in total when only 256 will be drafted in late April, and Bleacher Report ranked the top 50 based on in-season tape study.
Surely, a few surprises are bound to show up along the way.
50. WR Will Fuller, Notre Dame
Comparisons can be a tricky subject when it comes to NFL draft evaluations. There's never a perfect match for any prospect, and too many still latch onto them as if they're cold, hard estimations.
For example, Notre Dame's Will Fuller is often compared to the Washington Redskins' DeSean Jackson for their deep-threat ability and slight frames—Fuller is listed at 6'0" and 184 pounds, Jackson is 5'10" and 178 pounds. However, one NFL evaluator isn't sold on the comparison.
"I hear the DeSean Jackson comparison and I can't get there," an anonymous scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "DeSean was faster, tougher and more reliable than Fuller. I'm not saying Fuller can't play but I don't think he's DeSean."
The scout mentioned a key area of concern for Fuller: reliability.
Yes, the Notre Dame wide receiver developed into one of the country's best vertical threats, and he can be dynamic after the catch. However, he also showed a propensity for drops.
Fuller can't be viewed as a reliable No. 1 target because he doesn't display a high level of consistency catching the football.
With that said, the junior wide receiver displays plenty of ability to stretch the field. As a result, defenses must account for him at all times. Most still couldn't stop him last season. Fuller grabbed 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He may never develop into a Jackson-like threat at the NFL level, but he presents value in the right system if properly used.
49. S Keanu Neal, Florida
The safety position continues to evolve in the NFL.
It wasn't long ago when teams were looking for Cover 2 safeties who could man half of the field and be strong force players. The Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas changed everything with his ability to cover sideline to sideline as a single-high safety. Thomas' teammate Kam Chancellor subsequently became the prototype for NFL strong safeties.
Soon thereafter, the Arizona Cardinals spent a first-round pick on Deone Bucannon, whom the team converted into an undersized linebacker at 6'1", 211 pounds.
The Florida Gators' Keanu Neal is a physical downhill safety in the same mold as Chancellor and Bucannon, who can be used similarly. If a team wants Neal to remain at strong safety or become an undersized linebacker, he displayed the potential to do so.
At 6'1" and 216 pounds, Neal is an intimidating presence over the middle of the field, but he's also athletic enough to play free safety in certain situations.
DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline reported (via PhiladelphiaEagles.com) several unnamed teams are high on Neal as a prospect because he's the "best-looking safety in the draft."
Physically, Neal fits prototypical expectations for the position. However, his overall ball skills leave a little to be desired with only five pass deflections and four interceptions during his three-year career.
48. WR Braxton Miller, Ohio State
The transition from quarterback to wide receiver is never easy, but Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a rare athlete capable of being a dangerous offensive threat in the NFL as a wideout.
In his one season as a receiver, Miller only caught 25 passes for 340 yards. So, what makes him a top-50 prospect?
As a quarterback, the Ohio State product threw for 5,295 yards, ran for 3,054 more and the Big Ten Conference named him the league's Offensive Player of the Year twice.
During his time in Columbus, Ohio, Miller displayed multiple traits capable of making him a top playmaker in the NFL.
"I love having fun, love getting the ball, playing special teams, playing receiver, coming back and catching reverses," Miller said at the Senior Bowl in late January, per BaltimoreRavens.com's Garrett Downing. "It brings a different type of aspect to the game, and I feel like every team needs playmakers."
Miller's raw speed, short-area quickness and lateral agility stand out. At the Senior Bowl, NFL scouts named the former quarterback their Practice Player of the Week, per the event's official site. He even made some of the nation's best defensive backs look silly.
"You just put in the time and the determination in how you want to perfect your craft," Miller said, per the Senior Bowl release. "It shows on the field. So, that's what I've been doing."
Of course, Miller's continued development becomes essential to his draft status and eventual effectiveness against professional defensive backs, but his ability to contribute in so many areas could make him a Percy Harvin-like performer early in his career.
47. DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
The impact of certain players can't be found by looking at their career production.
After all, Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive lineman Chris Jones registered only 18.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks during his three-year career.
Jones' value presents itself in his disruptive play along the interior and in his overall scheme versatility.
When the Mississippi native entered the SEC, he made an instant impact. Multiple publications named Jones to their All-Freshman teams.
But the defensive lineman never seemed to live up to his prodigious talent until his junior campaign.
Jones developed into a tremendous interior pass-rusher. While his sack numbers didn't reflect his overall improvement, Jones applied consistent pressure for the Bulldogs defense last season.
Also, his 6'6" and 308-pound frame allows him to play multiple positions, whether it's 5-technique, 3-technique, 1-technique or even lined up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 look. He did it all for Mississippi State.
Jones' combination of size, length, athleticism, versatility and pass-rush ability make him a far more intriguing prospect than many assume.
46. OT Jack Conklin, Michigan State
NFL coaches will love Michigan State Spartans left tackle Jack Conklin because he's "tougher than old beef jerky," according to one NFC North scout, per NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.
No one can really deny the assertion, but the NFL is no longer built around hard-nosed run-blockers.
Value still remains in a prospect who comes out of a pro-style system as a three-year starter and can dominate at the point of attack. Conklin can be a very physical player even though his technique isn't always the cleanest.
However, NFL offensive tackles are highly valued and sign lucrative contracts because of their ability to protect the quarterback in the passing game.
The Cleveland Browns' Joe Thomas isn't considered the game's best left tackle because he can blow every defender off the line of scrimmage in the run game. Instead, Thomas' consistency in pass protection separates him from his contemporaries.
Conklin lacks the necessary footwork and blocking mechanics to excel in this particular area. Good pass-rushers can get the tackle's shoulders turned early to get him out of position.
Despite these concerns, the Michigan State product will likely be selected relatively high in the draft as a left tackle. The possibility of finding a home at another position later in his career shouldn't be ruled out, either.
45. OLB Kamalei Correa, Boise State
Who has been the Mountain West's best pass-rusher over the last two seasons?
Boise State's Kamalei Correa. He also happens to be one of the best edge prospects in this year's class.
Correa registered 30 tackles for loss and 19 sacks since taking over as a starter during his true sophomore campaign in 2014.
At 6'3" and 248 pounds, the defensive end projects well as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He displays burst, bend and an ability to bear down on quarterbacks as a pass-rusher. Plus, he's experienced at dropping into space and comfortable doing so.
More importantly, Correa displays heavy hands and plays with wonderful leverage, which make him stronger at the point of attack against much bigger offensive linemen than someone his size usually is.
The Boise State product surprised many when he declared early for the draft, but closer inspection of his game points toward a talented edge defender who should be drafted much higher than initially anticipated.
44. CB William Jackson III, Houston
Two areas to watch closely when evaluating cornerbacks are hip flexibility and ball skills.
Speed is often overrated with this position, especially if a prospect displays tremendous top-end speed but struggles to change gears and mirror wide receivers.
But a player with amazing hip flexibility always operates at an advantage because he can unlock and open his hips without decelerating. Thus, he doesn't take crucial missteps, which could prove to be the difference between a completion or making a play on the ball.
The Houston Cougars' William Jackson III is smooth in his lower body. An argument can be made he's as good in this area as any other cornerback prospect in this year's class.
He couples outstanding coverage ability with a physical presence at 6'2" and 195 pounds. Jackson excels in press coverage even though he can also turn and run with most wide receivers.
In fact, Jackson led the NCAA this past season with 28 defended passes. He accumulated 33 deflected passes and seven interceptions since the start of the 2014 season.
NFL decision-makers will be concerned about his slight stature, a knee injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl—Jackson told Bleacher Report he's 100 percent recovered from his recent MCL injury—and how good of a tackler he can be at the next level, though. But these issues don't overshadow his strengths.
"When you talk to NFL people, you hear a lot of good things, especially about his size and length and his coverage ability," Cougars head coach Tom Herman said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "He’s got crazy instincts. The only downside is he’s a hair-thin. Nobody has said this round or that round, but I do know he’s one of the better cornerbacks in the country."
43. S Darian Thompson, Boise State
The value of a good free safety has increased exponentially in recent years.
Today's free safeties are asked to be and ball hawks. They're the last line of defense and need to erase any mistakes made by their teammates. They're also asked to cover sideline to sideline and provide help over the top for the cornerbacks.
The Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas revolutionized the position with his speed and cornerback-like coverage abilities.
Boise State's Darian Thompson might not be the next coming of Thomas, but he's the best pure free safety in this year's class because he can do a little bit of everything.
The 6'2", 212-pounder could be found defending the edge, slot or the deep middle of the field for the Broncos. As a result, he registered 13.5 tackles for loss and 12 interceptions over the last two seasons.
His ball skills will be highly valued by NFL teams, and they've been honed through extensive study habits.
Thompson told BaltimoreRavens.com's Sarah Ellison:
I would give credit to film study on that. I do a lot of film study during the week of my opponents. When it’s time to play the game, I have the tendency of knowing what’s coming before it happens. I’m a good student of the game and I study it and figure out the tendencies for the offense, which ultimately makes it easier for me to make plays back there.
In fact, Thompson surpassed Eric Weddle this past season as the Mountain West Conference's all-time leader with 19 career interceptions, per Ellison.
One team even graded the Boise State product as a late first-round pick, according to DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline (via PhiladelphiaEagles.com).
Thompson might not be selected that high, but he's in the conversation as the top safety prospect in this year's draft class.
42. DT Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive tackle Adolphus Washington proved to be an interesting case study of how a player can emerge as a top prospect after being asked to take a step back during the previous year to help his team.
Last year, fellow defensive lineman Michael Bennett unexpectedly fell to the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft. Previously, Bennett established himself as one of college football's most disruptive players during the Buckeyes' national championship run.
But he started off slow because he played out of position. Ohio State's coaching staff moved Bennett back to the 3-technique in order to get the most out of him as a player.
Washington, meanwhile, needed to play the 1-technique and generally did the dirty work. He did so without any grumbling before moving back to the 3-technique this past year.
In doing so, Washington showed his willingness to put his team first and effectively play multiple positions.
At 6'4" and 295 pounds, the Cincinnati native holds up well against the run and displays enough quickness to create havoc in the backfield. Washington isn't nearly as quick off the snap as Bennett was, but he's longer and stronger at the point of attack.
Washington also came to Columbus as a defensive end recruit. He even can play on the edge in certain systems.
41. WR Corey Coleman, Baylor
A tale of two quarterbacks defined Corey Coleman's junior campaign.
The Baylor Bears wide receiver torched every opponent before starting quarterback Seth Russell suffered a fractured bone in his neck against the Iowa State Cyclones on Oct. 24.
In his first seven games with Russell behind center, Coleman amassed 962 receiving yards with 18 touchdown receptions.
During Jarrett Stidham's first start after Russell's injury, the team's top target exploded for 216 receiving yards.
But Coleman faded down the stretch with only 16 receptions for 185 yards and zero touchdowns during his final four games. The Texas native also didn't play in the Russell Athletic Bowl due to a sports hernia.
Questions arose about Coleman's overall effort and competitiveness. Baylor head coach Art Briles rebuked those worries.
"He's just a bad dude, man," Briles said in an interview with ESPN's Scott Van Pelt (via LostLettermen.com). "That guy is tough now. He'll pull your heart out and watch it stop beating."
It's easy to see how the player who dominated college football through the first eight weeks of the season translates to the next level.
Of course, more questions remain about Coleman's size (5'11", 190 pounds), physicality and route running after playing in Baylor's spread attack, but he excels at creating separation and beating the jam off the line of scrimmage.
Coleman's speed, quickness and overall ball skills will become assets for any team even if he doesn't develop into a top target.
40. CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech
With certain players, a distinction must be made: Did they suffer unfortunate injuries or are they injury prone?
Over the last two seasons, Virginia Tech Hokies cornerback Kendall Fuller dealt with two setbacks that eventually required surgery.
In 2014, the talented defender played through a broken wrist before getting offseason surgery.
This past campaign, Fuller only played in three games before he suffered a torn meniscus. According to ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson, the cornerback originally injured the knee during preseason camp and tried to play through it.
Thus, no one has seen a fully healthy Fuller on the field since early in the 2014 campaign.
Obviously, these two injuries weren't related, and Fuller showed a high pain tolerance playing through both, but teams will make sure to thoroughly assess his medical evaluation.
For most prospects, this is an important step of the process. For Fuller, it's even more so. A team must be completely comfortable with his medical history before using a high draft pick to select him, but his talent won't hold him back.
If given a clean bill of health, Fuller could easily work his way into being a first-round consideration.
At 6'0" and 196 pounds, the junior entrant claims the length teams prefer in today's cornerbacks. He's also a physical defender who excelled as Virginia Tech's boundary corner.
Even in limited opportunities, the defensive back registered 62 total defended passes, per the Hokies' official site, which is a testament to his overall coverage abilities and ball skills.
From the day the latest Fuller brother—four have played for recently retired head coach Frank Beamer—stepped onto campus, he provided an impact. The overriding concern for the cornerback is whether he can stay healthy during his professional career.
39. DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
NFL teams can never have too many pass-rushers.
Over the past two seasons, Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah registered 24 sacks. He also contributed 34.5 tackles for loss.
"His ability to take over a game, from a defensive end position, that’s something unique," Oklahoma State defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements told ESPN.com's Brandon Chatmon in October. "He matters. You have to know where No. 38 is on the field. And even if you do know, he still has the ability to make the play."
As good as Ogbah has been at getting to the quarterback, it should be somewhat disconcerting that Ole Miss Rebels left tackle Laremy Tunsil completely shut him down when the two prospects faced each other in the Sugar Bowl. Ogbah didn't register a single sack or tackle for loss during the contest and only came close to making a play when he faced the Rebels' right tackle, Fahn Cooper.
Granted, Tunsil is the top offensive tackle in this year's class and an elite prospect, but a pass-rusher of Ogbah's quality should have put up far more resistance.
This only feeds into the perception the defensive end can be one-dimensional and isn't always focused.
His production and value as an edge-rusher can't be denied, though. Ogbah is a tailor-made defensive end at 6'4" and 275 pounds. A team should select him relatively early in the draft, and when one does, it will add, at the very least, a pass-rush specialist with the potential to develop into a future starter.
38. DT Austin Johnson, Penn State
Austin Johnson jumped to the forefront as the most talented defensive lineman among a special group of Penn State defenders this past season.
After all, the defensive line also featured Carl Nassib—who led the nation with 15.5 sacks and was named the Big Ten Conference's Defensive Player of the Year—and Anthony Zettel—a former first-team All-Big Ten performer.
Johnson, though, immediately draws attention because he looks and plays like an NFL-ready defensive tackle. He stands 6'4" and weighs 323 pounds. He fires off the ball and keeps square against the run. He's hard to move off his spot as a result.
The interior defender finished second on the team with 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also registered an impressive 78 total tackles. This speaks to his overall athleticism and short-area burst for his size.
A former basketball player, Johnson is far more nimble than his huge frame would indicate. Against the San Diego State Aztecs, the defensive tackle recovered a fumble and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown with no one coming close to tackling him.
"He's really—where Zettel's got the twitch and the disruptive ability and the get-off and those things— (Johnson) is the prototype NFL D-tackle," former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said prior to the 2015 season, per PennLive.com's Bob Flounders.
"I can put plays on film where he runs down the line and moves like a man 50 pounds lighter than him."
Johnson's combination of size and athleticism will eventually lead to him being the first player selected from one of college football's most talented units.
37. DT Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
No name in this year's NFL draft is hotter than Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler as the NFL combine approaches.
As a small-school prospect, Butler didn't warrant as much attention as some Power Five defenders during the regular season. Once placed under closer inspection, though, his overall skill and potential became obvious.
The 6'3", 316-pound defensive tackle has the size, length and athleticism NFL teams covet. Plus, the Mississippi native is still improving.
"I think his best football’s ahead of him," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said, per the New Orleans Advocate's Joel A. Erickson. "He played 3-technique, he played shade, he even lined up at a 5-technique (defensive end) sometimes. He’s very versatile because of his size and athleticism, he can do a lot of different things."
Butler played in 49 games during his collegiate career and registered 23 tackles for loss over the last two seasons.
There were times, though, when his film wasn't impressive. The Mississippi State Bulldogs, for example, neutralized Butler during their meeting this past season.
Thus, it became important for the Louisiana Tech product to perform well at the Senior Bowl. And he did. Butler's power at the point of attack made him difficult to block all week, which placed him in lofty territory.
"Butler doesn't get out of the [first] 45 picks in this draft class," an anonymous AFC general manager told Michael Detillier of WWL 870 in New Orleans.
36. TE Hunter Henry, Arkansas
The tight end position has been completely revolutionized in the past two decades. The rise of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski has placed a much heavier emphasis on a tight end's ability to contribute in the passing game.
Teams no longer place as much value on strong in-line blockers who serve as an extension of the offensive line. If a club has to give up a little (if not all) blocking ability to add another mismatch in the passing game, most seem eager to do so.
Arkansas' Hunter Henry is this year's top-rated prospect at the position and is built in the mold of a modern tight end.
In his three seasons with the Razorbacks, Henry caught 116 passes for 1,661 yards and nine touchdowns. During each of those campaigns, the tight end served as the No. 2 receiving target in Arkansas' run-heavy offense.
Due to the scheme, Arkansas asked Henry to block more than most tight ends, and he proved to be adequate. However, he could improve in that area.
Henry's strong hands make him special, though. This year's John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end didn't drop a single pass during his junior campaign, according to Pro Football Focus.
Teams in search of a tight end prospect should strongly consider Henry early in the draft, because this year's class isn't very deep, as NFL Network reported: "An AFC scout says the 2016 tight end class is not shaping up to be a very impressive one."
35. WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State
Building a wide receiver core can be likened to putting together a basketball team. Organizations want to add multiple skill sets to maximize potential mismatches created by the position.
In this analogy, Ohio State's Michael Thomas could serve as a team's power forward.
The 6'3", 209-pound wide receiver wins by doing the little things. He bodies off defenders well. He's a reliable target who plucks the ball out of the air. And he's an outstanding route-runner who understands how to sink his hips, stay compact, vary his tempo and sell fakes.
A lot of his game isn't sexy, but it sells.
The lingering concern regarding Thomas is his top-end speed. Much like this class' top wide receiver prospect, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell, the Ohio State product isn't considered a field-stretcher. But he's been very consistent over the past two seasons.
Thomas caught 110 passes for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns during his last two years in Columbus. Each of those numbers were split nearly 50/50 during those campaigns.
The wide receiver will quickly become a favorite of NFL coaches during the predraft process, too.
"I have never had a wide receiver who is as committed to the blueprint I laid out for him to achieve the goals we set for him this year," Ohio State wide receiver coach Zach Smith said last season, per the Columbus Dispatch's Bill Rabinowitz. "He is an absolute grinder who is starving for more—more knowledge, more coaching, more instruction, more insight, more criticism, more corrections."
The effectiveness of a big, reliable target such as Thomas can't be underestimated.
34. OG Joshua Garnett, Stanford
The Stanford Cardinal's Joshua Garnett is the reigning Outland Trophy winner as college football's best interior lineman.
Garnett isn't this year's highest-rated offensive line prospect, but he's not far behind some of the top names. He's arguably the best pure guard of the bunch, though.
Usually, offensive linemen are categorized into two types: zone- or man-blockers. Zone-blockers are generally smaller, more athletic and move well laterally. Man- (or gap-) blockers are often bigger, more physical and better at firing off the ball and uprooting defenders.
Stanford is one of college football's best-known power-running teams. The 321-pound Garnett excels at firing off the ball and pulling on power traps. He's downright nasty and will finish blocks.
"He's a physical dude but needs to clean up his body some," an unnamed NFC Pac-12 scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "The team nutritionist will be important for him. Love the power, but a little worried that he can’t unlock his hips."
The scout's final point is important to Garnett's evaluation. Is he fluid enough to excel in any situation?
Garnett's lower-body flexibility and core strength are questionable. He can be thrown off blocks and loses his balance, which indicate he's better firing straight off the ball instead of laterally.
In power-blocking schemes, Garnett displays the potential to be a dominant professional lineman. If he's miscast and asked to become something he's not, he won't realize his tremendous talent.
33. CB Eli Apple, Ohio State
If an NFL team were to describe exactly what it envisions in an ideal cornerback, the description would likely resemble the Ohio State Buckeyes' Eli Apple.
Apple is listed at 6'1" and 198 pounds. Today's game is about bigger and more athletic cover corners with top ball skills.
In two seasons at Ohio State, the New Jersey native quickly established himself as the Buckeyes' top cornerback. Senior Doran Grant held a leadership role when Apple entered the starting lineup. The underclassman quickly took over upon Grant's departure.
"It just comes with the territory. I feel like I’m natural with it,” Apple told the Columbus Dispatch's Tim May in August. "I don’t really have to get outside my comfort zone to do anything. I think this is a role I’ve always been used to. Even back in high school, I’ve had to do something like this. I like answering guys’ questions and trying just to lead them and do the right thing."
His transition shows the cornerback can contribute early in his career.
As a redshirt freshman on a national championship team, Apple started 14 games and defended 10 passes. Opposing offenses found even less success throwing to his side during his sophomore campaign.
Like many cornerbacks, Apple must refine his technique—particularly less clutching and grabbing—but he produced at a high level on the biggest stage early in his career.
With Ohio State's history of placing quality defensive backs in the NFL, Apple is the next in line.
32. OG Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
Sometimes an NFL draft prospect can be typecast into a particular role before he's ever given a chance to play the one where he excelled in college.
This occurs often due to preconceived notions based on certain body types. Kansas State's Cody Whitehair is a perfect example.
Arm length, or lack thereof, can kill an offensive tackle's chances before he ever steps onto a professional football field.
Whitehair's arms measured under 32 inches at the Senior Bowl, which is well below an acceptable length for an NFL offensive tackle. Meanwhile, Texas Tech's Le'Raven Clark claimed the longest arms when they were measured at over 36 inches. Yet Whitehair was the superior performer during their collegiate careers and in Mobile, Alabama.
This speaks to the caliber of player the Kansas State product is.
"If Cody Whitehair does not go in the first round I will be shocked," former Kansas State and NFL offensive lineman Nick Leckey tweeted. "Dude has the nicest pass set and smoothest feet."
What should be discussed about Whitehair's game aren't his limitations but his overall versatility. During his time in Manhattan, Kansas, the lineman started at guard and both tackle positions.
It's clear he's one of the class' top technicians. Whitehair plays with good pad level, gets extension, explodes through his hips and drives defenders off the ball. Also, his pass set is consistent.
In the end, Whitehair will likely make the transition from left tackle to guard in the NFL, and he could follow in the footsteps of the Dallas Cowboys' Zack Martin, Cleveland Browns' Joel Bitonio and Washington Redskins' Brandon Scherff—all early impact interior linemen after being successful collegiate tackles.
31. WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
With each passing year, size is becoming less of a prohibitive factor for wide receivers.
Due to the success of players such as Steve Smith, Julian Edelman and Antonio Brown, sub-6-foot wide receivers aren't viewed simply as role players anymore. They can be more than slot receivers. They're now No. 1 options in prolific offenses.
The skills of Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Sterling Shepard supersede his size (5'10" and 193 pounds), and he's ready to prove it.
"[I want to prove] that I’m a guy that can go inside and outside," Shepard told BaltimoreRavens.com's Sarah Ellison. "A lot of teams don’t think that I can play outside, but I believe I can. [I have] a knack for making big plays. That’s what we pride ourselves on at Oklahoma and that’s what I try to do every time I step on the field.”
Shepard shouldn't be stereotyped as a slot receiver. His game translates to playing multiple roles.
During his final season with the Sooners, the Oklahoma City native caught 86 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. He often lined up outside the numbers in doing so.
He excels in three areas: route running, making the tough catch and getting yards after the catch.
Shepard's short-area quickness and precision with his footwork make him a masterful route-runner. He often turned defensive backs completely around.
When the ball is in the air, Shepard tracks it well and makes over-the-shoulder catches with ease. He'll also go up and compete for 50-50 balls.
Finally, the wide receiver might be small, but he can be a tenacious blocker. He certainly gets after it even if he can't always hold up at the point of attack.
If size is merely one data point instead of an overriding preference, Shepard is arguably the most well-rounded wide receiver in this year's class.
30. OT Jason Spriggs, Indiana
The Indiana Hoosiers' Jason Spriggs could be the fourth offensive tackle prospect to slide into the first round.
Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil, Ohio State's Taylor Decker and Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley are all rated higher, but Spriggs' natural athleticism makes him a viable candidate in the opening frame, too.
The Indiana product cemented his status at the Senior Bowl.
"The practices, the meetings with coaches ... it helped me quite a lot, gave me a taste of everything on what it’s going to be like," Spriggs told the Elkhart Truth's Bill Beck.
What the experience also did was place the All-American against elite competition, and he flourished. Spriggs showed how easily he moves in his pass set and his overall athleticism.
According to Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson, the 6'7", 305-pound left tackle blew away last year's spring testing period. The offensive lineman ran a 4.82-second 40-yard dash, benched 225 pounds 33 times and completed a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump.
Top athletes don't always transition on the field, though. In Spriggs' case, his natural abilities are obvious but not without limitations. Where the blocker still needs to improve is in becoming more fluid and explosive in his hips. Spriggs plays a little stiff and high overall as a result.
When an offensive tackle is this athletic with such a good performance on one of the biggest predraft stages, it's difficult to keep him out of the first-round conversation.
29. WR Josh Doctson, TCU
TCU Horned Frogs wide receiver Josh Doctson was easily one of college football's most dynamic playmakers this past season. Unfortunately, he suffered a wrist injury that prematurely ended his season and didn't allow the Texas native to compete in the Senior Bowl.
His progress regarding the injury will be a big part of his NFL combine experience, but it shouldn't take away from his previous play all that much.
Despite missing the team's final three games, Doctson finished the season with 79 receptions for 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns, per TCU. Each of those marks set new school records on his way to being named an All-American.
"When you have a guy like Doctson," TCU head coach Gary Patterson told ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman, "it makes it a lot easier."
Doctson makes it look easy. He's a smooth operator at 6'3" and 195 pounds. The Wyoming transfer is the best in this year's class when it comes to high-pointing passes and coming down with the catch.
His route running can be best described as gliding about the field.
Of course, his recent injury is somewhat troublesome and will be thoroughly checked during medical evaluations. His slight frame might be worrisome to certain teams, but he generally uses his body well. And he's an older prospect who will turn 24 years old during his rookie campaign.
Even so, Doctson's penchant for big plays, overall production and dominance still make him one of the top wide receiver prospects in this year's class.
28. DE Kevin Dodd, Clemson
Sometimes, a very good player—even a potential first-round draft pick—can be overshadowed by a highly-touted teammate.
The Clemson Tigers' Kevin Dodd dominated at points this past season, but his bookend at defensive end, Shaq Lawson, generally demanded more attention. Until the national championship game, that is.
Dodd burst onto the scene as an unblockable demon off the edge against the Alabama Crimson Tide's award-winning offensive line. In the final game of his collegiate career, the underclassman registered three sacks and five tackles for loss.
Clemson fell short of its goal, but Dodd came up big.
The South Carolina native wasn't a one-hit wonder, though. Prior to the the Alabama contest, Dodd already recorded nine sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. The first-year starter eventually finished tied for seventh in the nation in sacks (12) and second in tackles for loss (23.5).
"A lot was going to be expected out of me because a lot was expected out of the guys ahead," Dodd told ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson after the end of the regular season. "They left a lot on the line and just knowing that I had to fill those shoes if not do better, I trained as hard as I ever did this offseason just putting myself in position to make plays."
The 6'5", 275-pound defensive end can bend, get flat down the line, pursue quarterbacks and do so from multiple positions. Clemson often slid or stunted him inside to create mismatches against less athletic guards, which allowed Dodd to take advantage of his quickness and length.
Some might consider Dodd a one-year wonder who benefited from playing opposite Lawson, but he took advantage and even excelled when given a bigger role.
27. QB Paxton Lynch, Memphis
During the season, Memphis' Paxton Lynch jumped to the top of many draft boards as the No. 1 quarterback prospect.
Things have since settled after his play faded down the stretch—to the point where he's solidly the third-best quarterback in this class, trailing Cal's Jared Goff and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz.
What separated Lynch at the time was twofold.
First, the Memphis quarterback is an impressive physical specimen at 6'7" and 245 pounds with plenty of athleticism. He easily makes throws rolling to his right or left. And he sports massive mitts. According to Lynch's agent, Leigh Steinberg, the quarterback has 11 1/2-inch hands.
Second, Lynch owned an impressive 50-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his final two seasons. The Memphis quarterback went interceptionless during the first five games of his junior campaign. The only pick he threw in the first eight games bounced off his receiver's chest and landed in the awaiting arms of an Ole Miss defender.
However, the Florida native is further behind on the learning curve, according to his current quarterback coach, Charlie Taaffe, a former collegiate offensive coordinator and CFL head coach.
[There are] things Paxton didn't do a lot of in college that he's going to be required to do in the NFL. Which is playing under center, both in the run game and the pass game. He didn't do much of those things at all at Memphis and that will be a transition for him. He very rarely was in the huddle. Everything was up-tempo, look over to the sidelines to get the play. They don't do that on Sundays.
Lynch's issues extend beyond the simple mechanics. At Memphis, he often stared down throws because he wasn't asked to work through a progression. Plus, many of those tosses weren't NFL-caliber throws.
Does Lynch claim the physical ability to do everything asked of an NFL quarterback? Absolutely. But his understanding of the game needs to rapidly improve for him to develop into a franchise signal-caller.
26. OLB Leonard Floyd, Georgia
One question will be on everyone's lips when Leonard Floyd arrives in Indianapolis for the NFL combine: How much does the Georgia Bulldogs linebacker actually weigh?
Georgia listed Floyd at 6'4" and 231 pounds.
Due to his spider-like build, Floyd will draw comparisons to the Cleveland Browns' Barkevious Mingo (6'4", 240 lbs), who has been a disappointment so far after being selected sixth overall in the 2013 NFL draft. Mingo, like Floyd, was considered a highly athletic, albeit vastly undersized, edge-rusher. The LSU product also failed to produce at expected levels.
However, these two are vastly different in two key areas.
First, Mingo only played defensive end. Floyd played multiple positions this past year, including inside and outside linebacker as well as the team's hybrid safety.
More importantly, Floyd played from a two-point stance, which he will also do at the NFL level. The Georgia product might not always look comfortable dropping into space, but he's already been asked to do so. This will be beneficial to his learning curve.
The obvious issue with Floyd's lanky frame is he can be completely engulfed at the point of attack. If a bigger offensive lineman gets his hands on the linebacker, he'll likely go for a ride. But Floyd does use his length and athleticism well to ward off lumbering blockers.
While everyone will be eager to see exactly how much the Georgia native weighs, it will only serve as a barometer for how much bulk he can successfully add and remain effective. It's often assumed players will naturally add weight as they mature. This isn't always the case.
Floyd remains an interesting option with plenty of potential, but he turns 24 years old this fall. What we all currently see might be exactly what an NFL team gets.
25. LB Darron Lee, Ohio State
Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Darron Lee is a perfect fit for today's NFL game.
Linebackers are no longer asked to be the snarling, downhill run defenders who defined many generations. They're now asked to be lithe, fast and able to track down a ball-carrier to either sideline.
The Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly, for example, isn't the guy a defensive coordinator wants consistently blowing up isolation blocks in the hole. Instead, he's the guy playing all three downs, flying all over the field and making plays.
Maybe a more apt comparison would be to Lee's predecessor in Columbus, Ryan Shazier. Lee discussed the similarities between himself and Shazier with ESPN.com's Austin Ward:
I think I remember [senior linebacker] Curtis Grant saying I didn't have a conscience, and Ryan really didn't have a conscience. He just went out and played, and it didn't matter how big you were. He was faster and he would hit you.
That's what I would try to take from him and try to mold it to my game. Hey, you know, just go and don't think. I guess that's kind of led to a lot of made plays this year.
Shazier was a little thicker and maybe a step or two faster, but the 6'2", 228-pound Lee fits today's mold.
The weak-side linebacker finished fourth on the team with 66 total tackles this past season, and he excelled at cutting through traffic to make plays. The linebacker also registered 4.5 sacks and seven quarterback hits as a blitzer.
Lee is quick, instinctual and always finds himself around the football. This is exactly what NFL teams expect of their linebackers.
24. S Jeremy Cash, Duke
What Duke's Jeremy Cash accomplished during his senior season was absolutely mind-boggling.
As a safety, the Blue Devils defensive back finished 20th in the nation with 18 tackles for loss. In a statistic dominated by defensive tackles, edge-rushers and linebackers, Cash stood apart. He could have added to the number, but he missed the Pinstripe Bowl with a wrist injury.
His instincts are exceptional, and he morphs into a heat-seeking missile once he identifies ball-carriers. The re-emergence of the strong safety in the NFL also helps Cash's prospects.
His primary value is built around his contributions as an extra man in the box. Duke often used the safety as an extension of the linebacker corps. Cash is absolutely sensational when playing downhill in the alley or flying off the edge.
The Ohio State transfer played both strong and free safety during his time in Durham, North Carolina, but he relishes contact.
"I definitely see myself more as a strong, because I like to punish people," Cash said at the Senior Bowl, per the Miami Herald's Adam H. Beasley.
He's a punishing hitter who forced three fumbles this past season. But questions remain about this coverage abilities.
Cash's combine experience will certainly be influential on how NFL teams view him as a prospect. If he proves to be more fluid in drills than expected, the Duke product could become even more highly valued due to overall position flexibility.
However, a top-notch strong safety still brings plenty to the table. T.J. Ward is an absolutely crucial part of the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl-winning defense. Kam Chancellor sets the tone for the Legion of Boom in Seattle.
Cash took advantage of his opportunity at Duke and developed into one of the nation's best defenders.
23. LB Reggie Ragland, Alabama
For some prospects, their performance at the Senior Bowl develops into a defining week regarding their draft status.
After two years starting in the middle of the vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide defense, linebacker Reggie Ragland didn't seem to be one whose future would be greatly swayed by one week of practice.
What he eventually proved is he can be a three-down linebacker, albeit in a nontraditional manner.
At 6'2" and 252 pounds, Ragland is a punishing inside linebacker. He's a physical, downhill run-stuffer who led the reigning national champions with 102 total tackles this past season. But the one area of his game often questioned became his range.
Is Ragland anything more than a two-down run defender? If his performance at the Senior Bowl is any indication, the answer is yes.
Instead of dropping him into coverage, Alabama's coaching staff often used Ragland as an edge-rusher during obvious passing downs. He still only finished his career with four sacks.
The Alabama native, however, showed some signs of becoming a consistent pass-rusher against top linemen during one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl. As such, his overall value increases because he can do more things, which makes the linebacker more scheme-diverse.
"I want to show that I can do multiple things at the next level," Ragland told the Times-Picayune's Evan Woodbery at the Senior Bowl. "I know I can play inside, but I want to be able to show that I can play outside too. If a guy goes down, I want to show I can go out there and play it too and not miss a beat."
Ragland's plan proved to be successful.
22. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Ole Miss Rebels defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is be the likeliest player to be overdrafted based purely on potential in this year's class.
During his three seasons in Oxford, Mississippi, the former No. 1 overall recruit never developed into the program-changing talent many expected. Nkemdiche only registered 19 total tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Instead, he tantalized with flashes of brilliance before ending his collegiate career on a down note.
The Ole Miss coaching staff suspended Nkemdiche for the Sugar Bowl after an incident where the defensive lineman fell two stories out of a hotel room window. Once officers searched the room, they charged Nkemdiche with marijuana possession, per ESPN.com's David Ching.
This episode only heightened the NFL's apprehension regarding the talented defender.
"An NFC East scout said the evaluation of Ole Miss (defensive lineman) Robert Nkemdiche will take a lot of behind-the scenes-work," NFL.com's Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein reported. "His physical skills are obvious, but there is a great question about his desire to play the game and that has to be checked out, the scout said."
When looking at Nkemdiche purely as a draft prospect, one can see his size (6'4" and 296 pounds), raw athleticism and versatility make him a special breed. The defensive lineman can overwhelm opponents with his blend of quickness and raw power at defensive end or defensive tackle.
Nkemdiche even scored three offensive touchdowns this past season, including a 31-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee-Martin.
There will be a point when his talent trumps a team's overall trepidation, and it will likely happen sooner rather than later, even if he's not deserving of a top draft pick.
21. NT A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
Very few prospects are as intimidating as Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson.
The Fort Worth, Texas, native is a massive man at 6'4" and 312 pounds and is an intense person. He's big, strong and mean on the field, which made him the bully in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense.
When asked to describe his teammate, linebacker Reggie Ragland chose three specific words, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough, "Rough. Loud. Direct."
Safety Eddie Jackson added, "He's a scary guy, especially when he starts screaming and yelling and you know he's really mad. When you see that expression, you know he's time to buckle down."
Robinson developed into a leader on the nation's best defense, but he's another classic example of production versus upside. Of course, one shouldn't expect a starting nose tackle to post massive statistics, but Robinson can be inconsistent overall.
Physically, the defensive lineman can be downright dominant at times. He's big, thick and nearly impossible to move when he puts his mind to it. There will then be stretches during games when he's not nearly as effective.
One can question his motor or overall technique. His potential is obvious, though.
Robinson started at nose tackle and defensive end during his career. He's athletic enough to play either in a three-man front. He's also strong enough to consistently demand double-teams. Where his value could increase exponentially is if he becomes more consistent at applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
As a freshman, Robinson registered 5.5 sacks. Over the next two seasons, he didn't replicate those numbers with only 3.5 total sacks. The interior defender has already displayed the potential to be a pocket-collapsing presence, which would dramatically increase his overall effectiveness.
When said potential is factored into the equation, Robinson's status as a first-round talent should be cemented.
20. DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Clemson Tigers defensive end Shaq Lawson proved to be one of the more difficult evaluations this season. It came down to understanding what type of player he is.
Lawson experienced massive growth in his game after registering 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2014.
A dedication to better physical fitness became the primary reason behind the defensive end's ascension. Lawson changed his diet and lost a few pounds during the offseason.
"That’s going to help me a lot so I can finish my rush and finish the sacks," Lawson said before the campaign, per ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson. "That’s my main focus, just getting my body lean and be more of a pass-rusher because I can play the run."
It certainly helped Lawson's overall play, but he's not an explosive upfield pass-rusher who is going to beat an offensive tackle off the snap, dip his shoulder and get a 45-degree lean while running around the edge to blow up an unsuspecting quarterback.
The All-American's game is far more power-based with a variety of pass-rush moves. This is perfectly fine, because there are many ways to affect a contest.
For example, the 270-pound Lawson is a far superior run defender compared to former teammate Vic Beasley. But the Atlanta Falcons used a top-10 pick on Beasley because of his natural pass-rush abilities.
If Lawson's learning curve continues on its current trajectory, he could eventually develop into the superior player at the NFL level.
"When (NFL) people get ahold of Shaq and get to know him, they'll love him because he's such a low-maintenance guy," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said in January, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. "He loves to play, he loves to practice, he's very coachable. He loves to study film and he's a very smart football player. People look at him as a superstar player, but he's a very low-maintenance guy."
19. OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
Over the past two seasons, Notre Dame Fighting Irish left tackle Ronnie Stanley built equity as an early favorite to become the No. 1 offensive tackle in this year's draft class.
Stanley's length and natural athleticism set him apart from most blockers and earned the respect of his weekly foes.
"He can run, he's athletic, he's long and I can tell he's getting better every week," Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa said of Stanley before the Fiesta Bowl, per Cleveland.com's Bill Landis.
"He's definitely more of a long athlete than a power, strong guy. You watch him run down the field, it's pretty crazy watching a guy that big run like that. He's rated as high as he is for a reason."
However, poor technique sometimes counteracts his strengths. Two areas of concern for Stanley revolve around the details of line play—and those details often determine how effective an offensive lineman can be.
First, the Las Vegas native doesn't display fluid hips. He plays high out of his stance and struggles to stay square in pass sets. This allows defenders to throw him off balance when they fire off the ball low or change direction.
Also, Stanley's hand play is subpar. The left tackle often carries his hands too low in his set, which undermines the effectiveness of his initial punch.
The Notre Dame product displayed some improvement in both areas during the Fiesta Bowl, which is a positive indication he can overcome bad habits instead of falling back on them.
The 21-year-old blocker presents plenty of natural upside. Upon closer inspection, though, he'll need plenty of work on his technique; otherwise, he'll struggle against NFL-caliber pass-rushers.
18. DT Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
The Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins and Carolina Panthers' Kawann Short redefined the value of defensive tackles.
Finding one who can consistently apply pressure on quarterbacks is far more difficult than locating a top edge-rusher.
In the last two seasons, Rankins registered 14 sacks, and he displays traits that will make him difficult to block in the NFL. The primary trait is his first-step quickness, which is accentuated by his natural leverage and strength.
Projecting Rankins shouldn't be too difficult. Take this into consideration: The Louisville defender accumulated more sacks over his last two collegiate seasons than Short did at Purdue (13.5).
At the Senior Bowl, the Louisville product proved to be difficult to block against some of the nation's best offensive linemen. Unfortunately, the defensive lineman suffered a strained knee during the practice week, according to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler, and he didn't get to fully display his dominance on one of the biggest predraft stages.
Rankins still made a positive impression during his time in Mobile, Alabama.
Even with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl, the fact the Louisville product can struggle at the point of attack shouldn't be completely overlooked. If he doesn't beat his blocker off the snap, he can be overwhelmed and washed out of plays. Rankins doesn't claim the same brute strength as Donald or Atkins to overcome certain size limitations.
At 6'2" and 303 pounds, Rankins played defensive end in Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme. While some would view his stature and lack of length as less than ideal to remain in his current position, Rankins does provide some scheme versatility.
A quarterback's life is most difficult when interior pass-rushers collapse the pocket. As such, Rankins' overall value increases. He might display some limitations in certain areas, but his ability to win one-on-one battles against offensive linemen gives him an edge over most prospects.
17. NT Kenny Clark, UCLA
When evaluating nose tackles, the first thing most notice is a 0-technique's size.
After all, the NFL's best true nose tackles—the Baltimore Ravens' Brandon Williams and New York Jets' Damon Harrison—weigh more than 330 pounds.
The UCLA Bruins' Kenny Clark isn't a typical nose tackle. At 6'3" and 310 pounds, he's much closer to the Philadelphia Eagles' Bennie Logan (6'2", 315 lbs) than Williams or Harrison. Like Logan, Clark consistently beats blocks due to superior leverage, hand play, raw strength and a consistent motor.
Simply put: Clark was a brute in the middle of the Bruins defense. His hands are as violent as any prospect's in this year's class. As a result, the defensive lineman regularly controlled opposing offensive linemen at the point of attack.
Despite playing a position where statistical production isn't necessarily expected nor necessary, Clark still finished his season as one of UCLA's most productive defenders.
The nose tackle ranked second on the team with 75 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss and six sacks.
Clark isn't considered a top interior pass-rusher despite his six sacks, but he presents plenty of upside as a 20-year-old prospect.
His advanced technique at a relatively young age only underscores how much potential he already displays.
In a defense that featured names such as Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack over the last three years, Clark usually set the tone up front.
16. QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State
Before anything else is said about North Dakota State Bison quarterback Carson Wentz, everyone must understand he's still a developmental prospect.
Over the course of his career, Wentz only started 23 games and threw a meager 612 passes during his five years in Fargo, North Dakota, per the school. Plus, the signal-caller turns 24 years old in December, which makes him nearly two years older than both of the quarterbacks—Cal's Jared Goff and Memphis' Paxton Lynch—competing against him to be the first off the board.
A pair of unnamed NFL personnel executives weren't impressed with Wentz after watching him in Mobile, Alabama, at the Senior Bowl.
"One said, 'Boy, that North Dakota State kid is way overrated,'" NFL.com's Lance Zierlein relayed (via NFL.com's Chase Goodbread). "And the other one texted me and said, 'After watching him for a full week, there is no way I would draft Carson Wentz in the first round.'"
These opinions clash with public sentiment regarding Wentz as a potential top-10 pick, but there are going to be plenty of varying opinions with this particular prospect.
The physical tools are obvious. Wentz fits the prototype at 6'6" and 235 pounds. He's a tremendous athlete who will add another dimension to an offense because of his ability to create when everything breaks down. The North Dakota State product can also make every throw with an above-average arm.
Plus, the quarterback is a career 4.0 student at North Dakota State.
For these reasons, other teams view Wentz far more highly.
"In the last two weeks I've gotten two calls from (NFL personnel) that he's not only a first-rounder, but a top-10 guy," Senior Bowl director Phil Savage told Goodbread.
Concerns stem from the nuances of playing the position. Entering this season, the two primary areas where Wentz needed to show improvement were speeding up his progressions and making anticipatory throws. Unfortunately, he missed eight games due to a broken wrist and never showed marked improvement in either area.
His footwork is also an issue and can affect the North Dakota State product's deep-ball accuracy.
Wentz has everything an organization looks for at the position, but he's still developing in a few key spots.
15. DE DeForest Buckner, Oregon
The Oregon Ducks' DeForest Buckner may be the most intriguing prospect in this year's class.
At 6'7" and 300 pounds, the defensive end has the type of physical tools NFL decision-makers drool over as they contemplate his long-term potential.
"If you’re building a defensive lineman, that’s what you build—6'9", 300 pounds, plays angry," Stanford coach David Shaw said about Buckner in November, per ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings. "When he doesn't want to be blocked, he doesn’t get blocked."
Buckner captured the Pac-12 Conference's Defensive Player of the Year after he registered 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. The lanky defender also knocked down five passes.
The defensive end is active—he amassed 164 total tackles over the last two seasons—and violent at the point of attack.
However, he lacks flexibility off the edge as a pass-rusher. Also, he struggles at times to hold up against double-teams due to leverage issues. As a result, he can be found on the ground during games. The Ohio State Buckeyes, in particular, absolutely wore him and previous first-round pick Arik Armstead out during the 2014 season's national championship game.
In Buckner's defense, he's slightly miscast in Oregon's read-and-react defense. The Ducks employ a true three-man front. Each of the defensive linemen read their keys after an opponent's offensive linemen fire off of the ball.
It can be argued Buckner is best suited to be a 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme under an NFL defensive coordinator who will be far more aggressive with his playing-calling. Plus, most professional teams spend the bulk of their time in nickel packages. This should allow Buckner to take advantage of mismatches by rushing off the edge as a defensive end or slide inside as a 3-technique to menace guards.
Teams will become enamored with Buckner's upside—and they should be—but he's not without his flaws.
14. WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
Laquon Treadwell fulfilled his potential as a member of the Ole Miss Rebels by developing from the nation's No. 1 wide receiver recruit into the top wide receiver prospect in his NFL draft class.
But there were bumps along the way.
Treadwell suffered a devastating leg injury in a 2014 contest against the Auburn Tigers. The wide receiver broke his tibia and dislocated his ankle. Despite the adversity, Treadwell came back this past fall in better shape, and it showed in his play.
Ole Miss' top target caught 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. What makes him so effective is threefold.
First, Treadwell is a reliable target with strong hands. He snags the ball out of the air instead of letting it get into his body.
Second, the Crete, Illinois, native uses his frame well. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, Treadwell bodies off defenders and physically overpowers them at times. The Rebels' top target is also adept at high-pointing the football.
Finally, Treadwell is fearless when asked to go over the middle. This is due in part to the physical nature of his play, but a quarterback can rely on him to make the catch even when a defender is bearing down on the wide receiver.
The one looming concern regarding Treadwell's game is his top-end speed. He will never be considered a burner, but there are those concerned about the time he posts in Indianapolis at the NFL combine.
"Those around Treadwell will be satisfied if he runs in the mid-4.5s during his workout on Saturday, February 27," Tony Pauline of DraftInsiders.net reported (via the Philadelphia Eagles' official website).
A lack of elite speed keeps Treadwell out of the conversation as a top-10 prospect, but he's still the best among another talented wide receiver group.
13. DE Jarran Reed, Alabama
When breaking down NFL draft prospects, certain traits simply pop off of the screen. Jarran Reed's ability to stuff the run makes him a valuable commodity even in today's pass-happy NFL.
No one in college football has been a better run defender over the last two seasons. The Alabama Crimson Tide product can be a wall at the point of attack. Reed plays with leverage, consistently shoots his hands, locks out his arms and sheds blocks well.
His 6'4", 313-pound frame also presents plenty of scheme versatility. In fact, Reed cited his ability to play in multiple schemes as his greatest strength.
"Versatility along the defensive line," Reed said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "You know, and I’m improving in my pass-rush game to be able to move anywhere along the defensive line. I play it all. I’m a real passionate, aggressive football player. I can play anywhere."
At Alabama, the JUCO transfer played 5-technique, 3-technique, 1-technique and 0-technique. At each position, he proved himself as a stingy run-stuffer.
Of course, teams generally want more from a top pick than simply stopping the run. Usually, top interior defenders also need to be able to rush the passer. Reed registered only two sacks during two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
However, his power allows him to collapse the pocket even if he's not consistently getting to opposing signal-callers.
It's important to understand where a prospect will win at the next level. Reed is an NFL-ready run defender who should be able to immediately help a team on first and second downs. This shouldn't be overlooked when nine of the league's top 10 run defenses made the playoffs this past season.
12. OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State
Two-and-a-half years ago, Khalil Mack absolutely destroyed offensive tackle Taylor Decker when the Ohio State Buckeyes hosted the Buffalo Bulls during the 2013 season opener.
Decker's performance could have left a lasting negative impression, but the beauty of the offensive tackle's career is he continued to develop into a top prospect.
After struggling against one of the game's premier edge defenders as a sophomore right tackle, Decker took over at left tackle the following year. His growth as a technician only helped highlight his physical dominance.
The Vandalia, Ohio, product continued to hone his craft to the point that he displays the best technique of any offensive tackle in this class. Decker is patient in his pass set, works his angles, keeps his hands high and rarely gets beaten cleanly by edge-rushers.
He was well-coached during his time in Columbus under the watchful eye of Ed Warinner.
Will the Ohio State product be mistaken for Ole Miss' Laremy Tunsil or Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley from a pure athletic perspective? No, but raw athleticism is merely one tool of playing the position—one that can be overrated.
Decker plays with a strong base. At 6'7" and 315 pounds, the 21-year-old lineman can drift a little high when run-blocking, but it's clear he displays the core strength necessary to succeed in the NFL. At times, he collapsed the entire side of an opponent's defensive line. Decker also plays with the nasty attitude needed at the position.
Whether he eventually settles at right or left tackle, Decker is an undervalued commodity despite how well his game translates to the next level.
11. RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
In today's NFL, one can argue no running back is worth a first-round selection due to the declining value of the position.
But there are always outliers.
For example, the St. Louis Rams certainly don't regret selecting Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in last year's draft after the Associated Press named the Georgia product the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Rare talent supersedes traditional groupthink. Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott is a rare talent.
Elliott left Ohio State as the school's second-leading rusher, and he did so in only three seasons. His 3,961 rushing yards fell more than 1,600 yards short of two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin's 5,589, but Elliott also carried the ball 332 fewer times.
The 6'0", 225-pound runner is a true three-down back with the power to run over defenders, enough lateral agility to make them miss in the hole and speed to burn as a consistent scoring threat.
Plus, Elliott is an advanced blocker. For most young running backs, third down often proves to be the most problematic because they weren't regularly asked to serve as pass protectors or receivers. This isn't a problem for Elliott, who seems to relish his opportunities to blow up defenders.
The one major question is his maturity level. NFL teams will be curious about how he reacts when faced with adversity. Elliott threw Ohio State's coaching staff under the proverbial bus after the Buckeyes lost 17-14 to the Michigan State Spartans in November.
This one instance might not be seen as a big deal since Elliott quickly patched things up with his coaches and started the next week against the Michigan Wolverines, but professional teams would be remiss if they didn't raise questions about the incident.
Otherwise, Elliott is a fantastic running back prospect and clearly the top runner in this year's class.
10. DE Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
A year ago, the possibility of Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence being a top-10 talent in this year's class would have been considered laughable due to his numerous off-field issues.
After being kicked off the Ohio State Buckeyes roster for failing multiple drug tests, Spence made his way to Eastern Kentucky University with a little help from his former coach, Urban Meyer.
Spence found himself at the FCS school instead of immediately making the leap to the NFL.
Spence told FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman in October:
I felt like I hadn't proven enough off the field and that I needed more time to show everybody that you could be a better person off the field and to show that that wasn't me—and that I can go for the rest of my life and be a straight-forward great person, and that I can do that, starting with disciplining myself enough to go down a level and not be ignorant and try and go straight to the NFL.
Eastern Kentucky's coaching staff regularly drug tested Spence during his time in Richmond, Kentucky, and he remained clean.
Now, everyone can concentrate on the player Spence is, and he is the most natural pass-rusher in this year's class. During his lone season with the Colonels, the defensive end registered 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
"He's so quick-twitch and when he sticks his toe in the ground and comes underneath, he really gets there fast," Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson told Feldman. "If he played in our conference, he'd be an All-SEC player, no doubt about it."
Spence's ability to bend the edge made him unblockable at the Reese's Senior Bowl, and he quickly made his mark as the best player among a field of all-stars.
If the edge-rusher adequately addresses every question asked of him during the predraft process, Spence should be considered an elite talent.
9. CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
Cornerback will be a popular position at the top end of this year's first round.
Florida's Vernon Hargreaves will be considered alongside Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander as the first cornerback selected in April's draft.
Hargreaves started as a true freshman and excelled in the rigorous SEC right away. He was named a third-team All-American in 2013, but his performance at points during his career could be considered unsteady.
There were times when he shut down the top wide receiver in this year's class, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell, during their two meetings. But the Florida cornerback struggled against Alabama's Amari Cooper a year ago.
"He's a great player," Cooper said after last year's meeting, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. "He's fast, he's quick. He plays smart and is very instinctive. I just took what I watched on film and tried to take advantage of it."
Obviously, last year's Biletnikoff Award winner found a weakness in Hargreaves' game, and things, obviously, won't get easier in the NFL.
The primary concerns regarding Hargreaves are how he holds up against bigger receivers and his strength in man coverage. At a listed 5'11" and 199 pounds, the Florida product doesn't play a physical brand of football.
However, it's hard to find a cornerback who is more fluid in his backpedal, through his turn and driving on the football. His ball skills are also impeccable, with 28 passes broken up and 10 interceptions in the last three years despite not being tested on a regular basis.
Hargreaves might not fit the prototypical requirements for his position, but few play at a higher level.
8. QB Jared Goff, Cal
A philosophical war will ensue over the next two months. On one side, there will be those who claim no quarterback is worthy of a top pick in this year's draft. On the other, many will claim Jared Goff and potentially others should be in the conversation as top-10 selections.
Goff's status in these rankings reflects his potential as a franchise quarterback, and the knocks on the Cal prospect are straightforward:
- He played in a simplistic spread offense.
- His slight frame won't hold up in the NFL.
- He doesn't display a big-time arm.
- He never played under center or called plays in the huddle.
These are all incorrect narratives. In fact, Goff played in a progression-based offense in which he was asked to consistently make multiple reads.
The 21-year-old has gained 30 pounds since he stepped on Cal's campus and is now listed at 215 pounds. Goff might not have a cannon strapped to his arm, but he's still one of the draft's most accurate deep passers. And the California native owned complete control of the offense due to his mastery of the scheme.
Goff also elevated a program that started 1-11 during his true freshman season to 8-5 overall in 2015 with a bowl victory.
Goff's polish as a passer and overall consistency in the nuances of the position separate him from the rest of the quarterbacks in the class: manipulating safeties, quick eyes through his reads, footwork that allows him to be in a position to throw at all times, pocket presence, a calm under pressure and ball placement.
Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller spoke with a team scout early in the season who said Goff is "the best quarterback since Andrew Luck."
This may be an overstatement, but it's clear Goff is a legit top quarterback prospect. More importantly, he believes he is.
"I'm confident I'll be the best quarterback in the draft," he told The MMQB's Peter King.
7. LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
A decision needed to be made regarding the top two linebackers in this year's class. Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith and UCLA's Myles Jack are two of the top prospects. As such, there is no reason to knock them down in the rankings despite the fact that they are coming off season-ending injuries.
Smith is a little further behind at this point because his injury occurred during the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, but the Fighting Irish linebacker remains a legitimate top talent. He's also further ahead in his recovery than expected at this point in his rehabilitation.
"The top-ranked linebacker in this class, Jaylon Smith, is still a lock to go top 15," teams sources told Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. "Smith, who tore his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl, is already back rehabbing two times a day, according to sources close to the player."
This year's Butkus Award winner led the Fighting Irish with 114 total tackles. The 6'2" 240-pounder displayed tremendous natural instincts and an ability to make plays sideline to sideline, blow up blockers and even rush the passer if needed.
Smith's natural athleticism translates to either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense as a playmaking weak-side linebacker, but it won't be seen in Indianapolis.
During the combine process, medical evaluations and interviews—which are already the two most important aspects of the event—will hold even more weight for the Notre Dame product.
Some team will likely get a bargain later in the first round if Smith slides due to his current injuries and the organization doesn't expect him to make an instant impact. A little patience and foresight will be needed to select him with a valuable top pick, but the linebacker could provide a big payoff in the end.
6. LB Myles Jack, UCLA
This is the moment UCLA linebacker Myles Jack has long awaited.
Jack's sights have been set on the NFL combine and a professional career for quite some time. The underclassman officially withdrew from school in October and made the decision to enter the draft when he suffered a torn meniscus after the third game of the season.
However, Jack is well ahead of his initial recovery schedule.
"Talking to sources close to linebacker Myles Jack, he is reportedly one month ahead of schedule in his rehab from a torn meniscus that ended his 2015 season," Bleacher Report's Matt Miller reported.
The two-way star hasn't been cleared for a full combine workout, though, according to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss. While this is somewhat disappointing, DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline reported NFL decision-makers still view Jack as a "rare athlete."
If his recent workouts are any indication, he'll eventually put on a show in front of NFL scouts. Jack isn't simply a workout warrior, though.
He is a fearsome edge defender with tremendous striking ability and top-end speed. At a listed 6'2" and 245 pounds, Jack displays scheme versatility on multiple levels. First, he showed more than enough strength at the point of attack to play outside linebacker in a three-man front. He also displayed his ability to fly from sideline to sideline as an outside linebacker in a four-man front or inside linebacker in the 3-4.
Plus, Jack could be one of the best running back prospects in this class if he concentrated on the offensive side. After all, Jack ran the ball for 380 yards and 10 touchdowns in limited opportunities during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
His true value resides in his versatility. Whichever team selects Jack will have the option to play him at multiple positions, and he'll likely succeed wherever he plays.
5. CB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Each year, there are certain highly anticipated NFL combine workouts everyone wants to see. The Florida State Seminoles' Jalen Ramsey tops the list this season.
Ramsey isn't simply a 6'1", 202-pound cornerback with tremendous length and skill—his athleticism is off the charts. The defensive back wants to be more than a professional football player. He still dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete.
"I love track, without a doubt," Ramsey told the Associated Press last summer. "Just like I have football dreams, I have track dreams. Rio's up next year. The Olympics—that's something that's always on my mind. It's definitely a real possibility."
He competed on the track team and won the ACC title in the long jump at the outdoor and indoor championships. As such, NFL decision-makers expect him to blow away the combine process.
"Some scouts on the road think he's overrated and some think he's the next Richard Sherman," an unnamed NFC director of football operations told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "We all agree that he's going to win the combine and that (NFL Network draft analyst Mike) Mayock won't stop talking about him."
The question remains: Which position will Ramsey play at the next level?
He played both cornerback and safety (star) at Florida State. Each NFL team will view him differently, but they all should see an elite athlete with unlimited potential.
4. CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
Florida State's Jalen Ramsey has superior physical tools. Florida's Vernon Hargreaves is a silky-smooth cover corner. Ohio State's Eli Apple and Houston's William Jackson III shouldn't be left entirely out of the conversation either. But Clemson's Mackensie Alexander is simply the best in coverage.
And that's what truly matters.
Alexander discussed his growth as a cornerback this past season in a draft diary for WalterFootball.com:
My junior year I really stepped up and cleaned up some things. Really cleaned up my techniques. I got better and made it easier on myself when I knew what my linebacker, my safety, and my nickel were doing. I played a lot faster. The technique part of my game got better, and that is how I grew as a player. Focusing on the little things and knowing that it won't be about just talent because everybody is talented at this level. For example, if you take the wrong step, you might allow a catch, but you're going to make the tackle and make the play.
As a redshirt sophomore, Alexander's jump in play proved to be significant. Opposing offenses often avoided throwing to his side. When in coverage, the Florida native was as tough to beat as any corner in the country.
Not only does Alexander approach the game with an analytical mind to constantly break down his technique, but he also won't back down from any challenge. He can often be found barking at the opposition, and he's also willing to fly up and support the run.
Teams will wonder why Alexander didn't display better ball skills, but some of that falls on the fact he wasn't challenged often.
Alexander might not hit the preferred physical benchmarks at a listed 5'11" and 195 pounds, but it's difficult to find another prospect in this class who plays the cornerback position at a higher level.
3. DT Andrew Billings, Baylor
Andrew Billings' appearance this high in the rankings will come as a surprise to many. But it shouldn't. The Baylor Bears defensive tackle presents the type of potential to be a dominant interior defender in the NFL.
Billings' strength at the point of attack is overwhelming. He'll often be referred to as the strongest player in this year's class.
Prior to becoming a member of the Bears, Billings broke a Texas prep state record that had stood for 22 years with a 2,010-pound all-around effort in squat (805 pounds), bench (500 pounds) and dead lift (705 pounds).
"The World's Strongest Man" Mark Henry previously owned the record.
At 6'2" and 310 pounds, Billings isn't just a massive wall incapable of being moved; the Waco, Texas, native is also nimble and displays a consistent motor.
"[Kansas] head man David Beaty said BU has a special player in the middle of their defense in powerhouse Andrew Billings," FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman reported in October. "Beaty has coached in the SEC and Big 12 and said the only D-lineman he's seen who is better than Billings is former Nebraska great Ndamukong Suh."
Billings led Baylor with 15.0 tackles for loss and tied for the team lead with 5.5 sacks. His combination of strength, quickness and leverage invoked another impressive NFL comparison.
"For me, it's Billings," an unnamed NFL personnel executive said after being asked which prospect was the "safest" in this year's class, per NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah. "Worst case is he's a solid, disruptive starter. Best case—he's an Aaron Donald-type game-plan wrecker."
If the defensive tackle realizes his potential and comes close to either of the All-Pro defensive tackles mentioned, teams will regret passing on him in the draft.
2. DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State
Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa entered this past season as the No. 1 overall prospect for many, and he remains in the conversation as the top talent in the class heading into the NFL combine.
But did he disappoint during his junior campaign? After all, his production dipped from from 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2014 to 15 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2015.
Upon closer inspection, Bosa played as well as any defensive lineman around. His overall stats may have suffered due to growing attention from opposing offenses, but he still served as a consistent disruptive force against both the run and the pass.
"He creates pressure on pretty much everyone he's gone against," Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley said, per Campus Rush's Joan Niesen. "I guess he doesn't [always] get the sack, but the pressure's still there. He's definitely creating chaos."
At 6'5" and 278 pounds, Bosa is an ideal base end with the length, strength and leverage to hold up against bigger offensive tackles. He also shows multiple pass-rush moves to get to the quarterback.
His combine attendance could help address two issues. First, Bosa's quick-twitch ability has been questioned. How he explodes through the start of drills and his fluidity throughout the exercises could cement his status as the No. 1 overall talent in this year's class.
The defensive end must also answer questions on why Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer felt the need to suspend him for the team's first game this past season against the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Bosa may not be viewed in the same vein as Jadeveon Clowney when it comes to being a freakish pass-rusher with unlimited upside, but he can be an impact defender from day one in the NFL.
1. OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
After the Denver Broncos dominated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, the value of a pass-rusher has never been higher. But the same can be said of those protecting franchise quarterbacks.
Michael Oher and Mike Remmers weren't good enough to hold up on the edges against two of the game's best pass-rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
This isn't true for every offensive tackle. The NFL's elite pass-blockers still hold tremendous value around the league.
For example, Miller experienced his worst game this past season against the Cleveland Browns' offensive tackles, Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz. Thomas is generally considered the best left tackle in the game, while Schwartz will likely become the league's highest-paid right tackle in free agency.
If one were to pick a single player in this class and make the claim that he displays the type of potential to become the best at his position, Ole Miss Rebels left tackle Laremy Tunsil should be the first name mentioned.
In a class that doesn't feature a true superstar talent, Tunsil's combination of size, athleticism and dominance at the collegiate level stands above the rest.
Tunsil went to Oxford, Mississippi, as the nation's top-rated offensive tackle recruit and lived up to expectations. At 6'5" and 305 pounds with long arms, the early entrant is a fluid pass protector and plays with a great base. He moves easily and is ideally suited for today's pass-first league.
Of course, NFL organizations will have some questions after he missed the first seven games of the season due to being suspended because he received impermissible benefits.
This shouldn't have a profound impact on Tunsil's draft status, but it should be noted. Otherwise, Tunsil is the favorite to be selected No. 1 overall by the Tennessee Titans.