With March Madness getting underway this week, we're scouring the field of 2015 NFL Draft prospects to find the group's top slam dunks -- the safest prospects available this year.
The "boom or bust" prospects, with lots of potential but with plenty of questions marks, too, can make or break careers for NFL personnel executives. But it's the safe draft picks, the ones with the fewest flaws, that strong draft classes are built upon. In some cases, the safer prospects hold great high-end potential, as well, but their overriding trait is that they rate no worse than solid in every area, on or off the field.
Here is a look at 10 of the safest picks in this year's draft:
You don't get to the position of being rated the top overall prospect in the draft unless NFL scouts need a magnifying glass to find any concerns. Williams' performance at the NFL Scouting Combine confirmed what he showed on the field for the Trojans -- that his quickness and agility is remarkable for a 300-pound man. He also has the versatility to play multiple spots on the defensive line, which will help him stay on the field for all three downs. If Williams isn't ready to make a difference as a rookie, nobody is.
Cooper comes from a pro-style offense and has experience running every sort of pass route he could be asked to run in the NFL. He has the speed to get open deep downfield, the quickness to make the first tackler miss on screens and shorter throws, and the size and toughness to play in the middle of the field. Cooper also has as soft a pair of hands as there is in the draft. His work ethic and off-field behavior is unquestioned.
The former Huskies nose tackle might not be a great pass rusher in the pros, but that's not what the team that drafts him will be expecting, anyway. For what he'll be asked to do -- hold his ground against double teams and control two gaps when single-blocked -- NFL scouts have little doubt he will be a quick success. The offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl had more than enough trouble with Shelton, and there are no off-field concerns with the 340-pounder, either.
NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah has called the wide receiver position as a whole the safest position in the draft, and White is one reason why it's so safe. He erased any doubt about his straight-line speed with a 4.35 40-yard dash at the combine, and he's a bit bigger than the aforementioned Cooper. When White first hit scouting radars last fall, some wondered why his production as a junior in 2013 was on the light side (35 catches, 507 yards), but as the draft approaches, the Kevin White who proved to be uncoverable in 2014 is the type of player NFL clubs believe they would be getting.
With the fastest combine 40-yard dash among defensive backs (4.31 seconds), Waynes went a long way toward establishing himself as the draft's top cornerback prospect. He plays a physical style downfield, which could draw pass interference flags, but as his NFL.com scouting report notes, he has a "very high floor." NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks said of Waynes: "An ideal press corner in the National Football League. At Michigan State in their system, he is lined up nose to nose on wide receivers, does a great job getting his hands on receivers, redirecting and disrupting their releases and making them work. It is a hard day's work when you deal with Trae Waynes, because he is sound and solid in his coverage."
The only question about the Hawkeyes' massive blocker is whether he'll be a tackle or guard in the NFL. Regardless of which position he plays, he is as ready to make a rookie impact as any offensive lineman in the draft. Scherff's work ethic and athleticism are near-legendary at Iowa. NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock sees Scherff starting at guard as a rookie, and had this to say about his all-around performance at the combine: "He checked off all the boxes he needed to check off."
Other than Williams, there might not be a defensive lineman in the draft more prepared to play all three downs than Brown. He combines size and strength with an ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage and be disruptive. Those skills will serve him well against both the run and pass. Another factor that makes him a safe pick: he's versatile enough to play in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense.
Durability, instincts, production and character are just four of the areas where the former Bruins star excels. He is UCLA's all-time leading tackler with nearly 500 career stops, and his leadership ability is second to none. He called the defenses and made pre-snap adjustments for UCLA from the Mike linebacker position. And there are no questions about his desire, either -- Kendricks has already performed individual workouts for three NFL teams while rehabilitating a mild hamstring injury.
Like Kevin White, the only question on Strong at the combine was how well he would run. He answered that emphatically with a 4.44 clocking in the 40-yard dash. He has an exceptional ability to win battles for the ball in traffic, making contested catches with strong hands and a 6-2, 217-pound frame. One NFL scout has compared him to the New Orleans Saints' Marques Colston, and Colston is approaching 10,000 career receiving yards in the NFL.
It's hard to find a bad scouting word about Tomlinson, who really turned heads at the Senior Bowlby holding his own against the aforementioned Shelton. He's not considered a high-end first-round draft pick because of the position he plays -- guard simply isn't a premium position. But the senior has every physical tool to play the position and is considered a player of high character, as well. You want durability? He made 52 career starts at Duke. And when football is over, he plans to go to medical school.