It’s premature to say that any prospect in the country has the “bust” label written all over them as they embark on their journey to the National Football League. All of the top eligible prospects at major universities are premier athletes and outstanding football players; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there or mentioned as potential high-round selections next April.
However, there are certain factors that exist in a prospect’s attributes, background or play on the field that reveal a potential bust label. Many of these dynamics are brought out during the draft process, where NFL teams get an opportunity to observe all of the top draft-eligible prospects.
Today, I’ll highlight 10 prospects who are eligible for the 2012 NFL Draft and anoint them, for a variety of reasons, as players who have “bust” written all over them.
Widely recognized as a top-five talent in the nation, Quinton Coples has likely heard the comparisons to former North Carolina star and current Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. While that comparison has some merit since they attended the same university and possess similar attributes, on the field is where the comparison doesn’t measure up.
Coples is a good player and has great upside as a pass rusher, which was displayed during his junior campaign in 2010, when he recorded 10 sacks. But, like many pass rushing defensive ends, he’s extremely streaky and can disappear for games at a time.
Due to injuries along the defensive line, Coples lined up primarily at defensive tackle last season and was able to exploit the opposition with his quickness and ability to penetrate. However, he’s off to a slow start this year, and through four games, has recorded just two sacks, which came in the Tar Heels' opener against James Madison.
The major problem with Coples' game is his technique. He’s an impressive physical specimen who has God given athleticism, but he’s only in his second year as a starter and is still learning the nuances of the defensive end position. For Coples to become a complete player, he has to use his hands more effectively and play lower to gain leverage against the opposition.
Peppers was also considered to be a raw prospect who had freakish physical gifts and the upside to be great, but it’s always a risky venture to draft a player in the Top Five of the draft solely on potential.
If Coples ends up in the right system, preferably a 4-3 defense with a team on the rise, he could live up to the Peppers hype, but if he ends up with a dismal team that has a sketchy future, he could be a disappointment, such as former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick (eighth overall in 2008) Derrick Harvey.
Riley Reiff is one of the top offensive tackles in the country and will be a first-round pick, if he declares for the draft. But, while he’s primarily played left tackle at Iowa, NFL personnel will view Reiff as a right tackle prospect and possibly, at some point, a guard.
It’s that realization that could ultimately propel Reiff as a bust down the line.
Over the years, Iowa has produced first-round offensive linemen; Robert Gallery and Bryan Bulaga being the most recent. Reiff has a lot in common with Gallery and Bulaga — he’s technically sound, physically gifted and has starred at left tackle for the Hawkeyes for more than two years, despite being best suited in the NFL at another position along the offensive line.
Reiff is not as athletic as Gallery, but he’s similar to Bulaga, who left Iowa after his junior year, which Reiff could also do after this season. Reiff won’t get selected nearly as high as Gallery did in the 2004 draft (second overall), who didn’t live up to expectations, and could go prior to the 23rd overall pick where Bulaga was drafted at in 2010.
The need for offensive tackles, especially left tackles, in the NFL is at an all-time high. Reiff will benefit from that, but if a team is desperate for a LT and selects Reiff, they should pay attention to the career path of his predecessors.
It’s been a while since Clemson developed a productive NFL defensive lineman, the last one being Trevor Pryce, who was drafted in the first-round in 1997. Since Pryce was drafted in the opening frame, only one other Tigers defensive lineman was drafted in the first round, the late Gaines Adams.
At 6’2”, 310 pounds, Brandon Thompson is a hot prospect within scouting circles, and in many of them, he’s gaining steam as the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the nation and is expected to be a first-round pick.
Thompson is a good penetrator and is solid against the run, but he’s a bit of a hot and cold defender and rarely generates sacks. However, the leverage he gains against the opposition allows him to be disruptive against the run and will rack up tackles for a loss.
He will draw comparisons to former Illinois and current San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who didn’t produce many sacks in college either, but was a TFL terror and ended up being selected 18th overall this year.
It will help Thompson that the defensive tackle class scheduled to be available next April is lackluster, and since Thompson offers a versatile frame and game scheme, he will be in high demand, but buyer beware.
There isn’t a more consistent and reliable performer in college football than Luke Kuechly. He’s the type of defender and leader that any team in the NFL would covet, and there’s a strong possibility that he will turn out to be a star.
However, when I observe him on tape, there are striking similarities between Kuechly and another tackling machine that once starred at Colorado, former Detroit Lions second-round disappointment Jordan Dizon.
The two collegiate tackling terrors are close in stature, lined up at inside linebacker at their respective universities and amassed an astronomical amount of tackles. Due to his size constraints, Dizon moved to outside linebacker in the NFL, which could also be the case for Kuechly, depending on a team’s defensive philosophy.
Injuries were the downfall to Dizon’s career with the Lions, and even though Kuechly hasn’t suffered a significant injury thus far in his career, the wear and tear his body has endured at Boston College could work against him at the next level.
As physically imposing as any receiver in the nation, Jeff Fuller has the size, deceptive speed and catching radius that scouts look for in a reliable target. But, while he’s posted tremendous numbers for the Aggies during his career, Fuller shouldn’t be confused with being a game breaker; he’s likely to become a possession receiver at the next level.
It all comes down to separation for Fuller. There are games where he is electrifying and makes plays over the middle, down the field, everywhere. But then there are other games where he doesn’t get off the line cleanly and struggles to separate from defenders.
Scouts will be interested to see Fuller’s timed speed in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. It will be from that time that they will get a better sense of what they’re viewing on film.
There are many teams that need young playmaking wide receivers, and if Fuller tests out well this offseason, he will be a first-round pick. But, unless he’s in the right offense where his strengths are utilized, don’t expect Fuller to live up to his collegiate success.
Cliff Harris is one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the country, and can change the face of a game on a single play with his read and recognition skills, ball hawk ability and impact as a return specialist. But, as extraordinary as his talent is, the off-the-field concerns surrounding Harris will affect where he’s selected next year.
Unfortunately, Harris has a past that will trigger many questions from NFL teams this offseason, that’s if he decides to forgo his senior year, which seems likely.
Prior to Harris even stepping foot on a football field in Eugene as Oregon’s top high school recruit in 2009, he was arrested and charged with a felony assault, and earlier this summer he was cited and clocked at 118 MPH in a 65 MPH speed zone and was driving with a suspended license.
If Harris can behave off of the field and concentrate on football, he’s a first-round talent who can do exceptional things for an organization. But, if his past surfaces again and continues to be a trend, comparisons to Adam “Pacman” Jones, who possessed similar attributes and ability coming out of West Virginia, won’t be far behind.
There are similarities between Janoris Jenkins and Cliff Harris on and off the field. They’re explosive, playmaking cornerbacks who have the skill set to be cornerstones of an NFL defense and the talent to be high first-round draft picks, but have battled various off the field instances that could hamper their draft status.
Anytime a player has been involved in multiple offenses away from the field, especially anything dealing with substance abuse, physical violence or inappropriate conduct, it will draw a red flag from organizations and increase one’s bust factor.
Like Harris, Jenkins was also arrested in 2009 for his involvement in a fight, an ordeal that resulted in him being placed on six months probation. Earlier this year, Jenkins was arrested for marijuana possession in two separate instances occurring less than three months apart. The latest incident, which happened in April, resulted in Jenkins’ dismal from the University of Florida and his transfer to Division-II North Alabama.
So far, the change of scenery to North Alabama has done Jenkins well, and he’s performed up to expectations. But this offseason is crucial for him and will determine the next turn in his journey.
Another factor in determining if a prospect will ultimately be a bust is if he has trouble staying on the field. Injuries are always a concern; if a player can’t stay on the field and produce up to a certain level that matches his draft status, then it’s only natural to label that player a bust.
And as dominant as Dont’a Hightower can be when he’s on the field, he’s also displayed a vulnerability to succumbing to injuries, which could force him out of the first-round and give teams pause about his future at the next level.
During the 2009 season, Hightower played in just four games after he suffered a torn ACL to his left knee. He returned to the field in 2010, but wore a brace on his left knee, which limited his mobility and affected the way he played.
Hightower has played well this season and currently leads Alabama in tackles with 25. This is an important year for Hightower to show scouts that his knee is 100 percent and that he’s back to his original form.
There’s nothing small about Kelechi Osemele. Everything about the 6’5”, 347-pound mauler screams “large and in charge.” But as dominant as he’s been for the Cyclones primarily playing left tackle, what scouts will have to decide is does his frame, foot speed and technique translate well to the left side, or will a move to right tackle or, even worse for his draft stock, guard, be in his future?
If the latter is the conclusion, which seems most likely, it’s hard to say where Osemele will be drafted and how he will fair at the next level.
As a prospect, Osemele compares favorably to former Pitt standout and current Carolina Panthers right tackle Jeff Otah. Like Osemele, Otah started at left tackle during his two years at Pitt, but due to his size and questionable athleticism, he was immediately moved to right tackle.
The good news for Osemele is that Otah was selected 19th overall in 2008, which is probably the area where teams would consider drafting him next year.
Unfortunately, Otah’s career has been marred by injuries, and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy to become a consistent force. Osemele has been dealing with a sprained ankle as of late, but he’s displayed toughness and has played through it.
With big offensive linemen who are limited athletically, injuries are always a concern. Hopefully, Osemele will stay away from lingering ailments and prove to be a force in the NFL.
Michigan State hasn’t had a rich history at the quarterback position; names such as Drew Stanton, Jeff Smoker, Tony Banks and Jim Miller don’t suggest that current Spartans signal caller Kirk Cousins will have much success at the next level.
And while he has a different style from the aforementioned MSU alumnus, the track record at the position is undoubtedly underwhelming, and the bust potential exists.
The 6’3”, 205-pound Cousins is recognized in some scouting circles as the No. 1 senior quarterback in next year’s draft and is projected to be a second-round pick. Cousins has posted some solid numbers to justify that standing, but as a prospect, he lacks prototypical size, isn’t a standout athlete and has to improve his footwork, which contributes to his inconsistent accuracy.
In a league that’s desperate for potential franchise quarterbacks, Cousins could develop into one, but the odds are against him.
Chris Steuber is the NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. In addition to his role with Bleacher Report, Steuber serves as Director of Player Personnel for the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. He’s previously served as NFL Draft Analyst for Scout.com and Fox Sports, as well as NFLDraftScout.com in conjunction with CBS Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisSteuber.