The end of summer is here, which means football that matters will be back in our lives very soon. For draftniks and lovers of all things pigskin, there's nothing like the promise of late summer enabling you to dream on sophomores and juniors who could be the next big thing. Time will tell, but that time is here.
Which means we're ready to preview the college football season from an NFL perspective debuting our first draft related Big Board of the year.
With what looks like a wide open season this draft class promises to be very talented and is especially promising at a few premium spots like quarterback, cornerback, and several enticing edge rushing defenders. With a much improved offensive line group and still tons of talent at running back, the 2017 college football season promises to be entertaining if nothing else.
With the NFL mirroring the college game in a lot of ways this class is emblematic of the evolution that's occurring in modern football. With lots of mobile cover linebackers, bigger and bigger corners and a seemingly endless abundance through the last few years of wide receivers, the 2018 draft class promises to be a true example of football today and tomorrow. As we get ready for a new season and start thinking of how theses guys may fit in the league - and on the Denver Broncos -, here’s our preseason top 50 and some notes to get the season started.
Alabama remains stacked
The least surprising part of this opening board is the prominence of Alabama players in our top 50. As once again the Tide will be loaded with NFL prospects. One such prospect who’s not getting much publicity right now but is high in our rankings is linebacker Rashaan Evans. Evans is a jack of all trades and a true sideline-to-sideline defender. He’s also a dangerous speed rusher who can be a menace getting after opposing quarterbacks, an especially appealing skill for pro evaluators.
His skills are reminiscent of Temple’s Hasson Reddick who went in the top 15 in 2017 to the Arizona Cardinals. As Nick Saban’s defense reloads Evans should be a breakout star after already impressing in a more limited role in 2016.
Strong safety Ronnie Harrison has started the last couple seasons for the Tide and looks perfectly suited for today's NFL. He’s big, solid in coverage, and constantly around the ball. After Landon Collins’ break out year in the Big Apple for the Giants, Harrison seems to have a similar profile.
Another current Tide star who’s reminiscent of a former Bama great is receiver Calvin Ridley who took over for Amari Cooper and has been a very competent replacement. If Ridley can take the next step in his development he’ll be in the running as the top wideout in the class and a potential top-10 pick.
High-end cornerbacks are here to stay
After a potentially historic class of cornerbacks in 2017, it’ll be hard to repeat in 2018, but this year's group sure will try. The talent’s certainly all there for a repeat. A likely result of the advent of spread offenses in the college game, now more teams are countering by putting bigger and better athletes to defend all those wideouts and the results are showing.
Led by two freaks out in the ACC, Jaire Alexander and Tarvarus McFadden might have been in contention with Marshon Lattimore as the top corner had they been eligible last April.
Alexander absolutely shut down the Los Angeles Chargers top 10 pick Mike Williams a year ago. His combination of aggression, high-level ball skills, and stickiness in coverage gives him the look of a future star.
McFadden isn’t as ready now, but his long frame makes him a potential freak if developed the right way.
The class is a lot more than just the top two with Bama and LSU offering the usual abundance of talent with some intriguing defensive backs. Oklahoma has corner Jordan Thomas on their roster and he has made a career out of shut-down performances against his best competition - his game against Corey Coleman still stands out - but he's had off-field concerns that need to be figured out. Virginia Tech also boasts a talented tandem at corner led by the lengthy Adonis Alexander who could be a big riser in 2017.
While passing attacks have become all the rage the defensive talent is catching up and the pipe line doesn’t seem to be weakening any time soon.
These ain’t your daddy's linebackers
Another trend we’re seeing on defense is the shrinking size of linebackers who in turn have become much more athletic - the days of big 250-pounders playing inside linebacker are quickly fading, and that might not be a bad thing.
In college, these players are asked to spy on mobile quarterbacks and cover everyone from scatbacks to tight ends to slot wideouts. All things that are necessary for trying to stop the spread.
While those duties will change in the NFL, the athletic cover-backer is all the rage in today’s game and this class will certainly fit the trend. Led by Malik Jefferson at Texas, these guys will amaze you in coverage and with their ability to fly around all over the field. Just don’t expect them to take on offensive lineman with much force.
Jefferson is joined by two other big-school studs in Jerome Baker (Ohio State) and Matthew Thomas (Florida State), both rangy and entertaining players to watch on film.
Some of these new-age backers have cover skills while others are elite speed rushers with enough pop to overcome their size disadvantage. This includes the aforementioned Rashaan Evans, as well as Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes - a player whose NFL fit has long been debated by draftniks.
If you want to see the direction the NFL is going look no further than college football's back sevens, which are becoming more and more based on size, athleticism, and versatility.
Don’t panic, the spread hasn’t ruined OL play entirely
After a pretty underwhelming offensive line class last April there was a concern that this might have been the beginning of a long term trend.
From the looks of things, it seems more like a momentary hiccup than anything else. as there’s tons of talent amongst the tackles this year, though everyone’s fairly raw and in need of development.
The cream of the crop is Texas tackle Connor Williams, an All-American selection last season as only a sophomore. His movement skills and his ability to run block are mesmerizing. His strong base allows him to create easy push against the run, as he’ll often take defenders for a ride 10 yards downfield. He also shows great hands and really doesn’t let guys off the hook once he’s got his paws on them.
Mitch Hyatt is another talented pass protector out of Clemson and a few players who chose to stay in school could benefit greatly as Orlando Brown (Oklahoma) and Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame) are others worth keeping an eye on.
The depth and high-end talent are much more promising this time around, an encouraging sign.
The ground game renaissance
Remember just a few years ago when it seemed as if running backs selected in the first round were a thing of the past? Don’t look now, but we’re currently on a three-year streak of having backs selected in the top 10 (forget round one) and smart money says that streak will continue next year.
With Saquon Barkley leading the way, this running back class might not be as deep as 2017, but there’s still lots of talent.
Barkley stands out for his strong base, and combination of speed and power. He’s also a special receiver out the backfield, a skill that’ll take him far as a pro. There are at least five more guys with enough upside to warrant a first round pick in this group - if all things go right.
Of all, Ronald Jones II fits the mold of a speedster with home run talent and ability as a receiver who could be a big riser. Don’t overlook local product Kalen Ballage either who has as much upside as just about anyone in this class, at any position.
Being an NFL quarterback is only getting harder
The outside pass rushers in this class are amazing, with tons of top 20 talents and guys who can wreck havoc in opposing backfields. Headlined by Arden Key out of LSU and Boston College’s Harold Landry, these guys have electric get off and great bend. These two are truly special talents in getting after the quarterback and the depth is seemingly never ending even up at the top of the board.
The premium defensive position in today’s game is unfairly loaded which will make life that much harder on NFL signal callers and lineman. The interior d-line group is very athletic as well, making matters that much more complicated for opposing offensive players.
Way too early big board
1. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
2. Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
4. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
5. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
6. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville
7. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State
8. Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
9. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
10. Derwin James, S, Florida State
11. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
12. Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
13. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
14. Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
15. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama
16. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
17. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
18. Malik Jefferson, OLB, Texas
19. Rashaan Evans, OLB, Alabama
20. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
21. Jerome Baker, OLB, Ohio State
22. Dorance Armstrong Jr., EDGE, Kansas
23. Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech
24. Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
25. Lamar Jackson, QB/ATH, Louisville
26. Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio State
27. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
28. Hercules Mata’afa, EDGE, Washington State
29. Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama
30. Kentavius Street, DL, North Carolina State
31. Porter Gustin, EDGE, USC
32. Trevon Young, EDGE, Louisville
33. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
34. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
35. Marcell Frazier, DE, Missouri
36. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, OLB/EDGE, Oklahoma
37. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
38. Jordan Thomas, CB, Oklahoma
39. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
40. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
41. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
42. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State
43. Rasheem Green, DT, USC
44. Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia
45. Vita Vea, DT, Washington
46. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma
47. Braden Smith, OG/T, Auburn
48. Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado
49. Matthew Thomas, OLB, Florida State
50. Billy Price, OG, Ohio State
Just missed the cut
Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State
Iman Marshall, CB, USC
Greg Gaines, NT, Washington
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
Deatrick Nichols, Jr., CB, Southern Florida
Dallas Goedert, TE, South Dakota State
Lowell Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Chukwuma Okorafor, LT, Western Michigan
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