The transition from college ball to the NFL is hard - extremely hard. Even the players who are supposed to be sure things are prone to fail once they make the transition. The main reason this happens is because of the sheer increase of talent from one level to the next. In college, each game you might face one or two players who have the potential to start in the NFL. The next stage everyone is already at that next level. The competition is bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger and some people just cannot keep up.
People make their careers out of being able to know which players will be successful and which won’t. Often they’ll even lose their career by making a mistake with one player. It’s a tough position that takes years of study and hours of watching film. With the college football season creeping up on us, here are our predictions for 15 players who will be stars in the NFL.
29 Deshaun Watson (QB – Clemson)
Deshaun Watson took the NCAA by storm last year when he led his Clemson Tigers to their first ever championship game. The 6’2” QB threw for over 4000 yards, ran for another 1000, and was responsible for 47 touchdowns. He found himself in the thick of the Heisman race last year, coming in third in the voting, and he was named an All American. The starting defense for Clemson last year had 6 players leave for the NFL, but all the world could talk about when Clemson came up was Watson’s play. He outshined one of the most prolific defenses in recent memory. He reminds us of Russell Wilson, both in size and play style. Not only can he break a 60 yard touchdown by outsprinting an NFL level corner, but also he can throw a 70 yard bomb in the face of a great pass rusher. We would love to see this guy on the Bears, who are expecting to move on from Jay Cutler sooner rather than later. They have a talented group of wide receivers that Watson would be able to dump the ball off to, and a good enough line to give Watson some time to run if he needs to.
27 Leonard Fournette (RB – LSU)
Many people see Fournette as the best player in college football right now. We don’t know if we’d go that far, but it is easy to see why people would believe that. Look at what Leonard was doing the first half of the season; through the first 7 games Fournette rushed for 1,352 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. The LSU offensive line is expected to be better this year, and Fournette is going to be another year wiser, so expect him to dominate longer this season. He really reminds us of Frank Gore; a powerful downhill runner with the quickness to burst through small holes in the defense and the ability to get out flat and catch passes. He really makes sense going to a team like the Ravens, who would covet a runner like Fournette to hold down the running back position when they finally move on from Justin Forsett.
25 Charles Harris (OLB/DE – University of Missouri)
Harris isn’t getting a ton of praise this year, partially because he plays for a sub-par Missouri team who could go winless this upcoming season. None of that is Charles Harris’ fault. He may not be the standout rusher that Mizzou has had over the past few years, but part of that is because of the chaos that was happening on Mizzou’s campus through much of the season. What he has working for him is the pedigree of Mizzou pass-rushers in the NFL today. Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson may have gotten into trouble, but are top tier players at their positions. Last year’s Super Bowl had a highly drafted Mizzou pass rusher on each team (Shane Ray and Kony Ealy). Harris shows flashes of guys like Elvis Dumerville, not necessarily an all-around force, but an absolute beast at getting into the backfield. A team like the Cowboys would jump on Harris to replace the horrible parade of pass-rushers that they have been trotting out since they cut ties with DeMarcus Ware.
23 Mike Williams (WR – Clemson)
Much like Missouri pass rushers, Clemson has a great recent heritage of Wide Receivers playing well in the NFL. DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins are the top receivers on their teams (Hopkins may be one of the 3 best in the game), then there are the likes of Dwayne Allen and Martavis Bryant who make positive impacts on playoff teams. Most people expect to see Mike Williams make a clean jump into the NFL as he is a 6’4”, 210 lb. receiver who can run faster than any corner in college football. We didn’t get to see him in 2015 after he broke a bone in his neck, but if his 2014 campaign is any reference we can expect over 1000 yards with 18 yards per catch on average. He has drawn a ton of comparisons to Odell Beckham Jr. as the two of them share similar skill sets, but Beckham is about 6 inches shorter than Williams, so we see him more as a T.O. type player. The Jets would love to pair Williams with an aging Brandon Marshall to eventually replace the Pro-Bowler.
21 Myles Garrett (DE – Texas A&M)
Here is the first “non-tiger” on this list. Myles Garrett is as close to a sure thing as you can get at this moment. That can easily changed based on his play this season, but after seeing what the 6’5” 260 pounder did to the league where he has put up back-to-back double digit sack seasons in the SEC. There were games later in the season where it felt like Garrett may not have been trying as hard as he could, but there were some injury concerns and the games where he slacked off, the Aggies were dominating their opponent. Myles Garret may be the next Von Miller, another Aggie pass rusher that was about the same size and same “temperament,” yet still an absolute monster in the NFL. While any team would want a pass rusher of this pedigree, we want to see Garrett on the Saints who have been hungry for a pass rusher since they won the Super Bowl in 2009.
19 Dalvin Cook (RB – Florida State)
Fournette and Christian McCaffery are getting all the attention when it comes to running backs, but Dalvin Cook may be the best of all of them. He has ran for more than 1000 yard in back to back seasons for a championship contending Florida State team, and he has even shown that he is able to go out and catch passes, averaging 10 yards per catch last year. Cook has recived praise from almost every rival coach with guys like Dabo Sweeney saying he would take Cook over Fournette if given the option. He may be the fastest running back that will be entering the NFL next year and if he continues to put up the numbers he puts up he will easily be a first rounder in 2017. His play is strikingly like Chris Johnson from back when he was CJ2K, he will just run right past defenders with blinding speed or cut the opposite direction and breaking his chaser’s ankles. The Seahawks will go all in on Cook as he can take the job over from Thomas Rawls, who the team isn’t buying as being their future.
17 Desmond King (CB – Iowa)
Dominating cornerbacks are becoming the most exciting players to watch in the NFL. Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Josh Norman are not only fun on the field, but deliver some of the best post-game antics in the NFL. Desmond King looks like he might be the next guy in this line as he is the best player on an Iowa team that looks to compete for a title this season. The senior has gone up against the best that the Big 10 has to offer and has almost never been burned. Last year he had 8 interceptions and 13 pass deflections, and also handled most of the teams punt and kick off returns. Desmond King reminds us of Brent Grimes both in size and play type, and we expect that to be his floor of growth in the NFL. The Dolphins must be watching this guy with their mouth watering as they only snagged Byron Maxwell to “help” their atrocious secondary.
15 Corey Davis (WR – Western Michigan)
Corey Davis will most likely be taken in a later round of the 2017 draft. The Western Michigan product has been dominating his league and if he puts on a bit of weight he’d be the prototypical size for an NFL wide-out, but he’ll slip because he is coming out of Western Michigan. There aren’t a lot of star receivers coming out of second tier schools, but there are a select few who work. Davis has flashes of both T.O. and Emmanual Sanders, but his skill set really reminds us of Antonio Brown. Both guys are scary once they get the ball in their hands and average over 10 yards per reception. Davis can be used as either a deep threat or a possession receiver, which is exactly what the Eagles will be on the lookout for in 2017 if both Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor replicate the below average seasons that they had in 2015.
13 Ricky Seals-Jones (WR/TE – Texas A&M)
Ricky Seals-Jones is not a name that many people will know off hand. The Aggies’ hybrid tight end – wide receiver has put together 2 remarkably average years playing for A&M and the horrible QB play that they have been cursed with, but the upcoming 2016 season will be a make or break year for the man. He is 6’5” and 225 pounds, if he were to put on some more muscle, he will be very hard to cover on the outside with his speed. He can help a team out the same way Vernon Davis did back when he was dominating for the 49ers. He may be a little undersized for a tight end but his ability to get into the open field and make plays getting past the secondary is something few players can do. If Ricky is able to become that he will be an absolute star and every team will want him, but coming out of the draft the Rams will target him to be a pass catching tight end to line up with Lance Kendricks, their blocking tight end. It will be very reminiscent of the Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker tandem that helped get the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
11 Jake Butt (TE – Michigan)
The tight end position has changed the NFL. Gronk has shown that certain players are impossible to game-plan for, but Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten were the first to show that the tight end can be used as a receiver. That’s what Jake Butt will bring to whatever team ends up drafting him. Every team wants a tight end that can catch the ball like a receiver and block like a lineman and few college players are able to do that. Butt is 6’6” and 250 pounds and is attempting to put on more muscle for his senior year. He’ll be the go-to 3rd down and end zone target for Big Blue next year so we are expecting a breakout season for Mr. Butt. He really reminds us of Jimmy Graham who, despite having a rough 2015 season, is one of the best players in the NFL as he can catch a pass no matter what coverage scheme is put on him, and block for a QB when asked to. This is a guy that Andrew Luck should demand the Colts draft, and shouldn’t have to. He would be an excellent addition for a team like Indy who need another blocker and another pass catcher.
9 Brad Kaaya (QB – Miami)
If Kaaya shows some growth in the 2016 season, he might be the number 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. The Miami QB has had back-to-back seasons throwing for more than 3000 yards despite having a shaky receiving corp. and having to deal with a midseason coaching change. In 2015 he threw for significantly less touchdowns than his 2014 campaign, though he also had less interceptions and a higher completion percentage. This year with Mark Richt as head coach, Kaaya is expected to shine, even if the rest of the team is a mess. Kaaya is mainly a pro-style pocket passer, so if he is able to have a decent season teams will look at him like they did Jared Goff this past year. Goff and Kaaya actually have very similar skill sets and played in similar situations, a college team with a weak roster in a very top-heavy conference. Seeing how Goff produces for the Rams will really help determine where in the first round Kaaya will be picked, unless he bombs. If he plays well expect the 49ers to take him high in the first round. After Kaepernick’s tenure comes to an end in San Francisco, and the Chip Kelly experiment crashes and burns, the front office will want to steady the ship by grabbing a guy who can stand in the pocket and actually throw the ball. Enter Kaaya.
7 Hardy Nickerson Jr. (LB – Illinois)
Hardy Nickerson’s name has come up quite a bit in certain states this past off-season as he chose to transfer out of Cal and join the Fighting Illini. This was a very smart decision as he has NFL aspirations and playing for Lovie Smith is probably the best route to get there at this time. But the real reason is that Hardy’s father, who was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in the NFL, was named Smith’s defensive coordinator. Hardy will get a ton of special attention as Lovie, and the school would greatly benefit from Hardy being a star in the NFL. Someone will be taking Nickerson with their first round pick and will not be disappointed. He was by far the best tackler on his team at Cal racking up 111 tackles last year. He has potential to play like Luke Kuechly and anchor a teams defense for a decade. The Packers will have a close eye on Nickerson come the draft as he is a leader on the field and they have a gaping hole at middle linebacker because Clay Matthews will be back on the outside and Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington both can be upgraded.
5 Josh Carraway (OLB/DE – TCU)
Josh Carraway is expected to make a huge impact on TCU and the entire Big 12 conference in this upcoming season. Last year he started every game for the Horned Frogs and devastated opponents racking up 8 sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss from the defensive end positions. He even came up with a huge sack in the comeback game against Oregon in the Alamo Bowl. Combined with Aaron Curry, TCU will be boasting one of the best (if not the best) pass rushing tandem in the NCAA, and with the potential decline of Oklahoma, and the disaster at Baylor, TCU may see a route to get to the playoffs. In the NFL Carraway will be a hybrid end/linebacker like Chandler Jones and will look at making a similar impact on a team. He fits best on the Patriots who will be looking for a pass rusher to replace one of the rejected players (Shea McClellin, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long) they are using to plug holes at the position for 2016.
3 Budda Baker (S – Washington)
Safeties have become one of the most important positions in the NFL today. Not that they haven’t always been important, but after teams watched Gronk and Welker pair up to dominate the league, they realized how necessary guys who could cover either play types are. Budda is not the safety who will come in and stop a mammoth Tight End, but he has the speed to break up passes aimed for them, and the coverage ability to take on even the best slot recivers. Barring a crazy season, we don’t expect to see Baker come out of school until the 2018 season, but the guy can play all over the secondary and that’s a trait that many teams are thirsty for. We expect him to be utilized like Tyrann Mathieu shifting between corner and safety depending on the play/game/season, and Baker would excel doing this. If the Bills don’t do something next off season to help their secondary, they will drool when looking at Baker on their draft board as both their starting safeties (who have underperformed since coming to Buffalo) will be due a ton of money and their best corner will be a free agent.
1 J.T. Barrett (QB – Ohio State)
J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned starting quarterback for Ohio State for the 2016 season. In 2014 he put together a remarkable season throwing for almost 3000 yards and 34 touchdowns, but got hurt and was replaced with Cardale Jones following an injury. All of Ohio State’s 2015 season was marred with media and internal questioning over who should start, and it felt like no one could make up their minds. Barrett had a poor season, as did Jones, and they kept getting benched so no one could get into a rhythm. Even in a bad year, Barrett was able to be a dynamic dual threat throwing for 11 touchdowns and rushing for 11 more. An offseason of practice and a full season starting may change America’s mind about Barrett and it would not surprise us to see him shoot high in the draft. His style and play is a lot like Deshaun Watson, just without the hype surrounding him. We expect to see him play like Marcus Mariota once he gets to the NFL. Barrett seems like the kind of player who the Browns will covet if the RG3 experiment fails, but if they take him don’t expect Barrett to be a success.