A Beginner's Guide to the 2016 NFL Draft Class

Luke EasterlingCorrespondent IFebruary 15, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to the 2016 NFL Draft Class

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    "It's the most wonderful time of the year..."

    That growing swell of cheery voices joining in such a chorus is the sound of the NFL draft approaching once again, as the fanbase of every NFL team begins to fill with the hope that this year could be the year.

    Whether it's a franchise quarterback, blue-chip left tackle, dynamic pass-rusher or electric playmaker at a skill position, the draft is a chance for each team to acquire key building blocks to construct a championship-caliber roster.

    As is the case every offseason, this year's draft class is not without its compelling storylines, positions of strength and weakness and star players hoping to make their mark at the next level.

    Here's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the 2016 NFL draft class.

No Sure Thing at QB

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    Last year's draft had not one, but two surefire franchise quarterbacks in Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, but the 2016 class lacks a true blue-chipper likely to be ready right out of the package.

    Cal's Jared Goff is the closest thing, but even he has rough edges that will take time to smooth out, especially if he's asked to start right away in a difficult situation. North Dakota State's Carson Wentz was the main event at this year's Senior Bowl, but though he has the size, arm and intangibles, he'll likely face a heck of a learning curve jumping from the FCS level to the NFL.

    Memphis' Paxton Lynch has tantalizing physical tools but lacks consistency. Michigan State's Connor Cook looks the part, but his mechanics and leadership need major work. Looking for intriguing projects? Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Ohio State's Cardale Jones fit the bill there.

    This year's crop of signal-callers may not have the certainty of last year's group, but it should certainly be full of entertainment value—on draft day and beyond.

Draft Deepest on Defensive Front

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    From arguably the top overall player in the draft—Ohio State's Joey Bosa—to a plethora of destructive forces at defensive tackle, this year's crop of front-line defenders is among the best in recent memory.

    This year's group has something for everyone, from nose tackles like Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler, Baylor's Andrew Billings and Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson to versatile disruptors like Oregon's DeForest Buckner, Florida's Jonathan Bullard and Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche.

    What's that? Looking for a traditional 4-3 defensive end, you say? Clemson has two in Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. An explosive 3-technique? Louisville's Sheldon Rankins is your man. And don't even get me started on Senior Bowl darling Jihad Ward from Illinois.

    If your favorite NFL team needs help up front on defense, it's your lucky year.

Patience Could Pay off at RB

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    Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Alabama's Derrick Henry will steal most of the headlines among this year's running backs heading into the draft, but the real value at the position could come on Day 2.

    This year's second tier of runners boasts a long list of starting-caliber names, from UCLA's Paul Perkins and Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon to Indiana's Jordan Howard and Utah's Devontae Booker. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, Arkansas' two monster running backs, could end up carving out their own productive careers at the next level as well.

    Smaller change-of-pace backs like Alabama's Kenyan Drake and TCU's Aaron Green will be worth watching, while Day 3 targets like Cal's Daniel Lasco and Georgia's Keith Marshall could easily end up outplaying their draft slots.

Best Safety and Cornerback? Same Guy

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    Versatility is king in today's NFL, which makes Florida State's Jalen Ramsey one of this year's most valuable prospects.

    Ramsey has been one of college football's most dynamic playmakers on defense, and he's done it from both the safety and corner spots for the Seminoles. It's easy to make a case that he's the best player at either position in this year's draft.

    NFL.com's Bucky Brooks—who has the former Seminole atop his latest overall rankings—outlined back in December just how special Ramsey can be:

    Ramsey is a rare find as an ultra-competitive hybrid defensive back with exceptional skills and a high football IQ. He can start at LCB for an NFL squad from Day 1, but he might be best suited for a chameleon role as a pro. Ramsey is instinctive and dynamic around the box that he should thrive as a nickel defender in an exotic defense. If I had to compare him to a current pro, I would cite Charles Woodson based on his unique skills as a multifaceted playmaker.

    Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander are candidates for the top corner spot, but they both measure under 6'0". Ramsey is listed at 6'1", 202 pounds, giving him the size to match up with the NFL's bigger, more physical receivers.

    At safety, Boise State's Darian Thompson may be the only other player worthy of a first-round pick. Ramsey's instincts and nose for the big play could quickly make him one of the league's best at the position.

    Regardless of where an NFL team's needs are in the secondary, spending a top pick on Ramsey would go a long way toward solving them. No matter where he lines up, he's destined to become a mainstay on highlight reels for years to come.

All Receivers, Great and Small

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    Looking for a pass-catcher? This year's group offers potential starters of all shapes and sizes worthy of an early selection.

    Mississippi's Laquon Treadwell is widely regarded as this year's top receiver prospect, while Ohio State's Michael Thomas may not be far off. They're both listed at over 6'2" and 200 pounds, giving them the size NFL teams are looking for from a potential No. 1 target. Pittsburgh's Tyler Boyd and TCU's Josh Doctson are another pair of big receivers who should come off the board early.

    Looking for the next Antonio Brown or Steve Smith Sr.? This year's receiver class might just have you covered there, too. Baylor's Corey Coleman is arguably the most explosive player in this group, possessing a skill set reminiscent of Brown's. Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard brings the sure hands, sharp routes and toughness Smith has been known for, and both players could be early starters despite measuring under 6'0".

    And let's not forget about the dynamic wild card of this entire group, Braxton Miller. The former Ohio State quarterback looked like a fairly refined receiver at the Senior Bowl and could end up vaulting himself into the first round with his explosive playmaking ability.

Knee Injuries and All, 2 LBs Top-10 Worthy

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    Two of this year's most athletic, dynamic playmakers happen to play the same position, but it may not be any of the ones you're thinking. In fact, it's not a position that normally warrants a top-10 selection.

    But that's just how special UCLA's Myles Jack and Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith are. Both linebackers are versatile players who should be able to fit in any scheme—Jack even played running back for the Bruins—as they have the instincts, intelligence and athleticism to be dominant defenders early in their pro careers.

    Oh, by the way, they're also both rehabbing from season-ending knee surgeries.

    Yes, despite both of their 2015 seasons coming to early halts due to serious injury, Smith and Jack are still widely considered to be worthy of top-10 picks. Once they hit the field in training camp this fall, it won't take long for fans to figure out why.

Pair of Franchise Tackles Could Challenge for Top Pick

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    The Tennessee Titans already have their franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota, but protecting him could be their mission if they keep the top overall pick. If that's the case, they'll have two blue-chip protectors to choose from in Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil and Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley.

    Tunsil was suspended for a large chunk of the 2015 season due to an investigation into alleged improper benefits, but he returned to prove himself as one of the best linemen in the country over the second half of the year. He's incredibly athletic for his size—6'5", 305 pounds—and hasn't even scratched the surface of his potential.

    Stanley could have made a strong case for being the top tackle in the 2015 draft, but he chose to return to South Bend for another season. He put together another strong campaign for the Irish, doing nothing to diminish his draft stock. He's a fluid blocker with great technique and intelligence and will be a plug-and-play starter at the next level.

    If your team misses out on either, don't fret. Instant starters like Ohio State's Taylor Decker and Indiana's Jason Spriggs can be had later in the first round.

From Big Ten Banished to Draft's Top Pass-Rusher?

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    Noah Spence was one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the country coming out of high school, and he showed plenty of promise in his first season at Ohio State.

    However, multiple failed drug tests eventually got him ruled permanently ineligible from the Big Ten, forcing him to sit at home and watch as the Buckeyes mounted their national title run in 2014.

    That lit a fire in Spence, who transferred to Eastern Kentucky and dominated in 2015, racking up 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. He then put on a show at this year's Senior Bowl, dominating some of the top competition in the country all week long in Mobile, Alabama.

    Spence has kept himself clean since leaving Ohio State and has taken full responsibility for his past mistakes, as Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports outlined. He's said and done all the right things so far this year and has re-established himself as a top prospect in this draft class. Spence is arguably this year's best pure edge-rusher, which could end up earning him a top-10 selection and a chance to continue his redemption story.