Surprise Week 1 Starter Predictions for the 2016 NFL Draft Class
Every NFL draft process focuses on the biggest names and most popular collegiate stars, but the first round doesn't always feature the best players in the class. The 2016 NFL draft will be no different, as some mid-round prospects will leap their peers when the snaps matter most. Who was picked where will only be important at the negotiating tables after the draft—then, it's time to play some football.
In 2015, third-round picks Henry Anderson, David Johnson and Tyler Lockett provided major sparks for their respective teams. Undrafted free-agent running back Thomas Rawls immediately contributed for the Seattle Seahawks as well. There will be similar stories about the 2016 class this time next year.
So which late Day 2 or Day 3 picks will emerge to earn starting jobs come Week 1? We have eight players who may surprise and contribute right away.
KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame
Rewind to 2013—before the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were investigated for academic improprieties—and you'd find one of the nation's top cornerbacks who had just finished his sophomore season. Due to the prolonged process, KeiVarae Russell missed the 2014 season and returned to the field in 2015. His time off led to a slow start in his senior season—he looked rusty and lacked the precise footwork that made him so effective in previous years.
As the season went on, though, Russell found his groove. He finished with 60 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups. He broke his fibula at the end of the year but recovered to post an eye-opening pro-day performance.
At 5'11" and 192 pounds, Russell has the ideal frame to play inside or outside cornerback at the next level. He blazed a 4.43-second 40-yard dash to go along with a stellar 6.89-second three-cone drill at this pro day. His explosion was also on display with a 38.5-inch vertical and 134-inch broad jump.
Russell is a physical player who will at times get grabby with receivers. He's also prone to losing the ball mid-air. But he is sticky in coverage and is too good of an athlete to not earn at least a starting nickel cornerback job in his first year. He should outperform CBS Sports' projected third- to fourth-round ranking.
Chris Moore, WR, Cincinnati
One of the most talented sleepers in the 2016 NFL draft class is Cincinnati Bearcats receiver Chris Moore. The 6'1", 206-pound playmaker had a solid career on a team deep with quality receiving threats, and he proved he was a great athlete at the combine. His explosiveness helped him have a productive season despite inconsistent quarterback play.
Moore averaged 19.3 yards per catch throughout his career and a ridiculous 22 yards per catch over the last two seasons. He's a legitimate home run threat whether he catches the ball in space underneath or is running deep. That could quickly endear him to coaches in vertical passing offenses.
Moore isn't a dominant athlete who is regarded as a moldable piece of clay, but he's the right mix of good football player and above-average athlete. According to Mock Draftable, Moore's combine performance was similar to those of Justin Blackmon, Davante Adams and A.J. Jenkins. Those players were selected in the top two rounds of their respective drafts, but Moore will only cost a Day 3 investment.
Moore represents a good value, and his refined game will allow him to break into a starting lineup that lacks a spacing option in the receiving corps.
Justin Simmons, FS, Boston College
The NFL lacks depth and top-tier talent at safety, which makes it important when an above-average player comes available. All of the attention for the safety class has gone to Florida State star Jalen Ramsey, but the 2016 group features a deep crop of talent at the position. There's value to be had after Ramsey goes off the board in the first five picks.
Boston College's Justin Simmons headlines the list of rookies who will earn a starting job by Week 1. Projected to be a third-round pick by CBS Sports, he has the physical makeup and track record that should translate well to the next level.
At 6'2", 202 pounds with 32⅝" arms, Simmons is a freakish athlete who dominated the NFL Scouting Combine. According to Mock Draftable, all but three of his eight athletic measurements ranked in the top 83 percent of all safeties at the event since 1999. That includes rare marks in the 20- and 60-yard shuttles, three-cone drill and vertical jump.
His physical traits translate to the field as well. He finished his career with 229 tackles, eight interceptions, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles. His experience playing Cover 2 and 3 will allow him to quickly establish his value for and impact on a secondary.
Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers
It seems the same has been said in each of the last few seasons, but this draft class is deep with intriguing wide receivers. CBS Sports has a whopping 42 with draftable grades, but it's one of the mid-rounders who will earn a starting position earlier than expected. Rutgers star Leonte Carroo tortured defenses in the Big Ten despite poor play around him.
It didn't matter who Carroo played in his final two seasons. He was only slowed by an inaccurate and inconsistent quarterback. He still finished with 1,895 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014 and 2015.
Carroo had an assault charge against him dropped in early October. While he isn't an elite athlete, he is an average one. His 4.50-second 40-yard dash and 35.5-inch vertical won't prevent him from being a standout performer, as he checks the athletic boxes to go along with his impressive film.
He shines thanks to his ability to win on contested catches and run crisp routes. He's not relying on pure speed or nuance, which has forced him to refine his game. This will benefit him in the NFL. He'll be a pleasant surprise for whichever team takes him and earn a starting job at slot receiver.
Jatavis Brown, OLB, Akron
The NFL continues to be a pass-heavy, spread-based offense league, so there's a premium on finding athletic, versatile linebackers. Players who are explosive and instinctual enough to play on all three downs is difficult, as few athletes have a high level of coordination and skill. This has led to defenses accepting smaller players who may not fit ideal size molds.
One of those players in this class is Akron outside linebacker Jatavis Brown. The 5'11", 227-pounder was one of the most productive players in the country over the last three seasons. He finished his career with 340 tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles.
That type of production doesn't happen by accident. Brown is a tremendous athlete as well, as he proved with his ridiculous pro-day results. According to NFL Draft Scout, Brown ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, put up 33 bench-press reps, had a vertical jump of 35.5 inches and completed the three-cone drill in 7.19 seconds.
He is projected as a fourth-round pick by CBS Sports, but he is an ideal weak-side linebacker in terms of athleticism and skill set. He'll fit into a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme that can keep him clean from pulling guards and centers.
Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington
Teams looking for a more traditional linebacker in terms of size should be intrigued by Washington's Travis Feeney. The 6'4", 230-pounder has a frame that will make scouts and coaches drool. He can play both outside linebacker spots in a 4-3 front or inside linebacker in a 3-4. He's long, fast and fluid in his movements.
He confirmed at the NFL Scouting Combine what his film showed. He blazed a 4.50-second 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical and 130-inch broad jump. Each mark ranked in the top 8 percent of all linebacker measurements since 1999, per Mock Draftable.
While Feeney looks the part, he's had some issues staying on the field. He's talented when he's healthy, compiling 248 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in his collegiate career. He also stood out in 2014 on a defense with Marcus Peters, Danny Shelton and Hau'oli Kikaha.
Landon Turner, OG, North Carolina
One position that doesn't require a flashy skill set or plus athleticism is the offensive guard spot. A mauler who relies on powerful hands, churning legs and a nasty attitude can become an effective player quickly in the NFL if he's in the proper scheme. Some of the NFL's best interior offensive linemen are among the worst athletes at the position.
Watching North Carolina's explosive offense will show not only a bevy of playmakers but a solid and consistent offensive line. The best of that group was right guard Landon Turner. The 6'4", 330-pounder is punishing when he works downhill to create rushing lanes, but he's also refined enough to hold his own in pass protection.
Athletically, Turner compares to recent draft picks Tre' Jackson and Larry Warford, per Mock Draftable. For whatever reason, he's not valued as highly despite having similar physical traits and an NFL-ready body and game. CBS Sports projects him as a sixth-round pick.
Injecting Turner into a power-scheme running game would give him a good chance to make his mark on an offensive line. He may not displace a quality incumbent, but he's talented enough to beat other young competition or journeyman veterans.
Kalan Reed, CB, Southern Miss
The cornerback class this year is not filled with apparent stars and may not reach the lofty status that last year's group did with its first-year performances. But this is a deep crop of players who can do well in the right scheme and situation. Finding a contributor on Day 3 is not out of the question.
The best cornerback sleeper available is Southern Miss' Kalan Reed. The 5'11", 192-pounder had an excellent pro day after finishing college with a career-best season. He logged a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, incredible 41.5-inch vertical and solid 7.05-second three-cone drill. He has the size and explosiveness that teams should love.
On the field, Reed is physical and versatile. He split time between outside corner and the slot, showing a willingness to play the run tough and compete in man coverage. He's smooth in his movements and capable of forcing tight passing windows.
What separates Reed from his peers is his ability to find and play the ball. His four interceptions and 17 passes defensed in 2015 put him among the nation's leaders at the position. Currently projected as a late Day 3 pick by CBS Sports, Reed will make his way into a nickel package by Week 1.
Stats from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report.