5 low-risk, high-floor prospects in the 2016 NFL draft
After breaking down a handful of boom-or-bust prospects, this list considers the draft-eligible players unlikely to fail at the NFL level. While they perhaps lack the elite potential of some of their peers, they will almost certainly provide a valuable contribution on Sundays. Here are the five prospects from this year’s draft class that I believe fit the “high floor” criteria:
[Editor’s note: Looking for more on the NFL draft? Check out our 2016 NFL draft guide, loaded with scouting reports, signature stats and much more.]
- DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Shaq Lawson is an excellent football player. Lawson isn’t, however, an exceptional edge rusher. He ranked 17th amongst edge defenders as a pass rusher, recording 13 sacks, 12 hits and 25 hurries. Lawson only finished 21st in pass rush productivity amongst 4-3 defensive ends. He lacks the explosion to consistently win with speed off the edge. What Lawson provides, however, is the reliability and discipline to become a complete defensive end. He wins with power, and on counter-moves to the inside, as much as he wins running the arc.
Furthermore, Lawson is an excellent run defender. He ranked second in that facet of play, behind only Joey Bosa amongst edge defenders. Lawson has great instincts, showing a particular aptitude at recognising down blocks, enabling him to keep contain on sweeps and tosses. He also makes his fair share of tackles against the run, finishing with 24 on the year (in addition to just one miss). Assuming his shoulder checks out medically, nothing should hold Lawson back. He may not dominate consistently off the edge, but he’s a complete defensive end capable of impacting games in both facets of play.
- WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
Slot receivers tend to fall on draft day, which is a strange phenomenon considering the popularity of 11 personnel and the passing game generally in the modern NFL. Shepard possesses every trait necessary to succeed against nickel corners in the pro game. He has the short-area quickness and burst to shake free underneath, as well as the long speed to get behind defensive backs vertically. Shepard’s athletic traits, combined with precise route running, make him a nightmare to cover. He also possesses the hands and body control to make tough catches. Overall he dropped just four of 90 catchable targets in 2015.
In addition, Shepard flashed the ability to toe-tap along the sideline, as well as box out defensive backs over the middle and make catches in traffic. He is also a willing and effective blocker. The one criticism of Shepard concerns his effectiveness with the ball in his hands. For a player as adept at generating separation during his route, Shepard should have broken more than the 12 tackles he managed in 2015. He is not quite as dynamic in the open-field as some of the other top prospects in this class. Still, I believe Shepard’s impressive route running, strong hands and willingness to block make him a safe option in the 2016 draft.
- DT Jarran Reed, Alabama
If the NFL built robots to play football, the nose tackle prototype would look a lot like Jarran Reed. The Crimson Tide’s run stopper is a plug-and-play starter in a two-gap front. No defensive lineman displays a greater ability to stack and shed guards and centers better than Reed. He wins with power off the snap, reads the run direction by peeking into backfield while controlling his blocker, then sheds either side to make the stop. Reed even flashes the ability to control his blocker whilst moving laterally to make plays around the line of scrimmage. He ended the year ranked second against the run amongst edge defenders, despite taking only 543 snaps.
Nose tackles aren’t predominantly responsible for applying pressure, which is just as well because Reed recorded only three knockdowns in the entirety of 2015. The inability to push the pocket likely limits Reed’s ceiling, but Damon Harrison’s free agency contract proves the perceived value of impact run defenders. Reed still has a little room to improve against double teams, but will almost certainly be an effective two-down run stuffer in Week 1 of the season.
- HB Ezekiel Elliot, Ohio State
If you’ve missed the debate regarding Ezekiel Elliot’s value, its well worth checking out both the article and podcast. Elliot’s value lies in his capacity to contribute in every facet of the game. He identifies and attacks blitzers in pass protection, winning the block on first contact. Elliot also catches the football smoothly, offering an outlet in the passing game. As an overall prospect, Elliot stands out. The issue is whether or not he’s an elite runner. He flashes exceptional burst through tight creases, ripping off long runs when the play is well blocked. Elliot also generally makes the first defender miss when he’s able to get up to full speed.
Elliot’s issues crop up when he’s disrupted in the backfield. When the play breaks down, he’s not always able to generate positive yardage or find a cutback lane. Elliot is also only a reliable, rather than dynamic, receiver. He dropped just a single pass with 26 receptions in 2015, but also broke only a pair of tackles. Elliot wasn’t featured in the passing game much at OSU, but still only recorded the 37th highest receiving grade. Whether a player of Zeke’s profile is worthy of a top-10 pick remains up for debate, but he’s at the very least an effective running back that can contribute in a number of ways.
- DT Jonathan Bullard, Florida
Bullard is particularly intriguing because he uses his explosion so effectively as a run defender, unlike when rushing the passer. His quickness off the snap enabled Bullard to live in opposing backfields. It’s the major reason why he recorded 36 stops without missing a tackle, as well as the top FBS grade against the run. Bullard also flashes the strength to stand up offensive lineman, and patiently read and react from the line of scrimmage.
Bullard’s versatility to defend the run is, unfortunately, only matched by his limitations as a pass rusher. Once he gets into offensive lineman with his explosive first step, Bullard lacks the variety of pass rush moves to consistently defeat the blocker. He is at his most effective using power moves, lacking the technique to shed against the pass. Overall Bullard combined for just 29 pressures, finishing as our 87th-ranked pass rusher. Bullard, with the versatility to line up inside and outside, will at least be an impact run defender in the pros.