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Top 15 senior prospects for 2016 NFL Draft

Looking forward to the 2016 NFL Draft within 48 hours of the end of this year's edition isn't like counting chickens before they hatch.

It's more like counting chickens before the eggs are laid.

But with college football spring practices wrapped up across the country, why not take a look at some rising and fifth-year seniors on which we'll be keeping a watchful eye over the next year?

These prospects -- yes, they're officially prospects now that the 2015 event is over -- have shown flashes of brilliance during their early college careers. However, it will take a consistently-brilliant senior campaign to keep their names at the tops of scouts' lists across the league.

Even if they do excel in their final college seasons, they'll need to keep their noses clean throughout the pre-draft process, as a couple of this year's top players found out the hard way.

An average of 15 seniors were selected in the first round of the draft from 2011 to 2015, including 14 on Thursday night. Another 19 seniors, on average, were picked in the second round since 2011.

Therefore, I've devised a list of 35 future pros (adding one to the combined five-year average) hoping to become first- or second-round picks next spring. I've ranked them, not by the place I expect them to land in next year's draft, but by the interest I have in watching their progress during the 2015 season.

1. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

Over the past two seasons, Cook (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) has led the Spartans to 24 wins, thrown for nearly 6,000 yards, and tossed 46 touchdowns (versus just 14 intereceptions). He has the prerequisite size, athleticism, anticipation, toughness, and football intelligence to excel at the next level. He hasn't cracked the 60 percent completion barrier in his career as of yet (58.1 percent last year) and has a new receiving corps for his senior year. Cook is the most intriguing senior prospect this year. If he can lead an inexperienced passing game in his final collegiate season, he'll be in line for a very high draft slot.

2. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

It doesn't take long to find Oakman (6-9, 280) on the field, as his tall frame and No. 2 jersey stand out even among the Bears' top competition. It was a bit of a surprise when the massive lineman decided to return to school, as he likely would have been a first-round pick after a 19.5-tackle-for-loss, 11-sack season as a junior. But the Penn State transfer wants to be picked at the very top of the draft, and apparently loves being a Baylor Bear. Lofty expectations are sometimes difficult to live up to, however; scouts will be looking for consistent explosiveness, leverage, and motor from Oakman, in addition to his bullish strength, before labeling him a "can't-miss" prospect worthy of a top-five pick.

3. D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn

Halfway through the 2014 season, it looked as though "Duke" was going to be the second former junior college receiver climbing up NFL team draft boards, along with West Virginia's Kevin White. But a sprained MCL suffered late in the year and a suspension for breaking team rules pushed Williams (6-2, 224) to return to school to get his degree. One of eight children, Williams won't have a problem sticking out this year if the Tigers' offense can keep rolling after the graduation of quarterback Nick Marshall. His ability to put the passing game on his shoulders as a senior will be the difference between Williams being a top-10 pick and a second-rounder with question marks.

4. Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

Ohio State's undisputed leader on the offensive line decided to come back for another year in Columbus instead of locking up a mid-to-late first-round placement this year. Decker (6-8, 315) not only gets a chance to win back-to-back national titles by returning for his senior year, but also an opportunity to prove he has the natural bend and elite athleticism to be a top-five selection.

5. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor

6. Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Georgia

Talk about explosiveness ... Georgia's Most Improved Player for the 2014 season actually started six games as a true freshman. Jenkins (6-3, 253) came into his own as a junior, however, showing flashes of quick hands and deadly straight-line speed to the quarterback. Turning those flashes into long periods of brightness should put him squarely in the first-round conversation.

7. Dadi Lhomme Nicolas, DE/OLB, Virginia Tech

In a world where pass rushers are coveted more than umbrellas in New York during a rainstorm, Nicolas (6-4, 236) has the smooth acceleration off the line to become one of the best in the country as a senior. Scouts wonder if Nicolas could be the next great Haitian-born pass rusher, though he doesn't cut the physically-imposing presence that Jason Pierre-Paul did for South Florida (and still does for the Giants). The second-team All-ACC pick (18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks) is misused as a base end in the Hokies' defense but is likely to transition to linebacker at the next level -- with many teams relying on 3-4 alignments as their base defense. He only started playing football his senior year of high school, so honing his skill off the edge combined with improving his bend and strength at the point of attack would make him a very highly-regarded prospect.

8. Landon Turner, OG, North Carolina

An absolute road-grader, Turner (6-4, 325) will turn the heads of NFL general managers with his ability to move the line of scrimmage. He's not too heavy-footed to protect the quarterback, either ... and when he gets beat, he'll work hard to finish the block. Will he crack the top half of the first round, or go late in the stanza like Laken Tomlinson this year? It's too early to tell, but I'll have fun watching him try to climb the rungs of the draft ladder.

9. Vadal Alexander, OG/OT, LSU

After starting for two years next to La'el Collins at left guard, Alexander (6-6, 320) moves back to right tackle for his senior year. He started the last seven games of his freshman campaign at right tackle, earning Freshman All-American honors. Alexander has shed at least 30 pounds since arriving on campus, giving him a shot to stay at tackle when he arrives in the NFL. It is possible Alexander has done enough to land a first-round slot as a guard with his length, strength, and footwork. Success at his new/old position is crucial, however, for Alexander to earn the respect of general managers across the league as a pass protector on the outside.

10. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon

Unfortunately, Buckner (6-7, 290) will be compared to former Duck defensive lineman Dion Jordan, who was picked third overall by the Dolphins in 2013 and struggled to earn that status before being suspended for the 2015 season for a third violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He's not a similar player to Jordan because his thicker frame portends a NFL career with his hand on the ground; nonetheless, the comparisons will be drawn. Buckner's path towards the 2016 draft is also interesting because, while he flashes the skills of a top prospect, better offensive linemen can dominate him, using his tall frame to keep him from getting leverage. If he can improve his stack-and-shed ability and his motor, and consistently win the edge, scouts will forget about Jordan and grade Buckner well based on his own merits.

11. Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama

The East Mississippi Community College transfer doesn't light up the stat sheet (6.5 tackles for loss, one sack in 2014) for the Tide, but is utterly disruptive in the middle. Reed (6-4, 313) commands double teams and eats them like a 313-pounder should -- and doesn't have the sloppy body and inconsistent motor that prevented former JC/Alabama stud NT Terrence "Mount" Cody from earning a first-round draft spot. If Reed continues to push forward on early downs and keeps his nose clean this year (he had a DUI in the summer of 2014), he'll he the first nose tackle off the board next spring.

12. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke

The Blue Devils are looking for their first back-to-back drafts with a first-round pick in school history. Seeing Green Bay pick Damarious Randall from Arizona State as a cornerback made me believe teams will like Cash's cover skills enough to pick him on Draft Thursday. Cash (6-2, 205) might not line up outside on Sundays, but proving himself as a slot cover man during the 2015 season should help him join teammate Laken Tomlinson as an initial-round selection.

13. Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama

The question isn't whether Ragland (6-2, 252) will be a starting 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL -- it's whether he is athletic enough to be a three-down linebacker in any system. While taken off the field by Nick Saban on third downs at times during his first year as a starter as a junior, Ragland is not slow-footed by any means. In his second year running Saban's pro-style defense in 2015, the former five-star recruit can now let his natural ability shine.

14. Adolphus Washington, DT/DE, Ohio State

Apparently Washington (6-4, 290) is ready to go for his senior season -- he had four sacks in Ohio State's Scarlet-Gray Game. He has quickness off the ball for his size, and although he will likely face a lot of double teams in 2015, his future might be as a difference-making 3-4 end at the next level. Shedding one-on-one blocks and exploding into the backfield throughout the Big Ten season will show scouts he's ready to take the next step no matter where they want him to line up.

15. Devontae Booker, RB, Utah

Booker (5-11, 212), a former Washington State signee and junior college star, only ran a total of 31 times in his first three games with the Utes in 2014 -- then he ran for 130 yards a game through the rest of the season. His combination of power, quickness, elusiveness in the hole, and receiving ability give him an excitement factor lacking from most collegiate backs. The devaluation of his position might prevent him from being a first-round pick, but another ultra-productive season and top-notch Combine workout could push him in that direction.

20 more worth watching

(in alphabetical order)

Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: The two-time second-team Walter Camp All-American is high cut and not particularly flexible or strong, so Calhoun (6-5, 250) will need to beat NFL-caliber tackles around the corner and hold his ground against them in the run game before he earns first-round grades.

Kyle Carter, TE, Penn State: A tight end/H-back receiver who is also willing to use his body as a blocker on the move and in-line. Carter (6-3, 240) needs a big senior year and Combine workout to show he's more than a move-the-chains passing game option.

Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech: Clark (6-6, 313) has started 38 straight games for the Red Raiders, two years at left tackle and his freshman season at right guard. It's unclear where Clark's best position will be at the next level; he flashes the lateral agility and recovery speed to play on the edge against college pass rushers, but he might be best inside where he can lock on and create creases for the running game.

Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina: A fractured right tibia in UNC's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl loss to Rutgers ended any speculation about Davis' departure to the NFL. Already tied with Hakeem Nicks for the school record for touchdowns with 21 using his height and strong hands, Davis (6-4, 210) could join Nicks as a first-round pick with a healthy season.

Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame: Undersized but heady and hustling, Day (6-2, 285) might have limited suitors in the NFL -- but he could be an excellent pass rusher in a one-gap scheme. Adding weight during his senior year -- without losing the explosiveness -- could cause more teams to warm up to his potential.

Josh Doctson, WR, TCU: Doctson (6-3, 195) started his collegiate career at Wyoming before transferring back to his home state. He became Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin's favorite target (65 receptions, 1,018 yards, 11 TD) by finishing routes inside, turning short routes into long gains, as well as getting deep.

William Jackson, CB, Houston: Jackson (6-1, 185) started his career at Trinity Valley Junior College, and found himself a regular starter by the end of his first year with the Cougars. The 2014 second-team American Athletic Conference pick is getting stronger each year and possesses the height and quickness that impresses NFL defensive back coaches.

Devon Johnson, RB, Marshall: It's not tough to see why "Rockhead" earned that moniker -- no one wants to get in his way as a runner or a blocker. If Johnson (6-1, 243) can prove himself as quick and agile as 2014 second-round big backs Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill, who both had success as rookies, then teams looking for a power back could take the leap.

Jonathan Jones, CB, Auburn: This second-team All-SEC pick is looking to become the sixth cornerback from Auburn drafted since 2005. Jones' (5-10, 181) six interceptions and 17 passes defended were among the nation's leaders in 2014, and though he's not the biggest or strongest corner in this class, I wouldn't try throwing his direction too often.

Wayne Lyons, CB/S, Michigan: Lyons (6-1, 193), a cousin of former NFL receiver Frank Sanders, is transferring from Stanford to Michigan to play for Jim Harbaugh (who left for the 49ers before Lyons arrived in Palo Alto.) Lyons will have already graduated from Stanford, so he doesn't have to sit out -- which means NFL teams won't need to wait to see his combination of height, length, and tenacity.

Jalen Mills, FS/CB, LSU: Mills (6-0, 194) is yet another Tiger defensive back who will enter the NFL; LSU had 14 drafted, the most from any school, between 2005 and 2014. He has shown enough ability to start every game in his career, in spite of that talent base at the school. Showing strength as a tackler and the hands to create turnovers consistently will keep him in the top 40 seniors drafted, whether projected at corner or as a cover safety.

Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA: This former high school running back went through some ups and downs during his junior season, which followed a spring during which head coach Jim Mora, Jr. said he played like a potential first-round pick. Moreau (6-0, 195) will get his chance to live up to that billing in 2015, and will certainly do so if combining his smooth athleticism with more interceptions (he's made just one in his career so far.)

Joshua Perry, OLB, Ohio State: Perry (6-4, 254) is often used in a stack formation in Urban Meyer's defense, but his NFL future is as a 3-4 pass rusher. Any chances he gets to show NFL teams his pass-rush skills and ability to hold the edge as a senior will greatly increase his stock.

Sheldon Rankins, DT/DE, Louisville: In the Cardinals' three-man front, Rankins (6-2, 303) presents issues for both interior and outside blockers. His only start as a sophomore was the team's bowl game, but he came on strong last year in the team's first year in the ACC (13.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks). You'll hear a lot more about this guy during 2015.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma: Shepherd (5-10, 191) wears the same jersey number (No. 3) as his late father, who lettered for the Sooners as a receiver in the 1980s. Despite his slight frame, Shepherd's toughness and explosiveness in the middle of the field make him the sort of in-space player NFL coaches appreciate. He could be next year's Phillip Dorsett.

Eric Striker, OLB, Oklahoma: Each year there is a highly productive but undersized linebacker prospect in the draft, and the question is always the same -- "Is he too small?" A team will find room for Striker (6-0, 223) because of the explosiveness to the ball, though it won't be as easy timing the snap count to reach the backfield (17.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks in 2014) in the NFL and he'll need to prove he can stand up against Sunday-caliber offensive linemen against the run to make it into the first round.

Terrance Smith, OLB, Florida State: The father of Smith (6-4, 231), Terry, was a star receiver at Clemson and the story of his passing will be discussed often going into the draft. But scouts only really care about the tall young man who earned second-team All-ACC accolades in 2014 by using his height and length to attack plays in the backfield or to the sideline.

John Theus, OT, Georgia: This five-star recruit struggled at times early in his career for the Bulldogs, but the lightbulb for Theus (6-6, 303) seemed to go on in 2014. Continuing that improvement against the weekly competition of the SEC as a senior could cause scouts to draw comparisons to long-time starting NFL tackle Jeff Backus.

Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas: The next coveted SEC back presses the hole nicely, can skip past a defender in said hole, and escape to the end zone if breaking through the first line of defense. The thickly-built Williams (6-0, 223) will need a killer workout to get into the first round -- but a productive 2015 should earn him a spot in Round 2 either way.

Antwuan Woods, DT, USC: Googling the phrase "low center of gravity" should bring up a picture of Woods (6-1, 325). He missed out on the Holiday Bowl after tearing a pectoral muscle during practice, but scouts saw enough of him during his second year as a starter on the nose to know that he can be the "immovable object" to halt the "unstoppable forces" known as NFL running backs.

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