2017 NFL Draft: Chris Simms' Can't-Miss Players
There are two schools of thought when it comes to targeting prospects early in the NFL draft. You go after guys with the potential to be something special, or you go after guys who don't have the potential to fail. We'll be focusing on the second group here.
I'm not saying the guys featured here can't be special, either. I'm simply saying these are the prospects in this year's draft class that a team can't miss on.
When I think of a can't-miss prospect, I think about some of the guys I've seen come into the NFL over the years.
I wasn't sure if Cadillac Williams would be a superstar when I first met him, but I could tell that he was a guy you could hand the ball to 20-30 times a game without worrying if he'd screw up. I didn't know how special Aqib Talib would become when he first walked into our locker room. After watching him shut down our No. 1 receiver and pick off a couple of passes in his first practice, though, I knew he belonged on an NFL field.
These are the prospects in this year's draft I believe already belong on an NFL field. At the very worst, they'll be starters for a number of years. It's not a matter of whether they can be great; it's a matter of how great they can be.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Look, this doesn't need to be brain surgery.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette is 6'0" and 240 pounds, and he might have the quickest feet in the draft at his position. There isn't much more you need to say when you're talking about those measurables.
I'd put Fournette in a class with Bo Jackson, Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson—special talents who only come out every so often. He's worthy of such a comparison.
If you're looking for a bell-cow back who can run between the tackles 25-30 times a game, Fournette's your guy. If you're looking for someone who can break big plays and outrun NFL corners and safeties, Fournette's your guy. If you're looking for someone who can catch the ball out of the backfield smoothly and do something after the catch, Fournette's still your guy.
Fournette is also a special kind of physical. In my time watching running backs (or game film in general), I don't ever remember seeing so many would-be tacklers fall off a guy. He's a more impressive specimen than Elliott was in last year's draft.
I'd be shocked if Fournette doesn't become a superstar and lead the league in rushing a few times. At the absolute worst, his career will likely feature five 1,000-yard seasons. That's about as close to a bust as I think he could be.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
There aren't many guys on planet Earth with the combination of size and speed that former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard possesses. At 6'6" and 251 pounds, he ran a 4.51-second 40 at the combine to go with a 6.85-second three-cone drill.
This guy is what the modern NFL is looking for in a prototypical tight end. He can stand in and block or catch passes from a traditional tight end spot, and he still has the quickness and the agility to split out and play like a receiver. His only real negative is that Alabama didn't use him much as a traditional tight end, especially this past season.
Howard is a good run-blocker. He isn't yet on a Rob Gronkowski level, but he could be coached up in the NFL. His crazy speed is what puts him on another level, though. Few players in college football over the past few years have been able to turn the corner and outrun Clemson for long touchdowns, but Howard did that multiple times.
In the age of finding the mismatch, running the no-huddle offense and forcing defenses to stay in the same personnel set, Howard can be elite. He has great hands, makes people miss and can take a pass up the seam and explode for a 70-yard touchdown. Few tight ends are capable of doing all of that.
David Njoku, TE, Miami
As good as Howard is, Miami's David Njoku is my favorite tight end in this draft. If you were asking me to build an offense from the ground up, Njoku would be my guy.
Njoku is athletic, has long arms and is a phenomenal run-blocker. He also played in Miami's pro-style offense, which forced him to put his hand in the dirt and move defensive ends and linebackers off the line in the run game. He can immediately help an NFL offense as a blocker.
While Njoku is a bit smaller than Howard at 6'4" and 246 pounds, his physicality and length more than make up for it as a blocker. If he gets those long arms on you, you can forget it. He's going to control you and take you out of the play.
As a pass-catcher, Njoku also can make an immediate impact. He won't beat you with pure speed, but he has enough wiggle to gain separation, and those long arms give him an unreal catch radius. You put a ball within five yards of him and he'll catch it. Plus, that 37.5-inch vertical is going to allow him to out-leap most defensive backs.
Njoku brings a more physical brand of football than Howard after the catch. I see him as a Jeremy Shockey or a Greg Olsen type. Yeah, he might be able to outrun you, but he also might grab the ball and then run your ass over, too.
I don't see any weaknesses in Njoku's game other than the fact he's a little raw. Give him some time, and I think he's a Pro Bowler.
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Texas A&M's Myles Garrett might seem like an obvious choice here, but there's no point in overthinking it. He's 6'4" and 272 pounds, ran a 4.64-second 40, did 33 reps in the bench press and produced a 41.0-inch vertical. In other words, he's long, strong, athletic and explosive.
Garrett blew his combine out of the water, then turned around and worked out at his pro day. This suggests that in addition to being supremely talented, he conducts himself like a true professional—and we've seen that effort on the playing field.
Garrett was dominant when fully healthy in college, and I expect him to continue dominating at the NFL level. He's one of those rare defensive prospects that come along once every few years. As a prospect, he reminds me of Julius Peppers, Jadeveon Clowney or Jason Pierre-Paul—and I think he's more physically gifted than all of them aside from perhaps Clowney.
With his combination of physical skills and a Von Miller-esque first step, Garrett is a can't-miss edge prospect. Even during his worst year, he'll still likely be hovering around 10 sacks. What's even better is that he can be that 10-sack guy at end or at linebacker.
I'm not sure Garrett has been coached all that well to this point. Once he gets around an NFL defensive line coach who can show him proper technique, the sky is the limit for this kid.
Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
You know you're entering a weird draft when a 273-pound defensive tackle is being billed as a possible second overall pick. This is the case for Stanford's Solomon Thomas, though, because his floor is so high.
Can Thomas develop into a superstar? Sure. His ceiling could be Michael Bennett. He can be a versatile defensive lineman who can clamp down against the run at end and then move inside against the pass and be a handful for opposing guards.
Even if Thomas doesn't become a legitimate superstar, he's going to start on a defensive line for the next 7-10 years. I'd like to see him against NFL offensive linemen before labeling him a true difference-maker, but I have no question that he'll be a quality starter.
I think Thomas' floor is this: He can't play consistently at defensive tackle, so a team has to slide him to defensive end. If the biggest risk is that he's a starting end for the next decade, he's a can't-miss prospect.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
I feel like Alabama's Jonathan Allen has become the forgotten man in this draft. He was overshadowed at the scouting combine, and there were some medical concerns about arthritis in his shoulders. Now all of a sudden, a guy we were talking about as a top-three pick is more of an afterthought.
This will likely allow some team to get a steal in the draft.
People I've talked to around the league don't see the shoulder issue as a huge concern. Whichever team drafts Allen will get a guy who can do a lot of things for its defense for many, many years.
In a way, Allen mirrors Thomas in the sense that Allen's floor might be as a 3-technique defensive tackle. I believe he played out of position at end at Alabama, and while he could be a versatile tackle-end hybrid in the NFL, he might be a show-stopping 3-technique. That's where he shined most in college.
Allen has enough skill and power to sit on the outside shoulder of a guard and beat him man-to-man. He also touts the size and the strength to anchor against a double-team and not get moved out of the way. Additionally, he has elite athleticism for a 3-tech, which allows him to make plays on the ball-carrier as well.
Ultimately, I think Allen's ceiling could be Aaron Donald—maybe not quite as athletic, but with more power. I'm confident that at his worst, he's starting on a defensive front for years to come.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Reuben Foster was put on earth to play middle linebacker. He looks like he's going to be a top-15 pick, and the film justifies that.
Foster deserves to be in the conversation with guys like Bobby Wagner or Patrick Willis when they came out of college. He has special mobility, and he's an incredible sideline-to-sideline player.
It doesn't matter what you ask Foster to do. He can cover passes to the tight end or defend screens to the running back. He can find the ball-carrier, and when he does, Foster doesn't try to hit people; he tries to knock their heads off.
There aren't any glaring weaknesses in Foster's game. He can take on blockers and shed them. He can cover. He's as instinctive as you're going to find at the linebacker position this year. The only negative with him is the issue with his rotator cuff. Some teams may be concerned with that, but it isn't going to stop Foster from being your middle linebacker for the next decade.
The beauty with Foster is that he has the makeup to play inside in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. Even if your team changed schemes during his career, he can adapt. I think you draft Foster and you stop worrying about the position for as long as he's under contract.
Even if he's a bust, that means he'll only go to one Pro Bowl instead of five during his time with your team.
Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore has the goods to be a truly elite cornerback. However, I can't consider him a sure thing when chronic hamstring issues and other injuries have limited him to just one year of starting experience.
When I think of true can't-miss cornerbacks, I think of the next two guys featured here—the first being USC's Adoree Jackson.
I have no idea where Jackson will be selected in the draft. I think he could realistically go anywhere from No. 5 to No. 32—and some teams love him a lot more than people realize. Whichever team snags Jackson is going to be getting a talented cornerback.
What I love about Jackson is how he saves touchdowns and scores touchdowns. He has the hips and the change-of-direction talent to be a top-notch cover corner. Think of a more athletic version of Janoris Jenkins here. Yet he also has the ability to be a dangerous return specialist and scoring machine. Jackson could even catch a few passes per game if a team needed him to.
As a return specialist, Jackson can be one of the best in the league. The question is whether he's going to be a good slot or outside cover corner or if he can develop into an elite shutdown stud. Either way, whichever team drafts Jackson won't regret it.
Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
While I can't label Lattimore a can't-miss prospect, I can do so with his former teammate, Gareon Conley. He's another corner with a high floor and few negatives.
When I look at tape of Conley, nothing jumps out as a major concern. Whichever team drafts him should have its starting No. 1 cornerback for a long time. Can he develop from there and become elite? I don't know. I do know the traits are there.
He ran a 4.44-second 40 at the combine—though he appears faster than that on film—and he has great technique in tight coverage. He touts great length, can jam receivers at the line and has outstanding change-of-direction skills.
For a 6'0" corner, Conley has rare movement traits. He ran the three-cone drill in 6.68 seconds at the combine, which shows his ability to stick his foot in the ground and change direction. He has the burst to move with receivers and to break on the ball when the opportunity presents itself. I don't expect him to have trouble with even the shiftiest NFL receivers.
Conley should be able to play either on the outside or in the slot. He reminds me a lot of A.J. Bouye, who just signed a huge five-year, $67.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
Conley and Jackson are each in my top four when it comes to upside for cornerbacks. They're also my two safest picks at the position, and I think both will have stellar NFL careers.
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
LSU safety Jamal Adams is one of the five best players in this draft, for my money. He's also the safest prospect at his position on the board. I love Ohio State's Malik Hooker—I think he could be an Ed Reed type if he hits his ceiling—however, I can't give the "can't miss" seal of approval to a guy with 13 career starts. You just don't know how he's going to develop as a pro.
I have no such concerns with Adams. He's going to be special. When you're looking at both film and physical ability, it's hard to find an accurate comparison for him. He kind of looks and plays like Kam Chancellor, but he's way better in coverage than Chancellor ever was or ever will be.
I honestly think Adams is a better version of Landon Collins, and that's saying something. He's a better overall prospect than Keanu Neal was coming out last year, and I loved Neal. Adams is one of the best open-field tacklers in the entire draft. He's strong enough to shed blockers, and his ability to read and react in the run game is incredible. Heck, sometimes when watching tape, I saw Adams diagnose plays and hit the hole before the running back even got there.
While you're drafting Adams to be a physical strong safety, he has the range and the cover skills needed to play free safety, too. He's the type of safety in today's NFL who can give guys like Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed their money's worth in coverage. That's how valuable Adams can be.
This kid's a no-brainer. I think he's one of the easiest evaluations in the entire draft. You draft him, you play him and you watch him dominate.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
We're going to wrap up with former Washington safety Budda Baker, who I consider one of the best all-around players in the draft. He's one of my favorite guys and one of the most fun watches on game film.
Baker could truly start at strong safety, at free safety or at corner. He's like a younger version of Tyrann Mathieu or a better version of Keanu Neal coming out last year. He can play every position in the secondary, which is where his value lies.
Physically, Baker reminds me of a guy I played with, Ronde Barber. He might only be 195 pounds, but don't tell him that, because he's going to hit you like he's 225. He also has tremendous instincts to go with his aggressive nature. Ultimately, though, Baker's versatility is what makes him a can't-miss prospect.
You're probably drafting Baker to be a strong safety/nickelback. However, if your starting outside corner gets hurt, Baker could start there for a few weeks, and he's going to be a natural at it.
In some ways, Baker is the opposite of Michigan's Jabrill Peppers. You're not looking at him and saying, "This guy can do a lot of things, where can we put him where he'll be great?" You look at Baker and say, "Wow, this guy's great! I wonder how many different ways we can use him."
A team doesn't need to have a specific role in mind for Baker in order for him to succeed. He's going to fit virtually any role a team needs filled.