The 2017 NFL draft is a year away, but quarterbacks could run the show again, with Brad Kaaya and Deshaun Watson positioned for big years.
Before anyone gets all hot and bothered about the prospect of a 2017 NFL mock draft in early May 2016, allow me to pass along a couple of notes:
A) Minimal consideration was paid to perceived team needs—some, to be sure, but there is no point in pretending anyone knows how these rosters will shape up a year from now.
B) The real goal here is to introduce (or reintroduce) some of the prospects football fans will become familiar with during the 2016 college season.
The other sticking point on the 2017 mocks tends to be the draft order. As usual, ours has been pulled from the 2017 Super Bowl odds laid down by Vegas—in this case, the Westgate Superbook. This in no way is meant as a prediction of how the teams will finish, so ignore the low expectations for a team like the Jaguars.
People always miss that part, so I’ll repeat, in bold: The draft order has been determined by Super Bowl LI odds set in Vegas. If you hate the order, it is Vegas’s fault. (“It is Vegas’s fault” is a decent excuse in many non-football cases.)
The college football season kicks off on August 26, when Hawaii and Cal battle in Sydney, Australia. Here is an extremely early shot at how the 2017 draft landscape might shake out in the months that follow.
Since 2000, a quarterback has been the No. 1 pick 12 times, and in three of the past five drafts QBs have gone 1-2. So, just playing the percentages here. There is no question that Deshaun Watson will be a Heisman favorite this season, off his brilliant 2015. There’s also little question that, on paper, Kaaya—who is 6' 4" and plays in a pro-style scheme—better fits the NFL prototype.
The 6' 6" prospect struggled early last year but, like his title-winning team, found his mojo again late. He is entering his third season as the Crimson Tide’s starter at left tackle.
The latest player, through no fault of his own, to be swept into the “should he sit out a season” debate. Fournette arguably is the best RB prospect of the past three seasons, and that list includes Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
Can he stay on the field? That’s the only mystery surrounding Lawson, who sat out the 2014 season with an ACL injury and missed several games to injury last year. If he can show some durability, there’s no question he has top-10 potential.
Tabor’s ex-teammate Vernon Hargreaves just missed the top 10 this draft. The 6' 1" standout will pair with Quincy Wilson to form one of college football’s top cornerback combos in 2016.
What does McCaffrey have on tap for an encore after topping 2,000 yards on the ground (and nearly 4,000 total yards) last season? He would be so much fun in this offense.
It was a bit of a surprise when King announced he would stay in school for his senior season. The 5' 11" DB has a chance to repeat as the Jim Thorpe Award winner.
Watson’s 2015 was made all the more impressive by excelling despite losing Williams to a neck fracture in the season opener after the 6' 4" receiver crashed into the goalpost after a TD catch. He is on track to be 100% for 2016, giving him ample time to reemerge as an elite prospect.
Don’t want to overdo it on running backs, especially in the top 15, but Cook will be in the early first round discussion if he repeats his 2015 production: 1,935 rushing yards, 20 TDs. Pro Football Focus graded him out No. 2 in the nation in yards after contact per attempt.
Kenny Clark is the UCLA DT everyone got to know this spring, but Vanderdoes would have been right with him if he had’t torn his ACL last September.
Time to take a stab at the other QBs who could crack Round 1 a year from now. Put the 6' 3" Mahomes on the list of possibilities. He has given up his spot on the Red Raiders’ baseball team so he can focus on football and is primed to blow up off a 46-TD season (36 passing, 10 rushing).
Walker applied for an NFL draft evaluation following his junior year, then stayed put. Expect him to build on his second-team All-ACC showing, which included 15.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
You didn’t think we would get through the first round without a couple Buckeyes, did you? McMillan stood out even on a defense which included two 2016 first-rounders (Joey Bosa and Darron Lee). He should be a star this fall.
To give you some idea of the kind of athlete we’re talking about here: Jackson took off spring practice because he is trying to qualify as an Olympic long jumper. He can do it all on the football field, adding 27 catches and almost 900 return yards to his defensive duties last season.
Tennessee’s miserable 2016 draft experience will not be repeated next year. Barnett, CB Cameron Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and QB Joshua Dobbs lead what could be an excellent class. Barnett is the best of the bunch right now. He was a beast against both run and pass last season.
A year after an underwhelming 2016 tight end class, 2017 could be loaded: Howard, Michigan’s Jake Butt and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett should lead an excellent class. Howard shredded Clemson in the national title game (five catches, 208 yards, two TDs), setting the stage for what could be a huge senior season.
The Pro Football Focus folks graded him as the country’s top cornerback, period, last season. His size (5' 10", 176 pounds) is the only thing that may hold him back from hearing his name called early.
I actually had a different Buckeye, DE/OLB Tyquan Lewis, in this spot initially but moved him out to accommodate Elflein, who will receive significant attention should he thrive in his move to center this year. Another Ohio State prospect to remember: cornerback Gareon Conley, the heir apparent to top-10 pick Eli Apple.
We just saw the Raiders and Falcons use picks 14 and 17, respectively, on Karl Joseph and Keanu Neal. Conner is next in line to be the hard-hitting safety NFL teams drool over. He might have joined Joseph and Neal in Round 1 had he stayed healthy last year.
Speaking of being "next in line," Harris (18.5 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks last season) could pick up right where fellow Mizzou products Shane Ray, Markus Golden and Kony Ealy left off in the draft.
Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly is a lock to be mentioned among next year’s first-round QBs, but his checkered past also will come up time and again: kicked off a high school team, kicked off Clemson, arrested before joining the Rebels (he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge). But don’t sleep on Mayfield, who finished fourth in last year’s Heisman voting. He put up 3,700 yards passing, rushed for another 400 and is extremely accurate.
With Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and D.J. Reader now in the pros, Watkins will be a lead dog for the Tigers’ D-line. The 300-pounder was second-team All-ACC last season and is set to build on a strong campaign.
Vernon Adams recently told SI’s Doug Farrar that Kupp is the best receiver in college football—Adams played with Kupp before the latter took home the Walter Payton Award in 2015 as the top FCS offensive player. He has decent size (6' 2", 205 lbs.), runs sharp routes and produces from the slot or outside.