For some teams, the NFL Draft is a classic exercise in overthinking. Raw players with tantalizing potential often leap up draft boards, pushing low-risk but less flashy picks to the wayside as franchises chase an elusive star.
In 2009, for example, the Bills reached for Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin at the No. 11 pick. Maybin had only one season as an impact NCAA player under his belt, but combine numbers pegged him as one of the draft’s most athletic pass rushers.
He finished his NFL career with six sacks.
Brian Orakpo, a three-year starter at Texas, was taken two picks later. Four Pro Bowl seasons later, he was still a key component of an NFL defense this past year.
Other examples abound: Devin Thomas over Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson in 2008. Felix Jones over Matt Forte that same year. While college production is no guarantee of future success, it typically sets a solid foundation for NFL production.
The 2017 NFL Draft features several players who may not be the sexiest picks, but they bring battle-tested value to the big leagues. Here are five of the safest prospects jumping from the NCAA to the pros this spring.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
The likely No. 1 pick in the draft, Garrett is the perfect combination of potential and production. Not only did he record 31 sacks in his three seasons with the Aggies, but he also showed off elite athleticism after putting together one of the greatest combine performances of all time. His prodigious athletic gifts give him the latitude to beat blockers inside and out, making him a nightmare to game plan against.
He doesn’t have a great track record against the run, but he doesn’t need one. Garrett is an explosive defender who fills the most important need an NFL defense could have in 2017: He makes quarterbacks miserable. His hype is huge, but so was his college production.
Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Cunningham was the jewel in Derek Mason’s Commodore defense the past three seasons, developing from four-star recruit into one of the nation’s elite linebackers. His ability to close ground from sideline-to-sideline helped Vanderbilt improve from a 3-9 rebuilding case to bowl team despite one of the nation’s least dangerous offenses. Cunningham racked up 125 tackles last fall and constantly rose to the occasion — most notably when his fourth-and-1 sealed a rare road win over Georgia back in October.
He had a solid combine, but it wasn’t enough to raise his draft stock beyond his current late-first/early-second round projections. He’s not a tremendous pass rusher — he didn’t record a single sack in 2016 — but he sheds blocks well and comes up when his team needs him the most.
And even though it’s illegal in the NFL now, Cunningham can do this:
Which is still very, very impressive.
Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
Few cornerbacks in the FBS were as adept at shutting down opposing quarterbacks in 2016 than Wilson. Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed only 16 completions on the season while holding passers to 29.9 passer rating last fall. At 6’1 and 210 pounds, he has the size and strength to jam receivers at the line and the speed and instincts to stick to them downfield as they run through their routes.
Wilson improved throughout his college career and still has plenty of room to grow as a player. Even if he doesn’t, he’s a starting-caliber cornerback who excels in one-on-one coverage who can likely be drafted for the cost of a second-round pick this April.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Smith-Schuster was the most dangerous weapon in the Trojans’ offense, scoring 20 touchdowns his final two seasons in college. The dynamic deep threat has fallen down draft boards thanks to the combination of a mediocre performance in 2016 and the rise of players likes Zay Jones and Corey Davis the past six months. As a result, he’s projected to be a mid-to-late second round pick in 2017.
If he lasts that long, he’ll be a bargain. Smith-Schuster may not have elite top-end speed, but his ability to cut precise routes and find creases in coverage are two traits that will make him a successful receiver at any level. The USC product is a proven performer with the tools to be high level contributor for the next decade — even if his ceiling isn’t as high as a guy like Jones, Davis, or Mike Williams.
Pat Elflein, C/G, Ohio State
Elflein is a mean interior lineman who can play multiple positions while pancaking tacklers. Though his pass blocking declined in 2016 when he moved to center for the Buckeyes, he’s been a resilient and effective blocker who clears space for his tailbacks to thrive.
No one is going to outwork Elflein, and his thick lower body and exceptional center of gravity give him the foundation to be a Pro Bowl lineman.