NFL Draft Positional Rankings: An Investigation Of Numerical Grading
Having released my top-100 Big Board earlier this week on Twitter, I decided to move on to my top-1o rankings for each position. They hit Twitter last night, but I withheld my QB rankings, which will see daylight for the first time here.
As I go through each position, I’ll make some quick comments. My focus will primarily fall on the consequences of my new grading system. I’ve implemented a numerical system that quantifies everything I see on tape, as well as the athleticism of the prospect (using SPARQ scores). I intend to include metrics for the experience, leadership, and injury history of the prospect, but given our proximity to the draft, those are projects for the upcoming offseason.
Why utilize a numerical grading system? It helps the scout compare apples to oranges. When I wonder to myself, “Is Derek Rivers, the defensive end from Youngstown State, a better prospect than Taco Charlton, the defensive end from Michigan?” I have no trouble answering that question with just an eye test. “Well, Rivers looks better than Charlton, so there you have it.”
But what if I were to ask myself, “Is Derek Rivers a better prospect than Dan Feeney, the guard from Indiana?” Without numerical grading, how can I decide? It’s even worse at the top of the board: choosing between an elite corner and an elite wide receiver. I can’t compare their tapes with any sort of integrity–they play two different positions.
But in a numerical scoring system, I can say “Well, Feeney scored a 6.5 overall, while Rivers scored a 6.3, so Feeney is a better prospect.” It levels the playing field between positions, giving my objectivity in my rankings.
Let’s return to the first example. My grading system told me that Taco Charlton was a better defensive end–significantly so–than Derek Rivers. But without a scoring system, and with only my eyes, I’m not sure I would have made that call.
If my grading process were battle-tested, tried and true, I would defer to its judgment. Because of its youth, however, I have to imagine it has kinks that need ironing out.
Keep that in mind as we move through these rankings. My system is not perfect — nowhere near it, even — and the analysis of these rankings will both help me prove, and improve, that fact.
No reason hiding QBs at the end of the post, for those searching for my withheld rankings. They’ll just scroll to the bottom anyway.
Mitch Trubisky (he’s fine being called Mitch, by the way) is the strong QB1 of this class. He barely missed out on a Round 1 grade on my Big Board, though I certainly expect him to go top-10 on Draft day.
For those curious, I backlogged Goff and Wentz in my current system, and they landed at QB4 and QB2, respectively. No first-round grades there, either.
A lot of folks may not like Deshone Kizer coming in this high, but I truly believe that if you give him some job stability, he’ll shine. He was in such a toxic situation in South Bend, and his ups are better than anyone else’s in this class, including draftnik darling Patrick Mahomes.
Speaking of Mahomes, I drink his Kool-Aid a lot more cautiously than most of my peers. The arm talent and movement skills are to die for, and his mental game is underrated. I said in January that if I had to place a bet on a QB from this class becoming a Pro Bowler, I’d place my money on Mahomes.
I just don’t know if you can run a consistent, controllable offense through him. He makes too many wild decisions. And sure, folks will throw around names like Stafford and Favre to justify their affection for Mahomes. Okay. But for every unbridled gunslinger that succeeded, there are ten who didn’t.
I’ll draft Mahomes for the upside, but not in Round 1, not to start immediately, and with a good offensive nucleus in place.
I’m high on both Brad Kaaya and Nate Peterman. Both have significant flaws, but I see two high-end backups with spot-starting potential. Peterman, particularly, throws with anticipation, placement, and zip. He could be Alex Smith by his third year in the league.
Don’t sleep on Josh Dobbs out of Tennessee or Alek Torgenson, a criminally under-mentioned name, out of Penn. Dobbs has the mental game to compete for a starting job, and Torgenson has enough arm talent to keep him on a roster for a while. Both of these prospects do demonstrate the issue with lacking a character/leadership sort of metric. They have that high moral fiber, those leadership qualities that I want in a signal-caller, but my system fails to quantify those boons.
I’m a big fan of this running back class — as are many analysts. But I really believe there’s a flavor of back in here for everybody and more than a few bell cows for teams in desperate need.
Don’t overthink the top two. A lot of folks will. But Dalvin Cook, no matter the Combine testing he puts out, has some of the best vision and elusiveness we’ve seen from a prospect in years. Leonard Fournette needs a power blocking scheme and an effective offensive line, no doubt — but nobody hits a hole like Leonard does. Not even Adrian Peterson in his hay day. Full stop.
Christian McCaffrey, whose name was far too long for my graphic, would earn a Round 1 selection in any other class. His vision, elusiveness, and third down activity would make him RB2 without numerical scoring. That’s an excellent example of how a formalized grading system saves you. I’d likely default to McCaffrey’s versatility over Fournette’s limitations with eye-test scoring, justifying my decision by claiming that, because he fits in either scheme, McCaffrey’s a better prospect.
But NFL teams don’t draft a guy because he’d play well in anyone’s scheme — they do it because he plays well in theirs. Fournette in his ideal scheme beats McCaffrey in his ideal scheme (also power) every day of the week.
D’Onta Foreman stands at RB5 in my rankings despite a mysterious lack of hype. He can shoulder a 20-carry load and stay in on 3rd downs to pass-protect. Will he juke anyone out of their NFL-approved gameday cleats? Unlikely. But he chooses his path with excellent vision, hits holes with a full head of steam, and falls forward. There’s a lot to like there.
Some quick hitters: Elijah Hood is woefully underrated, Jamaal Williams could be deadly if only ever asked to run inside zone, and Kareem Hunt is the sort of guy draftniks love but teams won’t (782 carries in college).
This class certainly does not have the plethora of Round 1 talent we’ve seen from past groups, but I really like the Day 2-3 value. Fourteen wideouts made it onto my top-100 Big Board, with eight landing between #63 OVR and #97 OVR. I’ll forego the top guys to pay my dues to the middle of the list.
I came onto Chris Godwin late, but he has blown me away. An 89.5/100 SPARQ score vaulted him over Carlos Henderson for the WR4 slot, though Henderson graded out better on tape. A smooth route runner with sticky hands and detailed routes, Godwin has split-end traits in which an NFL team will invest, and invest highly.
Henderson is lightning in a bottle. I don’t know what exactly I’d do with him (slot receiver or boundary guy? Work him out of the backfield? Have him return kicks? All of the above?), but I know I want to get him on the field, wearing my team’s colors. Don’t let his diminutive size and jitterbug agility deceive you: he can catch away from his frame, climb the ladder for 50/50 balls, and secure the football through contact. If he didn’t body-catch so often, he’d threaten for WR4 and even WR3.
If you can’t get Godwin or Henderson, Josh Reynolds and ArDarius Stewart are similar, cheaper options. I don’t think Reynolds has the route tree that Godwin does, but his catch radius and elite tracking/adjustment make him a quarterback’s best friend near the sidelines. Stewart is one tough cookie after the catch, and his explosiveness is off the charts. Misused in Alabama’s offense, I want to see what he can do with a coordinator and quarterback that capitalize on his dynamic skill set.
Curtis Samuel played running back in college. If he was really an NFL-caliber wide receiver, he would have played that position at Ohio State. But he didn’t. Let’s call him an offensive weapon and draft him where he belongs: the middle of Round 3 at the earliest.
The best class for the offensive position groups right here. Similarly to the running backs, I feel like there’s a flavor for everyone. If you have a mid-rounder you love, sit on it and grab him on the cheap.
I wish I could resist, but I’ll have to spend a moment talking about my love for O.J. Howard. An offensive coordinator’s dream, Howard’s ability to accomplish a wide variety of tasks from multiple alignments gives his offensive coordinator unprecedented latitude and creativity in the playbook. Watch some Alabama cut-ups, and you’ll see how Howard is used as a chess piece to manipulate and confuse defenses.
Let’s talk Evan Engram v. David Njoku. (You’ll notice I didn’t reference the David Njoku v. O.J. Howard debate, because that’s not a real debate.)
If we’re talking the nebulous flex TE/”Big Slot” position that so many use to vaunt Njoku to TE1, then Engram beats Njoku at his own game. He runs cleaner routes, catches more naturally, and is just as effective a red zone target.
Now, if we’re talking a more traditional in-line TE, or maybe even an H-back alignment, folks will argue Njoku’s a far superior blocker than the general narrative, and that he has the athleticism to improve. And while I don’t have a bad grade on Njoku’s blocking at all, I have just as good a grade on Engram’s (though he was asked to do it far less). And don’t argue athletic potential to me: Engram’s SPARQ score beat out Njoku’s.
Pick your battlefield. I’ll take Engram over Njoku, no matter what.
George Kittle is an angry man, Jordan Leggett could have been TE4 if he gave consistent effort on the field, and Jonnu Smith was Combine TE1 with a 94.9 SPARQ score. Sheesh.
Up to this point, with some slight discrepancies, I feel quite comfortable with the rankings outputted by my grading system. But in both the offensive and defensive trenches, I encountered some problems.
I don’t think this offensive tackle is nearly as poor as it’s made out to be. I would have slapped a Round 1 grade on Cam Robinson, Ryan Ramczyk, and Garett Bolles for sure — Dion Dawkins would have snagged early Round 2 at the worst. But not even Robinson got a Round 1 grade from my system.
I also don’t expect I would have put Will Holden above Antonio Garcia and Andreas Knappe (upon whom the draft community at large could not possibly be sleeping harder — let’s talk about him real quick). Relatively new to the game, the Denmark native showed drastic improvement from his 2015 tape to his 2016 tape. Standing tall at 6’8″, with considerable length, NFL agility and a mean streak, Knappe has all of the physical tools you’d like to see. Give him to any quality offensive line coach, and you should have a starting right tackle in three years.
Folks may not like seeing Roderick Johnson this high, and I won’t lie to you–the tape isn’t pretty. But remember, outside of maybe the top-15, you aren’t so much drafting for the product you’ve seen on the field, but for the player he could become. Roderick Johnson’s pass protection is the definition of raw. But he has the size, length, and functional strength to develop into a left tackle. I’m not saying it will happen, but if you want to build up a project, Johnson’s the guy.
I don’t know how many teams want Erik Magnuson as their starting right tackle, but I just want him somewhere on my offensive line. Cerebral, disciplined, and tough as nails. If I have to move him to guard, I will, but he deserves a fighting chance on the edge. A surprising Combine snub, I’m very interested to get his Pro Day numbers when the time rolls around.
Interior Offensive Line
Here’s where we arrive at the worst of my issues with my new system. I wasn’t expecting Interior Offensive Line to show this poorly at all. It certainly isn’t an overwhelming class, but I liked everyone from Forrest Lamp down to Taylor Moton as an NFL starter, but only Lamp and Dorian Johnson received top-100 grades. Dan Feeney came in at #105 OVR.
I had a long conversation about Pat Elflein on Twitter with a few people because his grade really concerned me. His tape grade, a 6.2 out of 9.0, placed him squarely in the middle of Round 3. I liked his value there a ton. He’s the most pro-ready player in this class, by which I mean he has the skill set that best translates, Day 1, to the NFL.
However, Elflein trudged through the Combine for an abysmal 2.2 (out of 100) SPARQ score. Factoring in his athletic performance at just five percent of his grade dropped him to a 5.9/9.0. That’s still Early Day 4 value, but it sent him below Feeney and out of my Top-100.
I still hold that opinion of Elflein as the best plug-and-play center of this class. So how can his grade drop so low?
Well, though I find these rankings quite reflective of my eye test, my grades on Interior OL are very harsh. Lamp scored nicely, with a Round 1 grade, but not a single player otherwise grabbed above an early Round 3 grade. That’s simply not indicative of where I’d take Dorian Johnson, Dan Feeney, and Pat Elflein.
Over the year, I intend to really focus on my grading system here. By running the college tape of successful NFL linemen through my system, I can check its validity in predicting NFL success. Comparative tests with other numerical scoring systems (like those of NDTScouting, for example) help me adjust my system to more accurately and holistically reflect a prospect’s game.
Jordan Morgan is a sleeper on whom you should keep a close eye. Sean Harlow and Nico Siragusa? Dogs.
Interior Defensive Line
One of the reasons I hold my system in such doubt for Interior OL is because I also don’t agree with the results it spat back out at me for Interior DL. It’s definitely improved, but there are systemic issues here as well.
This serves as a good point for a reminder: I am, in no way, a perfect scout. I’m a far cry from good. The trenches can be a difficult place to scout because the outcome of the player’s performance is far more muddled. When a WR blows a route, drops a pass, gets bullied off the line — that isn’t difficult to see.
But on the offensive line, a guard could be late off the snap, take the wrong first step, fire late and low with his hands, and you’ can’t tell how poor the rep was–because he still got in the defender’s way and kept his quarterback clean for long enough to release the ball. Their game isn’t as production-based–that’s why we don’t have nearly as many stats for trench players as we do skill positions. Hopefully, as my system improves in its quantification of big uglies, I will improve my knowledge and observation of their game.
Turning to the prospects, I love Caleb Brantley. I don’t know for how many snaps you’ll be able to keep him on the field, but I know when you do, he’ll be a penetrating and disruptive presence on the inside. Dude’s too quick.
I have Malik McDowell lower than you may see from other analysts, and that’s the first big flaw I take with my grades. McDowell is a low-effort, low mental-investment player. He takes reps off. He wasn’t liked or respected by his teammates or coaches. If you’re going to draft him, you better have an incredible, veteran-led locker room that will tolerate no nonsense.
The talent is there, but his numbers suffered given how often he failed to perform up to his ceiling on tape. Sure, maybe his quickness was a 90/100, but when I only saw it on ten plays out of forty, I really struggled to put that high of a grade on it. Jordan Leggett suffered from a similar handicap in the Tight End class. These grades simply fail to reflect the ceiling of the prospects.
How do you quantify ceiling? I have no idea. It is, inherently, a projection. But I must learn how to incorporate those 1-, 3-, and 5-year projections into my grades.
Carlos Watkins is good at sports.
A lot of diamonds with scratches in this class. Myles Garrett is basically Superman, and then after that, you won’t hit a prospect without a potentially debilitating question mark.
Solomon Thomas doesn’t have ideal length for an edge-setting DL, and he failed to consistently dominate in the Pac-12. He’s still my third overall prospect, but I’m not nearly as bullish on him as others.
You probably won’t find a board with Joe Mathis higher than I have him. I don’t care. I see the total package of an NFL defensive end: a bevy of pass-rush moves with room to grow, acceptable athleticism, and oh! The best run-defending grade of any DL in this class. Mathis, however, must prove to teams he can stay healthy–injuries have cut his season short two years running.
Charles Harris is so gosh darn tough to quantify. His Combine numbers and Pro Day numbers are night and day. His 2015 tape and 2016 tape are, well, night and day. While a scheme switch helps explain his perplexing 2016 performance, you have to wonder about his athletic potential moving forward.
Flip the script for Takkarist McKinley. He checks every athletic box I list for defensive ends (the 3-cone does not worry me), but he’s purely an explosive, cornering freakazoid. Where is the hand game? How about the counter moves? Can he set the edge against the run? Takk’s a guy you draft for his Year 3 production, not his Year 1.
Derek Barnett defines one-trick pony. He times the snap count, explodes off the line, and can corner with agility — not with great bend. If he became a double-digit sack guy in the NFL, I’d be impressed but not too surprised. However, if he can’t develop any sort of pass-rushing arsenal, and is regularly stymied by, um, a basic chip block, he won’t be productive.
I flip-flop between putting Ryan Anderson as an off-ball SAM and a 3-4 OLB, but regardless of your scheme fit, get the kid on your football team. Smart, tough player that can do a variety of things well. Gimme.
Another issue with my grading system, lightly touched on above: positional categorization. To assume that Ryan Anderson, a potential OBLB and, say, S/LB Josh Harvey-Clemons have similar skill sets that will be utilized in similar ways by NFL teams, and thereby grade them under the same criteria is, in a word, ludicrous.
Anderson to JHC is an extreme example, as neither project for me as an OBLB–though they do for others. Instead, let’s take Haason Reddick, the CB-turned-DE-turned-NFL swiss-army knife, and compare him to Reuben Foster, the blue-blood darling of MLB-factory Alabama. Both players have been projected as 4-3 WILLs (with some disagreements, of course).
But their games are radically different. Foster can easily hit the gym and play the MIKE at 240 pounds, and his ferocity, explosiveness, and alpha dog mentality would fit in perfectly at the center of an NFL defense. If his stack-and-shed improves, there’s no reason he couldn’t be an All-Pro middle ‘backer. My grading system favors him heavily for being able to play multiple positions.
Reddick, on the other hand, has only decent size for 4-3 WILL (he came into the Combine at 237, but I doubt he played there during the season). Unlike Foster, he doesn’t play with that physical chip on his shoulder. He tries to avoid contact and struggles to play through it. But the athletic potential — especially the flexibility and fast-twitch fibers lost in Reuben’s thicker frame — is tantalizing and undeniable. He can fly around the field, and could definitely get a solid look at MLB or SAM in a defensive scheme predicated on keeping its LBs clean. And again, my grading system favors him heavily for being able to play multiple positions.
But they’re such radically different players–I wonder if my guidelines for scouting LBs were too general, and I failed to grade their unique attributes with enough specificity. I like that Foster is LB1 and Reddick is LB2, but I think if I split the categories between ILB and OLB, Reddick would take OLB1 and Foster would take ILB1. A guy like Anthony Walker, currently LB9, would likely become ILB3. That radically changes the projections for these players and the anticipated path of the draft.
Zach Cunningham? Also good at sports.
Let’s talk about the incredible talent of this class. My first out (CB11) is Tre’Davious White at 49th overall.
Read that again.
The top ten corners of this class are all top-50 talents.
Read that again, too.
Less than .2 points separate Quincy Wilson and Gareon Conley, and only .4 points separate Conley and Marshon Lattimore. I’ll hear any argument for one of the three as CB1 — not to mention, I’m coming along on Marlon Humphrey, the more I watch his tape. He has the best SPARQ score of the four, which really helped him separate from Cordrea Tankersley.
Speaking of Tank…
In a class chock full of Pac-12 darlings and athletic ceilings, you should stop sleeping on Cordrea Tankersley. It’s easy to fall in love with Kevin King and Adoree’ Jackson, who I have ranked quite highly, for those mouth-watering flashes of athleticism. But I prefer a less-athletic cornerback that is, you know, better at covering wide receivers, than a prime athlete who lacks the technical skills.
In short: develop Kevin King; start Cordrea Tankersley.
One of my favorite aspects of the numerical grading system is the proportionate response. Even without his 3-cone and short shuttle from the Combine, Teez Tabor‘s athletic score was very poor. Assigning him a generous value of 22.0 (same as Tankersley) put him at CB6. That’s a fine, Round 2 value for a talented, but scheme-limited cornerback.
Then, when he runs an even worse 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, his needle doesn’t move. His poor athleticism was already considered, calculated, and cemented. His grade responds proportionately.
Will some teams blackball him for his speed? Yes, as they rightfully should. But for those teams who can accommodate his limitations, Day 2 is a great spot for his excellent tape.
A fitting end: the best group in the 2017 class for the final positional rankings. I have a huge cluster of prospects just below this list: Josh Harvey-Clemons comes in a #93 OVR, Lorenzo Jerome at #102 OVR, Eddie Jackson at #103 OVR, and Tedric Thompson at #109. There’s just too much talent to go around.
I’ve fielded more than a little heat for having Jabrill Peppers above Obi Melifonwu. Peppers gets a bad rap, in my opinion. Michigan asked him to play LB, undoubtedly not his premier position, and he did what he was asked. When folks cite his lack of interceptions and his poor recognition skills, I cringe. He simply wasn’t in his natural spot for most of his snaps.
That being said, he doesn’t have the greatest instincts or processing speed of this class — I understand that. I believe that moving further back off of the line of scrimmage and having a more well-defined role in an NFL defense will help him with his keys and reaction time; others don’t. Either way, don’t buy into any Peppers narrative. Define what you’d like to see from an NFL safety, then watch his tape. If you see it, you see it.
That’s probably my favorite part of numerical grading. Because I grade each position on a predetermined set of observable qualities (safety includes processing speed, range, tackling, and ball skills–among others), I’m not flying blind into a torrent of tape. Watching potential hybrids, like Peppers, OT/OG (he’s a guard) Taylor Moton, or RB/WR Curtis Samuel, becomes easier. I can watch Curtis Samuel the RB, searching for my defined RB traits, and Curtis Samuel the WR, searching for my defined WR traits. Wherever he grades most favorably, that’s where he’ll be ranked on my Board (WR, for what that’s worth, but he’s still just an offensive weapon).
Let’s chat some safeties real quick. When Josh Jones and Marcus Maye receive hype through April, remember where you saw them–right here. Jones has the range, and Maye is a thumper–funny thing is, Jones can also lay the wood, and Maye can cover ground as well. I can see each name on this list as an eventual NFL starter. That’s utterly bonkers.
Also, if someone could explain to me why Marcus Williams has roughly zero hype, I’d appreciate it.
That’ll do it for me. If you have any questions about numerical grading, please hit me up on Twitter @BenjaminSolak, and I’ll gladly discuss them with you. These rankings will certainly change as I finish my tape evaluations, and as Pro Day numbers come through.
Until then, yes–I hate your favorite prospect. I ranked him where I did ’cause I hate him. I hate him so much.