NFL Draft 2017: Ranking the Top 8 Prospects Heading into the Season

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2016

NFL Draft 2017: Ranking the Top 8 Prospects Heading into the Season

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    Juan DeLeon/Associated Press

    It's June, and every NFL fanbase is optimistic. Every NFL head coach knows that players look good in helmets and shorts, and they take advantage of the media's need for content by inflating the perception of their team in public.

    Still, about half of the franchises in the NFL will finish with a losing record, making jesters of those who buy into offseason fool's gold. What fans of those lowly teams can count on is the NFL draft. Even if their squads do fall short in 2016, they can still turn their future around via the 2017 class.

    With spring games behind us, we have as many data points on draft prospects as we're going to get heading into college football's regular season. As of now, there are eight prospects who should be highlighted as "elite" draft picks going into the fall.

    Only 12 franchises will punch a ticket for the playoffs this year, and we'll give a head start to those 20 that will be looking at the draft before peak winter by overviewing who should be the impact characters in the 2017 draft class.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    As of this moment, there is only one quarterback worthy of a first-round pick heading into the 2016 college football season. While Miami's Brad Kaaya is receiving plenty of top-10 attention, it has as much to do with his projection under new Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt as it does his 2015 effort.

    Instead, it's Deshaun Watson of Clemson who is leading the pack at the position. If you were able to catch his national championship battle against Nick Saban's Alabama defense, you'd know why.

    Despite having nine players drafted in 2016—the second-highest mark nationally—Clemson only lost two key offensive players to the NFL. As long as the squad can replace Zac Brooks, a seventh-round running back, and Charone Peake, a seventh-round receiver, Clemson shouldn't lose a step in Watson's true junior season.

    From a traits standpoint, Watson is someone between Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater and Tennessee's Marcus Mariota, which by all means is a clear first-round talent. The one issue that might scare some away from Watson is his injury history, which includes multiple knee injuries, a collarbone problem and hand surgery since his senior year of high school ball. The dual-threat quarterback may end up seeing Robert Griffin comparisons if another setback keeps him off the field next season.

    Teams like the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers are expected to pick high in the 2017 draft, and with their personnel, it wouldn't be out of the question for them to select Watson, no matter when they're on the clock. He has a chance to be one of the few heralded quarterbacks who actually becomes a top-five pick after preseason hype, like Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston and Mariota.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    If you were anywhere near a television last fall, it was hard to escape from Leonard Fournette. The LSU running back has been known as a major recruit since he was coming out of middle school, and early on in the 2015 season, he was the heavy leader to win the Heisman Trophy, which he eventually received 10 first-place votes for.

    According to NFL Draft Scout, Fournette is just under 6'1", 230 pounds and runs a 4.47-second 40-yard dash. He returns to college football as the sport's most dynamic running back, and his combination of speed and power will frighten any defensive coordinator.

    In 2015, it seemed like the only thing that could stop the LSU Tigers was their passing game. Fournette could drop a shoulder, punish a defender and leave him in the dirt, or the tailback would outrun defensive backs with ease in the open field.

    The narrative in the draft community in recent years has been that the running back position should be devalued, but game-changing backs are still drafted in the top 100, and they are still worth first-round picks.

    Fournette isn't your run-of-the-mill starter. Finally draft-eligible after years of hype and success, he has early-career potential on par with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson or Los Angeles' Todd Gurley. Allowing him to slip out of the top 10 would be a mistake, even in a deep draft class which may feature five or six selections at the position on Day 1.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The off-field concerns for Cam Robinson will be talked about more than his talent. Whenever a lineman makes headlines, that's what the media is going to roll with. It's one reason why Robert Nkemdiche, who might have been the best athlete in last year's draft class, hardly got any shine for his on-field talent.

    This offseason, Robinson was charged with possession of a stolen firearm and marijuana, but according to KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana, the city where he was arrested, the charges were later dropped due to "insufficient evidence." Guilty or not, this gave nonfilm-watchers a narrative for a player who would go in the top five in the 2017 draft based on talent alone.

    While some stated that Robinson had a down year in 2015 after his stellar true freshman season, he was still decleating Clemson defenders and blocking two men at the same time in the national championship game. If you get a chance to talk to the Tigers staff, you won't be hearing that Robinson is anything in the ballpark of overrated.

    In fact, on paper, Robinson is the only true first-round-worthy offensive tackle in the class. As long as he can stay on the straight and narrow, Robinson, who will start the season as a 20-year-old, should be an All-SEC bookend and a top-10 lock.

Carl Lawson, EDGE, Auburn

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    Todd J. Van Emst/Associated Press

    The best all-around edge defender in the 2017 draft class is Carl Lawson, who could have declared as a redshirt sophomore last season. After missing a year-and-a-half due to injuries—an ACL tear and a hip issue—he elected to stay at Auburn for one more season to prove he can stay on the field.

    What's interesting is that his play and production don't truly match up. Statistically, he's nothing special in the Southeastern Conference. Between 2013 and 2015, he's tallied five total sacks, and after his true freshman season, he's only posted three tackles for a loss and a single sack.

    If he doesn't see a jump in production as a junior, we could see him slip, as teams look for reasons to poke holes in prospects' games the longer the process goes. A lack of sacks is one reason why players like Sheldon Richardson, Clay Matthews and Robert Nkemdiche have fallen in recent drafts, despite athleticism and quality film.

    Up until one of the weirdest draft-day falls in recent memory, Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil was seen as the crown jewel of the 2016 class. Tunsil, a bookend offensive tackle, told CBS Sports' Dane Brugler that Lawson was his toughest matchup in the nation's toughest conference.

    Lawson is a talented athlete who can use his hands to club and rip past any bookend in the country. Most of his production deficits come from offenses being structured around avoiding him or being aware of his presence at all times. Don't make the mistake of doubting him because of the numbers.

Myles Garrett, EDGE, Texas A&M

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Some will say that Myles Garrett is the best edge defender in college football, and at the end of the season that may be true, but as of now, he's somewhat limited as a run defender. Garrett, a former super-recruit, has leaped over the bar that fans set for him coming into Texas A&M, but he still has room for improvement.

    He can bend the edge and make plays in space, but when talented offensive tackles like Mississippi's Laremy Tunsil got their hands on him, he was a nonfactor for stretches. Still, that's much further along than 90 percent of draft picks at that position.

    Garrett is a lot like Anthony Barr coming out of UCLA, a superathlete whose physicality kept him from being a top-five pick. With that being said, Barr was a converted running back, whereas Garrett has been a full-time defender for his entire career in College Station.

    He was only a true sophomore in 2015, and that needs to be kept in mind when criticizing the young athlete, but the 6'5" edge defender needs to build a set of countermoves to become a Pro Bowler at the next level. He's in full control of his body, but the lightbulb needs to go on in 2016. He needs an answer to heavy hands from bookends, and thinking on his feet will be the key transition for the Aggie.

Tim Williams, EDGE, Alabama

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Tim Williams wasn't a full-time starter for Alabama, but he's a top-10 prospect heading into the 2016 regular season. Williams isn't a great scheme fit for the Crimson Tide, but that doesn't mean he isn't talented.

    Alabama often runs a true 3-4 defense, and Williams is best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. At 237 pounds, per NFL Draft Scout, there's no way he'd hold up as a 5-technique end, but the senior could be a Von Miller, Bruce Irvin or Vic Beasley-type of undersized pass-rusher hybrid who can also play off-ball linebacker.

    Williams' best trait is that he knows how to game bookends in space. Not only does he have impressive speed to bend the edge, but he can also sell an outside-inside spin move, which makes him a force in big-on-big assignments.

    With two of Alabama's 3-4 defensive linemen gone and a change at both defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, one would assume that the Tide would be more willing to tailor their scheme to their most talented players in 2016. Expect more 4-2 nickel defensive end looks from Williams, or even 3-4 outside linebacker reps.

    By the end of the season, Williams, who was the best pass-rusher on last year's national championship team, should be in the running for All-American honors.

Jonathan Allen, EDGE/DL, Alabama

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    If not for one of the deepest defensive line classes in the past decade, Jonathan Allen could have been a first-round pick as a junior. Now, he's arguably the top returning senior in college football from an NFL draft perspective.

    As far as a comparison goes, he's like a young Adrian Clayborn, a former first-round pick who started off hot with Tampa Bay before injuries derailed his career.

    Like Clayborn, Allen's position is one with blurred lines. In a 3-4 defense, like the Alabama Crimson Tide play, he's clearly a 5-technique defensive end, a two-gap defender. In a 4-3 defense, though, he can play defensive end, Clayborn's listed base position, but he is also an elite 3-technique pass-rusher, Clayborn's top situational position.

    If you tune into Southeastern Conference football on Saturdays this fall, pay attention to Allen's push-pull moves. His tremendous strength allows him to rag-doll some of the best interior offensive linemen in the nation. As an edge defender, he's a top-five talent entering this class, but as an interior defensive lineman, he's easily among the top two.

Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    While Jonathan Allen is the best pass-rushing interior lineman in the draft, Malik McDowell of Michigan State has the talent to be the best run-defending interior lineman in the class. In many ways, McDowell's sophomore film is a spitting image of DeForest Buckner's junior campaign with the Oregon Ducks. If McDowell can take another step up, like Buckner did last season, expect him to mimic Buckner's top-10 landing spot.

    In the Big Ten, McDowell had to go head-to-head with some of the most pro-ready offensive linemen in the nation, and as a nose tackle, he had one of his best games against Michigan's Graham Glasgow, a center who was drafted in the top 100. As a bull-rusher, McDowell is like a lighter version of Kenny Clark, UCLA's nose tackle who was drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers in 2016.

    Listed at 6'6" and 285 pounds by NFL Draft Scout, the easiest position to project McDowell to is 5-technique defensive end, a dying position in the NFL. Five-technique-only players—like Buckner and the New York Jets' Leonard Williams—have dropped in the draft in recent years, as they need the right home in a more hybrid league.

    With that being said, McDowell's nose tackle background lends hope to his interior aspirations, and his bull-rushing ability puts him above either Buckner or Williams in the pass-rushing category. That may convince some that he can hang at 4-3 defensive end.

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