By David Parks
As the end of the college football season draws near, players will make their intentions known on whether or not they will chase their NFL dreams or return to school for their senior year(s). With that, comes the inevitable task of ranking draft prospects.
It’s one of the most exact inexact sciences that exist. Few teams do it well, and even then, there’s no such thing as a perfect draft.
Before going over some tidbits on the rankings – a quick note on two prospects I failed to rank and why.
Let’s start with Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche. He’s the uber-talented defensive end/tackle that had a rather rough go of things last weekend. There’s no doubt he has top five talent – but he may very well wind up being this year’s Randy Gregory. In addition to his tumble last weekend, there was also this incident from 2013. One of the factors scouts will weigh when evaluating Nkemdiche will be what role his brother Denzel will play in his life going forward. Denzel is a linebacker at Ole Miss but not nearly the prospect little bro is. Earlier this season Denzel was hospitalized suddenly for rather vague reasons. Let’s put it this way – I have on very good record Denzel likes to party…. A lot. And it’s a lot more than just alcohol. That hospitalization incident? You can do the math. Regardless, Robert is so talented he won’t fall far. But one storyline to keep following is how big of a role Denzel is going to play in his life going forward.
The other is Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington. Last week reports came out Washington was busted for solicitation at a Columbus hotel. At this point he’s charged with a misdemeanor, but that didn’t stop Urban Meyer from suspending the d-tackle from his last collegiate game, the Fiesta Bowl vs. Notre Dame. Like Nkemdiche, Washington is talented, and will inevitably wind up being drafted. But many teams will see this as a red flag. Was this a one-time incident or will this continue to be a pattern; particularly after being handed millions of dollars? Both of these guys could be first round picks. They could also slip all the way to day three.
Upon ranking the players for the 2016 Draft, a few things stood out.
First, I like this class a lot more than a lot of people. There isn’t the “can’t miss” prospect like in most years, but there’s quality depth to be had all the way through the first round.
Second, if you need a quarterback, this is not the year for you. Paxton Lynch, Jared Goff and Connor Cook are largely considered the top prospects at the position, but would you really feel confident if your team took one of those guys in the top ten? I like Goff the most, but don’t have him as one of the top 40 prospects in the draft. In fact, I’m not sure I would take any of them before the third round.
Third, the depth along the lines and at safety is outstanding. Of the top 32 prospects, ten are on the defensive front, six are offensive linemen (including four of the top 13 overall) and six are safeties/hybrid prospects.
The school with the most prospects in the top 32? Ohio State with six, followed by Alabama/Michigan State/Ole Miss/UCLA/Florida/Clemson/Notre Dame with two each.
2016 Big Board (1.0)
1) Joey Bosa, DE – Ohio State
Still a little worried about work ethic and overall love of football, but he and the next guy on the list are by far the best defensive players by almost any metric out there. Despite only seven sacks this year, produced 21 hits and 41 hurries while facing plenty of these all season.
2) DeForest Buckner, DE – Oregon
Probably higher than most people have Buckner, but an argument could be made he was the most dominating lineman in the game this past season. And unlike Bosa or any of Alabama’s guys, Buckner wasn’t exactly playing alongside five stars. He was PFF’s top-rated interior lineman and led several categories including pass rush grade, QB pressures (41), stops (30) and run-stop percentage. He got the best of Stanford’s Joshua Garnett when the two went head-to-head and gave Michigan State’s Jack Conklin fits in the run game.
3) Jaylon Smith, LB – Notre Dame
In today’s NFL climate that features increasingly athletic tight ends, wide receivers and running backs, versatile, athletic linebackers are becoming a must for any defense. The 2015 Butkus award winner is the best linebacker in this year’s class and one of the better non-pass rushing linebackers to come out in recent years. Probably more of a 4-3 OLB, but his covers skills make him a viable option in any scheme, something that will only help his value.
4) Laremy Tunsil, OT – Ole Miss
The debate between Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley will last up until draft day and honestly it’s a coin flip at best. In fact, Stanley might have a higher ceiling, but right now Tunsil slightly edges him out. In his first game back from suspension, Tunsil graded out higher than any of his games in 2014 which is significant considering he was going up against likely 2017 first-round pick, Myles Garrett. One area where Tunsil does have a decided advantage on Stanley? Run-blocking.
5) Emmanuel Ogbah, DE/OLB – Oklahoma State
One of the few defensive bright spots in a conference void of many on that side of the ball in recent years. 35.5 TFL and 26.5 sacks since first coming onto the scene in 2013. According to PFF, Ogbah had the highest pass rush grade (+26.8) of any defensive end in the nation (including Bosa and Buckner) as well as 32 hurries through the first eight weeks of 2015.
6) Ronnie Stanley, OT – Notre Dame
No issue with anyone who prefers Stanley over Tunsil. Virtually the only player to give Stanley any problems this year was Clemson’s Shaq Lawson who will make an appearance on the list later on. Worth noting – heading into that Clemson game, Stanley hadn’t allowed a hit, hurry or a sack.
7) Myles Jack, LB – UCLA
A torn meniscus ended his 2015 and ultimately his college career as he decided to train for the draft. His size for a linebacker at the next level is a tad concerning, but he’s so athletic he makes up for it in other ways. Much like Jaylon Smith, his cover skills are outstanding.
8) Vernon Hargreaves III, CB – Florida
Corner is one of the positions that features a clear-cut number one prospect. He doesn’t have gaudy stats – in fact his four interceptions this year are a career high. But it’s not his fault opposing teams don’t throw his direction. Held Laquon Treadwell to 42 yards on just five catches in their win over Ole Miss. As a sophomore, opposing quarterbacks completed only 29 passes for a mere 41.6 QB rating when targeting VH3.
9) Jalen Ramsey, S – Florida State
One of the guys I think played conservative this year to avoid injury before turning pro. Some think he’s a corner at the next level but I don’t buy it.
Bottom line is if you turn on tape of a Noles game, there’s a good chance number 8 (or 13) is flying around the field making plays. His 2014 performance at Miami was still one of the most impressive individual displays I’ve ever seen from a safety.
10) Laquon Treadwell, WR – Ole Miss
Much like Hargreaves being the clear-cut number one at his position, Treadwell is the equivalent to the wide receivers. Big, physical frame that can bully almost any corner off the ball. Bounced back from a scary injury that ended his 2014 season. He’s got a little Dez Bryant in his game.
11) Joshua Garnett, OG – Stanford
Again, important to point out – these are prospect rankings, not order in which they will be drafted. Most will scoff at a guard this high – in reality, this might be low for him. The senior took home the Outland Trophy award in a season that saw him rack up 104 pancake blocks in 13 games. Plus, who doesn’t love watching this.
12) Ezekiel Elliot, RB – Ohio State
The most complete back in this year’s class. He’s not Todd Gurley, but he’ll get a look somewhere toward the back end of the first round. No question he’s an immediate impact guy.
13) Jack Conklin, OT – Michigan State
Yet another offensive lineman in the top 15. Conklin needs to improve his footwork but his strength is mauling defenders in the run game. It doesn’t hurt that he put on a clinic against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship either.
14) Jeremy Cash, S – Duke
Probably the best safety in terms of run support in the box, but can also rush the passer as good as anyone at his position. Three sacks, 12 hits and 15 hurries in pass rush opportunities this year. He’s a better prospect than either Deone Buchannon or Damarious Randall coming out (both went first round). (UPDATE: Cash is going to miss the Pinstripe Bowl due to wrist surgery)
15) Sheldon Rankins, DE – Louisville
One of the lesser-known guys on this list. Like both Bosa and Buckner, probably best suited as a 3-4 DE. Recorded 12 total QB pressures in a two-game stretch against Florida State and Boston College while finishing the season top three in both run-stop percentage and pass rush productivity.
16) Shaq Lawson, DE – Clemson
So much good talent in the ACC this year. DeShaun Watson gets most of the attention (and with good reason), but what’s made Clemson a national title contender is their defensive front – specifically Lawson. 21.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks on the year, and he’s really the only guy to make life difficult for Ronnie Stanley this season which is an indictment all by itself.
17) Su’a Cravens, S/LB – USC
There will inevitably concerns over his position at the next level, but not here. Whether he winds up at safety or outside linebacker in a 4-3, he offers valuable flexibility. Fantastic run supporter who can also defend the Gronks and Eiferts of the world.
18) Yannick Ngakoue, LB – Maryland
Junior that broke onto the scene with 14.5 TFL and 13 sacks in 2015. 7 sacks combined in games vs. Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Still extremely raw – slightly less talented and sized Emmanuel Ogbah.
19) Jason Spriggs, OT – Indiana
Definitely higher than most will have him. He’s not as well-known as fellow Big Ten-ers Conklin or Taylor Decker, but he was the anchor on an Indiana o-line that really improved as the season went on. The Senior Bowl will be massive for him.
20) Scooby Wright, LB – Arizona
Beast in 2014 that unfortunately had his 2015 season cut short after just five quarters of action. Rumor has it he’ll be back for Arizona’s bowl game. A good showing will quell any concerns over his foot injury.
21) Andrew Billings, DT – Baylor
Shawn Oakman gets more attention, but ask any coach in the Big 12 and they’ll almost all say Billings is a bigger key to that defense than Oakman. Big-time run defender who can penetrate a-gaps with ease. Dana Holgorsen said he’s the best nose tackle he’s ever gone against.
22) Michael Thomas, WR – Ohio State
Very similar to Treadwell in terms of size and strength. Touchdowns in all but four games this season despite inconsistent QB play. Very much prefer Thomas to either Josh Doctson or Corey Coleman.
23) Leonard Floyd, OLB – Georgia
May very well have the highest ceiling out of anyone in the class along with Ogbah and Ngakoue. Played more off the ball this year for Jeremy Pruitt which allowed him to do what he does best, rush the passer.
Coverage skills still need some work, but has plenty of value as a pass rusher.
24) Jonathan Bullard, DE/DT – Florida
He, Cash and Spriggs are going to be the hot, under the radar names as the draft process begins to unfold. May very well be the best run defending lineman in the country.
25) Vonn Bell, S – Ohio State
One of the best, deepest safety pools in memory. On a team loaded with talent Bell often flew under the radar but he’s a long, rangy safety that will be in demand with the increase in athleticism of guys on offense.
26) Taylor Decker, OT – Ohio State
Should probably be ranked higher but tough to find a spot. 41 consecutive starts for one of the country’s most prolific offenses. His height (6-7) is almost a downside because he struggles to maintain leverage on opposing linemen.
27) Jayron Kearse, S – Clemson
How’s this for family ties? Kearse is the cousin of former ‘Canes corner Phillip Buchannon and is the newphew of the original “freak,” Jevon Kearse. At 6-4, he’s one of the biggest secondary prospects in this year’s class. Still raw, but he’s got massive potential.
28) Kenny Clark, DT – UCLA
Increased his numbers across the board despite key teammates going down due to injuries. Generated an impressive 24 QB hurries from the DT position and tied for the lead in stops (30) with Buckner.
29) Shilique Calhoun, DE/OLB – Michigan State
Incredible production since bursting onto the scene as a sophomore. 41 TFL and 26 sacks as a three-year starter including a career-high 10.5 this season. Like his teammate Conklin, was easily his unit’s best player vs. Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.
30) Jarran Reed, DT – Alabama
Sat down to watch A’Shawn Robinson and Reggie Ragland and wound up being distracted by Reed, the mammoth in the middle of Bama’s defense. Dominant against the run and does what you want a tackle to do – clog up space.
31) Darron Lee, OLB/S – Ohio State
The sixth Buckeye to make the cut, much like Vonn Bell, often times gets lost on a team full of stars. Only question is what position does he translate to in the NFL? His 235 pound frame is a concern for teams that view him as a linebacker.
32) Reggie Ragland, LB – Alabama
Another guy that should probably be higher. Not sure he does anything great, but does everything well. Only reason I hesitate to go higher is the insane front four Alabama had this season.
A’Shawn Robinson, DE/DT – Alabama
Sheldon Day, DE/DT – Notre Dame
Maliek Collins, DT – Nebraska
Mackenzie Alexander, CB – Clemson
Spencer Drango, OT – Baylor
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