2018 NFL Draft: Pre-Combine Rankings of Position Groups from Worst to First
Every NFL draft class is different. Top talents tend to vary, while depth differs depending on the available crop. Every position group is different, too, with some presenting far more quality prospects.
The 2018 class is unique in how it's constructed, particularly among its elite. Premium position standouts are at a premium.
Penn State's Saquon Barkley, Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson, Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State's Derwin James are found among the top five prospects. None of them plays quarterback, outside cornerback, edge-rusher or left tackle—positions considered franchise building blocks. Instead, a running back, guard, slot corner and safety headline the incoming group.
Other than North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb and the inevitable quarterback rise, teams at the top of the draft are looking at selecting exceptional talents at non-premium positions.
However, a draft class' overall quality isn't dictated entirely by it top prospects. Teams will select 256 players between April 26-28 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The ebb and flow of incoming talent fluctuates each year with certain positions providing better overall quality. Teams in need of a renewed ground game will be quite happy with their options two months from now, but they better not need help on the blind side.
12. Offensive Tackle
Only 33 offensive linemen came off the board during last year's NFL draft. According to The MMQB's Peter King, it became the lowest total in the previous 50 years.
The incoming offensive tackle crop isn't going to reverse the league's growing concern regarding a lack of lineman development among the collegiate ranks. This year's class doesn't feature a single prospect worthy of a top-10 selection. An argument can be made a few will be selected in the opening frame due to positional inflation instead of actual ability.
Protecting the quarterback is of utmost importance, yet tailor-made right and left tackles are getting harder to find with each passing year. Each of the top prospects has significant flaws.
Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey is everything a team wants in a left tackle, except a standout athlete. McGlinchey has been well-coached as a three-year starter and served as a two-time team captain as well. He can be a reliable blindside protector as long as a team understands his limitations. The 6'8", 314-pound blocker doesn't have ideal movement skills. His length can offset some of these deficiencies, yet he'll struggle to handle the NFL's athletic edge-rushers.
Texas' Connor Williams is a better overall athlete than McGlinchey, yet concerns exist regarding his recent injury history, overall technique and length. According to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, several teams have Williams rated as a guard.
At 6'8", 345 pounds, Oklahoma's Orlando Brown Jr. is difficult for defenders to circumvent. His size is a hindrance at times, though. Brown's weight has been an issue throughout his career, and it affects his lateral movement. Pass-rushers can beat him to his post leg once they have his bulk moving in the other direction. An improved physique and mobility are a must at the NFL level.
Due to the concerns found among the most recognizable names, teams may select UCLA's Kolton Miller, Pittsburgh's Brian O'Neill, Western Michigan's Chukwuma Okorafor and Ohio State's Jamarco Jones far earlier than expected, even as developmental prospects, because they have the necessary physical tools to become professional-caliber left tackles.
11. Tight End
Last year proved to be an anomaly with three first-round tight ends despite the growing emphasis on creating mismatches in the passing game.
The incoming crop of tight ends appears to follow the previous 10-year pattern where organizations selected only one or no tight ends in the first round.
South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert has a chance to be an opening-round choice. He dominated the FCS level with 164 receptions for 2,404 yards and 18 touchdowns during the past two seasons. Of course, production doesn't mean everything, but his reported 4.65-second 40-yard-dash speed coupled with a 6'4", 265-pound frame makes him a potential nightmare for opposing defenses.
Oklahoma's Mark Andrews and Penn State's Mike Gesicki are similar targets, although both have their faults. Andrews isn't sudden in or out of his routes, while the athletic Gesicki is far from a well-rounded prospect. Both can be contributors in the passing games, yet their in-line contributions have been next to non-existent.
South Carolina's Hayden Hurst, Indiana's Ian Thomas, Stanford's Dalton Schultz and Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalli are more experienced working at the end of the line of scrimmage and flexed wide.
Hurst and Thomas, in particular, have a chance to surpass others due to their potential. Hurst continues to develop after playing minor league baseball for three years before going to college. Thomas is still evolving as a weapon in the passing game after averaging 15 yards per catch as a senior.
Niche roles still exist in the NFL for blocking tight ends, too. Notre Dame's Durham Smythe and San Diego State's David Wells can do the dirty work in the run game and two-tight end sets.
Overall, this year's tight end class lacks top-end quality and depth.
Safety continues to evolve, and the position becomes more valuable with each passing season. The preponderance of sub-packages, particularly nickel and big nickel, play a big role in how NFL defenses counteract the league's wide-open offenses.
As such, safeties must display diverse skill sets to excel in multiple roles.
Florida State's Derwin James displayed top-five potential entering the 2017 campaign. However, the Seminoles coaching staff wanted him closer to the line of scrimmage to make more impact plays. James finished second on the team with 84 total tackles, while suppressing his overall skill set. The 6'3", 215-pound defensive back's length and athleticism allow him to shut down targets in coverage. Pro Football Focus graded James with the lowest catch rate allowed against Power Five competition.
A standout performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis will make everyone remember exactly why James merited top-five consideration. He's not the only safety with first-round potential, though.
Alabama's Ronnie Harrison is similar in size at 6'3", 214 pounds, but he's not quite as versatile, at least in coverage. Harrison is a little stiff in his movement skills and plays much better when he's moving forward instead of turning and running with receivers. The two-year starter at free safety tied for the team lead last season with 74 total tackles and added 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four pass breakups and three interceptions.
Very few safety prospects present the complete skill sets to become interchangeable parts in a defensive scheme. Texas' DeShon Elliott, Texas A&M's Armani Watts, Wake Forest's Jessie Bates and Jacksonville State's Siran Neal can make an argument for multiple positions.
Otherwise, West Virginia's Kyzir White, Penn State's Marcus Allen, Northwestern's Godwin Igwebuike, Virginia's Quin Blanding and Virginia Tech's Terrell Edmunds are bigger and more physical in-the-box options. Pitt's Jordan Whitehead and Stanford's Justin Reid offer better ball skills as deep safeties.
9. Wide Receiver
Two things are abundantly clear regarding the current status of the wide receiver position.
First, an insane amount of talent is available since so many collegiate programs utilize three- and four-wide receiver sets on a regular basis.
Second, no NFL team should expect instant production from the position. Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman, Phillip Dorsett, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross aren't an inspiring group of first-round receivers over the last three years.
Context is important when weighing the value of the incoming talent.
A class lacking an elite wide receiver prospect isn't a bad thing since productive targets can be found later in the draft. Although, Alabama's Calvin Ridley, SMU's Courtland Sutton and Texas A&M's Christian Kirk have first-round ability, only one—maybe two—may actually be selected in said range.
Ridley's ability to create separation at the top of his stem is exceptional. At 6'1", 190 pounds, he's not the biggest target, but he knows how to make himself available.
Sutton is a bigger target with all of the physical tools to succeed. At 6'4", 218 pounds, he fits the traditional profile of a No. 1 wide receiver. He needs to improve his route running and show the quickness to separate from NFL defensive backs, but he's special with the ball in his hands.
The same can be said for Kirk, who never fully developed in the Aggies' scheme. A team may need to manufacture touches for the versatile weapon since he's a true home run threat.
Beyond those prospects, numerous skill sets can be found for any occasion.
Indiana's Simmie Cobbs Jr., Iowa State's Allen Lazard, New Mexico State's Jaleel Scott, Florida State's Auden Tate and Oklahoma State's Marcell Ateman are big-bodied targets. Memphis' Anthony Miller, SMU's Trey Quinn, Miami's Braxton Berrios, Boise State's Cedrick Wilson and Penn State's DaeSean Hamilton are slot options. Oklahoma State's James Washington, LSU's D.J. Chark, UCLA's Jordan Lasley and Texas Tech's Keke Coutee can take the top off of any offense.
Colorado State's Michael Gallup finished third in the FBS last season with 100 receptions and wasn't mentioned among the previous group. This indicates the class' overall depth despite a lack of top-tier options.
Center is always at a disadvantage simply due to numbers. The position won't produce as many draftable prospects since the NFL's demand isn't high. Even so, this incoming crop is stellar and shouldn't be overlooked among a strong offensive interior class.
Ohio State's Billy Price is a better prospect than former teammate Pat Elflein, who started 14 games for the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie. Price is bigger (6'4", 312 lbs), stronger and more athletic overall.
"Man he is a different kind of guy altogether," an AFC team pro personnel director told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "Has a lot of edge for sure. Love his toughness and his grit and wait until you see him at the combine. He might hit 40 on the bench and he's going to run well too."
As the NFL searches for ready-made blockers, fewer programs develop top offensive line talent. The Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the few whose system translates to the professional ranks. James Daniels is the program's latest product, and he's counted among its best.
"I don't know if I've ever coached a more talented center prospect," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who served as an NFL assistant for six years, said of Daniels, per the Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow. "And that includes my time in the NFL."
Daniels displays expectational lateral agility with the length at 6'4", 295 pounds to consistently reach front-side defenders.
Arkansas' Frank Ragnow is another early-round possibility even though he's coming off a season-ending ankle injury.
Michigan's Mason Cole and Michigan State's Brian Allen are hard-nosed and experienced blockers with a chance to develop into starters. This group can be even better if Nevada's Austin Corbett and Iowa's Sean Welsh are converted.
7. Defensive End
A Myles Garrett-caliber prospect isn't available in 2018. Premium pass-rushers are rare. However, one comes close in the current class, with a few more intriguing options later in the process.
North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb is in the conversation as the No. 1 overall prospect alongside Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Even with an advantage in positional value, Chubb tends to come up just short of both, because he's not the same athletic standout as Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are.
Production-wise, the 2017 ACC Defensive Player of the Year managed 10 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. The discrepancy in the numbers is important and shows a well-rounded prospect. Some edge-defenders can rush the passer yet struggle to defend the run. Those individuals' tackles-for-loss numbers generally hover around their sack total. Chubb isn't just an edge-rusher; he's an edge-setter.
The 275-pound defensive end doesn't have the same burst or lower-body flexibility as the aforementioned former No. 1 overall picks. But he excels converting speed to power. He's going to jolt offensive linemen early in contests to set them up later. Some of the league's best pass-rushers, such as Michael Bennett and Cameron Jordan, rely on power and technique without being exceptional athletes (by NFL standards).
Even though Chubb isn't in the same breath as elite defensive ends, he's superior to the rest of the prospects at his position.
UTSA's Marcus Davenport has the most potential to develop into a 10-sack-per-season performer. His potential is as great as his downside, though. The 6'6", 255-pound defender has the length and athleticism to become a dominant force; however, he never showed the consistency or repeatable technique to overwhelm NFL blockers the way he did at the collegiate level. Some team will pick Davenport in the first round based on his raw upside.
LSU's Arden Key falls on the opposite side of the spectrum. He may be the most talented pass-rusher in the class, yet professional organizations are more worried about his shoulder injury, weight gain and four-month departure from the Tigers program.
Basically, the entire position is comprised of underdeveloped prospects with plenty of potential, or productive pass-rushers whose ceilings aren't quite as high.
Marshon Lattimore, the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, destroyed a rookie cornerback's learning curve after he dominated during his first season with the New Orleans Saints. Everyone wants the next Lattimore (or Jalen Ramsey) without understanding how rare those talents are.
Where Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick fits in all of this will have a profound effect. He's generally slotted as a safety, even though he admits to being most comfortable covering the slot, per SiriusXM NFL's Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt. Yes, Fitzpatrick has the skill set to play multiple positions at a high level, which places him among the top-five overall prospects, but he's not a safety by trade. He'll likely be used in a similar manner to Tyrann Mathieu depending on matchups and situations.
So, we're keeping Fitzpatrick at corner until he proves he can't play the position at the NFL level.
Ohio State's Denzel Ward is the draft's best pure cover corner. He'll be compared often to his former teammate, Lattimore. The two are different players, though. Ward is exceptionally fluid in his backpedal, turn and coverage, but he's not as long or aggressive as Lattimore. Plus, teams prefer longer defensive backs, whereas Ward is listed at 5'10", 191 pounds. The lack of size may be enough to push him down boards even though his coverage skills dictate top-10 consideration.
Beyond Fitzpatrick and Ward, the rest of the position group had its up and downs this past season.
Louisville's Jaire Alexander and Florida State's Tarvarus McFadden were considered first-round prospects before the 2017 campaign started. Alexander missed half the season with hand and leg injuries, while McFadden struggled due to a lack of speed and suddenness.
On the flip side, Iowa's Josh Jackson, UCF's Mike Hughes, Auburn's Carlton Davis and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver established themselves as early-round prospects.
A constant search for cornerbacks ensues with 30 coming off the board last year. The upcoming class has the potential to top that number.
5. Defensive Tackle
Defensive tackle is a generic team referring to interior defenders with different skills sets and roles. They're not just space-eaters expected to eat double-teams. Instead, a greater emphasis has been placed on those who can collapse the pocket and make plays in the backfield.
Five interior defenders can make a case for first-round consideration.
Washington's Vita Vea will draw comparisons to Dontari Poe due to his size (6'4", 340 lbs) and exceptional athleticism. Poe was a man among boys during his time with the Memphis Tigers. At times, the same can be said of Vea, who rag-dolled more than his fair share of offensive linemen the last two seasons. The Huskies coaching staff also built a comfort level in his versatility by playing him at defensive tackle, end and on special teams.
Though Vea is impressively big, he often won courtesy of outstanding natural tools. His technique is a work in progress with poor pad level and hand play. The mammoth defender disappears for long stretches as a result.
Alabama's Da'Ron Payne is the exact opposite. He's an immovable object in the middle due to a combination of raw brute strength and exceptional technique. Payne had the potential to develop into a top-10 prospect, but he didn't become the disruptive force many envisioned...until the National Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Vea and Payne are ideal defenders at the point of attack, whereas Michigan's Maurice Hurst explodes off the snap and often beats blockers with his initial quickness. A 282-pound interior defender isn't ideal even for those teams that prefer more explosive upfield penetrators, yet Hurst consistently wins one-on-one battles on his way to blowing up plays.
Hurst isn't the only undersized defensive tackle capable of creating havoc. Florida's Taven Bryan, Virginia's Andrew Brown and USC's Rasheem Green are early-round targets. Stanford's Harrison Phillips (another potential first-round pick), Florida State's Derrick Nnadi and Fort Hays State's Nathan Shepherd are more developed in holding the line of scrimmage.
Six different quarterback prospects could be selected in the first round. The depth at the top of the class speaks for itself, yet no individual has established himself as the top overall QB.
At least three, if not four signal-callers, have a chance to emerge as the top guy. Though they each have weaknesses, their talent warrants franchise-quarterback status—beginning with USC's Sam Darnold.
Darnold entered last season as the top name before he struggled during his final season on campus. The redshirt sophomore threw 13 interceptions and committed 11 turnovers. Those two numbers will plague him throughout the process, yet he displayed moments of brilliance.
No quarterback in this year's class is better at working outside of structure or off-platform than the 20-year-old. At 6'4", 220 pounds, he is mobile and fearless with a propensity for the big play. Darnold also threw for 7,229 yards and accumulated 64 total touchdowns the last two seasons.
Darnold will be challenged by UCLA's Josh Rosen, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Wyoming's Josh Allen. Three very different prospects with intriguing skill sets.
Rosen was born to throw a football. His mechanics and footwork are sublime. He also threw more NFL-caliber passes this past season than any other prospect. Attitude and injury concerns (two concussions and a shoulder surgery) continue to plague him, though.
Mayfield is a spitfire with undeniable accuracy and ball placement. He may be only 6'0" tall, but he also provided the two most efficient seasons in FBS history.
Allen, meanwhile, has the physical attributes at 6'5", 233 pounds with a cannon strapped to his right shoulder—although, his 56.2 career completion percentage is enough to give anyone pause.
Louisville's Lamar Jackson and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph are in the first-round mix as well after ultra-productive collegiate careers.
Beyond those six names, the depth takes a steep dive. Washington State's Luke Falk, Western Kentucky's Mike White and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta will be popular names among teams looking for developmental prospects later in the draft.
Guard can be the saving grace for a much-maligned offensive line class, and it won't be long before one of the top prospects will hear his name called in the first round.
Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson is the best guard prospect to enter the NFL ranks since Steven Hutchinson in 2001. Yet Nelson has a chance to go much higher in this year's draft than when the Seattle Seahawks used the 17th overall pick on the future seven-time Pro Bowler.
Nelson is the complete package. The 6'5", 330-pound lineman is dominant at the point of attack, nimble enough to consistently make blocks on the move and a sound pass-blocker with tremendous recognition. Basically, he's a human highlight reel even for those who don't enjoy watching line play.
If the unanimous All-American played offensive tackle, no one would challenge him for the No. 1 overall pick. He doesn't, though, and positional value is hard to overcome even as an elite talent.
Georgia's Isaiah Wynn started at left tackle as a senior, but he projects inside as well. At 6'2", 302 pounds, Wynn plays with good leverage, stays square and is rarely beaten in the run or pass games. The First-Team All-SEC performer is a plug-and-play starter and another first-round possibility.
Most draft classes don't feature guards in the first round, but three are viable options this year. UTEP's Will Hernandez is 340 pounds of nastiness. He's nowhere near as athletic as Nelson or Wynn, but he's every bit as good as a drive-blocker. Hernandez is a perfect fit for offensive schemes featuring heavy gap (man) principles.
Auburn's Braden Smith, Virginia Tech's Wyatt Teller, Nevada's Austin Corbett, Maine's Jamil Demby, Idaho State's Skyler Phillips and Appalachian State's Colby Gossett are all solid options in the later rounds. This guard class is top-heavy and can't be overlooked—even when the position doesn't always demand much attention.
Two types of linebacker exist: off-the-ball and edge-rushers. The latter tend to hold a higher value because they can get after the quarterback, but three off-the-ball linebackers will flip the script this year.
Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds is gifted. Physically, no one else compares to the 6'5", 250-pound defender.
"Good luck with your player comp on this one," an anonymous NFC scout told Zierlein. "They don't come like him. I don't think there has ever been a linebacker that has had his size and speed. You're better off comping him with a basketball player."
Size doesn't define Edmunds, either. Yes, he's a bigger linebacker, but he moves extremely well, gliding about the field and showing a comfort level working in space. He's played inside and outside linebacker while producing at both positions. Edmunds managed 215 total tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 11 defended passes the last two seasons.
The Butkus Award finalist's instincts must improve, but Edmunds is the class' youngest prospect at 19 years old.
Georgia's Roquan Smith won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, and deservedly so. The difference between Edmunds and Smith is their stature. Edmunds is a physical marvel, while Smith stands 6'1" and weighs 225 pounds. Edmunds is better moving forward, and Smith is better at sideline-to-sideline with a coverage range that borders on absurd.
Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch is another standout athlete, falling somewhere between Edmunds and Smith. At 6'4", 240 pounds, the 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year is a do-everything linebacker with outstanding production. Vander Esch amassed 141 tackles, 8.5 for loss, four sacks, five pass breakups, and four forced fumbles before declaring early.
All three should be off the board before the first edge-rusher is selected from Boston College's Harold Landry, Georgia's Lorenzo Carter, USC's Uchenna Nwosu or Oklahoma's Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. This isn't an indictment of the linebacker class.
Every type of skill set will be available for teams in need of linebacker help—whether they're searching for a difference-maker like Edmunds or need a sub-package defender like South Carolina State's Darius Leonard later in the process.
1. Running Back
Once considered a devalued position, running back is once again in the limelight. Teams are no longer averse to selecting a ball-carrier in the first round, either.
Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette forced organizations to take notice after two years (2013-14) with no first-round running backs.
The position wasn't truly devalued; talent is simply cyclical. In those years without first-round options, no prospect displayed the type of ability worthy of being drafted that high in the process. The last few years have been completely different, and the 2018 class shows how many quality runners of all shapes and sizes are about to enter the NFL.
The crop will help define the entire class, too, since Penn State's Saquon Barkley is considered the No. 1 overall talent by many.
At 5'11", 233 pounds, Barkley is both powerful and explosive. According Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, formerly of former Sports Illustrated, the 21-year-old back runs a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and holds the school's power-clean record at 405 pounds. His physical tools translate to the field where he proved he can run past, through or over would-be tacklers.
Penn State's second all-time leading rusher is more than a workhorse. He's an adroit receiver who can line up anywhere in a formation, and he's a dynamic returner. As such, he can affect a contest even if the ground game sputters.
But the running back position doesn't sit No. 1 overall just because of Barkley.
LSU's Derrius Guice, USC's Ronald Jones and Georgia's Sony Michel each have first-round potential. At worst, those specific backs are expected to come off the board early in the second frame.
NFL organizations will be looking for the next Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, both of whom were third-round selections last April.
San Diego State's Rashaad Penny led major college football with 2,248 rushing yards last season. Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and Oregon's Royce Freeman combined for 34 rushing touchdowns. Arizona State's Kalen Ballage once scored an NCAA record eight times in a single game.
Meanwhile, Georgia's Nick Chubb is now two-and-a-half years removed from a major knee injury. Miami's Mark Walton looked like a top pick before an ankle injury shortened his junior season.
Upwards of 25 running backs carry a draftable grade, and the number doesn't even include hybrid fullbacks like Oklahoma's Dimitri Flowers and North Carolina State's Jaylen Samuels.
Don't call it a comeback, because the need for top running backs never left.