Forecasting WSU's 2016 NFL draft prospects

MORE THAN three years after Mike Leach was hired at Washington State, the Cougars undeniably have more depth and talent on the roster. Yet, the early projections don't show many Cougs to be taken in the 2016 NFL draft. In fact, it's darned near impossible to find a mock draft or prospect watch list that names a WSU player. What gives?

In a blog post earlier this month, long-time San Jose Mercury News Pac-12 writer Jon Wilner named his top prospects for the 2016 Pac-12 draft class. It wasn't an evaluation of the best players, just who Wilner, a well-respected scribe, thinks is most likely to be taken in the first three rounds.

No Cougars were mentioned in his top 15. None even made what amounted to an honorable mention designation. That isn't a great sign, considering next year's Pac-12 draft class is considered weaker than the one in 2015, according to Wilner. This year, defensive tackle Xavier Cooper was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the third round and wide receiver Vince Mayle went to the Browns in the fourth round.

Wilner’s evaluation of WSU's draft prospects seems to be the consensus among national media types. In ESPN's "Top 2016 Pac-12 NFL draft prospects," the Cougars didn't have a player named.

In January, NFL.com named the 10 Pac-12 players that are candidates for the 2016 Senior Bowl. That annual showcase held after the season can certainly help a player's draft stock (or sink it). No WSU players were named in that either.

But that doesn't mean none will get drafted next May. There are players on offense and defense that could position themselves well for next year's NFL draft with a big 2015 season:

Fifth-year senior WR Dom Williams (6-2, 199, pictured above)

Williams played behind Mayle at the "X" position last season but still managed to catch 43 passes for 656 yards and nine touchdowns -- all improvements from the year before. He also had a standout spring. In the Crimson and Gray game, Williams had eight catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. That included a 55-yard touchdown reception on a slant pass from quarterback Luke Falk.

Williams might be faster than Mayle. But he would benefit from an offseason improving his strength and consistency after some great games (2012 Apple Cup) and some not so great games (2014 Apple Cup) during his WSU career. A positive sign: He was listed at 199 pounds, up nine pounds from last season, in the post-spring depth chart.

Foxsports.com says Williams is "the most obvious candidate to be chosen in the 2016 NFL draft" among WSU players.

But good luck finding Williams mentioned in any mock drafts. The Pomona, Calif. native is under the radar. But he should get a ton of targets next season in Leach's Air Raid offense -- especially playing an X receiver spot that Mayle starred at last season. Williams has the potential to do the same. He just needs to finally put it all together. Staying healthy would go a long ways.

Fourth-year senior DL Destiny Vaeao (6-4, 304)

Vaeao was a solid contributor as a junior in 2014. He started all 10 games he played, making 14 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss and two sacks.

But his role will increase with Cooper no longer there to take on double teams. The good news for WSU: Vaeao was a disruptive force during spring practices, capped it by recording two sacks last month in the Crimson and Gray game and he has some rising help on the d-line next to him, including third-year sophomore Daniel Ekuale and second-year freshman Hercules Mata’afa. Fifth-year senior Darryl Paulo is also coming off his most productive season as a Coug and should also help considerably up front in 2015.

Foxsports.com dubs Vaeao a player that may get drafted. And like Williams, he isn't ranked among his position group in his NFL draft profile page. A big senior season could change that.

Fifth-year senior LT Joe Dahl (6-4, 302)

The Spokane product has steadily improved since he transferred and walked on at WSU from Montana in January, 2012. After sitting out his first season in Pullman due to NCAA transfer rules, he started 12 games at left guard as a redshirt sophomore in 2013 before moving to left tackle and starting the New Mexico Bowl loss to Colorado State.

Last season, Dahl was arguably the most consistent member of WSU's offensive line. He started 12 games at left tackle and earned Pac-12 honorable mention after surrendering only one sack all season despite the Cougars’ 771 pass attempts, a Pac-12 record. He was also named WSU's Mike Utley Offensive Lineman of the Year.

As with the rest of WSU's potential 2016 draft picks, Dahl isn't among those pegged by most draft analysts as a player expected to hear his name called next year on draft day. But a solid 2015 season could change that.

Fourth-year senior LB Kache Palacio (6-2, 235) This choice might be met with skepticism, but hang with me. Palacio was one of the best players on a WSU defense that struggled mightily under DC Mike Breske last season. He started 12 games and finished first on the team with 6.5 sacks. He tied for second with 9.5 tackles-for-loss and got better as the season progressed. He finished with 57 tackles.

He is fast, lengthy and should benefit from new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's system, which puts a heavy emphasis on creating turnovers.

Palacio was listed as WSU's No. 1 RUSH linebacker in the post-spring depth chart. If the secondary can improve marginally in 2015, Palacio should have more chances to get to opposing quarterbacks. A double-digit sack season would put him on the radar of some NFL teams. Crazier things have happened, like this past draft when Obum Gwacham out of OSU got drafted. Gwacham moved from WR to DE as a senior, didn’t start, put up 27 tackles as a reserve and still got drafted in the sixth round by the Seahawks.

Redshirt junior WR Gabe Marks (6-0, 190 pounds)

After redshirting in 2014 due to injury, Marks ended spring practice as the No. 1 guy at WSU's Z receiver spot in front of emerging sophomore Calvin Green. Say this about Marks: He came back with a vengeance.

Marks talks and taunts defensive backs constantly. And he backs it up with highlight reel catches. Want an NFL comparison? How about controversial Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin. Both are undersized wideouts that run precise routes, have good speed and play with an edge.

In 2013, Marks appeared in all 13 games, starting nine, and led the Cougars with 74 receptions that totaled 807 yards. Despite fading late in the season, he tied for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions. He was on track to be a top target again in 2014 before being redshirted.

But he didn't do his draft stock any favors when he was cited with four misdemeanors in February 2014 following an episode at a Pullman bar/nightclub. He was also cited for an MIP in 2013.

But his performance in spring practice is a positive sign for his future, as has his recent penchant for staying out of trouble.

He'll need to re-emerge after a year of missing games to have a real shot of getting drafted as a junior. And even if he does have a huge season, he'll have the option of returning as a redshirt senior and bettering his stock.

Marks isn't on any draft boards because he’s a junior, and of his up-and-down past couple of years. But he has a solid chance to emerge as a possible NFL draft pick.

NOTABLE NOTE:
Two other Cougs would also seem in line for NFL draft consideration with big 2015 seasons: fifth-year senior LG Gunnar Eklund (6-7, 308) and fourth-year senior linebacker Jeremiah Allison (6-2, 228). Eklund is highly versatile having played both tackle and guard, and NFL teams love versatility when it comes to o-linemen. Allison earned the starting WIL spot mid-September yet still became the Cougs’ third leading tackler (78) and posted 8.5 TFL, a good-sized number for an outside ‘backer.

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