2016 NFL Mock Draft: Predictions for Next Year's Top Prospects

Daniel Rogers@@DRogOSUFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2015

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs during the first half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Oregon Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero/Associated Press

The 2015 NFL draft might not have reached its finale yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time to look to the future to see what next year’s class is going to look like in the first round.

With so many question marks for teams selecting near the top of the draft this season, odds are things won’t change too drastically heading into next year in terms of where teams finish. However, there are always a few surprises in store, so the final standings are going to look a bit different by this time next year.

But, with the exception of certain team needs, there shouldn’t be too much variation on the players near the top of draft boards. So here are some predictions for the top prospects in the 2016 NFL draft.

2016 NFL Mock Draft
1Tennessee TitansJoey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
2Jacksonville JaguarsLaremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
3Tampa Bay BuccaneersRobert Nkemdiche, DE/DT, Ole Miss
4WashingtonVernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida
5Oakland RaidersRonnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
6Cleveland BrownsCardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
7New York JetsChristian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
8Minnesota VikingsEzekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
9Houston TexansConnor Cook, QB, Michigan State
10Chicago BearsLeonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia
11St. Louis RamsNick Martin, OG, Notre Dame
12San Diego ChargersShawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
13New Orleans SaintsA'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
14Kansas City ChiefsLaquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
15Carolina PanthersDuke Williams, WR, Auburn
16Atlanta FalconsScooby Wright III, LB, Arizona
17San Francisco 49ersTyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
18Miami DolphinsJaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame
19Detroit LionsSpencer Drango, OT, Baylor
20Cincinnati BengalsMyles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA
21Buffalo BillsJared Goff, QB, California
22New York GiantsJalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
23Baltimore RavensKendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
24Arizona CardinalsDerrick Henry, RB, Alabama
25Pittsburgh SteelersNate Andrews, S, Florida State
26Philadelphia EaglesSu'a Cravens, S, USC
27Dallas CowboysJames Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
28Denver BroncosJack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
29Indianapolis ColtsShilique Calhoun, DE/OLB, Michigan State
30Green Bay PackersDarron Lee, OLB, Ohio State
31New England PatriotsMarquez North, WR, Tennessee
32Seattle SeahawksTravin Dural, WR, LSU
Picks by Daniel Rogers

Taking running backs early is the new (old) cool thing

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

For the briefest of stretches, it felt as if Trent Richardson had ruined the first-round running back forever. With teams able to find talented players later in the draft—or even as undrafted free agents—and the league trending away from the running game entirely, things seemed bleak for the traditional tailbacks' hopes of getting taken early.

But then something changed in the landscape of the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys put together a monstrous season with a great offensive line and an emphasis on the running game, which made other teams take notice.

First the Rams took Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft. Then, the Chargers traded away two picks to move up two spots for the right to take Melvin Gordon at No. 15. Just like that, the first-round running back was considered chic and teams could feel comfortable using a high pick on a rusher again.

It is perfect timing because—although admittedly not as deep of a class as the 2015 group—the talent projected to go in the 2016 draft is some of the best the league has seen in years. 

Two backs in particular—Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Alabama’s Derrick Henry—have the potential to be taken in the top 10 or 15 picks depending on the teams selecting early and the seasons they can put together this year.

Elliott looks to be a borderline lock for the top 10 after he put up an average of 232 yards per game during the Buckeyes’ postseason run to a title in 2015:

Beyond those two, though, there is Pittsburgh’s James Conner, a big tough back who could hark back to the days of the 20-30-carry-per-game running back that was the focal point of the offense.

The first-round running back is back and stronger than ever, which could project a shift in how the league itself changes moving forward.

Prediction: Ezekiel Elliott No. 8 to the Minnesota Vikings; Derrick Henry No. 24 to the Arizona Cardinals; James Conner No. 27 to the Dallas Cowboys


The first-round receiver craze continues for another year

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

It wasn’t always like this, right? There were years when wide receiver wasn’t the most stacked position in the draft and any team could still receive an elite prospect even if it took the fifth receiver off the board, right?

The 2014 crop of receivers created a seismic shift in the NFL landscape with the impact on the league, one that carried on to the class of 2015 as well, with teams now looking to their receiver picks as legitimate No. 1 options from day one.

As things stand, the trend of receiver-heavy first rounds looks to continue in 2016, with yet another great group of pass-catchers projected to come out after next season.

Although there isn’t anyone projected quite at the level prospects like Amari Cooper and Sammy Watkins were heading into the draft process, teams will have their pick of any number of skilled players to instantly boost offensive production.

Whether it be Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd, Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, Auburn’s Duke Williams or LSU’s Travin Dural, teams will have their pick of talented receivers in the first 32 selections. Even falling into the second round and beyond, the talent doesn’t take too much of a hit.

Treadwell has perhaps the most intrigue surrounding him after an injury derailed his season in 2014, but a healthy return looks to be on the books to set up a high selection in the 2016 draft:

If he stays healthy all season, Marquez North out of Tennessee could jump into the first round. Miami’s Stacy Coley has speed and could turn a few heads at the combine, and Michael Thomas was a human highlight reel at Ohio State in 2014.

It is unclear how long this influx of receivers into the league is going to last, but for now, teams will be reaping the benefits for at least one more season before things settle back to the norm.

Prediction: Laquon Treadwell No. 14 to the Kansas City Chiefs; Duke Williams No. 15 to the Carolina Panthers; Tyler Boyd No. 17 to the San Francisco 49ers; Marquez North No. 31 to the New England Patriots; Travin Dural No. 32 to the Seattle Seahawks


Big Ten quarterbacks galore

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The 2014 college football postseason was a turning point for the Big Ten after years of scorn and derision.

A national championship, not to mention a number of big wins for the conference’s best teams, made it so the Big Ten had a new level of respect it hadn’t seen since Urban Meyer’s Florida obliterated Ohio State for the title in 2006.

But even in the down years, there was one thing the Big Ten could hang its hat on compared to some of the other Power Five conferences: the number of NFL quarterbacks who plied their trade for one of the Midwestern conference’s members.

There are the elite players, like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, who carry the conference reputation on their shoulders with every Super Bowl win or MVP award. A bit farther down the list, though, there are players who started at some point in 2014, like Kyle Orton, Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton.

Orton is now retired, and neither Hoyer nor Stanton is ever likely to join the game’s elite. Brees and Brady are both reaching the twilight of their careers, but just as the door is closing on the superstar Big Ten quarterbacks, the next crop arrives to take up the slack.

In the 2016 NFL draft, each of the top three quarterbacks is expected to come from the Big Ten and likely won’t fall out of the top 10 picks.

Connor Cook decided to return for one last season at Michigan State to help the Spartans overcome the Buckeyes once again, while Christian Hackenberg looks to put together a successful campaign after disappointing as a sophomore.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, who would have likely been the third quarterback off the board in 2015 had he left, is also back for another season and is perhaps the top prospect of the three despite the chance he isn't the starter next season for the Buckeyes:

None of these players is on the same level as Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota this year in terms of perceived potential, but all three should be high draft picks and could signal a new age of Big Ten quarterback dominance in the league.

It has been quite a year for the Big Ten, and that trend doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

Prediction: Cardale Jones No. 6 to the Cleveland Browns; Christian Hackenberg No. 7 to the New York Jets; Connor Cook No. 9 to the Houston Texans