Top NFL draft prospects at every position for 2017
Steve Palazzolo names the 5 best players at every position, and breaks down their draft stock heading into the 2016 college season.
Top NFL draft prospects at every position for 2017
A lot can happen between now and the draft, but it’s good to get a head start on the top prospects for 2017. This season is crucial for every one of these players, and that’s why we’ve noted the reasons each player is on the list, as well as areas for improvement that will allow each player to move up draft boards by next April.
Here’s a look at the top prospects as it stands heading into 2016:
- Deshaun Watson, 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.
- Mason Rudolph, 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.
- Luke Falk, Washington State
Why he’s on the list: Using a quick release and good touch, Falk does a nice job of finding open receivers in zones and hitting them with good ball location. He doesn’t have great zip on the ball, but he makes up for it with his release. Falk does his best work at the intermediate level of the field.
What we’d like to see: Falk must become a better decision-maker, particularly over the middle of the field. The same skills that allow him to find receivers in between zones also get him into trouble as he floats far too many passes that give linebackers and safeties a chance for interceptions. Improving his arm strength a touch could help mitigate some of those risky throws.
- Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Why he’s on the list: Mayfield emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks last season, carrying Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff. He didn’t miss many throws and he can throw the ball with impressive zip or take something off for downfield touch passes. Mayfield handles pressure well and he can move the chains with his legs when the situation calls for it.
What we’d like to see: Mayfield has been an underdog since winning the starting job at Texas Tech as a walk-on in 2013, and we’re asking him to prove that 2015 was not a fluke. Another dominant season will be difficult to ignore, especially if he can spread the ball around while losing his top playmaker, Sterling Shepard. Another area of concern, Mayfield was charged with 10 sacks last season, and that’s a number that must be cut down.
- Brad Kaaya, Miami
Why he’s on the list: Kaaya stepped right in as a starter as a true freshman in 2014 and while he’s had his bumps along the way, he showed great improvement last season. He works through progressions quickly and he’s not afraid of making tight-window throws which are often followed by impressive ball placement. He appears adept at working the short passing game and he’s a good fit for west coast concepts at the next level.
What we’d like to see: Kaaya gets touted for having a big arm, but the zip doesn’t always appear to be there. As impressive as some of his throws are, he’ll come back with others that miss by a mile. If we can see an uptick in arm strength, and better throw for throw consistency, Kaaya will start to look like the first round prospect many have projected for him. Playing in new head coach Mark Richt’s system is also going to be a key storyline for him this season.
- Leonard Fournette, 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 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.
- Dalvin Cook, 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.
- Christian McCaffrey, 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.
- 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.
- Royce Freeman, 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.
- Corey Davis, 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.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster, 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.
- Mike Williams, 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 full 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.
- Malachi Dupre, LSU
Why he’s on the list: A smooth runner with the speed to challenge the defense down the field, Dupre can track the ball extremely well, making him a downfield threat. Dupre does a nice job running the vertical route tree.
What we’d like to see: The volume hasn’t been there for Dupre, or his teammate Travin Dural for that matter. We’d like to see him targeting more often, particularly in the middle of the field where he doesn’t consistently catch the ball in traffic.
- Mack Hollins, North Carolina
Why he’s on the list: Size and speed. Hollins gets on cornerbacks quickly with his long strides and he can break down and run the intermediate route or run right by them for big plays. He averaged 24.8 yards/reception last season.
What we’d like to see: Hollins needs to do a better job of catching the ball as he dropped six of 36 catchable targets last season. If he can be a bigger part of UNC’s offense from a volume standpoint, we could see similar production to Mike Evans in his last year at Texas A&M when he emerged as one of the nation’s top receivers.
- 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.
- Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Why he’s on the list: Engram looks like a receiver when he runs routes, making it difficult for linebackers and safeties to keep up. As a blocker, Engram does a nice job of finding targets on the move in his H-back role in Ole Miss’ offense.
What we’d like to see: With Ole Miss’ top playmakers moving on, it’s Engram’s time to shine so we’d like to see creativity out of the offense to get the ball in his hands. He could also do a better job of in-line blocking.
- O.J. Howard, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Even beyond the big plays on busted coverages in the national title game, Howard is strong after the catch as he has a good feel for making the first defender miss and maximizing the play. He was sure-handed last season, dropping only one of his 39 catchable targets. Howard is a solid run blocker, maintaining blocks in-line and showing the ability to lock on to second-level targets.
What we’d like to see: More targets. Howard’s playmaking ability should be used more often in Alabama’s offense, so hopefully we’ll get a better feel of what Howard can do in the passing game.
- Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas
Why he’s on the list: With TE Hunter Henry moving on, it’s Sprinkle’s time to shine as one of the top options in Arkansas’ offense. He has big-play potential as his speed allows him to gain ground quickly through the secondary while he can turn a short pass into a big gain.
What we’d like to see: Sprinkle needs to show improvement as a blocker, both in-line and as a lead blocker. He’ll have plenty of opportunities in Arkansas’ pro-style system. Between the run blocking and living up to his potential as the No. 1 tight end this season, it’s a big year for Sprinkle.
- George Kittle, Iowa
Why he’s on the list: As the No. 2 tight end last season, Kittle was a threat in the run and pass game. He’s capable of blocking both in-line and on the move and he can run the seam and threaten the middle of the defense.
What we’d like to see: Many of Kittle’s big plays were simply him running behind the defense so we’d like to see more pass game opportunities where he has to win one-on-one matchups. It’s also important to see him maintain his strong production as the top tight end as he only played 383 snaps last season.
- 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.
- Zach Banner, USC
Why he’s on the list: At 6-foot-9, 350 pounds, Banner has impressive size, length and power. He can move defenders at the point of attack and he made great strides in pass protection last season.
What we’d like to see: Another year of strong pass protection is a must and in the run game, showing the ability to make the backside cutoff on zone plays is an important part of Banner’s game that we’ll be watching. He also needs to cut down on the 13 penalties that tied for second in the FBS.
- Cam Robinson, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Robinson is cut from a mold of prototypical NFL left tackles, and just the look and his place in Alabama’s starting lineup as a true freshman have him penciled in as the top tackle in next year’s draft on many boards. The tools are evident, and they were on full display in games like his performance against Florida in 2014 when he dominated in pass protection while showing the ability to make every block in the run game.
What we’d like to see: We need to see better on-field performance that matches the hype. While the potential is there, Robinson has yet to put together the dominant performance expected of future first-round picks. Health may have been an issue in each of his first two years, so a healthy dominant season is what we’re looking for in order to slot him into the first round.
- Conor McDermott, UCLA
Why he’s on the list: With a 6-foot-8 frame and two solid years in pass protection, McDermott is on the NFL’s radar. He had a strong year in the run game in 2014, so that early-career production is a good sign.
What we’d like to see: McDermott needs a more consistent season in 2016, particularly in the running game where he can allow too much penetration on the backside of running plays.
- Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
Why he’s on the list: A powerful run blocker, Crosby was one of the nation’s last season. He can create movement and work off blocks to find second-level defenders.
What we’d like to see: Crosby has not been nearly as good in pass protection where he posted an average grade last season. Improvement in this area is a must for his long-term potential.
Guards and centers
- Pat Elflein, 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.
- Dan Feeney, Indiana
Why he’s on the list: Few guards have matched Feeney’s production in pass protection as he’s only allowed 14 pressures on 900 attempts the last two seasons. He’s shown the ability to make the necessary run-game blocks, it’s just a matter of consistency at this point.
What we’d like to see: While he made great strides in the run game last year, Feeney has to improve in order to balance out his game. The potential is there, he just needs to cut down on the missed blocks.
- Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia
Why he’s on the list: Orlosky has been one of the nation’s best centers the last two years, particularly in pass protection where he’s only allowed 10 pressures on over 1,000 attempts. He improved in the run game last season, rarely losing blocks and giving clean looks to the running backs in West Virginia’s zone-heavy system.
What we’d like to see: We’re looking for continued improvement in the run game, perhaps even more dominance at the point of attack, while maintaining his strong work in pass protection.
- Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
Why he’s on the list: Lamp has put together two outstanding years of grading at left tackle, though his frame is likely better suited for guard. He moves efficiently and he does a nice job of getting to the second level in the running game.
What we’d like to see: Lamp needs another dominant performance this season, particularly when going against good SEC defenses like Alabama and Vanderbilt. If he can hold his own in those games, it will go a long way toward showing his long-term potential.
- Colby Gossett, Appalachian State
Why he’s on the list: Splitting time between right guard and right tackle for Appalachian State last fall, Gossett caught our eye with some impressive blocks in their zone-blocking scheme. At 6-foot-6, 315-pounds, Gossett combines strong movement skills with an NFL frame and length. He improved in pass protection last season and he’s slated to play right tackle again in 2016.
What we’d like to see: Gossett’s ability to play both guard and tackle increases his value, but a dominant performance at tackle is a must to increase his value. Early-season games against Tennessee and Miami will be his showcase games.
- Myles Garrett, 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.
- Derek Barnett, 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.
- Charles Harris, 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.
- Deatrich Wise, 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.
What we’d like to see: Obviously a half-season of work will need to carry into 2015 to warrant first-round consideration, so it’s all about seeing Wise build upon his strong finish, especially as opposing SEC teams have an offseason to prepare for him. Wise only played 117 plays against the run last year, so it’s important to show that he can be a disruptor on the edge while being able to hold up when lining up on the interior.
- Tim Williams, 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.
- Malik McDowell, 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.
- Jonathan Allen, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Nazair Jones, North Carolina
Why he’s on the list: Jones has graded extremely well on his 842 career snaps, using his strong hands and length to make plays against the run while also affecting the quarterback as a pass rusher. He has the long frame that 3-4 teams will covet and he’s due for a breakout 2016 season
What we’d like to see: Like others on the list, it’s all about putting the full season together for Jones. If he can maintain the same production on full-season workload, Jones will be one of the nation’s best interior defensive linemen and a potential first-round pick.
- 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.
- Reuben Foster, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Foster loves to get dirty in the running game as he attacks lead blockers and pullers with power, but also has the quicks to beat them to the punch with his agility. He does a nice job of reading the quarterback’s eyes in coverage and that lead to a national-high seven passes defensed a year ago.
What we’d like to see: If Foster does win on initial contact with second-level linemen, he can get engulfed; more consistent block shedding is one area for improvement. Also, like many Alabama linebackers, straight-line speed is a question mark.
- Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Why he’s on the list: McMillan is a playmaker in the running game and he does a nice job patrolling the middle of the field in Ohio State’s zone-heavy scheme. He’s a strong tackler, missing only 13 of his 154 attempts the last two seasons and on a defense loaded with NFL talent and flashier playmakers, McMillan has quietly played excellent football.
What we’d like to see: It would be nice to see McMillan in more one-on-one situations with tight ends and there are times that he loses track of routes working behind him in zone coverage. It will also be important to see how he handles being the main cog on the defense rather than just another good player in a sea of superstars.
- Jarrad Davis, Florida
Why he’s on the list: Opposing runners know when they’ve been hit by Davis who packs a punch when squared up on ball carriers. He can work downhill in the running game and he uses that same power to beat up blockers when blitzing.
What we’d like to see: Davis can get tied up at the second level by offensive linemen, especially when he’s not initiating the contact. While he’s a powerful tackler, cutting back on the whiffs should be an emphasis this season after he missed 11 of 90 attempts last season.
- Calvin Munson, San Diego State
Why he’s on the list: Few linebackers have been as disruptive as Munson the last two seasons as he’s totaled 19 sacks, 11 QB hits, and 21 hurries while grading positively against the run and in coverage. His ability to attack and shed blockers has led to his strong play as a pass rusher and against the run.
What we’d like to see: Munson is not great in space, and there are some ugly plays in coverage. If he can improve athletically and tackle better (25 misses in two years), he’ll increase his potential three-down value.
- Desmond King, 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 skillset. Still, it’d be great to see him in more press man situations against top wide receivers.
- Jalen Tabor, 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.
- Jourdan Lewis, 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.
- Marlon Humphrey, 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.
- Cordrea Tankersley, 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.
- Jabrill Peppers, 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 skillset. Still, if he could gain a step in coverage against top college slot receivers, it’s added value when transitioning to the NFL.
- Eddie Jackson, Alabama
Why he’s on the list: Moving cornerbacks to safety is a common NFL move and Alabama moving Jackson adds even more value to his game. He showed playmaking ability in his first year on the back end in 2015, intercepting six passes getting his hands on two others. As he continues to refine his skills, Jackson could be the best pure free safety in the draft class.
What we’d like to see: Jackson needs continued development at a new position while maintaining the coverage skills that made him a cornerback in the first place. If he cuts down on some of the big plays he was a part of last season while still being able to match up with receivers on occasion, he brings a dynamic element to an NFL secondary.
- Jamal Adams, LSU
Why he’s on the list: An explosive playmaker, Adams can affect the game as an in-the-box run stopper and in coverage. He has nine passes defensed and four interceptions in his two years at LSU as he does a nice job of reading the quarterback in underneath coverage.
What we’d like to see: Adams looks to weave through traffic rather than take blocks head on, and while that leads to a number of highlight-reel tackles, it also knocks him out of position on occasion. In coverage, he can be a step late when diagnosing the play, so adding better play recognition to his athleticism will be important for the next level.
- Marcus Maye, Florida
Why he’s on the list: Maye is a good box safety who can pack a punch as a tackler in the running game while keeping up with tight ends in coverage. He’s a good underneath coverage defender who has done his best work against the run, so scheme usage is crucial.
What we’d like to see: Maye isn’t great when playing more of a center field role and while he graded well in coverage, there are some ugly plays in there as well, especially when isolated against wide receivers. Better play in those areas will make him a more attractive prospect.
- Nate Gerry, Nebraska
Why he’s on the list: One of the top-graded coverage safeties in 2014, Gerry does a nice job of working downhill when the play is in front of him and he’s a good fit for a two-high safety team. His playmaking skills have led to nine interceptions and five passes defensed over the last two years.
What we’d like to see: Gerry is not as smooth when working backwards, so passes over his head can be a problem. It’d be nice to see if he could handle a center field role as he’s played more split coverages in Nebraska’s scheme. Tackling has also been an issue as he’s missed 25 of his 163 attempts over the last two seasons. Ultimately, a return to 2014 if crucial for Gerry’s evaluation.