2017 NFL Draft: Biggest Questions Still Facing Top Prospects

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterMarch 22, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Biggest Questions Still Facing Top Prospects

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    Last year, it was medical questions surrounding Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith, as well as the last-minute bong video of Laremy Tunsil that was released minutes before the draft started. As the draft process rolls on this year, NFL teams are huddled up in their bunkers evaluating tape but also trying to finalize their medical and character grades on players coming off the combine. 

    Scouting is about identifying talent on the field and projecting success, but it's also about researching the person in the pads. NFL teams want to avoid the next Aaron Hernandez or Johnny Manziel and can't risk spending early picks and big money on injured players, which makes off-field grades as important as on-field grades.

    Who are the top players with the biggest unanswered questions? These 11 will all be under the spotlight over the next five-plus weeks.

DL Jonathan Allen, Alabama

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Question: Are Jonathan Allen's shoulder injuries and arthritis enough to drop him in the draft?

    Allen had two shoulder surgeries at Alabama and in the days before the combine the Crimson Tide team doctor told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that Allen has arthritis in both shoulders. It was smart for Allen to get ahead of the news and acknowledge the issue instead so it wouldn't become a bombshell in Indianapolis.

    Though he's a sure-fire top-five player on the field, Allen's shoulders may not hold up long-term in the NFL. There's no doubting his toughness after he played through the pain at Alabama, but will the potential risk of losing Allen to injury push a team to select someone like Solomon Thomas of Stanford ahead of him on draft day?

    A Scout Says: "He's one of the best players in the draft, but our doctors flagged him at the combine. He'll still go Round 1."

    Prediction: Allen is drafted in the 12-20 range of the first round.

RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma

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    Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    Question: Are NFL teams convinced Joe Mixon's 2014 assault charge was a one-time mistake?

    Mixon will be off the draft boards of some teams, but others will see a Round 1 talent on the field. The former Oklahoma running back has been making the rounds with team visits as of late, and the buzz from scouts and team executives is that he's been impressive in interviews. If that's the case, it will be easy for a team to believe he's remorseful for breaking a woman's jaw and that the player they're drafting is far removed from the 18-year-old kid who threw that punch.

    On talent, Mixon is the second-best back in this class behind Leonard Fournette. Interviews will determine whether or not he's picked on the first night of the draft or if his stock falls all the way to Day 3.

    A Scout Says: "We can't draft him [because of the assault charge], but he'll be the best running back from this class. He's on par with Zeke [Elliott] and David Johnson."

    Prediction: Mixon is drafted in the first 50 picks.

RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Question: Will on- and off-field issues push Dalvin Cook out of the first round?

    Cook has never been found guilty of a crime, but there are multiple issues in his past that NFL teams are investigating. Cook was acquitted of a charge of misdemeanor battery in 2015, cited for a violation of animal care in 2014, charged with robbery in 2009 before the charge was dropped and in 2010 was charged with firing a weapon and possession of a weapon on school property, though at least one of those charges was dropped or abandoned. Another incident involved Cook being charged with criminal mischief for allegedly causing property damage with a BB gun.

    On the field, Cook has been a dynamic three-down back, but he's dealt with shoulder and hamstring issues while showing a penchant for fumbling. Shoulders issues coupled with fumbles is a good way to see your stock drop.

    A Scout Says: "The pattern of bad decisions are alarming, really. With my job on the line, I trust [Joe] Mixon a lot more than Dalvin Cook."

    Prediction: Cook falls to Round 2 of the draft.

WR Corey Davis, Western Michigan

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Question: Is Corey Davis' ankle injury enough to keep him out of the top 15?

    Davis missed the Senior Bowl and combine with an ankle injury that required minor surgery. The rehab from that surgery will cause him to miss Western Kentucky's pro day, too, per ESPN's Dan Graziano. That means no 40-yard dash times or agility testing for Davis this spring.

    The 2017 wide receiver class is relatively weak at the top, with Davis fighting Clemson's Mike Williams for the No. 1 spot on my board. That's good news given his inability to work out in the predraft process, but for some teams it will be a knock on Davis—who was healthy in college.

    A Scout Says: "I've watched four years of film on him. I don't care how fast he runs in a straight line. He's special."

    Prediction: Davis is a top-15 pick.

CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Question: Will a history of hamstring injuries push Marshon Lattimore down the board?

    Many respected NFL draft analysts view Lattimore as the top cornerback on the board—he's currently No. 2 on mine behind Florida's Quincy Wilson—but as the draft nears, scouts are whispering about the years of hamstring injuries in Lattimore's past. While that may sound minor, soft tissue injuries like those in the hamstring tend to persist, while something like a torn ACL or broken arm heals and can be expected to return to full strength.

    Lattimore missed the 2014 season and some of 2015 with hamstring issues, so it's important for teams to dig into his background. It doesn't help that he appeared to pull up with a tight hamstring after running a 40 at the combine—even though he later tweeted it was a hip flexor issue and not a hamstring problem.

    A Scout Says: "He's close to perfect from a speed and instincts standpoint. We'll see what our docs say, but he's the best corner in the class on tape."

    Prediction: Lattimore is drafted in the top 10.

WR John Ross, Washington

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Question: Can John Ross outrun his injury history?

    When you clock 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash, everyone takes notice. Ross did that at the combine, wowing scouts and coaches with his blazing speed. It should be noted, of course, that Ross ran the record-setting time with a torn labrum in his shoulder that was surgically repaired after the combine. That injury, plus a handful of others, have teams scared.

    In addition to the labrum tear, Ross has overcome surgeries to both knees (including microfracture surgery on one knee in early 2015). The injuries didn't hamper him too much, though—he recorded 17 receiving touchdowns in 2016 and ran that amazing 40 time. But that might not be enough to convince team doctors he's worth a first-round selection.

    When players have medical issues, teams compare their doctors' and scouts' grades. When the two grades meet, they draft the player. It's all about finding value—where in the draft is this player's value so great we can't let him go even if he's injured?—and being comfortable with the pick even if the player doesn't hold up.

    Ross' injury history shouldn't affect his ability to play in 2017—unlike Jaylon Smith a year ago—but will instead cause team doctors and scouts to predict how long he'll be healthy.

    A Scout Says: "You see a small guy with that many injuries and you wonder if his body can hold up to the punishment of the game."

    Prediction: Ross is a top-20 pick.

LB Tim Williams, Alabama

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Question: How much will Tim Williams' off-field history hurt on draft day?

    Williams is one of the most athletic and most accomplished pass-rushers in the nation. Coming off the edge of the Alabama defense, he was a lightning bolt and in 2016 showed an improved ability to stop the run off the corner. On the field, he's a top-20 pick. Off it? A gigantic question mark.

    At the combine, Williams admitted to failing multiple drug tests. While it's commendable he was honest and open about his mistakes, teams must dig deeper into his background considering he was also arrested for carrying a pistol without a permit last summer. Bad kid or bad decisions? It's the job of NFL scouts to find out.

    A Scout Says: "If he's failing tests at 'Bama, he's probably going to fail tests in the NFL. These things have a way of sticking around."

    Prediction: Williams is drafted in the second round.

TE Jake Butt, Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Question: How far will two ACL injuries push Jake Butt down the board?

    Butt tore his ACL in Michigan's Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, and it was his second such injury. ACL injuries are generally treated as isolated incidents by NFL teams, but for a player who's already limited in terms of speed and agility, this could be a setback. The timing of the injury was also poor, as Butt will likely miss his rookie season.

    Butt was valued as a second-rounder before the injury, so it's possible a team will still draft him there with the plan of redshirting him next season before unleashing him in 2018. It's also not ridiculous to think Butt could be back late in his first season given the injury happened in December.

    What will NFL teams think of it? Those opinions may vary, but teams I've spoken to feel like Butt is still a top-75 value.

    A Scout Says: "I think he's there at the top of the second round. Maybe he falls to the third, but not much more than that."

    Prediction: Butt is drafted late in Round 2.

WR Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Question: Will background and size concerns affect Dede Westbrook?

    When Westbrook was announced as a Heisman Trophy finalist, his two domestic-violence arrests were not talked about. It's because at that time no one knew. Not until a Tulsa World report did the allegations against Westbrook come to light.

    "In 2012, Westbrook was accused of throwing the mother of two of his children to the ground," Cody Stavenhagen wrote. "In 2013, Westbrook was accused of biting the same woman's arm and punching her in the face with a closed fist."

    Westbrook, who began his college career at Blinn College before transferring to Oklahoma, quit football after his first season at the community college and spent the 2013 season away from the game. After his second arrest and a lien that was filed against him for back child support, he went back to school in 2014.

    Westbrook has three children, two of whom were present during an incident in 2016 when Westbrook attempted to pick up his kids, per the World report, but their mother wouldn't allow him. Westbrook was also arrested for trespassing in 2016.

    A Scout Says: "Trouble, man. He's completely off our board. We couldn't believe this stuff when we started talking to folks there."

    Prediction: Westbrook goes late on Day 3.

CB Sidney Jones, Washington

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Question: Following surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, is Sidney Jones a Round 1 prospect?

    Jones popped his Achilles during Washington's pro day, and his outlook for 2017 depends on if the tear was complete or partial. Jones tweeted after surgery that the doctor believes he can play this season, which could mean it's just a partial tear. If so, he is still a first-round talent.

    Jones' film is clean, and his technique as a cornerback is some of the best in the class. He has great instincts and closing speed to attack the ball in the air. The tools he showed on the field made him a potential top-15 pick. After this, it's more likely he's a late first-round kind of guy—similar to Cedric Ogbuehi of Texas A&M. Ogbuehi tore his ACL in the Aggies' bowl game in December 2014 and was picked 21st overall in the 2015 draft.

    A Scout Says: "I love this kid. Tough, feisty, smooth. Our grade on him was a 1."

    Prediction: Jones is drafted late in the first round.

DL Malik McDowell, Michigan State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Question: Will Malik McDowell's football character hurt his grade?

    "Off-field questions" is such a vague term, but it basically means there's some kind of a concern not related to size, strength or ability on the field. To say McDowell has "off-field questions" isn't fair—the kid has never been arrested or in trouble—but when evaluating his football character, NFL scouts are concerned.

    When McDowell turns it on on the field, watch out. He's blessed with rare athletic skills that allow him to toy with offensive linemen. It's perhaps because of that skill set that he's not had to work to learn secondary pass-rush moves. McDowell gives off the vibe of a guy who's been good enough athletically to win most battles, so he hasn't had to win with motor or drive.

    The thing about work ethic concerns is that you never know, from the outside looking in, what will motivate a kid. An NFL defensive line coach may light a fire under McDowell, and he could become a Pro Bowler, but there's also the chance he'll check out and never reach his potential. That's the risk with some players in the NFL draft.

    A Scout Says: "No one likes him. He's not a worker but wants to be the face of the program. Another Connor Cook."

    Prediction: McDowell falls to the second round.