This is it. After this weekend, we're waiting for bowl games (thankfully, there are 40 of them), and then college football season is over. But if you're a fan of the NFL draft, we're really just getting started.
Once the season ends, there will be a clear picture of which players are in and which players are out of the 2017 draft class. That helps narrow the playing field—and allows one-man-shop scouting departments like myself to get caught up in which players to view. As that process unfolds, this will be your spot to get the weekly draft news you need.
What's happening this week?
- The best landing spots for Colin Kaepernick
- Updated Top 32 Big Board
- News on top underclassmen's decisions
- Senior Bowl roster update
- ...and a look at five sleeper candidates
The Scout's Report
—Jabrill Peppers is a Heisman candidate and one of the most electric players in the country, but where will he find himself drafted? Two scouts I talked with this week listed Peppers as a "lock" to be drafted in the top 10.
—More Peppers news: His mother is asking potential agents to fill out a 41-point questionnaire, according to Inside the League's Neil Stratton (h/t Darren Heitner). While that's a little unorthodox, Peppers has the name power to ask more of his future agent and marketing reps. It's a smart move and doesn't mean he'll officially declare. Peppers can vet agents and still decide to return to Michigan for his redshirt junior season.
—On the other side of the rivalry, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker told Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch that he's "100 percent sure" he'll be back with the Buckeyes next season. Hooker is thought to be a first-round talent according to NFL scouts I've spoken with this season. He was ranked in my top 15 before this announcement.
—Texas running back D'Onta Foreman announced he'll enter the 2017 NFL draft after a 2,000-yard season for the Longhorns. Foreman carried the ball 323 times this season—a lot—but had just 108 carries heading into the campaign. He's a powerful back with deceptive open-field speed and has a top-25 grade on my current board.
—Alabama has a roster loaded with talent on defense, but not enough attention is paid to the offense. Tight end O.J. Howard figures to be the first offensive player off the board, as three scouts told me he's a top-20 player in the class.
—Nick Saban loves Jon Allen. This ESPN.com article from Alex Scarborough is a great look inside Saban's relationship with his senior defensive lineman. Allen is a top-five player in the class, and if Saban speaks this highly of him to NFL teams, clubs could be fighting to get into position to draft him.
—NFL scouts aren't in love with the 2017 quarterback class. That's not breaking news, but this week two scouts told me Oklahoma State junior Mason Rudolph would be a late-rounder, Patrick Mahomes is a project with two or three years of work needed (one compared him to Bryce Petty) and Deshaun Watson's accuracy is "shaky."
5 Names to Know
5. RB Jamaal Williams, BYU
The 2017 running back class just keeps getting better. We can thank BYU's Jamaal Williams for helping with that.
Williams, a 6'1", 220-pound bruiser, is a redshirt senior with some skeletons in his closet—he was arrested for suspicion of underage drinking as a sophomore—and a knee injury in his background. But he's emerged in 2016 as a new player after taking a redshirt season in 2015.
He's a natural athlete with smooth moves in the open field despite his upright running style. Now, as a senior, we see him running with power and a nasty stiff arm. Williams is steadily climbing up my board.
4. DL Tanzel Smart, Tulane
You can't watch Tanzel Smart without noticing his effort. He's a nonstop-motor player who wins with quickness and relentlessness. He's a little shorter than you'd like (6'1") for an inside prospect, but Smart's natural leverage advantage helps him cut through offensive lines to make splash plays in the backfield.
A Senior Bowl invitee, Smart will get a chance to prove himself against the nation's best offensive linemen in Mobile, Alabama. If he can show the hand use I've seen on film and hold his own against bigger blockers, Smart's stock could shoot way up from the mid-round grade I have on him now.
3. TE Cole Hikutini, Louisville
Credit Bobby Petrino for seeing something in Cole Hikutini that few did. When the big tight end transferred from Sacramento State to City College of San Francisco, he probably never expected to be talked about as a top-100 player for the 2017 draft. And yet, here he is.
Hikutini has shown exceptional growth as a tight end this season, catching 49 passes for 656 yards and eight touchdowns while using his 6'5", 250-pound frame to box out defenders and make plays up the seam. Hikutini is still a bit raw, but he's come alive in the Petrino offense after being an afterthought headed into the season.
2. WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
If you watched Syracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo catch five touchdowns against Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving weekend, you saw a player rapidly move up my board as the season comes to a close.
Etta-Tawo started his career at Maryland before transferring to play for the Orange. It was a smart move. His athleticism and natural ability as a pass-catcher have been shining all season, and Etta-Tawo is starting to look like an instinctive playmaker with the ball in his hands after the catch.
With 94 catches, almost 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season, Etta-Tawo is currently a Round 3 player.
1. RB Kareem Hunt, Toledo
There are enough quality running backs in this class that I could write about a new one here each week and never run out of material. That also means we sometimes overlook talented players because so much energy is spent on the top guys.
Toledo back Kareem Hunt is falling under the radar for this reason. He's a do-it-all back with patience and enough speed to make plays outside the hashes. Against Western Michigan last week, Hunt was a monster at making something out of nothing en route to 273 total yards on the day.
While he may ultimately be a Day 3 pick, Hunt has enough quality tools to be a sleeper back in this draft.
The Big Board
As each day passes, more players are making their intentions for 2017 known. With that new information, here is a fresh look at my top 32 players for the upcoming draft.
|Updated Top 32 Big Board|
|1||Myles Garrett||EDGE||Texas A&M|
|12||Mitch Trubisky||QB||North Carolina|
|13||Gareon Conley||CB||Ohio State|
|15||Corey Davis||WR||Western Michigan|
|25||Marshon Lattimore||CB||Ohio State|
|27||DeShone Kizer||QB||Notre Dame|
|32||Bucky Hodges||TE||Virginia Tech|
10. This week's "What The Hell" moment for me came while reading Albert Breer's weekly column at The MMQB (which is really, really good every week). Breer, interviewing a college scouting director about Dak Prescott, shared this quote:
One college scouting director admitted it got him with Prescott. "He's smart, was working on his master's, players gravitate to him, he's a hard worker, a leader, he was wired right. And I missed on him because I saw Tim Tebow. It's Tebow's offense, and I was thinking the mechanics are similar, so I missed that he has better instincts and feel than Tebow ever did."
I'm pulling my fingernails off with pliers reading this.
Prescott did start his college career running a "Tebow offense," but Mississippi State evolved offensively during his career. By Prescott's junior season he was playing more from the pocket and running an offense that asked him to pass first and run second. As a senior, he was playing from the pocket.
This is one of those moments when you wonder what scouts are really doing when they're supposed to be on the road watching players. Anyone who discredited Prescott because the Mississippi State offense was too Tebow didn't watch him in 2014 or 2015.
We all missed on Prescott. That's OK. But let's not revise history to make excuses for it. I missed on him because I didn't love his arm strength, I knocked him too hard for a DUI that was later dropped and his accuracy during Senior Bowl week was spotty.
Missing is OK if you own it. This college scouting director is not owning it.
9. Another round of players accepted invitations from the Senior Bowl this week. Here's a look at the updated rosters—which are, of course, subject to change.
|2017 Senior Bowl Accepted Invites|
|DL Montravius Adams, Auburn||S Nate Gerry, Nebraska||LB Duke Riley, LSU|
|CB Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado||K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State||CB Ezra Robinson, Tennessee State|
|P Toby Baker, Arkansas||S Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville||FB Sam Rogers, Virginia Tech|
|EDGE Tarell Basham, Ohio||TE Cole Hikutini, Louisville||QB Seth Russell, Baylor|
|EDGE Vince Biegel, Wisconsin||WR Isaiah Jones, East Carolina||DL Tanzel Smart, Tulane|
|T Dion Dawkins, Temple||CB Desmond King, Iowa||TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas|
|RB Matt Dayes, NC State||DL Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova||WR Jamari Staples, Louisville|
|G Jessamen Dunker, Tennessee State||WR Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington||FB Freddie Stevenson, Florida State|
|K Jake Elliott, Memphis||G Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky||WR Ryan Switzer, North Carolina|
|TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss||T Conor McDermott, UCLA||WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech|
|WR Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse||EDGE Takkarist McKinley, UCLA||WR Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky|
|S Justin Evans, Texas A&M||S Obi Melifonwu, UConn||C Jon Toth, Kentucky|
|TE Gerald Everett, South Alabama||G Jordan Morgan, Kutztown||QB Davis Webb, California|
|G Dan Feeney, Indiana||G Taylor Moton, Western Michigan||WR Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma|
|S Johnathan Ford, Auburn||DL Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte||RB Jamaal Williams, BYU|
|C Kyle Fuller, Baylor||WR Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M|
8. The Senior Bowl is the premier predraft all-star game, but the East-West Shrine Game is also important. As those rosters start to take shape, I'll update them here as well.
|East-West Shrine Rosters|
|QB Weston Lunt, Illinois||G Zach Johnson, North Dakota State||EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr., Arkansas|
|QB Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati||T Jonathan McLaughlin, Virginia Tech||LB Brooks Ellis, Arkansas|
|QB Zach Terrell, Western Michigan||T Victor Salako, Oklahoma State||LB Andrew King, Army|
|TE Blake Jarwin, Oklahoma State||T Dan Skipper, Arkansas||CB Treston DeCoud, Oregon State|
|TE Jalen Robinette, Air Force||DL DeAngelo Brown, Louisville||S Randall Goforth, UCLA|
|C Lucas Crowley, North Carolina||EDGE Trey Hendrickson, FAU||S Jalen Myrick, Minnesota|
|T Antonio Garcia, Troy||DL Treyvon Hester, Toledo|
7. The January 16 deadline for players to declare for the 2017 NFL draft seems far away, but players are already announcing their intentions. The following players have confirmed they'll enter the draft:
- QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson
- RB D'Onta Foreman, Texas
- RB Wayne Gallman, Clemson
- WR Artavis Scott, Clemson
- WR Mike Williams, Clemson
- DL Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
- DL Charles Walker, Oklahoma
- EDGE Charles Harris, Missouri
- LB Jermaine Grace, Miami (Fla.)
6. In the 2016 draft class, I wasn't a huge fan of Derrick Henry. At least that's what my Alabama followers thought. Henry was ranked No. 83 overall, and I doubted his ability to be a starting running back. So what makes D'Onta Foreman different?
The biggest issue with Henry was his lack of lateral agility—so needed in the NFL because backs cannot rely on the offensive line to open and maintain a huge rushing lane like they can in college. Pro backs must be able to adjust on the fly, and Henry didn't do enough of that. Foreman does.
Physically, there are some comparisons. Foreman is 6'1", 249 pounds. Henry was 6'3", 247. Statistically, Henry had 395 carries in his final season (602 for his career), and Foreman had 323 (431 total). Both are big, bruising backs with dreads. It would be easy to compare them.
That ability to shift gears and improvise is why Foreman is ranked No. 24 and Henry was No. 83, but factors like short-area quickness, pad level, balance, and wear and tear get factored in too.
By draft weekend, Foreman may be lower on my board, but for right now, I see a more dynamic back than Henry was.
5. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick can opt out of his deal with the team following the 2016 season and become a free agent. Let's ignore for a second that he might not want to—that's an issue for another day—and instead look at the top landing spots should he hit the open market.
- Chicago: The Jay Cutler era is most likely done in Chicago after the Bears placed him on injured reserve, and the 2017 draft doesn't have a quarterback prospect ready to step in and play from the first week. Kaepernick would be a nice bridge between now and whenever the quarterback of the future is ready to play.
- Denver: John Elway wanted Kaepernick if he had been willing to take a pay cut before the 2016 season. Now, his contract can be negotiated from Denver's point of view and not that of the team taking on the deal San Francisco handed him.
- Arizona: A surprise candidate, but if Carson Palmer doesn't turn things around, the Cardinals need to bring in serious competition and a young player who can eventually replace him. Kaepernick's big arm would be great in Bruce Arians' system.
- New York Jets: Kaepernick in the New York media market would be...interesting, but he would be a fit for what the Jets are doing offensively with big receivers on the outside and no clear-cut quarterback in place for 2017.
- Cleveland: The least likely of all the options, at least right now. The Browns don't seem willing to spend on a pricey veteran when Robert Griffin III is under contract for next season, and the club is in no hurry to win now.
It's almost impossible to truly fix a team in one draft anymore—unless you're the Dallas Cowboys (2016) or Oakland Raiders (2014) and get a little lucky. Here are the teams whose rosters I look at and think are really close to being Super Bowl contenders, though:
- Cincinnati: Give the Bengals some speed at linebacker, develop the young offensive tackles better and get a healthy A.J. Green back on the roster, and this team can win the AFC North again and even make a Super Bowl run.
- Atlanta: The Falcons are close. A little more interior pass rush and either development from Jalen Collins at cornerback or a replacement there, and this team could take off. It might even do it this year without another draft to help.
- Tampa Bay: Jameis Winston is good enough to win a Super Bowl in the next few seasons, and he has talent around him in the backfield and with Mike Evans at receiver. The defense is improving, but a difference-maker in the secondary (safety or cornerback) and a secondary receiver will push Tampa Bay over the top.
@nfldraftscout who's someone that's a consensus first-rounder/top 15 guy that you think could fall into the 2nd round?— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) December 1, 2016
I'm perhaps really weird when it comes to how I work, but I try hard to avoid all other rankings when I'm going through my process. It helps me to have a clear mind and to not let others' opinions influence my own—either directly or indirectly. Because of that, I'm not sure who is and isn't a consensus player, but I can tell you about players I've ranked in that mid-first range who could slip—a la Michael Thomas or Derek Carr as previous examples:
- Derek Barnett: A short-armed defensive end who probably isn't fluid enough to stand up at the next level, scouts may overthink this one from a physical standpoint a lot like what happened to Noah Spence last year. He doesn't have Von Miller's hips, and for some reason scouts expect prospects to come equipped like a Hall of Famer these days.
- Christian McCaffrey: There are a lot of layers here. McCaffrey is a white running back, and that will undoubtedly lead to questions about his speed. It's unfortunate but true. I've had scouts question the IQ of black quarterbacks too often to think race doesn't bleed into scouting for some. But on the field, McCaffrey may be too much of a utility player for teams to spend a first-round pick on.
I was having a conversation with a director of player personnel this week when he told me, "Ignore the hype. Traits don't lie." That perfectly applies to "Air Raid" quarterbacks and how the NFL is changing to evaluate these players.
As a rule, I don't care what offense a player comes from. At any position. For quarterbacks, what I care about is can he accurately throw the ball, can he read a defense and make progressions to a second or third read, and can he throw the ball with enough velocity and power to beat a defender to the spot? If I get a yes to all of those questions and the player meets the physical requirements, he's a first-rounder. A negative in one area might mean you're a second-rounder (depending on the physical tools) and so on.
Scouting is a fluid science. The fact that Jared Goff went No. 1 overall last year coming from an Air Raid scheme tells us the league is embracing traits over systems. Goff met all the requirements listed above and had exceptional interviews with teams, which is why many clubs were trying to trade up to select him.
I find that I (and I think NFL teams) often start looking at the checklist of what you want in a player and ignoring things like scheme, system and years of experience. That said, we can't discredit scheme when looking at a transition period to the NFL. Patrick Mahomes and Luke Falk will likely be docked "points" by teams because of how long it will take them to develop as pro passers, whereas Goff wasn't because of his football IQ and work ethic.
I get this question multiple times each day about Peppers, so hopefully answering here clears things up.
If Peppers declares—and I expect he will—I will rank him as a strong safety prospect for several reasons.
1. Peppers is too small to play linebacker. He's listed at 6'1" and 205 pounds, which makes Telvin Smith look huge at 6'3" and 218 pounds. And Smith is the smallest linebacker I've seen in the NFL this season.
2. Peppers isn't a cornerback. He's not fluid enough. He is a great athlete and is straight-line fast, but his ability to flip his hips and run with receivers down the field is not a strength. That stiffness in coverage is why he's playing more linebacker this season.
3. Peppers is a great returner, and he's electric with the ball in his hands, but he's not Charles Woodson, and he's not Tyrann Mathieu. He might be closer to Landon Collins, but even Collins has a bigger, fuller frame to hang in the box with NFL offenses.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.