It’s a great year for NFL teams in the market for budding pass rushers and defensive backs. Players like Myles Garrett, Derek Barnett, Jamal Adams, and Jonathan Allen are all waiting to start their pro careers as potential top 10 picks of the 2017 NFL draft.
Clubs in need of a franchise passer aren’t as lucky.
This year’s draft will infuse the league with defensive talent this spring, but teams like the Browns, Bears, and Jets will be left wanting when it comes to elite quarterbacks. Mitchell Trubisky and Deshaun Watson may develop into the foundation for a Super Bowl offense, but each has his share of weaknesses that will have to be sorted out first.
It gets worse for NFL quarterbacks. The influx of athletic pass rushers far outstrips this year’s supply of upper-tier offensive tackles. Passers’ blindsides will be less stable than ever — and there’s little help coming from this year’s rookie class to keep pockets from collapsing.
Here’s a look at the best and worst positions in the 2017 NFL draft.
Best: Edge rusher
Players who can make opposing quarterbacks miserable command massive contracts on the free-agent market — just look at Calais Campbell’s $60 million deal at age 30. Next Thursday night, teams will have a chance to lock down an impact pass rusher for pennies on the dollar. Players like Garrett, Barnett, Carl Lawson, Jordan Willis, Solomon Thomas, and even small-school guys like Derek Rivers and Tanoh Kpassagnon, could all make an impact after transitioning to the big leagues.
There’s no guarantee any of those players will be as good as Campbell, but they’ll come at a fraction of the cost and should only improve under the guidance of NFL personnel.
No one is really sure who the best quarterback prospect is in 2017. Trubisky is a popular pick to be the first passer off the board, but he only has one season as a starter. Watson led Clemson to a national championship, but his dual-threat game may be difficult to translate to the NFL. DeShone Kizer raises similar concerns — just without the sustained team success.
Patrick Mahomes is quickly rising up draft boards thanks to a tremendous spring. He led the FBS in passing yards in 2016, but he did so for Texas Tech, a program with a rich history of aerial brilliance and NFL flameouts.
Each of the draft’s top quarterbacks has major question marks surrounding his viability as a franchise passer. The need for a steady hand behind center has elevated all four to potential first-round status, but this group pales in comparison to the draft classes we saw in 2015 (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota) and 2014 (Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo).
Best: Defensive back
Teams looking to revamp their secondary (Titans, Saints) are in luck. Defensive backs make up 17 of Pro Football Focus’s top 50 prospects this spring. The pool is so deep that Quincy Wilson, a 6’1 corner who limited opposing passers to a 29.9 rating last season, may still be available when the third round rolls around.
Headliners in the group include a pair of standouts from both LSU and Ohio State. Former Tigers Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White and Buckeyes Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore are elite athletes with proven records of production in the backfield. Others, like Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley, and Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu, should also command premium draft slots.
Worst: Offensive tackle
A blindside-protecting left tackle is the cornerstone of a solid offensive line. At least one LT has been selected in the draft’s top 10 choices each year since 2005.
It appears 2017 will almost certainly snap that streak. A thin crop of pass blockers has left little first-round talent available for teams looking to keep their quarterbacks upright. Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk may be the best of the bunch, but he has only one season of FBS play under his belt. Utah’s Garett Bolles is an athletic blocker, but his size may necessitate a move to the interior of the line.
Other players like Cam Robinson, Forrest Lamp, and Roderick Johnson could climb up draft boards based on need, but there’s no surefire pick who can anchor a five-man line.
Best: Running back
Leonard Fournette weighs 240 pounds and runs like a swarm of angry bees. Dalvin Cook’s record-setting career at Florida State has helped everyone forget his character issues. Joe Mixon hasn’t been as lucky. Christian McCaffrey does just about everything well, including playing the piano.
Those may be the first four tailbacks off the board April 29, but they’ll be followed by a handful of runners who may go on to even more lucrative careers. Alvin Kamara and Curtis Samuel are versatile rushing/receiving threats. D’Onta Foreman ran for more than 2,000 yards in just 11 games last season. Donnel Pumphrey finished his career with more rushing yards than any FBS player besides Ron Dayne and Tony Dorsett.
Teams looking for an impact runner will be able to find one well into Day 3 of the 2017 draft.
Teams who can benefit: Texans, Jets, Ravens, Seahawks, Panthers, Packers
Best: Tight End
Some of the most athletic pass catchers available in 2017 aren’t wideouts — they’re tight ends. Alabama’s O.J. Howard is expected to be the first end off the board after running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at 6’6 and 250 pounds. Miami’s David Njoku and Ole Miss’s Evan Engram are two more big targets who can add a dynamic chain-moving threat in the middle of the field.
Small school standouts will have their chance to make a mark as well. Gerald Everett bounced from UAB to South Alabama after the former shuttered its football program. Barring disaster, he’ll be the first Jaguar to ever hear his name called at the draft. Ashland’s Adam Shaheen and Toledo’s Michael Roberts are also players with big potential.