Predicting the 10 Biggest Steals of the NFL Draft
There's just something about the NFL draft that makes us love immediate analysis. The week following the draft is always filled with media discussions involving winners, losers and letter grades. The 2016 edition of the draft and its afterglow have been no different.
While it certainly is fun to take an immediate dive into the draft's selections, it's important to remember that most of our analysis is based solely on past performances and speculation on the future. Three years from now, many of the best picks from the 2016 NFL draft will be different from those selections we currently consider the "best."
It's easy to quickly dote over a selection because a team grabbed a recognizable player or filled a major need. However, the picks that prove to truly be the best are those that produce an impact player at a position in the draft far below his ultimate value.
We're talking about the value picks of the draft—you know, the steals.
Today we're going to look at 10 players from this year's draft who could emerge as the biggest steals a few years from now. We're speculating here—which, as we mentioned, is a big part of post-draft analysis—but we're basing our choices on factors such as player potential, supporting talent, scheme fit, coaching and, of course, draft position.
Remember, we're taking a long-term view here, so we're not necessarily picking players who will find success in their rookie seasons.
Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
We're opening today's list with probably its most obvious choice: former UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.
There is no questioning Jack's talent or his pro potential. If 100 percent healthy, he would undoubtedly have been one of the top overall picks in the draft. Even with his returning from an early-2015 meniscus tear, many viewed him as an early first-round talent.
Jack ended up sliding into the second round, where the Jacksonville Jaguars traded up to get him with the 36th overall selection.
The problem for Jack is that medical rechecks seemed to bring up the possibility that he could require microfracture surgery in the future, which could significantly shorten his career. Jack admitted as much right before the draft, which may have precipitated his fall.
“[The degenerative problems are] there, but it’s nothing extreme,” Jack said, per Ben Hubbuch of the New York Post. “Down the line, possibly I could have microfracture surgery—potentially. Who knows what will happen?"
What's important to remember here is that Jack isn't expected to require surgery in the immediate future, and he should come in and play at or near a Pro Bowl level. He can do anything a coach would ask a linebacker to do—tackle, cover, rush the passer and communicate a defense.
Jack can step in and become Jacksonville's defensive field general. If he does require a future risky surgery, it might not come until after his rookie contract has expired. How often do we see players gone by that point because they're just no good?
If Jack has put together a Pro Bowl campaign or two and has helped lead the Jaguars to the postseason by the end of year three, we'll be looking back at what a steal he was in Round 2. A top-five talent at No. 36 overall? Yes, please.
Andrew Billings, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Former Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings was widely considered one of the top defensive tackles available in this year's draft and a borderline first-round pick. However, he slipped all the way into the fourth round, where the Cincinnati Bengals were happy to grab him with the 122nd overall selection.
In Billings, the Bengals are getting a squat, 6'1", 311-pound tackle who should fit perfectly into the team's 4-3 base defense. Though Billings isn't an accomplished sack artist and may begin his pro career as a two-down defender, he can excel in the role.
Before the draft, Bleacher Report's Miller wrote the following on Billings:
A nose tackle in the Baylor defensive scheme, Billings is one of the most active defensive linemen in all of college football. Flashing a motor that never stops and elite lateral quickness, Billings is able to make plays down the line or in the backfield. Billings is a verifiable "hoss" to handle in one-on-one situations, and when he slides into a 1-technique to rush the passer through a gap, his quickness and toughness are a nightmare for centers and guards.
Billings will probably begin his career as a rotational player in the Cincinnati defense, but within two or three years, he should be starting material.
Bengals starting defensive tackle Domata Peko is 31 years old and is entering the final year of his current contract. There's a strong chance Billings becomes his replacement.
Peko isn't known as a superstar player around the league, but he has been a staple of the Cincinnati defense for a decade. If The Bengals were able to grab a player worthy of being his replacement in Round 4, it has to be considered a steal.
Interestingly, Peko was also selected in Round 4 (123rd overall) back in 2006.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints grabbed former Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas in the middle of the second round, 47th overall. For some, this is right where Thomas should have gone. However, we might well look back in three years and talk about how the Saints stole one of the top receivers in the 2016 draft.
Five receivers were selected before Thomas, and four of those were drafted in the first round.
The 6'3", 212-pound Thomas should immediately be an asset in the New Orleans offense. He has the size and skills to step in and replace the departed Marques Colston. In a couple of seasons, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Thomas replace the speedy yet smaller Brandin Cooks as Drew Brees' top option.
Bleacher Report's Miller named Thomas as his top receiver prospect in this year's draft class, believing him to be an NFL starter as a rookie.
"Thomas is a No. 1 receiver in the NFL," Miller wrote. "Put him in the 'X' and get him the ball. He has the skills to make an early impact in any offensive system."
Because Thomas is entering a Sean Payton offense with Brees at quarterback, he will receive early and frequent opportunities to produce big numbers. This should jump-start what will likely be a long NFL career and could lead to early Pro Bowl consideration.
Thomas will never be considered as big a steal as Colston, who was drafted in the seventh round. However, he has the potential to have a very similar career, and there's a good chance it will outshine the careers of several of the receivers drafted before him.
Scooby Wright III, LB, Cleveland Browns
Former Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III fell all the way into the seventh round, where the Cleveland Browns grabbed him with the 250th overall pick. Though the Browns have a recent history of draft misfires, this could wind up being one of the biggest steals in the draft.
Wright was limited to three games in 2015 because of a knee injury. This, along with a lack of elite athleticism and size, caused Wright's draft stock to tumble. The 6'0", 239-pound linebacker ran the 40 in 4.90 seconds at the scouting combine.
Yet, in the right system, Wright has the potential to be an absolute animal. He proved as much two seasons ago, when he racked up 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles. Wright can be the type of intelligent, instinctive inside linebacker the Browns need in their 3-4 base defense.
“I am a monster Scooby Wright fan,” NFL Network’s Charles Davis said predraft, per Michael Lev of the Arizona Daily Star. “We have that term of ‘ball magnet.’ Some guys are around it. He was way better than that. He wasn’t a ball magnet. The guy went and took it or made a tackle that knocked it free. The analysts—the people who break down film for a living—love his tape."
Wright isn't likely to step into the NFL and become a star. On Cleveland's talent-devoid roster, however, he can compete for playing time and eventually emerge as a starter. By his second or third season, he might even become one of the leaders on the Cleveland defense.
Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus listed Wright as one of the best picks in the 2016 draft and explained why he can be an asset in Cleveland.
"He’ll likely only be a two-down player at the next level," Renner wrote. "But no one in the class is quicker with their run-reads than Wright."
If Cleveland ends up with a quality starting linebacker from the seventh round, it has to be considered a steal.
Jerell Adams, TE, New York Giants
The New York Giants landed former South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams in the sixth round of the draft, with pick No. 184 overall.
Normally, tight ends selected this late in the draft are those of the block-first variety or those who are physically impressive but untested. Adams is one of the only tight ends in this class with the potential to excel in multiple roles.
The 6'5", 247-pound Adams is a capable in-line blocker and is relatively polished in this department. He also possesses nearly elite athleticism for his size—as evidenced by the position-leading 4.64-second 40 he ran at the combine. Adams also produced an impressive 4.31-second short shuttle.
In the right system and with a little polish added to his game, Adams could develop into a top-level receiving tight end. He caught 28 passes for 421 yards and a 15.0 yards-per-reception average last year at South Carolina. Given an opportunity to catch passes from Eli Manning in Ben McAdoo's offense, Adams' numbers should get much stronger.
“From a physical tools standpoint, there’s a lot to like with Jerell Adams,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said during the draft, per Josh Kendall of the State. “I actually thought he was one of the top five most underrated players in this class, big play threat with length. He can be your slot receiver."
It could take a year or two for Adams to earn a prominent role in the offense, but his ability to block and catch should get him on the field early and often. Three years from now, he could be the top tight end in New York.
The Giants have Larry Donnell, who has shown flashes of promise. However, he is coming off an injury-plagued campaign and entering the final year of his current deal. Adams could be "the guy" at tight end for the Giants in a few seasons. If so, he'll be viewed as a major steal in the sixth round.
Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys
At first glance, the Dallas Cowboys' selection of former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall pick in the draft might not seem like a huge bargain. Because of the knee injury he suffered at the tail end of last season, Smith isn't expected to play in 2016. Plus, Dallas did spend a high second-round pick on him.
The reality, however, is that Smith could wind up being the best overall player to come out of this draft class.
"The top-ranked player in the draft class at the time of his knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, if Jaylon Smith can return to the player he was at Notre Dame, he’ll be special in the NFL," Bleacher Report's Miller wrote of Smith before the draft.
Smith will have to get back to pre-injury form and stay there, of course, but the Cowboys are apparently confident that he can do that. Dallas had plenty of knowledge about the state of Smith's injured knee before the draft. Dr. Dan Cooper, who is the Cowboys' team physician, performed Smith's surgery.
“It definitely helped when their team doctor does the surgery,” Smith said, per Todd Archer of ESPN.com. “And I’m very thankful.”
For three years, Smith was usually the best player on the field as a member of the Fighting Irish. Three years from now, he could be one of the best players out there when the Cowboys take the field.
NFL Media's Charles Davis compared Smith to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during the predraft process. Kuechly is arguably the best sideline-to-sideline defender in the NFL today, and to grab a player of his caliber with the third pick in Round 2 is remarkable.
Devontae Booker, RB, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos snagged a new potential franchise quarterback at the end of Round 1 during draft weekend, but that isn't the pick we're here to discuss. Instead, we're going to look at former Utah running back Davontae Booker. Denver selected Booker with the 136th overall pick, and he might just be the team's future franchise running back.
The 5'11", 219-pound Booker was one of those rare collegiate backs who proved he could do it all in 2015. He rushed for 1,261 yards, caught 37 passes and scored 11 touchdowns this past season. His ability to contribute in all phases of the game should get him early playing time in the Denver offense.
"As a receiver, Booker is arguably the best in the class of running backs," Bleacher Report's Miller wrote before the draft. "He naturally looks the ball in and can make sideline grabs with impressive footwork and concentration. He's more than just a screen back and can be an effective member of the passing game."
The Broncos made a long-term commitment to running back C.J. Anderson this offseason but only signed Ronnie Hillman to a one-year, $2 million deal. If Booker doesn't overtake Hillman on the depth chart this season, he will likely replace him in Denver's two-back attack after the campaign. From there, he could push his way into the starting-back role.
Remember, Anderson only earned the right to start six games during the regular season in 2015. A long-term deal doesn't automatically make him the top guy.
"If Booker stays healthy, we'll look at back at this pick as being one of the best in the 2016 draft," NFL Media's Mark Dulgerian said of Booker's selection. "From his versatility to his one-cut downhill style, this is a great fit."
If Booker emerges as a major piece of the Broncos offense within the next few years, he'll be viewed as a fourth-round steal—especially if the Broncos remain a title contender.
Max Tuerk, C, San Diego Chargers
Former USC center Max Tuerk dropped in the draft because of a late-season ACL injury that ended his 2015 campaign. However, the San Diego Chargers were happy to grab him in the third round, 66th overall. Tuerk's injury isn't expected to prevent him from preparing for the coming season, and the Chargers feel confident that he can step in and compete right away for a starting job.
“We’re going to compete at every position,” Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said, per Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. “That’s the best thing about it. And that’s one big reason why we brought [Tuerk] in here, is to compete for the job.”
One reason why Tuerk has a starting opportunity is that the Chargers are in serious need of an upgrade. Pro Football Focus rated last year's starter, Trevor Robinson, dead last among 65 centers for the 2015 season.
The 6'5", 298-pound Tuerk is an incredible athlete at the center position and a true asset in the running game. This should be terrific news for 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon, who struggled to find inside lanes last season.
"The best-moving center in the draft," Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus wrote after Tuerk's selection. "Watching Tuerk pull and locate targets in the run game is a thing of beauty."
Tuerk should emerge as San Diego's starting center this season. With a couple of years of seasoning, he could emerge as one of the top run-blocking centers in the league and a Pro Bowl talent. Some may scoff at the idea of a center being a steal, but Tuerk can likely secure a position for the next decade in San Diego. Getting him in Round 3 is a steal.
Jonathan Bullard, DL, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears scooped up former Florida defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard with the 72nd overall pick in the draft, likely in an attempt to upgrade their defensive front against the run.
Pro Football Focus rated Chicago just 25th overall in run defense this past season.
Bullard seems to be the type of player Chicago needed to add to its defensive line, and he looks like a potential steal. The 6'3", 285-pounder is quick, versatile and tough against the run. He racked up 66 tackles and 17.5 tackles for a loss last season.
"Bullard’s best attribute is his strength against the run," Bleacher Report's Miller wrote before the draft. "He’s rarely moved off his spot and has the toughness and instincts to split blockers and attack the ball. His closing speed is eye-opening—and is backed up by a 4.56-second 20-yard shuttle time."
In Chicago's 3-4 base alignment, Bullard projects as a run-stuffing, edge-setting end. He should immediately make the front more efficient against the run. However, he has the skills to move inside to tackle in sub-packages and to eventually bring a pass-rush presence.
Bullard's pass-rushing skills are a work in progress, but he did log 6.5 sacks in 2015. If he can refine his technique, Bullard is likely to become a true three-down lineman in the Bears defense. He has the goods to become a longtime starter for Chicago and develop into a Pro Bowl defensive lineman. A few years from now, he'll also likely be viewed as a mid-round steal.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens snagged former Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon late in the fourth round of the draft, 134th overall, and they may well have landed themselves a franchise running back in doing so.
Dixon has the size teams want from an every-down running back at 5'10" and 215 pounds. He is also physical at the point of attack and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Last season, he rushed for 1,070 yards with 19 touchdowns and a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. He finished his collegiate career with more than 4,400 rushing yards, 88 receptions and a whopping 87 total touchdowns.
However, past statistics and physical traits don't make Dixon a potential steal on their own. Dixon can be viewed as a major steal in a few years because he has all the potential needed to emerge as the Ravens' franchise running back.
Standing in front of Dixon on Baltimore's depth chart now are the likes of Terrance West, Javorius Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro and—ahem—Trent Richardson. Dixon has the potential to jump all of them this season and may even edge out 30-year-old starter Justin Forsett before season's end.
At the very least, Dixon should have a shot at becoming Baltimore's change-of-pace back, which is a big role in a Marc Trestman offense. Trestman loves to involve his running backs in the passing game, and Dixon has the goods to excel in one.
Dixon's hard running style, big-play ability and skills as a receiver should earn him a shot at the starting job in Baltimore by his second or third season. From there, we could be talking about 1,000-yard seasons, Pro Bowl appearances and how much of a steal Dixon turned out to be. He is nearly as complete a back as can be found in this draft class.
Bleacher Report's Miller ranked Dixon as his second-best back in this draft class. Only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was ranked higher, and he went fourth overall. Baltimore's grabbing Dixon at the tail end of Round 4 is a steal.