Breakout Player Recap: Defensive Linemen

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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

While some defensive linemen can breakout for their presence against the run, it seems the most common occurrence is due to being able to get to opposing quarterbacks. Some of the names in the group that I mentioned certainly had no problem doing that, and more when called upon in 2016. A few of the players mentioned were named to the Pro Bowl or even All-Pro teams, so if this is the first step, they figure to be discussed among the premier talents at their position for years to come. What I wrote about these players entering 2016 can be found here.

Leonard Williams, Jets: What drew me to predicting Williams’ 2016 breakout was that even though three sacks as a rookie doesn’t jump off the page, he was really putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The pressure didn’t stop in 2016, and the sacks increased as he recorded seven on the year and was named to his first Pro Bowl.

Williams excelled against the run in his second season as well. Pro Football Focus gave Williams a grade of 89.0 against the run in 2016 which was fifth among all defensive linemen. Still only 23 entering this season, it’s scary to think that Williams still has room for growth. Jets fans might not have a ton to be excited about entering the 2017 season, but watching Williams wreck havoc should bring some hope.

Hit or miss: Hit

Preston Smith, Redskins: After Smith had a ridiculous stretch to end his rookie year and the Redskins needed pass rush help after Junior Galette tore his Achilles, I thought Smith had the potential to record double digit sacks in an expanded role. Instead, there are just more questions regarding Smith that could be answered in 2017.

In 2015, Smith turned his quarterback pressures into sacks at a very high clip. That wasn’t the case in 2016 as Smith for the year forced a similar amount of total quarterback pressure, but generated three less sacks. At this time, he’s expected to be more of a situational pass rusher looking ahead at the upcoming season. It will just be interesting to see if Smith either figures out a way to generate more pressure, or if he’ll just need to find ways to turn those pressures into sacks at a higher rate.

Hit or miss: Push

Danielle Hunter, Vikings: When I selected Hunter, I mentioned that double digit sack potential was there for whenever he earned the starting role on the Vikings defense. Apparently he didn’t need the role, as Hunter recorded 12.5 sacks playing on less than 60% of the Vikings defensive snaps. He recorded over 50 total quarterback pressures, and maintained a high level of play against the run.

The Vikings have already said Hunter will start in 2017, which should only mean increased playing time. Viewed as a raw prospect coming out of LSU, Hunter has already made drastic leaps in the last two seasons. Factor in that he doesn’t turn 23 until late October and Hunter should be fun to watch for a long time.

Hit or miss: Hit

Vic Beasley, Falcons: While I listed Beasley as a defensive lineman initially, he ended up playing as an outside linebacker for the Falcons in 2016. Regardless, he broke out in a big way leading the league with 15.5 sacks and being named to both his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro team. While Beasley figures to terrorize offensive lines for years with his freakish athleticism, there is a question regarding him that needs to be answered.

Like Preston Smith who was mentioned earlier, Beasley in 2016 turned his total quarterback pressures into sacks at a ridiculous rate which was nearly double the league average (a little over 15%). Essentially, guys like Von Miller or Khalil Mack got to the quarterback more than Beasley but he just made the most out of the opportunities. While his athleticism could be what allows him to maintain the incredible pace, being able to maintain a similar sack total would be a daunting task if he’s unable to increase his total quarterback pressures in 2017. Regardless, Beasley at 25 has time to figure this out and should be giving opposing coordinators fits for years to come.

Hit or miss: Hit

Frank Clark, Seahawks: When predicting Clark to breakout, I thought he would see an expanded role in the Seahawks defense and with the potential he displayed as a rookie, double digit sack potential was there. All of that ended being true, as Clark more than doubled the number of snaps he played as a rookie, and recorded 10 sacks in 15 games for the Seahawks.

While the amount of pressure Clark applied to opposing quarterbacks was impressive, he also faired extremely well against the run. Pro Football Focus gave Clark a grade of 85.0 against the run which was good for 11th among edge rusher in 2016. The Seahawks defense once again should be among the league’s best in 2017, and another big year from Clark certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause.

Hit or miss: Hit

Devin Taylor, Lions: Coming off an impressive 2015 showing, I thought that Taylor could be in for a big 2016 as he would be in a more prominent role. It didn’t help that Ziggy Ansah was injured for much of the year which would’ve made things easier, but Taylor didn’t manage to record more quarterback pressures than he did in the previous season.

For 2016, Taylor recorded 4.5 sacks, but struggled against the run. Pro Football Focus gave Taylor a grade of 41.1 against the run, which ranked 95th out of 104 eligible edge rushers. This offseason, Taylor went on to sign a one year deal with the Giants where should go back to being used in a situational role.

Hit or miss: Miss

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Breakout Player Recap: Tight End

12174883_GLike receivers, breakouts for tight ends have seemingly become more common as the league remains very pass friendly. Despite that, this was not a very good year for me in terms of my projections at the position. Whether it was injuries, the opportunities not taking shape, or the player not making a leap, things didn’t work out. What I wrote about these tight ends can be found here.

Clive Walford, Raiders: When I picked Walford to take his game to the next level, there were reports that he would be a bigger part of the Raiders offense in 2016. Despite starting seven more games and playing over 200 more snaps, Walford’s stats in 2016 were almost identical to his rookie season. Walford’s 52 targets in 2016 were only two more than his rookie season, and he finished the year with 359 yards and three touchdowns. With Jared Cook joining the team in free agency, it’s unlikely Walford will see his passing game role increase in 2017.

Hit or miss: Miss

Coby Fleener, Saints: Considering the role tight ends had within the Saints offense in recent years, Fleener’s signing last offseason looked like it would be a situation he could thrive in. Instead, he ended up showing the same inconsistency we’ve seen up to this point. Fleener had a healthy role in the Saints offense with 80 targets thrown his way, and for the year he hauled in 50 passes for 631 yards and three touchdowns.

While there were some big games during 2016, Fleener mixed that in with seven games of less than 30 receiving yards. Fleener could eventually figure things out or have the year many have expected out of the blue, but now entering year six it looks more like a trend.

Hit or miss: Push

Zach Miller, Bears: Talent was never a question regarding Miller, but durability unfortunately is a major part of the grueling game known as football. After showing some serious flashes late in 2015, Miller was going into 2016 on a high note and with a clear role in the Bears passing attack. He responded by posting career highs with 47 catches for 486 yards and four touchdowns on 64 targets. Unfortunately, Miller’s season came to an end with a broken foot in mid November which brought his year to a close after 10 games.

With the Bears adding Dion Sims in the offseason and drafting Adam Shaheen in the second round this past April, some Bears reporters have said Miller could need a fantastic camp showing to make the final roster. While there is still untapped potential, Miller who turns 33 in October could be running out of chances.

Hit or miss: Push

Crockett Gillmore, Ravens: When I put Gillmore here, I figured he would be the starting tight end after Ben Watson had torn his Achilles, and Dennis Pitta faced health concerns due to his numerous hip injuries. Pitta ended up staying healthy and had a career year in terms of receptions and passes thrown his way, while Gillmore being the one who dealt with numerous injuries. In 2016, Gilmore played in seven games, due to hamstring, thigh, what he later said was a broken back, and needed two shoulder surgeries this offseason which forced him to miss OTA’s.

In the seven games, Gillmore managed to catch eight passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. There is still a lot of uncertainty at tight end for the Ravens entering 2017, so if Gillmore can stay healthy his skill set at 6’6″ 260 pounds certainly makes him a player to watch.

Hit or miss: Miss

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Breakout Player Recap: Wide Receiver

626139082.0With an uptick in passing volume all across the league, breakout receivers have become more common over the years. Despite that, 2016 might of been my worst year in terms of predicting which receivers would take their games to the next level. Whether it was injuries, or just not making a leap to the level I expected, this was just an off year. Despite that, these are all players I’ll be keeping an eye on in 2017 and what I wrote on them entering the 2016 season can be found here.

Donte Moncrief, Colts: After he increased his production in 2015, I thought 2016 would be the year Moncrief put it all together. Between being the primary red zone option on an explosive offense and that team playing in high scoring games, I felt he’d have a shot for 1,000 plus yards and double digit touchdowns. Unfortunately, neither happened as Moncrief was limited to just nine games in 2016.

For the season, Moncrief caught 30 passes for 307 yards and seven touchdowns, so the claims of him being a red zone threat were certainly justified. The nagging injuries did impact his performance as for someone with his skill set, he wasn’t used much in the vertical passing game. Per Pro Football Focus, Moncrief ranked near the bottom of qualifying receivers in 2016 with just 1.04 yards per route run. Still only 24 entering the last year of his rookie deal, Moncrief is a player to closely monitor leading up to the 2017 season as a clean bill of health could lead to big things.

Hit or miss: Push

Stefon Diggs, Vikings: Diggs’ second season was an interesting one as it was similar to his rookie campaign where he started off red hot but saw a dip in production afterwards. While nobody could of foreseen the Teddy Bridgewater injury that occurred after my initial prediction, Diggs showed a rapport with both Shaun Hill and Sam Bradford in the first two games of the season. In those two contests, Diggs racked up 16 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown. He tailed off down the stretch, but part of that could be attributed to the Vikings offensive line.

After week two, Diggs only had three games where he averaged more than ten yards per reception. With it being a rough year for the Vikings offensive line, that obviously could of played a factor in Bradford wanting to get the ball out fast, and letting Diggs try and create in space. For the season Diggs had 84 receptions for 903 yards and three touchdowns. With a full offseason to build a rapport with Bradford, and a running game around him that should only improve, Diggs could have his first 1,000 plus yard season in 2017.

Hit or miss: Push

DeVante Parker, Dolphins: When picking Parker, I mentioned that if the Dolphins decided to fully “unleash” him that the potential was there to breakout in a big way. That didn’t completely happen in 2016, but there was a lot of positive progress. Parker saw 37 more passes thrown his way in 2016 and managed to improve his catch rate on those targets going from 52% as a rookie, to 64.4% in his second season. For the year, Parker caught 56 passes for 744 yards and four touchdowns.

The Dolphins did try throwing to Parker vertically, as nearly 20% of his targets were thrown 20 or more yards downfield per Pro Football Focus. Of the six catchable passes, Parker did manage to haul in five of them for 206 yards and a touchdown. If Parker is to take the next step which the team keeps discussing this offseason, throwing to him vertically would continue to make sense. With a big frame and the ability to highpoint passes and snag them out of the air, it would only be taking advantages of Parker’s strengths. Parker will be appearing again when I project my 2017 breakout players, but for now the team should be happy with a modest improvement in year two.

Hit or miss: Push

Devin Funchess, Panthers: With rave reviews coming into last offseason to go along with Kelvin Benjamin finding his footing as he returned from a torn ACL, I thought Funchess would establish himself as a formidable starter in his second NFL season. Despite playing in 15 games and starting seven, Funchess only hauled in 23 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, drops were an issue for Funchess. PFF charted him with six drops on the 29 catchable balls thrown his way giving him a drop rate of 20.7% which was third worst among qualifying receivers.

While Cam Newton was battling through shoulder injuries during the season, that obviously doesn’t make up for dropping the ball at that rate. Funchess still has incredible physical gifts, so it will be interesting to see how his development goes as he enters his third NFL season.

Hit or miss: Miss

Marvin Jones, Lions: When predicting Jones to breakout, I figured the Lions would have to replace the 150 throws that went to Calvin Johnson and expected Jones to see around 110 of those targets. In 15 games, Jones saw 103 passes thrown his way so the projections were in line there. Jones did set a career best to this point of 930 yards and averaging 16.9 yards a catch in 2016. However, that total is a bit disappointing after seeing how Jones started the season.

In the first three games of his Lions tenure, Jones hauled in 18 passes for 408 yards and two touchdowns. His week three game against the Packers aided that as in that contest he had six catches, 205 yards and two touchdowns alone. Through the 12 following games he played, Jones had only three games where he accumulated 70 or more yards. Another offseason getting accumulated with Matthew Stafford should only Jones’ situation, and the Lions are probably hoping those first three games are a more accurate representation of what he can bring the offense.

Hit or miss: Push

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Breakout Player Recap: Running Back

2b6af7c0-a81c-11e6-8c0e-b5df78164086_david-johnsonRunning back can be an interesting position to project breakouts for as so much of it comes down to opportunity. All five players I picked entering 2016 figured to have that, but thanks to injuries and other factors only two truly capitalized. Those two who did make the most of it figure to be mentioned with the premier running backs in the league for the foreseeable future. The others may have had their big opportunity come and go in 2016, but they’re all young enough that they’d be worth keeping an eye on as their careers progress. What I wrote about these backs entering 2016 can be found here.

David Johnson, Cardinals: Towards the end of 2015 Johnson went on an incredible run, but there have been times where impressive stretches by rookie running backs don’t translate to the following year. That certainly wasn’t the case with Johnson. In 2016, Johnson led the league in all purpose yards with a whopping 2,118 to go along with 20 total touchdowns. The Cardinals were apparently hesitant to compare Johnson to him in preseason, but he turned in a year that resembles something Marshall Faulk could do.

As a receiver alone Johnson was moved all around the field and caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns. Some wideouts would be happy with that yearly production. In the running game, Johnson obviously stood out with 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while also being named a first team All-Pro. With the ability to create as a runner and at a high level as a receiver, the case could be made Johnson is the prototypical back for today’s NFL. 2016 should be only the first of many more exciting years to come.

Hit or miss: Hit

Carlos Hyde, 49ers: After being mentioned as a possible breakout candidate for a few years now, Hyde finally had a season that we’ve been waiting for. Playing in 13 games (he tore his MCL in week 16), Hyde ran for 988 yards and six touchdowns on 217 carries. He was also used more as a receiver catching a career best 27 passes even though he averaged just six yards a reception. The main thing working against Hyde in 2016 was the 49ers game script.

As we all know, the 49ers were not a very good football team in 2016 which resulted in them facing early deficits. Due to this, Hyde could of been having games where he was averaging 5 or so yards a carry, but the team had to go away from the run. With a new head coach in Kyle Shanahan, some have questioned if Hyde will be the starter heading into 2017. The 49ers drafted Joe Williams in the fourth round and went out and signed Tim Hightower in free agency. Regardless, Hyde gave us a glimpse of what he can be capable of. Durability is a concern for many with Hyde though as he has now missed 14 games in three seasons.

Hit or miss: Push

Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: My biggest fear with selecting Ajayi to breakout last year was the Dolphins once again being enamored with a former star at the end of his career. It didn’t get off to a great start as Ajayi was told not to travel with the team in week one to Seattle after expressing frustration due to Arian Foster being named the starter over him. The reason I stuck with predicting Ajayi was I figured Adam Gase had enough common sense to see what the younger back was capable of producing leading to an end result of the prediction being justified.

Despite starting just 12 games in 2016, Ajayi made his impact known finishing fourth in rushing with 1,272 yards (4.9 yards a carry) and eight touchdowns. Foster even retired midseason opening things up for Ajayi after the Boise State product had two straight 200 yards games and added a third later in the year. One area where Ajayi excelled was creating yards after contact. Per Pro Football Focus, Ajayi was second amongst all backs in 2016 with 900 yards after initial contact for an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Now coming into the year as the Dolphins clear feature back, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ajayi built on those numbers in 2017.

Hit or miss: Hit

Jeremy Langford, Bears: While Langford’s yards per carry stats weren’t super inspiring in his rookie season, one thing that had me interested in him was the volume of touches that figured to be there. For that reason, I wrote that 1,300 yards and double digit touchdowns wasn’t out of the question in 2016. While I was right about a Bears running back from a Big 10 school rushing for over 1,300 yards it wasn’t Langford but rather Jordan Howard who burst onto the scene in his rookie season.

Langford started the Bears first three games and was on his way to having a nice performance in week three until he suffered a high ankle sprain and was forced to miss the next four games. In that time, Howard took the opportunity given to him and didn’t look back. In the remaining nine games Langford played, he saw less than 50 total touches. For the season, he had 62 carries for 200 yards (3.23 yards per carry) and four touchdowns while also chipping in 19 receptions. While he could be worth keeping as a handcuff for fantasy football purposes with Howard in 2017, Langford going from starting back to compliment in the span of a four week injury is yet another reminder of how cutthroat the league can be.

Hit or miss: Miss

Duke Johnson, Browns: When I put Johnson here, I did so assuming Hue Jackson would use him similar to how Giovani Bernard had been used with the Bengals the past few years. Johnson contributed as a pass catcher, but partially due to the Browns trailing constantly, the touches in the run game weren’t there.  For the season, Johnson had 126 total touches for 872 yards and a touchdown. He averaged nearly five yards an attempt on the ground, and emerged as an up and coming pass catching back.

With the Browns figuring to be more competitive this year along with additions to the offensive line, Johnson should see more carries in 2017 even if Isaiah Crowell continues to see the bulk of them.

Hit or miss: Miss

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Breakout Player Recap: Quarterback

nfl-week-15-picks-schedule-jameis-winston-marcus-mariotaWith training camp rapidly approaching, this seemed like a good time to recap the players I projected to breakout in 2016. Some predictions worked out better than others, but regardless it is a fun yearly exercise to partake in. I’ll be starting with quarterback where I only picked two players to take their games to the next level in 2016. What I wrote about those quarterbacks at the time can be found here.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers: Entering 2016, I wrote that Winston had weapons at his disposal, and the Buccaneers figured to be in the playoff mix late in the year with the roster they had assembled. The Buccaneers were in the playoff mix late in the season as their three win increase in 2016 led to a 9-7 finish, which was the first winning season the franchise has had since 2010. Winston was also able to establish some of the weapons I had mentioned this past year as Mike Evans showed he should be a top tier wideout  for years to come, and Cameron Brate at tight end hauled in eight touchdowns to go along with 660 yards. The big question with Winston now is his turnovers.

While his completion percentage rose from his rookie campaign, Winston threw more interceptions in 2016. His 18 thrown were second amongst all quarterbacks. As someone who plays with more of a “gunslinger mentality”, turnovers could always be questioned with Winston in an era where teams seem to be throwing shorter and are more cautious with the ball. Good news for Winston is that help is on the way in terms of weapons who cater to his skill set. DeSean Jackson, who has been a premier deep threat for almost a decade, signed with the Buccaneers this offseason. On top of that, they added two pass catchers in the draft with tight end O.J. Howard in the first round, and the talented receiver Chris Godwin out of Penn State in the third. The Buccaneers are already a trendy pick to make the playoffs in 2017, but the growth of Winston between his second to third year will make the difference.

Hit or miss: Push

Marcus Mariota, Titans: At the end of my Mariota write-up, I mentioned it wouldn’t be surprising if the Titans more than doubled their 2015 win total and where considered one of the league’s up and coming teams entering 2017. Both those things happened, and the Titans actually tripled their 2015 total by going 9-7. Heck, if Mariota didn’t break his leg in the middle of their week 16 game against the Jaguars, there’s a chance the team would’ve been playing for a playoff spot the following week.

Due to playing in 12 games his rookie year, Mariota saw increases in all major categories for 2016. Not only was he more efficient in terms of stats such as adjusted yards per attempt, but he threw one less interception despite throwing 81 more passes, and threw for touchdowns at an above average rate with 26 on 451 pass attempts. Despite the strong stats, Mariota did have some outings this past year that showed there was room to grow. Like Winston, Mariota will have a stronger supporting cast in 2017. Along with signing Eric Decker, the Titans also drafted three pass catchers in Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith this past April. While 2016 may not of been a defining season, I’m chalking this up as a breakout campaign as there were more than enough positives to believe that Mariota will help the Titans take the next step in 2017.

Hit or miss: Hit

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2017 NFL Mock Draft

635767393223622723-garrettAfter months of anticipation, the draft is finally upon us. The hundreds of young men who have prepared for this moment their whole lives will see their dreams come true, and fans will learn what new players they’ll be cheering for. While I haven’t followed the draft as long as some, this is one of the wackier ones I can remember. After the first pick, it seems that anything can happen which is reflected in some of my selections. It’s also worth noting that this mock does not include any trades, so if you see a player falling, he might not actually fall to that point as someone could always trade up. With that said, here is my first and final 2017 mock draft.

1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett DE, Texas A&M: When building from the ground up like the Browns are, talent should come first. Teams can try starting with a quarterback, but we’ve seen plenty of times how that can go if the right pieces aren’t in place. Here the Browns get Garrett who is the consensus best player on the board and plays at a premium position. I do believe the rumors involving the Browns and quarterbacks, just not with this pick.

2. San Francisco 49ers: Christian McCaffery RB, Stanford: With no clear top player available after Garrett, this is where the draft gets crazy. Reports in recent weeks have said the 49ers are interested in a quarterback here, but to me that translates to “please trade with us”.  One thing worth noting is that new GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were signed to six year contracts. A rare length in today’s NFL, this gives them the luxury to stockpile pieces instead of swinging for the fences with a quarterback immediately.

That’s why in a scenario I haven’t seen to this point I have them selecting McCaffery, who would be a great fit and a foundational player in Shanahan’s offense. There are no shortage of options for the 49ers if they don’t go this route. Solomon Thomas has been linked to them for a while and Leonard Fournette has also started gaining steam here. Marshon Lattimore, Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker and Mitchell Trubisky (if they do actually go quarterback) are also play.

3. Chicago Bears: Jamal Adams S, LSU: Despite signing Mike Glennon early on in free agency, the Bears have been reported to be in the quarterback market on draft day. With that said, they are still in need of an impact type player in their secondary and Adams’ ability to play the run and pass would give them that. As far as draft capital goes, this could be too high for some teams to take a safety so a defensive lineman like Solomon Thomas would obviously be in play if available.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Solomon Thomas DE, Stanford: The popular pick for the Jaguars in the last month or so has been Leonard Fournette. While I understand their reasoning, that would be a luxury pick for a team that has plenty it can address. The same could also qualify for O.J. Howard who has also been linked to the team in mock drafts. Essentially, the Jaguars are yet another team that would probably like to trade down unless they are all in on a quarterback like Deshaun Watson here.

Considering the success Tom Coughlin has had building teams in the trenches, Thomas would make a lot of sense here. He is a versatile player and would add to a Jaguars pass rush that is still looking to replace Tony Brackens. For that reason, Jonathan Allen (if they trust his medicals) is also a player who could be thought about here.

5. Tennessee Titans: Marshon Lattimore CB, Ohio State: Since Sam Hinkie’s “Process” died for our sins in early 2016, the Titans might have started one of the more effective rebuilds across sports in that time. How did they do it? Simply by hitting on their quarterback pick (while playing on a rookie contract) and not improving that first year. Just like that, the Titans fell into the first pick in 2016 and traded it to the Rams so they could try their spin at the franchise quarterback wheel. Now, after Marcus Mariota’s second season, the Titans are noticeably better but still get to hold the 5th pick in the draft. The beautiful part is, if another team really wants a Mitchell Trubisky or a Deshaun Watson, they can do this all again!

Without projecting trades in my mock, there are a few ways the Titans could go here. O.J. Howard has been linked with the Titans, but would make more sense if they were to trade with a team in the 9-13 range. Same goes for either of the receivers in Mike Williams or Corey Davis (both of which could be available when they’re on the clock again). The Titans do have a pressing need in the secondary particularly at corner and if Lattimore was available here, they’d be getting a corner who is considered the tops in his class.

6. New York Jets: Mitchell Trubisky QB, North Carolina: Like the other teams mentioned, the Jets do have a lot of options where they are. A player with upside and a high floor like Jamal Adams would be very enticing here. Same goes for O.J. Howard who would give them a field stretching tight end the franchise has been lacking. Heck, even Leonard Fournette is a scenario that seems possible. Despite all that, the Jets do need to find their next quarterback to build around and that guy isn’t on the roster.

We could use the “next year’s class should be better” debate, but that always holds until there is one more year of tape available on those players. Trubisky is a player early on in the draft process that was reported to of caught the Jets’ attention, but obviously Watson would be in play here too.

7. Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker S, Ohio State: Before going on to post the worst winning percentage of a head coach in the modern era, Gus Bradley was known for working with Seattle’s “Legion of Boom”. One of the things that made the group so special was the ball hawking ability of Earl Thomas. While he hasn’t been able to work out for teams during the draft process, Hooker has shown some of the same skills on tape.

The only problem with this is it almost seems too obvious, so of course, something will probably happen. In that event, a change of plans could lead to them thinking about pairing Jonathan Allen with Joey Bosa. A really interesting scheme fit would be McCaffery if he does make it to this point, so that should be taken into some consideration.

8. Carolina Panthers: Leonard Fournette RB, LSU: While they will have options, it seems pretty apparent the Panthers are going to take a running back here. This is probably the latest McCaffery would get selected at this point in the process, but of course he is off the board in this particular mock. In that case, Fournette is far from a consolation prize and him paired with Cam Newton might just be the most physically imposing QB/RB tandem of all time. Aside from McCaffery, Solomon Thomas or O.J. Howard would be the main names to keep in mind here.

9. Cincinnati Bengals: Derek Barnett DE, Tennessee: Unfortunately for the Bengals, this is not a particularly strong offensive line draft as theirs was decimated with players moving on this offseason. While prospects such as Mike Williams, Corey Davis, O.J. Howard (due to Tyler Eifert’s inability to stay healthy) and even Fournette have been linked to the team, the Bengals pass rush has dropped off quickly. Barnett is a player that many seem high on as some mocks have him going as early as the top five. He would be a step in the right direction to creating the strong defenses they had earlier this decade.

10. Buffalo Bills: Haason Reddick LB, Temple: Depending on how the quarterback board plays out, I could see the Bills moving up or down. While many feel Tyrod Taylor is serviceable, the franchise seems on the fence about him as their starter. For that reason alone, Trubisky or Deshaun Watson have to be in play here. Despite trading up for Sammy Watkins just three years ago, the Bills are still facing a need at receiver so Mike Williams is also a player that will be considered.

Despite that, I have them selecting a player who might be the fastest riser in this draft. Reddick would serve as a defensive chess piece who can play as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme or rush the passer in a 3-4 defensive scheme. With rookie head coach Sean McDermott’s defensive background, someone with Reddick’s skillset figures to be a very appealing option.

11. New Orleans Saints: Reuben Foster LB, Alabama: Despite the evident talent, Foster’s medical and character red flags have led to a possible slide down draft boards. While 11  might be high, he will still likely be selected within the first round. The Saints just have so many holes around their defense that going off a talent standpoint, he could be their pick. Other possibilities here would include an edge rusher such as Charles Harris, a defensive lineman such as Jonathan Allen or one of the top cornerbacks available.

12. Cleveland Browns: O.J. Howard TE, Alabama: This would be a fantastic scenario for the Browns. Not only would this net them two of the top six or seven players on the board, but they still have plenty of assets if they did want to trade up for a quarterback. Having coached him in the Senior Bowl, the Browns staff is familiar with Howard and he could be a foundational piece for their offense. Obviously I wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns did use this pick to trade up in the event the quarterback they coveted was available.

13. Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Mahomes QB, Texas Tech: With an older coach in Bruce Arians and older quarterback in Carson Palmer, the question is if the Cardinals want to win now, or start building for the future.  If a player like Haason Reddick was available, I think selecting him would be very enticing. However, he’s gone in this mock so they pick their quarterback of the future instead. Mahomes has the tools to succeed in Arians’ vertical offense and with Palmer in place would also have an opportunity to be eased into the NFL. With all the receivers available at this point, the Cardinals could also have an outside option like Mike Williams or John Ross in mind.

14. Philadelphia Eagles: Charles Harris DE, Missouri: While adding more weapons for Carson Wentz in the way of John Ross or Mike WIlliams have been popular, the Eagles still need to address their pass defense. One way to take the pressure off of cornerbacks is with the pass rush and the addition of Harris would be able to bring that. There are also a handful of cornerbacks that could be in consideration here as well.

15. Indianapolis Colts: Takkarist McKinley DE, UCLA: This might be a little high for McKinley, but reports have circulated that the Colts are still looking for another pass rusher despite their free agent spending. This makes sense when you realize their new GM Chris Ballard comes from a Chiefs team that was able to rotate Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dee Ford. if McKinley isn’t the pick here, odds are it will still be spent on the defensive side of the ball. Charles Harris if he makes it to this point or one of the many corners projected for the second half of the first round could be intriguing.

16. Baltimore Ravens: Forrest Lamp OL, Western Kentucky: The Ravens could go a few different ways here as they have been looking for an outside threat like Mike Williams, but could also use a cornerback. However with Ronnie Stanley already in place, the possibility is there for them build a very nice foundation of a young offensive line. While some see Lamp mainly at guard, there are those who think he has the ability to play tackle. Other players to keep an eye out for the Ravens include Reuben Foster and Jabrill Peppers (if they trade down or into day two).

17. Washington Redskins: Jonathan Allen DL, Alabama: There is a chance Allen goes much higher, but due to lacking a fit and concerns about his shoulder surgeries this is where the slide comes to an end. While he was dominant at Alabama, there are concerns about how explosive a player he is.  At this point in the first round though, he’s worth the risk. The Redskins could also look adding depth in the secondary or offensive line, but it’s tough to project how a team will draft when they don’t have a GM.

18. Tennessee Titans: Mike Williams WR, Clemson: Just like the Browns with picks one and 12, the Titans having two first round picks works out perfectly. Not only were they able to address a need, but at pick 18 they’re getting who many feel is the best receiver in the draft at a relative value. If they don’t address the secondary earlier on, that could be something the Titans do here. Colorado corner Chidobe Awuzie has been linked with the team in a few reports, so he would be in play here along with a potential addition to the offensive line after letting Chance Warmack leave.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: David Njoku TE, Miami (FL): Dalvin Cook was a popular early target here, but due to subpar athletic testing and various concerns injury and character wise, I’m not as optimistic that he’s the pick. While they very well could target a defensive back like Obi Melifonwu here, I think the possibility to add Njoku to a nucleus of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson could be too much to pass up. Njoku has plenty of athletic ability for the position and would bring mismatch creating ability.

20. Denver Broncos: Ryan Ramczyk T, Wisconsin: Well, the good news is it seems everyone’s pretty certain the Broncos will be addressing their offensive line in the draft. The only question is who do they take? At this point, only Lamp is off the board for offensive linemen so they would have their choice. While it could be someone else like Garett Bolles or Cam Robinson, Ramczyk has the size and athleticism for teams to believe he should be able to start at tackle.

21. Detroit Lions: Obi Melifonwu S, Connecticut: One thing GM Bob Quinn said this offseason is that he wanted to add speed to the Lions defense. By selecting Melifonwu here, they’d be doing that and then some. With outstanding athleticism and rare size for a defensive back, Meifonwu is a player the Lions could lineup all across the field and has the ability to play opposite Darius Slay. Melifonwu would be my personal preference for the team if Hasson Reddick is gone (which is highly likely).  Other ways the Lions could go include addressing their linebacker need with Jarrad Davis or looking  at other secondary options.

22. Miami Dolphins: Jordan Willis DE, Kansas State: Every year it seems we come back to similar needs with the Dolphins. Usually it’s the offensive line, but this year it’s the “you can’t beat the Patriots if you don’t get to the quarterback” need. With Mario Williams disappointing last season, the team has a sudden need in a pass rusher. Willis was a highly productive player at Kansas State and has moved up draft boards by testing very well through the process. Linbackers such as Jarrad Davis or Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham could also be considered here.

23. New York Giants: Garett Bolles T, Utah: At this point it seems the Giants will be going tight end or tackle with this pick. The two top tight ends are off the board in this scenario, so in this case the Giants have their choice of the board. In this instance I have them taking Bolles who reports have said they’re high on. Bolles does have some question marks as he would be a 25 year old rookie and there are some character concerns. Obviously Ryan Ramczyk and Cam Robinson will be some of the other options here.

24. Oakland Raiders: Jarrad Davis LB, Florida: After just acquiring Marshawn Lynch, the chances of the Raiders going with a running back at 24 seem very slim. The weakest part of their roster at this point would probably be linebacker and Davis could fill that need and likely slide in as a starter on day one. Zach Cunningham should also get a lot of consideration here.

25. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson:  Somehow in a quarterback crazy market, this worked out very well for the Texans. On a team that is ready to compete everywhere but what could be the toughest position in sports, Watson could very well be their guy. Patrick Mahomes if available could be considered and after falling for Brock Osweiler’s size, Davis Webb might be in play too. Another alternative for the Texans would be to go with a tackle who is still there as their right tackle Derek Newton is coming off of two torn patellar tendons.

26. Seattle Seahawks: Cam Robinson T, Alabama: The Seahawks could go a few different ways with this. In a pretty deep secondary draft, they could address adding more depth or try finding a solution on the offensive line. While I feel Melifonwu would be a fantastic chess piece for them, he’s off the board. That would bring it down in this scenario of picking between a bigger corner (Marlon Humphrey, Kevin King or Chidobe Awuzie)and  the top tackle left on the board. With the Seahawks having shown an ability to add quality corners later in the draft, picking Robinson here makes sense.

27. Kansas City Chiefs: Gareon Conley CB, Ohio State: In the past few days, allegations have come out against Conley that have the potential to be career threatening. With the case unlikely to be resolved by the draft, it will all come down to the research a team has done on Conley. With a need for a corner opposite Marcus Peters and having shown they’ll take chances on players with concerns coming in, the Chiefs make a lot of sense.

Despite being a clear first round talent, Conley does carry a risk of not being drafted at all. Other corners such as Marlon Humphrey, Tre’Davious White or Kevin King could also be options if that’s how it plays out. A quarterback like Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes if either made it here can’t be counted out either.

28. Dallas Cowboys: Adoree’ Jackson CB, USC: One of the best things to come from Ezekiel Elliott’s immediate success is that by milking the clock, it left less time for the Cowboys secondary to get exposed. By selecting Jackson, the Cowboys would be filling a need and doing it in the flashiest fashion possible. That’s truly the Jerry Jones way. Jackson had a decorated career at USC, is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands and could be gone by this point in the draft. If Jackson isn’t available, I would expect the Cowboys to look at pass rushers such as Taco Charlton, Tyus Bowzer or T.J. Watt while adding secondary depth on day two.

29. Green Bay Packers: Tyus Bowzer LB, Houston: There is a chance I’m selling Bowzer short here and he’ll be long gone at this point. A player who teams think can rush the passer with a hand in the dirt or on the outside, he tested extremely well athletically and still has lots of projection left as a player. While the Packers could use help in their linebacker corps, they’re deep enough where Bowzer can ease his way into things and be more involved as the season continues. T.J. Watt is another name that could be a possibility here along with the various cornerbacks that will be coming off the board.

30. Pittsburgh Steelers: Corey Davis WR, Western Michigan: Early on in the draft, there is a good chance the Steelers will address finding another pass catcher and their secondary. But this right here, is the most Steelers result possible. Davis is viewed by some as the top wideout in this class and as someone who can win at various levels of the field, would make a great compliment to Antonio Brown. Another pass catcher to watch here is Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram.

Engram has the ability to lineup all over the field and paired with Brown and Le’Veon Bell would create plenty of headaches for opposing coordinators. With Ben Roethlisberger pondering retirement each season, DeShone Kizer being selected here wouldn’t stun me either.

31. Atlanta Falcons: Taco Charlton DE, Michigan: If we saw anything from the Falcons defense in the Super Bowl, it’s that they could use some more depth in terms of edge rushers. Once considered a sure top 15 pick, Charlton would prove to be a nice get at this spot. Due to Dan Quinn’s love of speed on the defensive side of the ball, Tyus Bowzer if available is also a real possibility.

32. New Orleans Saints: Kevin King CB, Washington: Like the last six or seven picks, this is one that  could be dealt if a team wanted to trade up and get a quarterback for the fifth year option. Assuming they stay put, the Saints have too many issues in the secondary to not address it with the players available. A big corner with experience at various secondary positions, King makes a lot of sense for the Saints if he is available here. In the event he isn’t, corners such as Marlon Humphrey or Tre’Davious White could be considered with this pick.

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2017 Draft Rankings: Wide Receiver

26_4853885The 2016 receiver class was an interesting one through it’s first year. While four receivers were taken in the first round, only two (Corey Coleman and Will Fuller) saw extended playing time. However, those two along with Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell all missed at least two games whether it was due to injuries or being healthy scratches. The good news is, some of the players had impacts in their initial seasons. Michael Thomas had a monster rookie campaign, Tyreek Hill showed game breaking ability as a receiver and returner, while Sterling Shepard and Tajae Sharpe served as primary starters for their teams.

This receiver class shouldn’t see four players go in the first round, but there is plenty of talent that will be available in day two of the draft. For most, the top few receivers are set just in varying order, but after that it seems to be a matter or personal preference. While some of the recent draft classes have spoiled us with wideout depth, this one could end up turning some heads.

1. Mike Williams, Clemson: Everyone has their personal preference for receivers, and Williams has a lot of the traits I look for in the position. At 6’4″ Williams’ basketball background shows in his play as he will dominate catch points and use his frame to grab a jump ball like it’s a rebound. While he didn’t meet the expectations some had in terms of timed speed, his size and ability to track balls makes Williams a very dangerous deep threat. Despite breaking his neck in 2015, Williams has also shown he will get physical and make catches over the middle in traffic.

At times, Williams will have drops that appear to be due to lapses in concentration. This is a trait that other young wideouts have and it could be worked on over time. The team he goes to could also make an impact in Williams’ production. If he goes to a risk averse quarterback, they might be less likely to just throw a ball up to Williams so he can make a play. The comparison has been made frequently, but there are similarities to him and Alshon Jeffery. Coming out of college Jeffery wasn’t a world beater in terms of timed speed, but he has continued to do very well in terms of hauling in contested passes. Look for Williams to do the same at the next level.

2. Chris Godwin, Penn State: Compared to others, this ranking is probably  a little aggressive but I’m all in on Godwin as a prospect. Checking in at 6’1″ 209, Godwin is able to win at all areas of the field. He was one of the most productive deep threats in all of college football last season, and was also able to win in intermediate areas due to his physicality. Godwin has also shown the ability to adjust to poorly thrown passes and can make some outstanding catches as a result. On top of that, he is also a  willing blocker and tested better than expected at the combine.

Despite that, Godwin has areas to improve. Some feel he can get better in terms of creating separation from defensive backs.  Per Pro Football Focus, he also wasn’t very explosive in the open field either as he forced only nine missed tackles on his 59 receptions last season. Despite those concerns, Godwin has the ability to contribute to a team right away and the upside is there for him to become a big-time player.

3. Corey Davis, Western Michigan: Due to an ankle surgery after his season, Davis has been out of sight and out of mind through the draft process. Despite that he is still one of the top wideouts in this class. For a player just entering the league, Davis is already a strong route runner and can create separation in various ways. He is a hands catcher and very rarely do you see him catching a pass with his body. Davis has also shown the ability to adjust to the ball in the air and with experience lined up all over the field at Western Michigan, could be a very good red zone threat.

While Davis can be dangerous in the open field, to this point he hasn’t shown the ability at this time to create big plays from underneath throws. Even though we never saw his timed speed at the combine, watching his games it seems he might struggle creating separation with straight line speed. Drops were also as issue in 2016 as per Pro Football Focus he dropped 11 passes thrown his way. Davis may not become a top tier number one option, but he has the tools to be a quality starter for years to come.

4. John Ross, Washington: If you’re a believer that speed kills, than Ross is the prospect for you. While his record setting 4.22 forty time at the combine earned him attention, he’s much more than that. Ross can run all types of routes and not surprisingly is incredibly quick in and out of his breaks. His yards after the catch ability is also second to none as defenders can look foolish trying to catch him on any given play. Unlike some speed receivers, Ross also seems very comfortable catching the ball with his hands and for a smaller receiver, he was extremely productive in the redzone. So why is he only my 4th rated wideout?

That all comes down to injury history. In 2014, he tore his MCL and missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL. That he has the ability to run the way he does a little less than two years later speaks to both his commitment in rehabilitation and the advances in modern medicine. While he isn’t small, there are times that Ross can be outmuscled by opposing defensive backs or get thrown off his route. Some might fear selecting Ross due to his past medical history, but his unique skillset gives him a chance to make those teams pay in a big way.

5. Zay Jones, East Carolina: Jones received some buzz around the Senior Bowl and in my opinion, is one of the safer options in this receiver class. Leaving East Carolina as the FBS receptions leader, Jones has experience lined up all over the field  and should be able to contribute immediately. He has strong hands which he uses to catch the ball cleanly and per Pro Football focus dropped just 6 of the 164 catchable balls thrown his way in 2016. Jones is also willing to run into traffic whether it is to catch a pass or run for extra yardage. He is also able to find soft spots in coverage which is a trait that not all young receivers have.

While Jones clocked a 4.45 forty at the combine, he doesn’t appear to have that type of speed in games. Due to that, there will be questions about his burst/explosiveness or if he will be able to create separation from cornerbacks. Those same skills were also ones questioned about players such as Jarvis Landry and Anquan Boldin. Like both of those receivers, Jones will outmuscle defenders to make catches and isn’t afraid of contact. It wouldn’t be surprising if he went on to become one of the more productive wideouts in this class.

6. Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma: Westbrook had some success early on in his 2016 season, but he ended it on an absolute tear and becoming a unanimous All American and won the Biletnikoff Award for best receiver in college football. Like the aforementioned Ross, he has plenty of straight line speed, but can win in plenty of other ways. Westbrook is very quick in and out of breaks and can run a nice assortment of routes. Westbrook was very effective after the catch and showed he can make defenders miss as well. Pro Football Focus noted that he forced 20 missed tackles in 2016. For a smaller receiver (178 pounds), he’s also willing to get physical and limits dropped passes.

While everyone carries weight differently, Westbrook looked rather skinny compared to some of his peers. That alone will raise question marks to some about if he will be able to hold up against NFL defenders. It’s also worth noting that Westbrook didn’t face much physical coverage during his time in Oklahoma, so the verdict isn’t out on how he’d fair against press coverage. While charges were dropped, there are also some character concerns that teams will look into when evaluating Westbrook further.  Due to the question marks, there is a chance Westbrook could fall further in the draft then he should and in that event could provide to be quite the value.

7. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State: Eight years ago, Urban Meyer coached a player in Percy Harvin whose unique talent in the backfield and as a receiver made him a hot commodity among teams.. He flashed both as a running back and a pass catcher at Ohio State with 97 carries and 74 receptions in 2016 alone. Chances are whoever selects Samuel will want to find a definite position and my guess is many will prefer him as a receiver. While still raw at the position, Samuel did show an ability to create some separation and he has the speed to create vertically or on throws underneath.

Of course, due to not playing just one position at Ohio State, Samuel will need to improve at some of the positions finer points like getting jammed at the line. While it will come with more reps, Samuel could also learn how to make more adjustments to poorly thrown balls. Ultimately, Samuel’s NFL projection will be determined by who picks him. If he goes to a creative team that’s willing to let him play in space as a matchup piece, there is a good chance he’ll have an impact quickly. However, if a team expects him to develop into a true outside receiver, it could take a few years before they really start seeing a true return on their investment.

8. Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky: If you’re into receivers who were highly productive in college and come up big when needed, Taylor is one for you. Taylor can win at all levels of the field and proved to be a fantastic deep threat during his time at Western Kentucky. He’s also more than willing to work the middle of the field and showed  signs that he could develop into a plus route runner.

The main downfall for me with Taylor is that he can have inconsistent hands and too often will catch passes with his body. Last season he was charted by Pro Football Focus as having eight dropped passes and that could of been part of the reason. Some will also question if Taylor will be able to adjust given he had a chunk of production from plays like bubble screens as they may not feel that’s translatable. Taylor showed he has the ability to separate from opposing corners during his collegiate career and that alone could lead to a nice NFL career.

9. Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech: In Louisiana Tech’s wide open offense, Henderson put up monster numbers as a player that was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. While he’s known for his agility, Henderson can make some contested catches and his quick feet certainly help him when creating separation.

Playing in the wide open scheme, Henderson still can expand his route tree when he reaches the next level. He also didn’t go up against a ton of physical coverage and often times was clearly the best athlete on the field which could make some question his level of competition. As someone who excels in space, Henderson could be a very dynamic “offensive weapon” or “gadget player” if he goes to a team that uses him correctly.

10. Chad Hansen, California: With only one year as a college starter, Hansen is still more of a raw talent. In that season though he showed a lot that coaches can work with. At 6’2″ 202, Hansen showed well when it came to high pointing throws in his direction and winning contested catches. He does play physically and has after the catch ability on screens when called upon. For his size Hansen also runs well and could be used as a situational deep threat.

One thing Hansen will need to refine as he reaches the pros is continuing to trust his hands. He improved as the year went on in this regard, but sometimes some passes will get to his body. Playing in an air raid offense, there are also concerns about him running a pretty simple route tree so that part of his game could be one needing refinement. Like many college receivers, many have noted Hansen struggled against press corners. With his lack of in game reps before this season, Hansen’s struggles with that might make more sense. For a team with some established wideouts in place, Hansen could make for an interesting developmental pick with the chance to pay off in a big way.

2017 Class Grade: B-

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