For any NFL team, getting the most out of the draft is a tricky prospect, even early in the first round. Whether the strategy is to draft for best player available, or to address a specific position of need, no player selection is truly a surefire bet. Despite this, the upper echelon of players selected in the past several drafts has actually been quite good, with little in the way of confirmed busts. While common sense would dictate that a top-five selection in the NFL should yield a good result, this isn’t always the case, and we’ve seen plenty of high-profile picks over the years that never amounted to anything in the pros.
This makes the relatively high quality of play that recent top-five picks have to their name, all the more impressive. No matter the position, there’s a lot of talent that has gone around in the upper echelon of the draft, and many of them are about to enter the prime of their careers in the upcoming 2017 season. With youthful players like these leading the way, it’s a good time to be a fan of the NFL, and watch the development of the game’s brightest stars.
Ranked below are the top five picks selected in each of the past three NFL drafts.
15. Jared Goff
The first overall selection from the 2016 draft, Goff hit a skid before the regular season started. He wasn’t able to even see the field for quite some time, yielding his playing time to the garden variety Case Keenum to start the season. When he did get his playing time as a starter, Goff was wholly underwhelming, and there should be speculation this offseason as to whether the Rams got this pick right. With other rookie quarterbacks such as Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott looking much more impressive all things considered, Los Angeles may have botched this pick. It isn’t a surefire conclusion that Goff will end up a bust, but he certainly isn’t off to a good start, and he’ll have to improve by leaps and bounds in 2017 in order for the franchise to feel comfortable with him under center.
14. Blake Bortles
There are intriguing aspects to Bortles’ play over his first three seasons in Jacksonville, but he hasn’t shown enough to prove that he was worth the third overall selection in 2014. His arm is woefully erratic, and his decision making is faulty too often to be a successful NFL quarterback on an annual basis. This isn’t due to a lack of talent, as Bortles can lay claim to one of the best receiving corps’ in the league at this moment in time. He’s not necessarily a bust, but he definitely isn’t in the upper echelon at his position when taking into account the entire league, something you’d expect out of a quarterback of his draft status. It’ll be interesting to see if the Jaguars new coaching regime will deem him worthy of the starting quarterback job as the offseason gets underway.
13. Brandon Scherff
Drafting an offensive guard in the top five of any draft is usually a suspect move for any team, and there is no exception to that when the Redskins drafted Scherff fifth overall in 2015. The value of the position generally doesn’t warrant selecting one that high when other, more impactful players can be had for a much better value. While Scherff hasn’t been bad in his first two seasons, it’s no secret that Washington could have used this pick to improve their erratic defense (pick any position), or find a franchise running back to counterbalance their pass-heavy offense. Without question, this is one they’d like to have back, considering all the other deficiencies on their team. Their best option now is to keep him around, but there were better selections to be had at the time.
12. Greg Robinson
The same principle applies to Robinson, who was taken at second overall by the Rams in 2014. At least he was drafted as an offensive tackle, but the result has been similar overall. Despite this high selection on an offensive lineman, in combination with a high selection for running back Todd Gurley, the Rams offense has been mostly stagnant over the past few seasons. Certainly, getting rid of Jeff Fisher, who can lay claim to being the most mediocre head coach in football, should help their future. However, that doesn’t change the fact of the matter, and Robinson simply hasn’t been worth his top-five draft position. Not a liability on the offensive line, but he isn’t going to be the catalyst that will improve fortunes in Los Angeles. Again, this is one they’d like to have back in hindsight.
11. Dante Fowler
After being injured for the entirety of his rookie season in 2015, even after his second NFL campaign, Fowler remains a bit of an enigma on the Jaguars’ defensive front. Selected third overall out of Florida, he was purported to be the best pass rusher in the 2015 draft. While that still may end up being the case, a middling four sacks for the 2016 season doesn’t really help his status in that regard, at least not at the moment. He’ll need to prove that he can be an elite edge rusher for the new coaching regime in Jacksonville to justify such a high pick. At the tender age of 22, he does have time on his side, but it could end up being an uphill battle for him. Without a doubt, the 2017 season will be the make-or-break year Fowler needs to potentially turn his career around. One of the more intriguing players to watch next year to see if he can do so.
10. Carson Wentz
Drafted second overall by the Eagles in the 2016 draft, Wentz was selected to be the quarterback of the future, and the centerpiece to a franchise that has been through a couple of turbulent seasons in recent memory. Considering he was playing alongside the worst receiving corps in the league, a cobbled-together offensive line, and no elite skill players in general, he got off to a respectable start. Rookie deficiencies showed of course, but there was far more good than bad, when taking the season in full. There’s still time for him to either regress or improve, but it certainly seems like the right choice when compared to the inadequacy of Jared Goff. The Eagles will need to provide Wentz with offensive weapons in the offseason, but for now he’s done all he can with a lack of firepower.
9. Sammy Watkins
When he’s healthy and on the field, Watkins is one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL, and that’s with a lack of other receiving weapons on the outside. The caveat for him of course, is being able to get on the field; something he’s struggled with, at least in part of the last two seasons. With the oaf-like Rex Ryan gone in Buffalo, Watkins has an even better shot of success in 2017, and could truly define himself as an elite receiver in the league. The Bills took him fourth overall in the 2014 draft, and he’s more than likely going to end up living up to that billing when his career is all said and done. It’s just a matter of his health staying on the up-and-up, and establishing as the absolute, go-to option in the Bills offense for years to come. There is a very good chance of that happening.
8. Marcus Mariota
After a rough rookie season in 2015 that saw Mariota take his lumps at the quarterback position, and left the Titans still without an identity on offense, fortunes turned around for the second overall pick out of Oregon. He was better in every single way this season; allowing his run-first offense to open up the passing game. He performed well in that department, despite having on middling weapons around him to throw to, and looked to be much more comfortable in the pocket than he was during his rookie year. All in all, it’s looking like the Titans succeeded on their second overall selection, and that Mariota is a true franchise quarterback for the long-term. While there is still more work to be done, the most important piece has been acquired.
7. Jalen Ramsey
Heralded as one of the best talents in the secondary to come out of the draft in recent years, Ramsey had a solid rookie season with the Jaguars. Versatile, and well-equipped athletically to handle the best receivers in the game, Ramsey has a bright future ahead of him, and this should become more realized with some stability in the coaching staff after the firing of Gus Bradley. Once the Jaguars are able to put some talent around him on defense, Ramsey should be one of the best corners in the league on an annual basis. There was no shortage of hype before the 2016 draft for the Florida State product, but he seems to be living up to it, even on a team that is currently one of the worst in the league. Ramsey could turn the corner into an elite player next season, so he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.
6. Jadeveon Clowney
The first overall pick in the 2014 draft, the first couple of seasons in the NFL were injury-riddled, and rough overall for Clowney. Only in 2016 did he begin to see his place in the Texans defense become increasingly clear. Setting a career high in both tackles and sacks, coupled with the unfortunate loss of All-Pro J.J. Watt early in the season, made Clowney see how important his role is in the defense. His inherent talent is still off the charts, and he’s still young enough that he’s not even in the prime of his career. The 2016 season was a major step forward in his development, and it’s not a stretch to say that he could transform into an elite edge rusher next season, whether Watt is able to play or not. Though he was cast aside for a while, the football world is beginning to see why Clowney got that first overall selection, and his talent is being fully realized.
5. Jameis Winston
Winston had a stellar sophmore season, and he’s likely to become one of the best young QBs in the game if he can keep up his pace into next season. Despite having a first-year head coach in Dirk Koetter, Winston thrived with his connection to elite receiver Mike Evans, and the Bucs found an identity on their offense for the first time in years. Coming up just short of the playoffs shouldn’t matter right now in the evaluation of Winston, as he showed off his strong arm and strong improvisational skills from the pocket. As a first overall selection in 2015, he’s provided the Bucs with a surefire franchise quarterback, and team leader for years to come. He’s been worth the investment because of this, and is only going to improve.
4. Joey Bosa
The start to Bosa’s career was a murky one that involved a contract holdout, and absence from the first four games of the 2016 season due to injury. When he finally got on the field however, everyone saw why the Chargers invested such a high pick in him. Playing in just 12 games and compiling over 10 sacks, Bosa is going to be one of the elite edge rushers in the league. A ridiculous combination of speed and strength ensures this, and it’s scary to think the numbers he may put up when he eventually reaches the prime of his career. It seems as if he’s going to be worth the headache for the Chargers, as talent like this doesn’t come along often. With a defense as porous as theirs has been in recent years, they sure could use it.
3. Khalil Mack
Mack has given the Raiders an identity on defense, and in combination with their elite offense, this has made the team improve in leaps and bounds. There simply is no weakness to his game, and he’s a certified playmaker all over the field. At a fifth overall selection in 2014, he’s been everything that the franchise has asked for, and will be along for the ride as the Raiders stake their claim to be one of the perennially elite teams in the league for the forseeable future. An integral part of not only the defense, but the entire team, Mack has even more room for growth on the horizon, and if he reaches his peak potential, there’s a good chance that he’ll be making a bid for the Hall Of Fame by the time his career is finished. One of the best defensive players in the game today.
2. Amari Cooper
Not to be outdone however, Mack’s teammate Amari Cooper has established himself as Derek Carr’s favorite target, and been one of the best receivers in the league over the last two years. Mack may be the centerpiece of an improving defense, but Cooper is one of the main focal points of an amazing offense. His numbers, though very good, don’t top the league is any receiving category, but the kicker is that he’s 22 years old; ridiculously young for any skill player in the NFL. He’s only going to get better, and is going to be a top-three receiver in the league in 2017 or 2018, depending on when he can successfully enter his prime from a performance standpoint. Drafted fourth overall in 2015, he’s lived up to every ounce of his draft position so far, but look for him to post some truly eye-popping numbers in the near future.
1. Ezekiel Elliott
No matter what your opinion on the Dallas Cowboys is, to say that Elliott has been anything other than a revelation in the 2016 season would be foolish. Even though he has the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL, his numbers as a rookie running back are flat-out elite, and he’s already established himself as one of the best in the league at his position (David Johnson gets the edge for positing similar numbers on a far worse team). The fact that he’s able to post these kind of numbers at the age of 21 is frightening, and gives the Cowboys a standout player on offense for a long time coming. If things break a certain way, we may end up saying that Elliott was the best running back of all-time. As young as he is, there’s no telling what his peak production is going to look like. Truly one of the most dynamic players to come along in the league, and the best from the top-five draft selections in the past three years.
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