Watson, Garrett top PFF’s first 2017 NFL draft board
Steve Palazzolo shares how the country's top draft prospects stack up heading into the 2016 college football season.
Watson, Garrett top PFF’s first 2017 NFL draft board
Last week we unveiled our top 2017 NFL draft prospects by position, but today it’s time to sort them into a top 32. The quarterback position is difficult to sort out at the top, though there’s a clear favorite to go No. 1 overall come draft time. The other theme of the top 32 is the edge rushers and running backs, and this year’s draft will be an outstanding test case in the NFL’s valuing of different positions. The edge rush class could have run about 10 deep on this list, while the running back position is as loaded as it’s been in many years. Will the NFL use four or more first-round picks on running backs? That will be a big part of the story come next April.
There’s still a long way to go, but here’s how it stacks up heading into the season:
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Why he’s on the list: The combination of arm talent and athleticism are unmatched in college football as Watson combines the ability to make special throws while keeping defense off balance with running skills that can be used for both scrambling and designed runs. Whether dropping downfield passes in the bucket or zipping slants and posts over the middle, Watson can make the necessary throws to create big plays in the NFL.
What we’d like to see: Like many spread quarterbacks, Watson has little experience working through progressions and it’s unlikely a place in which he’ll have an opportunity to improve this season. A bigger concern is the inconsistent short-area accuracy. He often garners comparisons to Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton and the combination of special throws and easy misses does resemble last year’s NFL MVP. We’d like to see Watson tie up some of those accuracy issues this season.
2. Myles Garrett, Edge, Edge, Texas A&M
Why he’s on the list: The size, length, and explosiveness is the first thing that shows on tape and he has the production to back up the hype. With 22 sacks, 20 QB hits, and 69 hurries on 651 career pass rushes, Garrett has been one of the nation’s best pass rushers since he stepped on campus as a true freshman in 2014. It’s that pass rush ability, along with improved play against the run that makes him a potential top-five pick.
What we’d like to see: Garrett improved against the run in 2015 under new defensive coordinator John Chavis, and while Chavis’ defensive ends usually know how to take on and turn back pull blocks, Garrett can stand to attack those blocks with more power in his hands. If he continues to fill out his long frame, the added power will make him even more dangerous as a run stopper and as a pass-rusher.
3. Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee
Why he’s on the list: Barnett’s career will forever be linked to Garrett as they both stepped right into SEC competition and established themselves as productive players as true freshmen. Barnett is a strong run defender, using his hands to shed blocks while showing the power to set a hard edge. As a sophomore, he took his pass rushing to a new level with the nation’s No. 3 overall pass rush grade.
What we’d like to see: While can has shown the ability to pressure the quarterback, increasing his conversion rate from hurries to sacks is what will establish Barnett firmly in the first round mix. He doesn’t have the classic “twitchy” look of an elite edge rusher, and while we feel his production is more important than the look, continuing to better his athleticism in order to turn the corner quicker and perhaps add some 3-4 outside linebacker versatility can’t hurt.
4. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
Why he’s on the list: Perhaps the best zone cornerback in the nation, King has excellent ball skills that have led to 11 interceptions and 16 passes defensed over the last two years. He’s also strong in run support, ranking third in the nation last season, while missing only five tackles on 138 attempts the last two seasons.
What we’d like to see: Classifying King as a “zone corner” is not a knock on his man coverage skills, but more about highlighting his skill set. Still, it’d be great to see him in more press man situations against top wide receivers.
5. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Why he’s on the list: Tabor can read and break on the ball as quickly as any corner in the class, helping him finish with four interceptions and 12 passes defensed on only 58 targets. He also makes quarterbacks pay for errant throws when playing zone coverage. He has the size, speed, and movement skills to be the top cornerback off the board.
What we’d like to see: A lot of Tabor’s big plays come from his educated guesses, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but there’s a double move to be had on him every now and then. With first rounder Vernon Hargreaves III off to the NFL, we’d like to see Tabor play the boundary where he’ll get tested more often this season.
6. Charles Harris, Edge, Missouri
Why he’s on the list: Harris enjoyed a breakout 2015 season that saw him rank ninth in the nation as a pass-rusher and 10th overall among edge defenders. He picked up nearly the same number of pressures to the inside of offensive tackles as he did to the outside, in part due to perhaps the best spin move in the nation. Like Myles Garrett, Harris improved against the run in 2015 as his quick, strong hands allow him to disengage blocks.
What we’d like to see: There were few games in which Harris completely disappeared, but he managed only one pressure over the last two games against Tennessee and Arkansas. In the run game, he needs to finish better after missing 15 of 86 tackle attempts in his two years.
7. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Why he’s on the list: Fournette lived up to the five-star hype with a huge sophomore season that saw him break more tackles than any other running back in the nation. Always a powerful, straight-line back, it was Fournette that impressed by adding more wiggle to his game from his freshman to sophomore season and showing the ability to string multiple moves together in a way that he hadn’t previously shown.
What we’d like to see: Just as freshman to sophomore year was a massive development jump for Fournette, another step forward could vault him into one of the best running back prospects in years. Whether that occurs or not, simply seeing more out of him in the passing game, from route variety to pass protection, will diversify his skillset as it’s still a pass-first NFL and those skills are vital to warrant a top-round pick.
8. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
Why he’s on the list: McDowell will see his fair share of DeForest Buckner comparisons given his 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame, and he could have a similar dominant season. Last year was a breakout for McDowell who posted the No. 3 pass rush grade among interior defensive linemen.
What we’d like to see: Like Buckner, pad level will always be a concern for McDowell so his ability to dig in against double teams and not get moved off the ball are two things we’ll be watching. McDowell’s 2015 closely-resembled Buckner’s 2014, and it’s a big leap to get to Buckner’s 2015 level but that’s the type of move that would vault McDowell into top-10 consideration.
9. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
Why he’s on the list: With two years grading as a top-seven receiver, Davis combines nifty route running with good body control and after-the-catch ability. He projects as a strong intermediate threat, capable of separating on dig and comeback routes while sneaking behind the defense at times more due to his route running than his speed.
What we’d like to see: Davis is not a blazer, so if he can show an uptick in speed his senior year, that will be a bonus. While he has plenty of highlight-reel downfield catches on tape, making those contested catches more consistently while showing more strength at the top of his routes are two things that can improve his already-polished game. Of course, playing in the MAC will always raise questions about competition, so dominating his games against Power-5 Northwestern and Illinois will be crucial.
10. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Why he’s on the list: The most explosive running back in the nation, Cook has the ability to turn the slightest run-blocking crease into a touchdown. That game-changing ability has led to a number of comebacks by Florida State as few running backs can carry a team like Cook.
What we’d like to see: While Cook’s big-play ability is as good as it gets, with so many of his yards coming as a result of big plays, we’d like to see more of the one to two-yard gains turn into four or five in order to keep the offense on schedule. Like other running backs on the list, we’d also like to see more diverse looks in the passing game to prove that Cook can be a dynamic, movable piece at the next level.
11. Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Allen would have been in the first-round mix had he declared for last year’s draft, so he should be right there again next year. He’s one of the nation’s best interior pass rushers with a two-year grade that rivals the top interior rushers from the 2016 draft.
What we’d like to see: While the grades are strong against the run, Allen has been more of a rotational player the last two years, so we’d like to see him handle a heavier workload this season, especially on early downs.
12. Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan
Why he’s on the list: Though he’ll officially be called a linebacker for Michigan this season, Peppers is still projected as more of a safety in the NFL. Still, the lines are blurring on the two positions depending on the scheme, so perhaps Peppers will be an NFL linebacker by this time next year. Regardless, it’s his attacking nature in the run game combined with the athleticism in coverage that makes Peppers a unique player. The ability to play the run, blitz effectively, and cover tight ends is coveted at the next level and Peppers brings those unique skills to the table.
What we’d like to see: We may not see as much of it, but Peppers struggled when lined up against receivers last season and that may be beyond his skill set. Still, if he could gain a step in coverage against top college slot receivers, it’s added value when transitioning to the NFL.
13. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
Why he’s on the list: Smith-Schuster is a big play waiting to happen, whether he’s using his speed to get behind the defense or catching a short pass and turning upfield quickly to create yards after the catch. His speed helps to create separation on curl routes and he can be an effective underneath weapon on drag routes and screens.
What we’d like to see: Smith-Schuster’s production tailed off as the season progressed, so avoiding that tailspin is important. While he can get behind the defense, he could do a better job of making catches in contested situations.
14. Deatrich Wise, Edge, Arkansas
Why he’s on the list: A late-season surge put Wise’s potential on full display as he posted a monster pass rush grade on only 258 rushes (10 sacks, 12 QB hits, 21 hurries). His pass rush productivity against Power-5 teams was bested only by first-round pick Joey Bosa of Ohio State, so he showed that he can perform against top teams. A 6-foot-6, 272-pound frame gives Wise the position flexibility to line up on the edge while kicking inside to rush against guards or perhaps grow into a 3-4 defensive end if necessary.
15. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Why he’s on the list: Williams was ready to form one of the nation’s best quarterback-receiver combinations with Deshaun Watson but he missed all of 2015. When healthy, he tracks the ball extremely well down the field, making him a big-play threat.
What we’d like to see: It’s all about health for Williams who has to show that he’s fully recovered from last season’s neck injury. Between staying on the field and showing his pre-injury speed, it’s a big year for Williams.
16. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Why he’s on the list: Lewis will be docked by a number of teams due to a lack of height, but his 2015 performance is difficult to ignore. He plays a feisty brand of man coverage, mirroring receivers and doing a nice job of playing the ball in the air. He’s also a good run defender and solid tackler.
What we’d like to see: Lewis can get too physical at times in coverage and his size does come into play against more physical receivers. He doesn’t have a big margin for error against bigger receivers, so we’d love to see him repeat the dominant performance that he showed last season.
17. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Why he’s on the list: If McCaffrey were just a slot receiver, he’d be a top prospect, but he’s actually a scheme-diverse runner, and that puts him in the first-round mix. He sets up blocks well, and his change of direction skills allow him to hit the hole quickly. As a receiver, he runs good routes from multiple alignments creating mismatches along the way. That diverse skillset make McCaffrey a perfect fit for the more spread-oriented NFL.
What we’d like to see: This season will be a challenge for McCaffrey, as Stanford replaces three good offensive linemen and quarterback Kevin Hogan. He’ll be the focal point for opposing defenses, so Stanford may need to tap into his skills to get him the ball in creative ways. McCaffrey is extremely dangerous once he gets to the second level, so breaking in three new linemen may limit those opportunities so we’d like to see how he handles what should be a less-favorable snap-for-snap blocking situation up front.
18. Pat Elflein, G/C, Ohio State
Why he’s on the list: Elflein has been one of the nation’s best run blocking guards the last two years as he’s equally adept at creating point-of-attack movement as he is at finding a target on the move. He’ll move to center this year for the Buckeyes, potentially creating even more value for the next level.
What we’d like to see: Obviously the move to center is the biggest story for Elflein, and if he can handle the transition, he may be the top interior offensive lineman off the board. He can also stand to improve in pass protection as he’s been better in the run game to this point.
19. Tim Williams, Edge, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: No returning pass-rusher has been more productive on a per-snap basis than Williams who picked up 52 pressures (11 sacks, 8 QB hits, 33 hurries) on only 147 rushes last season, giving him 65 pressures (12/9/44) on only 196 rushes the last two seasons. Williams has the burst to challenge offensive tackles on the edge and the quickness and hand usage to counter.
What we’d like to see: The big question for Williams is whether or not he can be an every-down player. He’s yet to have that opportunity at Alabama, playing only 47 snaps against the run over the last two years. It will be important to see if he gets the chance to play early downs on the edge, though he doesn’t fit the mold of the classic, power edge defender that head coach Nick Saban generally employs in the run game
20. Dawaune Smoot, Edge, Illinois
Why he’s on the list: Smoot broke out as a pass-rusher last season to finish with the third-best overall grade among edge rushers against Power-5 competition. He showed the ability to win to the outside while also showing enough variety to keep offensive tackles off balance with counters moves and a bull rush. He had a dominant outing against Ohio State and he posted the nation’s top pass rushing grade from Week 6 through the end of the season.
What we’d like to see: While he was solid against the run, there’s room to grow, particularly with recognizing concepts. He took himself out of position far too often, though when he made the right read, he was able to shed blocks. If Smoot can take his run game to the next level, he’ll move up this list come draft time.
21. Nick Chubb, Georgia
Why he’s on the list: When healthy, Chubb’s combination of size, speed, and receiving ability remind of former Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Though they don’t have the same body type, Chubb’s ability to run through tacklers while hitting the edge with speed make him an efficient, yet dangerous runner. He’s also excellent at maximizing the yards the line blocks for him, often an underrated skill in the evaluation process. If he returns to health after a season-ending knee injury, Chubb is right near the top of this running back class.
What we’d like to see: Health is the most crucial component for Chubb, so from a draft perspective, even if he starts slow and regains form toward the end of the year, it should be enough to warrant first-round consideration. Other than that, we’d like to see a return to his freshman form when he was a receiving weapon out of the backfield.
22. Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
Why he’s on the list: Coming off a season-ending knee injury, Vanderdoes had a strong 2014 and he was off to a dominant start in week one last year. He can beat up and shed blockers at the point of attack in the running game and he’s adept at making plays on the ball carrier.
What we’d like to see: Pass rushing is what will determine Vanderdoes’ draft position as he’s a solid run defender but he has to affect the quarterback more consistently. The sample was small, but he was off to a good start vs. Virginia last season and if he continues to improve as a rusher, he’ll move right up draft boards.
23. Devonte Fields, Edge, Louisville
Why he’s on the list: Fields has good burst off the edge, but it’s his quick hands that allow him to beat offensive tackles consistently as a pass rusher. In the running game, he can use that speed to get down the line to make plays. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Fields is likely a 3-4 outside linebacker candidate.
What we’d like to see: In the run game, Fields can get engulfed by bigger offensive tackles and he has to cut down on the missed tackles as he missed 13 of his 67 attempts. Given his size, we’d like to see him continue to drop into coverage a few times every game as he did so on 79 snaps last season and that will only add to his next-level versatility.
24. Carl Lawson, Edge, Auburn
Why he’s on the list: When healthy, Lawson had been a dominant force up front for Auburn. His strong hands allow him to win on the edge or on the interior as a pass rusher and in the running game. He’s one of the few players on the list that is here because of projection, but his best games have shown where his potential lies.
What we’d like to see; Health is the first major concern, so we need to see a full season of production from Lawson. Beyond that, his production has not been up to par with others on the list, so we want to see if his flashes of dominance can be extended over a longer period of time. Schematically, it’d be good to see Auburn move him around the defensive line to see how he handles playing on the edge and on the interior.
25. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Humphrey has the length and speed to play man or zone coverage, and his on-field production was among the nation’s best last season. Some of his best work came as an underneath zone defender with his eyes on the quarterback. He’s only a redshirt sophomore so there’s still room to improve, but it was an impressive debut last for Humphrey in 2015.
What we’d like to see: While he has the speed and size to keep up with receivers down the field, Humphrey loses far too often at the catch point and that led to too many big plays (opponents averaged 15.5 yards/reception throwing his way, even excluding a fluke 73-yarder against Ole Miss). He also needs to tackle better as he missed 10 of his 52 attempts.
26. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Why he’s on the list: Tankersley will be coveted by teams looking for long corners as he uses his 6-foot-1 frame extremely well in press coverage. His evaluations will vary based on scheme, but a big year could help him make an Eli Apple-like move toward the top of the draft.
What we’d like to see: Like many long corners, Tankersley has some issues with shiftier receivers and he can get grabby at the top of routes. Improving both of those issues will increase his versatility in the evaluation process.
27. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Why he’s on the list: Rudolph’s arm allows him to make special throws at the intermediate and deep level, whether it’s putting the ball right along the sideline on the deep out or allowing receivers to make plays down the field. He had the top grade on deep passes last season and that makes him a good fit for a vertical passing game at the next level.
What we’d like to see: After backup quarterback J.W. Walsh stole a number of Rudolph’s red zone snaps, we’d like to see his work in the passing game in those crucial short areas. The other big part of Rudolph’s game that is lacking is his accuracy when working toward his second read. While he often gets there, he misses too many throws and it’s perhaps the most important part of his game that must improve.
28. Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
Why he’s on the list: McGlinchey enjoyed a breakout 2015 season, as he’s grown into his 6-foot-7 frame since arriving in South Bend. He’s a powerful run blocker at the point of attack and solid pass protector, and he has the frame the NFL covets at tackle.
What we’d like to see: With only one full year under his belt, McGlinchey has to prove he’s more than a one-year wonder. He’s moving to left tackle this season so that transition must go smoothly to warrant top-round consideration in the draft. He could also stand to improve as a pass blocker.
29. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Why he’s on the list: Few 230-pound running backs can move like Freeman as he has impressive speed and enough power and wiggle to force the third-most tackles in the nation last season. He gets a lot of free space in Oregon’s scheme, but in a downhill scheme at the next level, he can do damage. Freeman has also been solid in the pass game doing most of his work on screens and check downs but showing the occasional ability to get behind the defense on wheel routes or go routes when lined up wide.
What we’d like to see: While he’s shown the footwork to get out of trouble in tight areas, it’d be nice to see more of this given the room Oregon’s scheme generally creates. We’d also like to see Oregon use his aforementioned receiving skills more often, moving him around and allowing for more route variety.
30. Maurice Hurst, Michigan
Why he’s on the list: Hurst was equally strong rushing the passer as he was against the run last season, producing at a high level on his 418 snaps. He can shoot gaps or push the pocket with power and he may be the best player on a loaded Michigan defensive front.
What we’d like to see: Hurst broke out last season, but the sample size is still small, so building on his impressive 418-sample is crucial. If he can have a repeat performance and turn more pressures into sacks, Hurst will become a much bigger name come draft time.
31. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Why he’s on the list: Cunningham brings length and athleticism to the position that shows up on tape as he has good range as a zone defender. That coverage ability is coveted in the NFL, and he complements it with strong work against the run due to his striking ability that allows him to shed blocks.
What we’d like to see: While Cunningham can be a disruptive run defender, he leaves too many plays on the table as evidenced by his missing one of every 9.7 tackle attempts last season, 44th among the nation’s inside linebacker. Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith had the same missed tackle issue at Notre Dame his sophomore year and if Cunningham can make a similar improvement, he’ll take his game to the next level.
32. Jake Butt, Michigan
Why he’s on the list: Smooth route running allows Butt to create separation at the intermediate level, leading to the top receiving grade among returning tight ends. While he’s not a great blocker, he faces a lot of challenging matchups in Michigan’s pro style system, and there are a number of impressive blocks on tape.
What we’d like to see: Michigan has a chance to move Butt around the offense in order to create mismatches, so it’d be nice to see that versatility. Adding strength in the run game is the key to improving Butt’s overall game, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on his development as a run blocker.