Biggest Risers, Fallers of the Early 2016 NFL Draft Process
The 2016 NFL draft process still has a ways to go before final big boards are ready. But we've already learned so much about the top and sleeper prospects in the class, and we've seen players rise and fall in the eyes of the media and NFL evaluators.
Performance in the Senior Bowl, absences in all-star events and injuries make up the core reasons for player evaluation movement on this list. While there's still much to track in the draft process, most notably the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days and private workouts, these 10 players have either risen or fallen so far in the draft process.
All Senior Bowl observations were seen firsthand.
Riser: Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
From injured, toolsy small-school quarterback to potential top-five pick, Carson Wentz has risen up the draft board over the last two months as much as any prospect in the last 20 years. The 6'5" quarterback likely had supporters before his Senior Bowl appearance, but he made a tremendous first impression with NFL decision-makers who hadn’t gotten a chance to review his film.
While his scouting report is chock-full of areas he needs to develop further as a passer, Wentz’s electric arm talent, mobility, running ability and flashes of brilliance spark excitement from NFL teams. While he may be more of a second-round pick in my opinion, the sheer quantity of teams searching for a new franchise quarterback should keep him within the top 15 picks, maybe even as high as second overall.
Faller: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
While Carson Wentz made a ton of money by attending and impressing at the Senior Bowl, Connor Cook’s decision to pass on the event for non-injury reasons continued his costly slide down NFL draft boards. Drafting a quarterback requires a bit of trust, faith and likability in front of NFL executives, and so far in the process Cook hasn’t capitalized on that aspect of the job interview.
On the field, Cook may be the most refined and NFL-ready quarterback of the class, but his character concerns related to teammate and coach interactions haven’t gone away. In fact, his absence in the offseason so far has brought them closer to the forefront, as he is losing steam with NFL teams by his mere absence. With the rise of Wentz, the excitement over Paxton Lynch and Jared Goff and the potential appreciation of what Christian Hackenberg and Cardale Jones bring to the table, Cook may slide further than some believe in the NFL draft process.
Riser: Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
It’s difficult for prospects to rise on NFL draft boards during the Senior Bowl, as the event often reveals negative qualities that couldn’t be seen on film. But for Braxton Miller, who flashed NFL-starter upside in his first career game at receiver against Virginia Tech but saw his role evaporate as the year went on, the Senior Bowl was his chance to shine.
And shine he did. He left Mobile, Alabama, as the clear top receiver at the event. He not only secured a top-50 spot in the 2016 NFL draft, but he also gave himself a real shot to be a top-20 pick and the first receiver drafted in late April.
Faller: Josh Doctson, WR, TCU
Unfortunately for Josh Doctson, his fall as a draft prospect has been due to a wrist injury suffered late in his senior season that forced him out of the Senior Bowl. The fantastic jump-ball receiver has seen prospects, such as Braxton Miller, move past him on many rankings, while other top receivers have proved they can offer starter upside while he continues his rehab.
He’ll have his chance to get back in the spotlight with a strong NFL Scouting Combine, but he’ll have ample competition. While Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell may not wow in Indianapolis, Baylor’s Corey Coleman and Ohio State’s Michael Thomas, along with the top senior receivers, won’t make it easy for Doctson to get back to being one of the top five receivers in this class.
Riser: Jason Spriggs, OT, Indiana
If an offensive tackle can prove to teams he’s at least capable as a left tackle prospect, the first round will likely come calling. The position is too valuable to not reach for, and for playoff teams in need of an offensive line overhaul, it’s a worthwhile reach. That’s where Indiana’s Jason Spriggs comes in after proving he can handle the left side against NFL-quality pass-rushers during the Senior Bowl practices.
The kick-slide drill at the NFL Scouting Combine, along with meeting certain testing thresholds for the position, will be the final ingredients to a top-40 grade, but Spriggs is well on his way after a strong, and necessary, Senior Bowl performance.
Faller: Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech
Entering the week with second-round grades from evaluators, the long, experienced yet unrefined tackle prospect struggled at both tackle and guard during the Senior Bowl practices. He offers the skill set and wingspan to thrive at tackle, but he didn’t showcase the NFL readiness that pro teams hoped for based on his college experience.
That being said, Clark still has a chance to earn a second-round draft choice. For all of his issues and struggles during Senior Bowl practices, his tools will be alluring to NFL offensive line coaches who fancy themselves high-level teachers. Clark has transitioned from a potential starter prospect to a teachable upside blocker, with only a select few teams likely giving him a top-100 grade.
Riser: Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois
While he arrived in Mobile, Alabama, with little fanfare or attention from the media, Illinois' Jihad Ward quickly made an impression that should force evaluators to reconsider his final grade. Ward’s unique body type, explosiveness in his speed-to-power off the edge and versatility to play inside and out on the defensive line quickly impressed his Senior Bowl coaching staff.
How high Ward can go in the draft has yet to be determined, but he’ll need to keep his momentum during the NFL Scouting Combine. He’s poised to continue to rise up draft boards based on his versatility, plus body-type and indications of high-level athleticism. The first round isn’t out of the question, but a top-50 pick seems like the most realistic, yet still surprising, landing spot.
Faller: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State
The Penn State senior was once in the first-round discussion entering the year, especially thanks to his awesome athletic showings before the year. But Anthony Zettel quickly fell to the third-most impressive Penn State defensive lineman and was relegated to a leadership role rather than one of great impact on the field.
At the East-West Shrine Game, Zettel continued to show lackluster upside as an interior prospect and quickly reminded NFL teams that he’s worth only a late-round pick and potentially not even that. His fall from preseason top-20 prospect to potential late-round option has been unfortunate to see, but it’s likely a player of his character, leadership and depth versatility will stick in the league for a long time.
Riser: Tavon Young, CB, Temple
While Temple’s Tyler Matakevich captured headlines as the catalyst for Temple’s defensive success (and with good reason), cornerback Tavon Young’s play as the team’s feature defensive back was crucial in most of the Owls’ key victories in 2015. The undersized yet physical and feisty cornerback shut down Notre Dame’s Will Fuller and established himself as one of the country’s best cornerbacks.
At the 2016 Senior Bowl, Young was the event’s best cornerback; he was the only defensive back to slow down Braxton Miller and thrived against receivers both big and small. His 5'9" size may keep him out of Round 1, but Young has risen to legit early second-round grades.
Faller: Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
Jeremy Cash has been a favorite of college football fans, but his position fears were realized during the Senior Bowl. Built like a free safety but working best as an in-the-box strong safety, he finalized his concerns as a seemingly position-less prospect who, while he offers flashes on film, doesn’t have a clear path to NFL success.
He didn’t perform poorly during the Senior Bowl practices or the game, but concerns about where exactly he fits in the NFL will continue to linger. Unless he can either time well to be considered as a free safety/nickel cornerback or bulk up his frame and maintain explosiveness as a strong safety, Cash may be only an extra safety and be thrown in the Day 3 discussion.