Sure, we have a couple more days of speculation, mock drafts and smoke screens being thrown out there, but the 2016 NFL draft is nearly upon us.
The names are ingrained in our minds by now: Goff, Wentz, Ramsey, Elliott, Tunsil, Bosa.
So with everybody pointing to Thursday night and Day 1 of the 2016 draft, we’re going to spin it forward a little bit and give you a list of players to make sure you enjoy during the 2016 college football season because they more than likely will be a part of the 2017 NFL draft festivities.
We’ve ranked the top 10 true juniors or redshirt sophomores for the 2016 season based on their pro potential. These third-year players will be eligible for the draft next year since they will have been out of high school for three years.
We’ve talked to coaches, scouts and other media members, and we’ve gone back and studied the tape. We’ve ranked the first 10 and are including 10 more, in alphabetical order, who could jump into that group by season’s end. One word of warning: A lot can (and will) change over the course of the next year.
But here goes:
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Yes, it’s true that no running back has been selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft since Ki-Jana Carter in 1995 (and Carter’s career was derailed by injuries),but Fournette is on another planet when it comes to running backs. After watching Fournette’s high school tape, a longtime NFL and college coach marveled that it was the best tape he’d ever seen from a high school running back. In other words, guys like Fournette don’t come around very often, and when they do, you grab them as soon as you get the chance.
2. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Pass-rushers are always at a premium come draft time, and Garrett has already caused a buzz among NFL scouts with his explosiveness off the edge and his ability to gobble up quarterbacks. He has a super work ethic, unbelievable wheels for a 6-foot-5, 262-pound defensive end, and an ultra-impressive resume. In two seasons, he has 32 tackles for loss, including 25.5 sacks, and he forced five fumbles last season. Garrett will be the No. 1 player overall on a lot of teams’ draft boards.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
When last seen on a football field, Watson was busy torching Alabama’s vaunted defense for 478 total yards and four touchdowns. He’s extremely accurate throwing the deep ball, and at 6-2 and 205 pounds, he has the ability to escape and move the chains that has become even more important in today’s NFL game. Watson has shown toughness and poise in key situations and is the kind of leader who elevates the play of everybody around him.
4. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Sketch out what an NFL left tackle should look like, and you’re probably drawing a picture of the 6-6, 327-pound Robinson. NFL clubs are always looking for franchise quarterbacks, but those same NFL clubs are also perennially in search of the guys who can protect the quarterback’s blind side. Some close to the Alabama program think Robinson can be one of the best to come out of there in the Nick Saban era. Robinson is as talented as he is competitive, and he’s equally bright. He’ll be the centerpiece of somebody’s offensive line for a long time.
5. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
The 6-6, 280-pound McDowell is built like a defensive end but plays inside for the Spartans and is a nightmare to block with his combination of length, size and power. Go back and watch tape of the Alabama game last season. The Crimson Tide had to adjust some things early in their run game because McDowell was so disruptive with his penetration and would then separate from the blocks with his long arms. It’s rare that guys as tall as McDowell play inside, but he’s plenty stout at the point of attack and can also rush the passer. And those guys tend to come off the board very quickly.
6. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
How many people had Jared Goff going with the No. 1 overall pick this time a year ago? Quarterbacks with the arm strength and skill of Kaaya always have a chance to move up into the top few picks of the draft. It will be interesting to see what the 6-4, 210-pound Kaaya does this season with Mark Richt taking over at Miami. Kaaya is already a very accurate passer who threw for more than 3,200 yards last season. If he puts it all together in 2016, he could be one of the fastest risers of the true juniors.
7. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
One thing we know for sure about Smith-Schuster is that he doesn’t mind filling big shoes. Last season, he stepped in as the Trojans’ No. 1 receiver after Nelson Agholor left for the NFL, and the 6-2, 215-pounder delivered with 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns (all team bests). Smith-Schuster broke his right hand against Cal and had surgery, but he didn’t miss any playing time while playing with a soft cast. With his blend of size, speed and toughness, he’s only going to get better.
8. Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Jim Harbaugh suggested last season that Peppers could end up being the “Willie Mays of football.” That’s quite a compliment, but the 6-1, 208-pound Peppers is a difference-maker no matter where he lines up. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, playing mostly at safety. He’s moving to outside linebacker in the Wolverines’ scheme for next season and could also be a factor on offense and special teams. NFL teams love his cover skills, making him a player who could wear a lot of different hats. He was injured during the first part of his first season on campus and redshirted, so he has played only one full season of college football.
9. Adoree’ Jackson, CB/RS, USC
The Trojans are the only team to place two players in the top 10. The 5-11, 185-pound Jackson is one of college football’s most versatile and exciting players. He scored touchdowns last season on offense, defense and special teams, and he’s entering his third season as one of the Trojans’ starting cornerbacks. Also an elite long jumper in track, Jackson has everything it takes to be a shutdown cornerback at the next level. A big junior season would make him a hot commodity.
10. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
One of the Gators’ former cornerbacks, Vernon Hargreaves III, is expected to go in the first round on Thursday. As good and polished as Hargreaves was, several in and around the Florida program think Tabor is even better. The 6-foot, 200-pound Tabor has the kind of press coverage skills NFL teams covet and had four interceptions last season, including two that he returned for touchdowns. Cornerbacks who can match up one-on-one with elite receivers are always in demand, and Tabor fits that bill.
Ten more who could jump into the top 10
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
KD Cannon, WR, Baylor
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama
Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Christian McCaffrey, RB/RS, Stanford
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State