The Safest Prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft
An entirely "safe" NFL draft prospect simply doesn't exist. There are too many variables to consider, such as scheme, mental makeup or physical impacts that can cut short or drastically reduce the career of a prospect. Since Aaron Curry in the 2009 NFL draft, considered by far the consensus "safe" prospect in the class, busted in shocking fashion, NFL teams have grown wise to the "safe prospect" consideration.
But it is still the case that some players pose less risk than others. For the eight prospects on this list, they are among the safer draft prospects in the class, each for a unique reason. Some benefit from NFL-ready skills, immediate situational value for teams or a combination of size, and athleticism and specific trait that transitions easily to the NFL level.
None of these prospects are without warts in their scouting reports, but they do appear destined for a long NFL career based on what they're bringing to the NFL draft process. Don't be surprised if at least a few of these prospects are surprisingly high picks.
Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
In the NFL, versatility is king.
Prospects that can fill multiple roles in an offense/defense, especially with an NFL-ready ability out of college, certainly receive a bump up in their final evaluation grade. And Devontae Booker, whose age and knee injury concerns may push him down the boards a bit, appears ready to step into an NFL offense and contribute as a plus zone-blocking running back and pass-catcher.
Similar to rookie standout David Johnson, Booker’s most immediate NFL value is his pass-catching and overall third-down ability. A refined and controlled out-of-the-backfield pass-catcher, Booker seamlessly transitions from receiver to runner at the second level. Additionally, he offers adequate pass-blocking skills, allowing him to provide first-year value to NFL teams on third down.
While his upside may be capped, and his longevity may be limited, Booker’s immediate third-down capabilities for an NFL team should make him an instant impact and a safe running back prospect for a needy team to invest in in the draft’s early to middle rounds.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
The long, big-bodied receiver is considered one of the 2016 draft class’s top pass-catchers thanks to tremendous in-air ball skills and finishing ability in the red zone and in traffic. While his athleticism, vertically threatening speed and downfield route separation will determine if he can grow into one of the league’s elite, his strong hands and jump-ball talents should give him an immediate home in an NFL offense.
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly trusted Laquon Treadwell more than he probably should have with jump balls. But Treadwell’s ball-grabbing abilities in the short-area and on the perimeter bailed Kelly out on multiple occasions.
That natural in-air ability should serve him well immediately in the NFL, and though he may get surpassed by more impressive vertical athletes in the development process, NFL teams will know that investing in Treadwell gives them a strong safety valve for a quarterback for the short- and long-term.
His safeness as an immediate contributor coupled with his potential to be among the draft’s best talents should solidify his status as a top-15 draft prospect. He could quickly grow into a struggling/inaccurate quarterback’s best friend in an offense.
Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
Jack Conklin isn’t among the most athletically gifted offensive tackles in the 2016 NFL draft class, but he still appears destined for the top-16 picks. Why? Because he’s as reliable a pass- and run-blocker as you’ll find in any draft process, and his refined technique, physicality in both the run and pass game and ample college experience has already won teams over as they construct their draft boards.
He’ll struggle a bit early in his NFL career with speedy edge-rushers as he simply doesn’t have the kick-slide quickness to get to the perimeter as of now. But despite that limitation, NFL teams are sure to push him up their draft boards as a can’t-miss, long-term starter at the offense’s second-most important position: left tackle.
So long as his injury history checks out, Conklin may surpass more impressive athletic talents like Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley and Ohio State’s Taylor Decker due to his safeness and coveted mental makeup as a blocker.
Similar to the Redskins’ selection of Brandon Scherff in the top five last year, don’t be surprised if a team opts for a safer, more immediate impact blocker early in the first round like Conklin as opposed to the higher-upside left tackle prospect.
Joshua Garnett, OG, Stanford
Hailing from a program that has produced five offensive line draft picks in the last four years, Outland Trophy winner Josh Garnett looks to be the next in a long line of Stanford success stories.
The 6’5, 320-pound guard prospect not only boasts the pedigree of past Cardinal blockers, but he also has the physically imposing size, plus hand strength on the interior in addition to confidence in his lateral control and arm extension against different types of interior rushers.
And with two years of starting experience and impressive game film over his last 27 starts, Garnett has a chance to be the third Stanford offensive lineman pick in Round 1 since 2012.
Garnett will be jostling with LSU’s Vadal Alexander and Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair for the draft’s top guard prospect. Both play with a bit more nastiness on the interior and offer a more mauling style than Garnett. But Garnett’s expected reliability and long-term starter potential without much risk could push him past both during the process.
Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
Alabama’s defensive line was chalk full of NFL talent this year, with Jarran Reed at nose tackle, A’Shawn Robinson playing outside of him and defensive end Jonathan Allen on the perimeter.
And while Robinson has a more impressive body type, and Allen, who opted to return for his senior season, offers more athletic upside, Reed’s nimbleness and lower-half strength offers NFL teams rare confidence that as a nose tackle he'll be a long-term prospect.
Nose tackles are always a difficult evaluation because one of the most important aspects to their report is also the most difficult to confidently say. Motivation, motor and focus are a nose tackle’s biggest hurdles, as consistently embracing two blockers and producing limited stats over the course of a game can make an interior rusher lose focus.
But Reed, who lacks much pass-rush upside, though he can cause penetration against one-on-ones, hasn’t had that issue during his college career, and his quickness to flow with the ball-carrier offers him rare run-defending quickness for a 330-pound nose tackle. His scouting report doesn’t scream first-round pick, but it’s certainly a possibility for the NFL-ready nose tackle.
DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
After not producing much early in his college career, DeForest Buckner finally displayed the finishing ability that NFL teams were expecting to see this season. But for Buckner, NFL teams value his ability to pressure with inside leverage from his defensive end and his five-technique positioning.
His 10.5 sacks in 2015 are a vote of confidence in his ability as a pass-rusher, but Buckner’s most coveted ability is his willingness to remain disruptive at the line of scrimmage, dominate the blockers in front of him with lateral balance and strength at the line of scrimmage and persistently erase an offense’s designed play.
Best suited to play a strong-side defensive/five-technique hybrid position in the NFL, Buckner likely won’t be an eight to ten sack-a-year player because his future NFL team shouldn’t ask him to do that. Buckner should be a persistent, aggravating matchup for offenses that force them to alter their entire schemes as well as set up his linebacker and defensive line teammates for tackles for loss and sacks.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Despite increased production and leading a defense that was more devoid of talent than in past seasons, Shilique Calhoun has received minimal NFL draft buzz. The strong-side defensive end’s best characteristic as a prospect is his persistent edge-setting against the run, his willingness to crash inside to set up other rushers and his containment in space against running backs.
And while those three skill sets are crucial for NFL defensive end success, they don’t especially jump out on film and clearly show that he deserves first-round consideration. But few defensive ends out of college set up their teammates and protect a defense from big-play susceptibility like Calhoun.
His play set up 2014’s highly productive pass-rusher Marcus Rush for high-level success, and this year his run-defending and finishing ability in space protected the Spartans lackluster secondary from being forced into big-play action too often.
He doesn’t boast elite athleticism or many jaw-dropping plays on film, and it seems like Calhoun won’t be a first-round prospect. But he’s one of the few strong-side defensive ends that can contribute immediately to NFL defenses in a reliable, starter-level fashion as soon as he puts on an NFL jersey and should be a long-term starter in the league.
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Alabama’s defensive leader and do-it-all linebacker, Reggie Ragland doesn’t especially offer the type of fluidity or quick-twitch athleticism that first-round linebackers generally possess. He doesn’t have elite size like past Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley, nor does he offer the same pass-rush upside as Dont'a Hightower.
But during Ragland’s senior season, he displayed body positioning and violent strength to embrace and escape second-level blockers, enough range to finish on the perimeter and plus-technique and anticipation in midfield coverage.
Ragland isn’t expected to wow at the NFL Scouting Combine workouts, nor does he on film with his athleticism. But his NFL-readiness at every key aspect a linebacker needs to show is what makes him the most coveted inside linebacker prospect in the 2016 class.