- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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