Even if the 2018 NFL Draft is still a long way away, I always enjoy being able to preview the class before the college football season to get a taste and see how the players stack up. I think that having notes and analysis on players now allows for a better understanding of growth and development later, and it’s fun to look back and see how the takes that some analysts made in the pre-season aged as the draft process went on. Today I’ll take a deeper dive into my top 10 overall players entering the 2017 college football season and what I like the most about them as pro prospects.
Really nice patience then use of hands by UT tackle Connor Williams. Like his body control & balance. pic.twitter.com/J47emgsAK1
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) February 8, 2017
#1: Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Williams is a blue-chip prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. At 6’4.5” and 320 lbs per nfldraftscout.com, Williams is a former three-star recruit. Overweight growing up and bullied as a child, Williams used it to motivate himself into starting every game at left tackle for the Longhorns over the past two seasons and only allowing one pressure; and that was on a receiver screen. He was high school teammates and is close friends with the #3 overall pick in this year’s draft, now-49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
Williams excels with his ability to mirror offensive linemen and has elite initial punch and hand usage. His footwork is superb and allows him to not get beat off of the snap by twitched up defensive ends, and his ability to plant his legs in the turf and stonewall defenders is amazing. In the run game, Williams is often the lead blocker on outside runs and set the way for D’Onta Foreman to run for over 2,000 yards last year. Williams has a mean streak and can accelerate and pick up linebackers and safeties to free up lanes downfield.
Overall, I don’t know if there is a notable weakness to Williams’ game besides the fact that he’s a half an inch shorter than what most would call positional average, but it doesn’t show up on tape in leverage issues at all. If I’m choosing to nitpick here, a few times in the running game Williams can get too fast too quickly and it can result in him missing an assignment or picking up a defender, but this is easily coachable and I’m sure he’s worked on it this offseason. As a whole, Williams looks like a Day 1 franchise left tackle who is an easy plug and play option.
#2: Derwin James, SS, Florida State
As a true freshman in 2015, FSU played Derwin James all over the field at safety, linebacker, and defensive end. James showed he had the potential to be a future #1 overall pick despite having one of the NFL’s rising stars in Jalen Ramsey in the secondary with him. As a high school recruit, James was the consensus top safety in the nation and a five-star recruit, so while this may have been expected of him, he’s more than exceeded expectations. At 6’2” and 211, James brings the prototypical size and build to the position.
After a terrific true freshman campaign, in which he racked up 91 tackles with 9.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, as well as five PBUs and two forced fumbles, James dropped off in 2016, playing in two games before tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee and having a setback that cause him to miss the rest of the season and incur a medical redshirt. There will be questions surrounding whether or not James is truly healthy and 100% back again but he looked back to full strength and being free-of-flow in coverage in FSU’s spring game. James’ strongest traits are easily his explosiveness and his processing skills, as he’s able to win off the edge as a pass rusher with a combination of burst from the snap and cadence reading, and his processing skills allow him to make plays in the run game and read offenses as quickly as possible. From a versatility perspective, James played 405 snaps at free safety and 108 at strong safety in 2015, as well as 132 in the nickel, 70 at defensive end, and a small sample size of 4 at outside corner in 2015.
Even if James has played limited reps at box safety, I feel it combines his strengths best with his explosiveness and ability to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield while also flexing him out into the nickel or letting him test his range at free safety as well. James is a consistent tackler and outside of the unfortunate freak injury in 2016, there are few other weaknesses to his game. He holds an identical grade to Williams for me currently, but because box safety’s positional value is below that of left tackle, Williams gets the edge.
LeSean McCoy-like cutback from Guice: pic.twitter.com/gB45C4A6oX
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) August 17, 2017
#3: Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
In the past several years, the debate for the running back to be a better overall player than Ezekiel Elliott has been an interesting and fun discussion. This time last year, there was a case to be made for Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook, but both of them had shortcomings in their games that still allowed for Zeke to earn the higher overall score and the third highest I’ve ever allocated. LSU’s Derrius Guice is the closest any pro prospect has come to Zeke so far, and is just a nasty player.
A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Guice has had his fair share of troubles in his life: his dad was shot at a Denny’s when he was 7 and his brother was arrested for second degree attempted murder. Derrius Guice’s life could have taken any number of turns and we could be not even having a discussion about him being a top five pick in this year’s draft, but he’s done a tremendous job of staying out of trouble and making smart decisions. During his first two years at LSU, Guice was overshadowed by Fournette, but while Fournette missed an extended period of time last year for an ankle injury, we got to see what he could do as a starter, and oh boy, it was nasty.
Guice runs with what a lot of draft analysts would call his hair on fire and just runs over defenders, but also has some of the most nasty and lethal cuts you will ever see from a halfback. There are multiple plays of Guice sending defenders six feet under into the turf with stiff arms and his ability to keep his legs churning and simply shrug off defenders is amazing to watch. Watching Guice is the most fun I’ve had with a prospect in a long time, because every other rep, whether it’s him picking up a defensive lineman and lowering his pads and driving him to the ground or leaving a defender in the dust gasping for air on an outside run, Guice has you whooping and hollering. His vision and power are superb, and his pass pro is phenomenal. His receiving could use a little work and at times I grit my teeth when he totes the rock with only one arm, which could spurn ball security issues at the next level, but I don’t have a definitive weakness with Derrius Guice. He’s a Day 1 star and a future top five back in this league and is already my biggest draft crush from this group.
— Matheus Milanez (@biffmila) May 15, 2017
#4: Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
After last year’s historically highly regarded NFL Draft pass rusher class that included Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Mizzou’s Charles Harris, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, and Michigan’s Taco Charlton all going in the first round, the 2018 group will have big shoes to fill. But with the likes of LSU’s Arden Key, Boston College’s Harold Landry, and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell at the top, they have a good chance to have at least three first round picks, and Key is my favorite front seven player from this class.
With reports that he’s bulked up to 265 pounds now after being below 240 in 2016, it will be important for him to prove that he’s still able to maintain his twitch off the edge, speed and bend having bulked up by at least 20 pounds, but it’s good to see him fill out his 6’6” frame to its full potential. Key plays with an energy that makes him fun to watch: his bend and ability to turn the corner to get to the passer is very translatable and his hand usage is violent and he uses it for the entirety of every rep. Key’s ability to string together moves, even if his inside and bull rush ones are not fully formed yet, is another trait that NFL teams will fall in love with.
There will be several questions Key will have to answer for NFL scouts for his personal leave of absence this offseason, as head coach Ed Orgeron has confirmed that he will miss the season opener against BYU and why he went about it in the way he did, but he’s supremely talented on-field. In terms of on-field question marks for myself, I think Key can struggle to win with initial punch off the snap and can sometimes have issues in run support, but he’s the best pure pass rusher from this group as of right now.
Twenty five days until PSU Football and this time it’s Saquon Barkley… cutting inside… TOUCHDOWN from 25 yards out to beat Minnesota. pic.twitter.com/m6fCqMgek8
— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) August 8, 2017
#5: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
The debate for “RB1” in this year’s draft between LSU’s Derrius Guice and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley has already started on Draft Twitter, and although the 2017 college football season should provide some clarity into the subject, I think it’s my favorite player-to-player battle so far in the class. A former five-star high school recruit, Barkley grew up in a rough New York neighborhood and his dad was a part-time boxer who became an addict. His mother had the foresight to make the decision to move the family to Pennsylvania to save Barkley’s life and help to cleanse her husband. Since then, his dad has recovered and both have consistent jobs and Barkley has shown off his abilities that make him a potential top five pick in the 2018 NFL Draft at Penn State.
I like Barkley a good bit and I think his shiftiness and home run hitter ability to make any play a touchdown makes him very dangerous – but I don’t think he doesn’t have flaws and is the perfect prospect like many in the draft community have said. Our very own Michael Kist profiled Barkley, noting that he often “… relies on bouncing or reversing field too much and it leads to some interesting results.” Kist continues, saying that around a fifth of Barkley’s carries from last year were either no gain or a loss in the backfield and that in order to be a fully successful pro prospect, he needs to work on being more decisive in his cuts and bursting upfield.
That being said, Barkley has all the makings of a superstar otherwise and is a freak athlete: videos of him lifting over 500 pounds of weights went viral this offseason and at the Nittany Lions junior day he ran a 4.33 hand-timed forty as well. His vision is superb when he isn’t too hesitant to make a cut upfield and his ability to break tackles and run over defenders with his 5’11” and 230-pound frame is a very nice compliment to his elusiveness. As a whole, Barkley looks like a Day 1 starter at the next level and a player who has a game that offers star potential.
Minkah finished with three picks in this game in what might have been the most dominant game by a safety from last season. pic.twitter.com/3xhSXZKPkR
— Riley Auman (@junioraumanac) August 9, 2017
#6: Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS, Alabama
Alabama always provides a loaded crop of NFL Draft talent, and that’s no different this year. The best player on the Crimson Tide for this year’s class is Minkah Fitzpatrick – a versatile corner/safety who has played all over the Alabama secondary, whether at either safety position or playing the nickel and even some at boundary corner. Fitzpatrick has some very strong traits that make me excited about his NFL future, including his ability to cover ground quickly and use his range as well as his ball skills, which have helped him to haul in eight career interceptions – including six in 2016. He does a great job of reading plays and being able to bait the quarterback and then recover and intercept it, something he did three times in a game against Arkansas’ Austin Allen.
Alabama likes to use Fitzpatrick on cornerback blitzes, and he does a good job of timing the snap and exploding from his nickel position to shoot into the backfield. I think Minkah’s best fit is at free safety, where he can use his greatest strengths and hide his weaknesses better, which I’ll detail in a moment. My issues with Fitzpatrick is that although he does a tremendous job of flying into the backfield to blow up screens and diagnoses plays quickly, his angles to the ball carrier can be rough at times and he can be an inconsistent form tackler. I think if he is going to play boundary corner at the next level, he will have trouble against receivers bigger than himself to be able to set the edge and get off of blocks. I would play Fitzpatrick in the Budda Baker role – not that I’d compare him to Baker, as Baker was more of a scrappy player who was undersized – but as a player who plays free safety on early downs and plays nickel on passing downs and is able to be all over the field and make plays. As a whole, I would say that Fitzpatrick will need to clean things up technically but that he’s more than worthy of a top 10 selection based on what I’ve seen so far.
#7: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
Clemson has become what many in the college football sphere have called “DLU,” or Defensive Line University, due to how much of just a pass rush factory they have become over the past few seasons, with 11 defensive linemen drafted since 2011. No matter how many starters declare or head on to the NFL, they always reload, and the new star of this front is Christian Wilkins.
Wilkins has played out of position the last several years at five-technique due to Carlos Watkins at the three-tech spot, and has played there and racked up sacks and tackles for loss (including NINE pass breakups) at 310 pounds. Tremendously explosive off the snap, Wilkins has violent hand usage and is able to win with a variety of moves, making him lethal for college offensive linemen. He is able to drop his anchor and leverage past defenders with tremendous power and his initial punch puts such a shock into some linemen that he can just push past them. The main concerns that people I’ve talked to have with Wilkins are that he needs to be consistent at three technique full time, as he had limited reps as a true freshman there in 2015 and was flexed out to five-tech for his sophomore season, and that they want to see how teams will do when they form their gameplan around their offensive linemen stopping him.
I think of Wilkins as a plug and play starter at defensive tackle (specifically three-technique) along the defensive line, and he reminds me a ton of what Fletcher Cox was like coming out of Mississippi State. It will be interesting to see how the Clemson defensive line can anchor the team through what could be some offensive struggles after losing Deshaun Watson and how he fares compared to 2019 NFL Draft prospect Dexter Lawrence and another first-round caliber 2018 prospect in Clelin Ferrell.
Whew, I’m crushing on Ohio State LB Jerome Baker. Processes fast, flows quick, takes tight angles, moves laterally & finishes well routinely pic.twitter.com/iPvVodh5jt
— Joe Marino (@TheJoeMarino) May 22, 2017
#8: Jerome Baker, LB, Ohio State
Another fun debate to be had from this year’s class is who will end up being the top linebacker from the group, and for most, it’s down to three players: Texas’ Malik Jefferson, Ohio State’s Jerome Baker, and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans. I have top 25 grades on all three, but I think Baker has the best potential of the group and is the most polished right now. He only became a full-time starter last season, but when he was, he amassed 86 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions, forming a dynamic duo with Raekwon McMillan.
The first thing I noticed from Baker on tape was his sideline to sideline speed and his ability to start the play on one side of the formation but be all the way on the other side of the field chasing the ball carrier by the end of it. I think some of his supplemental traits, like being able to shoot and fill gaps with ease and being able to diagnose plays very quickly and while on the run are well above positional average. Baker also possesses great explosiveness and an ability to set the edge and force players to go back inside where teammates can finish the rep also allows him to have a complete game. In coverage, he is very free of flow and is fluid in terms of covering tight ends and running backs and has tremendous ball skills, shown in the Oklahoma game this past season.
Overall, Baker is just a fun player to watch and is a starter right off the bat at MIKE linebacker for whatever team chooses to draft him, and is an early draft crush of mine.
Boston College EDGE rusher Harold Landry is intriguing. Has nice explosion/bend and read/react skills. Hand usage needs some work though. pic.twitter.com/jjUSEaf6r2
— J.R. (@JReidDraftScout) June 6, 2017
#9: Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
Last season’s most productive pass rusher in college football was Boston College’s Harold Landry, who racked up 16.5 tackles, 22 TFLs and 7 forced fumbles in what was a monster statistical year. He has seen his stock with scouts rise tremendously, as in a June article, Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline said: “I’ve been told several scouts rate Harold Landry of Boston College as the top prospect from the senior class and handed him a stratospheric grade not equaled in more than a decade.” Many set into Landry’s tape after this, and with nearly all agreeing that he didn’t stack up to Myles Garrett from last year’s class, the general consensus was that he was a top twenty prospect in the class.
Landry wins with twitchiness and burst off of the snap and the ability to bend and turn the corner as well as string together a variety of pass rush moves and play a chess match throughout the game with an offensive tackle. He’s got a variety of pass rush moves that he can win with and can win with speed and inside moves, but could stand to work on a bull rush. Landry struggles in run defense as he often accelerates too quickly and is stuck behind the ball carrier and can have issues in tackling in space. Landry is 6’2” and 250 pounds per nfldraftscout.com and could stand to bulk up a bit to help improve his ability to get off blocks. He is also not a crazy athlete, which may limit his value and room to grow for some NFL teams.
As a whole, I don’t know that there’s much else Landry could have gained by staying in school, but he now gets a chance to put up even more production and try to lessen his weaknesses in the eyes of NFL teams. Landry reminds me a good bit of Noah Spence when he was coming out, as he is a speed rusher who wins with bend and quickness around the corner but may need a few years to develop.
Bruh, look at Quenton Nelson getting two-for-one against the Trojans✌️✌️✌️✌️ pic.twitter.com/XVY7wSys1E
— Michael Peterson (@ChargersLAtely) June 3, 2017
#10: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
The Notre Dame offensive line is lucky enough to return two of the best offensive linemen in the nation in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson – a dynamic combo on the left side of the line. Nelson has played at 325-340 pounds according to coach Brian Kelly throughout his time with the Fighting Irish and plays with an attitude and runs over any defender who gets in his path.
In pass protection, Nelson’s initial punch and ability to stand his ground is superb and he’s well above positional average, and his ability to pick up defenders and assignments while reacting quickly is wholly underrated. In the run game, Nelson is an absolute monster, blowing up anything in his path and showing a mean streak like no other player I’ve ever seen. Nelson can be seen finishing every rep and driving defenders back ten yards away from the play and being a tone setter in run blocking. His ability to help out teammates when they are losing their individual battle with double teams helps show his team player mentality and his footwork and ability to mirror defenders is great. Nelson shut down Malik McDowell, one of the best defensive linemen in the draft, last season in their matchup where he consistently dug his feet into the turf and did the dirty work, leveraging McDowell and often taking plays to the turf.
Overall, Nelson is one of, if not my biggest draft crush so far and although he may not garner much hype as an interior lineman, he has all the tools to be a future All-Pro.
Other First Round Grades:
11. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
12. Vita Vea, NT, Washington
13. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
14. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
15. Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
16. Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU
17. Mason Cole, C, Michigan
18. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
19. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
20. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
21. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama