One thing is clear heading into the 2016 NFL Draft -- there's a decided lack of clarity about the top five.
Just look at NFL.com's Mock Draft Central. The only consensus opinion is that the Jags should take Myles Jack fifth overall. Otherwise, the names and order of the first handful of picks vary significantly.
The thing is, picking in the top five hasn't been an easy slam dunk since 2011, when the draft led off with the impressive quintet of Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Green and Patrick Peterson. In all four drafts since then, drafting in that range has been a very hit-or-miss proposition.
As we continue to grapple with the upper echelon of NFL prospects, I thought I'd look back over the first five players picked in each of the past four drafts and rank them, counting down from 20 to 1. The results below show the pitfalls and possibilities of highly coveted draft slots.
Blackmon, whose latest incidence of off-the-field trouble was an arrest on a DUI charge last December, was suspended indefinitely by the NFL in 2013 and has not played since then, though he's still on Jacksonville's roster via the "reserve/suspended" list. This was just a bad choice by Jacksonville, leading off the final draft class selected by the previous Jaguars regime. Blackmon was very productive at Oklahoma State, but he ran bad routes and lacked the speed to make a real impact in the NFL, even if his off-field isssues hadn't derailed his career.
Miami gave up a pick to Oakland to move up in the first round for Jordan, who just seems to be a man without a position. The former tight end-turned-defender projected as a defensive end in the NFL, but he seems to lack the requisite toughness. He's played in just 26 games (one start) in his pro career, which has, of course, been seriously hampered by a series of suspensions that cost him six games in 2014 and all of the 2015 season.
Richardson flamed out in Cleveland (3.5 yards per carry in 17 games), then was shipped to Indianapolis for a first-round pick early in the 2013 season. Richardson flamed out with the Colts as well, averaging 3.1 yards in 29 games. He missed all of 2015 after a preseason cup of coffee with Oakland went nowhere; most recently, he reached an "unofficial" agreement with the Ravens for 2016. Richardson benefitted from a great offensive line at Alabama. When I saw him in Oakland, he just didn't seem to have the quickness you need to be a good NFL back; he looked to be doing everything half-speed. Still, he's commanded two first-round picks in his brief career, which is more than everyone on this list beside RGIII.
Fowler can't really be graded, because he missed all of his rookie year after tearing his ACL in rookie minicamp last May. But he's got a lot of upside, and I think he'll play well. While he remains untested as a pro, I like his attitude, ability, athleticism and toughness. I think he can eventually surpass Clowney in terms of impact.
Scherff had trouble with pass protection early, but he played much better in the last half of his rookie season. Bill Callahan, Washington's offensive line coach, is as good as they come. He has a chance to improve significantly in his second pro season.
I thought Robinson was going to be a great pro, but now I'm not as sure. He's had problems with pass protection; he doesn't have good pass protection skills or balance. But I think you can coach that. It'll be interesting to see how he does in 2016. I think he got better as the 2015 season wore on.
Kalil has started 64 straight games since entering the NFL, but he's dealt with various injuries and has not played as well in the past two years as he did at the beginning of his career. This is a pivotal season for him, but the Vikings apparently feel that he can come through, as the team signed a right tackle (former Bengal Andre Smith) rather than a left tackle off the market.
Griffin's career has taken some dramatic turns, to say the least. In the span of four years, he led Washington to the playoffs with a Rookie of the Year campaign, was seriously sidetracked by injuries (including a torn ACL and MCL), was benched, missed the 2015 season and was released by the team that moved heaven and earth to draft him. Now he's looking for a job. I don't know if anybody knows how to evaluate him. He has a lot of talent, but have all the hits he's taken slowed him down? I think whoever signs him will hit it big with him, but it's obviously no sure thing. His ability to stay healthy is a question mark.
Joeckel missed all but five games as a rookie thanks to a broken ankle, but he's made 30 starts since. He's very athletic but could stand to get stronger. He looks the part, but is he mean enough for the position? That the Jags signed free agent Kelvin Beachumto compete with Joeckel isn't a great sign.
Clowney has struggled to stay on the field for the duration of his short career; he was limited to 17 games (11 starts) in two seasons by various injuries. He has just 4.5 sacks, all of which came last season. Can he reverse that trend? Clowney has off-the-charts ability and the speed to be an outstanding pass rusher.
Fisher has appeared in 46 games in the past three seasons, making 43 starts. He can play left or right tackle or guard. The tape shows that he plays a lot better than you might think; he does a good job keeping his man out of the play.
Johnson has started 44 games in his three-year career, and he's played left and right tackle. A former high school quarterback, Johnson is a good athlete and very strong. In January, Johnson inked a six-year deal with $35.5 million guaranteed to stay in Philly.
Winston played well for a rookie. He made 16 starts while throwing for 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 picks, with a passer rating of 84.2. With Dirk Koetter moving from offensive coordinator to the head-coaching position in 2016, the offensive system will remain the same. Tampa Bay has several good pass catchers, and I expect Winston to improve rapidly.
Mariota and Winston are very close here, with Mariota barely edging Winston. Aside from when he was sidelined by injury, Mariota exceeded expectations as a rookie, finishing with 19 touchdown passes against 10 picks with a passer rating of 91.5. He's very smart, has good accuracy and can run -- he possesses top-line athletic ability. He'll only get better as he gets more accustomed to calling plays and taking the ball under center.
Cooper had a very good rookie year: 72 catches for 1,070 yards and six scores. He had a few more drops than you'd want to see, but that can and will be corrected. It's hard to become a Pro Bowler at receiver as a rookie, just because of the depth at the position, but Cooper pulled it off. I expect him to be even better in 2016.
Watkins broke the 1,000-yard mark in his second NFL season, racking up 17.5 yards per catch and nine touchdown receptions in 2015. Watkins is a real run-after-the-catch threat with unlimited ability and upside, because of his speed. He just has to work on his short routes and crossing routes.
In his second pro season, Bortles more than doubled his passing touchdowns (from 11 in 2014 to 35 in 2015) and greatly improved his yards-per-attempt figure (6.1 to 7.3) and passer rating (69.5 to 88.2). He's been sacked a lot (106 times in two seasons), but he'd have been sacked even more if he weren't as mobile as he is. He's athletic and accurate, and he throws a good, easy-to-catch ball. Yes, he led the NFL in picks with 18 in 2015, but he'll cut down on those as he gains experience. He's the kind of quarterback who will be able to lift his team to the Super Bowl someday.
Ansah has 30 sacks in his first three years, including 14.5 (good for third in the NFL) in 2015. He's an outstanding pass rusher and excellent competitor who gets better every game. A quick-twitch athlete who tries hard every play, Ansah's upside is off the charts. I remember noticing him on tape when he was in college -- Ansah was the guy who vaulted over the linemen and knocked the quarterback on his butt.
Mack broke out in a major way in 2015, collecting 15 sacks -- second-most in the NFL -- after switching to end. Mack has everything you need to be an All-Pro-type player for many years: speed, quickness and competitiveness. He's an outstanding athlete who will be a force in this league for a long time.