2017 NFL Draft Big Board: SI's top 40 prospects
- As the NFL draft approaches, we're counting down the top 40 prospects in this year's class.
Who’s No. 1? Even in a year when the answer to that question isn’t quite as unknown, trying to determine who will be picked first in the 2017 NFL draft is full of drama and speculation. In the lead-up to the draft, we’re counting down the top 40 prospects on our Big Board, complete with in-depth scouting reports that examine the strengths and weaknesses of their games and the NFL players that teams may see flashes of when they put on the tape themselves.
Kicking off this year’s countdown: a versatile interior lineman who has excelled everywhere he’s played, a sack master who could be the next Bruce Irvin and a mobile offensive tackle who could be a 25-year-old NFL rookie.
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown: No. 40, Ohio State G/C Pat Elflein
What you need to know: The NFL does not see a lot of interior offensive linemen enter its draft early, but Elflein briefly dabbled with that possibility following the 2015 season. He opted to stay in Columbus for his final season, shifted from guard and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. Elflein closed his career having started 41 consecutive games for the Buckeyes (28 at guard, 13 at center). He also saw action in every single game after his redshirt year—a string of 55 straight. In addition to his Rimington win, Elflein also was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in ’16.
Strengths: You know that old adage, “keep your head on a swivel”? This might be the area in which Elflein most excels as a blocker—he constantly has his eyes up, scanning the field for an open defender to engage. Elflein’s awareness makes it almost impossible to sneak a blitzer through a gap near him, and it’s on display when he tracks down opponents at the second (and even third) level on run plays.
He is still learning how to pass protect as a center, having spent just the one season there, but Elflein makes defenders beat him—they aren’t going through him. At 6' 2" and 305-pounds, he anchors well and keeps his hands where they need to be, under his opponents’ shoulder pads; he can lock out defenders and twist them to the ground, and the whistle doesn’t always stop him from doing so. The nastiness is there.
That Elflein can offer an NFL-ready skill set at either guard or center should give him a draft boost. While many interior linemen have experience at both spots, few have excelled the way Elflein did.
Weaknesses: Elflein is not exactly a missile off the line (his 40-yard dash, three-cone and shuttle times at the combine all were average, even among centers). There still are times where he’d be wise to slow down a bit as he releases upfield on run plays. Too often, he fails to finish those second-level blocks because a defender simply sidesteps his charge. Dialing down the aggressiveness a bit might allow him to connect on more of those attempts.
The opposite problem shows up, on occasion, when Elflein stays at the line: He has to be quicker. Defenders that beat him for QB pressures usually did so with speed, and he struggled when he had to pull from the center spot to pick up a DE or OLB—Clemson had defenders come free off the edge a couple of times against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl because of this. His footwork as a center still is proficient enough to thrive in a zone-blocking scheme, but his NFL offense will have to be aware of his early limitations.
NFL player comparison: Max Unger
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 39: Charles Harris, DE/OLB, Missouri
What you need to know: The 6' 2", 256-pounder is the latest in an ever-growing line of Mizzou pass rushers—names like Kony Ealy, Aldon Smith, Shane Ray and Justin Smith came before Harris. As it stands, Harris ranks tied for seventh all-time on the school’s career sacks list with 18.0 career sacks, and he likely would have leapfrogged all but ex-Tiger Brian Smith in that category had he returned for his senior season. His 9.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss last season were good enough to land Harris All-SEC second-team honors, along with Myles Garrett and Carl Lawson. Of those nine sacks, 7.5 came in three games (Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina). Harris had 18.5 tackles for loss in 2015, behind only Garrett (20.0) in the conference.
Strengths: Harris is as aggressive as you’ll see a pass rusher be when it comes to timing the snap. He has an incredible knack for getting a jump, although it is fair to wonder if he can keep it up against NFL quarterbacks—be prepared for offsides flags. When he does get that first step, Harris is extremely hard to corral because of his speed and bend.
Harris’s spin move—already killer when he times it well—has a chance to be truly special. Better yet, it’s not just a one-note spin—he can 360 toward his inside shoulder when working the edge, but he also can work inside-out. One example of the latter: Against Vanderbilt this year, Harris stunted toward the A-gap, spun back between the guard and center and forced an incompletion.
The motor is a plus for Harris, too. He cranks it up at the snap and continues to pursue plays, regardless of how far away the action rolls. Many of his pressures and tackles came on extended action.
The combine was a mixed bag for Harris (more on that in the "Weaknesses" section), but he was brilliant in linebacker coverage drills. He covers a lot of ground with his stride, and he has natural movements dropping and turning. Harris showed a decent baseline when asked to drop at Missouri.
Weaknesses: Let’s get right into that combine showing. Drills? Good. Testing? Ehhhh. Per MockDraftables, which tracks combine data dating back to 1999, Harris ranked in the 54th percentile with his 40 time (4.82) but was below the 50% line in everything else among edge defenders. His height/weight/arm length combo (6' 2", 256 pounds, 32 3/8") definitely profiles more like a linebacker than a DE.
No matter his positional designation, Harris will have to improve against the run if he’s going to be a three-down player. If his rapidity doesn’t provide him an advantage off the snap, offensive tackles can overwhelm him—teams will not mind running right at him if he doesn’t play with more strength. He does not shed a lot of blocks at initial contact.
The 2016 season served almost as a "what to avoid" tutorial for Harris. Missouri dialed back his freedom to fly around, but he’s not really built to plug gaps and set up his teammates for tackles. In that regard, he could be scheme-limited as an NFL prospect.
NFL player comparison: Jerry Hughes
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 38: Garett Bolles, OT, Utah
What you need to know: Bolles was a National Junior College All-America in 2015 at Snow College (Utah), before transferring to Utah for his final collegiate season season. That barely scratches the surface of his story, though. He was suspended as a high schooler, then wound up living with his lacrosse coach before embarking on a two-year Latter-day Saints mission. Eventually, he returned to football, playing two years at Snow, then one with the Utes. As a result of that long and winding road, Bolles will be a 25-year-old rookie once he reaches the NFL. Bolles started all 13 games at left tackle for Utah last season, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Strengths: Bolles moves like a tight end playing offensive tackle—his 40-yard dash, short-shuttle and three-cone times all were at or near the top of the combine's O-line group. It's easy athleticism that works in all situations, as well, because Bolles displays just as much comfort exploding to the second level as he does attacking laterally. On pass plays, he uses quick steps to get into his protection, then slides to mirror the rushing defender.
He seems to walk the tightrope between aggression and penalty-filled play, which comes with both pros and cons. On the plus side, he wants to punish his opponents. He'll drive them to the ground when he has the chance, and he'll scrap after the whistle. When he doesn't have a one-on-one assignment on a play, Bolles goes hunting—if a teammate has someone on the ropes, Bolles loves to deliver that final blow.
Bolles could be a nasty NFL tackle, with the footwork required to drop into a zone-heavy offense.
Weaknesses: Bolles chalks up the blocking “W” on most snaps, but when he doesn’t he usually winds up either a) on the ground, or b) turned 180° and locked on to an opponent while facing his own backfield. The issue with the first outcome arises when he lowers his head and lunges, which tends to be on those second-level blocks.
He is not going to dominate many (any?) NFL edge defenders with his strength. Bolles can drive defenders back on run plays, and he does finish his down blocks, but those aforementioned pancakes come more from persistence than power. If he winds up on a team that wants to emphasize a man-blocking scheme, the question will be if Bolles can clear enough space to be a force there.
His background, and his age, cannot and will not be overlooked by NFL teams. Even if Bolles has matured beyond his troubled high-school days, he is almost too old to be considered a “prospect” at this point. To wit: Rams lineman Greg Robinson, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, is several months younger than Bolles. Despite having just one year of FBS experience to his credit, Bolles has to be ready to play early.
Player comp: David Bakhtiari
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 37: Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
First thing's first: His given name is Vidaunte, but his mother and grandmother nicknamed him "Taco" as a baby and it stuck. His Michigan career was kind of a slow burn—he had a combined 9.0 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss over his first three seasons (two under Brady Hoke, one under Jim Harbaugh), then blew up for 10.0 sacks for loss and 13.5 tackles in 2016. He finished his career hot, notching 5.5 sacks over the Wolverines' final four games, including 2.5 in a signature performance at Ohio State. His numbers for the year likely would have been even better had he not missed two September games to an ankle injury. To cap it off, Charlton was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten honoree last season.
Strengths: The team that drafts Charlton will do so because of what it looks like he can become, not necessarily what he is already. There just are not a lot of athletic 6' 6", 277-lb. edge rushers out there, let alone those with the level of production Charlton had down the stretch.
The improvement Charlton showed just from the start of the 2016 season to the end is reason enough for optimism. He improved his hand usage, became more potent converting his speed to power and at least hinted at a better understanding of how to diagnose run plays headed his direction.
Charlton was a versatile piece up front for the Wolverines. He flipped from left end to right end, and back, without any issues. He also pushed inside for a 1-tech alignment and even stood up as a blitzing "linebacker" up the middle. But the wider, the better if he's going to be a pure pass rusher at the next level—he's explosive out of a two-point stance and his game is predicated mostly on turning the corner against OTs. If his speed doesn't clear him outside, he can work a spin move back inside, although he uses it a little haphazardly right now.
The motor doesn't stop. If the play is alive, Charlton's on the move.
Weaknesses: He profiles like a 4–3 defensive end—he spent the majority of his time at Michigan as a hand-in-the-dirt defender—but he'll have to show he can be more consistent setting an edge vs. the run.
He also doesn't have much experience dropping in coverage, nor did he test all that well athletically at the combine, so a 3–4 OLB move would take some work. (His 40 time of 4.92 seconds was particularly surprising.) And he doesn't necessarily have the strength, without bulking up, to be a 3–4 DE—playing there would limit his penetration some, too.
While Charlton did become more of a factor vs. the run as the 2016 season progressed, he often was victimized by misdirection. His desire to go zero-to-60 flying toward the action made him a target for cutbacks and read options.
He'll need to get quicker off the snap, too. Charlton may not always have been the last Michigan lineman to react, but he rarely was the first.
Player comp: Whitney Mercilus
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 36: Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
What you need to know: One spot in front of Taco Charlton on our countdown lands a QB nicknamed “Mr. Biscuit”. At least, that's what North Carolina says is Trubisky’s nickname. He can call himself whatever he wants if he proves to be a franchise quarterback. Trubisky saw action in a combined 10 games during the 2014 and ’15 seasons, but he did not make his first start until Sept. 3 of last year, as a redshirt junior. After a sluggish opener against Georgia, he ripped off 13 TDs and zero INTs over his next four games, a run capped off by a win at Florida State. For the 2016 season Trubisky threw for 3,748 yards, 30 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was named third-team All-ACC by the league’s coaches and was a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.
Strengths: What stands out about Trubisky, above all else, is his feel for the pocket. He manipulates the pocket with controlled footwork, sliding left or right to find a throwing lane. Defenses have to account for his scrambling ability, but he is patient looking for a pass against pressure. He was sacked 20 times during the 2016 season—a number that would have been much higher had Trubisky not dodged so much trouble.
The athleticism is a plus, too. North Carolina drew up designed runs (or read options) for him, and he doesn’t dawdle when he does decide to scramble. He picks up what he can moving north-south.
“Most people think I’ll just sit in the pocket the whole time, but I can create some plays with my feet,” Trubisky said at the combine. “I’m obviously a throw-first guy, but I think that’s one of my assets that teams really like and when you watch the film you’ll be able to see that.”
Trubisky ranked sixth in the nation last season with a 68% completion percentage. While he can thank the Tar Heels’ spread offense for the high success rate, it was a timing-based attack that required Trubisky to be on his marks. He’s quick getting the ball out and can squeeze passes into tight windows.
There’s a lot to work with here.
Weaknesses: The lack of experience is the easiest target. Trubisky started 13 games and attempted 446 passes last season, but he was a backup prior to that—he had 78 and 47 pass attempts in 2014 and ’15, respectively. NFL.com also had him taking 98% of his snaps from shotgun, so even though he displayed excellent movement in the pocket he faces a challenge if his next team wants him under center.
Also on the to-do list: establishing more consistency in his mechanics. There are a handful of instances per game where Trubisky missed high because he stayed planted on his back foot, rather than stepping into the pass. He doesn’t need to be in perfect position on all of his throws—he’s dangerous winging it on the move, for instance—but he also can’t continue to fly open. His high completion percentage is better than that come-and-go delivery might hint.
There will be decision-making issues that can only be fixed by playing. In North Carolina’s bowl game, Stanford picked Trubisky off twice, both on bad reads. He’s going to need time to develop into an NFL starter, mentally more so than physically.
NFL player comparison: Ryan Tannehill
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 35: Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
What you need to know: Ramczyk’s journey to the draft has not been as rocky as fellow OT prospect Garett Bolles, but he didn’t exactly follow a typical path himself. He took a year off from football after high school and enrolled in Mid-State Technical College (Wisc.) to become a welder. From there, Ramczyk returned to the gridiron at D-III Wisconsin Stevens-Point, then transferred to Wisconsin two seasons later. After NCAA transfer rules forced him to sit out 2015, Ramczyk finally made his FBS debut last fall. He wasted no time making his presence felt, starting all 14 games for the Badgers and landing on the All-America first-team, alongside Alabama’s Cam Robinson.
Strengths: There is a certain tranquility to watching Ramczyk work. He never panics, even when a defender manages to gain a step on him; he never lets the play speed up his own process. Everything Ramczyk does on a block happens in orderly fashion.
That’s not to say that he is incapable of overpowering defenders—he does that on angle blocks down toward the center and when he drives edge-setters wide to clear room in that B-gap (between the guard and tackle). But Ramczyk’s most effective moments often occurred when he let the action come to him.
As a pass protector, that meant keeping his footwork clean and patient when dealing with speed off the edge. He maintained that composure when faced with stunts, as well, seamlessly handing off his initial block inside to pick up any DT trying to loop around him. In Wisconsin’s run game, Ramczyk bounded from the first to second levels with ease.
He has a strong initial punch on those run plays. Edge defenders have to take advantage when they catch Ramczyk leaning, because it doesn’t happen often.
Weaknesses: He required hip surgery after Wisconsin’s season and was unable to participate in drills at the combine. Best-case scenario, he is 100% ready sometime this summer, but even that timetable would mean absences during early mini-camps.
“[It’s the] kind of an injury where it’s about how you’re feeling, so five months [of recovery] is typical,” Ramczyk said at the combine. “I should absolutely be clear by training camp. Hopefully OTAs, but I’m not positive yet.”
Ramczyk can handle speed or power rushers, but he has to improve against counter moves. Michigan’s Taco Charlton, another member of our Top 40, whirled around him multiple times with a quick spin move during the Wolverines’ October win in Ann Arbor. Ramczyk also will lose a hand fight if he doesn’t land the first blow.
A team desiring a real road-grader of a tackle might look elsewhere. Ramczyk is more athletic and fluid than an OT that drops the hammer on every down.
NFL player comparison: Zach Strief