Under-the-Radar 2016 Draft Prospects Who Could Break out This Season
Summer is time for preseason watch lists, where media and NFL scouting departments alike begin compiling databases of players to watch during the upcoming college football season. These are not only for determining the winners of college football’s annual awards but also for evaluating who the top prospects could be in the 2016 NFL draft.
There are some players, projected to be college football stars this year and in the NFL next year, whom you will find on virtually all of those lists. But as is the case with every draft, the 2016 class will surely also include players who emerge from obscurity to position themselves as top prospects by the end of the season.
Heading into the 2015 college football season, none of the players on the following slides are nationally known household names. All of them, however, have the talent to potentially be standouts among the top 2016 draft prospects at their respective positions.
In an effort to highlight players who truly deserve more attention than they are getting, prospects included in the top-50 preseason big board of Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, top-25 preseason big board of ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and initial 2016 mock draft by ESPN’s Todd McShay were not considered for inclusion.
Preference for the forthcoming selections was given to players who were not included within Miller’s top-10 positional rankings and Kiper’s top-fives by position, but players included on only one of those two lists were not eliminated from consideration.
While the true under-the-radar prospects of the 2016 draft might not be discernible until the upcoming season actually begins, the following list would be a good place to start if you’re looking to get a jump on identifying who the breakout stars of the class will be.
Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis, Junior
Because of the spotlight on the position they play, potential top prospects at the quarterback position tend not to stay under the radar for very long.
Two examples of that can be seen in Auburn junior Jeremy Johnson and North Dakota State senior Carson Wentz. Johnson, despite the fact that he has started only two games at the collegiate level, is already being hyped as a potential first-round draft pick based on the physical tools he has displayed in limited action (I, admittedly, am guilty of contributing to the hype). Wentz, even though he plays for a small school, is already generating buzz—at least among Internet draft analysts—as a quarterback who could emerge as a top prospect for 2016.
One quarterback with high upside who has not yet received mainstream attention as a possible breakout prospect, however, is Memphis junior Paxton Lynch.
Listed at 6’7” and 245 pounds, Lynch is a big quarterback who demonstrates the ability to throw the ball with velocity to all levels of the field and through tight windows. He has a crisp throwing delivery and release, and he exhibits the quickness to extend plays with his feet and evade rushers in the pocket.
Lynch’s exclusion from the preseason draft rankings might not be entirely an oversight. He forces some bad throws into coverage and needs to become more consistent with his ball placement. Coming out of a shotgun spread offense, Lynch will need to learn how to drop back from under center; his footwork, as a whole, is sloppy and needs improvement.
Despite those concerns, Lynch’s ability to throw the ball with arm strength, accuracy and anticipation from the pocket should have NFL scouts paying attention. Should he declare for the 2016 draft, Lynch’s physical traits and pocket-passing ability could very well make him one of the first quarterbacks selected, so long as he shows continued improvement this upcoming season.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson, Junior
Clemson has emerged as a factory for productive wide receivers in the past two years, as three wideouts—DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant—have all been drafted and rapidly achieved NFL success. Mike Williams could be next in line.
Although Williams has yet to emerge as a household name, his breakout truly began in 2014, his sophomore season, when he caught 57 passes for a team-leading 1,030 yards and six touchdowns.
If he can take his game to the next level in 2015, he could follow in the footsteps of Hopkins and Watkins by being a first-round pick in the 2016 draft (or 2017, if he stays in school for his senior year).
Listed at 6’4” and 210 pounds, Williams has the frame and strength to box out cornerbacks at the catch point and make contested grabs. That said, he is also a smooth athlete who explodes off the line of scrimmage and is very good at changing direction for a player of his size.
Williams also has a proven ability to make spectacular catches. While you might not recognize the receiver by name yet, you’ve probably seen him on Clemson highlights, as he not only has the tools to get open but also to adjust to the ball and make difficult receptions away from his body.
The recent NFL history of players sharing his namesake who were highly touted draft prospects has not been pretty. The up-and-coming version from Clemson, whom Matt Miller ranked as the No. 10 wide receiver on his preseason board, has the talent to redeem his name for those who have struggled before him.
Tajae Sharpe, WR, Massachusetts, Senior
The University of Massachusetts is not known for being a rich source of NFL talent; since the turn of the century, only one UMass player—2010 second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse—has been selected above the seventh round. That should change in the 2016 draft, in which the Minutemen should have one if not multiple offensive talents selected in the early-to-middle rounds.
UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel would have been a valid choice for this list in his own right. A tall pocket passer, Frohnapfel has the tools to be an NFL signal-caller and could rise up boards quickly if he puts together a strong final season.
The best prospect on the Minutemen, however, is Frohnapfel’s leading wide receiver, Tajae Sharpe.
Coming off a highly productive junior season in which he caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and seven touchdowns, Sharpe has the tools that NFL teams covet at the wide receiver position. Listed at 6’3” and 200 pounds, Sharpe has an explosive release off the line of scrimmage and can also extend plays with his open-field running ability.
Sharpe is a long-limbed pass-catcher who demonstrates the ball skills and body control to make tough catches away from his body. He needs some polish as a route-runner, but altogether, there’s a lot to like about his combination of physical ability and production.
Despite his gaudy numbers, Sharpe has received very little national attention to this point. That’s understandable, given that the Minutemen have won five combined games in his first three years on the team. That said, NFL scouts should be keeping a close eye on Amherst this year, as Sharpe has the talent to emerge as one of the best wideouts in the 2016 draft class.
Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech, Redshirt Sophomore
Recruited to Virginia Tech as a quarterback, Bucky Hodges changed positions after impressing the Hokies coaching staff while mimicking former North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in scout-team work during his redshirt year in 2013, as Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times documented.
Just two years later, with only one season of game experience at tight end under his belt, Hodges has already exhibited the potential to follow in Ebron’s footsteps and be a first-round draft pick.
Hodges is only a redshirt sophomore, which is likely why Matt Miller and Mel Kiper did not include him in their preseason tight end rankings. Yet despite his lack of experience at the position, Hodges has enough talent to possibly break through and be the first tight end selected in the 2016 draft if he declares.
Like Ebron (the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 draft), Hodges is a tremendous athlete who is as much an oversized receiver as he is a true tight end. Able to line up all over the field, Hodges has field-stretching speed that can be a dangerous weapon up the seam but also has the strength to run through tackles and enough elusiveness to make defenders miss.
As you might expect, Hodges’ game remains raw. He has not yet shown much ability to be a blocker, and in the passing game, he is an unrefined route-runner. He also has a blemish on his off-field record, having been arrested for public intoxication in February, though that is unlikely to have a significant effect on his draft stock so long as he avoids future incidents.
Blocking, route-running and maturity are all areas in which Hodges, with a year under his belt, will be expected to improve. His upside, though, is tantalizing. Possessing a truly rare combination of size and athleticism at 6’7” and 242 pounds, while also demonstrating natural ball skills, Hodges has the tools to quickly emerge as a star this fall.
Zach Banner, OT, USC, Redshirt Junior
Although USC right tackle Zach Banner is a raw talent with only one year of starting experience, his physical tools and bloodlines should have NFL teams keeping a close eye on the redshirt junior offensive lineman’s development in 2015.
A true gargantuan of a man at 6’9” and 360 pounds, Banner has tremendous agility for a man of his size. Banner is so long and athletic that he actually spent time on the Trojans basketball team during his freshman year at USC.
His combination of length, mass and nimbleness gives him the potential to be a dominant player on the right edge of an offensive line, just like his biological father, two-time All-Pro selection Lincoln Kennedy.
Given his overwhelming size, you might expect Banner to be at his best as a run-blocker. As CBS Sports’ Rob Rang noted in a preview of USC draft prospects last week, Banner is actually “most effective in pass protection because he's [surprisingly] smooth moving laterally and, of course, is so massive that pass-rushers basically require a toll bridge to get around him in time to affect the quarterback.”
“Like a lot of players with his girth, Banner isn't as effective in the running game because he routinely loses the leverage battle,” Rang wrote. “He certainly can overwhelm defenders at the point of attack and is often capable of simply walling them off from the action but too often smaller players can get under his pads and stand him up.”
Banner needs to improve significantly from a technical standpoint, which is why he is not currently ranked as a top prospect for the 2016 draft. While he exhibits the ability to get out in front of pass-rushers and to overpower defenders, he loses more than he should against physically inferior players due to errors in body positioning and hand usage.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see NFL scouts falling in love with Banner’s potential, so long as he makes some positive progress in 2015. If he enters his name in the 2016 draft, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a team ends up taking a chance on him with a first-round pick.
Kemoko Turay, EDGE, Rutgers, Redshirt Sophomore
One of the most striking recent examples of a top NFL draft prospect emerging from obscurity was Ezekiel Ansah, who turned a breakout 2012 season at BYU—just his third year playing organized football at any level—into a Top Five selection in the 2013 NFL draft.
Rutgers redshirt sophomore edge defender Kemoko Turay, who is similarly inexperienced to Ansah but also has similar physical tools, could end up having a comparable rise to Ansah as a 2016 draft prospect.
Used primarily as a situational pass-rusher by the Scarlet Knights last season, Turay turned in an impressive redshirt freshman campaign, accumulating 7.5 sacks. Turay’s athletic potential was quickly apparent as the long-limbed, 6’6”, 240-pound defensive end displayed excellent burst, quickness and bend, while he also made an impact on special teams with three blocked kicks.
If Turay is going to emerge as a top prospect, he needs to prove that he can be effective as a run-defender. That could require bulking up. He also needs to improve his hand technique as a pass-rusher and become a surer tackler.
At this juncture, Turay looks like a project who would be best suited staying in school for at least two more years. However, his potential is through the roof. The 20-year-old did not play football in his sophomore and junior years of high school, and he should continue to evolve into a more complete, technically sound player as he gains experience.
Should Turay emerge as an every-down player and star on the Rutgers defense this season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he not only declares for the 2016 draft but ends up being a first-round selection.
Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor, Junior
When I wrote earlier this summer about Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson being the 2016 draft’s top defensive tackle heading into next season, it was truly a tough decision to make between Robinson and Baylor’s Andrew Billings. While Robinson is a more stout run-defender and versatile player who is widely projected to be a first-round pick, Billings is a more physically gifted player who deserves to be held in similar regard.
While Shawn Oakman gets the hype among physical specimens on Baylor’s defensive line, Billings is a better football player who has similarly special traits.
Billings truly has superhuman strength. In high school, he broke the 22-year-old Texas state record for powerlifting previously owned by Mark Henry—who went on to become an Olympic weightlifter and WWE wrestler—by successfully completing an 805-pound squat, 500-pound bench press and 705-pound dead lift.
That strength shows up in Billings’ game, as he is able to overpower offensive linemen in bull-rushing situations and occupy blocks along the line of scrimmage. What really stands out about Billings on the field, however, is his athletic ability.
For an interior defensive lineman, Billings has tremendous burst and agility. He is able to blow up plays in the backfield rapidly. He also demonstrates the lateral movement necessary to make plays along the line of scrimmage while finishing plays well as a tackler.
At 6’2” and 300 pounds, Billings might not be a good fit for a 3-4 defense. He needs to develop better hand skills in order to take full advantage of his athleticism, and he has a tendency to lean too far forward and go off balance as a result.
All of that said, Billings has the traits to be a star as a 4-3 defensive tackle. So while many draft analysts foresee Oakman emerging as a top prospect for the 2016 draft, it should come as no surprise if Billings winds up being the Baylor product who shoots up boards this year.
Lawrence Thomas, DT, Michigan State, Senior
Lawrence Thomas has been a man of many positions at Michigan State.
Recruited to play for the Spartans as a 6’4”, 242-pound linebacker, according to Greg Johnson of MLive.com, Thomas spent time playing fullback as a redshirt freshman before becoming a full-time defensive lineman. Now, after finally establishing himself as a key piece of the Michigan State defense at nose tackle last season, Thomas—who is now listed at 6’4” and 305 pounds—is set to play defensive end as a senior.
Amid the positional shuffling, Thomas has yet to emerge as a top prospect. But his ability to play so many different positions is an indicator in itself of his athleticism and versatility, which should have NFL teams intrigued about his potential going into his senior year.
Despite adding a great deal of weight to his frame, Thomas remains a great athlete who can burst through the line of scrimmage and chase down plays in pursuit. He has also proved to be stout at the point of attack as a run-defender.
Moving around so frequently has kept Thomas from mastering any position, and he needs to become more polished in his technique in order to be a more effective pass-rusher. Once he is able to settle into a singular position in the NFL, that should enable him to perfect the fundamentals of his game.
Thomas projects best as a 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle, but his big draw will be his versatility, as he should be able to play multiple alignments in any defensive scheme. With the constant demand for long, 300-pound defensive linemen who can move around, Thomas could emerge as an early-round prospect if he plays up to his potential in his senior year.
Joshua Perry, LB, Ohio State, Senior
When you are part of an Ohio State roster that could send one of the best classes ever to the 2016 draft, it’s easy to be overlooked. One player who really should not be, though, is senior linebacker Joshua Perry.
A fundamentally sound player, Perry led the Ohio State defense with 124 total tackles in 2014. He has terrific size for an off-ball linebacker, at 6’4” and 254 pounds, is a fluid athlete who makes plays all over the field and shows aptitude dropping back into coverage.
While Perry is not as explosive as his counterpart in the Ohio State linebacker corps, projected first-round pick Darron Lee, he is a smart player who consistently takes care of his assignments and gets himself in position to make plays. While there is nothing truly spectacular about his skill set, there are also no major deficiencies.
ESPN’s Kevin Weidl recently praised Perry’s productivity on Twitter.
“Hard not to notice LB Josh Perry,” Weidl wrote while watching film of Ohio State’s 2014 game versus Penn State. “Very active and constantly around the ball throughout the tape.”
Beyond his consistent and quality play on the field, Perry is also known for being a community leader off the field. A well-spoken individual, Perry was recently one of two players selected to speak as a player representative for the Big Ten at the kickoff luncheon for the conference’s media days.
Perry’s intelligence and well-roundedness should enable him to contribute immediately to an NFL linebacker rotation and on special teams, while he should pass all character evaluations with flying colors. That combination should make him a favorite of NFL coaches and lead to him rising over the course of the draft process.
Brad Craddock, K, Maryland, Senior
I know what you’re thinking: Really, a kicker?! Yes, it is true that kickers are rarely selected in the early rounds—no kicker has gone before the fourth round since the New York Jets drafted Mike Nugent in Round 2 of the 2005 draft—and it is even more rare for a kicker, let alone multiple kickers, to receive preseason hype as a prospect. Maryland senior Brad Craddock deserves to be an exception.
There is one draft-eligible kicker in college football, Florida State redshirt junior Roberto Aguayo, who has been talked up by draft analysts as an NFL prospect since he was a freshman. But while Aguayo is a special talent who could break the decade-long drought of a kicker being a top-100 pick, Craddock deserves to be in the same conversation.
Craddock, not Aguayo, won the Lou Groza Award as college football’s best kicker in 2014. He completed 18-of-19 field goals attempted—tying him for the best field-goal percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision—including a school-record 57-yard conversion against Ohio State.
A native of Adelaide, Australia, Craddock is a consistently accurate kicker with proven leg strength. For a team looking to upgrade at the position next offseason, Craddock could be well worth a middle-round draft selection.
It’s fair to say that Aguayo is the top kicker in the 2016 draft class, considering he was better than Craddock in 2013 and has had to deal with more high-pressure situations. It’s unfair to Craddock, however, to put Aguayo in a league of his own.
All measurables courtesy of the official athletics website of each player’s respective school unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.