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2016 NFL Draft: Dark-Horse Candidates to Rise into the 1st Round

Justis MosquedaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Dark-Horse Candidates to Rise into the 1st Round

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Every year, we hear about risers and fallers throughout the draft process, but on draft day, there are still surprises. Be it Bruce Irvin landing 15th overall in 2012 or Jake Locker being drafted eighth overall in 2011, there are always Day 1 shocks.

    After examining this overall class, five names stick out as players who are infrequently being mocked in the first round or ranked in the top 30 prospects in the draft pool, yet they can make some noise on April 28 in Chicago. We'll dig into why these dark-horse first-round candidates have a case to go in the top 31 picks of the class (the New England Patriots lost their pick) and give at least one team fit for each prospect.

    The draft cycle is speeding up rapidly. With the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl behind us, only the combine, pro days and private workouts stand between NFL franchises and draft week. Jot down the following five names on your watch list and wait for everyone else to catch on later.

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    The NFL draft is a market. In every market, there's supply and demand. The NFL is generally viewed as a league run by the quarterback position, but there aren't 32 passers who are talented enough to score as net positives for NFL franchises.

    Due to the nature of the sport, the demand for quarterbacks is always high. There's no trading down to find value on a passer you like. If you like him, you take him the first chance you get.

    We've seen the coach-quarterback connection as predraft narratives before, and it typically looks ridiculous in retrospect. For example, there were plenty of rumors, including from Chris Mortensen, that the Buffalo Bills were going to select Ryan Nassib of Syracuse with the eighth overall pick in 2013, but Doug Marrone, the former Orange head coach, eventually traded down in the first round to take EJ Manuel. Nassib fell all the way to the 110th pick, a fourth-round selection, where he was picked up by the New York Giants.

    With that being said, there seems to be a true connection between Christian Hackenberg, Penn State's former quarterback, and Bill O'Brien, who was Hackenberg's head coach during his freshman season. When Hackenberg declared for the draft after just his true junior year, the immediate sentence to follow his announcement was gratitude toward O'Brien, who hadn't coached him in two years. Not once did he thank his then-head coach James Franklin.

    Could the two cross paths again, bringing back the magic that led Hackenberg to All-American honors and landed O'Brien an NFL gig? The Houston Texans sit 22nd in line in the 2016 draft. By that point, it might be too late to try to snag a talent like Jared Goff of California or Carson Wentz of North Dakota State. The option of Hackenberg is entertaining when Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage and B.J. Daniels are the team's only quarterbacks under contract.

    Don't expect the Texans to be the only team in the mix, though. NFL head coaches, offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches have egos, too. They aren't going to stand aside and claim that O'Brien is the only passing guru in the league who has the talent to "fix" the tarnished golden boy. Quarterbacks get pushed up the further into the draft process we go, and Hackenberg seems to be next in line in the pecking order.

De'Runnya Wilson, WR, Mississippi State

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Plenty of commenters will note the NFL's growing interesting in long cornerbacks, but very few bring up why the league is adapting. The answer? The drafting of longer receivers, who are mismatches in red-zone situations.

    If you look at the way the Carolina Panthers are structuring their wideout unit, they also decided to give their spread passer, who throws off multiple alignments, large targets in case Cam Newton throws a bit high. With more dual-threat passers in the league and coming into the league than ever, it makes sense for this trend to continue.

    At the top of the draft, the receiver class is fairly weak compared to recent years. There aren't any Sammy Watkinses, Mike Evanses or Odell Beckhams to sort through. Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell is the top pass-catcher, and then there's a significant drop-off. It might be smart for franchises to stay out of the race to take the second target off the board and instead target the receiver who played for Treadwell's in-state rival in the late first round.

    De'Runnya Wilson of Mississippi State declared as a junior, posting over 100 receptions, 1,500 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Bulldogs and becoming Dak Prescott's top wideout. He's listed at over 6'4" on NFL Draft Scout, which should legitimize his stylistic comparisons to Kelvin Benjamin, who was drafted 28th overall in the 2014 draft class.

    Wilson doesn't have the drop issues that Benjamin had coming out or limited speed. At Mississippi State, if Wilson had a step on a defender, he was going to get the ball. Prescott trusted that Wilson would at least come down with a catch, if not gain some extra yardage afterward. For the most part, the quarterback was right.

    Teams won't overthink this prospect. Wilson is tall and strong and has performed against some of the best in college football. He's not Dez Bryant, but he might be a solid No. 1 target in a year or two.

Joshua Garnett, IOL, Stanford

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    One word describes former Stanford guard Joshua Garnett: bully. As a firsthand witness of his effort at the Senior Bowl, I can tell you that the 6'4", 317-pounder had some of the strongest hands of any offensive line prospect in recent memory. While Cody Whitehair of Kansas State, a college left tackle, is the interior lineman that many are projecting as a first-round pick, Garnett should be in the mix, too.

    In Stanford's power run-based offense, Garnett was asked to do two things more often than the typical college offensive lineman: down block and pull.

    Pulling is a monster of its own, as a lineman has to have the speed-to-power transition to nail a defender, opening the running lane for his back, and the foot speed to get there on time. Down blocks are another measure of force, as a lineman basically takes a 45-degree angle and tries to drive his man as far away from the action as possible.

    Garnett excels in both categories.

    Teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos could use a talent like the former Cardinal as a long-term option. The Broncos, slated to pick in the 30s, no matter the result of Super Bowl 50, would make a lot of sense from a value perspective, plus their offensive system is still transitioning to Gary Kubiak's style of play, which emphasizes strong guards. That is how the Baltimore Ravens' Justin Forsett was a 1,000-yard rusher under Kubiak (as an offensive coordinator) in 2014.

Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech

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    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    How high is an NFL team willing to take a project left tackle? We're going to find out in April.

    Le'Raven Clark of Texas Tech was a freshman All-American after his redshirt year in Lubbock, but he very much looks like the same prospect he was back in 2012. In the Red Raiders' Air Raid offense, offensive linemen are told to essentially backpedal, forcing defensive linemen to declare their stunt assignments, as the offense typically has five-man passing routes instead of assisting the linemen in more than man-on-man protection.

    At the Senior Bowl, Clark measured in a hair short of 6'6", with over 36" arms. The 312-pounder has almost 11" mitts. His case in war rooms will begin with measurables and the fact that he was never trained in anything similar to an NFL blocking system. If he was never taught how to develop as a true pass-protector, then why should he be scored like he was?

    Some offensive line coaches in the league like to take on big challenges. Tom Cable, who was the Oakland Raiders' head coach for three seasons, is now the Seattle Seahawks' offensive line coach, where he has not one but two linemen who played on the defensive side of the ball in college. His left tackle, Russell Okung, is an expiring free agent who will miss five months due to shoulder surgery, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.

    If teams are willing to throw out young former defensive tackles on the offensive line of a championship-contending team, isn't the idea of Clark as a draft-and-develop prospect late in the first round right up the same alley? Lance Zierlein of NFL Network, who has long-standing sources in the league, pegged Clark as Seattle's selection in his first mock draft of the draft cycle.

    Keep the Red Raider in mind heading into the combine, where he'll measure in as a giant and may test like a dancing bear on the Indianapolis turf.

Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    As a freshman at Mississippi State, Chris Jones looked like the next "guy." The former 5-star athlete, per 247 Sports' composite rankings, led the team in quarterback hurries and was named to many All-American lists in 2013, despite the fact that he only started three games fresh out of high school.

    He had a bit of a sophomore slump, where it looked like he would become one of those "path of least resistance" big-name busts, but his junior year was his great comeback.

    After starting three games in two years as the premier prospect in Mississippi State's program, he notched 13 starts in 2015, which eventually led him to turn professional at the age of 21. Jones has insane length, even for a 6'6" lineman. He shows burst at his size that will remind many of Muhammad Wilkerson, a first-round draft choice from 2011.

    Many are overlooking the interior defensive lineman for a couple of reasons. First, he's a bit of a one-year wonder, despite his freshman success. Second, he's an underclassman declaration that surprised some as a 2016 prospect. The deeper that the media and teams get into his tape, though, the faster you'll see him rise. By the time the combine is over, expect to hear the echoing praises of Jones.

    No team in the league has too many defensive linemen. Be it a two-gap team like Arizona or a one-gap team like Green Bay, it's going to be hard for Jones to make it out of the initial 31 picks without hearing his name.

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