There are only five can't-miss players in the 2015 NFL Draft
Winston or Mariota? Nope. Corners? O-linemen? Nope. One of the best scouts in the NFL says there's only 5 can't miss players in this draft -- and everyone else.
This column was going to be about the top 10 players in the 2015 NFL Draft. It really was.
I was going to talk to a few evaluators I really trust and put together a column on which players truly merit to be taken in the first 10 picks of an NFL Draft. True blue chippers. Can't miss kids.
Only it was difficult to get too much of a consensus -- that says something about this talent-starved, topsy-turvy crop of players upon which few execs can seem to agree -- and one of the scouts I have come to respect immensely simply wouldn't budge outside of a top five. To make it more clear -- he is adamant that there is no top 10 in this draft. He doesn't see any natural delineation at that number, if you will. He sees a clear cut top-five players in this draft, and then a significant drop in class from them, and then another drop in tier after the next handful of players, and so on and so on.
And this is coming from a guy who frankly loves this draft. Because he thinks it will separate the men from the boys not so much on the field, but in the 32 NFL front offices. He is deadset on the notion that the second round of this draft might be just as good in many spots as the second round and that it might not take a full three years out to discern which teams did the smartest, best work sorting out these players and which did not.
"I love this draft, I absolutely love it," he said. "This is a scout's draft. If you are the average GM and you didn't go see these kids play a lot this year and you were watching film all year, you're screwed. You have to have watched the tape all season. You have to have really seen these kids, and there is no way you can find the time to watch all 12 games on them in the offseason. You have to have seen these players develop all year long to have the right track on them.
"This is my kind of a draft. Am I saying this group is loaded with Pro Bowlers? No. But there are some really good players who are going to go on the second and third day who, I'm telling you, are going to be better than a lot of kids who go on the first day. You just have to know where to find them."
That lack of true high-end sure-things is born out by the fact that this dude refused to put anyone other than a particular five players in his top tier of 2015 talent (names to come soon enough). I couldn't get him to put a single offensive linemen in the bunch. No luck with corners. He wouldn't entertain the notion of a quarterback rightfully being clumped anywhere close to that (he gave Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota first-round grades but said he would not take Winston himself due to the off-field issues). I knew better than to ever ask about a safety, tight end or inside linebacker -- he gave none of them in this draft a first-round grade at those positions, by the way.
Trust me, I tried. You name a kid that has generated any significant pre-draft buzz, and I ran the name by this guy during a very lengthy conversation, and he would only bite on five kids. And five kids only. Again, this evaluator's track record has been incredibly high with me over the years (with a significant amount of his input I successfully identified 27 of the first 33 players taken a year ago; not obviously in the exact spot but of the 32 players in my mock, 27 were gone by pick 33 and all were gone by pick 48). And he will have some major sway in the top 32 list I putting together for later this week, as a precursor to the dreaded but mandatory mock draft on Thursday.
Anyway, here are the five players who stand out, by far, to this evaluator, in the order in which he expects them to make an impact in the NFL once they get selected. Obviously, injuries and the unforeseen can derail any career, but these are the five prospects he would view as far and away the best available talent in the 2015 draft, in his words:
1. Leonard Williams, DL, USC: He's the best pick in this draft and it isn't even really all that close. In fact, if the two quarterbacks go with the first two picks, and the Jaguars (picking third overall) take (pass rusher Dante) Fowler before him, they're crazy. I don't care what your defensive line looks like, this is the pick. He should go first overall. There is no way I would take one of these quarterbacks over him, but with the position some of these teams are in, I understand why he won't go first. I can't say he's completely can't-miss. He's a little bit different in some ways; he's kind of a hippie. But he can play, God can he play. He is the best player in this draft and I don't see how anyone could really debate that.
2. Dante Fowler, Jr., OLB, Florida: I really like this kid. Randy Gregory to me is the best pass rusher in this draft, but he's got the red flags, too. This is the second-best player in this draft. I think he's a double-digit sack guy, he's on the field for you every down. I don't worry about his weight the way I do with some of these other kids, who put on all this fake water weight but you know they can't play that way. He's not a one-year wonder like (Clemson's Vic) Beasley. This kid has the body. I know Pittsburgh has to be dying over this kid. They can't get him (Pittsburgh isn't picking until 22nd overall), but when I see him play I see Joey Porter. He gets in the right scheme -- I see him in a 3-4) and he is going to produce.
3. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: Next to Gregory, this is the best pass rusher in the group. Fowler might be a little better against the run, a little more polished, but Ray is going to be a handful. This kid is going to impact games. I see a lot of people seem to be down on him or whatever lately, and his arrest of marijuana possession will exacerbate that for some. Nonetheless, he's seen as a good kid and I still see him going in the top 16. If he drops it's only because of his toe (some teams believe Ray may require a procedure for a turf toe injury). The medical would be the only thing. From a football perspective, he can play. You can talk about him maybe being a liability against the run, or there being questions there, but 12 sacks a year sounds pretty good to me. That's what he is. I could see him in a 4-3 or a 3-4. Either way, he's getting to the quarterback.
4. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia: Funny how it took some teams until later in the season, or even the combine, to really come around on him. He's the best receiver in this draft. The measurables speak for themselves. The speed doesn't just show up with a stop-watch; he plays fast. This is AJ Green to me. I see AJ Green. You have a chance to take AJ Green, you take AJ Green.
5. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Some teams would tell you this might be the cleanest pick in the draft and I can see where they are coming from. This is a helluva football player. He's going to be very good on Sundays. There isn't much separating him and White, I just lean to White and think he will make more big plays, but there isn't much not to like about Cooper, either. He's a true No. 1 receiver.
And that was it. I couldn't get another name on this list. I asked if he wanted to change the order at all -- this was the order he originally gave me -- and he said no. With so much offense in the game these days, players who can negate the quarterback are at an absolute premium, and so he wanted to give the edge to defensive players at the top of the list.
"This is it," he said. "I've got five, I don't have 10. I don't have six. This is the five, and then there is everybody else."
And so you have it. Surely, others will disagree -- and this draft will surely be all over the place -- but time will tell if these players truly evolve into the best 2015 has to offer, first as rookies and then for years to come.
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