While a few of the names included on this list won’t participate in physical combine drills, there are a few names that stand above all others for the Oakland Raiders.
It’s a rough thing in some regard for the Silver and Black, because one of the team’s greatest areas of need is at linebacker.
And, it seems, the Raiders are only one solid offseason away from being legitimate contenders, especially with the decline and possible retirement of Peyton Manning, along with a Chargers team that has struggled mightily.
It’s not that running 40 yards in underwear is telling, it’s that it is part of a much larger dynamic that is designed to create stress for young men, who must perform under immense pressure or risk losing out on millions of dollars.
The meat market, where grown men strip down and come under scrutiny for every detail of their chiseled frames, a tone-setter for the rest of their time in Indianapolis.
Then there’s the constant preparation with trainers, which won’t stop until after all the drills are completed. Wake up at dawn, crash late in the evening.
At the end of it all is arguably the most important part.
Prospects and teams have 15 minutes per couple to meet and talk about things that went right, wrong, or otherwise. It’s the biggest job interview of many of these guys’ lives, and it comes late at night, when they are mentally and physically exhausted.
It’s where general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio knew that Amari Cooper was the receiver of Oakland’s future, and where Khalil Mack earned the respect of key decision makers.
That 15 minute session is what can turn a middling prospect into a top-16 draft pick.
With that noted, the following list is based on talent and tape alone, with little regard for outside noise or anything else.
1. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Smith is the most talented player in the 2016 draft, without question, and anybody who tells you differently shouldn’t be allowed to discuss football at all. Smith suffered an ACL tear that will keep him sidelined until about week six, unless a team decides not to place him on the PUP list. It would be silly not to, though, especially since his impact stretches years into the future.
Smith can cover well, hit hard, and has rare length, speed and instincts that led to five passes defensed for Notre Dame in 2015, and over 100 tackles for the last two seasons.
What’s most notable for Smith is that he hasn’t really had a bad game over the last two years. In most top prospects, there’s a lot of flash but always some negatives — mental lapses, lackadaisical plays and other minor flaws — but with Smith, it’s entirely absent. The knee injury is a concern, but to a very small degree. And even with it, Smith warrants consideration for the top pick of the draft.
2. Joshua Garnett, G, Stanford
Stanford running back Christian McCaffery should buy Garnett a car or something when the sophomore back inevitably gets his name called. Garnett was a major factor in the single season FBS all-purpose yards leader success, grating linemen at the point of attack and continuing downfield for extra yards that may not have been there otherwise.
Garnett is a day one starter at either left or right guard, and could even be a solid spot starter at right tackle in a power run scheme.
Garnett brings instant credibility to any team looking to improve the run and little adjustment time should be needed from college to the pros.
3. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Myles Jack isn’t far away from what Jaylon Smith is on tape. Nonetheless, Jack suffered a torn anterior meniscus in the later portion of a September practice and will be sidelined until the combine or later. With this, he will likely take a miss on drills in Indianapolis. But scouts have seen all they need to and will be there to talk football with the young man. What’s craziest about Jack’s game is his insane athleticism — he played running back just as well as he played linebacker.
That sort of things speaks volumes about Jack’s willingness to help win, particularly in college without pay and much support at all.
4. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
Scooby Wright isn’t on the level of the two linebackers above, but is atop the next level. He’s versatile and can cover extremely well, which is where the NFL has been trending for a while now. Wright’s lack of high level competition could damage his draft stock, and because he didn’t play in a top conference, the NFL should be revealing of how good he truly is.
He’s especially difficult to evaluate after missing most of the 2015 season, another top prospect with injury concerns, but then came back to dominate
5. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott is probably the best draft-eligible running back out, and can do a lot of things, but is nowhere near as gifted as Stanford running back Christian McCaffery or Louisiana State speedster Leonard Fournette. Elliott is the type of guy teeams used to reach for in the draft, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that he will be a first round pick. The early to mid second round would be the likely spot for Elliot, and even then, there’s no guarantee he is the first running back taken.
What stands out on Eliott is that he didn’t allow a single hit, hurry or sack on 103 pass blocking snaps per Pro Football Focus. Some teams value pass blocking backs more than others, but this stat is one that will appeal to all teams.
6. Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
White’s film shows little weakness. It shows a whole lot of strength, polish in press-man and big turnover potential. In reviewing how NFL ready a cornerback is, the ability to shadow is paramount, but so is anticipation and instincts. White flashes all of these things, and is clearly the best corner in the draft class, despite fellas like Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller stealing the top half of most media boards.
Ole Miss receiver La’quon Treadwell, one of the top wide outs in this year’s draft class, couldn’t get much going against White, and such was the case all season despite not recording any picks during his final season for the Tigers.
7. Eli Apple, CB, OSU
There’s little sugar in Apple’s game, but his impact on games is oh so sweet. In the National Championship against Alabama in early 2015 Apple took on fourth overall pick Amari Cooper for the majority of that evening, and halted the Crimson Tide’s most dynamic weapon. Apple is clearly a first round talent, and could be taken in the first 16 picks. Cooper was held to 7.9 yards per catch in the National Championship game, and it was rare that Alabama quarterback Blake Sims threw in Apple’s direction except for the final minutes of the game, when Ohio State was playing off-zone and leaving a safe cushion in order to keep receivers in front.
Apple ranked seventh in FBS football in interceptions with three in 2014, and recorded one in 2015. He has all of the fundamental tools to create a lockdown corner, though he’s only played two college seasons and there is a likely learning curve that Apple will adhere to.
8. Dalvin Cook, RB, FSU
Cook makes the top 10 and isn’t even draft eligible. He’s here to illustrate a point: there are so many running backs coming out in 2017 that drafting one before day three seems like a fool’s errand. But keep an eye out for this young man. He’s special.
9. Spencer Drango, T/G, Baylor
Drango played left tackle at Baylor, and was one of the best in the country at that position. Like a number of college tackles, though, Drango will likely play guard in the NFL, and could be an instant contributor in a scheme that includes screens, sweeps, and other gadgety type maneuvers.
He had back surgery in 2013, and it’s unclear whether that will damage his stock since it’s both a huge red flag but also in the past and hasn’t been a known issue since. Drango is a pass blocker first, but can plow holes in the run game just fine. He displays a cerebral approach to the game and that might be his biggest asset at the next level.
10. Mackenzie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Like nearly ever defensive player on this list, Alexander missed time with an injury. Excpet Alexander missed the majority of the National Championship game, and his absence allowed Alabama to win the game. Had he finished healthy, it’s pretty fair to reason that Clemson would have upset the Tide for the second championship game in a row.
An excerpt from Pro Football Focus:
“Alexander allowed just 18 completions all season and zero touchdowns. He allowed opponents to complete just 32.1 percent of balls thrown into his coverage — the second-lowest rate in the nation. He tracked Notre Dame WR Will Fuller when they met, limiting him to just 37 yards. And while Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard finished their game with seven catches, he was 0-for-3 when covered by Alexander.”
Notable players to watch for day 2-3: Jayron Kearse (DB, Clemson), Shawn Oakman (DL, Baylor), Will Fuller (WR, Notre Dame), Joe Schmidt (ILB, Notre Dame) Devontae Booker (RB, Utah), Ryan Kelly (G, Alabama), Taylor Decker (OL, Ohio State), Jeremy Cash (S, Ohio State)
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.