On some level, there is a risk involved with every pick in the NFL Draft. Any player could become a star, and just the same, any player could bust. But there are a select number of players who just seem like safe draft choices. Players you just watch and with a certainty know exactly what you're getting. There is great value in certainty, even when a player isn't a superstar.
Safety means you know you have an expectation for a player and know exactly what you're getting. Look at the 2012 draft, for example. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn were considered safe picks. Neither were top 20 selections, and Glenn actually went in the second round. But they've both been good, dependable pros. Hitting home runs on draft picks is nice, but finding reliable starters is the name of the game. Here are my five safest choices in this year's draft:
Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
That's right, this isn't Georgia's Todd Gurley, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon or even Boise State's Jay Ajayi. All of those players might get drafted before Coleman, but the Indiana star is the safest choice. That's not to say his upside is as great as the others, but he's ready to go in the NFL after a college season of 2.036 yards and 15 touchdowns on 270 carries. Especially consider those numbers coming from behind Indiana's offensive line. Coleman runs with good balance when he's working through defenders and can make people miss in the open field. Coleman also has one of the best bursts through the hole of any running back in the draft. He's also a solid receiver, catching 54 passes in three seasons.
"I think I'm the whole package," Coleman told reporters after his personal pro day this week. "I think everything I have is there and could translate to the NFL real great."
Why did Coleman have a personal pro day? He injured his toe in the fifth game of the season and played through it. Just imagine what he'd do behind a line like Gordon or Gurley's. We should find out in the NFL.
Eric Kendricks, ILB, UCLA
Once you get past Kendricks' size – he's just over 6'0 and 230 pounds – it's difficult to find flaws in his game. Kendricks was a three-year starter at UCLA and finished his career with 477 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and nine sacks. By a fair margin, those are the best stats of any inside linebacker in this year's draft. Sure, standard stats are often pushed aside, but at some point production is production, especially at his position. Kendricks got those stats because his instincts are so pro-ready. He's the type of player who, as long as he's drafted by a team to start, will quickly find himself in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
The stat that really sticks out, though, is 12 passes defended. Kendricks excels in zone coverage and covers a lot of ground underneath. He has the athleticism to stick with running backs coming out of the backfield and enough strength to cover tight ends. The biggest flaw in Kendricks' game is that he wasn't used a lot on blitzes, so his development is slightly behind in that area, and he knows it.
"Where I would like to improve my game is from a blitzing standpoint," Kendricks said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I never really blitzed a lot from a set formation or a set blitz. I don’t have a lot of experience in that area. So that’s something I’d like to improve on."
La'el Collins, OT, LSU
"(Teams have) asked me if I could slide to the right side and then in two years, go to the left," Collins said at the combine. "I feel very confident in what I do, so it wouldn’t be a problem. They’ve asked me about playing guard and I could play either spot, right or left side. I love the one-on-one matchups." Being out there, one-on-one with a guy and having my way with him."
Collins isn't just paying lip service with those remarks. He is the type of offensive lineman you can just plug in anywhere on the offensive line and he'll find success. He's excelled at both left tackle and guard at LSU and will be pro-ready as a rookie. My comparison for Collins has always been Trent Williams of Washington. That comparison comes from a style and attitude perspective. Collins will completely maul or simply overpower a defender. He's a technician, though, which gives some credence to the notion that he can stick at left tackle.
Danny Shelton, DT, Washington
You might be thinking it's crazy to call a 340-pound first-round player safe. In fact, Shelton is so safe, he might be a better pro than college player. At Washington last season, Shelton played something like 90 percent of the team's defensive snaps. That should address any potential stamina issues. It would be a shock to see Shelton play even 75 percent of a team's snaps in the NFL. Because of that, he should be fresher for the entire game and more capable of wreaking havoc.
And what havoc Shelton can unleash. Shelton can throw offensive linemen around with ease and has a surprising amount of range for a player of his size. When he needs to maintain two gaps, he showed the discipline to occupy multiple blockers and still disrupt the pocket. He's also an advanced pass rusher for the position, particularly when compared to other college defensive tackles. Frankly, there isn't much Shelton can't do for a team. That's safety.
Clive Walford, TE, Miami
Here's another example of a player who won't get picked in the first round but should be a dependable player as a pro. Almost unanimously Walford is considered the second-best tight end in the draft. He may not seem like a freaky athlete, but he sure looked like one at Senior Bowl practices. Generally, Walford is good across the board. He has good size and strength, he's a good blocker and runs crisp routes. Walford won't ever be a deep ball threat, but teams shouldn't expect it. What teams should expect is a tight end who can come in and catch a handful of passes a game and get 50-75 yards per game. And what do they often call dependable tight ends? You guessed it, safety valves.