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A Look At "Safe" Draft Prospects

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What makes up a safe prospect, and should teams draft on the safe side?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the Titans signing players that fill some of the biggest holes on the roster, it leaves them with a little bit of flexibility heading into the draft. Depending on your views on the current Quarterback situation, you could argue that other than Right Tackle, which will not be an option at number 2 overall, there is not a huge, glaring hole in terms of starters. There are players with outside chances at being selected at the number 2 slot, but for the most part, it appears that barring a trade, the Titans have two options; draft either Marcus Mariota or Leonard Williams. While the two players have been, and will continue to be discussed all the way up until April 30th, it leads to a broader question—should teams go for the "safer" prospect?

The first question is, what makes a draft prospect "safe"? There are a number of elements. Looking at some of the most recent NFL drafts, there were a few common traits shared by some of the prospects that were nearly universally viewed as safe throughout the process. The main characteristics seem to be position, a certain degree of athleticism, and their respective programs. When evaluating draft prospects, it is important for teams to walk the fine line between looking at past trends and deciding how applicable they are to their current situation, and simply evaluating the player right in front of them. For example, from a positional standpoint, Tyson Jackson was in a similar spot that Leonard Williams is in right now. Jackson clearly did not live up to the expectations that came along with where he was picked. However, what happened with Tyson Jackson should not prevent another team from drafting a 5 technique in the top 5 in the future. That being said, if you do see similar characteristics beyond their positions between Jackson as a prospect and Leonard Williams, it should give you some pause.

Again, one of the main characteristics shared by the "safe" prospects is position. A trend that I noticed going back ten years was that a majority of these prospects played along the offensive or defensive lines. Some of the names pulled were Greg Robinson, Chance Warmack, Luke Joeckel, Matt Kalil, Marcel Dareus, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey, Aaron Curry, Eugene Monroe, Jake Long, Vernon Gholston, and Robert Gallery. There were the occasional players at skill positions, like Andrew Luck and Calvin Johnson, but these were players that were transcendent, once in a decade players. Meanwhile, the typical safe prospect comes around yearly. Some positions transition more easily from college to the pro game. There is a common belief that with linemen, you can plug them in almost immediately. Also, while every position on the football field is important, linemen are not as high impact as skill guys. While the trenches are still very important and certainly impact the game, even the players that teams hit on from the names above—Dareus, Suh, McCoy—have not translated to taking a team the next level, making them contenders. One could make an argument for Suh, but it was not until Matthew Stafford emerged that the Lions became a factor.

Athleticism is something else that is common among these prospects. When looking at a draft prospect, it is important to project players. Much like signing a free agent, a team should be basing its decision on what’s to come, rather than what’s been done. The term "safe prospect" is synonymous with "high floor." If a prospect has a high floor, you then have to start looking at his ceiling—is there much more room for growth, or are we looking at the finished product? While the floor does not necessarily dictate the ceiling, you need to find something that leads you to believe that there is room for growth—this typically comes through the player’s athleticism. For example, looking at the data on all of the previously mentioned offensive tackles, each placed in the 90+ percentile in at least one test at the NFL Combine. It shows that the prospects touted some form of elite athleticism somewhere. With athleticism comes upside, which in the eyes of the team raises the ceiling of a player with an already high floor.

The third common factor among most safe prospects is the football program that they came from. While they do not have to be coming from the number one team in the country, they typically come from higher up programs with a history. This very well could be coincidental, or it could just be cause and effect; higher ranked prospects go to the top ranked programs. That being said, there is without a doubt a sense of security when it comes to drafting a player from a certain program. Drafting a defensive lineman from LSU like Tyson Jackson or Glenn Dorsey feels less "bust-proof" than drafting a Dontari Poe from Memphis. Drafting an offensive lineman from Iowa is typically a safe bet. Success historically from the program at a certain position or side of the ball bodes well for future prospects. Increased security, whether it is justified or not, is what leads another reason why the prospect comes across as safe.

After seeing what makes a "safe" prospect, the question becomes, "Is it better to draft safe"? There is no clear answer. Again, at the end of the day, all that should matter is the prospect right in front of you. However, looking at some of the prospects that were viewed as safe, it appears to be more of a mixed bag than you would hope. Not only do some of the safe players end up to be draft busts, the ones that are hits do not seem to be making the same level of impact as other players that had more perceived risks. When you are a team drafting in the top 3-5 picks, you need to be aiming for a player that will either change the course of the franchise, like a Quarterback, or someone who will completely alter one side of the ball. Taking the safe route could land you in more trouble than if you had taken the risk in the first place.

Outside of absolutely transcendent talents, "safe" should be removed from the vocabulary of anyone evaluating draft prospects. They all carry risks, in some way, shape or form. This does not mean that teams should be aimlessly taking unnecessary risks, but the bottom line is that even the safe pick is not as safe as you think. By drafting one player over another because of "bust potential", you could very well be doing the harm to your football team that you set out to avoid in the first place.