Matt Miller's Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects of the Decade

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2019

Matt Miller's Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects of the Decade

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    As the second decade of the 2000s ends, it will also mark 10 years of evaluating players at Bleacher Report. There have been hits—Alshon Jeffery and Michael Thomas are the most notable—and oh, have there been misses (thanks, Trent Richardson). 

    But most of all, there have been lessons about the art of evaluating.

    Each draft hit or miss allows the evaluator to learn. Why a certain player makes it or doesn't should always be looked at after the fact. For misses like Richardson, you learn about will, work ethic and what injuries can do to a player's mentality. For hits like Jeffery or Thomas, it's about sticking to your instincts and work even when the crowd says not to. 

    The only way to learn is to evaluate, and doing so means taking a look at previous draft classes to find where a player was ranked and why. With this decade soon closing, it's a good time to go back and look at the highest predraft grades I've handed out. 

    It's important to remember: These are predraft prospect grades. You won't see Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Donald on this list. Both are dominant NFL players, and both were early draft choices. But neither ranked as a top-10 prospect before they were selected. 

    Obviously, I, along with many others, would like to change that now.    

10. Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Notre Dame

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    Jaylon Smith was special. He was different. Throughout his three years at Notre Dame, he was the picture of linebacker perfection. Then, because of one play on the 10-yard line of the Fiesta Bowl, it looked like it was all over.

    Smith, who tore his ACL and MCL on the play, also developed a nerve issue that caused drop foot. That led many NFL sources to believe he would never play again. The Dallas Cowboys' team physician, Dr. Daniel Cooper, was Smith's surgeon and believed the star linebacker would return to health. The rest is history as Dallas selected Smith in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. 

    After sitting out his rookie season, Smith has developed into one of the league's best linebackers, and the Cowboys already extended his contract after his two seasons on the field. The talent seen at Notre Dame is now obvious in Dallas. His three-down skill set is special, and he had over 200 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles in his first two seasons. 

    Going back to his Notre Dame scouting report, Smith was the closest thing to a Patrick Willis-level linebacker in the 2010s and ranks as the best off-ball linebacker I've evaluated. His natural athleticism, instincts and playmaking ability were and are eye-opening.          

9. Leonard Fournette, Running Back, LSU

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    Maybe we should have known then, after injuries slowed Leonard Fournette in his final season at LSU, that he would struggle to handle the wear and tear of the NFL. And maybe the Jacksonville Jaguars' anemic offensive strategies and poor offensive line play are somewhat to blame too. But no honest evaluator could say Fournette has lived up to expectations.

    Which is too bad, because he was unstoppable at LSU.

    Go back to 2015 and watch Fournette run 300 times for over 1,900 yards with power, a mean streak, breakaway speed and soft enough hands to be a threat in the passing game. His 23 touchdowns that year—coupled with no injury history and ideal NFL size—made him a running back prospect many NFL scouts preferred to Ezekiel Elliott at the time.

    Unfortunately, Fournette would struggle throughout his junior season and play in just seven games. That trend has continued into the NFL, as he has just 24 games under his belt in his third season.

    Fournette still flashes moments of greatness, and he's only 24 years old.  But he hasn't yet come close to matching the production and potential seen at LSU.    

8. Quinnen Williams, Defensive Tackle, Alabama

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    It might seem like recency bias to list a player from the 2019 NFL draft as one of the top 10 from the last decade, but Quinnen Williams was that special heading into last year's lottery.

    Williams, just a redshirt sophomore, was graded as an 8.00 on my board. That equates to a top-tier player who would be among the best two or three prospects in any draft class, a player without any injury history or off-field concerns and a player with either rare athleticism or very high potential. 

    That was Q throughout his one season as a starter.

    Williams, who went No. 3 overall to the New York Jets in the 2019 draft, hasn't yet flashed his brilliance during his brief NFL career, but the goods were there at Alabama to make him the top prospect on my board and to earn a comparison to Fletcher Cox. His quickness, strength, work ethic and motor are enough to make him the second-highest-ranked defensive tackle over the last decade.    

7. Julio Jones, Wide Receiver, Alabama

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Imagine a 6'3", 220-pound wide receiver with a broken foot. Now imagine that player participating at the NFL Scouting Combine and running a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, posting a 135-inch broad jump and adding a vertical leap of 38.5 inches. 

    That player was Julio Jones, and his combine not only put him over A.J. Green as the best receiver in the 2011 draft class but also earned him the highest grade I've handed out to a receiver.

    Following a brilliant Alabama career in which he posted 78 catches for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in his final season during the days in which head coach Nick Saban ran the ball 40 times per game, everyone knew Julio was special. But he hadn't yet separated himself from Green. He wouldn't on draft day for some, and the Atlanta Falcons traded up to land him at No. 6 overall after the Cincinnati Bengals selected Green at No. 4. 

    It was close on my board, but Julio's rare athletic ability and production at Alabama pushed him slightly over Green.     

6. Myles Garrett, Edge-Rusher, Texas A&M

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    When Myles Garrett was coming out of college, the only knocks on him were effort and snap production. Privately, scouts worried about a guy who would rather talk about dinosaurs than football and, even as a starter, didn't play a ton of snaps at Texas A&M.

    But the athleticism was too good. The production was too good. Garrett would receive a grade (8.50) just short of perfect.

    At 6'4" and 272 pounds, Garrett rocked the NFL Scouting Combine by posting a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash, 33 bench press reps, a 41-inch vertical jump and a 128-inch broad jump. Those numbers were better than those of some running backs and wide receivers, which is why the Cleveland Browns were so set on making Garrett the first pick in the 2017 draft.

    To date, Garrett has delivered on his potential. He already has six sacks in three games this season, pushing him to 26.5 career quarterback takedowns. He is quickly rising to a level that will put him on par with Khalil Mack and Von Miller as the NFL's best pass-rushers.   

5. Patrick Peterson, Cornerback, LSU

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    When you begin your NFL career by being voted to eight straight Pro Bowls, you're pretty good at your job. Patrick Peterson was also that good at LSU, where he dominated the SEC with size, speed and instincts the college football world hadn't seen since Charles Woodson was at Michigan.

    At 6'0" and 219 pounds, Peterson was considered big for a cornerback when he entered the 2011 NFL draft. He answered any questions about being able to move with NFL wide receivers when he posted a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash. That athleticism made him the No. 5 overall pick for the Arizona Cardinals in a draft class loaded with future stars—Cam Newton, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus and A.J. Green were selected ahead of him.

    Peterson has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL by playing the same brand of football he did at LSU, where he grabbed seven interceptions in three seasons despite being avoided after his freshman year. 

    No cornerback in the last 10 years has come close to unseating Pat Pete for the top spot on my board.    

4. Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Nebraska

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The No. 1 player in the 2010 draft class, Ndamukong Suh ranks as the best interior defensive lineman scouted in the last decade. 

    Suh was on a different level at Nebraska. He had the most violent first step I'd seen from a defender and combined that with nasty speed through gaps and to the quarterback. Watching him dominate a loaded Texas offensive line in 2009 secured his ranking as the top player in the class and, at the time, earned him the best grade I'd handed out to a player.

    It's easy to forget this now, but Suh was also squeaky clean in college. He had no issues on or off the field—nothing like the reputation he gained for playing too far past the whistle. A Heisman Trophy finalist, Suh swept the awards circuit for a defender by winning the Chuck Bednarik, Bronco Nagurski, Vince Lombardi, John Outland and AP Player of the Year awards thanks to his 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in his final season.

    During a year with a good crop of prospects (Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, Eric Berry, Russell Okung, Trent Williams, Earl Thomas), Suh was head and shoulders above the rest.    

3. Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Watching Saquon Barkley take a handoff and explode through the line of scrimmage with power, burst, balance and breakaway speed at Penn State was a special sight. The same was true any time he took a swing pass from Trace McSorley and hurdled a defender on the sideline en route to a touchdown. Or when he'd go back to return kickoffs and take them to the house for game-changing scores.

    Saquon was perfect, and it's impossible to imagine any running back grading out higher as long as I'm doing this job. 

    His athletic blend of massive lower-body power, home run speed and excellent vision gave him a perfect grade on my scouting scale, but we can't forget how durable and dependable he was for Penn State. Coaches described him as a boy scout. Former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead gushed to me about Barkley, who often served as his kid's babysitter. 

    We're already seeing that talent in the NFL as Barkley went over 2,000 total yards as a rookie for the New York Giants and was on a hot pace to start his sophomore season before injuring his ankle in Week 3. 

    Barkley has a chance to become the most dominant running back of the 2010s era of draft prospects if he remains healthy. And that's why he was ranked as the best running back I've scouted.    

2. Von Miller, Edge-Rusher, Texas A&M

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    In college, Von Miller was just different than most edge-rusher prospects. Maybe that's because Texas A&M also used him as a traditional linebacker at times throughout his four years in College Station.

    A rare standout who returned to school after looking like a top-10 prospect as a junior, Miller broke out during his senior season with a massive 17.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He was unstoppable while showing the speed and bend around the edge of the offensive line that pointed to the pro player he would become.

    Miller actually got knocked by some in the predraft process because, at the time, his 6'3", 246-pound frame was thought to be too lean and not powerful enough in the lower body. In an era of 3-4 defenses that asked outside linebackers to set the edge and even drop into coverage, there were critics. 

    But Miller was drafted into a perfect system for his talents and was allowed to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He's done that well with 98 sacks in his career, and a gold jacket from the Hall of Fame should be waiting for him once he retires.   

1. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford

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    The term "generational talent" is overused. But when we're talking about quarterback prospects, Andrew Luck qualifies as a true generational talent.

    But that wasn't all. Luck was also incredibly smart. There's an old scouting story about how he basically called the offensive plays and was the co-offensive coordinator during his last season in Palo Alto.

    Luck was flawless. He had no injuries or off-field issues, he played in a pro-style offense but had the athletic elements to adapt to any NFL system, and his dad, Oliver, had played in the NFL and understood what it would take to succeed there.

    No one could have predicted the injuries that would rob the Indianapolis Colts of Luck when he announced his shocking retirement in August 2019. His pro career did not live up to the expectations that come with being the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, but that's what injuries and former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson can do to a career.

    No quarterback—or player in general—has ranked higher than Luck during the predraft process.