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The 14 Best NFL Draft Prospects

The players who can start on day one of the NFL season — the sure things — are the most valuable in the draft. Here are the automatic contributors — from QBs to DBs — to keep an eye on this week.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Remember how angry Tommy gets in Goodfellas when Billy Batts tells him to get his shine box? How you could see the steam coming off his face before he took his rage out on poor Billy, and only because Billy insulted him “a little bit”? Whenever I hear NFL draft commentators proclaim, “He’s a first-rounder” or “He’s not a great pick at 10, but he’d be better at 20,” I’m not even “a little bit” insulted — I’m just insulted. He’s a first-rounder? What does that even mean? Judging a pick by rounds or draft position doesn’t make sense. And yet, we hear it every year.

My anger toward such backward thinking started in the early 1990s, when one experience in Cleveland’s draft room traumatized me forever. We had a seasoned scout (that’s code for “old”) who said little to nothing during draft meetings. Just drank his coffee and smiled. If you asked him a direct question, he stuttered and stammered, acting like he expected his attorney to object to the line of questioning. As soon as the draft ended, something strange happened — this guy became Winston Churchill making proclamations while standing in front of 10 Downing Street.

Yep, I was right, I said Player X was a third-rounder, and he got drafted in the third. Player Y was a fourth and lo and behold, he went in the fourth.

Like his round predictions even mattered. It drove me crazy. Thank God that guy never told me to get my shine box; I’d probably be in jail.

Thankfully, Bill Belichick and I were always on the same page. When Bill joined the Browns in 1991, the two of us spent the better part of his first season designing our grading system. We wanted to define the prospect’s role on our team, and we wanted to predict how long it would take for him to achieve that role. That’s it. Instead of predicting rounds, our system forced our scouts to grade every player as (1) a starter, (2) a potential starter, (3) a developmental player, (4) a backup, or (5) someone who couldn’t make any NFL team. In Belichick’s room, no one was permitted to mention rounds — that job was for useless coffee-guzzling scouts and cliché-spouting TV commentators.

Our grading system became a language of its own; it proved to be effective enough that, even all these years later in Foxborough, little has changed. Ever wonder why the Patriots always move backward in the draft? Most times, their draft board features maybe 14 or 15 potential day-one starters — grades dictate everything. Why waste a first-round pick (and first-round money) on one of those 14–15 prospects if you believe you can land one later and land another asset?

That’s what made this assignment so difficult. The Ringer asked for my top 10 prospects on both sides of the ball, but I’ve been trained to look for day-one starters. That’s it. In a draft dominated by elite defensive players, I struggled to find 10 offensive prospects I liked. Blame college football’s obsession with the spread offense, which has produced the worst group of offensive line prospects in the last 20 years. With the ball coming out of the quarterback’s hands so quickly in college, there’s little incentive to develop well-rounded linemen anymore. It’s too bad.

So I trusted my old boss Bill instead of my new boss Bill. I’m giving you 14 day-one starters — five on offense, nine on defense. All 14 are sure things, regardless of where they actually land in the draft. I hope New Boss Bill doesn’t tell me to go get my shine box.

Day-One Starters: Offense

1. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

Best-Case Outcome: A rich man’s Tyler Eifert

I believe that tight ends act like knights on a chessboard. They don’t have as much value as queens or rooks, and they become less effective near the edges of the board. But in the middle? They can do serious damage. Howard is one of the purest tight ends in recent drafts: He can line up on the line, block the edge, and catch passes. In chess, he’s a knight. In football, he’s known as a “Y.” When teams have a pure Y on the line and flank him with a second inside receiver — a bigger guy like Washington’s Jordan Reed — that allows them to launch “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends) and create mismatches everywhere.

You might remember the Patriots wanting to do this with Gronk and Martellus Bennett last year, but they couldn’t keep Gronk on the field. In 12 with a pure Y like Gronk or Howard, the defense has to respect the run; that forces the team to play its base defense, opening everything up for the second big receiver (Bennett, Reed, whomever). Howard is better than every 2017 offensive prospect because of how much better he makes his teammates. I hate hearing crap like “You can’t draft a tight end in the top 10.” That’s nonsense. True Y’s like Howard are almost impossible to find. If they did the 2010 draft over again, would Gronk go in the top 10? I rest my case.

2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

Best-Case Outcome: Adrian Peterson with pass-catching skills

Former Eagles and Cardinals head coach Buddy Ryan once said, “There is a place in football for the little man, just not in front of a big one.” Fournette? That’s a big, powerful man. Great speed. Gains yards after contact. What else would you want? Assuming Fournette improves his pass-protecting/pass-catching skills and becomes a three-down back — and I believe he will — this is someone who will take the NFL by storm. Give him an offense that puts him in space and he’ll do the rest. And by the way? Playing him in space will improve his durability, as opposed to always having him run between the tackles like he did at LSU.

Could you imagine if Saints coach Sean Payton got his hands on Fournette? It would be a marriage made in heaven: some power runs, a billion screens and play-action fakes that would freeze the defense. Another great spot would be the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets, since new offensive coordinator John Morton is trying to build a 2.0 Saints offense there. Or what about the Jags? Fournette might not save Blake Bortles (nobody can), but opposing defenses tend to wilt in the heat and humidity in Northern Florida. Imagine trying to tackle Fournette in the fourth quarter with a gassed defense? He could be Jacksonville’s closer — a football version of Mariano Rivera.

3. Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR/Return Specialist, Stanford

Best-Case Outcome: One part Wes Welker, one part Darren Sproles

Think of McCaffrey like a big-time point guard, someone who creates space for teammates and keeps getting to the rim. Worst-case NBA scenario: He’s Jeremy Lin. Best-case NBA scenario: He’s Kyrie Irving. This is a big if, but if McCaffrey can adequately pass protect as a back, that makes him a four-down impact guy (and not just a four-down specialist). What separates him from other role players? McCaffrey’s slot receiving skills. Any team that plays nickel against McCaffrey allows him to utilize his quickness, speed, and instincts to make plays. Guess who plays nickel? Everybody. Please don’t think of McCaffrey as a bigger Danny Woodhead. The more you watch, the more you fall in love.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Best-Case Outcome: Marcus Mariota

Somehow I became the president of the Deshaun Watson Fan Club. And that’s fine. Watson makes plays with his feet, his arm, and his mind. More importantly, he changes your culture. If you don’t think that change matters, call the Raiders and ask them what Derek Carr has given them off the field. Watson added new elements to his game each year at Clemson. His coach loves him. He showed up for big games and made his teammates better. What’s not to like? Call me Mr. President.

Let’s look at Watson’s possible landing spots: How can Cleveland pass on him when they need a QB and a culture change? Pick Myles Garrett first, then move up from 12 for Watson using extra picks, right? Why wouldn’t the Jags be honest with themselves, admit Bortles is not the answer, and just take Watson? Why wouldn’t the Jets make Watson the anchor of their rebuilding process? Why wouldn’t the Chargers snare him as the eventual successor to Philip Rivers? If you’re battling for attention in L.A. with a young QB, would you rather have Jared Goff or Watson? I don’t need to wait for your answer.

5. Cam Robinson, OT/OG, Alabama

Best-Case Outcome: Kelechi Osemele (as a guard), Cordy Glenn (as an LT)

My old boss Al Davis loved speed. He loved fast receivers, fast running backs, even fast linemen. He would have loved Robinson, who combines foot speed, length, and production. For the past three years, Robinson has been facing the highest level of competition possible. That matters. I believe he might be best served as a guard, where he should start from day one (assuming his shoulders are healthy). But in a draft that lacks even one sure thing left tackle, he probably won’t have the luxury of playing guard.

Let’s say a top-10 team takes him ahead of Howard — a safer bet and a better player — but only because Robinson is their best chance at landing a solid left tackle. How do you “grade” a pick like that? Yet another reason why I hate draft grades.

Day-One Starters: Defense

1. Myles Garrett, DE/OLB, Texas A&M

Best-Case Outcome: DeMarcus Ware in Dallas

Ever watch old episodes of Columbo? Columbo was an L.A. detective who often delivered his signature line after solving a case: “It stayed in my mind and bothered me.” Garrett earned my highest draft grade, but there are Columbo-like questions about his overall play. Whenever I watch Garrett flash his enormous athleticism on tape, I remember why I made him my top player. Whenever he coasts, I worry. Twenty and a half of his sacks came against non-SEC opponents; only 12 happened in his conference. If the Browns fix his motor, Garrett will be a wrecking machine in their scheme. If they can’t, he’s a risky no. 1 pick. That stays in my mind … and it bothers me.

There’s no way to know for sure until players arrive in the NFL. Every draft has at least one great talent that spawns a Columbo moment. Julius Peppers dominated at North Carolina, only he also loved playing basketball — a red flag for some evaluators. Did Peppers love football, or did he wish he was a hoop star? Yes, he took plays off, and yes, he could dominate any football game whenever he wanted. That made me wonder … was the glass half-full or half-empty? Some 15 years later and nine Pro Bowls later, we’ve learned that the Peppers glass was half-full — and then some. My guess is that we’ll be saying the same about Garrett.

2. Jonathan Allen, DE/DT, Alabama

Best-Case Outcome: Gerald McCoy

Who wants a big defensive tackle that can rush the passer from the inside? Everybody. Allen notched 28 career sacks and consistently created havoc by getting into “the paint” (the area 2 yards in front of quarterbacks drops). If his surgically repaired shoulders are fine (gulp), Allen will be a hard man to block one-on-one. And that’s an understatement.

When Belichick and I were on the road scouting last spring, we hit Alabama’s pro day and went back to Nick Saban’s house for dinner afterwards. The three of us go way back to our Cleveland days, so meals like this one are always nostalgic for us. When Allen’s name came up, Saban’s eyes gleamed with delight. He loved Allen not because he stayed in school, but because he could dominate as a rusher inside. Saban normally loves no one. Like Belichick, pulling a glowing compliment from Saban is as rare as a Richard Simmons sighting. Watching Allen play sold me on his talent; hearing Saban rave about him sold me on his greatness.

3. Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

Best-Case Outcome: Earl Thomas

Once upon a time, a hard-hitting safety made every team’s draft-needs list. You know, that fearsome ball hawk who dared receivers to enter the middle, the guy who kept ending up in “Jacked Up” segments on ESPN. In 2017, bad breath could trigger the “defenseless player” rule — physical safeties can almost become liabilities if they can’t channel their headhunting. I believe Hooker is an ideal “modern” safety: long, athletic, fast, rangy, and instinctive to the ball.

In general, we underrate the impact of great safeties in every draft — even if the rules of football have shifted on them. In Cleveland, we were criticized for picking Eric Turner second overall in 1991. You can’t take a safety that high! They were wrong. Turner evolved into the centerpiece of a 1994 defense that allowed a league-best 204 points and just 13 touchdown passes. Great safeties are like great center fielders — they turn hits into outs, cover a ton of ground, and mask many of your imperfections. Look at what happened to Seattle last season after Earl Thomas went down.

4. Haason Reddick, OLB, Temple

Best-Case Outcome: Von Miller

A true outside linebacker who thrives in a 4–3 or a 3–4 — unlike most backers in recent drafts, Reddick can rush the passer or drop into coverage without looking like a robot. Typically, when good offensive coordinators realize a 3–4 backer can only go forward, they shift the formation and force the backer to play in space on his feet (and many can’t do it). The robot problem came up during my (short) second stint in Cleveland. We spent a top-10 pick on Barkevious Mingo — in a weak 2013 draft, but still — because Mingo showed such terrific forward burst and speed. But once we had him, that was all Mingo showed. And when opponents figured out that Mingo couldn’t go backward, or that he lacked power going forward, we couldn’t keep him on the field. Mingo can be effective as your fifth rusher — in the way Belichick used him on the Patriots after trading for him last year — just not as one of your best four.

Still, that missed pick bothers me every fricking day. I learned from experience — you must avoid the robot problem. That’s why I love Reddick: His exceptional quickness and nonstop motor allows him to rush, blitz, run-stop, cover, whatever you want. He can do anything. Offenses won’t be able to formation him off the field. Against a higher level of competition at the Senior Bowl, he stood out. I love Reddick’s game. He starts on day one for me.

5. Solomon Thomas, DE/DT, Stanford

Best-Case Outcome: Aaron Donald

Unlike Reddick, you’d have to be a little more careful here — make Thomas a base defensive end on run downs and set the edge, then have him kick inside on passing downs to rush the passer. He lacks great length or athletic skills to be a full-time end, and I don’t believe he can be an impactful inside rusher yet. But Thomas brings situational versatility for any four-man line, and his effort/intensity/explosiveness off the ball could swing any series. Just don’t put him in a 3–4 as he couldn’t use a five-technique or play nose. So he’s a day-one starter, too — as long as it’s for a team that loves four-man lines.

As an aside, my friends ask me sometimes if teams evaluate players from respected academic universities (like Stanford) differently. Well, did you ever hear a mic’d-up Bill Parcells saying on the NFL Network, “We are too dumb to be any good”? Good teams always have smart players. Thomas is a smart player. Parcells would approve.

6. Jamal Adams, S, LSU

Best-Case Outcome: Rodney Harrison

Like Hooker, a “modern” physical safety who can succeed on all three levels of the defense. I would play him closer to the ball to take advantage of his size and instincts. But Hooker’s feel for the game in the zone works, too; he reads and reacts well, often breaking on the ball before it leaves the quarterback’s hands. Only his lack of pure man-to-man coverage skills kept him from receiving a higher grade than Hooker.

Don’t forget: With all this time on our hands, we analyze and overanalyze every pick. Belichick always reduced the overanalysis to a simple statement: “Just put the f — king guy on the pro board, he is going to play.” That’s how I feel about Adams. Just put him on the pro board; forget everything else.

7. Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State

Best-Case Outcome: Marcus Peters

Wait, Lombardi, two top-10 players from the same secondary that got torched by Clemson? You’re just lucky I fought off naming three. Lattimore is a genuine talent, with impressive balance and speed, strong ball skills, length, and lateral quickness. He’s almost like the NFL’s version of a small forward — picture Paul George playing corner without having to worry about LeBron James beating him every game.

8. Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC

Best-Case Outcome: A waaaaay better Asante Samuel

One of my favorite players in the draft, someone who impacts every game on all four downs. Jackson is flat-out incredible with the ball in his hands, even if he doesn’t have enough size to match up against bigger, more physical receivers. Could his Olympic-caliber leaping ability and balance compensate for that? Sure. Think of him as a point guard corner — any quick slot receiver would struggle to out-quick Jackson. Day-one starter, playmaker extraordinaire. He’s like a rich man’s Asante Samuel crossed with Chris Paul.

9. Derek Barnett, DE/OLB, Tennessee

Best-Case Outcome: Terrell Suggs, Trey Flowers

Everyone loves Suggs’s style of play now, but in 2003, many scouts were hugely critical because of disappointing testing numbers. As Suggs slipped out of the top five, the Ravens ignored his 40 and his vertical and just kept watching tape. Every draft always has one or two players like Suggs or Flowers (a steal for the Patriots in 2015). This year Barnett — who suffered from the flu during the combine — is that guy. All he does is makes things happen against the best competition. Great motor, high intelligence, savvy instincts — sounds just like T-Sizzle.

With apologies to Ryan Ramczyk, Mitchell Trubisky, David Njoku, Patrick Mahomes II, Mike Williams, and Reuben Foster, I have to stop there. My list of day-one starters goes 14 deep. That’s it.

And remember — any GM that stretches his day-one list to 64 starters ends up like Billy Batts.