We all have an opinion on who the best player in the 2018 NFL draft is—Twitter is full of arguments over that topic daily—but so far there hasn't been a definitive answer. How we come to that answer can be tough. Do you talk to scouts and general managers to build a consensus or grind the film yourself?
Why not do both?
That's what I did this week as preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine heats up in the final weeks before the league descends upon Indianapolis for a week of interviews, physicals and drills from Feb. 27 to March 5. I sent a text to a dozen or so NFL scouts and general managers asking, "Who is the best player in this class?" Taking those replies, I revisited each player's notes and rewatched or added a few games from them as well. So, who is the best player, according to my reporting and analysis? This is how I broke it down.
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1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
The junior running back isn't flawless, but he's close. Barkley is a 230-pounder with excellent overall athleticism, vision and balance. You'd like to see him run through contact a little more, but who's to say he won't do that when the hits aren't coming for free? What Barkley brings as a 4.3-speed back with legit hands and game-changing burst is special enough to warrant a conversation of him as not only the best player in the class, but also the first overall pick.
Of the respondents to my text, only two picked a player other than Barkley as the best player.
Scout's Quote: "I've been doing this longer than some of these prospects have been alive, and the only backs I've seen like him are [Marshall] Faulk and LT (LaDainian Tomlinson). He's that special."
2. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
If you want to watch an interior offensive lineman embarrass the families of defenders, turn on Quenton Nelson's tape. He's a mauler at left guard but shows a high football IQ, patience and awareness as well. He's a highly efficient blocker with the athleticism to reach defenders with ease to knock them off their spots. Nelson's early grade is the highest I've ever given a guard and is better than the ones offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley received as top-10 players in the 2016 draft.
Scout's Quote: "Strip away the value of his position and he's the best player. If this kid misses, then there's no such thing as can't-miss."
3. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, North Carolina State
Defensive end Bradley Chubb had a late-first-round grade from scouts this past summer before the season began but quickly started rising once teams got a look at his tool set as a powerful, big-bodied pass-rusher who could slide effortlessly between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. There's a ton of value in versatility, given the number of teams using multiple looks on the defensive line to get after quarterbacks. Chubb brings that with the athleticism to get into the backfield consistently. He looks like a future 10-sack player.
Scout's Quote: "A 275-pounder with hips, feet, hand moves and the speed to run down the ball? That's what I want in a best player."
It's notable that no one picked a quarterback. That tells us a lot of what these teams are thinking about the 2018 class of passers. It's still likely that the first pick will be a quarterback and that as many as four will be selected in the first 10 picks, but that doesn't mean any of the passers is viewed as the best player.
Here's what else is going on this week:
- News, rumors and notes from around the league
- A quick Round 1 mock draft
- Risers, Fallers and Sleepers
- Stick to Football podcast: A full Round 1 mock draft with co-host Connor Rogers; talking Tinder and burgers with USC's Ronald Jones II
The Scout's Report
• LSU cornerback Donte Jackson is fast. You can see that on film pretty easily. But is he 4.22 fast? Jackson told NFL Network's Jane Slater he's been timed as fast as 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is aiming to break the record set last year by John Ross. Just like with Ross, if Jackson runs a sub-4.3, we'll start hearing his name mentioned in the first round.
• Good news for the Arizona Cardinals: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald announced he's returning for the 2018 season. The future Hall of Famer will team up with running back David Johnson—returning from a wrist injury that kept him out of Arizona's last 15 games—to give the Cardinals a foundation on offense despite not having a quarterback under contract for next season. Fitz and Johnson back together will make whomever that quarterback is a lot happier.
• Many top athletes find reasons to not compete at the NFL Scouting Combine, but Saquon Barkley isn't scared. He told Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he plans to participate at the combine and views it as a competitive event. Barkley is sure to put on a show in Indianapolis.
• Good read recommendation of the week: The MMQB writer Robert Klemko has a fantastic series on Baker Mayfield that is worth checking out. So far, Klemko has examined Mayfield's hometown and the comparisons to Johnny Manziel, his potential landing spots and what went down at Texas Tech that led Mayfield to transfer to Oklahoma. This is a great peek behind the curtain at one of the draft's most polarizing players.
• Speaking of Mayfield—one NFL scout texted me Thursday morning to "tell your boy Baker to get off Twitter." This was in response to Mayfield's decision to tweet back at NFL Media's Bucky Brooks, who mentioned "size, maturity and system transition" as concerns in his Mayfield scouting report. It looks harmless, but NFL teams are picky about what quarterbacks should and shouldn't do. Clapping back at a league-employed analyst probably isn't the best look.
• How many quarterbacks will get a "starter" grade from teams? I want to explore this topic more after the combine, but one NFL coach told me this week his team has six with "starter-future starter" grades. Of course, he wouldn't give me the names, but hopefully I can build on this information and come back to it soon.
• The wide receiver class has good depth this year, but as I update my rankings, there is only one player with a solid first-round grade. Alabama's Calvin Ridley is a smooth route-runner and a natural pass-catcher, which allows him to stand alone from the rest of the pack. After three receivers went in the top 10 last year, there's a serious chance he's the only one drafted in Round 1 in 2018.
The Mock Draft
1. Cleveland Browns: QB Sam Darnold, USC
2. New York Giants: RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
3. Indianapolis Colts: DE Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State
4. Cleveland (from Houston): DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
5. Denver Broncos: QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
6. New York Jets: QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S Derwin James, Florida State
8. Chicago Bears: OG Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
9. San Francisco 49ers (coin flip): LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
10. Oakland Raiders (coin flip): CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
11. Miami Dolphins: QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
12. Cincinnati Bengals: LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
13. Washington: LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
14. Green Bay Packers: EDGE Marcus Davenport, UT-San Antonio
15. Arizona Cardinals: OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
16. Baltimore Ravens: WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
17. Los Angeles Chargers: OT Connor Williams, Texas
18. Seattle Seahawks: G/C Billy Price, Ohio State
19. Dallas Cowboys: DT Da'Ron Payne, Alabama
20. Detroit Lions: EDGE Harold Landry, Boston College
21. Buffalo Bills: LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
22. Buffalo (from Kansas City): C James Daniels, Iowa
23. Los Angeles Rams: CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
24. Carolina Panthers: OG Isaiah Wynn, Georgia
25. Tennessee Titans: EDGE Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
26. Atlanta Falcons: DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan
27. New Orleans Saints: TE Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
28. Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Malik Jefferson, Texas
29. Jacksonville Jaguars: OG Will Hernandez, UTEP
30. Minnesota Vikings: OT Orlando Brown, Oklahoma
31. New England Patriots: CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
32. Philadelphia Eagles: CB Mike Hughes, UCF
5. If you've cut the cord and no longer carry ESPN or NFL Network but still want to watch the draft, there's good news for you. ProFootballTalk reported that Fox will simulcast the NFL Network coverage of the 2018 NFL draft. That means, with an antenna, you can pick up the draft even if you don't have a cable package that offers ESPN or NFL Network. For those of us employed because of the popularity of the draft, it's exciting that the event will be opened up to so many more homes this year. (Of course, stay tuned for what we have planned this year. Those details will be released soon!)
4. NFL Draft Sleeper: Florida State Tight End Ryan Izzo.
Breaking down Florida State film isn't easy when trying to watch receivers and tight ends because the team's passing attack is anemic, but Ryan Izzo still stood out in every game viewed. He's an aggressive, athletic tight end with a solid skill set as a blocker and the natural movement skills to get through coverage in his route tree. He's rising and could be a top-five tight end selection.
3. NFL Draft Riser: Washington Wide Receiver Dante Pettis.
One of the best punt returners in college football history, Dante Pettis will make an early impact in the NFL. Not only can Pettis change the game on punt returns, but he's a good wide receiver, to boot. Pettis has the size (6'0", 188 lbs) to line up outside but is an ideal slot receiver because of his speed and quickness coming off the blocks. He has a Round 2 grade.
2. NFL Draft Faller: Oklahoma Tight End Mark Andrews.
Here's one I didn't see coming at midseason after watching Andrews carve up the Texas secondary in the Red River Showdown. Andrews, though, doesn't move that well in space and can be stiff as a runner. As the league moves toward more athletic and versatile tight ends, a player like Andrews becomes less of a fit for many schemes. That's why I lowered his grade to early Round 3.
1. A new Stick to Football episode is ready for download—and if you haven't already, subscribe and leave a five-star review!
This week, Connor Rogers and I go head-to-head with a Round 1 mock draft that has a whole lot of quarterbacks coming off the board early. We're also joined by USC running back Ronald Jones II. We close the show out with your questions in #DraftonDraft.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.