The great Louis Riddick once said that when you hear a draft guru state that a player is “the safest” pick, it actually means “everyone else likes him, so if he stinks, it wasn’t my evaluation — it was the player.”
Ever since Riddick, an NFL analyst for ESPN, said this in 2015, I haven’t stopped thinking about it whenever I ponder the “safest” players in the upcoming NFL draft. So as I compiled this list, I did so with zero fear about being wrong. There are no cop-outs here; this is about doing research, looking at key indicators and determining which players will almost assuredly turn into quality NFL contributors.
I did so based on the four factors NFL teams use to assess players: their college tape, athletic testing, football character and medical concerns. Every player below passed each threshold enough to make them safe bets for their projected draft rounds.
You’ll notice there are no quarterbacks on the list below. That’s by design, and not indicative of how I feel about this year’s QB crop. Their success is too reliant upon their coaching staff and supporting cast to call any of them “bust-proof” before seeing where they land.
Here we go — eight of the safest prospects in the 2019 NFL draft:
WR A.J. Brown, Mississippi
For all the attention that Brown’s teammate at Mississippi — fellow receiver D.K. Metcalf — drew at the NFL scouting combine for his cartoonish combination of muscle and speed, it’s the 6-foot, 226-pound Brown who is the better football player, and it’s not particularly close. During their three years together in Oxford, Brown was far more durable — playing in 34 of 36 possible games compared to Metcalf’s 21 — and productive. Brown has served as the Rebels’ undisputed No. 1 receiver the past two seasons, including his stellar 2018, when he broke his own school record with 1,320 receiving yards on 85 catches.
Brown made a living in the slot, where he repeatedly outfought opponents for 50/50 balls, showed an advanced feel for route running and displayed strong, reliable hands and ball-tracking ability. Throw in the fact that he tested as a solidly above-average athlete for his position during the pre-draft process, and his particular set of skills should allow him to consistently win in the slot in the NFL, no matter where he lands.
Projection: Round 1
TE T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
Hockenson has it all. When the 6-foot-5, 251-pounder tested as an elite athlete for the position, it was music to the ears of many tight end-needy teams in the first round, all of whom had already fallen in love with him because of his college tape.
Hockenson is a tough run blocker who has been well-schooled in that area, but he shined as a pass catcher, where he showed off his ball skills and route-running. Among the highest of praises he has received among draftniks: NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Hockenson plays similar to future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski.
Projection: Top 20
OG/C Garrett Bradbury, North Carolina State
Everyone in the NFL loves him. At 6-3 and 306 pounds, he’s the ideal size for a center. Plus, he’s strong — his 34 reps on the bench tied for the second-highest among combine participants — and he’s an above-average athlete (he was the most athletic center at the combine).
Throw in the fact he’s smart and reliable — he started all 39 of the Wolfpack’s games the past three seasons — and it’s no wonder he could go higher than the draft ceiling for most centers, which is the second half of the first round.
Projection: Round 1
DT Christian Wilkins, Clemson
Wilkins’ football character is exceptional, and there are zero concerns as it relates to injury (he played 44 of 44 possible games for Clemson the past three seasons) or athleticism (he was a solid tester). Wilkins, a two-time team captain, has four seasons of consistent production behind his name, making him a very safe first-round pick who will contribute immediately.
Projection: Round 1
OT/OG Dalton Risner, Kansas State
He didn’t blow anyone away with his athleticism during the pre-draft testing process, which might keep him out of the first round. But Risner is an average NFL athlete for his position who could lure a team into picking him in the first round with his combination of toughness, intelligence, core strength, durability and versatility. A 6-5, 312-pound four-year starter for the Wildcats, Risner started at center and right tackle and his nasty demeanor — no one plays beyond the whistle like this guy — and overall strength projects well at guard, too. Risner was also a rock in pass protection, regularly snuffing out the rushes of all but the most elite prospects (like Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat). Even if he can’t hack it at tackle — and don’t bet against him — there’s no chance he doesn’t become a quality starter inside.
Projection: Top 50
EDGE Chase Winovich, Michigan
The 6-3, 256-pound Winovich stands out on tape as someone who plays his tail off. His football character is outstanding — he played hurt late in the season at Michigan and also played in the bowl game when he didn’t have to — but his production and athleticism will win talent evaluators over.
In his two years as a starter, Winovich racked up a total of 146 tackles (35 for loss) and 13 sacks, and his eye-popping 4.59 40-yard dash was indicative of the above-average athleticism he displayed during the pre-draft process.
Winovich is in love with football, and any 3-4 team that drafts him knows what it will get — a hard worker with ability who is going to make an impact no matter what role he’s given.
Projection: Top 50
CB Julian Love, Notre Dame
Entering the pre-draft process, the only knock on Love — who checks in at 5-11, 195 — was his long speed, and he actually improved the respectable 4.54 40-yard dash that he ran at the combine by posting a 4.49 at his pro day. Love may not be a great athlete but he’s a good one, and when you add that to his terrific coverage ability (he possesses above-average instincts, hips and feet) and production — he posted 63 tackles, an interception and 16 pass breakups as a junior — he’s a safe projection and immediate starter as a nickel or outside corner.
Projection: Rounds 2-3
RB Damien Harris, Alabama
It’s crazy to think Harris — formerly the No. 1 prep running back in the country who played at college football’s greatest football factory — could be considered underrated. But he probably is, thanks to the comparative brilliance of fellow Crimson Tide running back (and projected first-round pick) Josh Jacobs.
While Jacobs has the make-you-miss flash of a Porsche, the 5-10, 216-pound Harris brings the steady consistency of your favorite mid-sized SUV. He’s not going to break off a ton of long runs, but he will pass protect his butt off and secure the football (zero fumbles the past two years). He averaged about 1,000 yards the past three seasons and he also catches the ball reasonably well, so any team that gets Harris on the second day of the draft will be happy.
Projection: Round 3
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