- With the first full college football weekend underway, keep an eye on these 40 players who will likely hear their name called in April at the 2017 NFL draft.
The NFL just announced that its 2017 draft will be held in Philadelphia, from April 27-29. So there’s a little less than eight months to go until all 32 teams descend on the City of Brotherly Love to select from a new group of prospects.
Which of college football’s players will be atop the list when the time comes? We’ll begin to get a better picture as the season progresses, of course, but for now this is how the inaugural SI Big Board of the 2016 college football season looks:
Were it not for the rule demanding that players be three years removed from high school before entering the NFL draft, Texas A&M might have lost Garrett (6' 5", 262 pounds) after his freshman or sophomore year. He has been an elite pass rusher since Day One. Between his quick get-off, speed and ability to finish, Garrett is the type of playmaker NFL teams dream of having on their defense.
When last we saw Watson (6' 3", 215 pounds), he was hanging 400 yards and four TDs on Alabama in the national title game. Clemson lost, but any lingering—and rather unwarranted—questions about Watson’s potential were answered. His background in a spread system may cause some hesitation, but it shouldn’t hurt him much. Watson’s a run-pass threat who can win games on his own.
The hype is off the charts for Fournette (6' 1", 235 pounds) as he heads into his junior season. (Some even suggested he should sit out this year to ensure his health for the 2017 draft.) A clear Heisman frontrunner again, Fournette could surpass the 1,953 yards he rushed for last season. He seeks out contact like a linebacker, yet also has the speed to pull away.
We had King (5' 11", 200 pounds) pegged as a top-20 pick during early 2016 mock drafts, before he decided to stay at Iowa. His ball skills are remarkable (eight interceptions last season), no matter the coverage, and he’s willing and able to stick his nose into the mix, be it in press coverage or against the run. As with every cornerback, his fate will be tied directly to his 40 time.
Don’t be surprised if Cook (5' 11", 213 pounds) is the preferred RB choice for a few teams down the road. A lot of the discussion will be tied to which type of back a front office wants: Do you prefer the physical specimen who’s going to punish and wear down defenses, like Fournette? Or do you want the electrifying, home-run skill of a weapon like Cook?
In some ways Peppers (6' 1", 205 pounds) and RB Christian McCaffrey present similar cases, in that an NFL team will have to be willing to be creative in order to max out their talent. Both players can ease any concerns with their incredible versatility. Peppers can, and has, played cornerback and safety. This year, he’ll line up in a Deone Bucannon-like linebacker role. Oh, and he’s a proven return man, too.
Coming off a 4.5-sack, 13-tackle for loss season, McDowell (6' 6", 276 pounds) appears to be only scratching the surface. That’s a scary thought for opposing teams, but a terrific one for any GM considering drafting him. He can win with power or speed inside, possessing enough of both to play DT or DE at the next level.
Where McCaffrey (6' 0", 197 pounds) lands next April will give us a decent indication of just how rapidly NFL offenses are changing. He is a long way from the RB prototype but can bury defenses as a runner, receiver or return man. Out of the slot, he’s borderline impossible to cover. Think of a player like the Lions’ Theo Riddick, with even more all-around skill.
If Adams (6' 1", 213 pounds) can elevate his pass-coverage game, then the sky will be the limit for him as a prospect. He’s already a dynamo stepping down into the box and defending.
Tabor was cited with marijuana possession in 2014, took heat in January for calling college football ”a modern form of slavery,” and is suspended for Florida’s season opener because of an in-practice fight, so the NFL will dig deep off the field. On the field, Tabor (6' 0", 191) very well could be this class’s top CB prospect. His instincts are impressive. There are plays where he seems to know the route better than the receiver he’s defending does.
Barnett (6' 3", 265 pounds) has racked up a combined 33.0 tackles for loss and 19.0 sacks in two seasons. And he might be an even better run defender than he is a pass rusher.
Smith-Schuster is a big receiver (6' 2", 220 pounds) capable of gliding through the entire route tree, including the deep balls on which he makes a ton of plays. He could stand to be even more physical given his frame.
If Williams (6' 4", 237 pounds) can carry over his dominant defensive cameos into higher-volume production, he could be a top-five pick. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams saw a very limited 148 pass-rush attempts last season ... and produced 52 pressures.
Kaaya’s arm strength will be heavily scrutinized in the coming months. He squeezes a ton of passes into tight windows, though. Kaaya (6' 4", 215 pounds) also has the benefit of playing in more of a pro-style system. He is improving on his reads and is patient enough to run through progressions.
Vanderdoes (6' 3", 325 pounds) had established himself as one of college football’s sturdier line presences before a torn ACL cost him most of 2015. Can he be more than a two-down, run-stuffer in the NFL? The answer will determine whether he’s a top-20 or Day 2 pick.
Harris really came into his own last season with 18 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The reason? Harris (6' 3", 255 pounds) improved his repertoire of counter moves. He will be seen as a hybrid edge rusher, much in the vein of former teammate and current Cardinal Markus Golden.
McMillan (6' 2", 243 pounds) notched 119 tackles this season, a number that could go up this year with Darron Lee’s departure. The junior carries similar upside to Lee—he is a missile vs. the run with potential to be a plus-pass defender. He’s not quite there yet in the latter category.
McGlinchey (6' 7", 310 pounds) will inherit Ronnie Stanley’s vacated left tackle position, so how he handles that chore is still TBD. If nothing else, he has a future as a potentially dominant run-blocking right tackle, with a high ceiling.
This ranking is too low if post-neck injury Williams is as good as pre-neck injury Williams. The 6' 3", 225-pound redshirt junior can overwhelm DBs downfield and in the red zone.
There’s a bit of a Dont’a Hightower vibe to Davis’s game—he can go sideline to sideline and play on three downs, but he is best when demolishing folks in the box. One minor knock: Davis (6' 2", 230 pounds) has to be better at finishing plays.
Sound the siren for teams wanting to check off the height/weight boxes: Tankersley is a 6' 1", 200-pound press corner. He picked off five passes last season and will be the top dog now that Mackensie Alexander is a Viking.
Falk’s frame (6' 4", 216 pounds) certainly will appeal to NFL teams hunting for a franchise QB. So, too, will the way he can carve up defenses from the pocket—he keeps his feet moving without bailing. Does he have the arm to be an NFL starter?
I’m banking more on the potential than the current product by placing Jackson here. There’s no denying what Jackson (5' 11", 185 pounds) offers in terms of athleticism—he caught 27 passes and took two punts to the house last season. He can rely on his natural gifts too much as a corner, though. Matching his technique with his physical abilities would give him top-20 hope.
Let’s hope Alabama’s staff uses Howard as much as it has been saying it will, because the 6' 6", 242-pound tight end has shown flashes—see: the national championship—of being a 1,000-yard receiver. Howard can block just as effectively as he can beat a linebacker or safety over the top.
Could Butt (6' 6", 250 pounds) improve as a run blocker? Sure. But he’s already a decent fixture there and he is NFL-ready as a pass-catching weapon. He creates massive mismatches, then finishes with hands as reliable as any receiver out there.
Foster (6' 1", 240 pounds) is another SEC linebacker who buries ball carriers when he gets the chance. He broke up nine passes last season, too. He has a real chance to be drafted higher than Reggie Ragland.
This is a tough case because Lawson (6' 2", 253 pounds) played just seven games last season and missed all of 2014. There have been glimpses of him as an upper-echelon edge defender, but it’s a mystery right now if he can sustain any momentum over a full season.
I like Cannon (6’ 0”, 180 pounds) more now than I did Corey Coleman at the same point last season. He’s not built as Coleman nor as consistent, but he has the same type of elusiveness and his route running is usually sharp.
Humphrey (6' 1", 198 pounds) gives up too many big plays—NFL.com had him allowing 20.7 yards per catch last season—but the flip side is that so few passes thrown his direction wind up complete. He fits no matter the scheme.
A load to bring down at 5' 10" and 235 pounds, Perine is a north-south runner who rarely gets tackled by just one defender. He is starting to wander into the workload range where NFL teams start worrying: Perine has 489 career carries under his belt and likely will be up over 700 by the year’s end.
Kupp (6' 2", 205 pounds) plays a polished game at receiver, with a knack for finding holes in coverage and using his body to fend off DBs. He doesn’t play like a receiver who will post a 4.4 40 time, but is he a 4.5 guy? Or closer to 4.6-4.7? The answer will be critical to his stock.
Pocic (6' 7", 302 pounds) has played guard, now starts at center and there was brief chatter about him moving to tackle. He again will serve as one of Fournette’s most trusted blockers. He’s outstanding at picking out second-, even third-level defenders in the run game.
There’s not much buzz surrounding Landry (6' 3", 250 pounds) yet, but I’m willing to bet that changes by April, should he enter the draft. Landry is a rock against the run (16 tackles for loss) and is starting to find his pass-rushing chops. He’ll make for a nice 3–4/4–3 edge player at the next level.