Biggest Risers, Fallers of Early 2017 NFL Draft Process

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2017

Biggest Risers, Fallers of Early 2017 NFL Draft Process

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    Who's moving up, and who's moving down? From when draft season started in August until now—about a week before the combine—there has been considerable movement in the rankings because of players' poor performances, off-field issues, injuries and, in the case of six players highlighted here, improved performance. 

    Names like Mitch Trubisky, Garett Bolles and David Njoku weren't being talked about in the summer months as football season neared—but now all three have a chance to be first-rounders.

    On the other hand, Deshaun Watson was viewed as the second coming of Marcus Mariota, and DeShone Kizer was thought of as the next Cam Newton. Now there's a chance neither will be drafted in the top 10.

    Who else has moved up or down?

Stock Up: Solomon Thomas, Stanford

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    Early in the 2016 season, Michael Felder told me before an NFL Draft Live production to look at Solomon Thomas. Thank you, Felder.

    Thomas played 5-technique in the Stanford 3-4 defense but can line up all over the field as an athletic pass-rusher. In a dominant bowl game performance against North Carolina, he showed the first-step quickness to shoot through gaps and used his agility to chase down quarterbacks. 

    Thomas is 6'3" and 273 pounds, which isn't ideal for an NFL 5-tech, but he's shown the quickness and power to play as a 4-3 defensive end or even as an Aaron Donald-like 4-3 defensive tackle if his future team prioritizes a quick pass-rusher.

    Thomas wasn't even on my early big board. Now, the redshirt sophomore is in the top 10.

Stock Down: Tim Williams, Alabama

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    The No. 14 overall player on my September big board, Tim Williams now ranks 59th overall. Was his play that bad? No, but off-field concerns have teams scared.

    A two-down player at Alabama, Williams' lack of size is a question for teams. He's listed at 6'4" and 252 pounds, but scouts I've spoken to fear he can't maintain his weight and has struggled to grasp the assignments of three-down players.

    There is a lot to like about Williams' talent. He's aggressive, fast and long coming off the edge. His run defense improved in 2016 and showed he might be able to become a three-down player in the pros.

    There's still time for NFL teams to fall in love with this twitchy, explosive pass-rusher (especially those with 3-4 defenses), but Williams must answer questions about his character and wiring to regain his status as a first-rounder.

Stock Up: Ohio State Defensive Backs

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    Malik Hooker. Gareon Conley. Marshon Lattimore.

    Not one of them was listed prominently on my preseason big board after they were overshadowed by Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell in 2015. The trio was unknown by draft experts heading into the year, but each has since established himself as a first-round talent. Hooker and Lattimore may even be top-10 picks.

    After playing 25 snaps in 2015, per Pro Football Focus, Hooker became the nation's best free safety prospect. Conley started opposite Apple in 2015 and has shown excellent coverage instincts and ball skills while locking down Big Ten wide receivers. Lattimore played just 84 snaps in 2015 and has struggled with hamstring injuries, but he was tremendous in 2016 as first-rounder Apple's replacement.

    Of the three, Hooker is the most likely to go in the top 10, but don't sleep on a team falling in love with Lattimore's speed and range and also selecting him high in the draft. Conley, while the most experienced of the three, may be the last one drafted, but that'll still be in Round 1.

Stock Down: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

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    Jabrill Peppers was a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most well-known players in the country last season. Fans took to Twitter to ask if he was the next Charles Woodson.

    He's not.

    Peppers is a great return man and an exciting athlete, but he's not a complete player given his lack of size (6'1", 205 lbs) and the fact that he's played cornerback, safety and linebacker without much production at any one spot. Peppers is a marketable player (ask Michigan) and has a ton of athletic upside, but he must be groomed as a safety while helping his team as a return man.

    Teams picking at the back end of Round 1 are likely to take that chance, but anyone considering Peppers as a top-five player is betting hard on upside after a season in which he didn't break out as a defender.

Stock Up: David Njoku, Miami

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    David Njoku wasn't on my radar before the season began, but his quarterback, Brad Kaaya, was. A conversation with Kaaya in November tipped me off that Njoku was considering entering the draft. From then on, the redshirt sophomore freak has been in my first-round rankings.

    At 6'4" and 245 pounds, Njoku has elite movement skills and shows up as a willing and able blocker when asked to stay in on passing situations. He's built like a statue, with excellent muscle tone, and has the top-tier flexibility to bend and cut without slowing down.

    Njoku isn't the most experienced tight end in the group, and that'll show up in his route running and timing, but those things can be improved with NFL coaching. The one thing you can't coach is the athleticism Njoku has. With his ability to make plays in space, he's a clear-cut top-20 player.

Stock Down: Deshaun Watson, Clemson

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    Athletic, poised, accomplished and a champion. Deshaun Watson has a lot of traits NFL teams can fall in love with. It's those traits—and his play in 2015—that had Watson sitting No. 5 overall on my September big board. So why is he No. 28 right now?

    Watson struggled with interceptions and indecision on the field in 2016. There were times, especially early in the season, when he appeared to miss coverages and made throws you don't expect from a junior quarterback. Watson rallied and finished the year strong—culminating with an excellent showing against Alabama in the national title game—but even in the College Football Playoff he made throws that were saved by big targets Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett.

    There are things I like about Watson—those mentioned above—but there are too many questions about his decision-making and accuracy to invest a top-five pick in a passer who hasn't proved himself as an NFL-style quarterback.

    Watson has the tools to be the best quarterback in this class in three years if he's put into a positive situation in which he can be coached up. But his baseline isn't top five-caliber.

Stock Up: Haason Reddick, Temple

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    You won't find Haason Reddick's name on my early big board. Not in the top 50 and not in the top 10 linebackers. Now he's No. 23 overall and looking like a first-rounder thanks to his versatility, character and athleticism.

    Reddick came to Temple as a walk-on cornerback, transitioned to defensive end and showed up at the Senior Bowl as a great off-ball linebacker. And if you look around the NFL right now, the thing teams want on defense is versatility. Reddick is a pass-rusher who can cover in space and play in any defensive alignment. Sign me up.

    At 6'2" and 237 pounds, Reddick doesn't have ideal size, but at the Senior Bowl, he showed the moves and quickness to beat offensive tackles off the ball. With those skills, Reddick will fit perfectly as a two-down linebacker and third-down pass-rusher. Kind of like a rookie Khalil Mack.

Stock Down: DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame

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    The No. 2 overall player on my big board when the season began—behind only Leonard Fournette—DeShone Kizer looked like a future top-five pick in September.

    At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Kizer has the arm strength and ball placement ability of a franchise quarterback. The issue is he was uneven as a passer in 2016. You can rightfully blame the poor receivers at Notre Dame for some of these struggles. You could also point a finger at the offensive line, which struggled after the departures of Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin for the NFL. And finally, you can look at what Brian Kelly did in rotating Kizer and Malik Zaire and wonder what the hell he was thinking.

    Those are a lot of excuses, but all are valid. Kizer's tools are top-tier, but his on-field execution this season wasn't great from a big-picture view. There were games—against Texas, for example—in which Kizer still looked like an elite talent, but in order to trust him as the No. 2 or 3 overall pick, Kizer needed to play better this fall.

    The combine and his pro day will go a long way in establishing Kizer's stock, but right now, he's a mid-first-rounder.

Stock Up: Garett Bolles, Utah

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    When I was writing my big board in September, Garett Bolles was getting settled for his first season at Utah and learning the Utes offense. Now, just five months later, he's the top-ranked offensive tackle in the 2017 draft class.

    Bolles has question marks—he's 24 years old and played just one season of FBS football—but his athleticism and meanness on the field are eye-opening. Bolles is like a young Joe Staley when it comes to protecting the blindside and gets to the second-level of defenses with the same quickness and toughness.

    In a class that's weak on offensive tackle prospects, Bolles' upside and athleticism are turning heads. He needs to get a little stronger to play his style of football at the next level, but teams are already talking about his upside.

    The combine is looming, and Bolles is the kind of player who can shoot up boards once teams get to see him—and talk to him—in person.

Stock Down: JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

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    Falling from No. 37 overall in September to No. 83 isn't catastrophic, but it may be a surprise to see JuJu Smith-Schuster slotted in the third round. Coming out of high school, he was ranked by Scout.com as a 5-star prospect, and he became a household name among college football fans.

    What are the issues?

    Speed, or rather a lack of speed, shows up way too often when Smith-Schuster is asked to separate from defenders. And when he does get free, he makes a lot of basket catches. Those two shortcomings are what keep driving the USC star down my board.

    Smith-Schuster is very young (he turned 20 in November), but youth doesn't equate to room to get faster. We've seen players improve their hands in the NFL, but even that is pretty rare when the problem isn't timing but the mechanics of catching.

    He might be a big name, but don't look for Smith-Schuster to hear his called on Day 1 of the draft.

Stock Up: Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina

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    DeShone Kizer. Deshaun Watson. Brad Kaaya. Chad Kelly. C.J. Beathard. Davis Webb. Seth Russell. Baker Mayfield. Josh Dobbs. Mitch Leidner.

    That was my top 10 quarterback list in September. The top quarterback in the 2017 draft class wasn't on it.

    Mitch Trubisky had completed 82 passes before the 2016 season started. People outside of Mentor, Ohio, and diehard North Carolina fans probably hadn't heard of him before he took the field against Georgia in a loss on Sept. 3. Fast-forward six months, and Trubisky is the consensus No. 1 passer in the class.

    With accuracy, arm strength, poise, considerable upside and a 6'3", 220-pound frame, it's easy to see Trubisky as a young Derek Carr. The combination of those traits and the lack of elite quarterbacks in the draft class have pushed the one-year starter into the top five picks.

    Many will compare this to the rise of Carson Wentz a year ago, and that's not far off the mark. And like Wentz, Trubisky will need a solid support staff to get on the field in his first season, but there is a lot to like in his game and his wiring.

Stock Down: Carl Lawson, Auburn

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    Seen over the summer months as an elite pass-rusher who would push Myles Garrett to be the top edge-rusher in this class, Auburn's Carl Lawson now ranks as a Round 2 player. That fall is the biggest on my board.

    When healthy, Lawson turns heads. He has a thick frame with good arm length, and he's lined up over guards as a pass-rusher and dropped into the flats to take away backs in the passing game. The biggest question moving forward will be his medical history. He injured his left knee in 2014 and missed half the 2015 season with a hip injury.

    The combine will be huge for Lawson's stock, as teams can gauge his athleticism and also the affects of his injuries. If he shows up with burst and flexibility, Lawson's stock may rise. But if he looks stiff and hesitant while moving through drills or runs slowly, the second round is the most likely destination for this one-time top-10 player.

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