Story By: Dimitri Tzamaras
With the 2017 NFL Draft in the books, it is never too early to look at who could be the biggest names coming out in the 2018 Draft just about a year from now. Dimitri Tzamaras gives his very early top-25 rankings of players likely to declare for next season’s NFL Draft.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: Barkley is a special talent at the running back position and really stepped his already high-level game up a notch as last season drew to a close. I like his wiggle and ability to make defenders miss in the open field, then quickly switching into top gear to ensure no one will catch him. I think he has potential to be talked about in the same breath as recent top-5 running back selections like Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette.
2. Derwin James, S, Florida State: James is a competitor in every sense of the word, and his versatility makes him a very intriguing prospect. His ability to play center field in the back-end of a defense, paired with his fearlessness in coming up into the box and laying the boom make him the best defensive player in the draft in my opinion. How he recovers from his MCL tear will really determine where he lands in the draft next year.
3. Arden Key, OLB/DE, LSU: Key is a freak. At 6-foot-6 and nearly 240 pounds, his bend and motor propelled him to 12 sacks as a true sophomore. His production on the field, when brought into consideration with his truly freakish untapped potential have him in the discussion to be the number one overall pick next year, despite the QB depth in the class. Key taking an absence away from LSU and football this offseason may be cause for concern, however.
4. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA: Smooth. Natural. Smart. The game has come easy for Josh Rosen his entire life. He has lived up to the moniker “Chosen Rosen” when he has been healthy for UCLA. His effortless release and almost unprecedented pocket awareness for a passer his age is truly impressive. Coming off an injury to his throwing shoulder that kept him hobbled or out of games entirely all last season, it will be important to see how that shoulder looks early on this season. Rosen has the smarts and skills to be the face of a franchise.
5. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson: The Clemson defensive line pipeline to the NFL continues to run, as Wilkins follows Carlos Watkins, who got drafted this season, and guys like Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, both taken in the second-round last year. Wilkins has been a beast in the middle for Clemson since arriving on campus as a true freshman, compiling 81 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks over two seasons. Wilkins also does a great job of getting his hands up and into passing lanes, finishing 9th in the ACC last year in passes defended, despite playing defensive tackle. Plus, he can do this:
6. Sam Darnold, QB, USC: The USC hype-train is chugging along this offseason, and no one is benefitting more from this almost bi-yearly tradition than Sam Darnold. I do believe USC will be great this season, and Darnold is the biggest reason for that, but I do think the attention he is garnering despite only starting ten games may be a little out of hand. Darnold is a guy with tremendous physical tools and unshakeable composure, and could very well end up skyrocketing to the unquestionable number one overall selection in next year’s draft if he can show the same sort of production and ability he did last season over a prolonged period.
7. Da’Shawn Hand, OLB, Alabama: If you want to talk about being loaded almost to the point of it being unfair, think about Alabama not being able to play a guy who will likely be a top-15 pick in next year’s NFL Draft because he had to sit behind guys like Ryan Anderson (2nd round, 49th overall) and Tim Williams (3rd round, 78th overall). Hand may end up being the best of this bunch, which is to say, he has the potential to be very, very good. Given his first opportunity to make starter-level impact this upcoming season, he could play himself into the conversation as a top-5 level talent.
8. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame: This year’s NFL Draft was noticeably thin along the offensive front. McGlinchey is a mountain at 6-foot-8 and nearly 315 pounds, and will have three full seasons of starting experience for the Irish. McGlinchey reportedly received a first-round grade last year from the NFL College Advisory Committee, and would have been a bolster to a severely weak offensive line class. As long as no major injury occurs, McGlinchey should be the first offensive lineman off the board next April.
9. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama: There is consensus amongst the scouting community that Fitzpatrick is a superior talent and prospect when compared to former teammate and recent first round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, Marlon Humphrey. Fitzpatrick has size and fluid athleticism to step in on day one and become a lockdown corner for an NFL team. The success of Humphrey could set the market for Fitzpatrick—with the underwhelming history of Saban cornerbacks in the NFL may become a barrier for future Tide corners.
10. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming: Allen is coming along in the Carson Wentz mold of a small-school phenom who landed on NFL radars due to a late growth spurt. Starting off in community college, Allen has been somewhat hidden at Wyoming, so many casual fans may be surprised to see him so high in the rankings. Allen has Patrick Mahomes-level arm strength, but comes from a pro-style system at Wyoming. He is a gunslinger in the truest sense of the word, but will certainly have to refine his decision making and cut back on interceptions, but he has the skillset and prototypical size to catapult him into first-QB off the board territory.
11. Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State: Finished with 10 sacks last season for the Wolfpack, and has solid technique and pass rush ability. Chubb also has a knack for forcing fumbles, with 5 takeaways in the last two seasons. He is a relentless pass rusher and stays with a play until he makes contact, or forces a throw from the QB. Also doesn’t give up anything in the run game, and is just an overall, the rare safe prospect who offers very tantalizing upside.
12. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU: For my money, Leonard Fournette was the second best running back on the LSU roster last season. Derrius Guice is a violent runner with rare explosiveness and vision. Guice always makes sure to end a run with a violent collision or a breakaway to the end zone. He tore apart defenses to the tune of 1500 yards and 16 TD’s from scrimmage last season, and also offers tremendous upside as a kicker returner as well, lest we forget what he did to that poor Louisville kicker in last year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
13. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas: One of the few bright spots in Charlie Strong’s tenure with the Longhorns, Jefferson has lived up to his recruiting hype, becoming an instant leader for the Longhorns’ young defense as a true freshman. He can cover sideline to sideline, and brings huge amounts of blunt force when coming into contact with a ball carrier. Great in run support, with the ability to drop back into coverage as well. Can also bring some juice off the edge or in dialed up blitzes to get after the quarterback.
14. Vita Vea, DL, Washington: At 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, Vea can anchor a defense. Absorbing double teams and allowing linebackers behind him to read and react to plays, Vea also displays pass rush ability and suddenness totaling 9.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks over his first two seasons. Uses hands and technique in order to split double teams and disrupt plays from the point of attack.
15. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State: Rudolph comes in as the fourth best QB on my rankings here, but likely would have been the best quarterback in this year’s class if he had declared. That’s just part of the reason the QB class for 2018 has been so highly lauded. Rudolph, in his own right, has great touch on his deep ball, and displays occasional escapability in the pocket, where he shows a knack for keeping his eyes downfield, looking to make a play. Rudolph has posted a passer rating of 150 in each of his 3 seasons at Oklahoma State, and has hovered around a 63% completion percentage in his two seasons as a starter.
16. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma: As the son of a former NFL offensive tackle, Brown has the pedigree and genes to be a dominant left tackle in the league for over a decade. With mammoth size (6-foot-8 and 340 pounds) and loads of starting experience, Brown will be on the radar for tackle-hungry teams at the top end of the draft. Getting his weight down to a manageable benchmark and thus expanding his athletic ability will be something the team who drafted him will have to manage.
17. Bo Scarborough, RB, Alabama: Scarborough is a load at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but offers breakaway speed and more lateral quickness than we’ve seen from past Alabama backs like Derrick Henry. He averaged an insane 6.5 yards per carry last year, and emerged as Alabama’s workhorse back on their run to the College Football Playoff final. He averaged 113.5 yards per game on the ground in his final four contests, with 6 touchdowns. One thing Scarborough will have to work on is his receiving ability, after totaling only four catches all last season.
18. Harold Landry, OLB/DE, Boston College: Landry finished last season with a school record 16.5 sacks and led the country in forced fumbles with 7, while also adding one interception. Needs to develop his ability to hold up against the run at the point of attack. Landry could also stand to get better in pass coverage if he’s going to play outside linebacker in the NFL, but he certainly has developed a pass rush repertoire that will warrant him being taken in the first-round next year.
19. Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: If you want to talk about impressive, you should discuss the stable of receivers Clemson has placed into the NFL over the last couple of seasons. Deondre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake, Sammy Watkins, Adam Humphries, and now, Mike Williams. Cain is going to be the next in that pipeline. With decent size and elite ball tracking ability and separation speed, he has averaged over 18 yards per catch in his two years at Clemson, and with a season as the true number one under his belt, will be a coveted deep threat entering the NFL Draft.
20. Josh Sweat, OLB/DE, Florida State: The biggest question for Sweat will be durability and development. He is one of more of the impressive athletes in college football, and has been highly touted since coming out of high school. He fights well against the run and is relentless getting after the passer. If he can stay healthy while avoiding ticky-tack injuries and show flashes in his development as an overall prospect, Sweat has the potential to shoot up draft boards throughout the season.
21. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Likely to be the most polarizing prospect in the draft come this time next year, the Heisman trophy winner will have his fair share of supporters and detractors. I, for one, believe that he has a unique and transcendent skillset. He has the arm talent to be an NFL quarterback, and his skills as a runner are something we haven’t seen at the position since Michael Vick. I think teams will talk themselves into Jackson and his immeasurable upside as the draft creeps closer and closer.
22. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State: With 74 tackles and 10 sacks in last two seasons and prototypical NFL size and athleticism (6-foot-5 and 265 pounds) Hubbard is the defensive end prospect of general manager’s dreams. He is going to be a safe pick who won’t cost someone their job for picking him, but don’t let that description fool you, he will be a decade-plus pro, who will be harassing offensive lines and quarterbacks for many years.
23. Da’Ron Payne, DL, Alabama: Payne started every game for the Tide last year and saw his teammates get plucked off of the NFL Draft board one by one in the past NFL Draft. He had 36 tackles and 3.5 for loss, to go along with 1.5 sacks last season. A space eater, at 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, he freed up linebackers and edge rushers to dominate up front for the Tide, and will likely keep that up this year, even with all the new faces along the front seven.
24. Tavarus McFadden, CB, Florida State: McFadden led the NCAA with 8 interceptions as a sophomore last season, displaying impressive ball skills and ability to turn and run with receivers. He is long enough to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, mucking up timing on quick slant routes or deep passes. He does a good job baiting QB’s and then using his length and athleticism to cover ground quickly and jump right into the path of an intended pass. He has ideal size for a modern NFL corner, and will likely be firmly in the first-round next year.
25. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State: The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Luke Falk is his toughness. He has gotten abused behind a subpar offensive line while also being asked to throw nearly 40 times per game over the last two seasons. He will have to adjust to not playing in an air-raid scheme but shows great pocket poise/awareness and fearlessness when stepping into throws. Also does a better job than you would expect from an air-raid QB in getting through multiple passing progressions.
Featured image for this post courtesy of Sconnnie Sports Talk