2017 NFL Draft: Prospects with the Biggest Upside
It's easy to value production and use the word "safe" when discussing prospects for the NFL draft. But NFL general managers keep their jobs and NFL scouts get promoted based on the upside prospects they advocate for during the draft.
The term upside is the embodiment of the "risk vs. reward" dynamic that is prevalent in all NFL war rooms. Teams get rewarded by the players with upside they draft that are successful in the NFL, and the 2017 NFL draft has a handful that are worth taking a risk on in the early rounds.
This list includes a prospect at every position that, while their path to NFL success isn't clear-cut, has the tools and developmental ceiling to be among the best players at their respective positions when we reflect on the 2017 draft.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
With arm talent that's on par with Matt Stafford and a prime Brett Favre, it's easy to see why Patrick Mahomes has risen as a prospect from an intriguing mid-round prospect to a potential top-10 draft pick. While he’s woefully unpolished and will need almost a full redshirt year before he can be counted on as a pocket passer, the skill set is there to eventually grow into one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Ideally, Mahomes lands on a team that can adequately develop his skill set (such as Kansas City, Houston or Chicago) for a full year before unleashing the gunslinger on the league. If a team can tap into his rich upside, his Brett Favre ceiling may vindicate his likely high draft choice.
Running Back: Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Joe Mixon's character red flag has become a well-known narrative in the 2017 NFL draft class, and it's hard (and somewhat close-minded) to try to eliminate that from his evaluation. But, Mixon is arguably the second-most talented running back in the class behind only Leonard Fournette.
What's more, he's a better pass-catcher and overall third-down running back talent that can be a unique hybrid of David Johnson and Jamaal Charles in terms of style and versatility. If Mixon's past transgressions are entirely in the past and he's truly learned from his mistakes, he could quickly reach his elite-level ceiling as a prospect.
Wide Receiver: Juju Smith-Schuster, USC
Set to be just a 20-year-old rookie receiver at the start of the season, the tall, long and physically gifted Juju Smith-Schuster checks every box a high-upside receiver needs to for NFL scouts. While he's not as physical nor vertically dynamic as many other top receivers in this draft class, Smith-Schuster's still developing skill set gives him a higher ceiling than most of the receivers in the class after the top three prospects (Clemson's Mike Williams, Washington's John Ross and Western Michigan's Corey Davis).
USC receivers haven't had a great track record of becoming reliable NFL receivers, and part of that stems from working in a college offense that doesn't set them up to be moldable pro talents. But Smith-Schuster is an open canvas of a well-built receiver prospect, and, in time, he could make teams pay if he slips too late in the second round.
Tight End: David Njoku, Miami (FL)
As expected, Miami's (FL) David Njoku was one of the stars of the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine with his athletic testing numbers. He ran a 4.64 40-yard-dash time coupled with a 37.5 vertical jump and an 11'1" broad jump, all among the best for any tight end in the draft class.
If you couple that with his high-end receiving ability he's consistently shown over the last two years as a featured weapon for the Hurricanes, and it's clear why Njoku has gotten (and deserves) top-20 buzz as we get closer to the 2017 NFL draft. His athletic upside and on-film flashes could have him surpass O.J. Howard as an NFL tight end when we reflect on this class in a few years.
Offensive Line: Cam Robinson, Alabama
Like many prospects on this list, part of Cam Robinson's upside projection stems from his age. Robinson will be just 21 years old when he enters the NFL after three years as a left tackle starter at Alabama in the SEC. Prospects with that experience and age to only improve don't come around that often.
His competition for offensive tackle draft positioning in this class are Utah's Garett Bolles, who will be a 25-year-old rookie, and Wisconsin's Ryan Ramczyk, who is coming off of hip surgery and, like Bolles, just one year of FBS experience. While Robinson may not be as NFL-ready as those two, his ceiling and path to NFL success is clear for a younger offensive line prospect.
Defensive Line: Nazair Jones, North Carolina
Nazair Jones has an ideal NFL body type in his upper and lower half, and that, coupled with the ability to win in isolation, are the primary reasons that Jones deserves to be considered a top-100 prospect.
Jones is remarkably thick without being overly soft in an area of his body type, and his thick trunk offers stability off the snap and against double teams.
Jones needs to stay wide and with more balance as he works upfield, and his lack of efficient hip bend limits how much growth he can have at the NFL level as an athletic pass-rusher. His ability to win in isolation as a pass-rusher is impressive, and it speaks to the potential development he can have in this area with a larger repertoire of rush moves with NFL coaching.
Pass-Rusher: Tyus Bowser, Houston
If not for an orbital bone fracture after an accident with a teammate during the 2016 season, Houston's Tyus Bowser may have been the FBS tackle for loss and sack leader.
His pass-rushing impact and efficiency stand out not only because he has the tools to improve, but also because he was able to produce while working in zone coverage and man pick-up more than any true pass-rusher in the 2017 class.
Additionally, Bowser tested tremendously well, finishing in the top five in the SPARQ rating, which consolidates prospects' athletic scores at the NFL Scouting Combine into one true athletic testing score. With true versatility, college production and high-end athleticism, Bowser's upside is not only obvious, but also worth investing a mid to late first-round pick.
Linebacker: Haason Reddick, Temple
Haason Reddick was an undersized edge-rusher for much of his college career at Temple, and his NFL projection was as an optimistic linebacker prospect at best and a position-less athlete at worst. But during the 2017 NFL draft process, most notably at the Senior Bowl, Reddick displayed remarkable adaptation to a true 4-3 or 3-4 linebacker position and he's solidified himself as a first-round talent.
Reddick possesses awesome quick-twitch explosiveness and change of direction, but it's his body control to engage with his core and still continue his burst through contact and into coverage that's so wowing.
While he'll have some kinks to work out as a complete linebacker, he has the potential to be one of the best 4-3 outside or 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL.
Cornerback: Kevin King, Washington
Whenever a cornerback with adequate talent checks in at 6'3", NFL teams take note. With the rise of the Cover 3 as the prevailing coverage scheme of many teams, length, physicality and vertical capability matter most to NFL teams. Washington's Kevin King checks all those boxes.
King has plenty to clean up in his short-area timing, work on inside routes and being more proactive vertically, but his upside can ideally give a team hoping to mimic the Seattle Seahawks' prototype a building block to form their defense. He may be a bit of a work-in-progress, but his tools could allow him to become a pillar of a press Cover 3 defense.
Safety: Obi Melifonwu, UConn
Even before he tested through the roof at the NFL Scouting Combine, Obi Melifonwu's domination of the Senior Bowl all but solidified his first-round draft projection.
His junior game film is highly lackluster and his senior year, while improved, doesn't scream first-round prospect, but with length and explosive numbers like his, it's hard to argue with teams that he belongs in the upper echelon of the defensive back prospects.
With the potential to go in the top-20 picks, the secret is out on Melifonwu's upside. Defensive backs with elite upside haven't always worked out, but Melifonwu may join his former teammate Byron Jones in the NFL as a high-level athlete who can make the most of it early in his career as he continues to slowly develop as a complete NFL defensive back.