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NFL Draft Big Board: Sorry, so-called skill players, defense dominates our top five

by | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

Defense could have its day in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett remains the top-ranked overall prospect, but joining him in the top five -- along with LSU running back Leonard Fournette -- is Alabama All-American defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and a pair of rival defenders from the blueblood football state of Michigan.

Much will change between now and next spring's draft. Based on the first three weeks of the season, however, here is my ranking of the top 32 draft-eligible prospects in college football: The Big Board.

Players are listed by name, position, school, year, height, weight and 40-yard dash time

1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M, Jr, 6-5, 262, 4.74
He had eight tackles over his first three games, but Garrett has proven much more disruptive than these statistics suggest, registering 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in the Aggies' SEC opener September 17 against Auburn. The former consensus five-star recruit has been a terror since stepping onto the field for the Aggies, answering his breakout freshman season (53 tackles, including 14 for loss and 11 sacks) with an even better one last year (59-19.5-12.5). Boasting a prototypical blend of explosiveness, flexibility and length off the corner, Garrett has the look of a future Pro Bowl regular.

2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU, Jr, 6-1, 230, 4.45
Any questions about Fournette's health were answered against a talented Mississippi State defense in Week 3 with the star running back rumbling for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Fournette is the most exciting talent at the position since Adrian Peterson. Like Peterson, Fournette gets a lot of attention because of his rare combination of size, speed and power, but his vision and agility are the stuff of legend, as well.

3. Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama, Sr, 6-3, 292, 4.85
With 12 sacks last season, Allen was the most disruptive of Alabama's dominant defensive line a season ago. In fact, one of the reasons why A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed surprisingly slipped into the second round in the 2016 draft is that talent evaluators realized the best prospect of the bunch -- Allen -- had returned to school. Allen was dominant in wins over talented Southern Cal and Mississippi squads, registering two sacks (among his four tackles) and two pass breakups against the Trojans and pulling a Chad Kelly fumble out of the air and racing 75 yards for a touchdown against the Rebels. Allen, who reminds me a little of Seahawks Pro Bowler Michael Bennett, is position versatile with surprisingly light feet and dynamite sticks for hands.

4. Jabrill Peppers, SS/OLB, Michigan, rSoph, 6-0, 208, 4.48
Michigan is loaded with NFL prospects and Peppers, just a redshirt sophomore, is the best of the bunch. Peppers is the latest in a new line of defensive 'erasers' capable of lining up at safety, linebacker or cornerback similar in style to recent first-round picks Deone Bucannon, Damarious Randall and Shaq Thompson. Scouts likely won't take much from early season tuneups against Hawaii, Central Florida and Colorado except for the unique versatility that he's demonstrated, accomplishing the rather unique feat of leading the team in tackles (28, including 9.5 for loss) and all-purpose yards (278), including a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown last week against the Buffaloes.

Peppers is the best of a talented Michigan defense. (USATSI)
Peppers is the best of the bunch on a talented Michigan defense. (USATSI)

5. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State, Jr, 6-5, 282, 4.92
With all due respect to Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (No. 9), McDowell was the best player on the field during the latest clash of these rival programs on Sept. 17. Lined up inside and out, McDowell consistently generated pressure against an offensive line full of NFL prospects, winning with a remarkable combination of length, power and agility to record four tackles, including one for loss, in the Spartans' 36-28 win.

6. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford, Jr, 6-0, 202, 4.48
With his easy agility, instant acceleration and soft hands, McCaffrey is a weapon of mass destruction as a runner, receiver and returner, warranting comparison to another former Pac-12 star, Reggie Bush. Ironically, McCaffrey used this versatility to beat up on USC in Week 3, generating 260 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a methodical win. Like Bush, McCaffrey lacks the bulk to be a true bell-cow back at the next level, but his versatility translates very well to today's wide-open NFL.

7. DeShaun Watson, QB, Clemson, Jr, 6-2, 210, 4.64
Completing just 56.9 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns (and three interceptions) over the first three games this season, Watson hasn't generated the same buzz he did a year ago. Frankly, his perch atop my quarterback rankings is perilous with Notre Dame's super redshirt sophomore DeShone Kizer -- who is bigger and possesses a stronger, more accurate arm -- closing in. In guiding the Tigers to the national title game a year ago, however, Watson has already shown the same poise and dual-threat ability that have scouts enamored with Kizer. Watson's slight frame and Clemson's relatively simple offense are legitimate concerns, but his knack for making the big plays against top competition in critical moments cannot be discounted.

8. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Jr, 6-5, 327, 5.28
As his monstrous size implies, Robinson is a road-grader in the running game and he has proven surprisingly quick in pass protection this season, distancing himself from the rest of the pack as the top offensive lineman in the country. A former five-star recruit who has starred at left tackle since winning the job as a true freshman, Robinson is an easy NFL projection with top-10 talent. Teams will have to investigate his decision-making off the field, however, given his arrest in May on guns and drug charges. The charges were later dropped.

9. DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame, rSoph, 6-4, 230, 4.84
Through three quarters, McDowell and Michigan State dominated Notre Dame, and yet Kizer made enough plays in the fourth quarter to nearly lead a rousing comeback. The redshirt sophomore already looks the part of an NFL quarterback with a powerful, well-proportioned frame, big-time arm and underrated athleticism. Most impressive is Kizer's field vision and accuracy despite relative inexperience (14 career starts). Kizer's potential is exciting but fair or not, when projecting his ability to make the NFL jump, it won't be lost on scouts that coach Brian Kelly has produced just one NFL quarterback (2010 sixth-round pick Tony Pike, Carolina) in 26 seasons as head coach.

10. Jamar Adams, S, LSU, Jr, 6-0, 211, 4.48
It is easy to mistake Adams for former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu, given their similar instincts and highly aggressive style of play. Like Mathieu, Adams possesses the agility and speed to handle coverage duties on slot receivers, possesses soft hands for the interception and is a tenacious run defender. Adams' kamikaze style of play can lead to mistakes, including a whiff in the open field in LSU's season-opening loss to Wisconsin.

11. Teez Tabor, CB, Florida, Jr, 6-0, 199, 4.52
Until this summer, Tabor's first name was Jalen, though his new name may provide a more accurate description of his game. Tabor teases with an exciting combination of size, fluidity and speed, standing out in coverage and as a gunner on special teams the past two years. Tabor was more consistent in coverage last year than former teammate Vernon Hargreaves III, the No. 11 overall pick this spring by Tampa Bay. Tabor was suspended (reportedly for a fight with a teammate) for Florida's season-opener but returned in dramatic fashion in Week 2 against Kentucky, showing terrific recognition to read a wide receiver screen and stepping in front of the intended target to steal his first interception of the season.

12. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama, rSoph, 6-1, 198, 4.53
One of the best looking prospects I've seen this season is Humphrey, who wowed last year in his debut season after redshirting in 2014. The son of former Alabama (and NFL) standout Bobby Humphrey, Marlon looks like a chip off the old Tide with his easy change of direction and acceleration. He's well-built for a young player at a solid 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds and is an aggressive tackler, including in run support.

13. Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama, Sr, 6-1, 240, 4.72
Reggie Ragland was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season but Foster could earn a higher draft selection this spring. Foster is a more explosive athlete, showing ridiculous closing speed and an utter disregard for his own safety or that of his opponents. Foster might be the most intimidating hitter in all of college football, and he possesses the fluidity and speed to cover.

14. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Southern Cal, Jr, 6-2, 220, 4.52
Perhaps no star skill-position player has endured a tougher start to the season than Smith-Schuster, a preseason All-American who through three games has yet to reach 100 receiving yards for the season. While scouts certainly would have liked to see Smith-Schuster contribute more, there are plenty of others more at fault for USC's struggles thus far this season. Powerful, physical and possessing terrific body control to make tough grabs look easy, Smith-Schuster is a potential No. 1 target in the NFL, though I do have some reservations about his straight-line speed.

15. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Jr, 5-11, 206, 4.46
Not even the great Cook had a recipe for stopping Louisville star quarterback Lamar Jackson, as the Seminoles struggled to keep their back involved after falling behind early to the Cardinals. Mostly due to the young talent around him, Cook has yet to get on track this season. He shattered Warrick Dunn's single-season all-purpose yardage record last year with 1,935 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per run. While not as big as Fournette nor as explosive as McCaffrey, Cook is a natural runner with excellent vision, agility and burst who projects nicely in today's pass-happy NFL.

Cook has yet to fully reach his ceiling in 2016. (USATSI)
Cook has yet to fully reach his ceiling in 2016. (USATSI)

16. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt, rJr, 6-3, 230, 4.74
Despite not starting until the fourth game of the season, Cunningham emerged as one of the most disruptive defenders in the entire country last year, earning first-team All-SEC honors with 103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Cunningham already has 29 tackles, including 5.5 for loss this season, second in the SEC in both categories. Instinctive and aggressive in meeting and discarding blockers, Cunningham is well-suited to remaining inside at the next level but I believe that he's athletic enough to play outside, as well.

17. Desmond King, CB, Iowa, Sr, 5-10, 200, 4.53
King's eight interceptions last season generated most of his buzz and for good reason, as he showed terrific instincts, soft hands and a knack for making the big play at critical moments to earn the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Average speed, however, led to King returning to his court as a senior and this could limit his stock in 2017, as well. Don't blame him for Iowa's stunning loss to a Carson Wentz-less North Dakota State in Week 3, however. The Bison only completed 11 passes in the game and King stood out as a run defender, making six tackles (four assists) and forcing a fumble.

18. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson, rJr, 6-3, 220, 4.50
According to Clemson coaches, Williams is in the same class athletically as former teammates Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant. An imposing target with explosive speed and the body control to win contested passes, Williams is only a clean bill of health away from competing with Smith-Schuster to be the top receiver prospect in the country.

19. Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah, Jr, 6-2, 310, 5.28
Today's NFL may feature the pass, but interior defensive linemen remain highly valued on draft day for their ability to eat up blocks and collapse running lanes. Few are better at this than Lotulelei, who possesses a similar combination of size and brute strength as his older brother Star, a former Morris Trophy Award winner for the Utes and current standout for the Carolina Panthers.

20. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama, Sr, 6-6, 242, 4.57
While not yet as polished a receiver as Michigan's Jake Butt, Howard finally had the opportunity to show off his dazzling combination of size and athleticism during the national title game and dominated, earning Offensive MVP honors with a school bowl game record 208 receiving yards (on five grabs), including two touchdowns against Clemson's terrific secondary. Howard is off to a slow start again with just seven grabs for 92 yards over the first three games. Due to drops and occasional lapses as a blocker, Howard can be a frustrating prospect but his mismatch potential is simply too significant to ignore.

Best of the rest:
21. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, rJr, 6-2, 253, 4.67
22. Tim Williams, DE/OLB, Alabama, Sr, 6-3, 237, 4.76
23. Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR/RS, Jr, Southern Cal, 5-11, 185, 4.43
24. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami, Jr, 6-4, 210, 4.84
25. Dan Feeney, OG, Indiana, rSr, 6-4, 310, 5.09
26. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Jr, 5-11, 230, 4.49 (injury)
27. Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech, rJr, 6-6, 245, 4.78
28. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri, rJr, 6-3, 255, 4.74
29. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee, Sr, 5-11, 186, 4.50 (injury)
30. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee, Jr, 6-3, 257, 4.76
31. Chad Kelly, QB, Mississippi, Sr, 6-2, 224, 4.76
32. Dorian Johnson, OG, Pittsburgh, Sr, 6-5, 300, 5.20


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