NFL Draft 2016: The Best Pro-Player Comparisons
Too often, jargon clutters the NFL draft world. It's hard to get a grasp on what a scouting report really means when it's pumped with cliches and slang you'd imagine being said around a flickering projector in a dark room.
The opposite of vague tiptoeing are player comparisons. Nothing is a stronger statement than saying Prospect A is Player B, either as a production, style or body parallel.
After spending the good part of the past nine months focused on this draft class, there are 10 draft prospects whose comparisons stick out more than others. There's usually one rare trait or narrative that ties two players together strongly, separating the run-of-the-mill comparison from a really good one. There's no Derrick Henry-Brandon Jacobs layup in this group, either.
We'll break down these 10 prospects and who they perform like, due to similar traits and what to expect from their early careers.
Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
It's hard to find a comparison to Myles Jack, since there are so few off-the-ball linebackers who move like he does. At UCLA, the Bruins used him as a running back, linebacker, hybrid safety and occasionally a rusher off the edge. He's an athlete to the highest degree, finding himself playing on all three levels on the defensive side of the ball and as a ball-carrier on offense.
His one knock? There's concern about his height, which NFLDraftScout.com projects to come in at a hair above 6'1" at the combine. In recent memory, the short-but-explosive middle linebacker to see success at the professional level is Bobby Wagner, who was drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
Wagner tested in the 98th percentile or higher in the 40-yard dash, the broad jump and the vertical jump, on the relative scale of inside linebackers, per MockDraftable.com. If Jack's film and rehab videos are any indication, he should join the likes of Wagner at the top of all-time combine performances from a "Mike" linebacker. As long as his meniscus checks out, which he had surgery on in September, then he should be in the running to come off the board in the top five picks.
Like Wagner, Jack should develop into one of the best linebackers in the league. Wagner's ability to cover a tremendous amount of ground helps Seattle's mostly zone defense in the same way that the Carolina Panthers' linebacker unit does for their scheme. Four years into the league, Wagner is a two-time Pro Bowler—a goal that isn't out of reach for Jack.
Early on, Jack can contribute as a "Sam" linebacker before transitioning to Mike linebacker in a year or two, once he's ready to be "the guy" on a defense and call in plays. In a 3-4 defense, he's a starting inside linebacker right away, even possessing the possibility to give some pass-rushing reps as an outside linebacker.
Jonathan Bullard, DL, Florida
Many will tell you that Jonathan Bullard, a former defensive end from the University of Florida, is a Michael Bennett type. The same will be repeated during this draft cycle about Joey Bosa of Ohio State. Kevin Dodd of Clemson is another defensive end-defensive tackle hybrid who should generate comparisons to Bennett, the top hybrid player in that mold in the NFL, who was able to finally crack double-digit sacks in 2015.
Somehow, there's only one player in Bennett's style who plays at a high level in the NFL, but there are going to be three of a similar mold to succeed from the same incoming draft class? Comparisons often involve shortcuts. For a while, all tall cornerbacks were compared to Richard Sherman. Now that the public realizes just how talented Von Miller is, look out for people to put undersized pass-rushers side-by-side with a future $100 million outside linebacker.
The true comparison for Bullard, though their body types are different, is Jerel Worthy. Worthy was once considered to be a first-round prospect, as the former Gator is being tabbed today. Unlike Bullard, Worthy was a full-time interior defensive lineman. On the interior, the game is all about quickness, as you're playing in a phone booth between a center and guard or a guard and tackle.
Bullard and Worthy share a fatal flaw as non-edge defensive linemen: The fact that they tend to cheat inflates their quickness. At the college level, it's much easier to anticipate snap counts, as coaches have less time to get all their players on the same page, therefore they simplify some in-game aspects.
When watching film in slow motion, it becomes obvious which defensive linemen have good bursts off the line of scrimmage and which ones are just a step ahead of offensive linemen. Bullard often moves even before the center does, and he often loses whenever he isn't able to get in sync with the cadence.
The cold truth is that Bullard isn't good enough of a space player to be a long-term starter in the NFL as an edge defender, and his first step is average at best, masked by his savvy exploitation of college snap counts. So at the end of the day, you're getting a tweener defensive tackle with average to below-average upside.
Around 20 pounds heavier, Worthy went from being the 51st overall pick in the 2012 draft to bouncing around five different teams in his first four years in the NFL. The snap-anticipator mold doesn't prosper in the NFL, a league that stresses raw explosion and strength.
Sheldon Day, EDGE, Notre Dame
In college, Sheldon Day was an undersized defensive tackle for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. There have always been questions with his long-term projection as a tweener defensive tackle, which is likely why he played through his senior year, despite displaying talent to leave the college football world during his junior season.
At the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where the NFL draft universe gathers for a week to watch top graduating prospects go head-to-head in practices, Day first received snaps as a defensive tackle, but he eventually moved to defensive end at the end of the week. The man who made the call was Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, one of the best lineman minds that earth has ever produced. If he says Day is a defensive end, you'd be wise to align yourself with the former NFL head coach.
Day is a big end who may not be the best pass-rusher, but he can be a two-down defender in the same mold as a Courtney Upshaw. Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 35th overall pick in 2012, Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil comprised the Ravens' one-two punch before the Terrell Suggs injury forced them both onto the field at the same time. Day may just be a run-stopper, but he's the perfect player to spell an undersized pass-rushing type.
This league is full of role players who need a matching piece to fit into the puzzle of a team. Day weighed in at the Senior Bowl as a 6'1", 286-pounder—big for a 3-4 outside linebacker—but if the 6'2", 272-pound Upshaw can do it, Day's only a couple of months away.
Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon
Lost and forgotten is Byron Marshall, a hybrid player who spent his college days at the University of Oregon. He lost the majority of his senior season with an ankle injury, and with the status of the lifespan of running backs at the next level, he elected not to pursue a medical redshirt.
Marshall showed up to Eugene as a running back, but after two years at the position, he finally moved to receiver, as De'Anthony Thomas did in his final year at Oregon. Why? Some may speculate that Marshall's skill set fits better as a wideout at the professional level, but he was coming off a 1,000-yard season as a tailback for the Ducks before the 2014 change.
No. In all honesty, if everyone is being truthful to themselves, I'm willing to bet that the Oregon staff moved him because of the depth at the position. Entering this season, the Ducks backfield featured Royce Freeman, who may be a first-round pick in the mold of Jonathan Stewart; Thomas Tyner, a former 5-star recruit who may be the biggest high school prospect ever to come out of the state of Oregon; and Taj Griffin, then a true freshman whom 247Sports ranked as the top all-purpose running back in the 2015 recruiting class.
In his college career, when healthy, Marshall was able to post 1,877 rushing yards and 1,293 receiving yards. In 2013, he was a 1,000-yard rusher. In 2014, he was a 1,000-yard receiver. It's amazing that a player of this caliber doesn't generate more talk.
In many ways, he's Danny Woodhead on film. Woodhead is well-known as the small and explosive third-down back who played for the New England Patriots and New York Jets and currently resides with the San Diego Chargers. In today's NFL, there's more of an emphasis on backs being pass-catchers out of the backfield rather than pass protectors. For example, the Dion Lewis injury for the Patriots in 2015 completely changed what their offense was able to accomplish. Marshall can be perfect in that hybrid-threat role, as he proved in college.
Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
Many would say Ronnie Stanley ranks as the second-best left tackle prospect in the draft behind Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil, which is a fair statement, but the Notre Dame bookend is far from being a ready product. Shaq Lawson, Clemson's pass-rusher, repeatedly beat Stanley in their head-to-head match, while Tunsil, fresh off a suspension, completely shut down the top two returning pass-rushers in Myles Garrett of Texas A&M and Carl Lawson of Auburn in back-to-back games.
Stanley is a dancing bear with the upside of a Tyron Smith, sure, but for every Smith, there are plenty of agile linemen who weren't able to improve enough at the NFL level to crack a starting lineup. Stanley can get there, but right now, it's hard to just assume he's going to be an All-Pro like Smith when he's currently so raw.
D.J. Humphries of the Arizona Cardinals was a similar prospect last season. At Florida, Humphries displayed raw potential but rarely was able to put it all together for full-game stretches. After being drafted with the 24th overall pick, he didn't play in a single game in 2015.
Stanley doesn't have "bust" written on his forehead, but pure talent won't earn playing time at left tackle in the NFL, a league that prides itself on demanding consistency above anything else for blindside protectors. It would be wise for Stanley to sit for a season while his college basketball center frame fills out and his footwork takes a couple of steps forward.
Joey Bosa, EDGE, Ohio State
People have hyped up Joey Bosa since his true-freshman season at Ohio State, and for good reason: He's a great football player. Because of his 6'6" frame and the fact that he plays left defensive end, some may be inclined to compare him to J.J. Watt, but his real doppelganger is playing for the New York Giants.
Robert Ayers is a former first-round pick who found himself on the Giants roster after his first contract, as the Denver Broncos, who drafted him, already had Von Miller and picked up DeMarcus Ware in free agency, two All-Pro pass-rushers. Ayers has always been best suited to play on the edge, and in a 3-4 defense, he's a bit of an odd fit, just like Bosa.
Also like Bosa, Ayers has spent some time playing on the interior. They win in the same ways, with an inside swim move and interior power moves. Bosa isn't an edge-bender like Miller or Ware. He's not that kind of space player, but he does have power moves that make him an intriguing prospect.
At first, a comparison to Ayers may seem like a knock, as the team that drafted him in the first round didn't include him in its long-term plans and because he's only posted 26.5 sacks in his seven seasons as a professional. Ayers has been on a hot streak of late, though, starting double-digit games for the first time since 2011 and racking up 7.5 sacks in the last five games of the Giants' 2015 season. If you can get that production out of Bosa, no one will be complaining.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Out of the gate, Jared Goff will be the most pro-ready quarterback in this draft class. This may go against conventional wisdom, as he played in a wide-open "Bear Raid" offense. Still, his ability to avoid massive mistakes is a big positive.
The problem is, after "not shooting himself in the foot," there aren't many upsides to his game. He's going to play to a system. Even at the most impactful position in the sport, he's not going to be the reason you go 5-11 or 11-5.
He's similar to Chad Pennington, who was a cerebral passer for the New York Jets for years but lacked the elite arm talent to be considered one of the league's best. In recent years, Teddy Bridgewater was similar.
The one major concern that hangs over Goff is going to be his hand size. As a freshman against Oregon, the Bears pulled him because he had trouble handling the football in a downpour. Is he limited to southern cities?
Sheldon Rankins, DL, Louisville
The first objective of a football franchise is to find a quarterback. The second objective is to build a defense that rattles an opponent's passer.
Edge pressure is important, as the contracts of 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers show, but quarterbacks can step up against edge pressure. What really ruins passers' days is when their pockets collapse from the inside, forcing them to break the pocket, often into an edge defender, or bail backward and throw off of their back feet.
Great teams are able to generate interior pressure. Sheldon Rankins of Louisville has the potential to do so as a 3-technique defensive lineman, either as an undertackle in a 4-3 defense or as a one-gap defensive end in a 3-4.
As a firsthand witness of his talent at the Senior Bowl, his method of madness was fairly cut and dry. He's more explosive than interior offensive linemen, so he blows them off the line of scrimmage. Once they begin to overcorrect, he has a set of countermoves to embarrass linemen in one-on-one situations, with his go-to being a crossing spin move.
He might be a player you have to double-team at the next level, just to be safe. From a production and stylistic standpoint, expect for him to fill the shoes of Kawann Short, the under tackle for the Carolina Panthers. Short was a Pro Bowl player this year after raking in 11 sacks as the Panthers' premier pass-rusher.
Rankins and Short both have similar frames, get-off explosion and techniques. Don't be surprised if Rankins comes off the board in the first half of the first round to a team like the Detroit Lions, who desperately need help on their defensive interior.
Deion Jones, LB, LSU
Deion Jones is a linebacker the size of a small safety with the closing speed of a cornerback. There are clear defenses in which he has value, but they need to be designed around keeping him off of blocks, where he struggles.
At the Senior Bowl, Jones came in at 6'1" and 219 pounds. At LSU, he was an ace special teamer, which is no surprise with his speed, but just a one-year wonder as a starting defender.
His best comparison is to Telvin Smith, the former Florida State linebacker who was viewed as a Day 2 talent on film but showed up at the combine at 218 pounds in 2014. The Jacksonville Jaguars eventually drafted him in the fifth round, and he's started in 23 games in his first two years in the NFL.
Like Smith, some will consider Jones as a safety prospect because of his size, but the rise of Deone Bucannon, a college safety who converted to a 211-pound linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, will lead more franchises in the right direction in 2016 than in 2014, when Smith slipped through the cracks. If nothing else, Jones is going to be able to contribute early on as a potential Pro Bowl special teamer while developing as a "Will" linebacker.
Shaq Lawson, EDGE, Clemson
Behind the duo of former Ohio State Buckeyes in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Shaq Lawson is the best pass-rushing prospect in the draft class. He declared as a junior, just one year after replacing Vic Beasley, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft class. At Clemson, he featured mostly as a weak-side pass-rusher, the premier position on the defensive line in a 4-3 scheme.
Lawson is stout at 6'3" and 270 pounds. He can play either defensive end or outside linebacker due to his athleticism, but he might be a better disruptor on the ground than as a sack artist at the NFL level. The reason for this is that his first-step explosion, which translates more for tackles for loss than sacks, is elite, while his ability to tightly turn a corner, a sack-related trait, is average.
He's going to beat blocks in which a guard is designed to block him. Even on down blocks, he should be able to blow up power-run plays. That's exactly how he led the FBS in tackles for loss in 2015 with 22.
Lawson's recent on-field comparison is Frank Clark, who at Michigan posted 34.5 tackles for loss in his career but only 11 sacks. Clark also officially measured in at the combine just a hair under 6'3" as a 271-pounder. On film, they are spitting images of each other.
Clark looked like a potential impact defender in the preseason, but he found himself buried in a deep Seattle Seahawks defense. The second-round pick was drafted in 2015, and as a rookie, he was able to come away with three sacks off the bench. Clark's first-year production had more to do with how he fit on the depth chart than his true skill. Expect more from Lawson, who should be a top-15 pick.