10 Most Ready NFL Players Who Aren't Eligible for 2016 Draft

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2015

10 Most Ready NFL Players Who Aren't Eligible for 2016 Draft

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    Leonard Fournette could fit into an NFL backfield right now.
    Leonard Fournette could fit into an NFL backfield right now.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It's never too early to start thinking about the NFL draft. The draft has evolved into a yearlong process, with one draft barely ending before we're inundated with the next year's mock drafts (which are, of course, extra accurate a full year out from the actual draft!). Here's an very early 2017 mock draft from Bill Bender of the Sporting News

    Point is, people love to talk about the draft, and we're no different. This fall, every big performance will fuel chatter and speculation about whether this will be the last time we see an early-entry candidate before they head to the NFL.

    Some players, however, won't hear that chatter. After all, you have to be three years removed from high school graduation to declare for the NFL draft, and many talented sophomores won't reach that benchmark this fall.

    Here's a look at the most NFL-ready players who aren't eligible for the 2016 NFL draft.

Tennessee Volunteers DE Derek Barnett

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    Derek Barnett got consistent pressure on SEC quarterbacks in 2014.
    Derek Barnett got consistent pressure on SEC quarterbacks in 2014.Wade Payne/Associated Press

    2014 was a breakthrough season for the Tennessee Volunteers. Following some dark years with Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley in charge, the Volunteers appeared to turn a corner in Butch Jones' second season, rallying to make the Taxslayer Bowl and ripping Iowa 45-28 for a 7-6 season.

    The Vols inspired confidence because of the extreme youth on their roster, much of it very talented. One of the most interesting new pieces was freshman defensive end Derek Barnett. Despite facing a tough SEC schedule, Barnett was consistently productive, piling up 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles.

    Barnett has optimal size, standing 6’3” and 268 pounds, and has great speed as an edge-rusher. With an improved Tennessee defensive line this fall, he should be even more free to terrorize opposing quarterbacks and improve his pro stock.

Baylor Bears WR KD Cannon

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    KD Cannon made his share of big plays for the Baylor Bears offense last fall.
    KD Cannon made his share of big plays for the Baylor Bears offense last fall.Brandon Wade/Associated Press/Associated Press

    This fall, Art Briles must find a way to replace Bryce Petty as the Baylor Bears' starting quarterback. That's a daunting task, but it's made easier for likely starter Seth Russell, given the talent the Bears have returning, including a pair of 1,000-yard receivers.

    Sophomore receiver KD Cannon had an excellent debut season in 2014, catching 58 passes for 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns. Cannon stands 6’0” and 175 pounds and has excellent deep speed, making him a perfect fit in Baylor's wide-open offense.

    Cannon closed strong with eight catches for 197 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl, but he could become more consistent. He had four games with at least 124 yards receiving and six games with less than 40. However, there's little doubt he'll be an impact receiver in the NFL.

Georgia Bulldogs RB Nick Chubb

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    Nick Chubb made a powerful impact on the Georgia Bulldogs' backfield last fall.
    Nick Chubb made a powerful impact on the Georgia Bulldogs' backfield last fall.Nell Redmond/Associated Press/Associated Press

    A year ago at this time, Nick Chubb was just a member of the Georgia Bulldogs' crowded offensive backfield.

    As the Bulldogs prepare for 2015, his status has changed significantly. Now, Chubb is the man. A four-game NCAA suspension for accepting payment for his autograph and an ACL tear truncated Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley's successful season (he was still the No. 10 overall pick in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams), but it allowed Chubb to break out.

    Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns and rolled up eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games, the first Georgia player to do so since Herschel Walker. He also finished with a flourish, rushing for 266 yards and two touchdowns in a Belk Bowl rout of Louisville. It was the second-highest single-game rushing total in UGA history behind (you guessed it) Walker, who gashed the Vanderbilt Commodores for 283 yards in 1980.

    Chubb is a force at 5’10” and 228 pounds. He has the power to bowl over opposing tacklers and the speed to avoid them. As the top dawg in Georgia's backfield this fall, his numbers and NFL stock should only improve.

Oregon Ducks RB Royce Freeman

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    Royce Freeman was a workhorse for the Oregon Ducks offense last fall.
    Royce Freeman was a workhorse for the Oregon Ducks offense last fall.Doug Benc/Associated Press/Associated Press

    This fall, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Oregon Ducks' program will be the replacement for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. But there's no doubt that whoever emerges as the Ducks' starting QB—Jeff Lockie or Eastern Washington Eagles transfer Vernon Adams—will have a strong backfield to lean on.

    That backfield is led by sophomore Royce Freeman. Freeman made a name for himself as a true freshman last fall, rushing for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. Freeman, who stands 6’1” and 229 pounds, leads a deep group that also includes Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.

    The Oregon offense is based around the power-run game, and Freeman is poised to lead it. He has a special blend of power and speed and will be an enticing target for pro teams looking for a workhorse tailback.

LSU Tigers RB Leonard Fournette

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    Leonard Fournette has an enticing blend of power and speed.
    Leonard Fournette has an enticing blend of power and speed.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    If you're talking about NFL-ready players, there may be no tailback in college football who more looks the part than LSU Tigers sophomore Leonard Fournette. Fournette began last season as the consensus No. 1 overall recruit, per 247Sports, but got off to a quiet start.

    However, he finished very strong, ending his freshman campaign with 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Along with Georgia's Chubb, he is the top tailback in the SEC and one of the best in college football right now.

    Fournette stands 6’1” and 230 pounds and possesses an excellent blend of power, size and speed. And he's only getting better. With an offseason of development behind him, the talented sophomore should take another big step forward in 2015, making himself even more appealing to NFL teams in need of a powerful backfield presence.

Texas A&M Aggies DE Myles Garrett

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    Myles Garrett made a huge impact in his first season on the Texas A&M Aggies' defensive line.
    Myles Garrett made a huge impact in his first season on the Texas A&M Aggies' defensive line.Associated Press

    Four years ago, Jadeveon Clowney burst onto the SEC defensive scene, piling up eight sacks and setting an SEC freshman record. Clowney, of course, went on to big things as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft before an injury-plagued rookie season.

    Last fall, Myles Garrett blew past that record. The Texas A&M Aggies' dynamic defensive end finished his freshman season with 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 11.0 sacks. He set an A&M single-game freshman record with 3.5 sacks against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks and showed why he should be considered as one of college football's top pass-rushers.

    Garrett has tremendous size at 6’5” and 255 pounds and blends it with great speed and edge-rush skills. It'll be interesting to see how new A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis deploys him and how he improves with an offseason of development under his belt, but he certainly has NFL scouts drooling in anticipation.

USC Trojans CB Adoree' Jackson

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    Adoree' Jackson fit in all over the field for the USC Trojans in 2014.
    Adoree' Jackson fit in all over the field for the USC Trojans in 2014.Harry How/Getty Images

    In 2014, Adoree’ Jackson established himself as one of college football's most versatile players. The USC Trojans freshman did a little bit of everything. He started at cornerback. He caught passes. He was an impact kick returner.

    In fact, the biggest question for NFL teams watching might be: Where does he fit in best?

    For now, Jackson appears to have cornerback as his primary role. He stands 5’11” and 185 pounds and has decent size for that position. He locked down a starting corner job by midseason and made 10 pass breakups. He also had 10 receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown, keyed by a 71-yard catch-and-run score against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl and averaged 29.7 yards per return with a pair of long kick return touchdowns.

    He isn't shying away from the spotlight either, telling Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News that he has two major awards in his sights.

    “I want to win the Heisman,” Jackson said. “I want to win the Thorpe (Award, given to the nation's top defensive back) and the Heisman.”

    Jackson has excellent speed and overall athletic ability. He could be a great college cornerback, but there's no question he'll fit in at the NFL level sooner rather than later.

Ohio State Buckeyes LB Darron Lee

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    Darron Lee was a huge force for the Ohio State Buckeyes defense in 2014.
    Darron Lee was a huge force for the Ohio State Buckeyes defense in 2014.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Darron Lee took an unconventional path to stardom, but it has worked out well for him. Lee arrived on Ohio State's campus weighing 195 pounds but now stands 6’2” and 230 pounds and will be a key cog as an outside linebacker this fall.

    Lee played multiple positions, including quarterback, in high school. He has developed into a difference-making linebacker with excellent athleticism. Last fall, he played a key role in the Ohio State Buckeyes' drive for the College Football Playoff National Championship, making 81 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss.

    He's on track to be the Buckeyes' next NFL linebacker, without question. 

Oklahoma Sooners RB Samaje Perine

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    Samaje Perine ran over plenty of tacklers last fall in his first season with the Oklahoma Sooners.
    Samaje Perine ran over plenty of tacklers last fall in his first season with the Oklahoma Sooners.John Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Last fall, Samaje Perine emerged from a crowded Oklahoma Sooners backfield to become one of college football's most productive backs. The 5’11”, 243-pound back had an incredible season, rushing for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

    Perine was the latest in a long line of standout Oklahoma tailbacks, running with power and speed and bowling over tacklers. He set the FBS single-game rushing record with 427 yards against the Kansas Jayhawks on Nov. 22, one week after the Wisconsin Badgers' Melvin Gordon set the record at 408 yards.

    It'll be fascinating to see how Perine will be deployed in Lincoln Riley's new pass-happy Air Raid offensive system, but he should get more than his share of carries.

    Regardless, a back with his blend of skills will be enticing for NFL offensive coordinators, no matter his collegiate usage.

Clemson Tigers QB Deshaun Watson

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    Deshaun Watson has the potential to leave the Clemson Tigers early for the NFL draft.
    Deshaun Watson has the potential to leave the Clemson Tigers early for the NFL draft.Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

    Chad Morris must have really thought the SMU Mustangs job was special. For Morris to leave Deshaun Watson behind, it almost had to be. Although Morris spent four years as the Clemson Tigers' offensive coordinator, Watson was his first handpicked starting quarterback, and he made a huge impression in his first season last fall.

    Despite taking time to unseat Cole Stoudt as the starting quarterback and struggling with injuries (a broken finger and a torn ACL) that shortened his season, Watson was a standout when he was on the field. He threw for 1,466 yards with 14 touchdowns against two interceptions and combined excellent mobility with a strong arm.

    In his first start, he tied an ACC record with six touchdown passes and threw for 435 yards in a win over the North Carolina Tar Heels, and he led a rout of the South Carolina Gamecocks, despite playing on a torn ACL.

    Watson needs to prove he can stay healthy, and he could stand to bulk up his 6’2”, 205-pound frame. But there's no questioning his potential and ceiling. With two more standout seasons under his belt, he'll be a strong candidate to enter the 2017 NFL draft.