The 2017 NFL Draft has only one player with true transcendent ability. In my estimation, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is a Day 1 game-changer who has the requisite skill set and athleticism to force opposing offenses to game plan for him every week. My NFL comparison for him is Julius Peppers, who will one day be enshrined in Canton.
While there's a dropoff from Garrett to the rest of the field, this draft class has a lot of depth. I see 38 players who have the ability to make an instant impact in the NFL and enjoy long careers as starters in the league. I've categorized these players into three groups: game-changers, safe picks, and ones who could thrive in the right system. Call it my big board, or whatever you want. I'm calling it my 38 special draft prospects:
These players have the talent, traits and potential to have a strong impact for the team that takes them and potentially play beyond their current draft grade. Of this group, QB Mitch Trubisky and DT Malik McDowell are carrying higher grades than their tape might warrant, but I'm pushing their grades toward where their ceilings could be. Defensive ends Solomon Thomas, Jonathan Allen and defensive backs Jamal Adams and Marshon Lattimore are regarded as the safest players in this group.
Elite edge rusher who possesses rare explosiveness and the fluid-movement skills and agility of an NBA shooting guard. Good size, but he's never likely going to be a hold-your-ground run defender, and might be best suited as an outside linebacker. However, his ability to explode into the backfield through a gap or around the edge gives him disruptive potential on every snap. Garrett still needs to fine-tune his pass-rush strategy and could stand to give more consistent effort from the start of the snap until the whistle. But his pass-rush production and athletic traits point toward an All-Pro career.
High-end talent with rare blend of size, speed and power. Comparisons to Adrian Peterson feel lofty, but from a physical standpoint, he's there. Fournette doesn't have the wiggle to make defenders miss and his vision can be iffy. However, if your run fits and tackling aren't sound, he can take it the distance in an instant. Might have durability concerns due to physical running style, but has All-Pro potential.
Explosive defender who combines strength, quickness, and a muscle-car motor to drive him around the field making play after play. Has the hands and feet to be a quick-win specialist and the size to fit as a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive end who can reduce inside for pass-rush downs. He has all the athletic traits to become a high-impact player and possesses more than enough skill and talent to continue to elevate his game as a pro. Thomas has the potential to become the best defender from this draft class and a future All-Pro.
Outstanding leader and athlete with an ability to rush the passer from outside or inside. Has produced against the run and pass thanks to his strength, agility, elite hand usage, and plus footwork. He might not be the cleanest fit inside as a full-time tackle for some teams, but his talent should trump any size concerns. Allen is a likely first-round selection with Pro Bowl potential down the road.
Trubisky is a high-end quarterback prospect who possesses NFL size, a big arm and the ability to throw with accuracy from the pocket or on the move. Despite playing in a spread-based offense, he's a full-field reader who does a very good job of getting an early read on the safeties before crafting his course of action. Trubisky will have to become much more pocket aware and do a better job of recognizing and attacking blitzes to back NFL defensive coordinators off. He hasn't put all the pieces together yet, but the puzzle is all right in front of him. Trubisky projects as a good starting quarterback with a high floor and the potential to be great.
He's the ultimate lurker. His instincts are always bringing him to the football and when he gets there he has the ball skills to take it away. His lack of game experience and issues with tackle consistency will likely show themselves early in his career, but his ability to flip the field is worthy of an aggressive projection. He has the talent to be a high-impact starter for years in the NFL.
Interchangeable safety with a sheriff's mentality. Adams is a physical tone-setter who should thrive near the line of scrimmage or in a robber role. Should be a commanding presence in the locker room early on and his do-as-I-do play demeanor could be the catalyst for turning a struggling defense around quickly.
"Inconsistent" has been the buzzword that has followed Charlton since coming to Michigan, but he began the process of shaking it during his senior season. Charlton is an ascending prospect with the size, length, athleticism and pass-rushing potential that NFL general managers dream of. What you see today might not be what you get. While his production coming out of college will be modest, he could become a substantially better player as a pro if he's committed to the weight room and willing to absorb coaching. High-impact defensive end with all-pro potential is his ceiling. His floor is solid starter.
Has similar physical traits and abilities of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, but may not share their football character. McDowell lacked production along the interior and could benefit from a move to a defensive end spot in a 4-3 or 3-4 front. McDowell is raw, but when he flashes, it can be blinding. McDowell is an explosive, ascending prospect with All-Pro potential if he grows into his body and takes the necessary coaching.
Very talented runner with outstanding balance, footwork and burst. Cook lacks the power that you may find with some running backs in this year's draft, but he is a homerun hitter with a resume featuring monster games against his most highly regarded opponents. Cook creates for himself with elusiveness and speed, but his value could be diminished by injuries, character and issues in pass protection. If everything checks out, he could become a rookie of the year candidate right away.
Average-sized, one-year starter with explosive athleticism and a loaded tool box. He has the feet, hips and agility to be a lockdown cornerback and the ball skills to make teams pay for looking in his direction. His lack of experience could show up early, but he has the confidence and competitive nature that should help him overcome those issues. He has the ability to become a Pro Bowl cornerback early in his career.
Howard has struggled to live up to hype that has come with his play-making ability while at Alabama, but some scouts put the blame on the staff and scheme. He has elite athletic traits and raw talent, but must add polish to go along with those attributes. Should become substantially more productive as a pro, but the difference between "potential weapon" and "elite tight end" will likely be tied to his desire and overall football character.
Jones is a "casino cornerback" who has the ball skills and instincts to tilt the odds in his favor when quarterbacks look his way. His toughness and desire to make plays on the ball is remarkably similar to his friend and off-season workout buddy, Marcus Peters. Jones has lockdown corner talent but will have to prove he can add muscle without sacrificing speed. His football character and play traits should make him a long-time starter with Pro Bowl potential.
Foster is a vicious hitter with elite playmaking range and an ability to toggle between 225 and 240 pounds. Athleticism gives him cover ability that former teammate Reggie Ragland never possessed. Has Pro Bowl potential as a 3-4 inside linebacker or a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, but concerns over his medical history could be a consideration, according to some teams.
Ascending pass catching talent with elite athleticism and enough fight in his run blocking to believe that he can be lined up anywhere on the field at any time. Njoku should annihilate the combine with monster numbers in speed and explosion, but his play on the field shows he's more than a combine warrior. He is still growing into his body and has to add to his play strength, but his playmaking potential and elite traits should make him a first-round pick and a future Pro Bowl player.
This group is loaded with players who have an extensive history of production and success in college football. I have a higher grade on QB Deshaun Watson than any team I've spoken with, and I will gladly admit that it has to do with his production in clutch situations against high-end competition. WR Corey Davis did nothing but stack catches and touchdowns throughout his career, while DE Derek Barnett's numbers are some of the most prolific three-year totals you'll find in the SEC. In reality, many of these grades are more tape-based than projections and it could be argued that this group is a much safer group than the first.
Teams will have to weigh the inconsistent field vision and decision-making against his size, athleticism, leadership and production. While not perfect, teams can add checks to both arm and accuracy boxes for Watson. However, discussions about whether or not his areas of improvement can be corrected will likely determine whether a team will view him as a high-upside prospect or a franchise quarterback. Watson's transition from Clemson's offense to a pro-style attack will obviously take time, but his combination of intangibles and athletic ability make him worth a first-round selection.
Williams looks the part of a WR1 and has shown an ability to work all three levels of the field after coming back from his 2015 neck injury. Williams is tough enough to be a high-volume target while working the middle of the field and his size and ball skills make him a formidable foe in the end zone. He'll have to be coached up with his routes and releases, but he has the talent to become a big safety blanket for a young quarterback.
Powerful, stout defensive tackle with the quickness to play the three-technique and the power to play the nose. Brantley has the talent and traits that should appeal to both two-gap and one-gap defenses. While we haven't seen Brantley play in even half of Florida's defensive snaps in a single year, the talent is there to become an early starter and a defensive force up front.
Injuries limited Reddick to just four games over last two years of high school, forcing him to walk on at Temple. The Owls staff helped him unlock his explosive athletic traits on the field, which resulted in three forced fumbles, 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2016. Reddick's speed and athleticism might give him a greater shot at impacting the game as a 3-4 inside linebacker or a 4-3 WILL rather than trying to bulk up and play the edge. An ascending prospect with a high-end potential if he can continue to hone his craft.
Alabama has the type of talent and scheme on defense that can make life much easier for everyone along the front seven, but Williams has explosiveness and pass-rush talent to create his own havoc as a pass rusher regardless of what is around him. Scouts say he is lighter than his listed weight and needs to prove he can play with increased toughness in order to reach his potential. Williams' career might be as a pass-rush specialist, but he's talented enough at that endeavor to become a dangerous rush linebacker in the NFL.
Touchdown juggernaut who was a four-year model of production and consistency in college. Davis has the route-running and ball skills to become a starter in the league, but it is his competitiveness and production in the red-zone that should make him a good one.
Strong edge presence with NFL-caliber hand usage and play strength. Barnett is one of the most productive defensive linemen to come out of the SEC in quite some time despite lacking the length and twitch that teams usually look for off the edge. His awareness and play traits should keep him near the action and he has the talent to step into a starting base end spot right away. There could be coordinators who view him as an early down, outside backer in a 3-4 with the ability to put his hand in the ground on sub packages.
Extremely confident tackle with the athleticism to stay on the left side and the technique to make an early impact as a starter. Ramczyk has the core strength and body control that should keep him connected to blocks in both the run and pass and he's proven to be scheme versatile with his playing style. Ramczyk is an early starter with the potential to become a good starting left tackle provided his medicals hold up.
Ross is an instant-impact weapon who scored 23 touchdowns in just 112 touches. He should be able to step right in as a kick returner and a slot receiver, but teams with speed at tight end might utilize him outside to create extreme vertical stress on opposing safeties. If his knees check out as healthy, Ross is a likely first-round pick with the rare ability to become a high-volume slot receiver or a lesser-targeted, high-yield deep-ball threat.
Talented height-weight-speed prospect who comes from NFL bloodlines. Might need time for his technique to catch up with his traits. Coverage inconsistencies could cause him to struggle against quality competition early on, but his mental makeup and recovery talent should help him pull through. Has the instincts and run-support skills to become an early starter for a zone-cover defense, but it will be hard for teams looking for a lockdown, man corner to pass on all of those physical gifts early in the draft.
Five-star recruit and three-year starter at left tackle who is a road grader with impressive power at the point of attack and enough athleticism to function in diverse run schemes. Robinson has tape galore against SEC edge talent either playing in the NFL or who soon will be. The tape shows a player with the traits and physical ability to be a good NFL tackle, but his balance issues and inconsistencies as a pass rusher are a concern. Robinson is a candidate to be overdrafted due to the position he plays and his size, but buyer beware as some of his deficiencies might not be easily correctable.
Tabor has terrific size and quickness, but it will be interesting to see how he times in the forty. While he has some lapses in judgement and awareness in coverage, his nine career interceptions didn't happen by accident. He is a pure cover corner with the ability to pattern match around the field, but don't expect him to be a plus tackler in run support. He has the traits of a first-round cornerback, but some teams may be put off by some of his annoyances.
The ultimate Swiss Army Knife on the collegiate level, and will likely play a hybrid role on the next level that allows him to blitz, cover and chase, Peppers' draft value will be helped by his return ability and that is a role he should maintain throughout the earlier stages of his career. While Peppers doesn't have the production teams expect from first-round defenders, he should benefit from a role that is more clearly defined on the next level.
Four-year starter at left tackle whose lack of length will likely force him inside on the next level. He has the athleticism to handle athletic interior rushers while being able to fit into diverse rushing attacks that ask more from the guards and centers. His ability to potentially line up at tackle, guard or center will only increase his value. Lamp's 2016 performance against Alabama's talented edge players was a resume-builder that shined a spotlight on his potential as a pro.
Ascending edge prospect who racked up impressive TFL and sack numbers this year despite a relatively raw approach and skill set. He's a little stiff in his lower body, but flashes good athleticism once the ball is snapped. McKinley's motor is a translatable characteristic, but improved hand usage and pass rush mechanics are what could elevate his game to another level as a starting, 3-4 outside linebacker.
In the right system ...
Truth be told, this is also a very talented list of players, including some with tremendous production and explosive tape. OT Garett Bolles has to prove he can get bigger and stronger, but he has elite athleticism at the position. Gerald Everett and Bucky Hodges are the new breed of matchup tight ends with high-end potential in the right offenses. All LB Zach Cunningham does is make plays, and if he gets with a team that can keep him clean up front, it should be more of the same. DE Charles Harris' production suffered as he tried to fit into a new scheme this year, but an NFL team is likely to put him into a favorable spot. Alvin Kamara has never been a lead back, but his explosiveness and ability is begging for more touches. Christian McCaffrey can score touchdowns on the ground, through the air, or as a returner; the right offensive fit could unlock all of his talents.
Because he's only played one year of FBS football and hasn't been able to fully fill out his frame over the last five years, Bolles will require a projection and conjecture than most of the tackles in this year's draft. He clearly has elite athletic ability and foot quickness, but his lack of core strength and ability to sustain blocks against power across from him is a concern at this time. While he has Pro Bowl potential for a zone-scheme team, his floor will be a little lower than you might like in an early round pick.
Full-time starter for better part of four years and one of the premier mirror-and-match cornerbacks in the game. Has the feet, athleticism and instincts for prolonged coverage responsibilities and his twitch will always have him near the throw. Best suited for all forms of man coverage. He should compete as special teams performer. Lacks run-support physicality to be an every-down corner, but he's talented enough to challenge for slot duties right away.
It's difficult to find a good comparison for Everett because his size and toughness are similar to Marshall's coming out, but his playing style resembles Delanie Walker at times. Everett has size, speed and tremendous run-after-catch potential, but it is his willingness and ability to block that separates him from other "matchup" tight ends. Route running is below average, but he should improve with NFL coaching. Everett has the talent to become a very good NFL starter with Pro Bowl potential if he puts it all together.
High-cut pass rusher with good athleticism but concerns regarding his ability to drop anchor against the run. Ironically, Harris might be best suited as a penetrator which is something he fought against this season. His hands can be improved as pass rush weapons, but he has agility and footwork that can't be taught. Harris can play on the edge in a 4-3 or 3-4 front and should be the next in a line of early contributing defensive ends coming out of Missouri.
Ascending, competitive runner who has flashed explosive NFL talent at various times over the last two seasons. A committed runner with excellent balance who finds yardage that isn't blocked for him. While he has never logged 20 carries in a single game, he has the talent to play on all three downs if he can prove his durability.
Cunningham's missed tackles and lack of desired play strength could bother teams, but his consistent production is hard to ignore. Cunningham is a rangy, three-down linebacker who has a nose for the ball and special teams value. His downhill approach is made for attacking 4-3 defenses and Cunningham could become a good, early starter as a run-and-chase weak-side linebacker.
Multidimensional runner with flex appeal for teams looking for a player who can carry the ball 20 times or catch it 10 depending on the game plan. McCaffrey's size, power and speed are just average, but he is able to create yardage for himself with his vision and elusiveness. McCaffrey's ability to return punts and kicks could be the value sweetner that pushes his name into the first round.
Hodges still has work to do as a route-runner and his inconsistent hands could be a concern. He can line up inside or outside while his size and ability to work all three levels of the field should be appealing to teams looking for pass catching options. The competitive nature of the NFL could bring out more consistent toughness in him as a blocker. He has the tools to be a long-time starter and touchdown-maker in the league.