2016 NFL draft primer: Best of the rest
The college football season kicks off in earnest on Thursday, Sept. 3. (An FCS matchup between North Dakota State and Montana actually gets the show on the road five days earlier, on Aug. 29.) The NFL season will be right behind, with the Steelers and Patriots set to take the field on Sept. 10.
Finally, after months of discussing players' and teams' potential, we will have some real results to analyze.
Only then will the 2016 draft picture even begin to come into some focus. For now, though, our primer wraps with a stroll through the top prospects in three more conferences (the MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA) along with the Independent schools.
1. Jaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame: With a well-stocked roster and manageable schedule, Notre Dame could climb into the College Football playoff race. Smith (6'2", 235 pounds) is the straw that stirs the drink on defense and is coming off a 112-tackle season. He's started every game of his Irish career at an outside linebacker spot.
Opponents will be happy when he's off to the next level. Smith covers a stunning amount of ground, so much so that NFL.com draft guru Daniel Jeremiah compared his explosiveness to that of recently retired linebacking great Patrick Willis. That is significant praise for a player who could crack the top five next April.
2. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame: Stanley (6'5", 315 pounds) teetered on the brink of turning pro following his redshirt sophomore season, only to ultimately stay at Notre Dame. He might have challenged Brandon Scherff, Ereck Flowers and Andrus Peat to be one of the first offensive tackles taken had he entered the draft.
The expectations are through the roof for Stanley as he enters what's expected to be his final college campaign. He's big, strong and can get his feet moving when he has to, either dropping against speed rushers or paving the way on a run. NFL teams will view him as a franchise left tackle.
3. Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame: If there is a Notre Dame prospect whose stock could explode in the coming months, Day has to be among the favorites. The 6'2", 285-pounder still has not fully tapped into his potential, but the base is there. Day can slide all over the defensive line and be a factor.
Now, to flip the switch from flashing that talent to unleashing it on a consistent basis. Day finished last season with 40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack—decent totals, though not what a player of his talent should be producing. He has been on-again, off-again throughout his career. It'd be scary if he figured it all out.
4. Bronson Kaufusi, DE/OLB, BYU: One look at Kaufusi in pads and you'll understand why NFL scouts are hovering. An athletic 6'7", 265-pound playmaker, Kaufusi has shifted back and forth between end and outside linebacker—he's expected to play mostly the former again this season. His potential as a multi-scheme defender will come in handy. Kaufusi is long and athletic, a terrific fit for what NFL teams want off the edge.
5. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame: After starting in his freshman and sophomore seasons (and earning Freshman All-America honors), Russell's career arc was interrupted when he was suspended last season as part of an academic fraud investigation. Russell (5'11", 190 pounds) could have taken his chances by turning pro but instead opted for a return to college. Depending on how long it takes him to get back into rhythm, Russell has the talent to be among the country's top cornerbacks. Rare are the occasions when receivers can shake him completely; his footwork is NFL-caliber.
1. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan: His brother, Titus, signed with the Chargers as a UDFA this past May. Corey has an extra couple inches on his elder sibling (6'3" to Titus's 6'1") and very well could find more draft luck. Still just a junior, Davis is coming off a sensational 1,400-yard, 15-touchdown season. He sets up defenders with his precise route-running, then uses his body to shield off space and make grabs.
2. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo: Hunt also has two years of eligibility left, though running backs more than any other position have to take their NFL shot when it comes, and Hunt's may come in 2016. He rushed for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns last season despite playing in just 10 games, posting 8.0 yards per carry. The Rockets star can make defenders miss and wastes little time getting to the second and third levels. His lack of work as a receiving threat (21 catches so far) could be a minor issue down the line.
3. Tajae Sharpe, WR, UMass: Sharpe (6'3", 200 pounds) has some Kevin White to him. He can win on balls deep up the sideline but tends to be at his most electrifying on routes over the middle, making catches and then accelerating into the open field. Sharpe averaged 15.1 yards on his 85 grabs last season.
4. Pat O'Connor, DT, Eastern Michigan: O'Connor has been Eastern Michigan's best defender for a couple of seasons now. The 6'4", 274-pound lineman hit career highs in tackles (64), tackles for loss (14.0) and sacks (7.5) last season, reaching those marks with minimal help around him. He continues to show an increased knowledge for how to use his hands and length as a setup for his speed.
5. Alonzo Russell, WR, Toledo: When the 2016 draft rolls around, Russell (6'4", 205 pounds) could leap into Day 2. It all depends on if he can shake off a so-so 2014 season (51 catches, 770 yards, eight touchdowns) and establish himself as a dominant option outside. He's already a solid all-around performer—Russell blocks willingly, a trait NFL teams will notice. Can he take the next step?
1. Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech: One of those often-overlooked space-eaters up front, Butler sets the table for his teammates. Butler, a physical 6'3" and 309 pounds, had just one sack last season but did chalk up 13.5 tackles for loss. He's at his best clogging lanes and occupying blockers.
2. Cre'von LeBlanc, CB, Florida Atlantic: Next in line for the Owls now that 2014 star D'Joun Smith (pick No. 65) has a place on the Colts' roster. The scouting report on LeBlanc will be similar to Smith's: slightly undersized (5'10") but with quick feet and a willingness to play the run.
3. T.T. Barber, OLB, Middle Tennessee State: A knee injury slowed him last season, though he still played in all 12 games, and he sat out spring with a hernia. Health, then, is going to be key for Barber's chances moving forward. The 2013 season was more indicative of what he can do—119 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks. He's an aggressive, quick defender.
4. Jonnu Smith, TE, FIU: Smith earned an Honorable Mention nod on SI's 2014 college football All-America team, thanks to his 61 catches and eight touchdowns. Ten of those receptions went for 20-plus yards. At 6'3", 230 pounds, he's going to project as an H-back in the NFL.
5. Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky: The 6'3", 210-pound Doughty led the nation last season in passing yards (4,830) and touchdowns (49). The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility due to season-ending injuries in both 2011 and '12. Western Kentucky's offense obviously helps boost Doughty's numbers, and his injury history will be a red flag. Still, his prolific numbers plus his size and athleticism push him into the draft discussion as a potential developmental backup.
1. Gerrand Johnson, DT, Louisiana-Monroe: NFL teams prefer their draft picks hit certain height and weight benchmarks, but they're also willing to overlook those traits for production. Just look at former first-round Aaron Donald, whose 6'1", 285-pound frame nearly matches Johnson (6'1", 290). The Louisiana-Monroe product will not be confused with Donald as an All-Pro-level talent, but he is about as good as they come in the Sun Belt. Playing from the interior—mainly at nose tackle—Johnson recorded 93 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks last season.
2. Elijah McGuire, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette: File this name away, either for the 2016 or '17 draft. McGuire is the type of small-school talent whose film sneaks up on everyone once the combine comes around. Last season, the 5'11", 185-pound back rushed for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 166 carries (7.6 yards per attempt), caught 45 passes for 468 yards and returned 15 punts. He's a do-everything back that can be dangerous in the open field.
3. Quinton Bradley, DE/OLB, Idaho: Listed as a defensive end, Bradley's future lies as an outside linebacker. At 6'3", 252 pounds, he doesn't have the size or strength to live on the line as an NFL edge defender, but he does have the agility to make some plays standing up.
4. Doug Middleton, S, Appalachian State: Middleton (6'0", 210 pounds) can play an over-the-top safety role, step down into the box or even handle cornerback duties, as he did earlier in his career. He posted 74 tackles, 10 pass break-ups and four interceptions in 2014.
5. Matt Breida, RB, Georgia Southern: A go-to playmaker on what may be college football's best under-the-radar team. Breida (5'10", 180 pounds) has the vision to find a hole, even when it is closed at first. If he gets beyond the second level, forget about it—several of his 17 rushing touchdowns last season came on long gains as he raced away from the opponent's secondary.