The 2016 NFL Draft still has yet to play out, but scouts have already proclaimed this collection of prospects to be one of the most talented in years, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Evaluators have raved about the defensive tackle class, based on the collective athleticism and versatility of the blue-chip prospects in the group. With the linebackers and safeties featuring a number of menacing "run and chase" defenders, defensive coordinators are salivating over the possibility of adding foundational players to the mix.
At defensive tackle, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins and Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche are ultra-athletic defenders with exceptional first-step quickness and hand skills. Although Nkemdiche has been a bit of an underachiever, based on his immense talent and pedestrian production, he has the potential to emerge as a difference maker in the right pro environment. Teams in need of run stuffers could look to Alabama's A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler or Baylor's Andrew Billings as possibilities.
On the edges, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence show promise as pass rushers. Each possesses the hand skills and savvy to create chaos off the edge -- but neither displays the explosiveness of Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah. The straight-line power rusher has the potential to win consistently with a "bull in a china shop" game that is built on strength and power.
In the back end, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Florida's Vernon Hargreaves command attention as perimeter defenders with All-Pro tools. Each is fiercely competitive on the field, but it's their combination of technical skills and football IQ that sets them apart from the rest of the DB prospects.
At one point, quarterbacks were not expected to headline the 2016 NFL Draft. In recent weeks, though, the Rams and Eagles traded up for the first and second overall selections, respectively, and now Cal's Jared Goff and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz are expected to come off the board with the first two picks. Despite needing some time to develop into franchise quarterbacks, each passer possesses the requisite tools (arm talent, intelligence, accuracy and anticipation) to eventually thrive at the position.
Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott could lead a running back renaissance, with Alabama's Derrick Henry and Utah's Devontae Booker joining him as hard-nosed runners with rock-solid games. Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise and Alabama's Kenyan Drake aren't highly touted, but both players could emerge as Pro Bowl-caliber specialists (third-down backs) in pass-heavy offenses.
Speaking of passing games, while the wide receiver class doesn't possess the star quality of the last few years, TCU's Josh Doctson, Baylor's Corey Coleman and Mississippi's Laquon Treadwell specialize in scoring in the red zone. Arkansas' Hunter Henry is the crown jewel of a tight end class that otherwise offers few options in the early rounds.
The offensive line group is loaded at offensive tackle, with Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil, Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley, Michigan State's Jack Conklin and Ohio State's Taylor Decker looking like Day 1 starters with bright futures. They could be joined by Texas A&M's Germain Ifedi and Texas Tech's Le'Raven Clark as first-round selections. Alabama's Ryan Kelly could be the most polished pivot prospect to enter the NFL in the last five years.
How does the newest crop of rising rookies stack up from the standpoint of pure pro potential? I've grouped them into the following categories below: All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and red-star prospects:
These are the elite prospects in this class -- they should rank among the top five players at their respective positions in two to three years.
These prospects are regarded as difference makers based solely on their talent. They should make immediate contributions as rookies and rank among the top 10 at their position within two to three years.
1) Jared Goff, QB, California
2) Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State
3) Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame
4) Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
5) Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
6) Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
7) Laquon Treadwell, WR, Mississippi
8) DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
9) Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
10) Cody Whitehair, OG, Kansas State
11) Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
12) Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State
13) Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
14) Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
15) Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
16) Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Mississippi
On the "Move the Sticks" podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I frequently discuss how scouts will stand on the table for guys they believe will outperform their draft status. In scouting parlance, these players are called "red-star" guys, because they are destined to make it in the league regardless of their circumstances. After surveying the 2016 class for players with the right skills and intangibles to perform better than their draft grades suggest, here are my five red-star prospects to watch:
1) Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State: It's uncommon for a prototypical dropback quarterback with an unbeaten record (11-0), championship hardware and A+ arm talent to languish on the bottom of the draft board, but that appears to be the case with Jones. The 6-foot-5, 253-pound signal caller is rarely mentioned among the top prospects at the position, despite showing exceptional poise, arm talent and playmaking ability while guiding the Buckeyes to the national championship on an impressive three-game run against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in the 2014 season. Although his skeptics will point to an inconsistent 2015 performance marred by questionable accuracy and judgment, along with a subsequent benching, as reasons for concern, the fact that he played well on the biggest and brightest stage without a lot of preparation time suggest that he has the talent to succeed at the next level. If scouts diligently dig into his background and consult his former offensive coordinator (Tom Herman) on the best way to tap into his potential, a team could hit on a diamond in the rough at the game's most important position.
2) Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh: Whenever a prospect eclipses a handful of records at a school that was previously attended by a perennial Pro Bowler, scouts should pay close attention to the player's game, because he could follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Thus, evaluators should affix a red-star sticker next to Boyd's name on the draft board after watching the Panthers standout set new career records at Pittsburgh in receptions (254) and receiving yards (3,361), outpacing Larry Fitzgerald (who was at fifth on both lists entering 2015). Boyd also finished with 91 receptions in 2015, one behind Fitzgerald's single-season reception record (92, set in 2003). I believe scouts should spend more time studying Boyd's game and his impressive feats as a WR1. From shining as a catch-and-run specialist to showcasing his strong hands and superb ball skills on a number of acrobatic catches, Boyd projects as a spectacular playmaker capable of thriving as a "chain mover" for an offense built around a passing game that works extensively between the numbers. With dependable playmakers coveted at a premium, Boyd should shine as a WR1 or WR2 on the perimeter.
3) C.J. Prosise, RB, Notre Dame: The pass-happy nature of the NFL has allowed several running backs with exceptional receiving skills to carve out roles as big-play specialists from the backfield. Creative offensive coordinators are not only targeting running backs on swings, screens and option routes, but they are using them as traditional receivers in some spread and empty formations to exploit favorable matchups on the perimeter. Thus, a running back with extensive experience as a wide receiver should thrive in a multi-faceted offense that uses the "factor back" prominently in the passing game. That's why I believe Prosise could eventually make a Matt Forte-like impact as a pro. He is a natural cutback runner with outstanding balance and body control, yet he runs routes and catches passes like a legitimate receiver on the edges. Considering how offensive play callers can craft a variety of packages and plays that put the running back in one-on-one matchups in space, it is possible that Prosise makes the biggest impact of any running back in the class as a multi-purpose threat in the backfield.
4) Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame: Hustle and effort are not viewed as talents in scouting circles, but blue-collar players have a way of making an impact in the league when they combine their industriousness with a solid set of skills. Day is a relentless defender with outstanding hands and first-step quickness. He overwhelms opponents with his non-stop effort and diverse counter tactics at the line, which makes him a dangerous interior pass rusher. In addition, Day is a stout run defender capable of playing with leverage and power against single or double teams. These skills should make him a solid contributor as a three-down defender, which is invaluable in today's game.
5) Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama: It is hard to find polished cover corners with the requisite toughness, instincts and ball skills to thrive as nickel corners from Day 1. Jones not only exhibits all of the qualities needed to thrive as a slot or boundary corner at the next level, but he is a spectacular return man with a knack for producing big plays with the ball in his hands. He is one of the most elusive returners in the country, yet he also displays the discipline to take the positive gain over the flashy play in pivotal moments. As a result, Jones consistently rewards his team with good field position, which is critical in today's game. With more and more teams looking for explosive two-phase (offense or defense and special teams) playmakers, Jones' ability to thrive as a nickel corner and return specialist should make him a valuable commodity for a long time.