2016 NFL Draft: Identifying the Draft's Biggest Projects

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Identifying the Draft's Biggest Projects

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    Immediate impact starters will likely dominate the early part of the first round, but for teams hoping to strike gold later in the 2016 NFL draft, taking a risk on a developmental project may be their best bet.

    A “project” prospect is a player who isn’t expected to make a year-one, and maybe not a year-two, impact in the NFL. But either their athletic ability and/or versatility are worth showing patience for. Whether it’s a developmental quarterback, a high-upside pass-rusher or a moldable cornerback, these top-10 projects could emerge as future stars picked outside the early part of Round 1.

1. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

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    Generally, all quarterbacks are “projects” in some shape or fashion. Few college offenses force quarterbacks to make true NFL reads and pre-snap determinations to prepare them mentally, and even fewer require their passers to make consistently difficult throws into NFL windows. But Cardale Jones, flashing in a Buckeye offense that wasn’t quite designed for him, could be the ultimate worthwhile quarterback prospect.

    Jones, clearly offering ideal NFL size and running ability at 6'5", 249 pounds, emerged in the national spotlight in his 2015 national championship run but is now thought of as the struggling and eventually benched quarterback.

    Jones has the arm talent, power-running ability and confidence in-game. But Ohio State didn’t do him any favors in molding his vertical passing game as the season progressed, and his Ben Roethlisberger upside might only be tapped at the NFL level. As a second- or third-round pick, Jones may be the most intriguing quarterback career to track in this upcoming draft class.

2. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State

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    A lesser version of Jones in some respects, Jacoby Brissett has less of an excuse for not being nearly NFL-ready enough during his college career. He’s still just a two-year starter, but Brissett appears to be making similar mistakes and more drastic highs and lows than a high-round quarterback prospect should.

    NFL teams appear to be leaning against drafting project passers, as Brett Hundley, a once first-round UCLA prospect who landed in the fifth round to Green Bay, can attest. But Brissett, like Jones, has a skill set worth tapping into. A strong senior bowl could vault him higher, but Brissett may be doomed for a similar Day 3 fate as Hundley.

3. Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State

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    Transitioning between positions is a clear sign of a project prospect, and despite Braxton Miller’s seamless move to receiver this year, he’s still a decent ways away from being reliable or at the starter level. Already thriving as a quick-twitch vertical route runner and able to finish away from his frame, it’s the nuances of the position that Miller will need patience with.

    While his route running allowed separation at the college level, wasted steps at the top of his route and playing in an offense that didn’t require crispness on comeback or dig routes won’t fly at the NFL level. Still worth a top-64 selection, Miller can develop into a better version of Randall Cobb in time.

4. Keenan Reynolds, RB/WR, Navy

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    Another position-changing prospect, Keenan Reynolds has a more substantial uphill battle than Miller before him. The NCAA’s career rushing touchdown leader will be playing running back at the East-West Shrine Game, but his final NFL position is still in flux.

    Working as the rushing leader in an option offense, Reynolds certainly has ample experience running the ball, though his read steps were far different from every other running back prospect, and it may take longer than some realize before he’s capable of feeling confident in the backfield. 

    Receiver, however, could be another position option teams could attempt, as his quick-twitch nature and open-field elusiveness could be better suited in a slot receiver role. Either position will take ample time from a coaching staff, but his character and college success are worth tapping into, especially for the price of a late-round draft pick.

5. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

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    Possessing one of the most physically imposing body types college football has ever seen, Shawn Oakman looks the part and then some of a future NFL superstar. But the 6’8, 290-pound defensive end has been a three-year key contributor and a two-year starter and still doesn’t offer consistent film drive-to-drive, game-to-game.

    Oakman is a project, a talent worth tapping into, but NFL teams will question if he’ll ever reach the peak that his body type alludes to. Similar to Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert from two drafts ago (though character derailed his career), some players just will not improve, regardless of their athletic capabilities. At least a few NFL teams will consider Oakman in the top-40 draft picks, but he’s a “buyer beware” prospect as a developmental project.

6. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama

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    Among three Alabama defensive line prospects with first-round aspirationsJonathan Allen, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn RobinsonAllen is the most raw. He offers arguably the most versatility of the crew, playing in-space, as a true 4-3 defensive end, as a five technique and even further inside.

    But Allen relies on his initial push and hand strength to gain separation from his block and lateral-bursting bend once he has room to work. His NFL future will be entirely determined by what system he walks into, but he’ll likely begin in a rotational role before being groomed into a more consistent playmaker on defense. Don’t be surprised if Allen is the first Crimson Tide member drafted.

7. Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State

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    At 6'5", Chris Jones is listed as a defensive tackle but could easily offer value at defensive end or, more intriguingly, as a five technique. Expected to thoroughly impress at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jones appears destined to be a better pro than he was a college player.

    Staying low for a taller interior defender, Jones is able to sink, drive his hands through contact and generate initial pushback with consistency. He needs added coaching and refinement in using his hands to penetrate and do more than attract attention, but he could provide high-level situational value early in his career for NFL teams until he’s ready to become a full-time starter.

8. Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas

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    Not flashing nearly as much as he did a season ago with former teammate Malcolm Brown playing beside him, Hassan Ridgeway still offers a 6’3, 314-pound physical frame with an incredibly powerful lower-half explosiveness. He’s proven disruptive laterally and finishes when he’s in space but isn’t expected to emerge into a first-round prospect like Brown. 

    Ridgeway still has issues with his hand fighting and separation from his blockers, and overall he’s not a refined interior pass-rusher that will allow him to have instant success in the NFL. But after leaving a frustrating Texas program early, NFL teams will gladly jostle for early-round draft position to develop him.

9. Montese Overton, OLB, East Carolina

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    The most under-the-radar prospect on this list, Montese Overton won’t be playing at any college all-star games this January and likely won’t get much media buzz until he’s at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. An athletic “freak,” Overton could be clocked as low in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash and likely will be one of the linebacker leaders in the vertical jump and bench press.

    Overton, 6'3" and 220 pounds, is still a developing linebacker prospect, but he’s received work in short-area coverage, edge protection and as a pass-rusher. Overton still leaves too much of his chestplate exposed and can be controlled a bit too easily by more polished blockers, but when he’s able to work in space or in one-on-one situations, Overton flashes Alec Ogletree-like upside with NFL development.

10. William Jackson III, CB, Houston

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    A two-year starter in Houston, William Jackson III has improved consistently over the last two years, growing from a long, lanky cornerback prospect into one of the premiere defensive back prospects in the 2016 NFL draft. But despite his starter experience and growth during that time, he’s still lacking efficiency in his hip turn and anticipation of double moves and more refined route runners.

    Jackson won’t need a ton of time before he’s starter-capable, but he has the size, length and skill set to grow into the next great Cover 3 press cornerback. He’d obviously fit perfectly in Seattle and could become the next Byron Maxwell, but he’ll look to slide into a Seattle-like defense, refine his game and tap into the shutdown cornerback potential he possesses.