Top senior prospects for 2016 draft: Top 50


This is my breakdown of the top senior prospects available for the 2016 NFL Draft.

The players are divided into tiers of value: top 20, top 50, top 80, top 120, top 150 and top 200. Note that these are preliminary grades that will likely change based on player performance during the course of the 2015 season, as well as postseason all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine and pro-day workouts. Some prospect ratings have changed since their initial publication due to continued study of their play as well as the evaluation of others at their position.

Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State

It's tough to watch Brissett (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) without thinking of Colin Kaepernick. Brissett's build, elusiveness in the open field and strong arm will intrigue teams looking for a playmaker with the ability to connect with receivers from the pocket. The Florida transfer wasn't always in tune last season (4-for-18 passing for 35 yards vs. Clemson), but shined against Florida State (32-for-48, 359 yards, 3 TDs); more performances like the one he had against a strong Seminoles defense will push him from a "project" to an elite prospect who could be picked even earlier than Kaepernick (second round, No. 36 overall in 2011).

Deon Bush, FS, Miami (Fla.)

The 'Canes haven't had a safety drafted since Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips went in the first round in 2007 and 2008, respectively. That will change in 2015, with the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Bush offering range and intimidating hits in the back of the secondary. The Miami native should join the aforementioned "U" talents as a first-round pick if he continues to separate the ball from its owner (five forced fumbles last season) and increase his other production (had career highs of 53 tackles, four for loss, and three interceptions in 2014).

Devon Cajuste, WR/TE, Stanford

Cajuste is a similar prospect to the Carolina Panthers' second-round pick last April, Devin Funchess. Both have large receiver builds (Cajuste is 6-4, 228) that can create mismatches in goal-line situations and in the middle of the field. If he can build off of an outstanding junior year (34 catches, 557 yards, six scores -- two against Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl) in which he displayed solid hands and good speed, then the mid-second round will be his floor -- not his ceiling.

Maurice Canady, CB, Virginia

There's a lot to like about Virginia's next cornerback prospect: He's tall (listed at 6-2), has long arms to knock away passes from receivers (12 pass breakups in 2014), and flashes hands to snatch low or high errant passes (three interceptions last year). However, his strength and physicality will be questioned by scouts that see his lean 185-pound frame. If he proves able to wrap up ball carriers and get them to the ground more consistently as a senior, he'll move up draft boards like tall Cavs corners Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook did before him.

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 the Green Bay Packers pick Damarious Randall from Arizona State as a cornerback made me believe teams will like Cash's (6-2, 205) cover skills enough to pick him on the first day of the draft. He followed up an All-American sophomore season (121 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions) with another outstanding year in 2014 (111 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, two picks, seven pass breakups). The former Ohio State Buckeye (he played five games as a true freshman before transferring) might not line up outside on Sundays, but proving himself as a slot cover man during the 2015 season should help him join his former teammate, guard Laken Tomlinson, as a first-round selection.

Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech

Clark has started 38 straight games for the Red Raiders, spending 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. His durability and pro-ready body (6-6, 313) make him a likely starter wherever he lines up.

Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame

Undersized (6-2, 285) but heady and hustling, Day might have limited suitors in the NFL -- but he could be an excellent pass rusher in a one-gap scheme (7.5 tackles for loss, one sack in 2014). Increasing his production while adding weight during his senior year (without losing the explosiveness) could lead more teams to warm up to his potential.

D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State

Even though Foster's blend of acceleration and toughness gives fodder to those comparing him to 2015 first-round choice Melvin Gordon, Foster decided he is best served using his excellent receiving skills in the slot for his senior season. The 5-11, 205-pound all-purpose threat is the only Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) player with 1,500 career rushing and receiving yards coming into the season. It is not difficult to imagine Foster in the same sort of backfield/slot/outside receiver role that Randall Cobb plays for the Green Bay Packers.

William Jackson, CB, Houston

Jackson started his career at Trinity Valley Junior College, and found himself a regular starter by the end of his first year with the Cougars in 2013. He stepped up his game to become a second-team American Athletic Conference pick (two interceptions, 10 pass breakups) as a junior. Jackson (6-1, 185) is getting stronger each year and possesses the height and quickness that impresses NFL defensive back coaches.

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Keith Lumpkin, OT, Rutgers

If a scout drew up what an NFL left tackle should look like, it might look like a portrait of Lumpkin. The 6-foot-8, 310-pound former New Jersey high school star has started the previous 26 games on the blind side for the Scarlet Knights, using his great length and surprising footwork to envelop defenders on the edge. Improvements in his anchor and balance in pass protection during the 2015 season will lead pro offensive line coaches to push for him in team meetings next spring.

Danzel McDaniel, CB/S, Kansas State

Throw to McDaniel's side of the field at your receivers' collective peril. The hard-hitting junior college star elevated his game to Big 12 competition immediately as a junior, earning second-team all-conference honors (five tackles for loss, one interception). Though scouts might not see him as the most fluid cornerback in the class, his solid 6-1, 205-pound frame will lead an NFL team to ask him to take his game up another notch as a press corner or safety.

Jalen Mills, FS/CB, LSU

Mills is yet another Tiger defensive back who will enter the NFL; LSU had 14 drafted between 2005 and 2014, the most from any school. He has shown enough ability to start every game in his career, in spite of that talent base. Showing strength as a tackler (62 stops in 2014) and the hands to create turnovers consistently (six career interceptions, but only one last season) will keep Mills (6-0, 194) in line to be a top-50 pick, 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. Head coach Jim Mora said he played like a potential first-round pick in 2014 spring practice. Still, he earned second-team All-Pac-12 accolades with eight passes defended. Moreau (6-0, 195) will get his chance to live up to the hype in 2015, and will certainly do so if he combines his smooth athleticism with more interceptions (he's made only one in his career so far).

Dadi 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 New York 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 -- and with many teams relying on 3-4 alignments as their base defense. He only started playing football his senior year of high school, so he'll be a very highly regarded prospect if he hones his skills off the edge and improves his bend and strength at the point of attack.

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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 Nick Saban took him out on third downs at times during his first year as a starter (in 2014), 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 let his natural ability shine.

Will Redmond, CB, Mississippi State

Even though Redmond didn't start a game for the Bulldogs in 2014 because of the depth they have at the position, opposing receivers didn't look forward to facing him. He can snatch the ball out of the air to create turnovers (three interceptions in 2014, two of which sealed games in the fourth quarter), has adequate size (6-0, 185) and good length, as well as the necessary straight-line speed for the position. His speed is especially evident when hustling to chase down ball carriers from behind (usually not the man he was assigned to cover). Redmond, though he flashes physicality, is an inconsistent tackler and can be overaggressive in coverage; scouts will want to see improvements in those areas before anointing him a top-50 value.

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. He commands double teams and eats them like a 6-4, 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 was arrested for DUI in the summer of 2014), he'll be the first nose tackle off the board next spring.

Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma

Shepard (5-10, 191) wears the same jersey number (3) as his late father, Derrick Shepard, who lettered for the Sooners as a receiver in the 1980s. Despite his slight frame, Shepard'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 if he repeats his all-Big 12 production (51 catches, 970 yards, five touchdowns) during his senior campaign and runs well at the NFL Scouting Combine next February.

Terrance Smith, OLB, Florida State

Smith's father, 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 abilities of the young man who earned second-team All-ACC accolades in 2014 (87 tackles, 4.5 for loss, two interceptions) on the outside by using his height (6-4, 231) and length to attack plays in the backfield and to the sideline. He also has experience playing the middle for the Seminoles; that sort of versatility will endear him to NFL teams using base 3-4 schemes.

John Theus, OT, Georgia

The five-star recruit struggled at times early in his career for the Bulldogs, though starting at right tackle as a true freshman in the SEC is quite an accomplishment. The light bulb really seemed to go on for Theus (6-6, 303) in 2014, both in pass protection and as an effective run blocker after he moved to the left side. If he continues that improvement against the weekly competition of the SEC as a senior, it could lead scouts to draw comparisons between Theus and long-time starting NFL tackle Jeff Backus.

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Max Tuerk, C, USC

This Trojan might end up being valued as much as Cameron Erving was in this year's draft (he was picked No. 19 overall by the Cleveland Browns) because of his versatility. Tuerk (6-6, 285) has started at nearly every place along the line for the Trojans. He is a bit taller and more slender than most pro pivots, but with more work in the weight room, he might prove most valuable to NFL teams in the spot where he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2014.

Landon Turner, G, 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. I'll have fun watching him try to climb the rungs of the draft ladder.

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 spring 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 could 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.

Cody Whitehair, G/OT, Kansas State

As the Wildcats' strongest and most athletic lineman over the past three seasons, Whitehair (6-4, 309) has been moved from right tackle to left guard, back to right tackle, and finally to left tackle. His play on the blind side earned him second-team All-Big 12 honors last season (his third straight year making an all-conference list), as he not only possesses the footwork to hold off edge rushers but understands the angles needed to free space for running backs. Whitehair will likely move back to left guard in the pros, and will likely start there for some time to come; if he excels inside (or outside, for that matter) at the Senior Bowl, look for him to climb into the second round.

Anthony Zettel, DE, Penn State

Most prospects don't train for the season by tackling trees, but Zettel isn't "most prospects." His body type (6-4, 274) fits well as a five-technique in the NFL, and the first-team All-Big Ten pick's motor (17 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three interceptions) gives him a chance to move inside to be a strong interior-rush presence in passing situations. The Michigan native will bulk up in the pros, as well, enhancing his ability to wreak havoc.

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