There’s no such thing as a safe draft pick. Even consensus home run prospects like Robert Gallery, Aaron Curry, Justin Blackmon, and Trent Richardson bust out of the league. It’s too difficult to consistently predict how a human being will react when placed under intense scrutiny and pressure in a new city, in a new scheme, with new teammates, under new coaches, against vastly superior competition, and with a big infusion of disposable income in his pocket. But that doesn’t mean the degrees of risk don’t vary: In each draft, there’s a crop of players with high ceilings and low floors; some years you get Dez Bryant, and in others you end up with Johnny Manziel.
Let’s take a look at a few probable first-round picks that have the talent to be NFL superstars, but could just as easily end up as busts.
Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina
There’s a lot to love about the 6-foot-2, 222-pound signal-caller. Trubisky demonstrated poise, accuracy, mobility, and a strong arm in 2016, and his 30-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio speaks to his ability to process what was happening downfield before making his throws. But it’s an undeniable red flag that Trubisky, who was a highly recruited four-star dual-threat passer out of high school, started just one year at North Carolina after playing backup to Marquise Williams in 2014 and 2015. If you’re wondering, Williams went undrafted last year and failed to make a 53-man roster.
It’s not just a question of why Trubisky was the backup until last year, either. It’s a question of how his lack of experience will affect his ability to transition to the professional level. Like many college quarterbacks, Trubisky played in a simplified, shotgun-heavy spread system that didn’t ask him to read the defense pre-snap, set protections, audible, or, as he disclosed on Jon Gruden’s QB Camp, even use a snap count. In one clip, Trubisky didn’t appear to know what a hard count was. Simply put, Trubisky is well behind his quarterback classmates when it comes to game snaps, and there’s no amount of preseason preparation that can fix that. Whoever drafts him will have convinced themselves that the talent itself overrides the question of, as Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians recently put it, “Why wasn’t all that starting for the last three years?”
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson is going to be a challenge to quarterback scouting’s two schools of thought: intangibles and tools. While dynamic as a runner, Watson’s simply not as physically gifted as the other quarterbacks in this class; his velocity and hot-and-cold accuracy don’t match up with that of Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes II, or DeShone Kizer, and his 30 interceptions over the past two seasons call into question his decision-making and ability to read defenses. Plus, it’s not going to get any easier going against faster, more complex NFL defenses.
Yet, Watson’s head and shoulders above his peers with the “intangibles”: He ended his Clemson career as the Tigers’ unquestioned leader, proved himself as a big-game producer, and went out as a national champion. Those might be clichés, but teams still value those hard-to-measure traits and subjective variables at quarterback. Seahawks GM John Schneider said that Russell Wilson’s ineffable ability to tilt the field was a major factor in his decision to take a prospect that was way too short for almost everyone else to consider. Watson’s the inverse of Trubisky in many ways: Whoever drafts him is going to have convinced themselves that his ability to control the huddle, demand respect from his teammates, and shine in the game’s biggest situations will overcome his less impressive physical tools.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes II, Texas Tech
Mahomes has the best arm of any passer in the class, and plays with that Brett Favre–esque sandlot style, frequently escaping pressure to survey his options and make big-time throws down the field.
That’s fun, but it’s not consistently replicable at the highest level — Favre had more to his game than the ability to improvise. Nowadays, just about every single passing offense in the league relies on timing and precision: A quarterback must take the snap, drop back, release the ball as soon as he hits his back foot, and find a receiver right as he makes his break and creates a sliver of separation.
Mahomes frequently makes off-balance throws and lets the ball fly from an awkward arm angle. Based on his college performance, we still have no idea if he’ll be able to function within the constraints of an NFL offense. Mahomes can make every throw, but as his 25 interceptions over the past two seasons suggest, unless he starts to stick in the pocket, go through his reads, and deliver the ball on time, he’ll be just as likely to produce a big play as he is to turn the ball over.
Running Back: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
It seems like just about every time you turn on Cook’s tape, he’s taking what looks like a modest 2-yard gain and bouncing it outside or slipping through a tiny seam to run for a 50-yard touchdown. The one-cut explosiveness and vision are apparent, and many analysts believe he’s the most talented back in this class, but multiple red flags have popped up for the former Florida State running back.
For one, Cook’s injury history is well known, and three shoulder surgeries call into question how durable he will be at the next level. Plus, a list of off-field incidents adds to the uncertainty about his availability. And then there’s Cook’s disastrous combine performance. Scouts and analysts like to tout the expression “trust the tape” when it comes to the final grades they give prospects, but it’s pretty hard to ignore how poorly he tested in Indianapolis: Cook measured out in the seventh percentile among NFL athletes at his position, and in the past 18 years, no running back with his athletic profile has been taken in the first round.
Defensive Lineman: Malik McDowell, Michigan State
There are plays, and even full games, when McDowell looks like a top-10 pick with the upside of an All-Pro. Just watch him consistently blow by offensive linemen against Notre Dame.
But the 6-foot-6, 295-pound defensive lineman disappears too often. His unreliable effort, along with his inconsistent technique — he plays with a narrow base and comes off the ball much too high at times — means that he’s going to require a bunch of coaching at the next level. He could be a disruptive force all across the defensive line like Calais Campbell, but he could also have a short career. It all depends on how much he buys into his new team’s system.
Linebacker/Pass Rusher: Haason Reddick, Temple
At the combine, Reddick, who’s 6-foot-1 and 237 pounds, ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds and jumped 36.5 inches in the vert. Despite those tantalizing measurables, Reddick remains a projection at the next level: The one area in which he’s a proven producer is at edge rusher, where he racked up 22.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks last year — and that isn’t a role that he’ll play consistently as a pro.
Reddick is likely too small to function as an every-down edge rusher, which means he’d have to run, cover, and tackle in coverage as a weakside linebacker in a 4–3 or an inside linebacker in a 3–4. He dropped back into coverage just 14 percent of the time in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, and that would be a much bigger part of his game at the next level. He may have shined in this new position at the Senior Bowl, but in college, he struggled with making plays in space and with taking on blocks. Reddick’s upside is through the roof and his raw explosiveness is where he derives his value, but there’s so much uncertainty when a player has to change positions from college to the pros.
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
Lattimore has the talent and physical ability to become one of the league’s shutdown corners. He posted four interceptions and nine passes broken up as a junior last year, and then backed up those numbers with an outstanding performance at the combine, clocking in at 4.36 in the 40 and a 38.5-inch vertical. However, the bottom line for many NFL teams is that the best ability is availability, and Lattimore’s long history of hamstring issues — including surgery as a freshman, further complications that limited him to seven games as a redshirt freshman, and a reported flare-up at the combine that Lattimore claims was actually his hip flexor — could portend major injury issues at the next level.
Hamstring injuries are particularly concerning for a player whose game is so contingent on explosive start-stop movements. Plus, they’re not the result of football’s violent nature; they come simply from running. They’re also the most common NFL injury, according to a study done in 2011, and defensive backs and receivers are the most frequent victims. Lattimore might be the best cornerback in the draft, but he can’t help anyone from the training room table or the sideline.
Cornerback: Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
Humphrey is the most physical cornerback in this draft.
He hits with authority against the run, administers a jarring punch to receivers as they try to get off the line and into their routes, and makes them work for every inch of real estate throughout the rest of the play. But if the former Crimson Tide star misses on his jam or misreads route combinations in front of him, he’s susceptible to the deep ball. Humphrey gave up an average of 16.3 yards per reception in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, only a slight improvement over his 17.4 yards per reception allowed in 2015. If Humphrey can develop the ability to recover when he’s beat, find the ball in the air, and use his length to make plays on the ball downfield, he has the potential to develop into a Pro Bowl–level no. 1 corner. But until then, whoever takes him will have to provide plenty of deep help to his side of the field when he’s matched up against speedy field-stretching receivers — and almost every team in the NFL has one.
Safety/Linebacker: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Peppers is a top-end athlete with explosiveness, speed, and power behind his pads. In a hybrid-linebacker role for the Wolverines, he was a force against the run (15.0 tackles for a loss) and a capable blitzer (3.5 sacks). He has tantalizing upside as a rangy, physical safety and brings added value as a return man on special teams and wildcat runner on offense. Peppers is the only prospect in the draft with the potential to be an early-impact playmaker for his new team in all three phases of the game.
However, Peppers’s upside as a multitalented superstar is contingent upon his ability to develop instincts and ball skills in coverage at the next level. Run-defending safeties are a dime a dozen in the league, and in the pass-happy NFL, high-value defensive backs must be able to cover. But as the primary defender in coverage in his three years with Michigan, Peppers gave up 58 receptions on 93 targets, with just six passes defended. Ball skills and production don’t typically show up suddenly in the NFL, where players face more sophisticated offenses, better quarterbacks, and superior receivers. So if a team takes Peppers in the first round with visions of a defensive playmaker and special teams returner in the form of Charles Woodson, they’ll be betting on massive improvement in Peppers’s pass-coverage instincts.