This week, we’re looking back at the 2016 NFL Draft. You can also check out our ranking of the 15 quarterbacks who were drafted that year, how we evaluate the offensive linemen now, the biggest steals, six guys under the most pressure, and five breakout candidates from the draft class.
Carson Wentz got his nine-figure payday. Dak Prescott won’t be far behind. Jared Goff has another year and a half to come to terms on a megadeal that would cement his status as the Rams’ quarterback of the future.
In three seasons in the league, that trio has helped swing the balance of power in the NFC. Wentz and Goff both played significant roles on teams that won conference championships. Prescott has been the force that eschewed a rebuild in Dallas and pushed the Cowboys to a pair of division titles.
But are they the best players to come out of a potent 2016 NFL Draft class? To find out, I factored in three years of production and their still-growing potential moving forward — with a stronger emphasis on total performance and how these players have made their teams better. Their ability to stay on the field is a factor as well; injuries and off-field concerns also played a role in the rankings.
Three seasons ago, a deluge of talent made the leap from college football to the NFL, injecting the league with young dynamos who’ve made an impact in the regular season and playoffs alike. This group has shared honors beyond just rookie of the year awards, ranging from All-Pro status to the opportunity to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February. With three years of data to reflect on, the majority of the class’ star power came from 2016’s first round — but some mid-draft gems made their mark as well.
So I, foolishly, struck off to rank the top 10.
1. Dak Prescott (135th overall)
2. Carson Wentz (second overall)
3. Jared Goff (first overall)
Hooooo boy, let’s get right into it:
Prescott vs. Goff vs. Wentz through three seasons
Prescott’s the man with the better career numbers — best passer rating, best winning percentage, a huge advantage as a runner — but that’s partially because he came in and outperformed expectations from Week 1 as a pro. He was able to shatter a low-percentage learning curve and make Tony Romo our most beloved broadcaster, though Prescott may have the lowest ceiling of this amazingly talented group.
Then come the men who were expected to play starring roles as soon as their names were called on draft night. Goff is the one with the biggest performances in recent years and the highest ceiling, even if his aerial prowess is aided significantly by a creative offense-inclined coach and one of the best receiving corps in the league. Wentz is the man who was once an MVP frontrunner for a team that went on to win the Super Bowl (albeit without him). Both have the chops to be the league’s top quarterback in the near future.
So how do you rank them?
Wentz has shown the most, even as injuries have dulled some of his shine (though not enough for the Eagles, smartly, to invest more than $100 million in him).
Prescott has done the most with the least — see the Cowboys’ receiving corps pre-Amari Cooper trade or their tight end corps, uh, now — but he has yet to live up to the heights of his rookie season and put together an extremely average 2017.
Goff has improved each season he’s played, but his postseason passer rating is more than 20 points lower than his regular season one.
You could arrange these three in any order and I’d be willing to listen to your argument. Even so, the edge after three seasons goes to Prescott. While he’s the only one who hasn’t been instrumental in a Super Bowl run, he’s also been the most reliable in the postseason. The Cowboys quarterback may not be able to make the same throws downfield Goff and Wentz can, but his mobility and accuracy give him the slightest of edges coming into 2019— though both his peers have the chops and potential to eclipse him.
Not that we’ve got that not-at-all subjective and debatable start to the list out of the way in a completely agreeable fashion, let’s move on.
4. Michael Thomas, WR, Saints (47th overall)
The Saints didn’t really build much of a receiving corps around Thomas after trading Brandin Cooks to the Patriots in 2017. This all worked out for them because Thomas is some kind of low-key superhero. Over the past two seasons, he’s hauled in 229 catches — 18 more than anyone else in the league — for 2,650 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last fall, he comprised more than 61 percent of Drew Brees’ completions to his wideouts.
And despite being a clear-cut top option and facing double-teams all year long, he still produced! His third season in the league saw him earn first-time All-Pro honors, and he’d go on to roast the Eagles for 12 catches and 171 yards in their wild card matchup. That’s amazing for anyone, let alone the sixth wideout drafted in what was supposed to be a top-heavy draft.
2016 NFL Draft WRs production
|2016 Draft Slot
|2016 Draft Slot
The Saints got him a little backup this spring by adding Jared Cook to their lineup. He, Alvin Kamara, and a healthy Ted Ginn should carve out a little extra space for Thomas to thrive in 2019 — even if the rest of the team’s receiving corps isn’t exactly inspiring.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys (fourth overall)
Despite a relative downturn in his suspension-shortened 2017 — the same year Prescott struggled — the Dallas tailback is still averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game as a pro. More importantly, he stepped into an elevated role as a receiver last season to pick up the slack of an underwhelming group of receivers, hauling in a career-high 77 catches (though for only 567 yards) and standing out as Prescott’s invaluable safety valve.
The question is how long he can keep this up — and whether his off-field decision-making will lead to another league suspension later in his career. Elliott’s career so far has been predicated on rewarding Jerry Jones for eschewing trends and drafting a runner in the top five. Now he’s got to convince Jones he’s the rare running back who’s worth a massive contract. (Retired offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz says Elliott is worth the cash.)
6. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jaguars (fifth overall)
Ramsey took a step back from his All-Pro 2017 as the Jaguars crumbled into dust around him, but he remains a top-flight cornerback who thrives when left on an island. This was on full display in a 2018 loss to the Steelers, where he drew a headline assignment against Antonio Brown and intercepted Ben Roethlisberger — a player he called “decent at best” that preseason — two times to give his rudderless club a chance to pull off the midseason upset.
7. Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs (165th overall)
Hill is a game-breaking wideout and returner — whose off-field issues make him toxic. He’s amazing when he’s on the field, and that’s about all I’d like to say about a player who’s currently suspended by the Chiefs from all team activities.
8. Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers (third overall)
Bosa is a pocket-crashing monster when healthy — but that hasn’t been especially often in his first three seasons as a pro. He’s missed 13 games for the Chargers so far but still racked up 28.5 sacks while providing Los Angeles a perfect counter-punch to Melvin Ingram’s potent pass rush from the opposite side. The Ohio State product has averaged 13 sacks per 16 games to start his career, and his presence on the Chargers’ defensive line could be the extra push that finally gets Philip Rivers to the Super Bowl.
9. Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jaguars (69th overall)
Ngakoue has more sacks than anyone else in his class, totaling 29.5 and giving Jacksonville one of the league’s most powerful pass rushes alongside 2017 first-team All-Pro Calais Campbell. While his breakout 2017 is his headliner with 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, he remained productive in his third year, notching 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits — the latter good for third-best in the NFL. Bosa’s better on a per-game basis, but Ngakoue keeps getting better and has been the more consistent player to date.
10. Joe Thuney, OG, Patriots (78th overall)
Thuney has yet to make a Pro Bowl roster, but the former third-round selection has developed into one of the league’s most reliable interior blockers under the guidance of legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He was part of a unit that allowed the decidedly un-nimble Tom Brady to be sacked just one time in the postseason and limited Aaron Donald to just one QB hit in Super Bowl 53. While Thuney earned a glowing pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in 2018, his duties in the run game were equally impressive; the third-year guard paved the way for New England’s most efficient rushing offense since 2013.
Thuney’s even been so good on the interior that Bill Belichick’s been giving him a look at left tackle this offseason. While he may not have the accolades of more-lauded 2016 blockers like Jack Conklin, Cody Whitehair, or Ronnie Stanley, his gradual improvement suggests he may make the leap to All-Pro in 2019.
That’s the Summer 2019 look back at the Class of ‘16, but there are so many different ways this list could shake out each summer for the next decade. Bosa is a game-changer if he can consistently turn in 16-game seasons. Goff is just harnessing his powers in Sean McVay’s continually evolving offense. Wentz is less than two years away from being the league’s leading MVP candidate.
Then there are the guys who just missed the list. Players like Conklin, Whitehair, Laremy Tunsil, Xavien Howard, Myles Jack (the Jaguars had a very, very good draft and somehow — ahem, Bortles — only won five games last year), DeForest Buckner, and Keanu Neal could crash the top 10 with another solid season this fall. There was a ton of talent that came into the league in 2016, and most of it found its way to the top of the draft. Unsurprisingly, those guys have been postseason staples over the last three years.
Barring a major surprise, we’ll be seeing them late into January for the next 10 years to come, too.