NFL1000: Rookie Review Heading into 2017 Regular Season

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2017

NFL1000: Rookie Review Heading into 2017 Regular Season

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Once the draft is over and rookies report to their teams, it's a total reset. Now, it doesn't matter in the least where they were drafted or even if they were drafted—now, it's time for talent to win out.

    Last season, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were selected with the first and second overall picks, but it was Dak Prescott, chosen 135th overall by the Dallas Cowboys, who had the most successful rookie season of any quarterback. Why? Because Prescott was allowed to grow and flourished in a system that played to his strengths. Goff and Prescott were comparatively hung out to dry.

    Now, it's time for the 2017 rookie class to prove itself. Some already have—Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer, picked in the second round out of Notre Dame, showed enough for head coach Hue Jackson to name him the Week 1 starter. Edge-rusher Myles Garrett, the first overall pick, has shown no sign of rookie yips, and he played another big part in the Browns' attempt to get the draft right after so many false starts in recent years.

    Through the preseason, many rookies have shown potential and progress, regardless of their draft status. And at NFL1000, we want to recognize that with the Rookie Review, in which we scouted and ranked all first-year players. These rankings are based on several factors: preseason play, college tape, fit within NFL systems and future potential.

    Of course, every season has rookies who come out of nowhere and surprise with their abilities. Who's this year's Prescott? Look at the names below and see if anyone stands out.

Overall Top 50

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Here are the NFL's top 50 rookies heading into the 2017 season:

    Top 50 Rankings
    RankPlayerPos.Team
    1DeShone KizerQBCLE
    Christian McCaffrey RB CAR
    Myles Garrett DE CLE 
    Marshon Lattimore CB NO 
    Derek Barnett DE PHI 
    Mitchell Trubisky QB CHI 
    Dalvin Cook RB MIN 
    Patrick Mahomes QB KC 
    Reuben Foster ILB SF 
    10 Tre'Davious White CB BUF 
    11 Jamal Adams NYJ 
    12 Corey Davis WR TEN 
    13 Leonard Fournette RB JAX 
    14 John Ross WR CIN 
    15 Solomon Thomas DE SF 
    16 Malik Hooker IND 
    17 Jonathan Allen DE WAS 
    18 Mike Williams WR LAC 
    19 Gareon Conley CB OAK 
    20 Ryan Ramczyk OT NO 
    21 Joe Mixon RB CIN 
    22 Dan Feeney OG LAC 
    23 Carl Lawson DE CIN 
    24 Zay Jones WR BUF 
    25 Adoree' Jackson CB TEN 
    26 Kareem Hunt RB KC 
    27 Alvin Kamara RB NO 
    28 O.J. Howard TE TB 
    29 Taylor Moton OGCAR 
    30 Davon Godchaux DT MIA 
    31 Deshaun Watson QB HOU 
    32 Obi Melifonwu OAK 
    33 Garett Bolles OT DEN 
    34 T.J. Watt OLB PIT 
    35 Jordan Willis DE CIN 
    36 Evan Engram TE NYG 
    37 Duke Riley OLB ATL 
    38 Jaleel Johnson DT MIN 
    39 Zach Cunningham ILB HOU 
    40 Nathan Peterman QB BUF 
    41 Tyus Bowser OLB BAL 
    42 Haason Reddick ILB ARZ 
    43 Ryan AndersonOLB WAS 
    44 Eddie Vanderdoes DT OAK 
    45 Cam Robinson OT JAX 
    46 Budda Baker ARZ 
    47 Taco Charlton DE DAL 
    48 Takkarist McKinley DE ATL 
    49 Chidobe Awuzie CB DAL 
    50 Marlon Humphrey CB BAL 

Quarterbacks

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images
    Quarterback Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1DeShone KizerCLE
    Mitchell Trubisky CHI 
    Patrick Mahomes KC 
    Deshaun Watson HOU 
    Nathan Peterman BUF 
    C.J. Beathard SF 
    Cooper Rush DAL 
    Joshua Dobbs PIT 
    Davis Webb NYG 
    10 Brad Kaaya DET 

     

    Last draft season, most evaluators coalesced around a "Big Four" quarterback group consisting of Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes II, Mitchell Trubisky and DeShone Kizer in some order. While all four quarterbacks have fared well at times this preseason, Kizer is the only one to earn the starting job, and that gives him the top spot heading into the season. Kizer experienced a few hiccups in the dress rehearsal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his play has been solid overall, and he has made some "wow" plays. Both Trubisky and Mahomes have looked solid in camp, and Trubisky is pushing Mike Glennon for the starting spot. While Mahomes has turned in some incredible throws, he's made some mistakes, whereas the rookie in Chicago has been steady the entire preseason. Watson looked good at times in the first two preseason games, but his shaky play in the third test against the Saints guaranteed he'll start the year on the bench.

    Elsewhere on the list, Nathan Peterman, Joshua Dobbs and C.J. Beathard have all seen significant time this preseason. Beathard likely won't unseat Brian Hoyer anytime soon, but the former Hawkeye threw four touchdown passes over four games and had a long touchdown run in the preseason finale. Peterman has shown competence in new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s offense.

    Rounding out the group, Cooper Rush had a great preseason for the Dallas Cowboys. The undrafted Central Michigan quarterback completed 74.5 percent of his passes for 398 yards, a league-high six touchdown passes and no interceptions. Kellen Moore entered the preseason as the backup in Dallas, but Rush’s performance might force the organization to look at Rush to fill that spot. Finally, the Lions drafted Brad Kaaya late on Day 3 of the draft, and the former Hurricane made a strong push to stay on the active roster, throwing two touchdowns in the preseason finale, but he was cut Saturday. The Carolina Panthers claimed him. Two other undrafted quarterbacks who made a strong preseason impression are Phillip Walker and Kyle Sloter. Both heard some bad news on cutdown day, but each were signed to a practice squad—Walker to Indianapolis and Sloter to Minnesota. 

    —NFL1000 QB scout Mark Schofield

Running Backs

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
    Running Back Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Christian McCaffreyCAR
    Dalvin Cook MIN 
    Leonard Fournette JAX 
    Joe Mixon CIN 
    Kareem Hunt KC 
    Alvin Kamara NO 
    D'Onta Foreman HOU 
    Marlon Mack IND 
    Chris Carson SEA 
    10 Matt Breida SF 


    The 2017 running back class is stacked with talent. There were elite talents at the top of the class but also good value throughout, including some players that went undrafted but will contribute this season. Christian McCaffrey headlines the class as a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. It's hard to live up to the expectations that McCaffrey has had placed on his shoulders, but he's doing just that. He's such a patient runner and has an explosive burst when he needs it. His ability to split out wide and play receiver will make him an immediate asset.

    Closely behind McCaffrey are Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette. Cook has made the transition to the NFL look easy during the preseason, fitting in perfectly and executing the zone scheme particularly well. He should provide the Vikings offense with balance, but on third down he can also be a threat out of the backfield. His pass protection looks to have improved over the course of the summer, but like every rookie running back, it still needs work. Fournette is just as talented as Cook and McCaffrey, but he's in a much tougher situation. With Blake Bortles struggling at quarterback, defenses will have no concerns about stacking the box to defend Fournette. He has the ability to break tackles, but he can't do it all on his own.

    Joe Mixon made a strong case during the preseason to take more of the workload in Cincinnati. For a man of his size (6'1", 228 pounds), he has rare movement skills. In the Bengals dress rehearsal against the Redskins, he made a terrific cut to avoid a defensive tackle at the line of scrimmage and then did the same moments later to elude Josh Norman on the edge. Kareem Hunt looks set to take on a big workload with the Chiefs. Incumbent starter Spencer Ware had already lost some snaps to Hunt before he was ruled out for the season with a torn PCL and LCL. Hunt should see the bulk of the workload, though Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller could still spell him the occasional rep.

    Alvin Kamara, D'Onta Foreman and Marlon Mack all showed promise in the preseason, but they have tough tasks ahead of them if they are to see the field regularly. The Saints have Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram as their top two backs over Kamara. Lamar Miller is clearly entrenched as the starter ahead of Foreman for the Texans, while Mack has Frank Gore sitting at the top of the Colts depth chart. In the case of Kamara and Mack, they'll likely spend most of their time as third-down backs with their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, but their pass protection will need to hold up if they are to be trusted in that area.

    The Seahawks have been impressed with the development of Chris Carson. He's seen time with the starters and hasn't looked out of place. He isn't at the top of the depth chart, but Carson has certainly earned some playing time. Meanwhile, undrafted free agent Matt Breida in San Francisco won the backup job behind Carlos Hyde, showing far more consistency than fourth-round pick Joe Williams, who was placed on IR. Kyle Shanahan knows how to get production out of running backs wherever he finds them, so don't be surprised if Breida makes some noise in Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.

    —NFL1000 RB scout Mark Bullock

Wide Receivers

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    Elsa/Getty Images
    Wide Receiver Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Corey DavisTEN
    John Ross CIN 
    Mike Williams LAC 
    Zay Jones BUF 
    Cooper Kupp LAR 
    Juju Smith-Schuster PIT 
    Kenny Golladay DET 
    Curtis Samuel CAR 
    Chris Godwin TB 
    10 Dede Westbrook JAX 

    The last time three wide receivers were drafted inside the top 10 was all the way back in 2005, which, ironically, also saw a receiver named Mike Williams selected. The three first-round receivers (Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross) have all dealt with significant injuries in the preseason that have slowed them this offseason. Davis should be ready for the start of the season, while Williams is out for Week 1 and Ross is expected to miss the opener, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. 

    Despite not playing in the preseason, Davis is projected to be the Tennessee Titans' No.1 receiver, with Rishard Matthews as the other outside receiver and Eric Decker in the slot. There's likely to be a steep learning curve, as Davis has missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury. However, the snaps and targets should be there for him to produce big numbers in his rookie season.

    After the trade of Sammy Watkins from the Buffalo Bills to the Los Angeles Rams, second-round pick Zay Jones will assume the role of the team's "X" receiver heading into the season. As for the other two second-round picks, neither Juju Smith-Schuster nor Curtis Samuel contributed much during the preseason as each have dealt with injuries. However, both are projected to be their team's starting slot receivers early in the season.

    One of the bigger surprises of the preseason was the impressive play of Kenny Golladay for the Lions. Golladay was the 12th receiver drafted in 2017 but has already cracked the Lions' top three on the depth chart. His size (6'4", 218 pounds) will give the Lions a true threat in the red zone, something they haven't had since Calvin Johnson retired.

    Dede Westbrook and Chris Godwin round out the list. Both are talented receivers who will likely play inside as slot receivers to start their careers. Each had impressive preseason performances and could climb the depth chart quickly in their rookie seasons. Other rookie receivers to keep an eye on include ArDarius Stewart, Ryan Switzer, Chad Hansen, Trent Taylor, Noah Brown, Stacy Coley and Malachi Dupre.

    NFL1000 WR/TE scout Marcus Mosher

Tight Ends

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
    Tight End Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1O.J. HowardTB
    Evan Engram NYG 
    David Njoku CLE 
    George Kittle SF 
    Gerald Everett LAR 
    Adam Shaheen CHI 
    Jonnu Smith TEN 
    Michael Roberts DET 
    Jeremy Sprinkle WAS 
    10 Jake Butt DEN 

     

    For the first time since 2002, three tight ends were drafted in the first round. But that doesn't even begin to describe how deep this tight end class is. There were five tight ends selected in the top 50 of the 2017 NFL draft (Howard, Engram, Njoku, Everett and Shaheen), which hadn't happened since 1974.

    The top tight end in this class is O.J. Howard of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Howard is a prototypical tight end who can be lined up all over the field to create mismatches. He's also one of the better blocking tight ends in the class. He's expected to split snaps with veteran Cameron Brate for most of the season, so don't expect him to put up big stats in his first season. Instead, he'll make his money as a blocker and as a red-zone target.

    Behind Howard are two athletic tight ends in Evan Engram and David Njoku. Both Engram and Njoku enter situations where they are expected to jump-start offenses that struggled last year scoring points (New York Giants: 27th; and Cleveland Browns: 31st). Neither offers much as a blocker, but both are versatile receivers.

    Not a surprise to anyone who watched him at Iowa, but George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers is already off to a great start in his NFL career. He beat out Vance McDonald (recently traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers) for the starting tight end job, and his role should only increase the more he plays. His elite athleticism plus his physical blocking style make him a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan's versatile offense.

    Jake Butt tore his ACL in the final game of his collegiate season, and it dramatically hurt his draft stock. He fell to the fifth round, where he was selected by the Denver Broncos. He'll miss the first six weeks of the season on the the reserve/NFL list. However, he could be a factor for the Broncos in the later part of the season.  

    NFL1000 WR/TE scout Marcus Mosher

Offensive Tackles

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
    Offensive Tackle Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Ryan RamczykNO
    Garett Bolles DEN 
    Cam Robinson JAX
    Dion Dawkins BUF
    Antonio Garcia NE
    David Sharpe OAK
    Eric Smith MIA
    Julie'n Davenport HOU
    Conor McDermott BUF 
    10 Michael Dunn LAR (PS)

     

    Of the offensive line position groups of the 2017 class, the tackles look to be the strongest by far. Early draft choices Ramczyk, Bolles and Robinson lead the way, and all three should open the season starting at left tackle.

    Not only is the group strong in early-round talent at the top (with potentially four day one tackle starters if Dawkins can win a job in Buffalo) but in depth as well. David Sharpe is a good example of that. After some inconsistent tape in college, Sharpe looks to have found a perfect scheme fit and development opportunity in Oakland. His footwork and approach in pass protection looks leaps and bounds better this preseason, and his solid improvement should have Raiders fans feeling a little better about the looming post-Donald Penn era than they would have before.

    Michael Dunn is another interesting player to watch. While few fans have heard of Dunn, the main reason the Maryland Terrapin alum flew under the radar during the predraft process and eventually didn’t get selected was because his medical was so bad. But, if he can stay on the field, as the Rams hope he can, the man can play.

    Dunn may have the best hand placement of anyone in the tackle class. He has great recovery technique for someone as limited as he is, and his grappling ability is plus plus as well. He has some physical limitations and is never going to win as a hat-on-hat drive-blocker in vertical sets, but he's scrappy and has a strong upper body that is hard to shed when he sinks his teeth into you. Dunn did not make the Rams' 53, as being a late addition to the 90-man as a UDFA puts you behind the ball, but I would not be surprised if we see him called up from the practice squad sometime during the year.

    Dunn has put forward a better body of college and preseason work than players drafted ahead of him like Colts fourth-round pick Zach Banner, Giants sixth-rounder Adam Bisnowaty, Seahawks sixth-rounder Justin Senior or Browns fifth-round pick Roderick Johnson, which is why he is on this list ahead of all of them. In fact, the guys mentioned above wouldn't even be the next ones on my list if we went deeper than 10, as Cowboys UDFA Dan Skipper and Titans seventh-round pick and current free agent Brad Seaton have looked much more promising. But that just shows how deep this group is overall, and how far teams will look to find offensive line help right now.

    —NFL1000 OL scout Ethan Young

Offensive Guards

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
    Offensive Guard Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Dan FeeneyLAC
    Taylor Moton CAR
    Danny Isidora MIN
    Dorian Johnson ARZ (PS)
    Jermaine Eluemunor BAL
    Will Holden ARZ
    Sean Harlow ATL
    Kyle Kalis WAS (PS)
    Jordan Roos SEA
    10 Isaac Asiata MIA

     

    This list has changed the most of the three offensive line position groups. There has been a ton of turmoil since draft day, both in injuries and performance. First, the Chargers' Forrest Lamp, the best guard in the class and a top-five talent overall in the entire draft class, was lost for the season early on. Then the Ravens lost Nico Siragusa, their physically dominant guard fourth-round pick from San Diego State. And it doesn’t help that Will Holden, who I was high on going into the draft, has struggled with penalties rotating between tackle and guard so far in Cardinals uniform.

    That said, not all the chaos has been negative. Danny Isidora looked good this preseason. At his best, Isidora is a bowling ball that can absorb blows with the best of them and deal them out in the run game. His play strength and pad level were evident when he played at the U, and though he will never be a player that wins with mirroring footwork, his approaches in pass pro have gotten better and better. He may not open the season a starter in Minnesota, but with how much attrition the Vikings experienced up front over the last couple of years, they should feel good about having Isidora ready to go off the bench.

    Kyle Kalis deserves a mention as well as the sole undrafted player on the list. He’s not your typical overlooked UDFA though, as Kalis was a Scout.com 5-star recruit who didn’t live up to the hype as a college starter at Michigan. So exposure was never the issue for Kalis. I got plenty of looks at him at the Senior Bowl, but I didn't like what I saw in Mobile. He missed his initial strikes a ton in one-on-ones and didn’t work to the second level naturally in team drills or on tape. But he had a strong upper body, and the one other thing he did well on tape was keep his head on a swivel, handling twists and stunts with ease.

    That skill set must be what intrigued Washington OL coach Bill Callahan, who has taken him under his tutelage and inserted him right into the thick of things on the depth chart. After pushing for a depth role, Kalis ended up on Washington's practice squad. The awareness of what opposing fronts throw at Kalis continues to be his best trait, but Kalis’ approach and angles in pass protection are already showing signs of improvement under Callahan. The hand technique may take longer to fix, but with Kalis consistently in better position to use his natural strength rather than trying to work from a weak position outside his frame, he looks much better. Who knows how this story will end for Kalis, but so far it is another example of how fit and development are as important as anything else to how an evaluation turns out.

    —NFL1000 OL scout Ethan Young

Centers

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
    Center Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Pat ElfleinMIN
    Chase RoullierWAS 
    Ethan Pocic SEA 
    J.J. Dielman LAR
    Kyle Fuller HOU
    Cameron Tom NO (PS)
    Deyshawn Bond IND
    Jake Eldrenkamp LAR (PS)

     

    Center is by far the weakest of the rookie offensive line positions this year, especially from a depth perspective. There aren't even 10 names worth mentioning. Especially because Tyler Orlosky couldn't make the Eagles with his injury setbacks. Now, of course, by the nature of the position, center is more segmented in numbers than the tackle and guard positions. But even with that in mind, this is a pretty thin group. A couple of guys on this list are candidates to get cut. And that is with demand at the position too—there's a sixth-round pick and an undrafted player pushing for starting jobs. It's just chaos.

    The only certainty at this point? Pat Elflein. At his best, the Vikings rookie has looked masterful this preseason. His physicality and technical aptitude are largely unmatched in this group. There are still some snap inconsistencies, but Elflein has shown he deserves to start for Minnesota in Week 1.   

    Chase Roullier and Deyshawn Bond are the sixth-rounder and UDFA I referred to who are pushing for starting jobs. The circumstances and level of play are starkly different between the two, but they are the storylines to follow this year. On one end of the spectrum there's Roullier, who was one of the steals of the draft. It was a joke he fell so far. His tape from Wyoming showcased a tough and technically sound player and a top-100 talent in the class. Roullier relies on active hands to disengage defenders' attempts at bulls, but his footwork is detailed enough to match with a set base on slide protections and mask his movement deficiencies. So, it is not a surprise to see him pushing for a starting job in Washington, which has needed an answer at center for a long time.

    On the other end of the spectrum, though, is Bond. He fell into a chance to battle for the Colts' center job against Brian Schwenke in the wake of the Ryan Kelly injury. This was a development that should frighten Indianapolis fans. What's even scarier is he clearly won, as Schwenke didn't even make it through final cuts. Despite Bond's play strength and positive play as a run-blocker, he had some very ugly reps in pass protection. That's not a good sign for a Colts team whose season may ride on Andrew Luck's already tumultuous health. I liked Bond as an UDFA project coming out of the draft, but his limitations in pass protection are clear, and they're going to be hard to correct. There is a reason there are four backups and a practice squad player on this list ahead of Bond. He is not ready.

    —NFL1000 OL scout Ethan Young

Defensive Ends

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images
    Defensive End Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Myles GarrettCLE 
    Derek Barnett PHI 
    Solomon Thomas SF 
    Jonathan Allen WAS 
    Carl Lawson CIN 
    Jordan Willis CIN 
    Taco Charlton DAL 
    Takkarist McKinley ATL 
    Al-Quadin Muhammad NO 
    10 Charles Harris MIA 

     

    For the most part, the defensive end class is as good as advertised. Myles Garrett, who has been projected as a potential first overall pick since he was a high school recruit, has already made an impact on a Cleveland Browns defense that struggled to make plays in the backfield last season. Some analysts are even calling him a top-five pass-rusher in the NFL already.

    Other first-round picks—Derek Barnett of the Philadelphia Eagles, Solomon Thomas of the San Francisco 49ers and Jonathan Allen of the Washington Redskins—also have flashed this preseason.

    Barnett, a slow-churning bender, has developed an inside move that now makes him a more balanced edge defender than he was at the University of Tennessee. Thomas has played both "big end" and "small end" in San Francisco, as he made his first start in Week 3 of the preseason. Allen, a 3-4 defensive end, has shown the same strength and hustle that led to his being the highest-voted defender in last year's Heisman Trophy tally.

    If there are any players who have outplayed their draft status this preseason, it's been the pass-rushing duo in Cincinnati. Carl Lawson, a 2016 All-American, and Jordan Willis, a top athlete, have combined for five sacks this preseason after being drafted in the middle rounds. Long term, one of them will be starting opposite of Carlos Dunlap in the future, but it's too close a race to call.

    Dallas' first-round pick, Taco Charlton, has looked solid after a slow start to his preseason. Atlanta's first-round pick, Takkarist McKinley, has performed well in the few reps he's been afforded after losing the first two games of the preseason. Miami's first-round pick, Charles Harris, is buried on the depth chart, though former University of Miami defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad led the preseason in sacks with four as a New Orleans Saint.

    —NFL1000 DL scout Justis Mosqueda

Defensive Tackles

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
    Defensive Tackle Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Davon GodchauxMIA 
    Jaleel Johnson MIN 
    Eddie Vanderdoes OAK 
    Treyvon Hester OAK 
    Malik McDowell SEA 
    Dalvin Tomlinson NYG 
    Larry Ogunjobi CLE 
    Carlos Watkins HOU 
    Grover Stewart IND 
    10 D.J. Jones SF 

     

    In 2016, there was a deep defensive tackle draft class and a weak defensive end group. In 2017, it flipped. The top interior lineman in the class is Jonathan Allen, who was drafted in the first round to be a defensive end for the Washington Redskins. The highest-drafted "defensive tackle" was Seattle Seahawks second-rounder Malik McDowell, who plays every position on the field.

    After an ATV accident, McDowell's future is uncertain. NFL Network's Mike Garafolo told KJR in Seattle that McDowell may never play for the Seahawks. With McDowell's 2017 in question, we bumped him down a couple of spots in the rankings.

    Leading the defensive tackles who flashed this offseason was Davon Godchaux of the Miami Dolphins. Godchaux was an early entree who wasn't drafted until the fifth round. The nose tackle has locked in the starting job that he won over Jordan Phillips, which means he's going to need to take advantage of the one-on-ones that Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake create.

    Another mid-round pick, Jaleel Johnson, is performing well in Minnesota. The Vikings need a 3-technique to pair with Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph. Johnson isn't an ideal 3-technique or nose tackle, which is likely why he was drafted in the fourth round, but he has been making consistent splash plays in the preseason. Look for him to become a name faster than the rest of his non-Godchaux peers from Day 3 of the draft.

    The other names to focus on are Eddie Vanderdoes and Treyvon Hester of the Oakland Raiders. Vanderdoes was a former super-recruit from UCLA who had ups and downs to go along with injury, while Hester was a seventh-round pick from Toledo who had 32 tackles for a loss in his college career. On a team desperate for defensive line talent to line up alongside Khalil Mack, the Raiders found two potential end-of-the-year starters.

    —NFL1000 DL scout Justis Mosqueda

Outside Linebackers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images
    Outside Linebacker Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1T.J. WattPIT
    Duke Riley ATL
    Tyus BowserBAL 
    Ryan Anderson WAS 
    Alex Anzalone NO
    Vince Biegel GB 
    Jalen Reeves-Maybin DET
    Kendell Beckwith TB
    Tim Williams BAL 
    10 Tanner Vallejo BUF

     

    The "outside linebacker" denotation gives flexibility between different base schemes in the NFL. In a 3-4, an outside linebacker is primarily a pass-rusher and edge-setter, while an outside linebacker in a 4-3 is a stack linebacker responsible for gap control in the run game and coverage on passing downs. This year's rookie class provides talent for both defensive schemes.

    Holding up the 3-4 outside linebackers are T.J. Watt and Ryan Anderson.

    Watt is a supreme athlete with a tantalizing yet unrefined skill set. To some surprise, Watt snagged two sacks in his first preseason game, though both were as easy as they come. Watt has been quiet in the sack department since then, but he's still flashed the tools that made him a first-round pick.

    Whereas Watt is a hyper-athletic pass-rusher, Anderson is a strong, lugging run-defense piece. He doesn't have the pace to burn offensive tackles around the edge, but he can be a tough run defender on the edge, as well as a pocket pusher on passing downs. With as many pass-rushers as the Washington Redskins have, Anderson may get lost in the mix.

    Duke Riley and Alex Anzalone spearhead this year's group of 4-3 outside linebackers. The Atlanta Falcons were the perfect team for Riley. Their game plan is predicated on speed and confidence, both of which Riley has in spades.

    His game draws similarities to Deion Jones', who played with Riley at LSU. Riley doesn't have quite the strength and explosion Jones does, but he mimics Jones' twitch and savvy, leaving Riley to be more of a weak-side player than middle linebacker.

    Anzalone, on the other hand, was drafted into a disastrous New Orleans Saints linebacker corps. He has already shown the athleticism and understanding to be a starter on that defense. As has always been the case with Anzalone, he just needs to prove he can remain healthy.

    —NFL1000 LB scout Derrik Klassen

Inside Linebackers

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
    Inside Linebacker Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Reuben FosterSF
    Zach Cunningham HOU 
    Haason Reddick ARZ 
    Jarrad Davis DET 
    Marquel Lee OAK
    Anthony Walker IND
    Blair Brown JAX
    Jayon Brown TEN
    Ben Gedeon MIN
    10 Josh Harvey-Clemons WAS

     

    The 2017 rookie linebacker class is promising. There are a few possible stars and longtime starters among both the outside and inside linebacker groups. One player stands above the rest: Reuben Foster.

    Due to lingering shoulder concerns and a messy combine, Foster dropped to the bottom of the first round. The San Francisco 49ers got a bargain getting him as late as they did; he was a top-five talent. Foster has already asserted his dominance this preseason through a flurry of brutal tackles and nifty pass deflections. He is and will be a star in the league and continue the 49ers' streak of excellent linebacker play.

    Zach Cunningham and Haason Reddick make up the tier behind Foster. Each player has experienced ups and downs this preseason, but both are showing promise.

    Cunningham is at his best in run defense. He is a comfortable athlete in space when working to the perimeter. The angles he takes to clamp down on outside zone plays are great, and he has the athleticism to finish. Cunningham's processing ability, mainly in the passing game, will need work, but he's well on his way.

    Reddick is in the same boat. He has a skill that Cunningham doesn't, though: He can be a true edge-rusher and a game-changing blitzer, in addition to being a functional run defender. Throughout his collegiate career, Reddick never had a defined position, due in part to top-tier athleticism that allowed him to play wherever. Monitoring his progress in a specific role in the Arizona Cardinals defense will be interesting.

    Raekwon McMillan of the Miami Dolphins is the unfortunate early casualty from this class. In early August, he tore his ACL and was ruled out for the season. McMillan was a top-class linebacker at Ohio State. There was hardly a blemish on his profile.

    McMillan had the starting experience, statistics and athletic test numbers. It was all there for him, and he would have comfortably been the best linebacker in Miami this season. A healthy McMillan would rank among Cunningham and Reddick. Hopefully McMillan bounces back in 2018 and proves his talent.

    —NFL1000 LB scout Derrik Klassen

Cornerbacks

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
    Cornerback Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Marshon LattimoreNO 
    Tre'Davious White BUF
    Gareon Conley OAK 
    Adoree' Jackson TEN 
    Chidobe Awuzie DAL 
    Marlon Humphrey BAL
    Quincy Wilson IND
    Cordrea Tankersley MIA
    Kevin King GB 
    10 Jourdan Lewis DAL

     

    Rookie cornerbacks haven't had the opportunities to prove themselves on the field as much as the talent within the class indicates they should. Eighteen cornerbacks were drafted by the end of Round 3, but injuries and loaded depth charts have limited some of the playing time for several high selections. That said, there's promise.

    Marshon Lattimore's debut with the New Orleans Saints was most impressive, as he showed the athleticism, speed and fluidity he was lauded for throughout the draft process. Only he and Tre'Davious White are likely to be their respective team's top corner entering the year. White is in a corner-friendly scheme, and he's the top corner on a rebuilding secondary.

    The next group from Gareon Conley to Quincy Wilson features starter-caliber players but is looking at rotational play for now as injuries have limited Conley, Chidobe Awuzie and Wilson in the preseason.

    Marlon Humphrey and Adoree' Jackson were the second and third corners drafted, respectively, but Humphrey is stuck behind two veterans as the third boundary corner, and Jackson has shown his raw technique thus far in preseason. Both have great upside, but the early results have been up and down.

    Miami Dolphins rookie Cordrea Tankersley has been excellent against second- and third-team offenses in preseason play, but he's also stuck as the fourth boundary corner for the team due to depth. Kevin King figures to either start or be a top rotational corner for Green Bay and has maybe the highest upside of the group, but his vulnerability on in-breaking routes has him looking overmatched right now.

    Of the remaining corners, Jourdan Lewis' impressive Michigan career lands him as our 10th-best rookie entering the season. He can play inside or outside for the Dallas Cowboys, even in a reduced role early on.

    —NFL1000 DB scout Ian Wharton

Safeties

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images
    Safety Rankings
    RankPlayerTeam
    1Jamal AdamsNYJ 
    Malik Hooker IND 
    Jabrill PeppersCLE
    Obi MelifonwuOAK
    Budda BakerARZ
    Josh Jones GB 
    Eddie Jackson CHI
    Marcus Williams NO
    Marcus Maye NYJ 
    10 Justin Evans TB

     

    The 2017 class was unusually deep with quality safety prospects, not only boasting volume but also diversity in skill sets. The top four safeties drafted—Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker, Jabrill Peppers and Budda Baker—share few qualities with one another, and yet they project to be impactful playmakers for their teams. Nothing in the preseason altered the view that these were the three best prospects at the position.

    After them, there's room for debate.

    Oakland Raiders safety Obi Melifonwu is one of the most explosive and unique talents, but he was limited in preseason action due to his injury recovery process. Josh Jones is more of a linebacker than safety for the Green Bay Packers, and he has had good and bad moments as he makes that adjustment.

    Former Alabama safety and captain Eddie Jackson started to break through the Chicago Bears' battle at free safety late in the preseason, but he still hasn't locked down the starting gig.

    Second-round picks Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye and Justin Evans will each have the opportunity at some point to prove their long-term worth. Maye is locked in as a starter, while Williams and Evans are third safeties for their respective squads. In the nickel-centric league, they'll find their way onto the field for enough snaps to give a good look at their upside.

    Possibly the best value at the position is former Iowa Hawkeyes corner and current Los Angeles Chargers safety Desmond King. King is physical against the run and instinctive in the passing game. He's not the most physically gifted as an athlete and thus the position change, but the Chargers should continue to feed him playing time in hopes he develops into a starter.

    —NFL1000 DB scout Ian Wharton