2017 NFL Draft: Prospects on the Rise After First Week of Free Agency

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 14, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Prospects on the Rise After First Week of Free Agency

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    Some of the best free-agency moves are the ones that don't happen, and often by accident. Just ask Denver Broncos general manager John Elway about his thankfully failed attempt to keep quarterback Brock Osweiler.

    Though there are key signings that can push a team over the top or add a critical piece, in general the best blueprints for roster building are focused on the draft. That's not a new or foreign concept, or at least it shouldn't be in a sport where young, cheap and talented is the holy trifecta of championship aspirations.

    But every year there's still a reality that sets in around this time when free agency begins to fizzle out and cupboards are bare on the open market. As teams turn their gaze strictly toward late April, draft prospects are the last and only hope for addressing needs that inevitably went untouched in free agency.

    As desperation rises, so does the potential draft value of the top talents. A team wanting to plug in a large, bounding and athletic tight end, for example, could easily get an extra twinkle in its eye when looking at Adam Shaheen, a small-school prospect who's quickly climbing in a draft brimming with talent at his position.

    There were few proven tight ends available in free agency. The same could be said for pass-rushers after several top talents were kept off the market by the franchise tag. Suddenly the already high draft stock of Stanford's Soloman Thomas is soaring that much further.

    Those are just two prospects who could see their draft outlook rise after the early free-agency dominoes fell. Let's jump in and look deeper at those names and more.

Christian McCaffrey, Running Back

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    There are times when the free-agency market and its barren nothingness at a position is well known. But the stark reality of that vast void of despair sets in once the market has opened.

    That's the running back market this year. And most years, for that matter, because teams generally cling tightly to the few premier running backs and then rarely spend much on football's most combustible position.

    But, in 2017, the free-agency market is especially empty at running back. It's led by Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson, who are both 30-plus years old with bodies currently held together by elastics and thumb tacks. Then there's Latavius Murray, who could be more effective in a larger role but has averaged a modest four yards per carry in each of the past two seasons.

    All of that means the draft's top running back prospects are surely set to rise during what's widely viewed as a strong class at the position. And Stanford's Christian McCaffrey should benefit the most.

    Where McCaffrey is projected after he blew up the combine depends on which draft analyst you're reading, which is typical here in mid-March.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has him pegged as a first rounder and the third running back off the board. Meanwhile, only three of the five mock drafts at NFL.com have him listed in the first round. However, former NFL scout and B/R analyst John Middlekauff said that after the combine every NFL evaluator he spoke with believes McCaffrey will hear his name during the draft's opening night.

    It's starting to feel as though McCaffrey firmly inserted himself into the first round after blazing to a 4.48 time in the 40-yard dash and lighting up the three-cone drill with a time of 6.57 seconds. But after the cold wind that's greeted teams wanting a versatile playmaker at the position in free agency, it's likely McCaffrey does more than just sneak into the opening round.

    There's a whole lot of appeal that lies in his multi-dimensional abilities as both a runner and pass-catcher. Especially after McCaffrey forced 43 missed tackles as a runner and 21 as a pass-catcher, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Those qualities were severely lacking in free agency. McCaffrey can bring them to his new team while becoming an immediate chunk-play threat.

Malik Hooker, Safety

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    There was a possibility that Ohio State's Malik Hooker could fall slightly, despite being a premier talent, because of the safety's recent labrum and hernia surgeries.

    That apprehension might still linger, but for most safety-needy teams with high first-round picks it was surely erased by the lack of free-agency options.

    Eric Berry was retained by the Kansas City Chiefs on a long-term deal, and the two other top available safeties (Barry Church and Tony Jefferson) were predictably snapped up fast. So the demand for a ball-hawking safety is even higher now, especially in today's pass-obsessed NFL where defending against an aerial bombardment is a constant focus.

    Hooker has the tools and ball skills in coverage to anchor a secondary for years. He recorded seven interceptions in 2016 for the Buckeyes, which ranked tied for the most in the nation, and returned three for touchdowns.

    That's what makes him valuable, though some patience could be required simply because of his inexperience. Hooker spent only one season as a starter at Ohio State. As a result, he can struggle with tackling fundamentals. His tackling efficiency ranked 136th in the nation during the 2016 season, per PFF, and he missed 13 tackles.

    But any deficiencies there are far outweighed by Hooker's vision and instincts in coverage.

John Ross, Wide Receiver

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    We may see a similar story with the the top wide receiver prospects rising after a yawn-inducing free agency-market, bringing John Ross along for the ride.

    There was a decent amount of talent available in free agency at wide receiver, but most of it came with a significant looming question mark.

    Terrelle Pryor is blossoming but still unproven entering his second year after a position change. Kenny Stills is promising too, though he's only starting to emerge and his yearly production has been inconsistent. Alshon Jeffery has suffered through injuries recently and off-field issues. DeSean Jackson will turn 31 toward the end of the 2017 season. And Kenny Britt has been plagued by knee issues throughout his career.

    So there's a need for someone new, fresh and fast. John Ross is all of those things and especially the last one.

    The Washington Huskies' speed merchant established a new 40-yard dash record during the scouting combine, lighting up the field with a time of 4.22 seconds. Which is even more impressive when we remember that he tore his ACL in the still not-so-distant past (spring 2015).

    How does that speed translate onto the field? In his one full year as a starter after the injury, Ross recorded 1,150 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.

    An ability to combine speed with quality technique is what sets Ross apart and could now lead to his rise further up draft boards as receiver-needy teams look for a solution.

    "While his speed is obviously his biggest asset, it’s not all Ross has," wrote Pro Football Focus. "He knows how to get open using his footwork and can beat press coverage off the line with both his feet and his hands.

    PFF also compared Ross to DeSean Jackson. Which means teams that missed out on Jackson can now get a Jackson-like receiver.

DeShaun Watson, Quarterback

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    Annually there's a crater where the quarterback market in free agency should be and only temporary solutions are available.

    Let's not fool ourselves here: Only one quarterback-needy team with an early pick removed itself as a possible landing spot for the draft's top passer. And even that's arguable, as it wouldn't exactly be shocking to see the Chicago Bears still select a quarterback early after signing Mike Glennon. But they likely won't use a top-10 pick on the position anymore.

    The other quarterback-desperate teams picking early only saw their thirst for passing competence increase.

    If signing Brian Hoyer makes the San Francisco 49ers automatically look elsewhere with the second overall pick, then they truly are a doomed franchise set to make fans reconsider the trek to Santa Clara for years.

    And has Friday night's Chinese takeout already been shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten about while it starts to smell? That's the New York Jets' quarterback depth chart, which is still populated by leftovers of a different kind from a run of bad decisions.

    All of that adds up to the already high values attached to top passers in the 2017 draft rising to another level. Exactly who we're going to call the top quarterback will be an intensely debated topic until late April. But after his combine performance, Clemson's Deshaun Watson is the hottest riser.

    Nothing was surprising about Watson's athleticism, and he showed that off at the combine again with a 4.67 time in the 40-yard dash. What especially stood out about Watson, though, was his comfort and ease as a pocket passer during drills.

    Watson needed to demonstrate quality throwing mechanics after coming from a spread offense. He looked polished on his five- and seven-step drops, which was an unexpected development for many scouts, according to Rob Rang of CBSSports.com.

    Was that combined with the lack of free-agency options enough to push Watson ahead of Mitchell Trubisky to become the top QB draft prospect?

    Let's go with maybe and probably. The road to April 27 is a long and winding one, so for now that's the best answer we have.

Solomon Thomas, Defensive End

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    For a time it seemed like the free-agency market would be ripe with top pass-rushing talent, the sort that could instantly change the character of a defense.

    Then the New York Giants somewhat unexpectedly placed the franchise tag on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Los Angeles Chargers did the same with Melvin Ingram, and those two moves came after Chandler Jones was tagged by the Arizona Cardinals before receiving a contract extension.

    Toss in Nick Perry and Mario Addision re-signing with their respective teams, and quickly a defensive linchpin in today's NFL—a havoc-creating pass-rusher—was in dangerously short supply already after the early hours of free agency.

    That will increase the urgency to secure a top pass-rusher in the draft. Or at least a top pass-rusher not named Myles Garrett, because unless the Cleveland Browns do some serious Browns-ing, he shouldn't make it past the No. 1 overall pick.

    Next on deck after Garrett will likely be Stanford's Solomon Thomas, who does things at 6'3" and 273 pounds that simply shouldn't be possible. He's capable of collapsing the pocket to get after the quarterback and sliding inside against the run. The 21-year-old recorded 24.5 tackles for a loss over two seasons with the Cardinal.

    Pro Football Focus noted that in addition to his 8.5 sacks in 2016, Thomas was also one of the best run defenders with a stop percentage of 12.0. There are concerns about a position fit, but where some see concern in that regard, others will see versatility. That's a valuable asset in a league with too few options to quench its thirst for pass-rushing talent. 

Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle

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    If making sure the quarterback spends most of the game staring at the sky after getting hit is the best way to defend the pass in today's NFL, then preventing those whacks is equally important.

    Which is why quality tackle play along the offensive line is in even greater demand. But finding high-end tackles can often feel like it's more difficult than locating the lost city of Atlantis.

    That common and at times dire need throughout the league went unfulfilled for many teams in free agency, when a 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth led the 2017 free-agent class at the position. Finding premier talent in the draft will be a challenge too, but desperation is one heck of a powerful motivator that can force teams into strange and often regrettable decisions.

    The emptiness at tackle will likely lead to the draft rise of Alabama's Cam Robinson. He's a borderline first-round talent ranked as the 42nd overall prospect by Miller in his latest big board.

    Robinson is mobile and excels as a run-blocker, and especially on screens. He was given the seventh-highest screen-block grade among tackles in 2016 by PFF. That alone is enticing, but it doesn't address the urgency many teams have to find a quality pass-protector.

    His pass-blocking skills don't match what Robinson can do as a bulldozer on run plays.

    "He's inconsistent sustaining his block and on the ground substantially more than a tackle should be," wrote NFL.com's Lance Zierlein in his scouting report. "He has to learn to run his feet under him at contact."

    That describes an offensive line prospect with high promise and potential, but he'll need to land with the right coaching staff to develop properly.

    Which means it also describes a Day 2 pick who can easily rise if a tackle-desperate team isn't confident their hole can be plugged later in the draft. 

Adam Shaheen, Tight End

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    Photo used with permission of Ashland University Athletics

    We're deep into an era when tight ends aren't just lumbering beasts anymore. They're still massive, but now tight ends are large with a different purpose: to regularly create mismatches by moving like wide receivers even with all the extra weight.

    They do that with surprising speed and the athleticism to make acrobatic catches and win jump balls in heavy traffic. Often they get the latter skill from a basketball background, which is the case with rising prospect Adam Shaheen from Ashland.

    Shaheen was a star basketball player in high school and transitioned to football and the tight end position after one season of playing Division II college hoops. That was a wise decision, as his body positioning and knowledge of how to use his oversized frame (6'6" and 278 lbs) led to quick growth. Shaheen put together back-to-back seasons with 800-plus receiving yards during his final two college seasons. He also set a school tight end record with 16 touchdown catches in 2016.

    The familiar small-school questions and uncertainty will follow Shaheen throughout the draft process. As impressive as he is physically, there will be concerns that he dominated at a lower level of competition and apprehension about his ability to duplicate those performances against NFL defenses.

    That will keep Shaheen's stock in check to some degree. But the demand for athletically gifted and versatile tight ends is always high, and in free agency only Martellus Bennett even came close to offering established, consistent production.

    In a draft class loaded at tight end, there might be a thought to wait on Shaheen. And that could be a bad idea after many teams with tight end needs left those boxes unchecked in free agency.