2016 NFL Combine: This Year's Biggest Boom-or-Bust Prospects

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2016

2016 NFL Combine: This Year's Biggest Boom-or-Bust Prospects

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    Officially, the NFL Scouting Combine has already kicked off. Day-by-day, different position groups come in for their initial weigh-ins, but not a single player has yet to run a 40-yard dash.

    With the NFL's world fixated on the draft, though, this seemed like the perfect time to bring up some of the more volatile prospects in the 2016 class. You'll hear about "safe" players or prospects with "high floors" throughout the draft process, so we'll take the opportunity to list seven of the biggest boom or bust candidates.

    These players are either scheme specific, have off-field issues or were underdeveloped at the college level. All of them have Pro Bowl potential, and many of them will go in the first round, but some of the traits they possess keep them from being considered "locks" to even be consistent starters at the next level.

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

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    The closer we get to the draft, the more Christian Hackenberg will be talked about. If his name rings a bell, it should. The Penn State product was once considered the next big quarterback, just to fall to the same fate as Logan Thomas and Jevan Snead.

    While Bill O'Brien, now the Houston Texans head coach, was grooming Hackenberg during his freshman season, he looked great. After that one year, though, the NFL came knocking, and O'Brien answered. Hackenberg's statistics took a drop, and when he declared, he thanked just about everyone other than James Franklin, who was the head coach of the Nittany Lions for his sophomore and junior seasons.

    At the combine weigh-in, he measured in at 6'4" and 223 pounds, prototypical for a quarterback. He has the arm, the pedigree and the looks of a premier quarterback, but his wild accuracy post-O'Brien has some cautious. While everyone is making a big deal about Jared Goff's hand size, Hackenberg also measured in with 9" hands, on the small side for a quarterback.

    Teams may correlate his hand size with inaccuracy issues, but interviews will play a big part of Hackenberg's draft stock, which will be built around why he fell off under Franklin's guidance. Luckily, his other former head coach is sticking up for him publicly, per Dan Parr of NFL.com.

    On Thursday, O'Brien wasn't interested in offering a draft projection for Hackenberg, but he did give a full-throated endorsement of his character.

    "First of all, he's a great kid," O'Brien said. "He comes from a great family. We enjoyed recruiting him. I've known him since he was 17 years old, when he was at Fork Union (Military Academy). I've known him for a long time. I know his parents, his brothers. He's a humble kid. He's talented, smart. Good guy to be around and I enjoyed coaching him his first year at Penn State." 

Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech

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    Le'Raven Clark was a Freshman All-American for Texas Tech, but the bookend prospect was never really given a chance to grow. His Air Raid offense's protection scheme is based off of bailing at the line of scrimmage in order to force the defense to declare their stunt packages before contact is made, which is very different from a traditional NFL-style offense.

    Clark did thrive at times, but there were other circumstances in which he looked like a train wreck. Watching him firsthand at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, forced raised eyebrows, for both good and bad reasons.

    The only player he could consistently beat one-on-one was a struggling Shawn Oakman from Baylor, another fallen star who went from a blue-chip recruit at Penn State, to a meme based off of his junior bowl game at Baylor, to finishing his career very quietly.

    Other times, though, you'd think that if Clark played in the Southeastern Conference for a team like Alabama, Florida or Georgia, he'd be at least a top-45 pick based on God-given talent and pedigree alone. Coming in at the combine with arms over 36" and with hands at nearly 12", he's already making the case for a team to use an early selection on the raw prospect.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

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    Slot receivers can be tricky to pin down. Yes, we're in an era when we've never seen more talent at the position, but some of the biggest stars at the position are either undrafted players or products of their respective systems. Look at the New England Patriots, for example. They'll just find a new slot receiver out of the bargain bin twice a decade and call it good.

    Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma tops everyone's slot receiver list coming into the combine. Standing at 5'10", he's not going to be physically imposing like some of the "jumbo slot" hybrids in the league, but that doesn't mean that he won't be a threat to be the best in the NFL at the position one day.

    He plays very similarly to Randall Cobb, who just signed the biggest contract for a slot receiver with the Green Bay Packers last offseason.

    The problem with investing a lot in a slot receiver is that you can manufacture touches for slot targets, regardless of talent level, and that if you want said slot receiver to have an impact, you have to feed him the football often. He's not going to be making those sky-touching end-zone grabs or breaking through tackles naturally, so for him to earn a high value, the offense basically has to run through the slot.

    Space players need the ball in space, and that takes extra effort. This is one reason why Tavon Austin's career hasn't gone exactly as planned, until the Rams built their entire offense around Austin as a counter and end around-threat.

    Shepard is a great football player, but unless a team stresses the importance of the slot position, and they don't have a capable body on the roster, it's hard to imagine him meeting his potential. In the right scheme, though, he could be a Pro Bowl talent. He's a quality prospect who needs the right home.

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Mississippi

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    Robert Nkemdiche can be Ndamukong Suh if he's fully motivated on football, which seems to have been his issue the entire time he was at Mississippi. He was looked at as a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school, but he rarely performed like it consistently.

    The exceptions were when he faced tough teams like Alabama, when he knew the country was watching. The defensive tackle had an odd career, as it seemed like he approached college football almost like a prison, just staring at the clock, waiting for his three years to be up, before he was allowed to go play NFL football.

    The problem is, on top of his on-field inconsistencies, he ended his college career with a bowl-game suspension due to a marijuana charge. His meetings with teams in one-on-one situations will be crucial to where he goes in the draft. Sure, he's a freak-athlete defensive lineman, but so was a player like Ra'Shede Hageman, whom the Atlanta Falcons picked up in the early second round in 2014.

    If Nkemdiche can't convince NFL teams that he'll stay out of trouble, and that he'll be more focused on the game once a seven-digit check clears, he's toast. A lot is riding on this week for the future NFL under tackle.

D.J. Reader, DL, Clemson

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    For a player who was a captain in the national championship, D.J. Reader is hardly talked about. This is in part due to two other Clemson defensive linemen, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, who led the FBS in tackles for losses and are stealing the limelight. Still, Reader's potential as a nose tackle prospect is interesting.

    The defensive linemen have yet to weigh in at the combine, but Reader is known as a jumbo tackle. At the Senior Bowl, he was 340 pounds on a 6'3"-flat frame, according to Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting. He also moves very, very well for someone that size. He's no Dontari Poe, but there aren't 32 320-plus-pound defensive linemen with his feet at the NFL level.

    Reader, the former baseball athlete, is still only a 21-year-old, despite seeing playing time for four years at Clemson. The reason he's not being talked about as a young, physically talented prospect is because he missed the first two months of the 2015 regular season mourning the passing of his father. It wasn't until late October against the Miami Hurricanes, in a 58-0 blowout victory, that he returned to the field.

    Teams will interview Reader to check on where he is mentally, and if he's able to play football for 16 games in 2016. If he's ready to return to the sport full-time, and he tests well this week, he has Day 2 potential.

Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky

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    If you don't know the story of Noah Spence by now, you've been living under a rock. The pass-rushing prospect was at Ohio State early on in his career, appearing to be on track as a potential top-10 pick. After two failed drug tests, though, he was suspended by the Big Ten, which meant he had to find a new home in college football.

    He transferred to Eastern Kentucky, where he hasn't had any reported off-field issues. There, he dominated the in-state Kentucky Wildcats, a Southeastern Conference team. After 2015, he participated in the Senior Bowl, where he again looked like the best player on the field alongside some of the FBS' best.

    Last week, Randy Gregory was suspended four games by the NFL due to failed drug tests. This comes almost one year after Dion Jordan, the former third overall pick, was suspended for the entire season. With that being said, the Kansas City Chiefs relished in taking Justin Houston, who failed a combine drug test, in the third round.

    Players with off-field concerns can be some of the biggest boom-or-bust candidates around. Behind closed doors, Spence will need to convince teams that he's still worth a top-10 pick and that he has his act together.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson

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    Though Mackensie Alexander is short, he has yet to measure in at the combine, as the defensive backs are the last group to show up to Indianapolis. Still, his likely 5'10"-and-change height isn't even his biggest flaw.

    In his two years starting at Clemson, he didn't register an interception, a crucial statistic. In today's NFL, teams want cornerbacks to be lengthy and have ball skills. Alexander represents a raw talent who really doesn't have either of those traits.

    Alexander was a super recruit, playing in the Army All-American game coming out of high school, and after his redshirt season of 2013, he earned a Freshman All-American nod. From there, he was an All-ACC cornerback in 2015. At the college level, other than catching the football, there was very little left for Alexander to prove.

    He may be the most athletic of the cornerbacks at the combine, but he will not participate in drills, according to Rand Getlin of NFL Network. Alexander could be the top cornerback of this class or go down in the book as a slot back during his NFL career. Teams drafting in the first round will need to weigh the risk and reward of a defensive back with Alexander's traits.