2016 NFL Draft: Sleepers Who Could Crash the 1st Round
Despite the remarkable frequency to which mock drafts are pumped out on the Internet, it’s generally the same 40 or 50 prospects filling first-round spots. While mock-drafters may not be wrong in selecting the same top-level talents to fill Round 1, NFL teams’ vastly different draft boards make it far from easy to determine who teams truly covet.
The following eight players are generally not considered first-round prospects, as most are perceived as Day 2 or Day 3 draft hopefuls. But whether it’s potential NFL Scouting Combine impact, uniqueness of skill set or perceived immediate reliability in the NFL, these eight prospects could quietly crash the NFL’s first round come late April.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
Generally, a first-round running back needs to be able to step in as a three-down back and a runner who can prove effective on short and long-yardage plays. Compared to Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Arkansas’ Alex Collins and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Kenneth Dixon doesn’t meet their bulk or on-film physicality to generally merit a first-round grade.
But Dixon’s elite stop-start as a runner, coupled with his shiftiness at the second level, should make him an instant-impact runner against NFL linebackers. In today’s NFL, the ability to elude and finish opportunities in space is more important than to power through linebackers.
Don’t be surprised if Dixon, who’s become a fan favorite among media evaluators, draws interest from teams such as the Green Bay Packers or Carolina Panthers late in Round 1.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
The do-it-all talent for a lackluster South Carolina offense, Pharoh Cooper’s need for versatility limited what he could show as a defined receiver in college during his senior season. But Cooper was able to show high-level shiftiness, explosiveness with the ball in his hands and a natural feel for gathering and running after the catch that certainly intrigue NFL evaluators.
While Braxton Miller dominated the 2016 Senior Bowl, he and Cooper aren’t all that different. While Miller draws more interest due to his position change and sudden emergence as a viable NFL receiver, Cooper offers similar big-play value in a Randall Cobb-like fashion, coupled with added experience at the position.
Cooper will need a plus-combine performance to break into the first round, but his unique skill set and underappreciated explosiveness could push him into the discussion.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
While Pharoh Cooper is the type of explosive, versatile and dynamic receiver that NFL teams covet earlier despite some question as to immediate value, everyone knows exactly how Sterling Shepard will benefit an NFL team. He's one of the most polished route-runners in recent draft history; Shepard’s focus in his footwork, ability to separate with his upper-half movement and decisiveness in working back to his quarterback all should make him his future NFL quarterback’s favorite receiver.
But his vertical speed limitations and relative size may keep him from the first round. First-round receivers generally have a game-changing skill set, whether it’s size and jump-ball ability or elite explosiveness after the catch. Shepard possesses neither, but for teams such as the Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs who need instant-impact receivers, Shepard’s reliability may make him a viable, safe selection.
Jason Spriggs, OT, Indiana
If a prospect can play left tackle, he’ll always have a chance to climb into the first round. While Jason Spriggs has already reached top-32 projections for some mock drafters, the Indiana product who's risen since his Senior Bowl practice play has a great chance to slide into Round 1.
To start, he’ll need more than a few left tackle prospects to go earlier in Round 1, such as (but not exclusively) Laremy Tunsil, Taylor Decker, Jack Conklin, Ronnie Stanley and Germain Ifedi. But like most positions, each NFL team has different tastes as to what it values in left tackles.
The quick-handed, footwork-decisive pass-blocker should foster interest among playoff teams who that could use the offensive tackle upgrade such as Seattle, Green Bay and Carolina.
Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
Chris Jones is far from a finished product, and his current scouting report is without a defined NFL position. But the 6’6", 300-plus-pound Mississippi State product has been highly undervalued thus far in the draft process and has elite NFL upside thanks to his length, strength and flashes of pocket-collapsing potential.
Similar to former Mississippi State Bulldog Preston Smith a season ago, Jones shouldn’t slip into Round 2.
He needs ample work in using length and powerful push to separate from his blocker and finish as a tackler in the backfield or pinch down gaps, but it only takes one NFL team to have confidence that it can quickly develop him. As the draft process continues, especially after the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones’ name should quickly pick up steam as a first-round prospect.
Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas
The surprise early entry into the 2016 NFL draft, Hassan Ridgeway is the Texas program’s lone NFL Scouting Combine invite this year. Despite his lack of teammate support in 2015, motor concerns and perceived rawness, talents like Ridgeway always seem to find themselves stumbling into first-round discussion.
Based on film and his testing numbers at Texas, Ridgeway should be one of the most impressive defensive linemen at the combine. While it’s a strong defensive line class, elite talents like Ridgeway always rise to the top, especially once defensive line coaches get involved in the draft process.
And I’m not alone in believing Ridgeway could rise to the first round: Alex Dunlap of Orangebloods.com feels the same way.
Tavon Young, CB, Temple
If I was forced to pick just one cornerback in the 2016 draft who I had to bet on to be an NFL-quality starter, I would choose Temple’s Tavon Young. Despite his 5’9" size, Young has already proved at the college level to be a shutdown, highly physical and passionate cornerback.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Young should post one of the better numbers in the 40-yard dash, broad jump and vertical jump among cornerbacks. He not only has the athletic testing numbers to prove he can make up for his lackluster size and length, but he displays his explosiveness on film naturally.
Even for teams that generally shy away from sub-5’11" cornerbacks, Young should be high on the board. Predicting a first-round selection may be bold, but he should generate enough second-round interest that going in the top 32 is certainly viable on draft day.
Justin Simmons, S, Boston College
In what appears not to be a top-heavy 2016 safety class, Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Boise State’s Darian Thompson sit alone atop a majority of safety prospect rankings. But with the rise in safety value and impact at the NFL level, the position has grown to be a coveted spot for defenses to try to improve.
Simmons has the uphill battle of trying to be the first Shrine Game prospect (who didn’t get the Senior Bowl call-up) to go in Round 1 since A.J. Jenkins in 2012. While it’s a long shot, Simmons’ film gives him a great case to be the draft’s third-best safety, especially if he can prove his athletic worth at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February.