NFL draft: Thomas, Watt among safest prospects on defense

Transitioning from college to pro football is no picnic. The schemes are more complex, and the players are bigger, stronger and more mature.

Some collegiate stars can make an instant (and sustained) impact. They typically come from major programs with pro-style talent and schemes. Or they might have grown up in a football family where the intricacies of the game are now second-nature. Some prospects might not have NFL genes or play at a SEC school, but have the athletic traits, work ethic, and mental aptitude to transfer their games to the next level.

Below are eight college stars on defense that I believe can be safely picked early in the draft with the expectation of having a long, distinguished career.

NOTE: Click on each player's name for a full scouting report and click through the tabs above to see the safest prospects on offense and defense.

Most expect the Browns to select Garrett at No. 1 to set the edge and make a home in the backfield of Cleveland's opponents. The floor on Garrett is high, as he's likely to accumulate 8-10 sacks a year and do his job vs. the run, even if he doesn't become a dominant pass rusher who racks up 12-15 sacks every season.

Team fits:Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers ... and everyone else, but they won't get a chance to pick him.

Forget about his average height and length. Thomas is what scouts call a "War Daddy" -- someone who brings strength and intensity on every play. He'll be an impact player for the next decade. A team will get a bargain if he slides out of the top five,.

Adams doesn't have the elite back-end speed of Earl Thomas, but he has enough range to affect the passing game and stop outside runs from getting to the sideline. Plus, he's a defensive leader. Plug him in and appreciate his skills for a decade.

More of a power rusher off the edge than a speed merchant, Willis showed off great athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine, and scouts already knew of his relentless nature. Scouts will go back to the tape to see that the speed he showed at the combine wasn't always evident in games, but pro coaches will get the most out of his ability, making him a long-time starter.

Even with his unfortunate combine incident, Foster's steady (and explosive at times) play will make him an NFL difference-maker in the middle. While he'll probably be limited to playing inside at the next level, he can affect the short-to-intermediate passing game and attack gaps to stop running backs in their tracks.

McMillan will be the consummate pro in the NFL -- an intelligent and rock-solid starter. He can play Mike or Sam linebacker in any defense, giving him scheme versatility. Although teams might not have first-round grades on him because he's not an explosive pass rusher, he can get after the quarterback on blitzes, as well. He'll be a two-contract player for some team.

Typically, a one-year college starter isn't included on a "safest picks" list. However, Watt's work ethic and athleticism make him worthy of this list. The fact that teams have already seen two Watt brothers, J.J. and Derek, play well in the NFL means he has the genes to make an impact on Sundays. T.J. is one of the few players that possess a high floor and a high ceiling, as he's really just coming into his own on defense.

One of the Crimson Tide's leaders on defense, Anderson is expected to be a glue player in the NFL. His length isn't what most scouts like in an outside defender, but he has the skills to be a factor at the position. Anderson could also easily move inside in a four-linebacker set to take advantage of his strength and tenaciousness.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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