Narrowing down the list of available draft prospects to form a top 40 of favorites is difficult enough. I can only imagine how tough this is when your team—and your job as a talent evaluator—depends on it.
All of the names mentioned here could land in the first round. So, too, could an unknown additional number of players—probably at least 10 or 20, plus the inevitable late-rising sleeper or two that we’re not really talking about yet. Every draft class tends to be judged on its quarterbacks, but the 2017 class appears to run deep at a bevy of other spots. It would not be a surprise if this becomes one of the most impactful rookie groups, across the board, in some time.
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With the bowl games approaching, here’s how the Big Board stands:
1Myles Garrett, Edge
Junior, Texas A&M
A foot injury held back Garrett during the regular season—of his 8.5 total sacks, 4.5 came against Texas-San Antonio in November, after Garrett declared himself “close to being healthy.” Assuming all that checks out medically, Garrett is still a shoo-in to be one of the first names off the draft board. He is a game-changing pass rusher and has become a stronger, more reliable run defender.
2Jonathan Allen, DL
At 6' 3″ and pushing 300 lbs., Allen profiles like a defensive tackle. He actually plays more like an end, whether in a three- or four-man front, with exceptional quickness to get off the ball and a developed array of counter moves. He certainly can (and does) play inside, though. His versatility is a major selling point.
He was just named the Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker. Foster is as complete a LB prospect as there has been at this point in the process since Luke Kuechly in 2012.
4Derek Barnett, DE
Barnett has an SEC-leading 12.0 sacks for the season, and he is tied with the late Reggie White for Tennessee’s career mark (32.0). He’s disruptive against the run, too, and is a long-term answer at 4–3 defensive end.
Peppers didn’t quite live up to the hype this year, but some of that was due to what was asked of him—namely, everything. He should continue to move around as an NFL defender, but he will be even more productive when his semi-permanent home is at safety.
6Jamal Adams, S
Whereas teams may spend months trying to figure out how to best utilize Peppers, there is no real debate on Adams. He’s a pure, well-rounded safety who can be dropped back in single-high looks or walked up closer to the line.
7Dalvin Cook, RB
Junior, Florida State
With nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage to his credit over the past two seasons and more than 5,000 for his career, Cook is a lightning bolt with the ball in his hands. An NFL team that can get him into space will reap the benefits for years to come.
8Corey Davis, WR
Senior, Western Michigan
There have been times when it doesn’t even look fair to have Davis go against MAC defenders. He’s on another level. His best features were on display in the Broncos’` conference-title game win over Ohio, including his ability to cover ground in a hurry once he puts his foot in the ground and cuts upfield.
9Tim Williams, Edge
A consistent edge rusher can make all the difference for a defense, so there will be no shortage of demand for Williams. His improvement as a three-down defender—as opposed to his earlier reputation as a pass rush-only prospect—elevates his status.
The type of physical wide receiver that can wear down opposing cornerbacks, Williams is up there with Davis in terms of route running prowess. He is capable of dominating on 50/50 balls, which he should see frequently in the red zone as an NFL starter.
11Desmond King, CB
He only has two interceptions this year as opposed to the eight he posted last season, but part of that is the Mackensie Alexander phenomenon: You can’t intercept passes if QBs won’t throw at you. King can lock down one-on-one, has the skills to be comfortable in zone and throws his body around against the run.
12Leonard Fournette, RB
Did an injury-plagued 2016 limit the wear and tear on Fournette’s body, or did it raise red flags about his durability? Probably a little of both. Healthy, Fournette is a powerhouse—a running back who lowers his shoulder and delivers hits like a linebacker.
This QB class is even more of a “to each his own” situation than usual. Some will argue Watson as the right target for Cleveland or San Francisco at No. 1; others will recommend waiting on him until Day 2. It says here the former camp is on to something. Watson must get better at reading defenses and improve his accuracy, but the plays he does make are as impressive as any QB in the country. He pairs outstanding athleticism with the important mental ability to bury what has already happened so he can stay aggressive in the present.
14Zach Cunningham, LB
Dabbled with Cunningham as a top-10 prospect, because the tenacity with which he defends the run provides him with a very high floor. He was a Butkus Award finalist alongside Foster, and he has the potential to be just as impactful as a rookie.
15Quincy Wilson, CB
Without getting too hung up on the height/weight scales, Wilson has the size to be a terrific press-man cornerback at the next level. He rarely gets lost in coverage—he’ll find the ball, get his head around and make a play.
16Christian McCaffrey, RB
It’s pretty special when an athlete can be as smooth moving horizontally as he is getting vertical. McCaffrey is effortless in his cuts, and he picks out his lanes for them with excellent vision. What he can add as a returner and pass catcher solidifies his chances for a long, productive career.
17Malik Hooker, S
RS Sophomore, Ohio State
The Buckeyes’ standout without question had an argument to be Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year over Peppers. He’s a ballhawk on the back end (six picks this season), and as a redshirt sophomore, he might only be scratching the surface. He said on the Monday after Ohio State’s win over Michigan that “right now it’s 100% sure I’m coming back to Ohio State,” but he has another month to change his mind.
Not as bulked up as some of the other DBs in this class, Jones uses every ounce of his 6-foot, 181-pound frame to his advantage. Better yet, he has the footwork to mirror receivers on the outside, be it turning and running or on short/intermediate routes.
19DeShone Kizer, QB
Junior, Notre Dame
Keep his youth in mind when worrying about Kizer’s occasional lapses in decision-making. He will get better and more comfortable at diagnosing defenses. He already has the arm to punish those defenses when he sees an opening, particularly downfield and to the sideline. And he’s a big, athletic option.
20John Ross, WR
Gifted with blazing speed, Ross is dangerous when he’s turned loose on go routes deep … and he might be even more problematic for opposing defenses when he gets open across the middle of the field. He’s a threat to go the distance absolutely every single time he touches the football.
21Montravius Adams, DT
Adams has the build (listed at 6' 4″, 310 lbs.) to play nose tackle, as he has for much of his college career. He also has the power and burst to fill any inside tech in a three- or four-man alignment. His progress from year-to-year has been very noticeable.
22Marlon Humphrey, CB
RS Sophomore, Alabama
Bank on Humphrey excelling at the combine, should he declare for the draft—he has an extensive track background, including time spent on Alabama’s 4×400 relay team. That speed shows up whenever Humphrey’s on the field. It’s very difficult to get behind him and stay behind him.
Circle McDowell if you’re hunting for a player almost certain to climb in the coming months. McDowell had the look of a top-10 prospect before a frustrating, injury-stunted season. He’s tailor-made for an end role in a 3–4 NFL defense, though, and he has potentially dominant physical traits.
24Mitch Trubisky, QB
Junior, North Carolina
The best of Trubisky is a QB1 in this class. The worst—when his footwork resembles someone trying to throw a ball over a roof, or he starts spraying the ball all over the place—is mid-round, at best. Positive progress in the coming months should push him closer to the former outcome. He has the moxie of a quarterback you want in a key situation.
Another defensive lineman who can move around—almost a necessity for any top prospect these days. But Walker could be an ideal edge-setting presence in a 4–3, because of the work he can put in against the run.
26Pat Elflein, G/C
Senior, Ohio State
On a key QB draw from J.T. Barrett against Michigan, it was Elflein who led the way by ever-so-slightly redirecting Peppers a good 15 yards downfield. The Buckeyes’ guard-turned-center is a nimble and efficient blocker, who beats defenders to the spot time and again.
27Jourdan Lewis, CB
Back to that whole DB size discussion, Lewis’s measurements (listed at 5' 10″) figure to limit his draft ceiling. That’s a bonus for the team that lands him late in Round 1 or early in Round 2, because he has been brilliant for Michigan outside, mirroring receivers on all routes.
28O.J. Howard, TE
Howard never came close to becoming the statistical monster he could have been in Alabama’s offense. It hasn’t hurt the Crimson Tide and won’t hold Howard back, either. It’s easy to see what he brings to the table as a big-play threat.
29Teez Tabor, CB
There isn’t much separating the top cornerbacks in this class. Tabor, a six-footer with eight career INTs and 27 pass break-ups, legitimately could be CB1 on some team boards come April, provided they are comfortable with his off-field missteps.
30JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
A lingering back ailment and a precipitous drop-off in numbers (probably related) are cause for minor concern. However, Smith-Schuster is a talented yards-after-the-catch receiver, who has the skill to be a high-volume playmaker for an NFL team early in his career.
31Caleb Brantley, DT
It’s not unusual to see the 314-pound Brantley as the first player to react when the ball is snapped—he has a knack for timing up snap counts and penetrating the backfield. Brantley plays with power but is far from a one-trick, bull-rushing pony.
32Marshon Lattimore, CB
RS Sophomore, Ohio State
As is the case with his teammate Hooker, Lattimore does not come with a ton of seasoning (a redshirt sophomore who was injured in 2014 and parts of ’15). He was a standout performer this year, though, and thrives on playing a physical game against both the run and pass.
33Carl Lawson, Edge
Lawson is likely to be one of those prospects stuck for like two days in medical checks at the combine. He battled injuries in both 2014 and ’15. He can take over games when he’s at 100%, flashing the speed and bend to turn past OTs but the strength to go through them, as well.
34Budda Baker, S
Arguably the most important piece of Washington’s talented defense, Baker is an undersized (5’ 10”, 180) safety who doesn’t seem to know or care about his limitations. He flies to the football, can cover bigger tight ends and receivers, and brings it as a blitzer.
35Raekwon McMillan, LB
Junior, Ohio State
McMillan has the feel of a Round 1 prospect, because the need for rangy linebackers is so overwhelming league-wide right now. He rarely fails to finish plays when he is in the vicinity of the ball-carrier.
36Pat Mahomes, QB
Junior, Texas Tech
If everyone is feeling a little skittish about the QB class anyway, is it better to roll the dice early in Round 1 or look for a low-ceiling, high-floor guy later? If a team rolls with option B, Mahomes should be in the mix (if he goes pro). He is a dazzling athlete with a huge arm. Whether or not he ever can polish up his game enough to be an NFL starter is the question.
37Takkarist McKinley, Edge
A blur of effort and speed off the edge, McKinley delivered 10.0 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss for the Bruins. He’s more of a physical fit for a 3–4 OLB spot, but he has been more comfortable and productive as a 4–3 end.
38Gareon Conley, CB
Junior, Ohio State
The other half of Ohio State’s NFL-caliber cornerbacking duo. While he may not be as physical as Lattimore on a down-to-down basis, he does have the length (6' 0″, 195) and ball skills to eliminate receivers.
39Solomon Thomas, Edge
Thomas played better than Stanford might have expected as an interior-line presence in 2015, and he was even better this season playing off the edge. His experience at both spots is a plus. So, too, will be the option to slide him closer to the ball on passing downs, where his quickness can pay off against guards.
40D’Onta Foreman, RB
A 250-pound bellcow back who runs like a player 35 pounds lighter. Foreman is absolutely not a guy defenders want to see barreling at them, but he’s more than a short-yardage back. He has the patience to let holes develop, then blows through them.
Just missed the cut: Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington; DeDe Westbrook, WR, Indiana; Dan Feeney, G, Indiana; Justin Evans, S, Texas A&M; Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU