NFL Big Board 4.0: Ranking the top 50 prospects ahead of the combine

So much will change in the NFL draft landscape over the next 15 days or so. Next Tuesday, the annual scouting begins in Indianapolis—330 draft hopefuls and just about every coach and front-office member in the league descend on Lucas Oil Stadium. Shortly thereafter, on March 9, free agency officially opens, with players and teams putting pen to paper on contracts they will have spent the previous “legal tampering period” negotiating.

By the time the dust settles, there should be a much clearer picture of how the draft may play out. The scouting combine, though, should not make or break perceptions of any of the attending prospects. It is a small (if very important) part of the process.

Here’s how the top-50 Big Board shapes up, as Indianapolis looms:

1. Myles Garrett, Edge (Junior, Texas A&M)

Even folks just now dipping a toe into the 2017 draft pool are aware of how highly regarded Garrett is among this class. He has rare burst and finish off the edge, the type of skill set that can dominant at the next level. If he’s not producing double-digit sack seasons on the regular by 2018, it’ll be a disappointment.

2. Reuben Foster, LB (Senior, Alabama)

While Cleveland may not grab Foster at No. 1 overall, San Francisco should kick the tires at No. 2. That’s rarefied air for an off-ball linebacker, but Foster’s blend of abilities as a three-down defender is worth the attention.

3. Jonathan Allen, DL (Senior, Alabama)

WRs and TEs often are discussed in terms of the mismatches they can create. There ought to be similar conversations about Allen. Sure, a team could draft him to play exclusively at end or tackle, but his real value comes from being able to dominate from multiple spots.

4. Jamal Adams, S (Junior, LSU)

Think of safeties like Earl Thomas, Eric Berry, Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. It’s not just that they were great players on their own, it’s that their respective defenses took on their personalities. Adams has that same alpha-dog approach, with the talent to back it.

5. Dalvin Cook, RB (Junior, Florida State)

As it does, the NFL will dig—Cook has a history of shoulder issues, and he was suspended during the 2015 off-season while awaiting a trial (he was found not guilty of misdemeanor battery). The team that takes the leap will land a game-changing back that can create huge plays out of nothing.

6. Marshon Lattimore, CB (RS Sophomore, Ohio State)

It’s mind-boggling to watch Lattimore’s 2016 performance knowing that he a.) was just a redshirt sophomore, and b.) did not start full-time until that season. He is so comfortable and advanced in press coverage that the sky is the limit once he gains experience.

7. Corey Davis, WR (Senior, Western Michigan)

Everything Davis does just looks so smooth, like he was handcrafted to play the receiver position. The routes, the explosion after the catch, the finishing ability—it’s all there. Unfortunately, an ankle injury will keep him from working out at the combine.

8. Solomon Thomas, DL (Junior, Stanford)

Thomas is front and center this year in the case of how prospects get overly nitpicked. Is he too light to play inside? Does he have the length to live outside? You can worry about about those questions, or you can focus on the fact that he has the get-off and nuance in his approach to pummel offensive linemen.

9. Quincy Wilson, CB (Junior, Florida)

Another physical, in-your-face cornerback, who also will help control the opposing run game because of how aggressive he is working downhill. There has been some buzz about how well Wilson’s skills fit at safety, but why move him when he has lock-down traits at CB?

10. Leonard Fournette, RB (Junior, LSU)

The type of back that makes defenders feel every single contact with him, Fournette is a bruising 235-pounder with the speed to pull away once he reaches the open field. If he finds the right fit, there is Ezekiel Elliott-like potential for his rookie season.

11. Sidney Jones, CB (Junior, Washington)

The lack of bulk may always stand as a challenge for Jones, assuming he doesn’t show up with an extra 20 pounds next season. Aside from that, good luck finding a glaring weakness in his game. He’s always around the ball when it’s thrown his direction.

12. Malik Hooker, S (RS Sophomore, Ohio State)

Quarterbacks have to go out of their way to misdirect Hooker, because if he is anywhere in the vicinity when they fire a pass, he’ll attempt a play on it. He won’t be a menace vs. the run early on, but he can be a turnover-creating machine.

13. Tim Williams, OLB (Senior, Alabama)

His NFL coaching staff will have to mold him into being more than a pass rusher, though that journey started in earnest in 2016. But even if he is just a specialist out of the gate, his knack for bending the edge to chase down quarterbacks will be of exceptional value.

14. Deshaun Watson, QB (Junior, Clemson)

All of the perceived top QBs in this class have issues that will give teams pause. In Watson’s case, it’s the turnovers (17 INTs), several of which were caused by poor reads. There is still far more good than bad here. Watson has proven himself on big stages, and he has the arm, athleticism and processing ability required to thrive.

15. O.J. Howard, TE (Senior, Alabama)

The mystery that may never be answered: Did Alabama O.C. Lane Kiffin fail to utilize Howard fully, or did Kiffin feel that he couldn’t count on Howard to take over games on a consistent basis? Barring further evidence, let’s go with the former. Howard has all the athletic gifts to be a featured weapon.

16. Malik McDowell, DT (Junior, Michigan State)

Dip back to October, before an ankle injury cut into McDowell’s season, or back to 2015 and it won’t take long to see why McDowell has top-20 potential. He has the cut of a standout 3–4 NFL DE.

17. Mike Williams, WR (Junior, Clemson)

Williams fits the prototype for an outside, potential No. 1 receiver. He has size and strength, plus sets up cornerbacks just enough to gain separation deep. And good luck stopping him on a slant route.

18. Derek Barnett, DE (Junior, Tennessee)

Barnett is very difficult for offensive tackles to block one-on-one, because he is explosive off the snap and works to keep his hands free. His 32 career sacks while with the Vols weren’t freebies—he worked for them despite heavy attention from opposing blockers.

19. Christian McCaffrey, RB (Junior, Stanford)

There are special traits in McCaffrey’s game. Namely, in how he patiently sets up his blockers, then navigates through traffic with his exceptional cutting ability. He’ll be a playmaker as a pass catcher, too.

20. Jabrill Peppers, S (Junior, Michigan)

There will be risk in assuming he can handle an NFL safety role, but this level of versatility does not come around often. The Peppers draft-stock roller coaster is set to tick upwards after he tests at the combine.

21. Desmond King, CB/S (Senior, Iowa)

Speed (or a relative lack thereof) is the only element that could hold him back. The thing is, his ball skills are through the roof. Be it in the slot, outside or at safety, that know-how won’t change.

22. Takkarist McKinley, Edge (Senior, UCLA)

His motor is … well, imagine turning off the “fatigue” slider on a video game. He cranks it up and never stops. That’s problematic for OTs, because McKinley also brings balance and speed off the edge.

23. Marlon Humphrey, CB (RS Sophomore, Alabama)

There are moments when Humphrey looks as good, or better, than any corner in this class. If he can harness those and eliminate his issue—occasionally giving up big plays—his size and speed can make him a No. 1 cornerback.

24. Caleb Brantley, DT (Junior, Florida)

Brantley is what teams want in an impact interior lineman—a strong, well-built defender with the burst to blow up the pocket by himself. He can bury blockers who aren’t ready to rumble.

25. Budda Baker, S (Junior, Washington)

No matter where he ends up, Baker probably will be a fan favorite—he does everything at full speed. He excels against the pass, but his smallish frame has not yet prevented him from being a force as a blitzer and run defender.

26. John Ross, WR (Junior, Washington)

Baker’s dynamic former teammate, Ross might be the top big-play threat in this draft class. He can get deep or burn defenses with his elite run-after-the-catch talent.

27. Patrick Mahomes, QB (Junior, Texas Tech)

Grip it and rip it. Mahomes can drill a ball in to all levels of the field, from the pocket or on the run, with a variety of arm angles. He’s raw with superstar upside.

28. Cam Robinson, OT (Junior, Alabama)

Go ahead and run behind Robinson—he can mash defenders at the line and get to the second level. His pass protection needs a little clean-up, but there’s enough potential for him to be seen as a left tackle.

29. Jourdan Lewis, CB (Senior, Michigan)

Lewis plays a stingier press coverage than his frame might indicate. Even so, that sub-six-foot frame might push him into the slot, where he can eliminate shifty receiving threats with his footwork.

30. Jarrad Davis, LB (Senior, Florida)

Davis is a linebacker who’s built to succeed in the modern NFL, because he’s quick enough to stick with running backs but physical enough to body tight ends. He’s reportedly going to skip drills at the combine, due to an ankle injury that nagged him during the season.

31. Charles Harris, Edge (Junior, Missouri)

A very fluid edge rusher, who looks like a 3–4 OLB but also could be a fit as a 4–3 DE. Harris sets up blockers well, and he’s borderline unstoppable when he goes to his spin move.

32. Zach Cunningham, LB (Junior, Vanderbilt)

He might not finish every play, but he’ll get to the ball carrier. (And he did have 125 tackles last season.) Give him a little space and turn him loose.

33. Jalen Tabor, CB (Junior, Florida)

Tabor might be at his best after the ball leaves the QB’s hand—he eats up ground in a hurry, then finds the football. He’s more technique and athleticism than physicality.

34. DeShone Kizer, QB (Junior, Notre Dame)

The concern is that Notre Dame’s 2016 season broke him, to some extent. He was skittish and error-prone through too much of it. But at his best—like, say, during his 2015 hot streak—Kizer was a dangerous dual-threat QB, one capable of dropping passes into extremely tight windows.

35. Pat Elflein, C (Senior, Ohio State)

The draft’s top interior O-lineman. He can hold his own vs. power inside, but he’s really special when he can work out in front of a running back.

36. Jaleel Johnson, DT (Senior, Iowa)

A disruptive presence inside, Johnson works his hands with the savvy of a veteran NFL D-linemen. He makes it very tough to hold a block.

37. Evan Engram, TE (Senior, Ole Miss)

Whether you want to label him a tight end or a slot receiver, Engram is problematic for defenses. He’s athletic enough to burn linebackers but advanced enough in his understanding of routes to work open vs. DBs.

38. Ryan Ramczyk, OT (Junior, Wisconsin)

The hip surgery that will knock him out of combine drills makes this trickier than it otherwise would be, because Ramczyk is a nimble, aggressive blocker. How long until he’s 100%?

39. Haason Reddick, LB (RS Sophomore, Temple)

A Senior Bowl star, Reddick’s deep background as a running back, DB and most recently edge rusher all show up in making him a dynamic linebacking prospect.

40. Mitch Trubisky, QB (Junior, North Carolina)

Trubisky might be the first QB off the board, and the traits—as a runner and passer—are intriguing. His hit-or-miss footwork and lack of experience should temper the expectations.

41. Juju Smith-Schuster, WR (Junior, USC)

He plays almost like an athletic tight end: physical, willing to block and difficult to bring down.

42. Tre'Davious White, CB (Senior, LSU)

White’s best quality is that he can run a receiver’s routes almost as well as the receiver himself. He’s all about quickness.

43. Gareon Conley, CB (Junior, Ohio State)

Conley was outstanding defending the pass in 2016, and he will fit comfortably into any coverage scheme.

Re-picking the first round of the 2016 NFL draft

44. Chris Wormley, DT (Senior, Michigan)

A 300-pounder who did a lot of work coming off the edge at Michigan—he has the power and size to be a productive three-tech.

45. David Njoku, TE (Junior, Miami)

Njoku is probably ticketed for Round 1 based on the dream of what he could become. His physical attributes are through the roof.

46. Taco Charlton, Edge (Senior, Michigan)

Granted, this ranking pumps the brakes a bit on the recent Charlton hype, but it’s easy to see why he has so many fans. Charlton brings great size, a variety of moves and the ability to finish. He needs the way he played in Michigan’s final four games to be his norm, rather than a spurt.

47. DeMarcus Walker, DL (Senior, Florida State)

Walker is a stout defender off the edge, and he can be a nightmare for offensive lines when he drops inside.

48. Taylor Moton, OT (Senior, Western Michigan)

All the talk about left tackles overshadows how important right tackles are, especially given how NFL teams currently utilize their pass rushers. Moton is a plug-and-play candidate on the right side.

49. Carl Lawson, Edge (Junior, Clemson)

Lawson is considered to be a pass rusher (9.5 sacks in 2015), but he actually could be more effective early on against the run. He’s smart when it comes to reading plays and stacks up blockers outside.

50. Cooper Kupp, WR (Senior, Eastern Washington)

While Kupp lacks a dominant trait that could push him into Round 1, he’s complete as a receiver. He knows how to create space with his breaks, and his hands are ultra-reliable.

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