NFL teams spend hundreds of hours poring over each and every snap a draft prospect has taken in his college career before landing on a final grade, but unless you do this for a living, you probably don’t have the time to do that level of scouting. So to give you a much quicker glimpse of what type of player a few probable first-round picks are, we tried to find one play that best encapsulates what each of them can do. We excluded quarterbacks, who take too many snaps to be distilled down to one play, and Myles Garrett, whose biggest strengths and weaknesses are broken down here. But for a few of the first round’s most exciting prospects, these plays give you a picture of the skill sets they’ll bring to the NFL.
All footage courtesy of Draft Breakdown.
Running Back: Leonard Fournette, LSU
In LSU’s matchup with Ole Miss in October, the Tigers’ first possession of the second half started from their own 22-yard line with the game tied, 21–21. That’s when Fournette took a toss and did this with it:
Scouts have spent the last few months docking Fournette for his subpar vertical jump (just 28.5 inches at the combine) and for a lack of lateral agility. Those concerns go out the window when you see a 6-foot, 240-pound wrecking ball explode through the line of scrimmage, administer a devastating stiff arm, turn up the sideline, and sprint away from all chasers en route to a 78-yard touchdown run.
Fournette has rare explosiveness when he takes the handoff; he looks like a drag-racer going from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye. And while he’s never going to do a LeSean McCoy impression, juking players out of their jock straps and reversing runs back across the field for touchdowns, this play illustrates what he will bring to an NFL offense: the ability to make a defense pay for even the smallest lapse in gap discipline. For downhill-run-focused teams that want to wear defenses down for four quarters, Fournette is the perfect fit. The minute you see a tired linebacker slow to cover a gap, Fournette’s going to burst through the offensive line, obliterate arm-tackle attempts, lay waste to safety pursuit angles, and sprint away from whoever is left for a touchdown.
Running Back: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Cook isn’t going to make his money powering through defenders and running would-be tacklers over like Fournette. Instead, it’s his vision, short-area burst, and lightning-quick cuts that make him special. He can take the handoff, patiently wait for his blocks to set up, and then make a move downfield into open grass. Like Fournette, concerns over a subpar combine performance — he ranked in the ninth percentile as an athlete — become distant memories when you see him run away from defenders on tape.
I’m going to cheat and use two for Cook, because these jailbreak touchdown runs are nearly the same, and they both came against the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers. They’re almost exact mirror images of each other — on opposite sides of the field.
Following closely behind the pulling guard and tight end tasked with lead blocking on both plays, Cook baits Clemson’s defenders — especially safety Van Smith (no. 23) — by peeking back inside and making his opponent respect the possibility of an upfield inside cut. Once he’s caused Smith to hesitate in his pursuit angle, Cook explodes outside and then upfield in a matter of steps, erasing any chance the safety has in containing him. It’s this combination of quickness, acceleration, and ability to plan two or three steps ahead that will make him hard to tackle in the NFL.
Tight End: O.J. Howard, Alabama
There isn’t a better example of Howard’s potential than his performance in the 2015 national championship game against Clemson, when he caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. That breakout performance included this play, where he took a simple dumpoff in the flat, turned the corner, outraced a bevy of Clemson defenders, and picked up 63 yards.
The Tide never utilized Howard as a primary target in their passing offense but he has the athletic talent to be a star in the NFL. With a rare combination of size (6-foot-6, 251 pounds), speed, and balance, Howard moves more like a receiver than a tight end, and watching that play brings to mind Travis Kelce — a tight end teams can use in the traditional sense, running him up the seam from tight in the formation, but also quick and explosive enough to be utilized in in untraditional ways, like in the screen game, where you’d normally see shifty receivers or backs.
Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Clemson
Like Howard, Williams played the best ball of his career on the biggest stage. With his team down 31–28 with under two minutes left in this year’s national championship game, the Tigers needed a huge play, and they got it from Williams.
On a simple go-route down the sideline, Williams jumped to make the catch over cornerback Anthony Averett — his second absurd leaping grab of the quarter — reeling it in to pick up 24 yards and put Clemson past midfield. That play set the Tigers up for the eventual game-winning touchdown with one second on the clock. Every team in the league wants big, go-to receivers on the outside — playmakers with the size and body control to go up and snag a pass in traffic — against tight coverage when the game hangs in the balance. That’s why Williams will be one of the first wideouts off the board on Thursday.
Wide Receiver: Corey Davis, Western Michigan
At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Davis is another receiver with the potential to become that go-to target on the outside. But to me, what stands out about his game to me is the explosive short-area burst he displays in his routes and after the catch. Take this play against Toledo from last season:
On second-and-10, Davis runs a simple whip route against soft off-coverage. The pass comes in with a lot of velocity and way too high, but he bats it with one hand, collects it with the other, and then looks to get upfield. He explodes past the first defender, gets to the sideline, gets the first down, and then picks up an extra 5 or 6 yards for good measure. Rare for a player his height, Davis’s body control is on full display, and his relentless nature as a runner means he’ll not only feature on the outside for teams at the next level, but could be a very dangerous receiver in the slot, too.
Wide Receiver: John Ross, Washington
The most obvious tool that Ross will bring to an NFL offense is his ability to get deep over the top of the defense with his 4.22-second 40 speed. What makes him a first-round talent, though, is the route-running chops he adds to his game-breaking ability.
Here, Stanford corner Alameen Murphy plays up on the line of scrimmage initially, but bails at the snap to create a cushion in coverage. That’s a common technique at any level, and it means his body is angled toward the middle of the field as he half-runs, half-shuffles with his eyes toward the quarterback. Ross takes advantage with a quick jab to his left, faking a slant over the middle, before seamlessly running an out-route to his right toward the sideline.
How cornerbacks play Ross at the next level will be an interesting study, because he’s got the tools to defeat any style: It’s dangerous to play up in press — just ask USC’s Adoree’ Jackson — since he’s got the foot quickness to avoid a jam, and if you miss and he gets a step on you, you’re toast. Playing off and giving him a big cushion just means that easy underneath throws are there for the taking. And the middle ground, like the press-bail style above, can be exploited with Ross’s speed.
Defensive Lineman: Malik McDowell, Michigan State
McDowell played the majority of his college snaps on the interior of the Spartans defense, functioning as a disruptive gap-shooting force that made life difficult for guards and centers. But this tackle of scrambling Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, which came from McDowell rushing off the edge, gives a sneak peek at his professional ceiling.
McDowell slaps away tackle Mike McGlinchey’s hands, dips his shoulder, bursts, and bends around the corner. His pressure forces Kizer up into the now-crumbling pocket, and though the Notre Dame signal-caller initially escapes, McDowell continues the chase, finishing the play when Kizer finds nowhere to go. This inside-outside versatility that McDowell brings to the table could give his NFL coach a ton of options on their line, and in the right scheme and with more consistent effort than he showed in college, McDowell has the talent to feature on all three downs. With that quick first step and incredible combination of length and power, he could be a force on the strongside edge on first and second downs. Then, on third downs, strong hands and a nonstop motor could help him collapse the pocket with regularity.
Defensive End: Taco Charlton, Michigan
Charlton didn’t test as well at the combine as some had expected, and the 4.92-second 40 time and 33-inch vertical jump didn’t paint a picture of an explosive, quick-twitch pass rusher in the Khalil Mack–Vic Beasley–Bud Dupree family of recent combine superstars. But on tape, Charlton has a quick first step, the ability to convert that speed to power when offensive tackles get wide too quickly, and most intriguingly, a nascent spin move that looked effective and coordinated enough in college that it could be developed into his future signature.
On this play in particular, Charlton’s spin move came against probable first-rounder and possibly the first tackle off the board, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. Charlton didn’t get the sack, but it was the initial burst, then the graceful spin, that stood out. He pulled off the same move at least two more times in that game alone — and if his development in the pros goes as planned, we’ll get used to seeing it every Sunday.
Safety: Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker has top-tier athleticism, but that alone isn’t enough to make him one of the most exciting free safety prospects in years. Instead, his instincts separate him from similar-size speed prospects at the position. Hooker intercepted seven passes last year, including this one thrown by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
The former Buckeye displays everything you want from the last line of defense: First and probably most important, he has excellent field vision — the ability to almost instantly process what’s going on in front of him, dismiss decoy routes, and home in on the intended target. You can see him break on receiver Hunter Renfrow’s route up the sideline a full two or three beats before Watson lets it fly. That’s just the first part, though: Then there’s Hooker’s range and ball skills. Starting close to the left hash marks, he sprints across the field to get himself into position to make a play, then as gracefully as Willie Mays, makes an over-the-head basket catch at a full sprint to pick it off, keeping his feet inbounds.
Safety: Jamal Adams, LSU
Adams did a little bit of everything for the LSU defense during his career, playing the part of a tone-setting enforcer against the run and that of a pass defender against routes in the open field. This play, which came against Texas Tech in the 2015 season, still stands out because it demonstrates his awareness, speed, and his rare physicality.
At the snap, Red Raiders quarterback and Adams’s fellow first-round prospect Patrick Mahomes fakes a screen to the left before coming back to the right. Adams sniffs the misdirection out, seeing the right tackle release into space on his side of the field, and breaks on the ball. He connects with Texas Tech running back DeAndre Washington just as the ball’s arriving, driving through him with a form tackle, separating the ball from the receiver in the process.
Safety: Budda Baker, Washington
A lack of size is the biggest concern when it comes to Baker’s role in the NFL — and at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, mixing it up in the box as a run defender might not be the best use of his talents. That’s why the former Husky will likely fit best as a deep-middle-of-the-field safety or as a slot defender in the mold of Tyrann Mathieu. In a league that’s spreading out more and more, that Mathieu role an increasingly important position, and Baker consistently showcased the instincts, speed, and agility to match up with even the quickest slot receivers in college. In Washington’s game against Colorado last year, Baker followed receiver Devin Ross across the formation in man coverage. With one-on-one coverage, the Buffaloes thought they had the matchup they wanted to convert a fourth-and-5.
Ross runs a whip route and Baker sticks to it, matching the receiver’s footwork while essentially running his route for him, and nearly comes up with an interception. The play illustrated his anticipation and situational awareness — he sat on the short route, knowing Colorado was likely looking to pass right at the first-down marker — and the insane quickness to stop and change direction to break on the pass.