The 2015 NFL Draft features a strong collection of talent that should rival the impact of the star-studded 2011 and 2012 classes. Just as those classes featured a handful of transcendent stars at the top of the board, this class is brimming with dazzling playmakers on both sides of the ball.
While most of the pre-draft attention has centered on the potential of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota as franchise quarterbacks, I believe the strength of the 2015 class resides at wide receiver, running back, defensive tackle and pass rusher. While Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker are dynamic pass catchers capable of making an immediate impact from Day 1, it's also quite possible that Nelson Agholor, Devin Smith, Phillip Dorsett and Tyler Lockett make bigger splashes as underrated rookies.
The narrative about the devaluation of running backs will change this season, with Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon expected to go off the board on Day 1. Both runners possess the core traits (size, speed, vision, physicality and big-play ability) evaluators covet in workhorse runners, which is why each ranks as a top-25 prospect on nearly every draft board around the league. With evaluators also holding Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah and T.J. Yeldon in high regard, the running back position could regain its marquee status going forward.
On the defensive side of the ball, coaches and scouts should love the talent along the front line. The 2015 class features big-bodied run stoppers with pass rush skills (Leonard Williams, Danny Shelton, Eddie Goldman, Malcom Brown and Jordan Phillips), yet the sizzle comes when evaluators take extended looks at the DPRs (designated pass rushers) in the group. Vic Beasley, Shane Ray, Dante Fowler Jr. and Randy Gregory have the potential to wreak havoc off the edges with their unique pass-rushing styles. Schematic fit ultimately could determine the individual success of each player, but I believe this class of DPRs is the most polished group to enter the league since 2011.
After taking some time to break the 2015 class into three tiers (elites, blue-chip prospects and red-chip prospects), here's how I stack the top prospects on the board heading into draft weekend:
These players should earn Pro Bowl recognition early in their careers and rank among the top five players at their respective positions in two to three years.
1) Leonard Williams, DE, USC
2) Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
3) Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
4) Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
5) Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
6) Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson
These prospects are regarded as difference makers based solely on their talent. They should start as rookies and make immediate contributions to their respective teams.
1) Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
2) DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
3) Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
4) Shane Ray, DE/OLB, Missouri
5) Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB, Florida
6) Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
7) Landon Collins, S, Alabama
8) La'el Collins, OL, LSU
9) Brandon Scherff, OL, Iowa
10) Marcus Peters, CB, Washington
11) Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
12) Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon
13) Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska
14) Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford
15) Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
Blue-chip players should possess the requisite critical factors (athleticism, football intelligence, explosiveness and production) to project as difference makers at the NFL level. They might have a flaw or deficiency that shows up on tape, but their consistent dominance of top competition suggests they'll enjoy long-term success as pros.
Red-chip players exhibit several blue-chip qualities and characteristics but lack the consistent profile of their counterparts. For reasons ranging from substandard physical dimensions and athleticism to inconsistent on-field performance, players in the red-chip category are regarded as a notch below elite. In the right situation, however, they could emerge as Pro Bowlers and impact players.
These guys should contribute as part-time players initially before finishing the season as starters for their respective teams. In addition, they should be key contributors on special teams units and provide timely playmaking in their designated roles.
1) Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest
2) Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami
3) Jalen Collins, CB, LSU
4) Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State
5) Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
6) Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky
7) Cameron Erving, OL, Florida State
8) T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh
9) Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State
10 Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami
11) Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
12) Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
13) Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
14) Nelson Agholor, WR, USC
15) Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
16) P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State
17) Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon
18) Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota
19) Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
20) Phillip Dorsett, WR, Miami
21) Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
22) T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
23) Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State
24) Damarious Randall, S, Arizona State
25) D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida
Several red-chip players will come off the board in Round 1, but many more will make an immediate impact in the NFL beyond their draft status. Here are five red-chip players poised to thrive in the NFL in 2015:
1) Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest: The most effective rookie cover corners are typically polished technicians with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills. Thus, it's very likely Johnson will outshine some of his more heralded peers, thanks to his superb footwork, agility and ball skills. The former Demon Deacon enters the league well-versed in a variety of techniques (bump-and-run, bail, off) that will allow him to earn playing time immediately in any scheme. More importantly, Johnson's experience employing a variety of tactics as a collegian will provide him with enough tools to challenge the top receivers in the NFL from Day 1. Although he certainly will lose his fair share of battles on the perimeter, Johnson's savvy and guile should make him a competitive playmaker as a rookie starter.
2) Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami: Good football players sometimes get overlooked when evaluators place a greater emphasis on physical dimensions than game film. If Perryman -- an undersized linebacker -- experiences a slide on draft day, I expect him to outperform his draft status with exceptional production as a first-year pro. Perryman possesses all of the core traits (instincts, awareness, toughness and anticipation) to shine as a "Mike" linebacker in the NFL. Most importantly, he is a menacing presence hell-bent on delivering knockout shots to runners in the hole. Given the impact an instinctive hard-hitter can make on a defense between the hashes, it's possible Perryman works his way into the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
3) Nelson Agholor, WR, USC: Buzz has been building around the ex-USC standout since scouts started digging deeper into his game. Evaluators are smitten with his superb route-running ability, soft hands and explosive running skills on the perimeter. Agholor possesses solid size (over 6-foot) and is capable of delivering big plays on the outside or in the slot in a West Coast offense. Considering Agholor's exceptional return skills and positional flexibility, it's possible he transitions from a WR2 to a WR1 very early in his NFL career.
4) Duke Johnson, RB, Miami: With his small stature, it's easy to cast Johnson as strictly a change-of-pace back. But an extensive examination of his tape reveals a dynamite runner with the potential to anchor a ground game as a workhorse player. Johnson is a natural cut-back runner with exceptional balance and body control who also displays the grit and toughness to pound it between tackles on inside runs. Given that Johnson can produce big plays in the passing game on swings and screens, he could morph into a LeSean McCoy clone in the right situation.
5) Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State: Top prospects with family ties to the NFL are expected by many scouts to quickly acclimate to the pro game, given that they should be familiar with what it takes to compete at the highest level. Considering Lockett's legacy (his dad, Kevin, spent seven seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL, while his uncle, Aaron, was a return specialist in both the NFL and Canadian Football League), it's not surprising that he's an accomplished playmaker with a polished game. Lockett is an electric receiver adept at getting open through precise route-running on the perimeter. He shows exceptional savvy setting defenders up with clever dekes and stutter-step moves at the top of routes, making him nearly impossible to guard in one-on-one matchups. Lockett is also an electric return man with a tremendous feel for finding creases with the ball in his hands. Given the potential impact an explosive slot receiver/return specialist can make on an offense, I believe Lockett will contribute immediately.