NFL Draft 2017: Top Players Who Could Fall Down the Board
You're an NFL draft prospect—and a top one. You're fresh off a great 2016 season, one that vaulted you deep into the first-round conversation.
You strut into the draft and walk down the red carpet wearing your shiny suit. Or maybe you went with the very fashion-forward choice of a suit crop top. Your picture is snapped roughly 200 times, and you've said many words into many microphones while being showered with many compliments.
The universe is yours. Then, when you're removed from the lights, the crowd, the stage and the spectacle, you sit.
Sitting isn't really your thing. You don't think you'll do it for long. But then the time in the draft when you expected to hear your name comes, and commissioner Roger Goodell is hugging someone else. He keeps calling other names that aren't yours, and you keep waiting.
There are plenty of reasons why a top prospect might spiral to a far lower rung on the draft board. Often the relentless scrutiny of the pre-draft process leads to concerns that just won't go away. And just as often more serious concerns arise that aren't tied to football at all, and instead teams are worried about maturity and off-field misconduct.
Or it could be an unpleasant cocktail of all of the above. Let's take a closer look at the notable top prospects who could be in for a fall Thursday night.
Reuben Foster, Linebacker
Linebacker Reuben Foster has now become the classic case of a prospect drowning in confusion just days before the draft.
At the combine, Foster had a confrontation with a hospital worker and was then sent home early. But that turned into a minor detail of his week after one of his urine samples came back diluted. Any diluted test is treated as a positive result by the NFL, which means he'll automatically be entered into the league's drug program.
There were already some lingering questions about his character after the hospital altercation. And some teams were also uneasy because of Foster's surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff following the 2016 season. After his recheck in Indianapolis, ESPN NFL Insiders reported there's growing concern he may need a second procedure. The diluted test seemed like the certain third strike set to make Foster's draft value plummet.
Foster told NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that he was essentially a victim of poor circumstances and bad luck. He became sick during combine week, likely due to food poisoning. In an effort to recover quickly he was drinking a lot of water and Gatorade.
"I drank and ate as much as I could without throwing up," he told Rapoport. "Then I went in there, drinking and drinking water, trying to flush out my system from whatever was making me sick and trying to keep my weight up."
The result, Foster said, was the diluted test.
It's difficult to gauge if NFL teams will believe that version of events and how far Foster's stock could potentially fall. He was once considered to be cemented into the top 10, but now former executive Michael Lombardi thinks the 23-year-old will fall out of the first round entirely.
But as news of Foster's failed test has gone through the draft-buzz ringer, the outlook seems to have changed. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock thinks the 2016 Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker will only fall slightly and still stay among the top 20 picks.
So what will all this amount to once the draft is over? A team could get a sweet discount on a linebacker who recorded 115 tackles (13 for a loss) and five sacks in 2016. It'll just be a matter of how nice that discount becomes.
Joe Mixon, Running Back
It feels like the word "distraction" floats around the NFL far too freely. It's been applied to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who dared to protest silently. And the label was slapped on Tim Tebow weekly when the former Denver Broncos and New York Jets quarterback was distracting his team from winning—or something.
In truth, a distraction is something a player does publicly that has no connection to football, and it's therefore taking away from the constant drumbeat of robotic game preparation. It's a catch-all term that can often be used to denote fault in players who dare to have personalities or belief systems or simply do something detached from football in their spare time.
There are many times when distractions around the league are a media creation or, worse, the old guard among NFL coaches collectively shaking their fists at clouds. Those times cheapen the term when a player comes around who is undoubtedly controversial and a distraction.
Like Joe Mixon.
Mixon is potentially radioactive for any NFL team even considering using a draft pick on him. Which is why plenty of teams aren't thinking about him at all. That's likely the best move during a deep draft at the running back position. Of the 11 personnel men from different teams surveyed by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, six said they wouldn't draft Mixon no matter how far he falls.
Mixon has become the draft's most polarizing figure. As humans, decision-makers around the league are surely disgusted by the video of his 2014 assault that broke a young woman's jaw and caused facial fractures. That should be, and likely will be, the prevailing image of him come draft day.
But the executives who run teams are still motivated by a different human instinct: self preservation. Losing a lot of games means losing their jobs eventually. Having a running back on your roster who ran for 1,274 yards in 2016 with 15 total touchdowns would sure help with the whole winning thing.
Mixon is a first-round talent who will almost certainly fall. Then it will become a matter of how far he needs to fall for a team to set aside the gruesome images on that video and embrace the oncoming distraction.
Sidney Jones, Cornerback
Sidney Jones falling in the draft feels inevitable for more than the obvious reason.
Jones was considered the draft's top cornerback and a certain first-round pick until he suffered a torn Achilles during his pro day workout. Now he'll likely miss all or most of his rookie season.
That looming absence alone puts a dent in his draft value. There's a simple but fundamental appeal in nailing a first-round pick and getting an immediate contributor. When that happens, the team in question has added a core player and done it at a cheap cost for four years—the length of a rookie contract.
Now Jones' injury will likely shave one year of playing time off of that contract. He still may recover just fine and return to being a dominant corner. The same corner who didn't allow a touchdown in 2016 while shutting down one side of the field for the Washington Huskies, per Pro Football Focus. But it's tough to justify investing a first-round pick and then getting only three years of affordable high-end production before Jones could need a lucrative contract extension.
Then there's also the question of whether everything actually will be just peachy with Jones when he returns. Like any high-end cornerback, he relies on sudden bursts to break on balls and capitalize on his quality vision. Will that come back? And will he be the same?
Merely having to ask those questions means he could be in for an unpleasant draft experience. But of course, if you ask Jones about any injury concerns, he answers with a shrug and a whole lot of confidence.
"I'm the best corner in the draft, plain and simple," Jones told Tom Pelissero of USA Today in late March.
"Don't look at the possibility of me not playing this first year. Me being injured for this short amount of time—it's not going to compare to the rest of the contract, because any player can get hurt throughout their contract. This just happened to happen right now, and I can play basically right when the season starts.
"I will be playing this season. If you take me, I'm a good investment for your team. A great investment."
It's tough to argue with that. If Jones plays in 2017, and plays well, then he's already exceeded expectations and proved to be a great investment.
But it's difficult to imagine that short-term future playing out right now. And the long-term question marks are scary, too.
Jonathan Allen, Defensive End
Every draft fall comes with the required context. And with defensive end Jonathan Allen, there's very little fear about something bizarre happening that would see him, say, fall out of the first round.
Instead, health concerns just won't go away, and a premier pass-rusher once thought to be a top-five pick could fall into draft-discount territory.
If the former Alabama standout who logged 22.5 sacks over his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide falls into the teens, there's a strong chance he'll be considered one of the week's best steals. But there's also a chance that years from now Allen will be an injury-riddled mess.
The latter scenario still feels like a reach, but teams often aren't as willing to take bold risks with their first-round picks. Allen needed surgeries to repair torn labra in both shoulders during his time at Alabama, so he's had two significant procedures that make his body seem older than his age (22).
"I put a higher grade on him before the medicals came in and we had to lower him because of that," an NFC scouting director told Yahoo's Eric Edholm. "That was really it. You don't see too many like him; he's that good to me. It is what it is. He's an interior rusher and we badly need one. I honestly don't know where he'll go because of the [shoulder concern]."
Allen is an impressive talent whose 28.5 sacks during his career at Alabama rank second in that school's storied history. He has the potential to be a game-changing force, and no one is in denial about that, even with his shoulder issues. For example, of the six draft analysts at NFL.com, four still list him as a top-10 pick.
However, there's a chance health concerns could push him beyond that, and teams toward the middle of the opening round should be prepared to pounce.
DeShone Kizer, Quarterback
There was a time when former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer found himself in the first-round conversation. That now feels like a distant and foggy memory.
There's still at least a possibility that Kizer could hear his name Thursday night. It would probably happen later in the round if a team with an aging quarterback decides to bring Kizer aboard and then give him time to develop.
Being able to wait, watch and learn would be the ideal situation for him. On the field, Kizer has the arm talent to succeed, though his accuracy can be questionable at times. He completed 58.7 percent of his pass attempts in 2016, and he was propped up to some degree by play action. As PFF noted, in 2016 Kizer's passer rating dropped from 154.7 when using play action to 85.5 without it.
But the much greater concerns come off the field with Kizer. He's a 21-year-old who too often sprints past the line separating confidence from a bloated ego.
The prime example came when he absurdly compared himself to Cam Newton and Tom Brady.
"No one else can do what I can do," Kizer told Tom Pelissero of USA Today. "And I've truly figured out in this [draft] process, if I can maximize all my potential in every aspect of the game—this is bold—I do have the ability to be the greatest quarterback to ever play. Imagine taking [Tom] Brady's intellect and Brady's preparation and putting it on a guy with Cam Newton's body. Why can't I be the greatest?"
If this was about one comment and one unfortunate comparison, letting it slide would be easier. But Brian Kelly, his former head coach at Notre Dame, called Kizer an unfinished product in terms of his maturation as a person when speaking to ProFootballTalk.
Of the 16 NFL personnel surveyed by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, nine said Kizer is the most likely quarterback to bust in the 2017 draft. One of them called him a selfish prima donna.
Personality concerns can be brushed aside in a quarterback-desperate league if the prospect in question is a unique talent. Kizer doesn't quite clear that bar, even if he does have imposing size (6'4" and 233 lbs).
When you can't make teams forget about your personality flaws, that's when they really, really remember.
John Ross, Wide Receiver
John Ross is fast. You know that, he knows that, every NFL team knows it and most of all, every cornerback who's ever chowed down on some dirt after stumbling while trying to cover him knows, too.
Ross set a new combine record with his 40-yard dash time of 4.22 seconds. That blazing speed has him commonly ticketed for a mid-round landing spot Thursday, with the Arizona Cardinals at No. 13 and the Tennessee Titans at No. 18 the most popular mock-draft destinations.
But while Ross' afterburners are appealing, they don't erase his lengthy injury history. That's causing some apprehension because receivers who rely on pure speed to be effective often age more quickly. And the clock could tick more rapidly on Ross' aging process after his multiple surgeries before ever being on the field for an NFL snap.
Ross had the meniscus in his right knee repaired in 2015. Then in April of that same year he needed ACL surgery on his left knee. So that's both knees carved up before the age of 22, and Ross also underwent shoulder surgery after the 2016 season.
He's gone through some serious body blows already, and it's fair to question Ross' durability in terms of consistently withstanding more punishment. At 5'11" and 188 pounds, he's an undersized receiver.
None of his previous injuries slowed Ross down in 2016 when he finished with 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. But as NFL Network's Mike Mayock reported, some teams are still either proceeding with extreme caution—or staying away entirely.
"There are some teams that have pushed him either down their boards or off their boards because of injuries," Mayock said during his draft conference call.
It's still likely Ross comes off the board in that mid-round territory. But a slide is becoming possible and so is a potential bargain for any wide-receiver needy team later in the round.
Gareon Conley, Cornerback
Gareon Conley is one of the best shutdown cornerbacks in the 2017 draft. He excels in man coverage with a blend of physicality and instincts, both of which contributed to Conley allowing only 14 receptions in coverage during his 2016 season with Ohio State, per PFF.
He also snatched four interceptions in 2016. The entire Conley package—his vision, ball skills and size at 6'0" and 195 pounds—had him rising up draft boards and widely projected as a high first-round pick.
But now that might not matter due to a serious allegation that emerged two days before the draft.
On Tuesday afternoon reports surfaced that a likely first-round pick had been named in a rape allegation. At first the player was anonymous, and then it turned out to be Conley, who had already denied the allegation through his lawyer before he was named.
A woman says that on April 9 Conley raped her in a Cleveland hotel room, according to TMZ Sports. In a 911 call she "described her assailant as a 'black male who wouldn't take his sunglasses off and had an Ohio State tattoo on his left forearm.'" She then said she had a rape kit administered at a local hospital.
Kevin Spellacy, Conley's attorney, called the allegation "ludicrous and ridiculous," per ProFootballTalk. He added that the "young lady is an opportunist and it's actually despicable."
As is often the case in the early stages of such an allegation, the truth here will take time to come out. Right now police are investigating, but they still haven't filed any charges yet.
With his name surfacing in this report a little over 48 hours before the first round and the likelihood of the investigation taking time, the uncertainty alone could significantly affect his draft stock, with teams preferring to pass instead of deal with a possible public relations backlash.
Dalvin Cook, Running Back
Dalvin Cook also has a rather disturbing off-field incident in his recent past. But the difference between him and Conley is that Cook's issue is much further in the rearview mirror, and, more importantly, he settled the matter while being cleared of any misconduct.
In 2015, the former Florida State running back was accused of hitting a woman outside of a Tallahassee bar. The case went to trial and he was eventually found not guilty of a misdemeanor battery charge.
Ever since the Ray Rice punch, there's a heightened sensitivity toward violence against women around the NFL. So even with Cook cleared, having that incident in his past may still make some teams hesitate and at the very least think long and hard about any character concerns they may have.
It would be much easier to look past his off-field conduct if that's where Cook's legal troubles ended. But he also faced a robbery charge in 2009 (it was dropped) and was charged with firing and possessing a weapon on school property in 2010 (also dropped/abandoned).
On the field, there's no doubting his first-round talent. Cook is a two-time All American who rushed for 1,765 yards in 2016 and finished second in the nation with 2,253 yards from scrimmage.
As a prospect, he has top-10 potential and would be a nice fit with a team like the Washington Redskins with their No. 17 pick or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 19. But making that pick requires a team being comfortable with both the player and the person.
Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle
Offensive tackle Cam Robinson is yet another high-end prospect who comes with some murkiness in his off-field past. He was arrested along with an Alabama teammate when police found marijuana and a stolen handgun in their vehicle.
But unlike Conley and Cook, he comes with the double whammy of also having on-field concerns develop during the evaluation process.
There are technique issues with Robinson that hold him back as both a run- and pass-blocker. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein noted that he struggles with balance too often.
Wrote Zierlein: "Weight creeps too far past his feet in both run and pass blocks. Inconsistent sustaining his block. On the ground substantially more than a tackle should be. Has to learn to run his feet under him at contact."
Robinson also committed too many penalties at Alabama, racking up 23 pieces of yellow laundry thrown in his direction over the past two years, per PFF. That high volume of unforced errors is an easy way to knock yourself off a high first-round perch.
Robinson will likely still sneak in and be a late first-round pick. It's a weak draft at his position, and there were few solutions during free agency. That lack of supply will increase the demand for the handful of top-end offensive tackle prospects like Robinson and Utah's Garett Bolles.
Robinson still offers plenty to fall in love with because of his mobility even at size extra large in human (he's 6'6" and 322 pounds). But he gives teams plenty to worry about as well.
Jabrill Peppers, Safety
It was already hard to know how to feel about Jabrill Peppers.
Is he truly a safety? Or will he get exposed in coverage, being better suited to be deployed as an undersized linebacker, even if the former Michigan standout doesn't carry that position title?
And does he have a position fit at all? Or instead is he more of an athlete? There's certainly nothing wrong with being a gifted athlete who doesn't slide into the rigid job description for one position. But often if a prospect can't be placed on the field, it's tough to justify using a first-round pick to obtain his services.
So there was a lot of debate hovering around Peppers' draft status, with the possibility of him falling into Day 2 looking very real. Then he went ahead and delivered a self-administered blow to those likely dwindling first-round chances.
Teams have been notified that Peppers tested positive for a diluted sample at the combine, according to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Peppers now joins Foster as another top defensive prospect who risks forking over several million dollars while seeing his draft value plummet as teams take a cautious approach. Character issues and off-field concerns have always been part of the draft process, but, rightly or wrongly, that emphasis has increased in recent years thanks in part to Johnny Manziel.
Peppers claims he was overly hydrated after drinking lots of water while trying to recover from a sickness.
"He was sick after flying there from San Diego," read a statement from his agency, via ProFootballTalk. "He has a history of cramping. Peppers was being pumped with fluids, drinking 8-10 bottles of water before he went to bed, because he was the first guy to work out two days for the LBs and DBs. He had to go through that first day, come back on second day, and that was the fear. So Peppers was pounding water and under the weather. He never failed a drug test in his life, nor tested positive before for any substance."
There's a cold reality here that causes the NFL to see only black and white instead of the gray areas in drug testing like the ones Peppers and Foster may have stepped into. The league's testing program treats every diluted sample as a failed test, even if the reason given for dilution is a harmless one.
Maybe nothing comes of this failed test for Peppers. But it came out days before the draft, which will give teams pause, and they won't have much time to investigate. That could turn this into a significant misstep for Peppers, a defender who couldn't afford one as he teetered at the edge of first-round status.
Corey Davis, Wide Receiver
An unexpected draft fall is often caused either by off-field issues of some kind popping up in April or an injury that isn't healing well.
If wide receiver Corey Davis falls, it'll be because of the latter category.
Davis had a sparkling collegiate career at Western Michigan, highlighted by three seasons with 1,400-plus receiving yards. Overall, he finished with an FBS-record 5,278 yards through the air, and he also scored 52 times over four years. He has the size (6'3" and 213 lbs) and catch radius to consistently win battles for jump balls, and Davis can also separate deep.
The problem is he hasn't been able to showcase those skills in front of scouts during the pre-draft process.
Davis needed ankle surgery shortly after the 2016 season. His recovery has kept him out of the combine and the Western Michigan pro day.
That means teams have to rely solely on his game film, which isn't a bad thing for Davis because he's produced lots of drool-inducing tape. And if we're being honest with ourselves, that's probably how it should be anyway. Prospects need to go through the standardized testing drills of the combine when they're all together on one field. After that, evaluators have all they need, and further workouts are redundant.
But Davis couldn't work out at all or post any measurables teams could use while comparing him to other top prospects at his position. That leads to some uncertainty, and uncertainty during the first round can make teams run and duck for cover.