2016 NFL draft primer: ACC
The ACC produced three top-10 picks in the 2015 draft and nine first-rounders overall. The conference may not match that Round 1 prowess again in 2016, but it could stamp out its presence among the first few selections again.
A look at the ACC's top draft prospects, plus a player to watch from each team:
1. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh: Emory Hunt of FootballGameplan.com (who is criminally underfollowed on Twitter, by the way) compared Boyd to San Diego receiver Keenan Allen. Those of you out there who tracked our 2013 draft coverage (hi, dad!) might recall that I had Allen ranked as a top-25 prospect throughout the process. He fell to No. 76 due mostly to a lingering knee injury, but his NFL-readiness was undeniable.
Barring his own unfortunate injury or a repeat of his off-season DUI, Boyd should have much better draft luck. His listed size (6'2", 200 pounds) puts him in the Allen class (6'2", 206 pounds at the combine). Boyd's route-running is on a similar developmental path, too, and that's the factor of Allen's game that really helped set him apart.
Boyd averaged 16.2 yards on 78 catches last season, scoring eight touchdowns. Pitt will continue to give him catch-and-run opportunities, but he's at his best when the ball is in the air. Against college CBs Boyd can turn an iota of space into a huge cushion, plus he's dominant on contested passes.
We could be talking about him next April with the same hype Amari Cooper received leading up to the 2015 draft.
2. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech: Could the younger Fuller win bragging rights over his brother, Kyle, who was taken No. 14 by Chicago two drafts ago? It is very possible. Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III will head into this college football season carrying the banner for the potential 2016 cornerback draft class, but Fuller is not far, if at all, behind.
Fuller played through a broken wrist last year and still managed to finish first-team All-ACC with 15 pass break-ups. He's aggressive and confident on the outside, willing to take chances because he has the quickness to cover up his own mistakes. The size is there (6'0", 190 pounds) to hold up outside at the next level.
3. Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State: Ramsey also deserves to be in the top-CB conversation with Hargreaves and Fuller, and he might be the country's lead safety prospect headed into September. Combine the two outlooks and it doesn't take Mike Mayock to see that Ramsey will have NFL teams buzzing.
An X-factor in play here that doesn't come up often: Ramsey could attempt to qualify as a long jumper for the 2016 Olympics, which will be held from Aug. 5-21 next year. Should he make it, Ramsey would miss the majority of his new team's pre-season workouts.
4. Landon Turner, G, North Carolina: For five of the past six drafts, at least one guard has landed in Round 1. This year, Brandon Scherff (No. 5) and Laken Tomlinson (No. 28) heard their names called on the draft's opening night. Turner's game is reminiscent of the latter. Standing 6'4", 325 pounds to Tomlinson's 6'3", 323, the big-bodied Turner can be just as dominant in the run game as Detroit's new interior lineman.
This will be Turner's fourth season as a starter in Chapel Hill.
5. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke: Cash is the latest in a line of adaptable safeties finding NFL favor. The Blue Devils senior can drop and cover, but he has been more effective to date pulled up closer to the line, be it as a slot CB or an extra in-the-box defender. Last season, he produced 111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and a pair of INTs.
6. Sheldon Rankins, DT/DE, Louisville: The Cardinals feature a trio of 300-pounders up front in their 3-4 attack, with Rankins (6'3", 303 pounds) spending the majority of his time as a DE next to 308-pound nose tackle DeAngelo Brown. In 2014, his first season playing that scheme under new coach Todd Grantham, Rankins notched 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks.
He could stay at a 3-4 end spot in the pros, slide inside to play DT in a 4-3 or, better yet, slide around in a hybrid scheme.
7. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson: Looking for a deep sleeper in the Heisman race? Here ya go. Williams hung 1,030 yards and six touchdowns on Clemson's opponents last season, despite an injury-shortened campaign from starting QB Deshaun Watson. If Watson stays healthy in 2015, Williams's numbers could shoot through the roof. Even if they don't, the 6'5" receiver will have planted himself on the NFL radar. He's huge and catches everything.
8. Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech: Nicolas will find himself on a Randy Gregory-esque mission this season to prove that he's more than just an ultra-athletic pass-rusher. The Hokies' star does not have the same buzz as Gregory did at this time a year ago, though that could change if Nicolas improves upon a 9.0-sack, 18.5-tackle-for-loss 2014 season. He's a blur off the edge when he gets the first step, as those numbers indicate. Will he be enough of an all-around defender for the NFL's liking?
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9. James Conner, RB, Pitt: This won't be an easy evaluation for scouts, either. Conner is massive (6'2", 250 pounds), probably will not light up the 40-yard dash and he has been a one-dimensional weapon for the Panthers (444 carries over the past two seasons, just eight catches).
And yet ... well, his play does the talking. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, at times proving near impossible to bring down. His measurements are comparable to New England RB LeGarrette Blount (6'0", 250) and San Francisco FB Bruce Miller (6'2", 248), and he plays like a mix of those players' positions—patient enough to find his lanes, with the strength to plow through them.
10. Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina: Don't be fooled by his mediocre 2014 stats (41 catches, 470 yards, six touchdowns), Davis fits the bill when it comes to what NFL teams are looking for at wide receiver. Davis (6'4", 205 pounds) can be deadly near the goal line, so the key to his potential lies in just how quickly he can refine the rest of his game.
Honorable mention: Roberto Aguayo, K, Florida State. There was some speculation toward the end of last season that Aguayo would declare for the 2015 draft, so he has to be considered a possible early-entrant into 2016's festivities. A kicker? Declaring early? Odd, yes, but Aguayo's special. In two seasons as the Seminoles' kicker, Aguayo has connected on 48 of 52 field-goal attempts and is a perfect 149-for-149 on extra points.
Boston College—Justin Simmons, CB/S: Experience alone at both safety and cornerback do not an NFL prospect make. But it doesn't hurt. The 6'3" senior led Boston College with 70 tackles last season, while starting seven games at FS and five at CB.
Clemson—Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson: SI's Zac Ellis recently shined the Off-season Spotlight on Lawson, a redshirt junior who is primed for a breakthrough as he helps to replace Vic Beasley off the edge. Lawson has about 30 pounds on Beasley—he was down to 275 this spring—and cuts a more-imposing, less-athletic figure.
Duke—Matt Skura, C, Duke: This will be Skura's third year anchoring Duke's O-line, in an offense that asks him to be active making adjustments. His size (6'4", 305 pounds) could foretell an NFL shift to guard.
Florida State—Reggie Northrup, OLB, Florida State: Coming off a 122-tackle season, Northrup is still working his way back from an ACL injury suffered during a playoff loss to Oregon. Hopefully, that setback does not sap him of his range tracking the football.
Georgia Tech—Adam Gotsis, DE, Georgia Tech: The 6'5", 282-pound Australian is not yet a household name but he could change that in the coming months. He's already built like an NFL lineman; if his game develops at its current rate, he will be an intriguing option across all defensive schemes.
Louisville—Devonte Fields, OLB, Louisville: Fields is a long way removed from a 2012 season when he won the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year award at TCU. He was injured in 2013 and then kicked off the team following a domestic-violence incident.
"My [stock] is probably down since the Ray Rice situation," Fields told SI last year, perhaps ignoring that pro teams would have had pressing concerns about his behavior regardless. "It probably dropped me a little bit."
Fields spent 2014 with Trinity Valley Community College before transferring into Louisville. There's no doubt that he can play at the FBS level, and the NFL once had extreme interest in his abilities off the edge. Can he rehab his image?
Miami (Fla.)—Deon Bush, S, Miami: Bush relies on his impressive athleticism, which has been both a good and bad thing. He can get sideline to sideline or close down in a hurry, but he also plays too loose at times.
North Carolina—Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina: Williams has turned into a sensational college quarterback. There's a difference between that tag and being a true NFL prospect, so Williams will spend this season trying to show he can do enough with his arm to make it at the next level. He's a brilliant runner: 783 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground last season.
North Carolina State—Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State: Brissett might be this year's version of Brett Hundley, albeit with far less hype heading into the year. He is similar to Hundley in size (6'4", 231 to Hundley's 6'3", 226) and as a threat to dodge pressure with his feet. Also like Hundley, though, Brissett is all over the map as a passer. The Wolfpack's starter did have a stretch of 187 passes without an INT, but he finished the year below the 60% completion line.
Pittsburgh—Lafayette Pitts, CB, Pitt: A 5'11", 195-pound redshirt senior, Pitts may never be an All-Pro type at the next level. However, he could keep chugging along as he has for the Panthers, finding a home as a reliable defender. This will be his fourth season as a starter, and that experience is noticeable in how Pitts understands the game.
Syracuse—Ivan Foy, OT: Foy started at guard during his freshman season of 2012, then transitioned to the Orange's right tackle role from 2013 on. He's cut about 35 pounds since his debut appearances, too. Syracuse lists him at 276 right now; he was at 311 three years ago. The reduction in weight has allowed Foy to flash some decent footwork.
Virginia—Maurice Canady, CB, Virginia: Start with the fact that Canady stands 6'2"—NFL teams will love that height. He's long and fast, too, so his appeal as a prospect is not difficult to find. The jury's out on if he can do enough as a press cover corner to win in a man-to-man NFL system.
Virginia Tech—Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech: Also of note for the Hokies is cornerback Brandon Facyson, who will pair with Fuller to give their team an impressive DB tandem. Hodges is just a redshirt sophomore, and he has a public-intoxication misstep on his record, but his talent could draw him a few Maxx Williams comparisons.
Wake Forest—Tylor Harris, DT: The Demon Deacons' horrid offense makes life tough for the defense. Harris held up well last season, though, posting up as a 300-pound obstacle in the middle of the line. He's yet to show much of a pass-rush repertoire, but Harris could have a future as a rotational run-stuffer.