2017 NFL Draft: Ranking the Position Groups in This Class

Brent SobleskiNFL AnalystApril 14, 2017

2017 NFL Draft: Ranking the Position Groups in This Class

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    Every draft class is different. Certain positions are considered much stronger with better overall depth than others. As a result, multiple draft boards exists among every NFL franchise.

    For example, teams don't just use a vertical board ranking all of the prospects by their particular grades. There are also horizontal boards that are position-specific.

    This year, the defensive back class is as deep as any in recent memory. Meanwhile, the offensive line class is quite poor. In fact, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah spoke with an NFL offensive line coach who called this year's crop of blockers the worst he's seen in 15 years, per Philly.com's Paul Domowitch.

    Organizations build their offseason plans around how they stack their boards based on positional value, depth and overall strength.

    In an attempt to gain a better understanding of this year's draft makeup, we ranked each position class from the thinnest to the most bountiful.

13. Specialists

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    A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shocked the NFL when they traded into the second round to select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo. It's safe to say that action won't be repeated during this year's draft after the pick was thoroughly panned and the three-time All-American struggled during his rookie campaign. 

    Kickers can have a profound effect on games, yet their draft value is quite low. On average, three specialists have been selected during the past five drafts. Only a handful will be considered this year as well. 

    Zane Gonzalez is held in the highest regard after leaving Arizona State with an FBS record 96 field goals made. 

    Memphis' Jake Elliott, Stanford's Conrad Ukropina and Georgia Tech's Harrison Butker were invited to the NFL combine since they're viewed as potential draftable prospects. Although, only one or two kickers should come off the board.

    At punter, Idaho's Austin Rehkow and Miami's Justin Vogel are the top prospects, with Arkansas' Toby Baker, Colorado State's Hayden Hunt and Ohio State's Cameron Johnston each receiving invites to Indianapolis.

12. Center

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    Center suffers from an inherent disadvantage each year: A minimal number of individuals play the position at the collegiate level, and it holds a low positional value in the NFL. 

    Despite these natural barriers, this year's center class presents quality over quantity. Ohio State's Pat Elflein, LSU's Ethan Pocic and West Virginia's Tyler Orlosky are potential Day 1 starters. 

    Elflein tops the list because he's arguably the most technically sound blocker with previous starting experience at guard.

    "You are getting a guy who will be great for your locker room and will get the rest of the offensive line on board," an NFC West scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "I think he could have the same fast impact on a team's running game that Zack Martin had in Dallas."

    At 6'6" and 310 pounds, Pocic is a massive center, but he plays with better leverage and athleticism than expected for a man his size. Orlosky is more of a traditional center in that he consistently wins due to his understanding of blocking schemes, technique, positioning and grit. 

    Beyond the top prospects, Baylor's Kyle Fuller, Kentucky's Jon Toth, Wyoming's Chase Roullier and Southern Miss' Cameron Tom are draftable prospects. 

    This group can be even better if Western Kentucky's Forrest Lamp or Utah's Isaac Asiata are eventually asked to play over the ball.

11. Offensive Tackle

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    NFL teams spent an enormous amount of money on mediocre offensive line talent during free agency. The primary reason was due to this year's offensive line class. The problems start at offensive tackle.

    This year's class lacks a top-10 talent and depth. The days of slam-dunk Hall of Fame left tackles in the mold of Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Tony Boselli are long gone. Instead, the NFL has been treated to Ronnie Stanley, Ereck Flowers and Greg Robinson as top offensive tackle prospects in recent years.

    This year's class doesn't have a definitive top prospect.

    Alabama's Cam Robinson presents the most upside. The reigning Outland Trophy winner is only 21 years old. At 6'6" and 322 pounds, he dominated at times, but he was inconsistent overall. As a result, he's not even guaranteed to be a top-20 selection. 

    "He's got a lot more upside than people think due to his athleticism," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said during an interview with Bob Papa and Greg McElroy on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "Injuries hindered his development."

    Utah's Garett Bolles and Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk can make arguments to become the top tackle prospect. Bolles is an outstanding athlete and a self-described "nasty prick" on the field, but he turns 25 years old a month after the draft. Meanwhile, Ramczyk is still recuperating from surgery for a torn hip labrum. 

    None of these top blockers are guaranteed to be left tackles in the NFL.

    The rest of class is filled with potential right tackles in Western Michigan's Taylor Moton, Florida's David Sharpe, Pitt's Adam Bisnowaty and Michigan's Erik Magnuson or developmental prospects like Florida State's Roderick Johnson, Troy's Antonio Garcia, Vanderbilt's Will Holden, Utah's Sam Tevi and Bucknell's Julie'n Davenport. 

10. Guard

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    Guard is the silver lining to this year's offensive line class. It can't overcome the perception of a poor class of blockers, yet it presents the most potential. 

    Western Kentucky's Forrest Lamp is the best lineman in the class. However, the 6'4" collegiate left tackle with 32 1/4-inch arms doesn't fit prototypical standards to play the position. Instead, he'll move to guard with the potential to dominate early in his career like the Dallas Cowboys' Zack Martin, Cleveland Browns' Joel Bitonio and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ali Marpet. 

    "He's the real deal," an AFC executive told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "If he can snap, you could get away with playing him all up and down the line. Great feet, strong, smart." 

    While Lamp headlines this group, multiple starters should emerge from this class. 

    Indiana's Dan Feeney is a tailor-made starting guard at 6'4" and 304 pounds with the ability to uproot defensive linemen.

    Pitt's Dorian Johnson was a highly recruited left tackle who transitioned to guard and used his length and athleticism to control the interior. 

    Temple's Dion Dawkins was a three-year starter on the blind side before transitioning to guard at the Reese's Senior Bowl. He plays with a strong base and good leverage, and he displays above-average movement skills. 

    Utah's Isaac Asiata is an NFL-ready guard with his squat 323-pound frame and raw strength. Asiata loves to bury defenders, and he's the best puller in the class. 

    These are just the top five available guards. Multiple other prospects have the potential to work their way into a starting lineup, which makes this particular position the strongest among the available offensive linemen. 

9. Defensive Interior

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    Interior defenders aren't as heralded as their counterparts on the edge. How the position is viewed continues to change, though. 

    There are two different kids of defensive tackles in today's game. 

    Interior pass-rushers hold great value, and the disruptive defenders have the potential to go high in the draft. Alabama's Jonathan Allen is technically listed as a defensive end, but it's his ability to apply pressure on quarterbacks as a 3-technique that makes him a possible top-10 selection. 

    Florida's Caleb Brantley is another who excels at penetrating into the backfield with first-round potential. However, he recently ran into some trouble. According to WTSP 10 News' Ryan Bass, the defensive tackle got into an altercation with a woman Thursday. Ultimately, no charges were filed. How this affects Brantley's draft stock has yet to be determined. 

    Michigan State's Malik McDowell, Auburn's Montravius Adams, Charlotte's Larry Ogunjobi, Clemson's Carlos Watkins, Michigan's Chris Wormley and Tulane's Tanzel Smart are others who can play multiple spots along the defensive line yet shine with their ability to overwhelm interior blockers due to a combination of strength, quickness and athleticism. 

    Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson, Washington's Elijah Qualls, Iowa's Jaleel Johnson, UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes, Notre Dame's Jarron Jones, Louisville's DeAngelo Brown and USC's Stevie Tu'ikolovatu fall on the other side of the spectrum. 

    While each was asked to be upfield players during their collegiate careers, their value lies with their ability to take on blocks, hold the point of attack and defend the run.

    Two-down defensive tackles aren't valued as much, but these run-stuffers are necessary to a defense's success.

8. Linebacker

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    Linebacker suffered a blow this year when Alabama's Reuben Foster took hit after hit during the predraft process. Once considered a top-10 prospect, Foster's stock is pointed in the wrong direction. 

    "I think Foster is going to slide," a league executive told NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah. "Combination of some character concerns and poor interviews."

    The reigning Butkus Award winner may not even be the second linebacker off the board. 

    "I think there's a chance both [Florida's Jarrad] Davis and [Temple's Haason] Reddick get picked ahead of Reuben Foster," another executive added. "He's a great player, but he hasn't had a great spring."

    Foster's loss is other linebackers' gain. Reddick and Davis worked their way into legitimate first-round consideration with strong workouts after playing well in 2016. Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham isn't discussed as much, but he's remains a late first- or early second-round possibility. 

    Houston's Tyus Bowser, LSU's Duke Riley and Ohio's Blair Brown are three who impressed throughout the process with the potential to be drafted much higher than expected. 

    Two things prevent linebacker from being higher on the list. First, the class is absent a marquee talent with Foster's decline. Second, the position's lacks overall depth. 

    Since NFL teams are in nickel defense the majority of the time, that's one less linebacker on the field. As such, the position's value and potential draft picks decline. 

7. Quarterback

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    The incoming quarterbacks are being miscast. Generally speaking, the 2017 class has been described as poor, with no prospects worthy of a first-round selection. However, this doesn't mean the group lacks talent. 

    Four of the top five prospects and six of the top eight entered the draft process as underclassmen. This group has talent; it's just developmental talent. The fact a transition period is expected for these young men isn't any different from previous quarterback prospects.

    The learning curve may be a little more extreme for some compared to others, because three of the four potential first-round picksClemson's Deshaun Watson, Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizerare still 21 years old. 

    Their potential is evident if placed in the right situation. 

    For example, Watson thrived in a system where he could rely heavily on presnap, half-field or predetermined reads. Mahomes should be allowed to operate outside the framework of an offensive scheme. Kizer is tough in the pocket, yet poor mechanics resulted in inconsistent play. 

    A coach's job is to maximize a player's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. This can be done with each of the quarterback prospects. 

    While many will concentrate on the top prospects, Dak Prescott was a fourth-round pick last year. The possibility of finding a starter later in the draft does exist. 

    Cal's Davis Webb, Pitt's Nathan Peterman, Miami's Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans and Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs are expected to come off the board within the top 150 picks. 

    What this year's class lacks is a clear-cut top option and legitimate top-10 talent. As such, its value is regularly diminished. At least one or two quality starters should come out of the 2017 NFL draft, though. 

6. Running Back

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    At one point, the running back position was said to be devalued. Teams could get production from lesser backs who didn't require massive investments. The NFL was just waiting for the right talent to enter its ranks. 

    The Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley gave way to the Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott. Both provided exceptional rookie campaigns. The next wave of running backs presents even more depth and talent. 

    LSU's Leonard Fournette has been ready for the professional ranks since he entered LSU as a freshman. 

    "It's changing the game for the running backs," Fournette said at the combine, per the New York Post's Brian Costello. "When [Elliott] and Todd Gurley came out, they did a great job preparing us running backs nowadays to come out to even get a chance to get picked in the first round."

    Fournette isn't just a first-round prospect; he's in play for the No. 1 overall pick, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. He's not the only special back about to enter the NFL ranks. 

    Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma's Joe Mixon have first-round ability. The latter two may slide a bit in the draft due to off-field concerns, though. But no one should be surprised if Cook or Mixon emerge as the best back from the 2017 draft. 

    While those four headline this year's crop, quality will be found in every round. 

    Tennessee's Alvin Kamara, USF's Marlon Mack, Clemson's Wayne Gallman, Texas' D'Onta Foreman, Oklahoma's Samaje Perine, Toledo's Kareem Hunt and BYU's Jamaal Williams are potential Day 2 selections. 

    If a team wants to wait, the FBS' all-time leading rusher, San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey, will be available on Day 3 along with other talented backs.

    At fullback, Virginia Tech's versatile Sam Rogers and Florida State's lead blocker, Freddie Stevenson, should be selected before the draft comes to a close.

5. Edge-Rusher

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    Pass-rushers will define the 2017 NFL draft. 

    It starts at the top, where Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and Stanford's Solomon Thomas are projected to be the first and second overall selections to the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. 

    Garrett is expected to become only the fourth defender selected with the No. 1 overall pick since 2000. 

    "He's more than a football player; he's a well-rounded person," an area scout told MMQB's Albert Breer. "For a kid to be as self-confident as he is and know his strengths and weaknesses physically and personally at such a young age is impressive."

    Seven more edge-rushersTennessee's Derek Barnett, Michigan's Taco Charlton, Missouri's Charles Harris, Auburn's Carl Lawson, Alabama's Tim Williams, UCLA's Takkarist McKinley and Wisconsin's T.J. Watthave the potential to be selected in the first round. The previous list doesn't even include Temple's Haason Reddick, who is expected to make a transition to linebacker. 

    A premium is placed on those who can terrorize quarterbacks. The previously mentioned prospects already hold a high value because of this specific trait. Others with potential concern areas will be drafted high in the process for the same reason. 

    Youngstown State's Derek Rivers, Ohio's Tarell Basham, Florida Atlantic's Trey Hendrickson and Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon come from smaller programs, yet each is valued because they're top athletes who can consistently create pressure. 

    Potential physical limitations hurt Kansas State's Jordan Willis (lack of lateral agility) and Florida State's DeMarcus Walker (better inside than on the edge), but their production can't be overlooked. Both were named their respective conference's Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 after they combined for 27.5 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. 

    To provide an example of the depth of this year's edge class, Utah's Hunter Dimick wasn't even invited to the combine despite finishing third in the nation with 14.5 sacks. 

4. Wide Receiver

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    Each year, the wide receiver position acts as the draft's version of an Oprah Winfrey giveaway. 

    "You get a wide receiver!"

    "You get a wide receiver!" 

    "EVERYONE gets a wide receiver!" 

    Due to the preponderance of spread offenses, a glut of wide receiver prospects enter the league every year. On average, 32 wide receivers have been selected during the past five drafts. The 2017 class has the potential to match or better the 2015 class when 35 receivers were selected. 

    Despite all of the talent, a top prospect has yet to emerge at the position. Western Michigan's Corey Davis, Clemson's Mike Williams and Washington's John Ross are legitimate first-round possibilities. 

    However, Davis won't get to work out for teams prior to the draft due to a lingering ankle injury, and Ross' injury history could scare away some franchises. Williams performed well at Clemson's pro day, but he's not guaranteed to be chosen in the top half of the first round, either. 

    The real strength of the receiver class can be found in the multitude of prospects available in the middle rounds. 

    Day 2 will provide multiple future starters. Penn State's Chris Godwin, USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster, East Carolina's Zay Jones, Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson, Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor, Cal's Chad Hansen, Michigan's Amara Darboh and Texas A&M's Josh Reynolds are all candidates to come off the board in the second or third rounds.  

    Teams will still find productive targets who don't fit traditional norms, even later in the draft with prospects such as North Carolina's Ryan Switzer, Louisiana Tech's Trent Taylor, West Virginia's Shelton Gibson and Baylor's K.D. Cannon, among others. 

    Considering nine of last year's top 15 NFL receiving yardage leaders were acquired beyond the first round, this year's wide receiver class will provide an impact for some team, even if it passes on a target earlier in the draft.

3. Tight End

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    The tight end position continues to evolve and become a bigger part of collegiate and NFL offenses. This year's class reflects how the position changed over time and the value it now brings, particularly in the passing game. 

    The class is already considered one of the deepest in recent memory. It's balanced, too. 

    An elite prospect resides at the top of the draft in Alabama's O.J. Howard. In fact, Howard is a unicorn among today's tight ends: He's not just a mismatch in the passing game at 6'6" and 251 pounds with exceptional athleticism; he's also the best run-blocker in the class, per Pro Football Focus. As a result, Howard is expected to be selected at some point during the draft's first 10 selections. 

    Later in the first round, Miami's David Njoku and Ole Miss' Evan Engram are athletic freaks capable of developing into premium offensive weapons. These two aren't the same well-rounded prospects as Howard, but their ability to influence the passing game as tight ends, H-backs or slot receivers makes them quite valuable. 

    While three tight ends are projected as first-round talents, it's the depth of the class that makes it truly special. A team can target a massive inline target like Ashland's Adam Shaheen or Toledo's Michael Roberts in the second round or later. 

    If an H-back is preferred, Clemson's Jordan Leggett, South Alabama's Gerald Everett or Drake's Eric Saubert are available. 

    Underrated blockers can be drafted later. Iowa's George Kittle, Florida International's Jonnu Smith and Michigan State's Josiah Price don't get enough credit for their work in the trenches. 

    Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges is the wild card since he presents a unique skill set at 6'7" and 257 pounds as a slot receiver. 

    There's a prospect for every team in need of a tight end upgrade.

2. Safety

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    The value of the safety position should dramatically shift during the 2017 NFL draft. 

    LSU's Jamal Adams and Ohio State's Malik Hooker reside at the top of this year's class. The duo has a legitimate chance to become the first pair of safeties in modern draft history to be selected among the top seven picks. 

    Their skills sets are drastically different, yet both bring exceptional value as playmakers to a secondary. 

    Adams is considered more of a strong safety, where his impact can be felt against the run game and playing the alley against screens, smoke routes, etc. But he also proved capable of playing the deep third and covering the slot during his time in Baton Rouge. 

    Hooker displayed excellent sideline-to-sideline range and ball skills during his only season as a starter. 

    "I feel pretty strongly that when we look back at this draft, we will talk about him as maybe the best player in it," an anonymous scout told Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman. 

    This isn't a top-heavy class, either. Multiple safeties have the potential to be selected before the end of the third round. 

    Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, Washington's Budda Baker and Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu are potential first-round options. Iowa's Desmond King, Utah's Marcus Sanders-Williams, Florida's Marcus Maye, North Carolina State's Josh Jones, Texas A&M's Justin Evans and Alabama's Eddie Jackson are Day 2 possibilities as well. 

    The current safety class has a chance to eclipse the 2015 draft for the most safeties (10) selected during the first three rounds in the past five years. 

1. Cornerback

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    The current crop of cornerbacks blows away any recent class due to its depth and overall talent. 

    Since the NFL draft went to a three-day format in 2010, 12 cornerbacks on average have been selected during the first two days. As many as 20 cornerbacks have the potential to be picked during the first three rounds this year. The group comes in all shapes and sizes with varying skill sets to make every NFL franchise happy. 

    This variety also creates a little confusion at the top of the class. Multiple prospects can stake a claim as the top cornerback prospect. 

    Generally speaking, Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore is the No. 1 prospect. He has an outside chance to become the first cornerback selected among the top four picks since Charles Woodson in 1998. Lattimore's natural fluidity, speed and length make him a highly regarded prospect even though he's not the most polished cover corner in the class.

    Concerns linger about hamstring issues for Lattimore, though. If teams aren't comfortable with his injury history, other capable candidates are available. 

    Lattimore's former teammate, Gareon Conley, actually performed better in 2016. According to PFF College Football, he allowed the lowest passer rating into his coverage. 

    Florida's Quincy Wilson has the size (6'1", 211 pounds) and length every team wants in a modern cornerback after an exceptional final season on campus. 

    Alabama's Marlon Humphrey is the best press corner, and he ran much better than expected at the NFL combine with a 4.41-second 40-yard dash. 

    Washington's Kevin King, LSU's Tre'Davious White, Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie and USC's Adoree' Jackson remain in the first-round mix, too. This class would be even stronger if Washington's Sidney Jonesa surefire first-round pickdidn't suffer an unfortunate Achilles injury at his pro day.