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.
Atop our Big Board is a prospect possessing a rare (and freakish) combination of size, strength and athleticism—which explains why he's been the consensus No. 1 draft prospect for months.
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 1: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
What you need to know: Over his three seasons at Texas A&M, Garrett averaged 15.7 tackles for loss and 10.3 sacks per year. Both numbers were on track to be higher, but Garrett saw a dip in ’16 as he battled a high-ankle sprain—though he still finished the year with 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks (as well as a first-team All-America nod). Garrett’s 31.0 career sacks rank as the second-highest total among SEC players the past decade, behind only Tennessee sacks record holder Derek Barnett. Garrett, a first-team all-conference honoree in 2015 and a second-teamer in ’16, also notched 141 tackles and seven forced fumbles as an Aggie.
Only adding to the intrigue, his older brother, Sean Williams, was selected by the then-New Jersey Nets with the 17th-overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft.
Strengths: Garrett has been the consensus No. 1 prospect in this draft class for months, and with good reason. He possesses a rare (and ridiculous) combination of size, strength and athleticism, as he showed at the combine: 6' 4", 272 lbs., 4.64-second 40, 33 bench-press reps, 41" vertical, 128" broad jump. That 40-yard dash would have ranked top 10 among the combine’s tight ends and top five among the linebackers.
His numbers in 2016 did not measure up to expectation, but some of that had to do with the nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the year. It also could be chalked up to what we’ll call the “Jadeveon Clowney effect”—while Clowney got knocked for his lack of statistical production, teams altered their entire game plans to either avoid him or throw extra blockers his way. The same phenomenon occurred with Garrett.
The Texas A&M product is absolutely explosive off the snap. He can cover a ton of ground with his first couple steps, yet does so with the control to cut back toward a tackle’s inside shoulder when he has an opening. His power shows up in the form of a bull rush, and he also can spin out of that initial contact to leave a lineman grasping at air.
He was asked at the combine about comparisons between his game and Von Miller’s.
“You know, he probably has a little bit more skill than me,” Garrett said. “He’s been doing it for a little bit longer. But I feel like I’m a little bit bigger, little bit stronger and I’ll catch up in that regard to skill.”
Garrett is known for his pass rushing, but he offers plenty as an early-down defender. Again, the strength helps—he can stand up tackles and tight ends to set an edge. He also has the change-of-direction required to plant and cut after a back.
His NFL team may not want him dropping in coverage all that much. He has the footwork to do so on occasion, though, and probably could stick with a tight end for awhile.
Weaknesses: During his combine press conference, he admitted, to a certain extent, that he will take a play off here and there: “Nobody’s 100% every play—eight, nine plays down a drive. Sometimes you do look back and say, ‘I could have gave more effort’ or ‘I loafed right there.’ But you work on those things.”
Certainly, there were some frustrating stretches with Garrett last season, even knowing he may not have been 100% and that teams were scheming to slow him. Of the 8.5 sacks he had during the 2016 campaign, 4.5 of them came against UTSA during a November non-conference game.
So, consistency will be an obvious focal point moving forward. Also on the list is maintaining discipline off the edge. As mentioned above, Garrett does has the ability to be a menace against the run, but it doesn’t necessarily show up for 60 minutes. He at times can be too eager to utilize that burst into the backfield, thus leaving him vulnerable to misdirection. And—perhaps in line with that need to keep the engine revved on every down—he has plays where he sort of goes through the motions with a blocker, sort of stalemating rather than trying to work free.
All that said, there is nothing that should prevent Garrett from being a high-impact pass rusher from the outset next season. How fixable he few flaws prove to be will determine whether he’s a dominant every-down defender or merely a terror for quarterbacks.
NFL player comp: Julius Peppers
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 2: Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
The 2016 Butkus Award winner for the nation’s top linebacker and a first-team All-American, Foster racked up 115 tackles last season, good for second-most in the SEC behind only Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham (125). Thirteen of those Foster tackles were for loss, and he also turned in 5.0 sacks. His senior-season performance more than doubled his career tackles total—he finished with 222. Of those, 188 came during the 2014-15 seasons combined, after Foster nailed down a starting spot in the Alabama lineup. He set his single-game career high for tackles (12) in this past season’s national championship vs. Clemson.
Foster was the nation’s top-ranked inside linebacker during the 2013 recruiting cycle and he took Alabama and Auburn fans on a whirlwind trip—he committed to Alabama, then changed that commitment to Auburn, before ultimately signing with the Tide.
Strengths: What more could a team want in a linebacker? Foster was a dynamic, tone-setting presence in the middle of Alabama’s defense, and his speed/strength combo should translate well to the pros.
Nothing about Foster’s game is hesitant. When he makes a read, he trusts it, and then drives toward his target with maximum velocity. He has the range to be a chase-and-tackle defender working sideline to sideline, but he might be even better when he can spot a gap and fire downhill. Every hit of his has the potential to land on the highlight reel.
What really ought to endear him to NFL talent evaluators is that he is not just a run-stuffing defender. Often, bulked-up, hard-hitting middle linebackers are limited in what they can do against the pass, or when teams spread the field. That’s not the case with Foster, who is physical enough to body up against tight ends but really makes headway vs. the pass because of how locked in he stays on the quarterback.
Foster checked in at the combine at 6' 0", 229 lbs.; Alabama listed him an inch and about a dozen pounds heavier than that. There’s nothing he can do about the height, but there is room on his frame to be in the 235 range, comfortably.
He projects across all schemes, and at multiple spots—he could be an ILB in a 3–4, or an MLB or weak-side defender in a 4–3. There should be no hesitation with regard to fit for any team considering him in the draft.
Weaknesses: There is the shoulder issue. And the combine incident.
On the former, Foster required rotator cuff surgery following Alabama’s season, so he could not work out at the combine or Alabama’s pro day. There were mixed reviews out of the NFL’s medical recheck, too—a report surfaced stating that Foster’s shoulder still is not healed and could require a second surgery; Foster’s agent, Malki Kawa, quickly denied it and claimed that Foster was “ahead of schedule” and on track for training camp. Foster’s health will be a topic of conversation regardless, if for no other reason than how physical his playing style is.
As for the combine incident, Foster was sent home early after a spat with a hospital worker during his medical checks. He met with teams during Alabama’s pro day in an attempt to clear the air.
“If you’re looking for a good teammate to be on your team, Reuben’s going to be very, very good,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, via CBSSports. “If you’re looking for somebody to be a candy striper and be nice to everybody at the hospital, maybe not.”
The on-field product is darn near complete. Will the other potential red flags drop Foster down Round 1?
NFL player comp: Ryan Shazier with NaVorro Bowman upside
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 3: Jamal Adams, S, LSU
What you need to know: Adams comes from a football pedigree—his dad, George Adams, was a star running back at Kentucky and a first-round pick of the Giants in the 1985 draft. The younger Adams should best his father’s draft spot (No. 19 overall). Jamal was a first-team All-SEC and second-team All-America this past season, as he notched 76 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. He picked off five passes during this three years at LSU, four of those INTs coming during his sophomore season of 2015. Adams also had 209 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss for his career. He earned playing time for Les Miles and the Tigers as a true freshman, starting a pair of games in ’14. He then would start every contest of both the ’15 and ’16 campaigns.
Strengths: Adams (6' 0", 214 pounds) isn’t the biggest safety in the world, but he’s cut and plays with that hitter’s mentality that coaches covet. He flies downhill, yet maintains enough control to react to any change of direction from the ballcarrier.
A lot of his work comes pre-snap, as he served as LSU’s defensive quarterback. He’s an intelligent defender who does not hesitate to direct his teammates.
“Leadership is definitely my main [attribute],” Adams said. “As well as on the field, I can play everything in the back end, whether that’s covering in the slot, whether that’s playing man-free, whether that’s being in the A- and B- gap, filling that hole, or locking down tight ends, I feel like I’m versatile enough to play everything in the back end, and that’s what makes me a special player.”
The run defense is really where Adams tends to shine, hence the early projections that have him filling more of a box-safety role at the next level. He tackles like a linebacker, and he reads plays like one, as well.
But he’s no slouch in coverage, even if that may be seen as the lesser aspect of his game. As Adams said in the above quote from the combine, he can—and has—handled a number of different alignments out of the secondary. His physicality allows him to drive receivers off course early, and he has the quick feet (4.13-second short shuttle) to stay in sync with routes.
Adams is the type of safety around which a defense can be built. He’s tough and smart, with the game to span the entirety of the field.
Weaknesses: There should be few concerns about Adams’s game when he is pulled up tight to the line of scrimmage. Can he handle himself against NFL receivers and passing schemes when used extensively in coverage? That’s really the main question following him into the draft. Teams may not view him as a true centerfielder in the secondary, so Adams will have to show that he can translate his college coverages to the next level—odds are, he’ll be spending a lot of time in the slot if opponents spread the field.
His speed at the combine (4.56-second 40) was decent, but nothing exciting. That time did drop dramatically at his pro day, to a reported 4.33, although pro-day numbers usually skew in the player’s favor.
Adams can get burned, from time to time, with his aggressive approach against the run. He’ll get caught in traffic trying to pursue. It’s a rare occurrence, though, and in general the weaknesses with his game are difficult to spot.
NFL player comparison: Eric Berry
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 4: Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
What you need to know: Even more impressive than his 2016 MAC Offensive Player of the Year win? Davis concluded his Western Michigan career as the all-time leading receiver in FBS history, with 5,278 yards. Davis topped 1,400 yards each of his final three seasons (1,408-1,429-1,500), and he opened his Broncos days with 941 yards as a true freshman. His 331 career receptions also placed him first in MAC history and fourth in FBS history.
Need more? Davis’s 52 career receiving touchdowns set a new MAC standard; only Rice’s Jarrett Dillard (60, 2005-08) found the end zone more through the air. The Western Michigan star had 27 different 100-yard games during his career, including a 272-yarder vs. Ball State and 154 vs. Michigan State.
Strengths: “Corey Davises don’t come along very often,” then-Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck told SI.com last June. “If they have one talent, then they really lack something else. Corey’s really the complete package.”
And that was before Davis went off for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns in his (and Fleck’s) final season in Kalamazoo.
Davis could have entered the 2016 draft and done quite well for himself. He put his senior campaign to good use, though, and because of it will enter the NFL as an extremely polished rookie. Provided he is 100% healthy, there should be little preventing Davis from producing very early in his career.
Shy, perhaps, of being a run-blocking force, there is nothing a coordinator could ask of Davis (6' 3", 209 lbs.) that would be problematic. Davis lined up both outside and in the slot for the Broncos, and he excelled regardless. He possesses a well-versed understanding of the route tree, and the crispness with which he runs his routes keeps defenders guessing.
There also are several different gears available in Davis’s speed repertoire. He can shut it down in a hurry if he needs to break back toward the quarterback or if he spots a hole in a zone; he can burst past deep defenders on deep balls; and, arguably most impressively, he can explode after the catch across the middle of the field. Davis wastes little time getting upfield, and he covers significant ground with his long strides. If a defender is trailing by even a whisker when Davis makes a reception, Davis can open that gap exponentially within just three or four steps.
He’ll fight for the ball on contested catches—jump balls or over the middle. That’s an area Fleck said last summer that Davis could improve upon, and Davis said at the combine he feels like he has done so.
“One of the big things this year, and one of the big reasons I came back, was the contested balls, the 50-50 balls,” Davis said. “[Fleck has] helped me with that tremendously, especially this previous offseason. We were always in the weight room and always working on ways to improve that, and improve my strength.”
Weaknesses: Teams have had private meetings with Davis in recent weeks, but he was unable to work out at either the combine or Western Michigan’s pro day due to ankle surgery following the Broncos’ MAC title and Cotton Bowl appearance. (Davis still had six catches for 73 yards and a TD in that Cotton Bowl, a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin.)
Will he be ready in time for rookie mini-camp? Training camp? The regular season? He should be good to go by the time August and September rolls around, but the recovery process is already dragging a bit. Davis did head to Indianapolis last week for the league’s medical rechecks.
The on-field issue that popped up most often: drops. Davis had too many of them as a college star—NFL.com credited him with 16 from 2014–16, which works out to one per every 16.5 catches he had.
Strength is a challenge for about 98% of the receivers making the leap from college to pro ball, and Davis will be no different. He’ll see a lot more press coverage from NFL cornerbacks than he did at Western Michigan.
NFL player comp: A.J. Green
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 5: Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
What you need to know: An All-SEC first-teamer in both 2014 and ’15, Allen opted to stay at Alabama for his senior season and nailed down first-team All-America honors. He also won the Bednarik Trophy as the country’s top defender. Allen registered 28.0 sacks for his career, the second most in Alabama history behind only Derrick Thomas and fourth most among all SEC defenders since 2005. He had 10.5 sacks in 2016 and an SEC-best 12.0 in ’15. Allen also had 69 tackles and 16.0 tackles for loss in his final Alabama season, numbers that helped propel him to a seventh-place finish in Heisman voting. The decorated defensive lineman scored two touchdowns last season, both on fumble returns (30 and 75 yards).
Strengths: If you read our Solomon Thomas scouting report, then some of this is going to sound familiar. Namely, that Allen (6' 3", 286 pounds) is a versatile inside-out threat for a defensive line. He saw a healthy amount of snaps as a 3–4 end for Alabama, but he also can kick further inside as a penetrating tackle or push further outside to change an edge-rushing look.
“I can play effectively at a 6-tech, 9-tech, a 3-[tech],” Allen said at the combine. “I’ve been working on my drops, I can drop in the flat if needed. I can do a lot of things and do them equally well for a team.”
His trips to the end zone last season provided highlight-reel evidence of his athleticism. That same athleticism shows up when he’s working through interior linemen up front. Allen is quick off the ball and is as fluid a mover laterally as he is vertically. Stunts or angled attacks are useful weapons in his arsenal, because he has the footwork to pull them off.
He also can shoot his way through a gap in a hurry. Allen gets off the snap without hesitation, and he has an advanced enough technique to pair that first reaction with a punch that keeps blockers at bay. He varies his attacks, too, so linemen cannot just sit and wait on a bull rush—he’ll swim past or rip or simply sidestep them en route to the pocket.
Allen could be dropped into a two-gap defense, or utilized as a 4–3 DE, and at least hold his own, but his game is built to be a one-gapping force inside. He doesn’t have to be on the field for 90% of snaps to make an impact—Alabama rotates its D-linemen with gusto, and Allen still posted his outstanding numbers.
Weaknesses: How worried are teams about Allen’s shoulders? He required multiple surgeries during his college career, and at the combine he had to answer for a diagnosis of arthritis in both shoulders. “Every doctor said if there’s a problem, it’s after football, way after football,” Allen claimed. “I have no concerns with it at all.”
Reason to give pause, if nothing else, especially considering that his next team no doubt would like Allen on the field more than he was in that Alabama rotation.
As with Thomas, the “tweener” talk comes up again here. Allen is pushing 290 (with a 5.00-second 40-yard dash and average athletic-testing marks), so he doesn’t profile as a 4–3 defensive end. Does he have the length and strength to be plugged in full-time as a 3–4 DE or 4–3 DT?
He is a solid defender against the run, yet he’ll need to be even more of a presence in that regard if he does stay primarily in an end role.
NFL player comparison: Malik Jackson
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 6: Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
What you need to know: The Pac-12’s Morris Trophy is unique in that it’s voted on by the players—the conference’s offensive linemen vote for the best defensive lineman, and vice versa. Thomas was named the top defensive lineman in 2016, for a season in which he recorded 16.0 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He also landed on the All-Pac-12 first team and the All-America third team. As a redshirt freshman the previous year, Thomas posted 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. A native of Texas, Thomas lived in Australia for five years as a child (more on that in Thomas’s September Q&A with SI’s Lindsay Schnell).
Strengths: There are not many players capable of dominating at the college level the way that Thomas did when he was on his game. He had 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks against Notre Dame; he had another seven tackles (2.0 for loss) and a game-clinching sack against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. He often demanded multiple blockers, or at the very least a back staying in to help pick him up.
Thomas (6' 3", 273 pounds) can drive O-linemen back on their heels, both off the edge and when stunting or angling inside—his 30 bench-press reps at the combine exhibited his strength. He also showed off a 126-inch broad jump, 6.99-second three-cone and 4.28-second short shuttle in Indianapolis, so there is ample evidence of his athleticism. That comes through in his game, too, especially when he breaks off a spin move or stunts.
He would appear to project best as a 4–3 linemen, perhaps even as a permanent three-tech. But he does offer the flexibility to be scheme-versatile—he shifted between 1-, 3-, 4- and 5-techniques along the Stanford line.
Asked at the combine about the “tweener” label, Thomas said, “I don’t take that as a bad thing. I take it as [that] any team can draft me. I’m not labeled to a 4–3; I’m not labeled to a 3–4 team. I can play any system, and I can play any position on the D-line.”
Thomas entered the draft following his redshirt sophomore season, and he will not turn 22 until December. So, he should be mid-ascension in terms of developing his skill and learning technique.
Weaknesses: Being referred to as a “tweener” can come with both positive and negative connotations. Does Thomas have enough strength to live inside or as a two-gapping presence at the next level? Interior O-linemen could move him well off his point of attack with double teams in the run game. Will he develop enough of a repertoire of counter moves to win against NFL tackles outside? Right now, he can get stuck in hand-fighting and lose his leverage.
Despite Thomas’s production at Stanford, the other glaring issue on his tape is in his finishing. His tackles-for-loss and sacks totals could have been far higher had he not allowed so many ballcarriers/quarterbacks to dodge him at the last second. This was very noticeable in Stanford’s bowl game against North Carolina. Credit to Mitchell Trubisky for those escapes (before Thomas’s late sack), but Thomas could have had four or five sacks on the day rather than just one.
Thomas’s desire to penetrate can leave him vulnerable to run plays right at his gap, accompanied by a trap block. This happens to even the best of defensive tackles (see: Suh, Ndamukong), but Thomas will have to be more careful about holding his lane.
NFL player comparison: Michael Bennett
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 7: Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
What you need to know: Lattimore landed in Columbus in 2014, but he didn’t make his presence felt until ’16. The main reason: hamstring troubles—he required surgery on his left hammy during his first year as a Buckeye, then tweaked the right hamstring multiple times in ’15. As a result, he entered his redshirt sophomore year with all of four career tackles. It didn’t take him long to make a significant impact last season, though. Lattimore picked off two passes (including a pick-six) in Ohio State’s second game, against Tulsa, then added another INT during a road win at Oklahoma. He finished the year with four interceptions, 41 tackles and 14 pass breakups, plus a second-team All-Big Ten nod (first-team by the coaches).
Strengths: He’s a cornerback with wide receiver quickness and a linebacker’s mentality.
Lattimore’s combine numbers highlighted the athleticism: 4.36-second 40, 38.5-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump. He has an explosive burst, which shows up when he’s trying to mimic a receiver inside and even more so when he has to flip his hips and streak up the sideline. Receivers may make catches against him, but they are usually going to have to be contested ones. He rarely allowed his man to get separation during Ohio State’s 2016 season.
While Lattimore has decent size (6' 0", 193 pounds), the manner in which he plays makes him an imposing playmaker. He pulls right up to the line in an aggressive press coverage, attempting to block off those inside releases and force players outside where his speed really shines.
As a run defender, he uses his hands to shed blockers the way that a defender on the first or second level might. Once he gets to the ball, he is a punishing tackler. The technique isn’t exactly clean (more on that below), but he drives hard with his shoulder to lay a lick. He’s not just occupying space until another defender arrives to help; he wants to end plays.
The NFL never knows, for sure, how a player is going to respond and mature once he reaches the professional level, so something always can go wrong. But as he heads into the draft, Lattimore is about as complete a cornerback prospect as there will be.
Weaknesses: Let’s circle back to the tackling. It is far from a fatal flaw, especially for a cornerback, but Lattimore’s desire to land a huge hit can leave him out of control on occasion. NFL running backs can bounce off even the most forceful of shoulder blows from a defensive back, so making sure that he wraps up will be a focus for Lattimore moving forward.
Aside from that, the lingering concern with Lattimore comes from the hamstring history.
“I actually had to get an MRI for my [left] hamstring, even though it happened all the way in 2014,” said Lattimore of his combine medical checks. “They still want to see if there is anything wrong with it. My hamstrings are fine right now, but I had to get an MRI on the one that I tore.”
A day after making that comment, Lattimore came up hobbling at the end of his combine 40. Initial reports on that injury pointed to the hamstring again, but Lattimore tweeted that he had tweaked his hip flexor instead.
The long-term durability concerns could be a knock against him, nonetheless. He’ll have to show, too, that his physical brand of play can be maintained against NFL receivers, most of whom will not hesitate to deliver a shot themselves when the chance arises.
NFL player comparison: Stephon Gilmore
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 8: Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
What you need to know: In his three seasons with the Seminoles, Cook averaged just shy of 1,800 yards from scrimmage per year and scored 48 total touchdowns (46 rushing, two receiving). He topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark as a true freshman in 2014, then followed that showing up with 1,691 yards and 1,765 yards, respectively, the next two seasons. Cook was a first-team All-America in ’16, as well as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award (top running back) and a top-10 finisher in Heisman voting. He capped his Florida State stay with Orange Bowl MVP honors against Michigan: 20 carries, 145 yards and one TD, plus three catches for 62 yards. Cook topped 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 college games.
Strengths: The best running backs always seem like they’re operating on another level, like a chess grandmaster thinking one move ahead of even the best competition. That’s how it has been with Cook, who can turn the smallest of openings into huge gains. He has exceptional vision to the outside and in the open field, coupled with the cutback ability to leave defenders grasping at air.
There is no situation in which Cook looks uncomfortable, either. He can run whether the QB lines up in shotgun, pistol or under center, and he can be trusted as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Perhaps fittingly, he said at the combine that he has modeled his game after Jamaal Charles.
“(He’s) been banged up a lot, but when he was healthy and when he was full-go I definitely patterned my game behind him,” Cook said. “The things he did ... not a big back, shifty, ain’t afraid to run downhill, just an every-down back. So that’s who I pattern my game behind.”
Cook is shifty when he has defenders in one-on-one spots, but he does not waste a lot of energy in the backfield. When a play calls for him to run between the tackles, he’ll find his spot and start pushing forward for yardage as soon as he possibly can.
Cook's feel for the position also makes it so that he can improvise on the fly. If his initial gap closes up, he’ll find an alternate route without backpedaling or hesitating. Cook is a special talent and a three-down NFL back.
Weaknesses: Off the field, Cook has been involved in multiple legal situations, dating back to high school. The most high-profile was in 2015 when he was charged with misdemeanor battery. He was found not guilty on that charge, but he also was cited in ’14 for animal cruelty and had incidents in ’09 (robbery, charges dropped) and ’10 (firing a weapon and possessing a weapon on school property, charges dropped).
There also is the injury history—Cook’s shoulders could be a lingering concern, and he required surgery in 2016 to repair a torn labrum on his right side. There also is the matter of ball security—he fumbled a dozen times as a Seminole.
Cook (5' 10", 210 pounds) has enough size to drive through tackles, but his apparent desire to do so comes and goes. The past shoulder issues might be a contributing factor. It’ll be interesting to see if teams trust him to run between the tackles, or if he gets vultured in red-zone spots by a bigger back.
NFL player comparison: Doug Martin
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 9: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State
What you need to know: A star at New Castle (Pa.) High School, Hooker twice made it on to SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays” countdown ... as a basketball player. Hooker was a standout on the hardwood, so much so that he did not begin playing football until his junior year. Not surprisingly, given his lack of previous experience, Hooker redshirted in 2014 at Ohio State. He saw action in all 13 games the next season, mainly as a special teams contributor. Finally a starter in ’16, Hooker claimed an All-America nod and first-team All-Big Ten, as he recorded 74 tackles and picked off seven passes. He took three of those turnovers back for TDs (against Tulsa, Nebraska and Michigan). Hooker led the Big Ten in both interceptions and INT return yards last season.
Strengths: It is borderline ridiculous the amount of ground Hooker can cover when the ball is in the air. He possesses rare closing speed as a free safety, and his presence alone allowed Ohio State’s cornerbacks—like fellow Round 1 hopefuls Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley—to roll the dice near the line.
Hooker glides from the middle of the field to the boundary in a heartbeat, doing so while keeping tabs on the flight of the football so he can make a play.
“Just having the mindset that any ball that’s in the air, it’s my ball,” said Hooker at the combine when asked how he became such a prolific turnover producer. “I feel like I’m a playmaker. Any time I had a chance to make a play or change momentum of a game, I took it upon myself to do so.”
Speed alone isn’t enough. As with any truly effective deep safety, Hooker shows the ability to read a quarterback’s eyes or sniff out the development of a play. He trusts his instincts, then allows his athleticism to take over.
He’s also nowhere near a finished product. With limited experience under his belt, Hooker emerged as arguably the best coverage safety in college football last season. Who knows how good he can be with a few more years of experience.
Weaknesses: Hooker did have those 74 tackles last season, so he obviously is not totally lost when he has to bring down a ballcarrier. And yet, there is little question that his presence against the run currently lags far behind what he can do against the pass.
The issue that will require the most immediate attention: tackling. Hooker appears to have the mentality that could turn him into a physical presence, but that’s part of the problem—he flows downhill to the football in the same gear that he tracks the deep ball, and thus has a difficult time adjusting to any cuts. His technique leaves something to be desired, too—he’ll often try to go low with the shoulder, rather than wrap up.
NFL quarterbacks are better than those in college at manipulating deep safeties, so Hooker will have to be careful at jumping routes by reading the QB. Pump fakes or play-actions might catch him in the wrong spot.
He needed surgeries in January to repair a torn labrum plus sports hernias on each side.
NFL player comparison: Devin McCourty, two inches taller
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 10: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
What you need to know: Were it not for the rule requiring prospects to be three years removed from high school before entering the draft, Fournette might have pushed Ezekiel Elliott to be the first running back off the board in 2016. Fournette was a consensus All-America as a sophomore and finished sixth in the Heisman voting, thanks to 1,953 yards rushing and 23 total touchdowns. Last season, he was limited by an ankle injury to just seven games yet still averaged 120 yards rushing per contest.
He totaled 3,830 yards rushing, 526 yards receiving and 42 touchdowns for his LSU career. One of those TDs came as a kick returner during his freshman year. Despite bypassing his final year of eligibility to turn pro, Fournette ranks top 20 in SEC history for career rushing yards and touchdowns. His younger brother, Lanard, is also a running back at LSU.
Strengths: Fournette averaged 128.9 yards during three September games last season, and he had a dazzling 284-yard, three-TD showing against Ole Miss. To get the real Fournette experience, though, you have to rewind back to 2015, because the ankle injury he suffered during preseason practice in ’16 kept him from ever fully hitting his stride. But as a healthy sophomore, Fournette was about as good as college running backs get.
He has a reputation as a power back because he carries the fight to defenders with his 6-foot, 240-pound frame (he slimmed down to 228 between the combine weigh-in and LSU’s Pro Day). He is far more than a power back. He has 4.5 speed to get to the edge, and he can pull away in the open field.
Fournette describes himself as a “north-and-south runner. Can make defenders miss, can run over them, can run past them.”
Of course, it is the brute strength that helps set him apart. Fournette can move the pile between the tackles, and he is a load to bring down once he gets moving. Defenders don’t have much luck taking him down one-on-one, especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks and passive safeties may as well not even try to make a play on him.
He maxed out at four receptions in a game, hitting that number on three separate occasions. Still, Fournette’s receiving skills are underrated, and they could help keep him on the field for all three downs.
Weaknesses: Fournette’s “north-and-south” call is on the nose, because he is not a back that’s going to hurt a team going east and west. He can run outside the tackles and turn upfield, but he is not going to shake defenders with lateral movement. The cuts beyond the line of scrimmage just aren’t there—Fournette is going to get downhill with force, but he needs a lane to do so.
The nagging ankle injury from 2016, on its own, is not enough to lower Fournette’s stock. But running backs are thought to have short shelf lives as it is, and overly physical backs can do as much damage to themselves as to opponents. A team drafting Fournette in the top 20 will want to make sure it’s getting the ’15 version of the star back.
NFL player comparison: Ceiling? Adrian Peterson. Floor? Chris Ivory.
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 11: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
What you need to know: No one can accuse Howard of folding under pressure. He had two 100-yard games in his Alabama career: the 2015 College Football Playoff title game vs. Clemson and the 2016 College Football Playoff title game vs. Clemson. It was the first go-round that will stand atop Howard’s college legacy. In the Crimson Tide’s 45–40 victory, he hauled in five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns—good for MVP honors. The yardage total set an Alabama bowl record. A third-team All-American in ’16, Howard had 114 receptions during his time with the Tide, for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns. Howard was a finalist, along with Michigan’s Jake Butt and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett, for the 2016 John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end (Butt won).
Strengths: When NFL teams dream of the ideal tight end, they envision a player with good size, above-average speed, and the requisite skill set to be just as comfortable in-line blocking as matched up on a route vs. a linebacker or safety.
Well, here ya go.
Howard’s physical measurements (6’5", 251 lbs., with 33 3/4" arms) are comparable to those of tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. The Alabama product’s combine numbers: 4.51-second 40-yard dash, 6.85-second three cone, 4.16-second short shuttle, 22 bench reps—all at or near the top of his position group.
None of this is to say that Howard is destined to be a Hall of Famer, but the combination of his frame and athleticism are driving him toward a top-10 landing spot.
“A guy I’d compare myself to right now would be Greg Olsen of the Panthers,” said Howard, picking off another player with a similar profile to his (Olsen is listed at 6’5”, 255 and ran a matching 4.51 40 at the combine). “I think Greg does a great job of blocking. He’s a guy, he’s a three-down tight end. He runs great routes. He has great hands. He’s a guy a studied a lot on film in college.”
More so than the 40 time, Howard’s three-cone and short-shuttle marks showed off why he is such a difficult player to cover. On top of that hulking size, Howard has the feet to run sharp, clean routes, and then tops that talent with enough speed to pull away from man coverage.
He also is more of a red-zone threat than his seven Alabama TDs would indicate. His height alone makes him tough to handle, but he can line up sideline to sideline and has excellent body control for those tight-window catches.
Howard’s blocking ability counts as a clear plus, too. Many of the pass-catching tight ends arriving in the NFL cannot be trusted in a traditional alignment—they’re "move" TEs, who take on that H-back or slot-receiver look. Howard, though, can be a force in the run game.
Weaknesses: His Alabama career has made him something of an enigma. The title-game flashes against Clemson were what people expected from Howard each week, but he never hit that level during the regular season. In general, Alabama obviously did not require huge numbers from him to be successful, so was his limited production merely a case of the Tide having so many other weapons? Was it offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s failure to get Howard involved? Or, did Kiffin turn his attention elsewhere because he didn’t think he could rely on Howard on a regular basis?
If Olsen is the type of player Howard longs to be, he’ll need to grow even stronger and more physical, especially if backs are going to run behind him.
NFL player comparison: Travis Kelce
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 12: Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
What you need to know: A second-team All-SEC cornerback, Wilson wrapped his final season in Gainesville with 33 tackles, three interceptions and six pass break-ups. He had six picks over his three-season career, five of them coming during conference play and the sixth against Florida State. Wilson took one back 78 yards to the house last season, against Missouri. He also posted a nine-tackle game in a win over South Carolina; he did not have more than four tackles in any other contest from 2014 to ’16. Wilson started 24 games for the Gators, including all 13 as a true junior. His dad, Chad Wilson, was a defensive back for the University of Miami from 1992 to ’94.
Strengths: Wilson fits the outside cornerback mold. He’s big (6' 1", 211 pounds) and likes to play in the hip pocket of the receiver he’s defending. That includes both at the line, where Wilson stands his ground with an aggressive press technique, and downfield, as he plays through receivers to get to the football. Clean catches are hard to come by when Wilson is in the vicinity.
Wilson is a no-fear, no-nonsense defender. The Gators did not hesitate to pit him against top wide receivers—Laquon Treadwell, Calvin Ridley, etc.—and he often rose to the occasion.
He is proactive in defending the football, displaying enough anticipation of routes to jump them when playing downhill. Even when receivers manage to get behind him, it usually takes them an extra beat or two, meaning that he can disrupt timing even if he doesn’t make a direct play on the ball.
Wilson doesn’t mind getting dirty in the run game, either, nor does he allow himself to get sucked inside by misdirection. He’ll stick with his responsibilities near the boundary and attempt to square up ball carriers.
The overall technique needs some work, but for a team that leans on press-man coverage, he could be an early contributor.
Weaknesses: The desire to land the first blow at the line of scrimmage can leave Wilson flailing from time to time. If he doesn’t disrupt a receiver’s path right off the snap, he can find himself spinning as he tries to recover.
He’s also not a speed cornerback (4.54-second 40-yard dash). So, while it’s rare that a receiver creates a significant cushion behind him, he can’t always stay in phase and instead will wind up trailing. His timing is such that he can close those windows late, but the windows are there at least a couple times per game.
There is a gap between his desire to impact the run game and his ability to do so, due mainly to his hit-or-miss tackling. Wilson can grow flat-footed waiting on a back to reach him, and he will lunge when attacking the ball. His physicality doesn’t always show up when he’s getting blocked—receivers, tight ends and linemen alike can send him backpedaling if he can’t sidestep them.
NFL player comparison: Aqib Talib
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 13: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
What you need to know: In 2015, McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards and gained 3,601 all-purpose yards—setting the Pac-12 record—which was good enough to finish second in Heisman voting, fewer than 300 points behind winner Derrick Henry.
By comparison, 2016 was viewed as a bit of a disappointment. He still racked up 1,603 yards rushing and a career-high 16 touchdowns—not bad for a “down” year. His numbers would have been even higher had he not missed two games with a hip injury, and he also opted to sit out Stanford’s bowl game to prepare for the draft. But prior to Stanford’s bowl trip, McCaffrey was electrifying. Over the final five games of his college career, he averaged 198.2 yards on the ground and scored 12 combined touchdowns (rushing and receiving).
Strengths: Ever hit the juke button while playing a football video game? Then you know what it looks like when McCaffrey cuts. His stunning change-of-direction talent is just as effective behind the line, when he plants to fire through a lane, as it is in the open field—McCaffrey put defender after defender on his highlight reel in those one-on-one situations.
How impressive an athlete is McCaffrey? Just check the combine numbers: 4.48-second 40-yard dash, 37.5" vertical, 6.57-second three cone, 4.22-second short shuttle. He doesn’t possess an unmatched north-south burst, but combining sub-4.5 speed with his lateral movement makes him the playmaker he is with the ball in his hands.
The shiftiness no doubt played a role in his success as a return man and receiver. He could contribute either spot at the next level, although it’s really in the passing game where he may set himself apart. McCaffrey (5' 11", 202 lbs.) is a natural route runner and hands catcher, so much so that he could wind up seeing a majority of his snaps in the slot, depending on which offense he lands in.
“Something I really pride myself on is not just being a running back that can catch the ball, but if I move out to the slot, I become a receiver,” McCaffrey said. “If I move out to ’X’ or ’Z,’ I become a receiver and not just a running back. I really try to pride myself on route running, catching and being able to be a mismatch anywhere on the field.”
Dynamic as he is on the perimeter, McCaffrey did ample work at Stanford between the tackles. He doesn’t need much of a crease to clear to the second level, and he runs with the patience to let his blocks unfold.
Weaknesses: Filed under “it is what it is,” we find McCaffrey’s build. He may add some muscle once he hits an NFL weight program, as rookie are wont to do, but his frame’s already pretty well cut. He is not built to be a prototypical 230-lb., bell-cow back. Granted, that did not stop him from carrying a heavy workload at Stanford, but the 672 combined offensive touches he had in 2015–16 might work against him, too—that’s a lot of tread off the tires for a back, and he missed games to injury.
McCaffrey’s side-to-side movement turns any attempt to square him up into quite the endeavor, but he’s also not going to lower his shoulder and move the pile much. The strength again comes into play when McCaffrey is asked to block, although those moments should be few and far between given how dangerous he is as a receiving threat.
The McCaffrey negatives are nitpicking based on style preference. If a team wants a power back to grind out carries, it ought to look elsewhere. If it wants a versatile player built for the modern game, McCaffrey has to be near the top of the list.
Player comp: LeSean McCoy
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 14: Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee
What you need to know: Step aside, Reggie White. Barnett’s 33 career sacks at Tennessee broke the legendary lineman’s school record of 32, with 13.0 of those takedowns coming during the 2016 season. Barnett was named first-team All-SEC and first-team All-America, capping his remarkable run with the Vols. On top of his historic sack total, Barnett also was responsible for 198 career tackles, 52.0 for loss (one shy of the Tennessee record). Barnett notched eight multi-sack games during his college career, three of which came as a true freshman in 2014; he had a pair of three-sack performances against South Carolina (’14 and ’16). His lone interception occurred last season, against Alabama. He had five pass deflections and two forced fumbles in 2016, as well.
Strengths: The production in college was special. Barnett recorded double-digit sacks in all three of his seasons at Tennessee, and he averaged 17.3 tackles for loss per year. He was such a force in the backfield that teams would hammer the opposite side of the line, rather than run right at him—Alabama did this, to a degree, even though it had first round-bound tackle Cam Robinson to block Barnett.
He’s not a massive edge presence (6' 3", 259 pounds), but he plays with enough force to be able to hold the line. And as a pass rusher, it’s an effort-technique combo that gets the job done for him. When Barnett times the snap, he has the quickness to bend the edge and meet the QB at the top of his drop; when he’s met with a blocker, he unleashes an effective rip move to pull himself clear with his hands.
Barnett plays an intelligent DE, too. Teams occasionally could catch him with misdirection, but for the most part, he stayed home and stuck to his assignments. Many a read option headed his direction buckled early because Barnett snuffed out the initial move.
He also is willing to chase down the line and finish plays with second and third efforts. He is a solid, strong finisher when he gets the chance to square up a ball carrier.
Weaknesses: Barnett’s snap-timing ways make for an inconsistent ebb and flow to his game. When he nails it, he can shoot past offensive tackles in a heartbeat, but there certainly are plays when he guesses wrong and is among the last to react. This happened on an early snap in that same Alabama game, and tight end O.J. Howard was able to get on Barnett’s outside shoulder and wall him off for a run his direction.
Because his game is missing that otherworldly quick footwork, Barnett can be negated if the player blocking him lands the first blow. He doesn’t loop back and win inside enough yet, so teams with mobile quarterbacks can take advantage of his approach by allowing him to go wide and then attacking the vacated gap.
He may be limited to a hand-in-the-dirt, 4–3 DE role—there is not a whole lot of evidence that he could play in space as a 3–4 OLB.
NFL player comparison: Brandon Graham
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 15: John Ross, WR, Washington
What you need to know: Ross scored 19 touchdowns last season—one rushing, one on a punt return and 17 receiving, a number which topped the Pac-12 and placed Ross behind only Carlos Henderson and Corey Davis (both 19 receiving TDs each) for the FBS lead. Ross scored on better than 20% of his receptions (81 in total). He also racked up 1,150 yards receiving, the fourth highest single-season total in Washington’s program history. His work earned Ross second-team All-America and first-team All-Pac-12 honors. All this after he missed the entire 2015 season with an ACL tear, an injury that came on the heels of a torn meniscus during the 2014 season and subsequent microfracture surgery. Ross averaged 15.2 yards per catch and 24.1 yards per kick return for his Washington career.
Strengths: The 4.22-second 40-yard dash Ross ran at the combine was eye-popping, but the really exciting element of it for NFL teams is that the blazing speed shows up on tape. It wasn’t just an impressive 40 with nothing to back it up. Ross plays at ... well, maybe not 4.22 speed all the time, but certainly like he has a consistent 4.3 in the bag.
He also can feature that speed all over the field. He’s not just a straight-line deep threat.
“I didn’t just want to be just a speed guy,” Ross said. “I wanted to use my speed to help me get better in different ways. So that is what I did. Focus less [on being] a speed guy, and run just intermediate routes and just play better than what people thought I would.”
The spot where Ross (5' 11", 188 pounds) is better than his physical profile may suggest is in the red zone. Among his 17 touchdowns were a healthy dose of home-run plays, but Ross also is an effective weapon closer to the goal line. That’s a nod to his quickness as a route runner, as well as his ability to find and adjust to the football. Washington did not have to replace him with a larger receiver inside the 20.
Granted, it’s still the speed—and the big-play possibilities that come with it—which makes Ross such a coveted prospect. The Huskies fed him the ball in space, and he made defenders miss after the catch. He also can plant and go, meaning he can turn simple underneath crossing routes into explosive gains.
Ross shows signs of developing into a polished route runner, too. He already has enough nuance in his repertoire to move defenders off his path with a quick false step here or there—a jab inside for an outside-shoulder throw, for example. In time, he could become an even more complete playmaker than he is now.
His return abilities will get him on the field early, on top of his role on offense.
Weaknesses: While the knee injuries have yet to rob Ross of his speed, they are worrisome—the initial torn meniscus and microfracture surgery on the right side, the torn ACL on the left. Add in the post-combine shoulder surgery, and there is a lot of health baggage coming with an undersized receiver.
Because Washington helped create so much space for Ross, he will have to prove he can work through press coverage when he sees it. (Ross did say at the combine that he practiced often against CB Sidney Jones, a tall, physical defender.) How physical Ross can play may be more of an issue on catches in tight quarters than on his releases off the line. He’s probably not going to be lined up as an “X” receiver vs. a press-man cornerback all that often, if at all.
Oh, and the hand size: Ross’s measured at 8 3/4 inches, tying UConn’s Noel Thomas for the smallest among receivers at the combine.
NFL player comparison: T.Y. Hilton
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 16: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
There are concerns over experience (or lack thereof) with other top QBs in this year’s draft. No so with Watson, who declared for the 2017 NFL draft after making 35 starts for Clemson, 30 of which came the past two seasons—the Tigers made back-to-back ACC championship game and college football playoff appearances, losing to Alabama in the 2015 title game but knocking off the Tide in ’16. In those two games vs. Alabama, Watson threw for a combined 825 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. Watson finished third in Heisman balloting as a sophomore, before nabbing runner-up honors last season, behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. He did twice win the Davey O’Brien Award, presented to the nation’s top quarterback. For his Clemson career, Watson completed 67.4% of his passes for 10,168 yards, 90 touchdowns and 32 INTs, plus rushed for nearly 2,000 yards.
Strengths: Putting too much stock in stats or wins and losses is a dangerous way to go about drafting, especially at quarterback. Ignoring the way Watson performed on college football’s biggest stages, and how he responded with his back against the wall, would be creating just as cavernous a gap in the evaluation.
Watson had a knack for elevating his game to match the situation, as his performances against Alabama helped emphasize.
“It’s all part of the equation, and I love winners and he has that,” said new 49ers GM John Lynch, who just happens to own the No. 2 overall pick. “I spent some time around him at the Super Bowl, and there’s certain guys that just carry themselves differently and have a presence about them. I put him in that category. ... You can just see there’s a confidence, an aura that he carries himself with that’s pretty special.”
So, what is it about Watson’s game that allowed him to produce those special moments?
For starters, he is an exceptional athlete. His 4.66-second 40 time at the combine landed him behind only Trevor Knight (4.54) and Joshua Dobbs (4.64) at the QB position; Watson scored top five in several other drills. The 1,934 career yards rushing and 26 TDs came off a combination of designed QB runs and scrambles. When games tend to get a little hectic in the fourth quarter, Watson can stress defenses further with the threat of taking off and running.
Watson can roll into an incredible rhythm as a passer, too—a trait aided by Clemson’s QB-friendly scheme. He can drive the type of quick-hit timing routes familiar to a West Coast offense, but he also shows enough presence to manipulate DBs with his eyes and footwork.
He’s not afraid to throw receivers open, either. While Mike Williams available on the outside obviously helped him in that regard, Watson took advantage of timing routes to beat coverage.
Asking him to throw on the move should not be a problem. Watson has the athleticism to roll and fire, and his knack for picking up chunks of yardage with his legs naturally draws defenders up closer to the line.
Weaknesses: The interception numbers were far too high, particularly the 17 he fired as a junior in 2016. Combined over the 2015-16 seasons, Watson threw INTs on approximately 2.8% of his passes—Eli Manning (2.7%) and Ryan Tannehill (3.1%) ranked 24th and 25th, respectively, among starting QBs last season when it came to interception rate. So, 2.8 is much too high, especially when considering the jump from facing college to pro defenses.
Not all of those miscues were on Watson—there were some tough bounces, a handful of WR mistakes and the unavoidable brilliant defensive play. Still, his decision-making can be troublesome at times, and he’ll have to grow even more comfortable at reading defenses.
“Sometimes, you just have bad luck,” Watson said. “Sometimes, the defense makes a good play. Sometimes, I make a bad throw. One, two or three, maybe it was a bad decision but it’s a learning lesson. I’ve learned from those mistakes and I’ve corrected those and [I’m] going to move on from it.”
The completion percentage was solid and Watson can power the ball into tight windows, but he’s not consistently accurate. Receivers had to adjust to his throws too often, at the expense of after-catch yardage.
While he doesn’t mind taking a hit, his NFL team no doubt will prefer he stick in the pocket a little longer than he did at Clemson. There’s not much future to be had at the NFL level, health-wise, for quarterbacks that bail and run too often.
NFL player comp: Somewhere between Marcus Mariota and Tyrod Taylor
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 17: Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
What you need to know: Reddick was a running back and DB in high school, who then walked on at Temple before eventually being moved to defensive end. Suffice it to say, he has come a long way since then. Reddick redshirted in 2012 and only saw limited action in 2013. By 2015, though, he was locked in as a starter at DE, and he produced 13.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks that season. Last year, en route to a first-team All-AAC nod and Senior Bowl invite, Reddick elevated his numbers to 22.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He also picked off a pass, in the Owls’ AAC title-game victory over Navy. Reddick wrapped his Temple career with 147 tackles (47.0 for loss) and 17.5 sacks.
Strengths: Arguably no player has helped himself as much in the post-college season, pre-draft window as Reddick. He wowed folks at the Senior Bowl, as he made an on-the-fly transition from his college position of defensive end to his likely NFL spot as a linebacker, and then he blew up the combine (4.52-second 40, 36.5" vertical, 133" broad jump).
Reddick (6' 1", 237) looked comfortable in all situations during Senior Bowl week. He was a showstopper in one-on-ones, and he had no glaring issues during coverage drills—his background as a defensive back no doubt helping him a bit there. His size makes it almost impossible to see him as a full-time edge player in the NFL, but he is explosive enough there—and was productive enough in that role at Temple—to bring some occasional heat outside, too.
It’s not so much a question of what Reddick can do as a pro, but if there will be anything that he can’t do.
“The versatility shows how athletic I am,” Reddick said. “It shows I can do multiple things. ...
“It doesn’t matter who they put in front of me, or what they ask me to do. I’m just going to try to do it as best as I can. That’s the approach I took at Senior Bowl.”
Reddick’s effort level is high, but it’s really his footwork that allows him to excel. He was able to turn the corner on offensive tackles, while also having the ability to change directions and pursue a play when necessary. That same quickness should translate to his linebacker duties. It definitely did during those Senior Bowl trial runs, as Reddick fired downhill toward the ball with the same gusto that he locked on backs in man coverage.
He’s going to be a fun chip for an NFL defensive coordinator, even if it takes a little while to figure out exactly how to use him.
Weaknesses: A little bit of the Jabrill Peppers discussion resurfaces here, because a team will be drafting Reddick at a position he didn’t play in college. Peppers at least did put in some time at safety; Reddick was a multi-year starter at defensive end, who now will have to learn the intricacies of playing an off-ball linebacker role.
Reddick will have to adjust to the physical demands of his new position, as much as anything. He does play with some strength (24 bench-press reps at the combine), but he had a difficult time fending off blockers when he did not win with his initial quickness. Can he stay clean on the second level? Also, can he wrap up on a consistent basis? Missing a tackle from an ILB spot in a 3–4 is more problematic than failing to wrap up as a DE. NFL.com had him with 16 missed tackles over the 2015–16 seasons combined.
This is going to be a fascinating study. Reddick has all the athletic ability an NFL team could want in a linebacker, but how long will it take him to settle in to his new role?
NFL player comp: Deion Jones
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 18: Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
What you need to know: Williams may have arrived in the NFL a year ago were it not for the freak injury he suffered in Clemson’s 2015 season opener. While making a touchdown catch against Wofford, Williams was shoved into the goalpost and fractured his neck, which knocked him out for the remainder of the year. He returned in 2016 to catch 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns as Clemson won the national title, all good enough to land him a first-team All-ACC spot. Williams also topped the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore, and he wrapped his college career with 2,727 yards receiving. He had nine 100-yard games as a Tiger, topped by his 202-yard performance against Pittsburgh in November. Two weeks later, Williams set a single-game best with three touchdown catches against South Carolina.
Strengths: Williams ran a 40-yard dash in the 4.5-second range at Clemson’s Pro Day (reported times ranged from 4.49 to 4.58). He is 6' 4" and 218 pounds. Put that size and speed together, and it’s no surprise that Williams can be a quarterback’s best friend downfield. Deshaun Watson let fly on the deep ball time and again with Williams, who averaged 15.4 yards per catch during his Clemson career.
“I’m a big, physical receiver,” Williams said. “I can go get the deep ball, I’m going to block on the edge. I just do it all in one.”
The slant route is the other NFL-ready weapon in Williams’s game. He uses the threat of those over-the-top looks to set up defenders, then snaps his routes inside. His size makes it difficult for any DB to then get back through him to defend the ball, and Williams shows good burst to slice through the defense after the catch on those slants.
Williams’s excellent body control saved Watson quite a few incompletions during their time together at Clemson. Williams can contort back toward the ball while running at full speed, plus he seems to have that important, innate sense for where the boundary is. In other words, he can make a tough catch and get his feet down.
He improved as his Clemson career progressed at winning on contested catches, as well. His size provides him a natural advantage there, but he also displayed more aggression in high-pointing the football above defensive backs’ heads. Count on seeing that talent in the red zone next year.
Weaknesses: One reason he has had to be so good tiptoeing the sideline is that he will, at times, allow defenders to block him off in that direction. How effective he can get off the line against NFL press coverage could be a slight concern, because Williams does not always play to his size advantage.
He’s also not as polished a route runner as others in this receiving class, like Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. The slant is the best display of Williams’s footwork, and he obviously has those deep-release routes in his repertoire, but will he be able to come open in other ways at the next level? If not, he’ll be limited to a big-play option, as opposed to a high-volume receiver.
While his neck injury did not hold him back at all last season, it is a factor for NFL teams to consider when picking through his medical reports.
NFL player comparison: Alshon Jeffery
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 19: Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
What you need to know: McDowell was named first-team All-Big Ten last season, despite missing the final three games of the year with an ankle injury. Before departing the Michigan State lineup, McDowell recorded 34 tackles (7.0 for loss) and 1.5 sacks. He arguably had a stronger case for All-Big Ten in 2015, when he was a second-teamer with 41 tackles (13.0 for loss), 4.5 sacks and a pick-six vs. Penn State, in a victory that sent the Spartans to the Big Ten title game. McDowell played in every game of his true freshman season (2014). For his career, he totaled 24.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Strengths: During one scene in the movie “Miracle,” assistant coach Craig Patrick questions Herb Brooks’s choice of Jim Craig as starting goalie.
“You know, people I speak to say that Craig’s game has been off since his mom died,” Patrick says.
Brooks replies, “They ever see him when his game is on?”
Which brings us to McDowell, who when playing at his peak has looked like a top-five talent relative to this draft class. Of course, one really has to dial back to 2015 to get the complete McDowell experience because of a hit-or-miss ’16, but his size (6' 6", 295 lbs.) and athleticism up front make him an option for just about any team drafting in Round 1.
McDowell really fits the physical mold of a 3–4 NFL end—J.J. Watt, atop the pedestal at that position, is 6' 5", 295. He was mainly a 4–3 tackle for the Spartans, splitting time between a three-tech and nose tackle (0-/1-tech) roles. That McDowell has that obvious scheme versatility is among his best qualities.
“I’ve been playing all over the line my whole life,” McDowell said. “It was just something I picked up on growing up. ... [NFL teams] find it very appealing. They ain’t been telling me much, but I guess they like it.”
McDowell moves with impressive lateral quickness—on run plays, he can probe a gap at the line, bounce off and redirect into another space to find a ball carrier. He’s also able to chase down plays that angle away from his off the far tackle.
The quickness makes him tough to catch on stunts and allows him to bend an edge looping wide, too. McDowell puts his nearly 35" arms to use in shedding blockers, as he will extend those arms and then rip free.
Weaknesses: The motor is the big one. Missing games due to injury isn’t all that costly, but even before he exited the lineup in 2016, McDowell appeared less invested on a week-to-week basis on the field as Michigan State struggled. He was almost unblockable during his college career when he played with that mental edge, but it was hard to predict when that kick would come and go.
His unusual pass-rushing technique might drive his NFL coaching staff crazy for a bit. McDowell even talked at the combine about how coaches have tried to clean up that technique in the past, only to throw in the towel. “They tried to help me out but I really couldn’t get it right,” he said. ”I tried to tweak the technique a little bit ... and after a certain point they just started teaching me my own style of play.”
McDowell plays narrow and high, and the former allows him to cause damage splitting gaps, but it also leaves him susceptible to blockers engulfing him. The latter leaves him vulnerable to O-linemen getting into his pads, and he as of yet has been unable to take advantage of his stature to plug passing lanes—he rarely attempts to get his hands up for the swat.
The positives are impossible to ignore, but the team drafting McDowell will have to figure out how to bury the negatives on a more consistent basis.
Player comp: Calais Campbell
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 20: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
What you need to know: A first-team All-America selection in 2016, Cunningham led the SEC last season with a whopping 125 tackles—just shy of 10 per game. He topped double digits in seven of Vanderbilt’s 13 games, including a remarkable 19-tackle effort at Georgia that culminated with Cunningham sealing a win by stuffing a fourth-and-one run. For his three-year career, Cunningham recorded 256 tackles (36.0 for loss), plus 6.0 sacks, six forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Cunningham redshirted during his first year at Vanderbilt, but he claimed a starting job partway through the ’14 campaign. He was a first-team All-SEC honoree each of the past two seasons.
Strengths: Even when a defense is funneling tackles your way, ringing up 125 of them in a season is a lot more than a right-place, right-time phenomenon.
Cunningham (6' 3", 244 pounds) reads plays with the diagnostic efficiency needed to be a potent NFL linebacker. There are times when his patient approach is even reminiscent of a running back—think of how Le’Veon Bell dances in the backfield before accelerating through a gap. Cunningham will take him time, when it’s available, to find the right attack zone and then explode through it to make a play in the backfield.
He is effective working sideline to sideline, too, because he can dance around any muck in the middle of the field. (It’s a different story when a linemen catches him on the second level, which we’ll cover below.) Cunningham almost always seems to find himself around the football on plays that stretch wide.
As he showed during drills at the combine, Cunningham also brings the athleticism to play in coverage. His football intelligence serves him well when dropping into a zone, but he also can body up tight ends going across the middle or slip out to work against running backs. The team that drafts him should have minimal concerns about using him as a three-down defender.
Further helping his case: He can blitz a little, too. While Cunningham did not record a sack in 2016, he had 4.5 in ’15, and the Commodores occasionally lined him up as an A-gap blitzer. He could be a threat from that spot in the NFL.
Weaknesses: So, back to the second-level blocks. For as many tackles as Cunningham made, and for as often as he found his way to the ballcarrier, he doesn’t have much in the repertoire to come unglued once a guard or even a tight end latches on to him. He needs to play a free-flowing spot, without a lot of heads-up showdowns against bigger players.
“That’s definitely been a knock that I’ve heard about me, being able to have that strength, playing at the linebacker position,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been around 225-230 [pounds]. So most of the questions I’ve gotten [are]: would I be able to put on say 10 more pounds and play at that weight? Would I be O.K. with that. And that’s something I would definitely be open to. I think with my frame, that’s something I would be able to do.”
Running in contrast to his high tackle production, it was a fairly regular occurrence to see Cunningham flying through the air while coming off a tackle attempt. He doesn’t always keep his feet behind him and instead opts for diving attempts at times—that’s an easy way to have running backs break through arm tackles.
NFL player comparison: Kiko Alonso, circa 2013
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 21: Tim Williams, DE, Alabama
Williams lived behind the opposition’s line at Alabama. In 2015, he recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks; in 2016, he had 16.0 and 9.0 in those categories, respectively. The latter performance helped propel him to second-team All-SEC and All-America honors. Williams’s 20 career sacks rank him top 20 in the SEC since 2005, tied with Justin Houston (Georgia), Derrick Harvey (Florida) and Dee Ford (Auburn). Williams recorded at least a half-sack in 19 of the 23 games he played over the past two seasons, and he had a pair of 2.0-sack games: the 2015 SEC championship vs. Florida and an October win over Texas A&M last season.
Strengths: Williams is a flash at the snap—he’s into his second and third steps, attempting to turn the corner on an offensive tackle, seemingly before anyone has the time to blink. That’s what one expects from a prospective premier edge rusher.
Part of what makes Williams (6' 3", 244 lbs.) special is that he actually may be better peeling back inside than bending the edge. His speed helps him set up offensive tackles to their outside shoulders so that Williams can shoot his hands and push back inside when there’s an opening. He has enough speed-to-power conversion to then bounce off guards and bowl through running backs.
“I have a lot of moves as a pass rusher,” Williams said. “I’m not a bull rush guy. I’m not a finesse guy. Some tackles don’t know what I’m going to do when I get up there.”
Alabama gave Williams the chance to rush from both two-point and three-point stances, out of three- and four-man fronts. Because of his burst (as well as his rather lanky frame), he is most effective the further he moved outside the tackles. And he looks as natural as a defender can coming from that two-point stance.
Again, though, there is the element of Williams taking his game inside. When he stunts, he can get into the pocket before interior linemen have a chance to react. Even when they’re there, they have to contend with how well he uses his hands to stay loose.
The motor constantly runs. Williams makes a ton of plays in the backfield, but he also chases down QBs from the backside, well after the initial surge has ended.
There is at least a decent base from which to ask Williams to play a little in coverage. While he didn’t test all that well at the combine, he doesn’t appear out of place when he has to drop.
Weaknesses: First, the red flag. When asked at the combine if he had failed any drug tests in the past, Williams responded, “Oh, yeah. I have failed some. I’m a young player. I made decisions that I grew from. It’s all about being a man, owning up to your situations, owning up to your mistakes. ... I know I’ve got something to prove. I’m obviously behind the 8-ball so I’m here to prove not only to myself but to every organization that if they take me, they’re going to get the best player here.”
Give him plus marks for honesty, but that off-field issue threatens to drive Williams down come draft weekend.
The on-field question is if he can be more than a sub-package pass rusher. Alabama barely used him against the run in 2015, and while he can drive blockers back when he has a little momentum, he’s not necessarily built to help set an edge.
As mentioned above, the combine also wasn’t a great exhibition for him. His 4.68-second 40 time was plenty respectable for an edge rusher, but he was way down the list among his peers in the three-cone (7.36) and short shuttle (4.57). Those drills help measure agility and quickness, so they could be held against Williams down the road.
Player comp: Bruce Irvin
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 22: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
What you need to know: The Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and a Heisman finalist (albeit a bit of a surprise one), Peppers did a little bit of everything for the Wolverines last season. The list included 27 rushing attempts for 167 yards and two TDs, plus 21 punt returns (310 yards and a TD, with a second one called back by penalty) and 10 kickoff returns (260 yards)—that’s all on top of the 66 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks he recorded as a linebacker. He played safety during the 2015 season, knocking away 10 passes to go with 45 tackles. The start of Peppers’s career was stunted by injury—he took a medical redshirt in 2014 after playing just three games—and it ended with him missing the Orange Bowl due to a hamstring pull.
Strengths: Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown used to talk about the flexibility that Peppers brought to the field and to Brown’s defense. Because of how many different alignments Peppers could handle, Brown did not need to lean as heavily on sub packages. Peppers could be anything: linebacker in base, slot corner against an extra receiver, safety, pass rusher ... whatever a play required.
Peppers (5' 11", 213 pounds) could handle those varying responsibilities thanks mainly to his exceptional athleticism. At the combine, he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, with a 35.5-inch vertical and a 128-inch broad jump.
The NFL has seen an influx of players with similar pros and cons in recent years—athletic freaks without a clear positional fit.
“I definitely think the trend will continue,” Peppers said. “I definitely think there are a lot more guys, it’s just about their coaching staff kind of letting them do things. But one thing I will recommend, just make sure they stay on their technique. Don’t rely on your athleticism a lot. I think that was one of my biggest flaws. But I’m cleaning that up and it’s all coming together for me.”
Peppers has the speed to get sideline to sideline or turn and run, but he is most explosive as a defender when he can click and close downhill. He can read plays well behind the line, then explode through a gap to finish tackles. It’s that skill that also makes him a dangerous threat as a blitzer—when he has a clean path to his target, there may not be a defender in this draft who covers ground faster.
The mix-and-match background means that Peppers can be matched up with receivers, tight ends or backs. He is not a standout coverage defender, but the experience is there.
He’ll be a fun piece for offensive and special-teams coaches to have, too. Peppers was a dazzling punt returner for the Wolverines, and he also saw carries while running the wildcat.
Weaknesses: Can he defend the pass well enough to be an NFL safety? Is he physical enough to survive as a linebacker, or even as a full-time strong safety, pulled down toward the line of scrimmage?
Those are the main questions that must be asked of Peppers, because his 2016 Michigan experience really did him few favors when it comes to projecting his NFL future. Peppers himself has said he’s a safety rather than, say, a Deone Bucannon-type linebacker convert. The ex-Wolverine does not have the size or strength to thrive as an off-ball LB.
Of course, the problem with assuming he is a safety is that he didn’t play there last season. He also did not produce many game-changing moments when he was there in 2015. The criticism of his low career interception total (one) is a bit misleading because of his ’16 role—linebackers aren’t getting many shots at INTs—but he didn’t turn around any errant passes from the secondary the year prior.
There is no perfect NFL player comparison for Peppers’s pros and cons. He is not as adept in coverage as a player like Tyrann Mathieu but also not enough of a physical presence to be matched up to a linebacker. The name we’ll settle on hints at the role Peppers can play at the next level. Malcolm Jenkins was more of a true cornerback upon his arrival in the NFL, but he has transitioned to a safety/slot coverage role and excelled.
NFL player comparison: Malcolm Jenkins
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 23: Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Robinson enrolled at Alabama in January 2014, earned the starting left tackle job by the time the Crimson Tide kicked off the following season and never relinquished it—a span of 43 games, including three SEC championships and five playoff appearances. Robinson was a first-team All-SEC member each of the past two years, and he nabbed a first-team All-America spot as a junior.
In addition, Robinson was the 2016 Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top interior lineman (Ohio State’s Pat Elflein and Washington State’s Cody O’Connell were the other finalists.) Alabama credited him with a combined 83 “knockdown” blocks in 2015–16.
Strengths: Well, strength, for one. Robinson has those coveted “mauler” tendencies in the run game—he can fire off the line of scrimmage, work his hands under an opponent’s shoulder pads and drive that defender into the next zip code. He is not as fluid an athlete as, say, Garett Bolles or Ryan Ramczyk, but he has displayed ample athleticism to pull or rumble through a combo block on the second level.
Robinson has the size (6' 6", 322 lbs.) and length (35 1/2" arms) to project as a franchise left tackle. He covers a ton of ground with his initial kick step, then uses his frame to engulf edge rushers. On a lot of plays Alabama would have its tackle execute hinge blocks, where they’d turn 90 degrees from the line (their backs facing the QB), and Robinson was a brick wall in that set.
He is difficult to power through, in any circumstance. When he’s not moving forward with the initial punch, he can sit and absorb contact from oncoming rushers.
His consistency has to improve, but Robinson tended to deliver the most energy when facing elite competition, like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett.
“If you’re going against a guy you know who’s a great player,” Robinson said, “as a natural competitor it brings out the best in anybody.”
Weaknesses: For as physical as Robinson can be at the point of attack, he doesn’t end many plays by burying his block. He’s more apt to move a defender from a lane than to plant him into the turf. Flashing a little extra nastiness would serve him well at the next level.
Robinson also finds himself on the ground too often, which is an issue of balance. He is quick enough, and possesses the requisite awareness, to seek out blocks beyond his initial contact, but he leans into those collisions—if he doesn’t strike a defender clean, he will go tumbling. Because his blocks are of the extended variety, as opposed to pancakes, defenders eventually can find a way to toss him off to get back into the play.
He needs to refine his pass-blocking technique, as well. His deep drop can leave him susceptible to inside moves, and his footwork becomes a little clunky when an edge rusher gains an early beat by timing the snap well.
A potential red flag: Robinson was arrested during the summer of 2016 on a marijuana charge and illegal possession of stolen firearms. The case was dropped shortly thereafter.
Player comp: Cordy Glenn
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 24: Budda Baker, S, Washington
What you need to know: Baker’s given name is Bishard, but he has gone by “Budda” since childhood. He joined LSU’s Jamal Adams on the AP All-America second team for 2016, although Sports Illustrated handed Baker a first-team nod. Baker also was first-team All-Pac-12, giving him back-to-back appearances on that roster. A starter from his true freshman season on, Baker has been in the lineup for 40 of a possible 41 games since 2014—he sat out a ’15 contest against Cal with an ankle injury. Baker led the Huskies with 71 tackles last season, including 9.5 for loss. His career totals: 199 tackles (13.0 for loss), 4.0 sacks, five interceptions and 18 pass breakups. He was a track superstar in high school, winning the Washington state title in the 100 and 200 meters.
Strengths: On the first defensive snap of Washington’s playoff game against Alabama, Baker lined up in coverage over the slot, closed at the snap to take away a potential swing pass out of the backfield, then turned and dropped 20 yards to break up (and nearly intercept) a pass intended for O.J. Howard.
That, in a nutshell, is what Baker can offer. He is a rangy, instinctive defender who can operate pulled up close to the line but also has the speed to cover a ton of ground. His size (5' 9", 195 pounds) falls in the “weaknesses” category, but it didn’t stop Baker from being a dynamic playmaker at Washington.
“God made me this height and all I can say is watch the film,” Baker said. “We always talk about how the film will set you free, so no matter how tall you are, how big you are, if you watch the film everything will take care of itself.”
The near-INT of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts happened, in large part, because Baker reads plays—all plays, not just passes—like an NFL-ready safety. He noticed Hurts’s eyes on that snap and pulled off his initial assignment to fall back on Howard. The same smarts are on display when Baker plays the run, too. While he may overpursue on occasion, he rarely steps into the wrong gap while seeking out a tackle. Baker holds his responsibilities and finds the football.
His athleticism (4.45 40-yard dash, 6.76-second three-cone) also allowed the Huskies to employ him as a blitzer. Up the middle, his only real chance is to perfectly time those rushes, but he has the speed off the edge to cause significant headaches.
Baker’s tackling attempts are well-timed and efficient. He knows he can’t win by going high, so he does well on most occasions to get low and take out a ballcarrier’s feet.
Weaknesses: Even though Baker plays bigger than he stands, there is no avoiding the size conversation. If he is going to drop down to play in man coverage, it likely will have to be against smaller slot receivers—tight ends and more physical slot threats will make life difficult for him. Baker has the speed to work around blocks, but the same lack of bulk comes through when he cannot create those free lanes to the ball.
His tackling doesn’t qualify as a huge issue because of how many plays he does finish, but backs that see him coming downhill can reroute and catch him leaning.
NFL player comparison: Tyrann Mathieu
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 25: Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
What you need to know: Brantley landed on the All-SEC second team this past season, thanks to his 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 31 tackles. He played some of the best football of his Gators career down the stretch in 2016—three tackles for loss and a forced fumble at LSU on Nov. 19, two tackles for loss at Florida State the following week, and a sack during Florida’s dominant Outback Bowl win over Iowa.
After redshirting in 2013, Brantley kicked off his playing days with a bang, notching his lone career fumble recovery in the ’14 opener vs. Eastern Michigan. All told, across his three Florida seasons Brantley chalked up 20.5 tackles for loss.
Strengths: Save perhaps for a well-timed blitz or a fumbled snap, the quickest way for a defense to disrupt a play is for its tackle to blow by the interior O-line and get into the pocket. This is where Brantley (6' 2", 307 lbs.) excels. When he gets the jump early, it’s over—quick reaction, swim move between two defenders, finish. There were times during Brantley’s career, including on a first-and-goal against Tennessee this season, where he was making a tackle almost before the quarterback had time to hand off to his running back.
Making it even tougher for Brantley’s opponents is his ability to move up and down the line. He arguably was most effective—and could be headed toward an NFL future—as a three-tech, but he also played over the ball as a 0-/1-tech and kicked out to a 4-/5-tech alignment when Florida wanted a little extra beef up front.
His limited sack total (5.5 for his career) implies that Brantley is more of a two-down, run-stuffer. Nope. While he may not drop the quarterback all that often, his ability to split the gaps and penetrate make him quite useful on passing downs. He was a consistent presence in the pocket, even if he only had 2.5 sacks last season.
Brantley can pursue laterally, too, which benefits him on run plays. When he was pushed out to the 3- or 5-tech spots, he had the burst to attack the inside shoulder of the lineman blocking him, thus helping to box in RBs.
Weaknesses: For starters, crossing the line between a good player and a great one will start with finishing more of those plays in the backfield. Brantley was able to get after the QB, both by penetrating inside or looping wide, but he didn’t close out enough.
He’ll need to find a little more counter-punching, as well—if he didn’t get the first step on a blocker, he often wound up neutralized; double teams washed him out of plays, particularly on those when he was trying to angle inside toward the ball.
Two more issues to keep an eye on: penalties and endurance. In trying to time the snap, Brantley often found himself in the neutral zone early. And, per Pro Football Focus, his career high in snaps was 434, back in 2015. Can he thrive while playing more than 30–40 snaps per game?
Player comp: Nick Fairley
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 26: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
What you need to know: How wild were Texas Tech’s games last season? On four separate occasions Mahomes threw for 500 or more yards ... and the Red Raiders were 1–3 in those games. That included an insane 66–59 loss to Oklahoma, in which Mahomes set the single-game FBS yardage record, with 819 (734 yards and five TDs on 52-of-88 passing; 85 yards rushing and two more TDs).
Mahomes finished the 2016 season with 5,052 passing yards, an average of 421 yards per game. He also threw 41 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while rushing for another 12 scores. Mahomes accounted for 115 total touchdowns during his three-year Texas Tech career—99 of those trips to the end zone occurred in 2015 and ’16. He won the Sammy Baugh Trophy last season as the nation’s top passing QB.
Strengths: The Mahomes experience is a bit like watching someone slice a banana with a playing card—you’re not entirely sure how it happened, but it looks cool as hell. The Texas Tech product was a human highlight reel at the college level, consistently churning out big plays both with his arm and his legs.
Despite his mobility (and 22 career rushing touchdowns), Mahomes works to keep his eyes downfield in search of a throwing lane. While he obviously can scramble, he seemingly prefers to do so only as a last resort or if a clear gap opens.
It helps that he can drive the ball to all areas of the field, mechanics be damned. Mahomes has the arm to flick a sidearm toss on the run 50-plus yards, just as naturally as he can stand in the pocket and zip a bullet to the far sideline. There is a downside to his so-called “gunslinger” mentality, but there also are not a lot of quarterbacks that can make the throws he can.
The things he can do while on the move open the playbook up quite a bit. Mahomes can pressure defenses with his dual-threat potential outside the pocket, and his desire to find the home-run play downfield makes it so cornerbacks and safeties cannot really commit to him taking off, for fear that he’ll throw over the top.
Mahomes displayed a better understanding for defenses than he may be given credit for within Texas Tech’s spread system. Even during his combine throwing session, he made it a point to look off the imaginary safety, before turning to find his target.
“I just show them my knowledge for the game, that’s the only way I can prove it wrong,” said Mahomes of the “system QB” label. “You look back at the system quarterback [history], a lot of guys didn’t work out. So for me, it’s just going to be about proving those guys wrong, going out there and really showing my knowledge of the game and just competing. It’ll all show up when you get to the field.”
Weaknesses: All that said, Mahomes does indeed face the steep learning curve that comes with a transition from Texas Tech’s system to the NFL. He will have to adjust to working under center, at least on occasion, while digesting reads and coverages.
There should be a limit to how much his next team wants to clean up his mechanics—pushing Mahomes to be too bland would take away his improvisational skills. However, Mahomes’s mechanics can be scattershot, which is why he will thread a needle one play and then fire an easy pass into the third row the next.
On top of that, Mahomes offers the decision-making that comes with the gunslinger label. In other words, he will turn nothing plays into huge gains, but he’ll also try to strong-arm passes into nonexistent windows. His 2016 interception total of 10 could have easily been higher.
NFL player comparison: Matthew Stafford
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 27: Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
What you need to know: Engram finished out his Ole Miss career by nabbing a First-Team All-America spot, thanks to his impressive 65 catches, 926 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016—he found the end zone against the likes of Florida State, Alabama, Georgia and Auburn. His career totals of 162 receptions and 2,320 receiving yards blew away the Rebels’ previous program records at the tight end position. His career-best performance, yardage-wise, came back in 2014, when he hung 178 yards on Mississippi State. He needed just five receptions to do so, too—a 35.2 yards-per-catch clip. For his career, Engram averaged 14.3 yards per reception.
Strengths: Much the way DE/OLB or S/CB hybrids have helped blur the lines of traditional football positions on defense, players like Engram are making it happen on offense. He may be more slot receiver than tight end, even though the latter is—for the time being—his official position.
No tight end topped Engram’s 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. And just four wide receivers bested that numbers: John Ross, Curtis Samuel (who walks the line between WR and RB), Josh Malone and KD Cannon, all of whom come with the reputation for being explosive, game-breaking players.
Engram’s speed and explosiveness are hard to defend, regardless of where he lines up or whether a linebacker, safety or even cornerback draws the assignment.
“This [tight-end] class is so deep. All these guys bring a lot to the table,” Engram said. “But for myself, just being able to do anything—be split out, flexed out, get down field in the vertical game, and then have the tenacity to get in and get physical as well. I definitely see myself as a total package, and definitely a threat down field in the vertical passing game.”
As he said, he can be played in just about any spot. Ole Miss most often bumped him out into the slot, but he did see reps inline, wide and even motioning out of the backfield. For a lesser player, that movement might go down as a bit of a gimmick. Engram, though, shows enough development as a route runner to be dangerous from wherever he’s stationed. He will test defenses downfield, but he also has the wherewithal to find soft spots underneath and provide a target for his QB.
Engram wastes little time in his breaks, especially when he turns toward the boundary. He whips his hips and his head around so he is available as early as possible. After the catch, he then can take off.
Weaknesses: Most of the reasons Engram profiles more as a receiver are positives. The glaring negative is that he doesn’t block like a tight end, at least not to the point where an NFL team would want to lean on him in the run game. He has the athleticism and willingness to at least be a serviceable blocker, but he probably has to be used more as an H-back than a tight end.
There are the typical issues under this heading, for a soon-to-be rookie: Engram has to continue to refine his routes and will need to be more aggressive against physical DBs. Almost all of the challenge projecting him to the next level, though, comes in figuring out exactly where his NFL team will play him.
NFL player comparison: Jordan Reed
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 28: Forrest Lamp, OL, Western Kentucky
What you need to know: After a redshirt season in 2012, Lamp played—and started—in all but two games for Western Kentucky over the next four years. His streak of 42 consecutive starts came to an end this past season, when he missed back-to-back games against Vanderbilt and Houston Baptist, but he would return to the lineup for the final nine games of the year. He briefly played guard as a redshirt freshman, before locking down the left tackle spot. Lamp was named First-Team All-Conference USA in both 2015 and ’16, but his Senior Bowl came to an end early after he suffered a high-ankle sprain on the first day of practice.
Strengths: The combine is not a be-all, end-all tool in evaluation, but it does help paint a picture of a prospect, especially in terms of measuring athleticism. Lamp’s numbers: 5.00-second 40-yard dash (fourth among all offensive linemen), 34 bench reps (second), 111-inch broad jump (tied for third), 7.55-second three-cone drill (fifth).
Simply, Lamp is one of the best athletes in this lineman class.
His talents were put on display at Western Kentucky, where he was often asked to block on the move. Lamp is quick enough to fire out as a lead blocker on screens, and he fires off the line with the urgency needed to lay down second-level cover. He’s an effective cut blocker, too, which is another tool he can put to work dropping linebackers on run plays. The rules on ineligible linemen downfield are much more lax in college football than in the NFL, and the Hilltoppers took full advantage of that leeway to funnel Lamp into space.
Lamp proved very difficult to beat around the edge, even by the best of the pass rushers he saw this season, like Alabama’s gaggle of defenders. He drops and shuffles with the same speed he displays moving laterally, so it takes serious effort to fly wide around him. The mental acumen also appears to be there—Lamp will peel off an initial block to help pick up a blitzer or a stunting lineman, if need be.
He scored on a trick play during Western Kentucky’s bowl win over Memphis, but without prior knowledge that he was a lineman running with the ball, it would have been easy to mistake him for a tight end.
Weaknesses: Lamp’s arm length has been a focal point during the evaluation period. He checked in at the combine at 32 1/4 inches, up from what seemed to be flawed Senior Bowl measurements but still below the ideal number for an NFL tackle. Cam Robinson, for example, has 35 1/2" arms; Garrett Bolles is at 34".
“I think some teams look at the number more than others,” Lamp said. “There are teams that told me I’d play tackle. There are teams that told me I’d play guard. There’s teams that told me I’d play just center because of my arms. Some teams believe more in ability than just numbers. It all depends on the team.”
The theoretical versatility helps boost Lamp’s stock, but he spent the past three and a half years or so at the left tackle spot. He has no experience playing center.
He does allow defenders to beat him off his inside shoulder, at times—playing more squared up at guard might help mitigate that minor issue. Lamp will need to translate more of that bench press–tested strength to his game, though, if he’s going to be working along the interior. He is an effective run blocker because of how well he moves, but he rarely overwhelms defenders and drives them to the turf.
NFL player comparison: Joe Thuney
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 29: David Njoku, TE, Miami
After redshirting for his first season in Miami, 2014, Njoku averaged 17.2 yards per reception during the 2015 campaign—highest among all ACC tight ends with at least 20 catches. He posted a 16.2 yards-per-catch clip last season, while reeling in 43 grabs and scoring eight times. Seven of those eight scores came over the back half of Miami’s season, including one in the Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia.
In high school, the Cedar Grove, N.J., native was a national champion in the high jump, taking the title at the 2014 New Balance Nationals Outdoors with a mark of 2.11 meters. He was recruited as a wide receiver, then bulked up and moved to tight end during his redshirt year.
Strengths: Ever wondered what it would look like if Cam Newton played tight end? Well ...
According to MockDraftable.com, which tracks players’ measurements and testing numbers, one of the closest skill-position comparisons to Njoku from a physical perspective is Newton, a 2011 draft pick. Njoku (6' 4", 246 lbs.) ran a 4.64-second 40 at the combine, with a 37" vertical, 133" broad jump and a 6.97-second three-cone time. The Miami product is a freak.
“I think wherever I go, I can definitely bring speed,” Njoku said. “I’m willing to block anywhere, attached or detached. Speed. And a lot of fun.”
Njoku shifted from an inline role to the slot for Miami. He also can (and did) split out wide, further complicating alignment headaches for opposing defenses. No matter where he starts out a play, he’s a threat to get downfield—he has the speed simply to run past linebackers or even safeties, along with the size to go up over the top for contested catches.
At times, though, he really does profile more like a slot receiver than a tight end. That is particularly true when he has the ball in his hands. Miami utilized him on bubble screens from the slot, and he had an eye-popping TD vs. Pittsburgh in which he slipped off a block to the flat, outran the safety’s angle and then leaped over a DB into the end zone. Even if his route-running takes time to develop, his next team should be able to pick up chunks of yardage by dialing up those quick passes.
Weaknesses: He tried hard as a blocker, which is the nice way of saying that he’s not a very good blocker. Njoku is more of an in-the-way presence than anyone Miami could trust to make real headway. Not that tight ends should be left alone with edge rushers that much anyway, but the Hurricanes usually had to make sure they had help for Njoku in those situations. He could create an initial stalemate as a run blocker, but that was about all—any counter move or extra push from the man he was blocking made things difficult for Njoku.
There is room to develop there, for sure—remember, he weighed 220 and played a different position as of 2014. But he’ll have to be paired with a blocking TE early on, if he’s going to play.
As a receiving threat he will have to a) limit his drops (eight of them last season), and b) become more nuanced in his routes. Sprinting through the second and third levels won’t work as well at the NFL level as it did for him in college. Again, there is a nice starting point in this regard, as Njoku has shown that he can plant and break off a route, but he is going to need time.
NFL player comparison: Antonio Gates
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 30: Tre'Davious White, DB, LSU
White will enter the draft with a level of playing experience rarely seen from coveted DB prospects. He started 47 games for LSU, spread over his four seasons there, including 11 as a true freshman. White finished his career with 167 tackles and six interceptions, as well as 34 pass break-ups—a career-high 14 of those came during the 2016 season. He was named first-team All-SEC last season and was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation’s top defensive back. (USC’s Adoree Jackson took home the honor.) On top of his defensive duties, White averaged 10.0 yards per punt return on 69 attempts during his college career. He scored a punt-return TD in each of his final three seasons.
Strengths: The aforementioned extensive experience no doubt plays a part here, but White already has the game of an NFL man-coverage corner. He’s aggressive and handsy to the point that he almost dares officials to flag him for pass interference—and they rarely do.
White is not just a DB that drives receivers to the boundary, either. He can flip his hips and stay with those deep routes, but he also has the speed to hang with guys cutting across the middle of the field. Because of those abilities, he could see a heavy dose of slot time as a rookie.
“A lot of teams like my versatility,” White said at the combine. I was fortunate enough to have a great coach, Corey Raymond at LSU. He let us know right off the bat we weren’t going to be a guy who plays just one position. You’ve got to know all three positions in the defensive backfield. I thank him for that.”
He’s a long-and-lean cornerback (5' 11", 192 lbs., 32 1/8" arm length), who thrives on athleticism and timing. When the ball is in the air near him, he’s going to attempt a play on it, even if that means running through a receiver. His 32" combine vertical jump was far from eye-popping, but at LSU he went up and made myriad plays in the air.
Weaknesses: As was the case with No. 31 on our top 40, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley, there are concerns if White can be physical enough as an NFL DB. White does use his hands in attempts to reroute receivers and he gets after the ball, but bigger-bodied playmakers might be able to knock him around some. He likely won’t be a huge help against the run.
There also is the matter of consistency. White opted to return to LSU for the 2016 season rather than enter the draft, which turned out to be a great call as he pushes into Round 1. But part of why that decision made sense is that White had far less of an impact in 2015 than was expected. He did miss a late-October game vs. Western Kentucky with a knee injury, so it’s possible that issue lingered.
Player comp: Casey Hayward
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 31: Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
With 13 starts under his belt, Conley entered 2016 as a veteran member of Ohio State’s young secondary. He stayed in the starting lineup the entire year, finishing with eight pass break-ups and four picks, including an interception of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, on his second snap of the Fiesta Bowl. Conley also had a pair of picks during his redshirt sophomore season in ’15. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches this past year. Conley initially committed to play at Michigan, then changed his mind and signed with Ohio State after the Buckeyes hired Urban Meyer.
Strengths: Conley ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and a blazing fast 6.68 three-cone at the combine, and that quickness shows up in his coverage. He stays right in receivers’ hip pockets down the field, with enough speed to turn and run up the sideline.
Because of how adept he is at finding the football, Conley can play in a variety of schemes or alignments. His interception of Watson came when he was lined up in the slot, against likely first-round pick Mike Williams. He caught a little bit of a break when Williams slipped making a cut on an out route, but Conley was all over that route regardless. Conley also is not afraid to bail off his initial assignment to make a play behind him—a plus for zone-heavy teams.
Conley can plant and fire downhill, which (with a little better tackling) would make him even more valuable in off coverage. And it should allow him to be a sneaky good blitzer, if his NFL team wants to turn him loose on occasion. He did not have a sack this past season, but he should have had one of Watson in the title game—he exploded untouched through a gap up front, only to bounce off Watson in the pocket.
Weaknesses: The missed sack against Watson highlighted perhaps the most pressing issue for Conley: He needs to be even more physical. He has the footwork to mirror receivers off the line, so he doesn’t necessarily have to jam them, but it’s an approach he could put to use more than he does. His lack of a physical presence, though, is more of an issue against the run and on screens his direction. To wit: Clemson’s 180-pound receiver Ray-Ray McCloud buried Conley with a block on the edge. Teams appeared to target him at times, rather than go at Marshon Lattimore.
Conley is outstanding working outside the numbers. He’s not as crisp when teams challenge him toward the middle of the field, in part because he does tend to allow those free releases.
NFL player comparison: Desmond Trufant
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 32: DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
What you need to know: Kizer’s first meaningful game action came on Sept. 12, 2015, when he replaced an injured Malik Zaire and rallied Notre Dame past Virginia. He would finish that season 8–3 as a starter, his only losses coming at Clemson, at Stanford and against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Kizer’s 2016 stat line (2,880 yards passing, 21 TDs, 10 INTs and 525 yards rushing) was quite comparable to his ’15 numbers (2,925 yards passing, 26 TDs, nine INTs, 472 yards rushing as a junior), but his fortunes (and Notre Dame’s) took a turn last season to the point that he was benched during a loss to Stanford. Kizer still finished his Notre Dame career as one of the most prolific passers in program history.
Strengths: When it all clicks for Kizer ... hoo boy. He is a prototypical NFL quarterback prospect (6' 4", 233 pounds) with quick, active feet, the athleticism to hurt defenses on the ground and the arm to zip the ball into tight windows.
As Notre Dame’s QB, he really challenged defenses in the window between the second and third levels—some of his best throws, consistently, were up the seam into that gap. He can get it deep and outside the numbers, too, with enough touch to drop those passes into a bucket.
His player comp here, to Big Ben, mainly has to do with his size and passing acumen. Like the Steelers’ QB, Kizer can look over the top of defenses and freeze safeties with a lethal pump fake before coming back to an open receiver. He keeps his feet moving, too, both inside the pocket and out of it, so that he can throw on the run.
Kizer appears to be more of a natural athlete than Roethlisberger, although Big Ben at 35 has less giddy-up today than his rookie self of 2004—Roethlisberger ran a 4.76 40-yard dash at his Pro Day; Kizer was at 4.83 at the combine. Still, Kizer is more of what is considered a dual-threat quarterback. The Irish used him as such, giving him ample read-option opportunities on top of his scramble attempts.
Weaknesses: Is this a minor renovation project or a total teardown? The Kizer of 2015 and early ’16 looked like he might be the best QB of this draft class. However, it seemed as the Irish’s season spiraled downward last fall, so too did Kizer’s confidence. He was hesitant, gun shy on passes he had completed in the past. As a result, he vacillated between being too quick to bail on the pocket and too hesitant when he stayed put.
Take out his 9-of-26 performance in a monsoon at NC State and Kizer finished with a 60.5% completion rate last season, but that number could have been much higher. He left a lot of yardage on the field with errant throws—his timing was a split-second off on several throws per game.
“It’s more with a guy my size, my arm talent, my understanding of football, why do you go 4–8?” said Kizer at the combine of the main question teams were asking him. “I’ve answered that question as truthfully as I possibly can, and ... I didn’t make plays. Again, the ball’s in your hands as a quarterback every play. If you’re going to go win games in the fourth quarter, then you’ve got to be the guy making the plays.”
The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness. If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.
NFL player comparison: Ben Roethlisberger
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 33: Takkarist McKinley, DE/OLB, UCLA
What you need to know: After a 2013 season spent at Contra Costa College (Calif.), McKinley drew interest from a long list of prestigious programs—Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC. He chose UCLA, where he developed into an All-Pac-12 performer. This past season, McKinley finished second in the conference in tackles for loss (18.0) and third in sacks (10.0). McKinley, an Oakland native, notched three multi-sack performances, highlighted by a 3.0-sack showing against Utah last October. He also forced two of his six career fumbles in that Utah game and blocked a punt in 2015 against UNLV. Whichever team drafts him will have to wait on his on-field arrival: McKinley required shoulder surgery (torn labrum, fractured glenoid) after the combine.
Strengths: So much of McKinley’s production comes off not his initial surge but his second and even third efforts. There are pros and cons to that (we’ll get into the cons shortly). The upside is high-energy defense for 60 minutes, and that effort level alone poses problems for opposing offenses. Want to run a slow-developing play McKinley’s direction? Good luck holding that block. Quarterback stuck in the pocket? McKinley eventually will get there.
“I’m young and I feel like I got a motor that’s probably the best in the class right now,” McKinley said. “I’m hungry. I’ve got a lot to improve on, technique-wise. But once I improve on my technique, with my motor and my hunger of the game, I feel I’ll be unstoppable.”
McKinley ran a 4.59-second 40 at the combine, so he does have the speed to blow by offensive tackles. When that doesn’t work, his most effective method of breaking free is a spin move back inside. The rest comes from typical hand fighting up front.
He rarely runs himself out of position, either, hence his ability to swing back and pick up late tackles or sacks. McKinley displays a solid understanding of what he’s seeing, and he repeatedly snuffed out misdirection plays. The 61 tackles he delivered in 2016 are a testament to his active work against the run.
McKinley can stand up or play with his hand in the dirt. UCLA even moved him off the ball at times to employ him as an A-gap blitzer—his burst came in handy there.
Weaknesses: As McKinley himself admitted in that above quote, he is very much a work in progress as a pass rusher. He makes a ton of effort plays, but those plays are there to be had because his initial probing tends to come up empty. Offensive tackles can get their hands into his body and hold him in neutral, at least for awhile.
His speed does allow McKinley to turn the corner, on occasion, but he doesn’t have much in the way of a rip or swim move if he meets resistance and (so far) has not been a speed-to-power force. Other edge rushers in this class are more nimble at bending the corner, too.
Aside from his 40 time, he tested rather poorly in agility drills at the combine. That plus his relative lack of experience dropping in coverage could add obstacles in the way of a full-time 3–4 OLB role.
NFL player comparison: Willie Young (but faster)
2017 NFL draft prospect countdown, No. 34: Chris Wormley, DE, Michigan
What you need to know: Wormley was the state of Ohio’s co-Defensive Player of the Year as a high school senior in 2011, the same season that Mitch Trubisky was Ohio’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year. (Ex-Missouri and Eastern Kentucky QB Maty Mauk was named Mr. Ohio, as the state’s top player.) Wormley was expected to contribute early at Michigan, but he tore his ACL prior to his freshman year and wound up taking a redshirt. He eventually made his way back, starting 30 games total from 2014–16. Wormley finished the 2015 campaign with 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, then added another 7.5 and 5.5, respectively, as a senior. Of his 5.5 sacks last season, Wormley had at least one each against Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State.
Strengths: Step one in assessing Wormley’s potential NFL value is to stop thinking of him as a "defensive end," at least so far as that designation brings to mind players like Myles Garrett or Wormley’s former teammate, Taco Charlton—quick-twitch athletes that fly around the edge to pressure the QB.
Wormley (6' 5", 298 pounds) played the vast majority of his Michigan snaps at defensive end and he could land there in the NFL. But he does more damage between the tackles than he does encircling the pocket. He is a DE-DT hybrid, with an emphasis on the DT skill set.
Wormley wreaked havoc most often for the Wolverines when he had a clear shot at a guard or center. When Michigan slanted him inside, he frequently rocked interior O-linemen back on their heels and collapsed them into the pocket. On the occasions when he lined up as a 1- or 3-tech, his quickness/power combination allowed him to occupy multiple blockers ... or to split them to make a play.
“I’ve heard a lot of different things—4–3 defenses can see me as an end or a 3-tech tackle, and 3–4 defenses see me as a left end,” Wormley said at the combine, “so there’s a lot of versatility I think within myself, and that’s what a lot of teams see as well.”
At minimum, in part because of his bulked-up frame, Wormley could help any defense set an edge vs. the run. He rarely gets driven back off the line at the snap, and he keeps his hands up and active in an effort to lose blockers.
Weaknesses: He is not, and likely never will be, an elite pass rusher in the traditional sense. Wormley can turn the corner and get after QBs—he dropped Penn State’s Trace McSorley for a sack bending the edge from McSorley’s blindside, for instance. However, he’s not a DE that’s going to blow by tackles on a consistent basis.
Because of that, among the most important points of his development will be building out his repertoire. Wormley is a speed-to-power dynamo at the moment, but his successful counter-moves are lacking if he’s stood up. How well he shows he can penetrate at the NFL level from an interior alignment will dictate whether he is a productive, versatile three-down defender or a physical run-stuffer who comes off the field in sub packages.
NFL player comparison: Stephon Tuitt
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 spent a semester each at Madison Area Technical College and Mid-State Technical College (Wisc.). 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
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. 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. 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. 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. 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