Who Are the Biggest Studs in the 2017 NFL Draft?
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There are times during draft season when you look at a prospect who’s capable of doing amazing football things, and suddenly feel compelled to log your time at the gym.
Merely looking at massive bundles of arms, legs and muscles doing things that shouldn’t be possible at size extra large will motivate you much more than any nagging from a Fitbit.
But there are some prospects who far exceed that eye-widening and drool-enducing standard. There are some who seem to be ripped straight from the comic-book pages and lack only the Kilgrave-like powers to manipulate minds and make sure they’re selected in the first round.
They’re the draft studs we’ve come to know and try to understand over the past few months. And we’re still trying.
We’re trying to wrap our minds around tight end David Njoku and how he has a high jump gold medal hidden among his football trophies. We’re trying to fathom the physical dominance Leonard Fournette showcases when he runs through, over and away from defenders. And most of all, we’re trying locate the lab where Myles Garrett was made.
In any draft, there is a handful of special athletic specimens who break every mold. This year, it feels like there are a few more dynamically skilled individuals who could set new benchmarks for what’s possible at their position.
David Njoku, Tight End
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There are some prospects who seem to break the laws of sports science. David Njoku is one of those guys.
You know Njoku as a tight end, and the NFL soon will too. He’s near the top of a strong 2017 class at the position and will likely hear his name during the first round.
But Njoku’s ultimate crazy athlete trick in high school and college wasn’t what he did as a tight end, even though he starred for the Miami Hurricanes while averaging an incredible 11.2 yards after the catch per reception in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.
No, Njoku really makes you go into your full zen, deep-thinking mode because of what he can do as a high-jumper.
It’s common for football players to moonlight as track stars. The training is intense and often translates onto the football field, and track is simply another outlet for their competitive drive. It’s less common, however, for future NFL stars to be high jump champions.
Sprinters? Obviously. Long-jumpers? Of course. Triple-jumpers? Sure. And then there’s Njoku.
Don’t ever accuse him of being normal. In 2014, Njoku became a high jump champion by winning the New Balance Nationals Outdoor with a jump of 6’11”. That’s when he weighed 220 pounds.
High jumpers usually top out at about 180 pounds. So elevating a football body above a nearly 7-foot high bar is the equivalent of you, a weekend golfer, breaking 80 at Augusta National Golf Club.
Njoku cares so very little about the basic principles of gravity.
Myles Garrett, Defensive End
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Myles Garrett has to be in any discussion about studs in the 2017 draft. Excluding him would be like listing the best talking horses and leaving off Bojack Horseman.
The Texas A&M defensive end recorded 31 sacks over 34 games in his college career. That alone is astounding stuff, and he was also a solid run defender while piling up 47 tackles for a loss. Garrett absurdly totaled 164 pressures over three seasons, according to College Football Focus (via Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller).
But Garrett’s college production only tells half of his story. The other half shouldn’t be possible.
Garrett is large enough that it seems like he belongs to a different species. That’s the automatic reaction you have when scrolling through pictures of his pro day. But he wouldn’t be the first or last prospect to make scouts fan themselves over a chiseled physique and then fail to use that Michelin Man-like body in any meaningful way.
Garrett is so much more than a Greek football god in the weight room, though. He shatters every reasonable athletic expectation for someone who stands 6’4″ and weighs 272 pounds.
That starts with his 40-yard dash time. At the combine, Garrett posted a time of 4.64 seconds, which is stupid fast for a 270-plus pounder. For perspective, Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp (a projected 2nd round pick by B/R’s Matt Miller in his latest mock) is nearly 70 pounds lighter than Garrett and posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.62.
Garrett’s fast sprint at the combine is only where he started to show his explosiveness and natural burst. He then took all that body weight and elevated it 41 inches in the vertical jump. As Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus noted, the average weight of the other five players at the combine to jump 40-plus inches was 208 pounds.
He’s the kind of athlete who makes you laugh at the thought of what he can do at his size. Then he just goes out and does it, and you get real quiet.
Obi Melifonwu, Safety
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Obi Melifonwu is instantly a top contender for the draft’s best name. Wherever he lands the safety out of Connecticut will immediately be greeted with a Star Wars pun gun pointed his way by the local media.
But he’s more than just a name that will be mispronounced and misspelled repeatedly. Like Garrett, Melifonwu is also a defender who makes you hide behind fake house plants while watching him. The mere thought of having to navigate your way around his painful combination of raw speed and power makes you want to book a hot-stone massage.
He has been compared to the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor, not only because of his bulk but also how he swings a mean sledgehammer as a strong safety. Melifonwu stands 6’4″ and weighs 224 pounds, and he was able to move that weight for a broad jump of 11’9″, the second-best result in combine history. Then Melifonwu kept jaws planted on the floor with his vertical jump of 44 inches.
Let’s play the perspective game again, because that’s how this really becomes a mind-numbing experience.
LSU’s Jamal Adams is widely considering the top safety in the 2017 draft. He’s 10 pounds lighter than Melifonwu and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds. That’s much slower than Melifonwu’s time of 4.40 seconds. Melifonwu also soared high above Adams’ vertical of 31.5 inches.
Melifonwu will likely be a second-round pick at worst, and he could sneak into the back half of the first. The only concern holding him back is a mild one. His coverage skills need some refinement, but his quick-twitch instincts make Melifonwu an absolute thumper against the run. In 2016, he finished ninth in run-stop percentage among FBS safeties, per PFF.
Sure, he can jump through the roof. But Melifonwu is just fine with making sure you’re staring at the roof for a long time.
Leonard Fournette, Runnning Back
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Leonard Fournette jukes, cuts and accelerates like he’s the standard smaller jitterbug running back. You know, the sort of back who gets lost amid the giant tree-like men along the offensive line and then suddenly rockets through a hole.
But he’s not a shrub in that forest. No, Fournette is also a tree at his position, and one with a wide trunk that many, many defenders slide down.
Fournette has the body type of a battering-ram runner at 6’0″ and 240 pounds, which means he probably should fit into the classic power running back mold and be a straight-ahead one-cut runner who aims to punish defenders. He can do that, but Fournette also does so much more.
He ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.51 seconds, which was the fastest time by a running back weighing 240-plus pounds since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Fournette also kept pace with fellow top running back prospect Dalvin Cook, who is 30 pounds lighter and posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.49 seconds.
Fournette’s acceleration is exceptional at his size. So is the lateral movement the 22-year-old seamlessly blends with his power to create missed tackles any way he chooses. Fournette can both force would-be tacklers to bounce off him or induce whiffs with his change-of-direction ability. In 2015, the former LSU standout finished with 1,953 rushing yards, and he did that while leading the nation with 85 missed tackles created, per PFF.
He’s basically the walking real-life version of the Madden truck stick.
Haason Reddick, Linebacker
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Haason Reddick could be a problem. The good kind of problem, and one his own coaches will solve at first. Then opposing coaches will struggle with it for years.
At 6’1″ and 237 pounds, he’s undersized to play defensive end in the NFL, which is where he thrived for Temple while recording 9.5 sacks in 2016 and 22.5 tackles for a loss. He’ll likely slide to outside linebacker, and although there will surely be an adjustment at first, Reddick should feel right at home before long.
He’s a defender who shuns labels and has played at all three levels of the defense at some point in his football career. His athletic gifts have given coaches a pristine canvas to paint and tinker with over time. Now Reddick is poised to enter the NFL and splatter color everywhere as it flashes in the eyes of opposing quarterbacks and running backs.
Reddick has the physical tools to grow into a multi-purpose defender. At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and posted a broad jump of 11’1″. That 40-yard dash time led the defensive linemen group and was nearly identical to the result posted by Fournette. His broad jump tied him for the third-best mark among defensive linemen and linebackers since 2006, per Rotoworld’s Josh Norris.
Reddick will be an effective situational pass-rusher because of his quickness and someone who can be trusted in coverage with his sideline-to-sideline speed.
Bucky Hodges, Tight End
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The concept of the tight end who’s a tight end in name only isn’t new.
There have been wide receivers screaming to get out of tight end bodies for a while now. They move like wide receivers, they run routes like wide receivers and they often line up on the outside like wide receivers. But they dunk like tight ends after touchdowns, or at least they did until that was outlawed by a fun-vacuuming league.
Each one adds his own dash of flavor and spice to the hybrid pass-catcher role, and Bucky Hodges has the tools to whip up a delicious NFL dish.
Hodges predictably torched the combine and tested in the 94th percentile at his position, per Three Sigma Athlete. At 6’6″ and 245 pounds, he sprinted to a 4.57 time in the 40-yard dash. That speed would leave various shades of black and blue on defenders. Hodges also set a broad-jump record for tight ends with a jump of 11’2″, and he did some serious levitating with his vertical of 39 inches.
None of that should be real at his size, but here we are. On the field, Hodges uses his athleticism to become a dynamic presence who can line up on the outside to bully defensive backs or stretch the seam and separate with ease. Of his 48 catches in 2016 for Virginia Tech, 28 percent resulted in gains of 20-plus yards, as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein noted.
His experience as a pass-catcher of any kind is deep, and Hodges makes the most of his opportunities because of it. Since 2014, he has the ninth-best average yards per route run among tight ends from the slot in this draft class (1.68), per PFF.
He needs to improve as a blocker and has the body type to make that adjustment. But overall, he has the skill base to be a constant mismatch creator no matter what we call him: tight end, wide receiver…or walking nightmare.
Jabrill Peppers, Safety
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Much like Hodges, Jabrill Peppers resists labels. We’ll call him a safety, and indeed that’s where the former Michigan standout will be seen most often. But he’s also played linebacker and slot cornerback comfortably.
He is whatever you want him to be, though as an NFL defender Peppers may be better suited for playing closer to the line of scrimmage. There are some concerns about his deep coverage skills and ability to adjust to the ball in general. As PFF noted, over three years at Michigan, Peppers gave up a reception on 62.3 percent of his targets in coverage, and he recorded only one interception.
But he has the instincts and quick acceleration to identify running lanes and then eliminate them. Peppers finished 2016 with 66 tackles, 13 of which went for a loss.
At 5’11” and 213 pounds, Peppers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. That was the fastest time among linebackers, and the fancy simulcam used by NFL Network showed him charging ahead of three current top NFL safeties (the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas, the Packers’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu).
Peppers will have an opportunity to be the next movable chess piece that a creative defensive mind could utilize in a number of disruptive ways. But what truly sets him apart are his game-swinging kick returns.
As a returner, Peppers seemingly needs just one step to reach his top gear. In 2016, he ranked third in the nation with 310 punt-return yards, and his average of 14.8 yards per return ranked seventh. He also scored three rushing touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards on his 27 carries.
Peppers offers a potpourri of talent. He’s able to do a little bit of everything, and most of it at a high level.
Now he needs to land at the right NFL home. His future coaching staff needs to bring out his talent while delicately straddling the line between having him learn one position at the professional level and still letting him contribute in multiple ways.
Christian McCaffrey, Running Back
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Christian McCaffrey has the sort of abs you could eat a burger off, apparently. So if this whole football thing doesn’t work out, he can always fall back on that.
Thankfully, his football future is blindingly bright. In an era when the workhorse running back is being redefined, there’s plenty of appeal in the multi-purpose backfield talent. NFL teams want a running back who can churn out rushing yards just as easily as he can be lined up in the slot and targeted a handful of times each game.
In that sense, McCaffrey is the latest version of the modern running back, and his status on this list lies in the fact there’s no much he can’t do.
Over his final two years at Stanford, the 20-year-old piled up 4,577 yards from scrimmage and scored 29 times. Of that yardage, just over 20 percent (955 yards) came as a receiver.
And there’s more, because McCaffrey always has more. He also excelled as a returner, with 1,859 kick and punt return yards during his three years at Stanford. His three-way ability led to an NCAA record-setting 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015.
The only reason McCaffrey may not be seen as a featured back is because some corners of the league are still clinging to the traditional definition of what that looks like in today’s NFL.
Over the past three seasons, only four running backs have eclipsed the 300-plus-carry mark. Just one back was given a truly hefty workload in 2016, with the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott receiving 322 carries. The Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount was far behind in second with his 299 carries.
The modern running back in a pass-oriented league doesn’t need to take that punishment or shoulder such a heavy burden. Which is why any concerns about McCaffrey’s smaller stature (5’11” and 202 lbs) should be kept to a minimum.
Instead, the modern running back can sting defenses in multiple ways far beyond simply lining up and hammering straight ahead. He can be given about 20 carries per game and also targeted as a receiver 10 or so times.
The modern running back is always moving and can be a weapon from different areas of the formation. That’s Christian McCaffrey.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, Defensive End
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Tanoh Kpassagnon has probably never met a doorway he can clear without fearing for his head.
He’s about to enter a league filled with athletes who seem like they were engineered in some deep underground lair. They all measure at dimensions that make the average human look tiny. And even in that environment, Kpassagnon will still be a bounding skyscraper.
He stands 6’7″ and weighs 289 pounds, and Kpassagnon can still get all that weight across a line 40 yards away in under five seconds. At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.83 seconds and showed off his explosive athleticism again with a broad jump of 10’8″. That jump tied him for the fourth-best result since 2006, according to Norris.
He’s still a little raw as a pass-rusher and needs to work on the ability to bend around the edge with more consistency.
“While he has the length, size and athleticism that is the foundation of what teams look for along their defensive front, his issues with contact balance and body control might not be easily remedied,” wrote NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
There are weaknesses with Kpassagnon as he continues to learn and grow into his massive frame. But while relying mostly on just his athletic skill, he posted career single-season highs in 2016 for Villanova in tackles (45), sacks (11) and tackles for a loss (21.5).
NFL talent-evaluators will have been looking over and absorbing the entire Kpassagnon package for months now. What they surely see is a gargantuan human who towers over a league filled with them, and his talent ceiling will be high if that size is harnessed in the right way.