As much as general managers would love to think so, in reality, there is no such thing as a "safe" draft pick—but there are certain players who are simply too physically impressive to envision anything but rousing success for them in the NFL.
While this year's class is stronger in terms of depth as opposed to elite, once-in-a-generation talent, several of these college phenoms will become perennial all stars for the teams fortunate enough to draft them.
If a player is going to be considered a "can't-miss" prospect, he needs to have a combination of elite physical traits, sound technical football skills and be free of character flaws. Oregon linebacker Dion Jordan may not be the first player selected on Thursday night, but when you consider the combination of athleticism and versatility he brings to the table, there is no way Jordan will fail to produce in the NFL.
Athleticism and Movement
What separates Jordan from the other linebackers in this class is how incredibly athletic and fluid he is, especially when out in space. Originally recruited to Oregon as a tight end, one would have a tough time coming up with any linebacker prospect in recent memory that was nearly as comfortable moving and playing in space as Dion Jordan was at Oregon.
For most coaches 3-4 outside linebackers with the ability to cover running backs and tight ends is an immense luxury, as it allows them to be multiple in their looks even when playing against no-huddle offenses. They can play with fewer defensive backs and be better prepared against the run with added weight on the front seven.
However, Jordan doesn't just cover tight ends and backs out in the flats. Jordan lines up against receivers—and not just in the slot:
While "Jordan Island" may be a bit of a stretch, as covering slot receivers in the NFL is a much more daunting task than matching up against college pass-catchers, the fact that Jordan is athletic enough to transcend the typical responsibilities of a 3-4 outside linebacker makes him an elite prospect on its own.
Jordan only confirmed the freakish athleticism he displays on the field during the combine. The 6'6", 248-pound specimen ran faster than many safeties in the 40 (4.60). He followed it up with an outstanding time in the shuttle (4.35) to show off his change-of-direction ability and a 122" broad jump to put his explosiveness on display.
While he does have a bit of a wiry frame because of his height, Jordan would still have elite movement skills for a linebacker even after putting on an additional 10 pounds over the summer.
As athletically gifted as Jordan may be, he is not in the same category as someone like Ezekiel Ansah, who leans exclusively on his natural gifts to get after the quarterback and make plays.
While he was not asked to rush the passer quite as often as others because he was so effective in coverage, he still showed the ability to bend the corner and use his hands—both necessary skills to be a well-rounded pass-rusher in the NFL.
Here, even on a running play, Jordan is able to swat himself past the lineman with terrific hand use. It may not have resulted in a sack or big tackle for loss, but these are the skills that translate to the next level.
His long arms (measured 33 7/8") allow him to engage defenders from a further distance, making it harder for offensive lineman to get their hands in his chest and control his movement.
Jordan even shows off a spin move, which helps collapse the pocket and rush the throw:
Still, the most impressive aspect of Jordan's game is his ability to use his flexibility to bend the edge. Notice how easily Jordan is able to maintain balance as he approaches a 45 degree angle as he rounds the edge for the sack:
As you can see, while Jordan has the tools to develop even further as a pass-rusher, he is far from being a raw prospect flashing technical skill seldom seen from college linebackers.
The Safe Pick vs. the Best Pick
As a prospect, the biggest concern surrounding Jordan as a prospect is a torn labrum he suffered in the middle of the season.
Not only should Jordan be ready for camp, but the fact that he played through the injury without seeing a decline in production is a testament to his toughness—and it only makes scouts wonder how much more impressive he would be with a healthy shoulder.
Ultimately, Jordan's outstanding combination of athleticism, technical ability and character make him not just a "safe" prospect—he has unlimited upside and plays the 3-4 outside linebacker position like no one in the NFL is currently able to do.
As we have seen with so many other so-called "safe" prospects—like Aaron Curry and Jason Smith—there is little correlation between pre-draft labels and NFL success. Meanwhile, less-polished physical freaks in the form of Jason Pierre-Paul and Patrick Peterson translate their skills to the NFL much more smoothly, even if it is a bit more uncomfortable to make projections.
Dion Jordan is a bit of a projection because he will have to add some weight and he played such a unique style of linebacker at Oregon, but players with his ability and attitude make him a virtual lock to flourish in an NFL environment—making him the top "can't-miss" prospect in 2013.