The Most Polarizing Prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2016

The Most Polarizing Prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft

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    With the non-playoff draft order set after Sunday's NFL action and the early-entry process in full swing, the 2016 NFL draft class is starting to take shape. 

    Despite hundreds of players preparing for the draft, much of the predraft media coverage often centers on a handful of polarizing draft prospects. 

    These prospects generate attention for a variety of reasons; they might have limited experience but intriguing production, off-field issues or lingering injury concerns. 

    Players will come and go from this list of polarizing prospects as they answer questions in the predraft process or as new concerns arise. But as we enter the draft season, here's a look at eight prospects who will generate attention due to a wide range of opinions on their NFL futures. 

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

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    By any measure, Christian Hackenberg did not live up to expectations the past two seasons at Penn State. The question that will affect his draft stock, however, is: Who's to blame?

    According to Peter Schrager of FoxSports.com, at least some experts believe the blame falls on head coach James Franklin:

    Multiple NFL evaluators have said to include Hackenberg in any first round mock drafts I do. One: "Can't hold James Franklin against him."

    — Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) January 2, 2016

    However, plenty of people on the other side blame Hackenberg for his struggles. 

    Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus shared Hackenberg's accuracy numbers from the past two seasons, which fall well short of NFL standards:

    QBs with at least 200 atts Hackenberg's inaccuracy %: 2014: 23.1% (8th worst in FBS) 2015: 22.8% (7th worst in FBS) https://t.co/yaANPDaCeo

    — Ben Stockwell (@PFF_Ben) January 2, 2016

    It's tough to reconcile those numbers with the idea of Hackenberg as a top prospect, but his supporters will argue his raw skills should trump any statistics he posted behind a talent-deprived offensive line. 

    With evaluators in the media already sharing a wide range of opinions on Hackenberg, it's safe to assume the NFL is filled with a similar range of thoughts. 

    But remember, it only takes one coach or general manager to fall in love with Hackenberg's skills to make him a first-round pick. 

Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

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    Looking strictly at Connor Cook the football player, he probably doesn't belong on this list.

    While few would argue he is an elite prospect, he's highly regarded and will likely come off the board in the first or second round. 

    However, it's Cook's off-field issues—or, more accurately, his perceived off-field issues—that have turned him into a polarizing prospect. 

    The debate about his leadership skills first took a national stage when it was announced in August that he was not voted one of Michigan State's captains for the 2015 season. Even without any background knowledge of Cook, this seemed odd. 

    Cook was a senior and three-year starter at quarterback—a resume that is normally a lock to earn captain status. 

    Following the announcement, Cook told the Lansing State Journal: "Obviously, I was disappointed. ... But it's definitely not gonna limit my leadership role. And it's just gonna make me hungrier."

    The perception of Cook's off-field persona took on new life after the Big Ten Championship Game when he appeared to snub two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin on the podium. 

    It was an odd interaction, which confirmed for some the idea that Cook is entitled and doesn't interact well with others. 

    Jeff Risdon of RealGM.com added some insight from his sources inside the program: "Cook is not 'one of the boys'. He carries himself with a sense of entitlement that rubs some people the wrong way off the field. ... In the film room, in the locker room and most definitely on the field, Cook has the 100 percent confidence and support of everyone."

    The debate surrounding Cook will rage on throughout the offseason, but each NFL team will generate its own opinion of him during the predraft process. 

Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

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    Cardale Jones will be among the most difficult prospects for teams to evaluate based on his limited work as a starting quarterback. 

    While he was fantastic during Ohio State's ride to the national championship in 2014, his struggles in 2015 appeared to be a significant factor in the Buckeyes offense stalling over the course of the season. 

    Jones' physical tools are jaw-dropping. Few quarterbacks possess his arm strength. But we've seen plenty of rocket-armed quarterbacks such as JaMarcus Russell, J.P. Losman and Josh Freeman flop in the NFL. 

    Before Jones can succeed in the NFL, he needs to improve his ability to make quick decisions. 

    According to CFB Film Room, Jones was sacked once every 14.4 dropbacks during the 2015 regular season. J.T. Barrett, who played behind the same offensive line, was sacked once every 30.3 dropbacks. 

    Jones will likely receive a wide range of draft grades depending on how teams view the likelihood of his developing into a viable NFL starting quarterback. 

    Based on raw talent alone, it's likely that he will get drafted, but his placement could be anywhere from the second to seventh round. 

Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State

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    Braxton Miller is another Ohio State prospect with limited film for teams to review. 

    Due to his three years spent at quarterback, Miller only has one season of film as a hybrid wide receiver/running back in Urban Meyer's offense. 

    Working in Miller's favor is the fact that Meyer has already sent a prospect from this hybrid role to the NFL. While at Florida, Percy Harvin excelled lining up at running back, receiver and occasionally in the Wildcat, before transitioning to a full-time receiver role in the NFL. 

    Miller doesn't have as much experience as Harvin did, so more guesswork will be involved in projecting his future. However, he will attend the Senior Bowl with an opportunity to further boost his stock. 

Trevone Boykin, QB/WR, TCU

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    TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin has been a polarizing prospect throughout the season due to the debate about his pro position. 

    Prior to the season, CBS Sports' Dane Brugler praised Boykin for his "instinctive playmaking skills as both a runner and thrower" but acknowledged the doubt in his ability to develop into a pro quarterback. 

    Due in part to injuries, Boykin showed limited development as a passer during his senior year. While he posted impressive numbers, he relied heavily on wide receiver Josh Doctson to bail him out in much the same way Johnny Manziel relied on Mike Evans in college. 

    Unfortunately, Boykin added another variable to his draft stock prior to TCU's bowl game when he was arrested following a bar fight. ESPN.com reported he faces felony charges for "assaulting a public servant."

    Now, Boykin has forced teams to determine what position he belongs at in the pros and whether or not they want to gamble on a prospect who is facing felony charges. 

    As a high-profile prospect, Boykin will receive attention from the media in the months leading up to the draft, but with so many variables for teams to consider, he is likely a late-round selection or priority free agent at best, with his position to be determined at a later date. 

Shawn Oakman, DL, Baylor

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    Shawn Oakman is the defensive version of Cardale Jones. Like Jones, Oakman's production has been hit-or-miss, but there's no denying his potential. 

    Known as much for being an Internet meme as a football player, Oakman possess a rare blend of size and athleticism that defensive line coaches across the league would love to mold into a polished product. 

    CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has acknowledged the intrigue surrounding Oakman's physique could be enough to boost his draft stock:

    He's not a 1st round player IMO. But I won't be surprised if Oakman lands top-32 w/ his freakish physical traits. https://t.co/pwSmCjjjqG

    — Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) November 6, 2015

    Oakman is the type of prospect who could be more valuable to contenders than rebuilding franchises. 

    For a rebuilding franchise, it's more difficult to stash a developmental player who probably isn't ready for a significant role. A contender, however, could prepare Oakman for a specific role within its defensive line rotation, allowing him to get on the field early without putting too much on his plate. 

Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss

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    Formerly viewed as a top-five lock, Robert Nkemdiche is now one of the wild cards of the 2016 draft. 

    Following a bizarre story in which he fell from a hotel balcony, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Nkemdiche would be charged with marijuana possession. He was also suspended from the Sugar Bowl, which ended his career at Ole Miss.

    The incident came just days after Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel passed along a quote from a scout stating that Nkemdiche is "really a different kid. He may scare some people. He's strange strange."

    While there's no denying Nkemdiche's ability to be a disruptive force on the defensive line, prospects with off-field question marks are often the most polarizing during the draft process. 

    It will be critical for him to be honest and open with NFL personnel during the interview process in order to repair the damage done to his draft stock over the past few weeks. 

Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

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    Myles Jack may not be a perfect fit on this list of polarizing prospects, but since his own coach questioned his decision to turn pro, he's worth mentioning. 

    Following an early-season knee injury, Jack announced his decision to begin his rehab process and enter the NFL in October. The early declaration prompted a surprisingly harsh response from UCLA head coach Jim Mora, as shared by ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell:

    I think it's risky to do this. Having been on that side, there's going to be a lot of speculation as to what he is and where he fits. And as I told Myles on Sunday, NFL teams are very, very conservative, and if there's any question whatsoever, they'll pass on you in a heartbeat... I, as a guy that spent half of my life in the NFL, I would move with great caution.

    Mora's hesitation isn't shared by everyone, and many scouts are excited about Jack's versatility. 

    One scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Jack can play modern-day football, let's put it that way. He ain't never leaving the field."

    So long as Jack can get on the field for some predraft workouts, he should be able to solidify his position as a first-round prospect. If he were to suffer any setbacks, however, he would become an even more polarizing prospect leading up to the draft. 

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