Ohio State Football: Buckeyes' Top 2016 NFL Draft Prospects

David Regimbal@davidreg412Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2015

Ohio State Football: Buckeyes' Top 2016 NFL Draft Prospects

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Ohio State is going to dominate the 2016 NFL draft. 

    That fact became abundantly clear in the 2015 draft, as the Buckeyes—fresh off their run through the first-ever College Football Playoff—failed to produce a first-round pick and only had five players taken overall.

    It's not that Ohio State isn't talented—it's that a majority of its top NFL prospects will be back in Columbus this season.

    That gives head coach Urban Meyer loads of talent as he prepares the Buckeyes for their title defense. His team could have as many as five players taken in the first round next year, with underclassmen such as Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott leading the way.

    Here's an early look at the NFL talent who will be lighting it up for Ohio State this fall. 

Joey Bosa

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    The NFL places a premium on pass-rushers—and every team in the league would love to have a J.J. Watt-type of player to anchor their defensive lines.

    Junior defensive end Joey Bosa has that potential, and if he puts together another productive season for the Buckeyes, he'll guarantee himself a spot in the top five of next year's draft.

    In fact, he has the opportunity to play his way into being the No. 1 overall pick next spring.

    That's the case that Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod made on Friday. Bosa has the size (6'6", 275 lbs), speed and work ethic that NFL teams love, and his stats through two collegiate seasons are almost identical to former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney's. 

    The difference between him and Clowney, though, could come during Bosa's junior season. The Buckeyes are excited about weak-side defensive end Tyquan Lewis and his ability to serve as an effective counterpunch to Bosa this season. If that's the case, teams won't be able to aim their blocking schemes toward Bosa as much, which could result in some big numbers for Ohio State's budding superstar.

Cardale Jones

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Cardale Jones turned down the NFL draft last January in favor of returning to Ohio State's over-crowded quarterback room. And after just seven signal-callers were taken in last week's draft, it's fair to say he could have been a high choice had he elected to go pro.

    But he returned to Columbus for the opportunity to win the starting job and lead the Buckeyes on another run through the College Football Playoff. He was the only fully healthy quarterback among the Buckeyes' three elite options—Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett are still rehabbing after season-ending surgeries—giving him the inside track to win college football's most intriguing position battle.

    If he locks down that spot and shows NFL scouts that last year's postseason run wasn't a fluke, he could be the first quarterback off the board in 2016. 

    His arm strength and ability to stand in the pocket will make him a coveted prospect regardless of this year's outcome, but he could improve his stock drastically if he can prove that he has staying power. 

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller believes Jones has what it takes and projects him as the No. 12 overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in next year's draft.

Ezekiel Elliott

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Just when it looked like running backs were losing their value in the draft, a pair of 2015 studs changed everything.

    Only one year removed from running backs being shut out of the first round, Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon were both selected in the top 15 last week (Gurley went 10th overall; Gordon went 15th). 

    That's big news for Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, who's coming off of a three-game postseason tear after ripping Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon for 696 yards and eight touchdowns. He's the leading returning rusher in college football, and he'll be the best running back in the 2016 draft class if he forgoes his senior season.

    How high could Elliott climb?

    In Matt Miller's 2016 mock draft, he has Elliott going No. 4 overall to the Oakland Raiders. That would be the highest a running back was selected since 2012, when the Cleveland Browns took Trent Richardson with the third overall pick. 

Taylor Decker

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    Ohio State hasn't had an offensive lineman selected in the first round since the New York Jets selected Nick Mangold with the 29th overall pick in 2006.

    Taylor Decker stands the best chance of ending that streak in 2016.

    The 6'8", 315-pound left tackle anchored the Buckeyes' bruising offensive line a season ago—a unit that surged down the stretch and led the way for the team's surprising postseason run. He has prototypical size for a tackle in the NFL and exceeds as both a pass- and run-blocker. 

    He offers versatility as well. In 2013, Decker was the Buckeyes' right tackle and played very well as the only non-senior member of the unit. Ohio State moved him over to left tackle leading up to the 2014 season, and he thrived, showing that he's a quick learner and up for new challenges. 

    He would have to have a sensational senior season to crack the top 10, but as of now, he's a safe bet to be taken in the latter part of the first round. 

Darron Lee

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    At this time last year, Buckeyes fans were just hearing about Darron Lee, a quarterback-turned-linebacker who was shooting up Ohio State's depth chart in spring practice.

    A year from now, those same fans could be hearing his name called on opening night of the 2016 draft.

    Lee was Ohio State's breakout defensive star in 2014, ranking third on the team in total tackles (81) and second in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (7.5). He was the Buckeyes' most disruptive defender outside of Joey Bosa and was an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses when he came off the edge as a blitzer.

    But beyond that, Lee showed the ability to be in the right spot at the right time. He scored on a 61-yard fumble recovery in Ohio State's season opener, and he made plays like that consistently throughout the season.

    He did all that as a first-year starter and a redshirt freshman. With another year in the weight room, he could snag All-American honors this year before declaring early for the draft.

The Best of the Rest

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Maybe even more impressive than Ohio State's first-round talent is the group of players who project as high second- to mid-round selections. 

    There are second-round prospects such as wide receiver Michael Thomas, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and defensive backs Vonn Bell and Eli Apple. Then there are mid-round guys such as tight end Nick Vannett, guard Pat Elflein, linebacker Joshua Perry and safety Tyvis Powell. And it's not a stretch to imagine receiver Corey Smith and nose tackle Tommy Schutt sliding into the later rounds after solid senior seasons. 

    And then there's that Braxton Miller guy. He's pretty good, too.

    If you're counting at home, Ohio State could potentially send 16 players to next year's draft.

    That is an insane amount of talent to have on one college football team. And here's a scary thought for Ohio State's competition—those are just the players in Ohio State's starting rotation.

    David Regimbal is the Ohio State football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.