The scouts and personnel do a good job, but many of them have watched the eligible players in the 2017 NFL Draft for a year or two. We've spent four -- or five, or six -- years figuring out which of college football's best can hack it at the next level
NFL Draft experts (like many of the good ones right here at CBS!) have a job for a reason, though, and it's to sort through an abundance of information regarding the current state of the NFL and the incoming class of hopefuls to establish expectations and an understanding for the upcoming player selection meeting. How these players performed in college football matters, but it's only a starting point.
Still, there's a lot to learn from watching a player develop during his young career, and so a simple ranking of players based on their value in college football should provide some value, right?
So throw out upside, combine numbers and weight projections, here's the definitive ranking of the 32 best available prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft based on their performance in Division I football.
1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M: Situationally, the decision to limit Garrett's snaps when he was nursing minor injuries made sense. You can't hold it against him. He's the real deal and a worthy top pick.
2. Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama: Don't overthink this, NFL teams. Allen absolutely man-handled opponents and maintained production despite all the attention from opposing offensive lines. There are team needs at play and injury issues to investigate, but I favor Allen to Solomon Thomas.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson: A two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who re-wrote the national title game record book twice against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama defense. He threw some bad interceptions last season (including one real bad one in the title game), but for two years he was the most outstanding player in college football. That kind of run, at a position like quarterback, at a place like Clemson where they are writing their own history, should not be ignored.
4. Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford: Thomas is on track for a long and productive NFL career. A highly-touted prospect coming out of high school and one of the highest-rated prospects in the last 10 years to join the #NERDGANG, Thomas has had the ability to immediately but needed time to perfect his craft over three years playing for Lance Anderson, one of the architects of Stanford's defense.
5. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson: If Williams hadn't suffered a scary injury in the first game of 2015, he'd already be in the NFL. His size, strength and understanding of the game put him well above most of the competition last season, helping Clemson win the national title with multiple big-time catches in his eight catch, 94-yard performance against the Tide.
6. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State: Not Leonard Fournette? What Cook brings to a team as a pass catcher, in addition to his incredible vision and explosiveness as a runner, puts him over the top. Fournette has the rare combination of size, speed and athleticism that is hard to pass up (why he will probably go in the top five on Thursday), but as a college player, I favored Cook.
7. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: There have been countless highlights of Alabama running backs barreling down the sideline where my eyes instead are watching No. 88 line up a defender and stick his lead block to free up more space on the run. We never knew what to expect from Howard in terms of production throughout his Alabama career, but when his number was called, he always answered.
8. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama: Foster is going to fall to a really lucky team and if he can avoid becoming another cautionary tale from the NFL Draft he's going to be an absolute nightmare in the NFL. Foster has the kind of fight and sharp football sense to play linebacker for 10 years if everything else works out.
9. Jabrill Peppers, LB/S, Michigan: Peppers may not be a good position fit, may not have great pass defense numbers, and has seen his off-field rating dip this week, but he was a terrific football player for his entire Michigan career. It's hard to ask more from the player who found every way possible to contribute on the football field and did so at a high level.
10. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: There's some production element to McCaffrey's rating that just can't be ignored. Sure, he got a lot of his total offense yards on routine punt returns and kickoff returns, but the fact that he's out there taking on those roles in a Power Five conference should showcase exactly the kind of diverse contributions which make him worthy of a top selection.
11. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee: I don't think Barnett will be a once-in-a-generation player, but I'm positive that he will spend 10+ years in the league as a consistent contributor, regular starter and for at least a couple of years be a dominant force along the defensive line.
12. Jamal Adams, S, LSU: Another player that will be drafted higher than my ranking based on the raw ability, Adams played like a bullet shot out of the barrel at times at LSU. His play-making ability is unquestioned, but I thought LSU's defense got more regular production from Kendall Beckwith and Arden Key.
13. Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State: The abundance of pro talent in Columbus during this current run of the Ohio State football machine is going to be something that we point back to for years to come. Lattimore was such a strong cover corner in his own right that other players (Malik Hooker, especially) benefited from his ability to take a receiver out of the game. There will be a learning curve, for sure, but he's close to pro-ready with all the other factors (talent, size, skill).
14. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: In a locker room full of future pros, McMillan was a superstar. His 2015 season was more productive than last year, but ever since enrolling early at Ohio State it's been obvious he's got a good read for how to play the game. There's some technique work left to be done at the next level but it feels like nit-picking for a player who totaled 221 tackles over the last two seasons.
15. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan: Of all the wide receivers in this group, Davis is the one that has me thinking he'll be around a long time. We'll go back his insane performances against MAC defenses years from now and talk about how silly we were for ever doubting whether he be as good at the next level.
16. John Ross, WR, Washington: Running a 4.22 at the NFL Combine added a lot of publicity but perhaps miscast him in this group. Ross is underrated as a red zone target because he's getting boxed in as a speedster, spread-the-field guy. He can do those things well, too, but he's just as dangerous on third-and-goal as he is on third-and-15.
17. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Here's the ranking that's going to get me in trouble. Fournette deserves to go high in the NFL Draft because of scarcity: There's just not that many human beings like Leonard Fournette on the planet, and early indications suggest that he's built to be the perfect football player. I'm just saying that as a college football player, he was not one of the 10 or 15 best in the country.
18. Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State: A sick play-maker, top-20 talent, but No. 3 of the Ohio State players in my book.
19. Adoree Jackson, CB, USC: Just ridiculous talent. I'm not sure where or how he fits in the NFL, but there's a line that you can't cross without drafting Olympic-caliber athleticism.
20. Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina: I think Trubisky is coachable and ready for his moment, one where I think he's in the NFL for a long time and hopefully not put in a position where he has to do it all on his own in 2017. Scouts shouldn't be concerned about Trubisky because he only started for one season; the worry for me is that the impact of his supporting cast at UNC (Ryan Switzer leading a handful of juniors and seniors at the skill positions) is being overlooked when judging his numbers. Maybe the top quarterback taken in the draft but not the best QB in the ACC last season.
21. Patrick Mahomes II, QB, Texas Tech: A little bummed Mahomes has gotten so much heat leading up to draft time because I was ready to sound real smart with this college take. He's good. I don't know that he's a superstar, but with the right weapons and in the right fit, he'll be a strong quarterback for the game's continuing evolution at the next level.
22. Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida: At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Davis is built like a linebacker from the football factory, programmed to get you about seven or eight tackles per game playing rock solid assignment football in the middle of the defense.
23. Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State: In the Ohio State-to-NFL pipeline, Conley joins McMillan as one of the most seasoned of the players to declare early. He played in every game during the 2014 title run, started every game in 2015 and 2016, and has just been real good on a good team for a long time. And good against good competition, too, like locking up Dede Westbrook in the win at Oklahoma last season.
24. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri: Just because Missouri's defense took a step back as a unit doesn't mean the line of succession for great SEC defensive lineman stopped. Harris is going to get grouped in with Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray over time, even if he's been holding down the fort during the last couple seasons.
25. Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss: The four-year colonoscopy that was the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss football and the many controversies that have come with that kept a lot of great football out of the headlines. Engram was one of the best tight ends in the country last season, using his size and speed to rack of catches as Chad Kelly's safety valve. As long as he can hold on to the contested passes under tight NFL-caliber pressure he'll be a success story at the next level.
26. Curtis Samuel, RB, Ohio State: I understand that NFL GMs and coaches want to see a good scheme fit but in college that raw ability to move faster and quicker than the opposition is enough to be dominant. Samuel was the best all-purpose offensive threat in the Big Ten last year and one of the most exciting players to watch in the entire country.
28. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: I hate hearing about a players "motor" from scouts who might be disconnected from the events. McDowell, set to break out for yet another stellar Spartans defense in 2016, never saw that success but he was good enough across his career to be worthy of top-30 prospect status.
29. T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin: The disruption that Watt and the rest of Wisconsin's linebackers created from the second level near the end of last season was outstanding and is probably being broken down by defensive coaches all across the country as we speak. Watt wasn't always the best of the bunch, but his body of work in just one year as a starter (15.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks) has put him here with a chance to join his brothers J.J. and Derek in the NFL.
30. Teez Tabor, CB, Florida: The claim in Gainesville that Florida is DBU was strengthened by a phenomenal group in 2016, led by Tabor, a highly-regarded recruit who has seemed pro-ready since he stepped on campus. According to Pro Football Focus, Tabor only allowed two touchdowns on throws into his coverage over the past three seasons. Fellow Gators CB Quincy Wilson, who many believe outplayed Tabor in 2016, just missed this list.
31. Budda Baker, S, Washington: Somewhere between linebacker and safety is a sweet spot occupied by the outrageously gifted-yet-undersized-by-NFL-standards Baker, and somewhere between picks 20 and 50 is where a GM will look great later for picking him up and adding him to the locker room.
32. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt: A two-time All-SEC linebacker, Cunningham plays hard and downhill with an incredible knack for showing up at the ball. Apparently the NFL scouts are down on tackling since there's not more heat on his name.