With the college football season nearing its end, and the 2018 NFL Draft pre-draft process approaching, the time has come for my initial top 40 big board.
Just a reminder: This is a ranking of the top draft-eligible prospects based on their talent and translatable traits to the next level. This is not a positional value board, but it is more so the “stack,” as some teams would call it. Also, since I believe Sam Darnold is more than likely to return to USC, I chose to leave him off of this list, but at the same time, that does not mean the players listed are a lock to declare.
So without further ado, here is my first big board of the 2018 NFL Draft season.
– Barkley is the clear-cut top prospect in this class as a true blue-chip running back. He can simply do it all, and his big jump in the passing game this year has potentially sealed his status as a top three pick in April. The running back position is back, and the early success of Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette should only help Barkley’s case.
– If there was one prospect I’d bet my career on, it would be Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson. Rarely do you mention a prospect in the same breath as a five-time All Pro, but Nelson’s game reminds me a lot of Marshal Yanda. He stonewalls interior rushers, but is also able to pave lanes in the running game, both at the first and second level. Combine his talent on the field with his intangibles off of the field, and he is possibly a lock for the top five.
– Bradley Chubb is a hybrid defensive lineman who can play across the line of scrimmage with his blend of power, short-area quickness and football intelligence. He is an ideal strong-side defensive end in a 4-3, but he is not limited to a certain scheme. His play is so dominant, regardless of where he plays on the line of scrimmage. Now, he is not Myles Garrett or Khalil Mack even though he plays off the edge, but instead, his skill set is much more similar to that of Everson Griffen or Cameron Jordan.
– After a superstar sophomore campaign in 2016, Williams tore his meniscus after a tough performance against Maryland in the 2017 opener. However, he was able to come back at the tail end of the season against West Virginia to reassure scouts about his talent and potential. In another relatively weak class, Williams is the only true left tackle, and that should push him up draft boards in April.
– News flash: Lamar Jackson is still the biggest weapon and most explosive play maker in all of college football. He is much improved as a pocket passer this season, making NFL throws consistently with good ball placement and velocity. The key to his value, however, is his legs. He is essentially his own check down option, and we have seen how valuable that can be with mobile NFL quarterbacks like Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. On the other hand, he is going to have to be more careful using his legs if he is to stay durable in the league. He is too talented to be left out of the top five of this year’s draft, but I do acknowledge there is a bit of a long-term risk here.
– Some are clamoring for Minkah Fitzpatrick to be a cornerback, but the fact is that he is at his best playing with the ball in front of him. Whether it is single high, Cover 2, or in the box, Fitzpatrick is better at tracking the ball when moving forward. When he has to play with his back to the ball, his weakness are highlighted because he struggles finding the ball over his shoulder in man coverage. Nonetheless, he is a dominant safety prospect with incredible athleticism, run support reliability and football IQ.
– Before the season, there was a discussion of Derrius Guice potentially supplanting Saquon Barkley as the top back in this class. However, Guice has been banged up all season and lost some steam in that race. He is still an incredible prospect though. His lateral agility and power to be a threat at all levels in the run game is scary. His jump cuts and footwork are equally as frightening as his Beast Mode-like ability to break tackles. While not the receiver Barkley is, I believe Guice is the better pass protector of the two.
– Maurice Hurst is unblockable at the under tackle position. His interior quickness and first step is simply too much for offensive linemen at this level. As a pass rusher, he is one of the better interior rushers in the past couple of years, and that is not just due to superior athleticism. He complements this with great leverage and a high motor. This also carries over to the run game, but his lack of overall frame limits his ability in this aspect of the game.
– Every couple of years, Alabama pumps out a blue-chip wide receiver prospect, and the 2018 NFL Draft class will be the home for another one. Calvin Ridley has been hyped up as this kind of player since his freshman season, but he is truly playing his best football this year as a junior. From his route running to his catch point consistency, Ridley has improved leaps and bounds. Once Ridley is able to play with a real quarterback, I think he is going to be an unstoppable force. He is going to be an older rookie, but I don’t think it should matter too much given his talent to produce on day one.
– One of the keys to Georgia’s success this year has been the play of their inside linebacker Roquan Smith. He played well last season, but he truly elevated his game to a whole another level in 2017. Not only have his instincts developed, but he is much more potent in the run game, stacking and shedding blocks to get in the backfield on a consistent basis. Combine this with his proven sideline to sideline range and high-caliber athleticism, Smith is everything the NFL is looking for in an off-ball linebacker.
– I said it in my in-depth preseason report on him, but Quenton Meeks is arguably the smartest and most crafty cornerback I’ve ever scouted. He is a 6’2, 200 lb. cornerback with good long speed and short-area quickness for his size. You may think he is best in press coverage because of his size, but it is only one of many tricks he has in his bag. I actually think he defies the logic of bigger cornerbacks with his efficiency in off man coverage. Above all else though, he is an excellent zone player. Whether it is Cover 2 or 3, he is incredibly deceiving and baits quarterbacks into interceptions, which goes into his eye discipline and ball skills. I don’t see a major weakness with Meeks, and although people say he needs to be more physical at the LOS, I’d counter that with he’s more of a calculated player rather than a wild player like Iman Marshall or Adonis Alexander. Because of this cerebral ability to be a step ahead in press man, off man, and zone, as well as his ability to build off of his mistakes, I think he will be an instant contributor at the next level.
– Off-field and personal issues aside, Arden Key is the most gifted edge rusher in this class. His athletic prowess to scream off of the edge and close on the quarterback just shows how much upside he has as a pass rusher. Although he is not as refined with his plan as someone like Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, his tools flash double-digit sack potential. He undoubtedly needs to put more on his frame to be a consistent three-down player, but defensive linemen are drafted early in general based on how they can affect the passing game. Key is a high risk, high reward prospect, but if he dedicates himself to football and a team can harness his talent, I have no doubt he will be one of the NFL’s most disruptive edge defenders in a couple of years.
– Baker Mayfield is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing players in this class. With his unlimited self-confidence, some say he cannot be a leader of a team with his trash talk and brash behavior off of the field. On the other side of the coin, he has improved leaps and bounds as pocket passer in 2017, looking like Seattle’s Russell Wilson at times with his cold-blooded ability to make clutch plays both in structure and when the play breaks down. Traditional evaluators are going to ding him for his size, but I don’t believe it should play a big part into his evaluation as a whole. Instead, the traits show a player that a team rallies behind with a big arm and a much improved pocket presence, despite what the media portrays as a Johnny Manziel-esque figure. Although he doesn’t have the upside of a player like Lamar Jackson, I think he could be a difference maker at the next level if put in the right situation.
– If healthy and at full strength, I have no doubt in my mind that Jaire Alexander is the most NFL-ready cornerback in this 2018 NFL Draft class. In fact, I maintain my belief that he is the closest thing to Chris Harris Jr. we have seen come out of college. With his stickiness in man coverage, range and instincts in Zone, and versatility to play inside or out, Alexander is simply a do-it-all cornerback. At about 5’10-5’11, Alexander is going to need good measurements at the Combine to keep himself in the first round on some draft boards. In addition, his injury history is starting to pile up, and I know some scouts are worried if this constant inability to stay healthy with minor injuries is going to stack up in the future, especially with his lack of overall size and frame. Those serve as asterisks for the best overall cover corner in this draft class.
– Alabama always seems to have first-round linebacker prospects each year, and Rashaan Evans is the next man up. Reuben Foster was an elite talent last year, and although Evans is not quite on his level as a prospect, he is not as far off as many might think. His downhill explosiveness and closing speed causes problems in between the tackles, but his range to move sideline to sideline is equally as impressive. There are times where he overpursues his pursuit lanes and takes poor path angles, which stems from his aggressive style. However, he is much improved with his instincts in 2017, as opposed to 2016 where he waited to see it and then attacked. Evans is an ideal 4-3 MIKE, but I would not be opposed to him playing inside in a 3-4 either.
– Okoronkwo is going to get the Haason Reddick treatment from some teams because his lack of size and length in that they will want him to move off-ball, but his best position is clearly as an edge player. He is far and away the most refined and calculated edge rusher in this class. His combination of quick hands and explosive lower body is what gives offensive tackles so much trouble. Rarely do you see pass rushers in college with his kind of unpredictability and array of moves to go inside or out, speed or power. He is better against the run than given credit for, but I do acknowledge that his lack of overall frame handcuffs him at the next level as a three-down player. I guarantee you some teams will take him off of their draft board or undervalue him significantly because of positional prototypes, but the Senior Bowl could help him plenty.
– Jordan Whitehead is an instant playmaker on both sides of the ball for the Pittsburgh Panthers, but unlike Jabrill Peppers, he actually knows how to play the safety position. Whether it is single-high as a centerfielder, in the slot in man coverage, or in the box as a run defender, Whitehead’s versatility to play all over the field cannot go unnoticed. His ball skills and playmaking ability translate to the defensive side of the ball as well. If he can keep his head on straight off of the field, I have no doubt that Whitehead will become a difference maker at the next level.
– One of the biggest risers in this entire class is Iowa junior cornerback Joshua Jackson. At 6’1, 185, he possesses good size and is a smooth mover in off man coverage. The way he is able to plant and drive on the football showcases his explosiveness and reactionary quickness. Jackson just switched from wide receiver last season, and his ability to play the ball in the air is evident. He is truly a wide receiver at the catch point, but the amazing thing is that his transition to playing with his back to the ball has not been a problem. To think he is a lock for the Thorpe award this season after just switching to the cornerback position is incredible. Jackson is still raw in many areas, including zone coverage and press man technique, but his ability to mirror and break on routes at all levels of the field is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. A good Combine could really elevate his stock, and although he is more of an investment, his potential is higher than any cornerback prospect in this class.
– Speaking of upside, Orlando Brown Jr. has a lot of it, and it’s mostly due to his size at 6’8, 340. The fact that he can move as well as he can at his size has scouts salivating at the possibility of him becoming a cornerstone left tackle. He still does struggle with speed off of the edge, but once he gets his hands on the rusher, it is game, set, and match. If a rusher tries to match power with Brown, they obviously did not watch film on him because he will put them on the ground. In the run game, I’m not sure there is a more overwhelming force at the offensive tackle position in college football. Once he gets to the second level, he is like a freight train. He gets good competition in practice from Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, but I’m interested to see if he will go up against Alabama’s edge rushers or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell in the playoff. If so, Brown has a real chance to elevate his stock, and with the position value of offensive tackle, I would not be surprised if we hear his name early.
– Clelin Ferrell is a long, twitched-up edge rusher who converts speed to power better than any player in this draft class. One of the big things in Ferrell’s development is if he can learn how to fully utilize his length. Once he is able to do so, he is going to be a force. His ability to play on all three downs at a high level sets him apart as a well-rounded edge defender who can ideally play in both a 3-4 and 4-3. In fact, I see him as a similar prospect to Carlos Dunlap. If he is able to blow up the Combine, there is no telling how high he can go, despite not being as bendy off of the edge as some of his counterparts in this class.
– In structure with a clean pocket, Rosen looks like a future franchise quarterback with his excellent ball placement and arm talent. When the play breaks down though, that is when Rosen starts to crumble, but he has slowly progressed in this area as the season has gone along. He is no longer putting his eyes down once he faces pressure and scrambles out of the pocket, but his accuracy outside the pocket is still a different story. If put in the right situation, Rosen could be an elite player, but his inconsistency and poor decision making in key elements of games could put him in a coach’s doghouse at the same time.
– If we are talking about the most naturally gifted players, Derwin James needs to be at the top of the list. The problem is that his cover skills and instincts have not matched up with his athletic tools yet. He is right now a reactionary player who needs to see it happen before getting himself in position, which won’t cut it in the NFL. However, his redeemable qualities are showcased as a box player in run support and man coverage. The less you ask James to think, the better he will be on the field. Some want to play him single-high, but he has proven to be a Jabrill Peppers clone back there. There is no doubt he has immense talent, but he is more limited than some want to believe.
– I came away liking Da’Ron Payne more live than when I went back to analyze the tape, but he is still a dominant run defender with the athleticism to at least somewhat cause disruption as a pass rusher. He is able to take on double teams as a nose, but I could make a solid case that he also fits in as a high-upside under tackle. He can play in an odd or even front and I don’t think people give him enough credit for his ability in the pass game. One of the things he needs to improve is his get off. There are times where he can simply win with his superior strength and gifts without getting off the ball quickly, but at the next level, that’s not going to work. Nonetheless, Payne is a well-rounded defensive tackle prospect who should hear his name called in the first round.
– Courtland Sutton is an above-the-rim, Josh Doctson-esque receiver who does not create much separation vertically, but he is able to dominate at the catch point in 50/50 situations. In fact, he turns 50/50 jump balls into 90/10 jump balls with his strength and the way he attacks the ball in the air. He is a much improved route runner, but at the same time, his competition is not all that great in the AAC. While there are some who love Sutton, I’m still a bit worried about his ability to be more than a one-trick pony at the next level, but he has shown alpha-dog tendencies to take over games as the number one option. The Combine will be huge for his evaluation, especially in terms of how he tests in the agility and speed drills.
– Hercules Mata’afa is one of the best names in this entire draft class, but his play on the field is equally as fun. In fact, there is a solid case to be made that he should be the Pac-12 defensive player of the year this season. With 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in just nine games, he has been a disruptive force as a hybrid defensive lineman for Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars. He has the twitch and athleticism to win the corner, bend around the arc, and close on the quarterback in an instant. In addition, he is also well-versed with his hands and inside counters to beat up offensive tackles in every way possible. His inconsistency and overaggressiveness against the run is concerning, but he is a day-one contributor in a 4-3 or 3-4 as an edge defender.
– Denzel Ward is an undersized cornerback who lived up to the billing of top Ohio State cornerbacks with his play this season. Whether in victory or defeat, Ward has consistently been the bright spot of the Ohio State secondary, not playing down to the level of competition opposite from him. In addition, it also helps that he is arguably the fastest defensive back eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft, and it shows as it is futile to test him deep. In run support, he plays much bigger than his 5’9, 5’10 size with a physical, gritty edge. He is still raw in Cover 2/3 concepts, but he has shown a ton of promise in man coverage. I think he has a chance to be an outstanding nickel cornerback at the next level given all the traits I mentioned, but if he doesn’t meet the height threshold of 5105, some teams will limit him to that spot and avoid his name in the first round.
– I will mention this later with Tarvarus McFadden, but I was a lot higher on Harold Landry coming into this season than I am now. His massive dip in production is mostly due to injuries, but he just has not looked like the same player we saw last season. While his ability to convert speed to power and bend off of the edge is still incredibly valuable, he gets consistently moved against the run. There are even some plays where I question his motor in the run game, but when healthy, he is as disruptive as any pass rusher in the nation. His predictability and lack of a plan while rushing the passer won’t succeed in the NFL like it does now, but he has shown progress of using inside counters to his benefit. The agility drills are going to be key to his evaluation, as it will be for every edge rusher, but Landry could put himself back in top-level consideration with a clean medical and explosive Combine performance.
– If I told you a running back prospect attained 1,000 rushing yards before being given 100 carries, you would probably rank him in the Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette tier, but for some reason, Bryce Love gets no love from the national media when it comes to his draft value. Looking at the numbers alone, Bryce Love would run away with the Heisman trophy. He is as electric as any running back in college football with his world-class speed and slippery running style in the open field. No, he is not going to bowl over defenders as a power runner or get 20 carries a game in the NFL, but he can still be a centerpiece of an offense with his current build. A team with a plan and some conviction is going to be needed for him to be drafted in the first round, but I bet the teams that do pass on him will regret it when they have to gameplan against him.
– Braden Smith is one of the most intriguing offensive linemen in this class because of his versatility to play inside and out at a high level. He is best suited to play guard at the next level, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that he also serves as the swing tackle or even center for the team that drafts him. Smith is a good athlete who can reach the second level with ease and whip around on reach blocks. Despite having good length on the outside, his footwork is not all there yet to handle speed rushers at the next level, but in a phone booth, he can match power with some of the biggest dudes in the SEC.
– Ronnie Harrison is the epitome of a heat-seeking missile at the strong safety position. Harrison is going to draw plenty of Landon Collins comparisons when he came out of Alabama due to his downhill explosiveness and run support skill-set, but also because of his limited coverage traits. In man coverage, he is more than competent and is able to carry receivers in the slot with his back to the ball. However, he is not as sound in the back end in terms of taking proper range angles or getting over the top in a timely manner. He is at his best when he is asked to play in the box or at the LOS, not as the centerfielder of a defense.
– Chukwuma Okorafor was the left tackle for the Western Michigan Broncos, even when second-round selection Taylor Moton was on the roster. That just tells you how much faith this coaching staff has in Okorafor to hold his own on the outside. His talent level is obvious, and it was best shown against USC this year, as he manhandled both Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu in all aspects of the game. With his footwork and athletic tools, there is no telling how good Okorafor could be at the next level, but he is still so raw in his technique and football intelligence when it comes to handling speed and craftiness off of the edge. An investment? Yes, but one I would be willing to make at the bottom of the first, if he is even available at that point.
– Oliver is easily one of the smoothest cornerbacks in this draft class, showcasing excellent hip fluidity and stop-start quickness in and out of the wide receivers breaks in both press and off man coverage. His length at 6’2 causes major issues at the LOS, but he also has the long speed to make up for his overaggressiveness if he needs to recover. There isn’t really a big flaw in Oliver’s game, and I think he has a real shot of hearing his name in the first round because of his combination of traits and production.
– James Washington is undoubtedly one of the most productive receivers in the nation, and he has been for the last couple of years as well. If the draft were based purely on career production and reliability, Washington would probably be a top five pick. However, his size and muscular frame essentially shows a wide receiver in a running back’s body, similar to Ty Montgomery. I believe his money will be earned from the slot, and with his strong hands and proven playmaking ability, it would be foolish to bet against him.
– The duo of McGlinchey and Nelson on the left side of that daunting Notre Dame offensive line caves defenders in each week, consistently giving Josh Adams lanes to run through. The problems I have with McGlinchey stem from pass protection, as his footwork is not on the caliber of other offensive tackles in this class. He has always struggled with speed off of the edge, and I don’t see that changing at the next level. He is most likely a right tackle only, but his value in the run game cannot be diminished.
– One of the biggest misconceptions about USC’s Ronald Jones II is that he is “just a scat back,” when in reality, he is one of the most well-rounded running backs in all of college football. He can efficiently tote the rock inside as well as he can with his explosive highlight runs on the outside. As a receiver, he is a reliable option out of the backfield with good hands and obvious playmaking ability after the catch. The one real hold up I have with Jones is his ineptitude in pass protection. For him to truly become a three-down back at the next level, coaches are going to have to rely on him in this area of the game, but as a runner, I think his running style is comparable to former Steelers running back Willie Parker.
– While Vita Vea has all of the gifts in the world as a 340 lb. nose tackle prospect, he has yet to put it all together. However, his potential is sky high. Rarely do you see someone his size with the ability to affect the passing game as much as he does. He is a true one technique who can take on double teams, but again, his draft stock is going to be highly regarded because of his quick first step and surprising closing speed as an interior pass rusher. The inconsistency is what will give scouts questions, including a possible concern about his motor, but he has a ton of talent that needs to be tapped into.
– Tarvarus McFadden was my top cornerback heading into the season based on his upside and huge sophomore season. However, he did not take the jump I expected him to make during his junior year, and instead, he took a major step back. His ball skills have regressed somewhat, looking almost passive to attack the ball in the air. He is also not as physical at the LOS, but at the same time, he is getting burned more and more because teams are exposing his lack of long speed since he is not using his length to mitigate it anymore. Outside of the Miami game against Ahmmon Richards, McFadden has been helpless to defend against the ACC’s top receivers. The only reason why he is still in my top 40 is because I trust the traits that I saw in 2016, but as this season has shown, he may need his senior season to regain some trust in war rooms.
– For some reason, I feel as if the art of route running goes unnoticed in draft circles today, as people are more drawn in by flashy playmakers and catch point winners. With Anthony Miller, I believe he is the best wide receiver before the catch point in this class. That not only ties into his route running skills, but also his ability to consistently win with a quick release at the LOS. Whether it is in the slot or on the outside, he is always open. Miller may never be a team’s number one option, but I think he will be a very good complementary receiver for a long time in this league.
– Davenport is one of this draft class’ best kept secrets. However, that may not last long once more people catch up to his tape. He is an incredible pass rusher with engulfing size and power at the point of attack. He converts speed to power really well, and his versatility to play in an odd or even front should help his case to be a first round pick in April.
– Duke Ejiofor is an Emmanuel Ogbah-esque player with his disruptive, heavy hands and easy speed to power conversion. As a run defender, he is advanced in getting off blocks and setting the edge. While an aggressive rusher, he is disciplined in his rush lanes, a rare trait to have at the collegiate level these days. He is not as bendy or twitchy as his counterparts in this EDGE class, but he finds a way to win because of his craftiness and first step.