By Marc Sluis, Staff Writer
Potential can be a like an oasis. An illusion that mystifies and intrigues but often leaves us with nothing. So is it purely a show to distract us from the prospects’ real value? Maybe, but isn’t it fun? Rarely does an elite athlete clearly also possess all the necessary intangibles to be great. So read with caution and remember athletic ability and potential are only a piece of the picture.
DE – Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
The guy is a freak. We all know it. When he’s motivated its scary how powerful, quick and athletic he looks. There is no tackle that can match him one on one. He might be one of the most talented defensive prospects to ever come out of the college ranks and will be a top 3 pick no matter how he plays the rest of the way or how great the quarterback class is. He’s that good athletically.
DT – Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
The on field production isn’t elite yet, but his athleticism is. Coming in at #2 on Bruce Feldman’s Freak List is an accomplishment, especially when the only player above him his Clowney. Apparently he can still do a 360 dunk, which is almost too much to believe, but believe that the former basketball stud is a top-notch athlete. He offers the explosion, strength and size to become a versatile lineman and a force in the interior of the line. He could realistically play anywhere from nose to five technique on passing downs.
NT – Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
When scouts compare his blend of mass, strength and mobility to Vince Wilfork that’s unbelievably high praise. Nix is a beast in the middle with the ability to manhandle guards and play the two gap responsibility with ease. He even offers the ability to penetrate with his quickness so single him up at your own expense.
DT – Anthony Johnson, LSU
At nearly 300 pounds the LSU Tiger moves as smooth as if he was 20 to 30 pounds lighter. His quickness and effortless movement skills could spell disaster for offensive guards if he ever learns to perfect his technique. If that happens he’ll be almost impossible to keep out of the backfield.
DE – Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
If Michelangelo were to carve out the physique of a perfect defensive lineman, he would bear a striking resemblance to the 6’6 303 Tuitt. His massive wingspan makes him even more intimidating and almost impossible to get your hands on his pads. While he’s not the fastest guy, his strength and giant frame make him a monster on the defensive line. Plus he could easily line up at DT on passing downs and abuse any team stupid enough to single block him.
Rush Linebacker – Anthony Barr, UCLA
A former fullback barely seeing the field is developing into a potential top 5 selection as a 3-4 OLB. His burst, length and closing speed make him an absolute terror coming off the edge and almost require a tight end or back to chip him. That or your quarterback is going down in a hurry.
Hybrid Linebacker – Benardrick McKinney, Miss St.
NFLDraftScout.com’s #1 outside linebacker for the 2016 class is a draft eligible redshirt sophomore. If he decides to enter the draft he will light up the combine with his straight line speed and overall athletic ability. At 240 he can vertical jump an insane 41.5 inches; a clear measure of his lower body explosion. Whenever you post 102 tackles, second most among freshmen in the entire NCAA you’ll be on draft scouts radar’s.
Will Linebacker – Ryan Shazier, Ohio St.
Shazier is a leader on the Buckeyes defense and dynamic playmaker. His lack of size will likely limit him to the Will spot in a 4-3, but with the fluid athleticism and speed to run sideline to sideline as well as play in coverage effortlessly should make him very valuable for a team with an opening at that spot.
ILB – Curtis Grant, Ohio St.
CJ Mosley (one of my favorite prospects this year) is not among the inside linebackers listed here. It was a tough decision but as useless as a raw upside based list is, its fun. Grant was a hyped five star recruit and among the most sought after high schoolers in the nation. When you run a 4.59 at 242 it’s easy to see why. His play is beginning to turnaround but there is a lot to prove before he starts to approach Mosley in the actual rankings.
ILB – Stephone Anthony
The linebacker position requires so many intangible traits to be successful. That’s probably why most of these players are not considered top-flight prospects at this point. Stephone Anthony is another five star recruit who has all the ability in the world (he is also timed at a 4.59) but the Clemson Tiger is starting to actualize some of that lofty potential. He earned ACC Linebacker of the Week in week 4 versus NC State with 14 tackles.
Hybrid Linebacker – Ronald Powell, Florida
Powell is a former #1 overall recruit with tons of ability. His explosive first step and solid size make him a potential chess piece to move all over the defense. Most of his pro prospects depend on how he progresses from a knee injury, but he’s looked good so far this year.
OLB – Christian Jones, Florida St.
Jones is an imposing presence and runs like a deer, a few times running step for step with running backs on a wheel route. His height might enable him to be a potential solution to quandary in guarding the elite receiving tight ends without tipping your hand and using a defensive back.
Rush Linebacker – Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
At 6’6 the explosive Hubbard projects as a terrific edge rusher at the next level. His motor runs hot and cold at times, but when he’s on he brings an intriguing blend of power, length and burst ideal for bringing the heat off the edge.
CB – Loucheiz Purifoy, Florida
This Gator is a unique athlete lining up at corner and wide receiver this season. He looks to be more of a corner at the next level but his versatility and athleticism allows him to make a mark in all three phases of the game. While he’s still learning the finer points of coverage his raw speed, fluid hips and length are elite for the position even at the NFL level.
FS – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
His recent suspension is no laughing matter, but it does prove how talented and highly regarded “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix is as a prospect. Despite the maturity questions and missteps he’s still considered the top safety by a wide margin and mocked as high as #8 to the safety needy Rams. Nick Saban turns out the best defensive backs on regular basis and a centerfielder in Clinton-Dix is another.
SS – Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
Baylor is known for their offense but Dixon is one of the better overall prospects on the Bears squad. Dixon is a smooth athlete with the toughness to play in the box and the fluid hips to turn and run with receivers. Still a bit raw, but he’s got all the ability to be great.
CB – Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma St.
When looking at the cornerback position, it’s tough to forecast how a prospect will react to the increased level of athlete he’ll see at the next level. Ask the confident Gilbert and he’ll say something to the effect of “easily”. But let’s just start with the facts on Gilbert though. He is way too inconsistent and has a long, long way to go before he becomes as good of a player as he is an athlete.
As evidenced by his elite return skills, the change of direction ability, agility, speed and balance are all in place. He also shows the ability to forget the last play as well as mix it up effectively with receivers in press coverage. When you add to that solid frame and height you get the enigma that is Justin Gilbert; which of course is both good and bad.