With my colleague Lance Zierlein revisiting the 2016 NFL Draft's first round last week, I thought it would be fun to do the same for the 2017 class after their first two "Madden"-eligible seasons. Although Year 3 is often when we get the best read on players' NFL trajectories, assessing Years 1 and 2 can reveal useful, albeit early, insights into their development.
Now let's get to the grades!
Garrett was the consensus best player in the 2017 class, and his game-wrecking ability has transferred quite well to the NFL. Garrett's 20.5 sacks combined during the past two seasons rank 14th across the league, and that's despite the fact that he missed five games as a rookie due to a high ankle sprain and a concussion. The 2018 Pro Bowler put concerns of being "injury prone" to bed last year, when he recorded the second-most snaps (1,012) of any defensive lineman or edge rusher in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. The chiseled 6-foot-4 QB destroyer, who earned the 49th spot on the " Top 100 Players of 2019" ranking, hasn't even sniffed his ceiling. There's every reason to expect Year 3 will be his best, especially now that he's playing opposite Olivier Vernon.
Focusing solely on Trubisky's on-field performance, and not the Bears' peculiar decision to give up three mid-round picks (including the one New Orleans eventually used to select Alvin Kamara) to move up one spot in the draft, the UNC quarterback has been as consistent as Chicago weather in his short pro career. His highs (see: six TD passes against the Bucs) are like that 65-degree Sunday in early March when Chicagoans lose their minds and slip on shorts and tanks while lounging on an outdoor patio with a Daisy Cutter in hand. The lows (a 110-yard, 1 TD/3 INT-performance against the Rams comes to mind), well, they're like the next morning, when the temp tumbles back into the 40s and folks are navigating through a sheet of sleet on their way to work. While it's easy to pummel the third-year passer for his head-scratching errant throws, he is coming off a Pro Bowl season and another summer working with Matt Nagy. And let's not forget that he did drive the Bears down the field and into position to kick a game-winning field goal against the Eagles in the 2018 Wild Card Round. If only 43-yard boots were in his repertoire, there'd be an "A" up there.
Thomas has struggled to get his career off the ground since becoming the first pick of the John Lynch era in San Francisco. The former Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year registered just one sack and six QB hits in 16 games last fall (as he dealt with a personal tragedy off the field), and that's after tallying just three QB takedowns and nine QB hits in his rookie season, per PFF. His four-sack total ties him for 17th among his draft classmates, with two DBs ( Desmond King and Jamal Adams) matching or topping the pass rusher. With Thomas yet to live up to his draft pedigree, the Niners, who had already invested their 2015 and '16 first-round picks in the D-line, selected yet another pass rusher in Round 1 this year ( Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall) and traded a second-round pick for Dee Ford, whom they then signed to an $87.5 million contract. Many of his teammates and Lynch have come to Thomas' defense this offseason, expressing confidence that the third-year pro will bounce back in 2019, given everything he was going through last season. Let's hope they're right. Because if Thomas' production doesn't pick up significantly in Year 3, it's possible not even his Stanford Connection will be enough to keep him on the 49ers' roster.
The Jaguars drafted Fournette fourth overall to be the engine of the offense. In football czar Tom Coughlin's happy place, he envisioned his new running back toting the rock 20-plus times a game, thereby limiting Blake Bortles' opportunities to make a mistake. In Fournette's Week 1 debut against the division-rival Texans, he validated his boss' master plan: The running back racked up 100 yards and a score on the ground, while Bortles threw just 21 passes and didn't commit a turnover in a 29-7 win. But the "check engine" light started to flicker soon thereafter. Although he produced five 100-yard rushing games as a rookie, and Jacksonville went 10-6 (before earning two more Ws in the playoffs, one of which saw Fournette cross the 100-yard mark again), Fournette missed three games to injury and suspension and managed a paltry 3.9 yards per attempt. By Year 2, the warning light was flashing red. Hampered by a lingering hamstring issue and another suspension, Fournette totaled just 439 rushing yards in eight games. Despite being the first RB off the board in 2017, the former LSU runner ranks fifth in total rushing yards among the 16 backs drafted in his class and 14th in yards per attempt. Reports out of camp suggest No. 27 has turned the corner and is ready to be the driving force for Jacksonville's offense once again. He'll need to be if he wants to remain the Jags' RB1 into the future.
The Titans' reluctance to pass the ball ( they rank last in attempts since 2017) certainly affects Davis' total output, but the team had to think it would be getting more than 1,266 yards and four touchdowns over two seasons when it snagged the receiver fifth overall two years ago. The 6-foot-3 Chicago native has the size and strength to be a top-end wideout in the NFL, and you wonder what his numbers might look like if he was catching passes from guys not named Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Cassel (or Ryan Tannehill, for that matter). Could a new offensive coordinator, the arrival of slot man Adam Humphries and a healthy Mariota be the three keys to a Davis breakout campaign?
The Jets drafted a stud when Adams fell to them at No. 6. He not only became an instant leader for the franchise -- infusing a level of toughness, accountability and superstar talent the team needed -- but he also earned the respect of his peers, as his place (No. 37) on the " Top 100 Players of 2019" demonstrates. The Pro Bowler ranked first among all safeties in snaps (1,119), defensive stops (44), pressures (22), sacks (4), hurries (13) and forced fumbles (3) last season, according to PFF. He's not only an incredible player, but a great ambassador for the organization. What more could you ask for?
After back and knee injuries disrupted any semblance of a normal rookie season for the big-bodied receiver, he became a trendy breakout candidate heading into 2018. Although that Year 2 boom didn't quite materialize as some hoped -- he caught just 43 passes for 664 yards -- Williams did haul in 10 touchdown receptions, played in all 16 games and outproduced WR2 Tyrell Williams. The double-digit scores, along with Tyrell Williams' departure to the Raiders in free agency, have many folks again predicting an offensive eruption from No. 81. With Philip Rivers seemingly improving with age and Keenan Allen still a top-10 WR1, Williams has a strong chance to make a lot of sports analysts look prophetic this season.
McCaffrey has quickly developed into a top-five back in today's NFL, beating opponents regularly as a runner and a receiver. Since entering the league, he ranks fourth among all offensive players in scrimmage yards (3,051), finishing last season just 35 yards shy of the exclusive 2,000-yard mark. McCaffrey has proven he's an every-down back, capable of running between the tackles, lining up in the slot or out wide and sustaining the physical toll of a 16-game season. His presence on the field drastically reduces the pressure on Cam Newton's surgically repaired shoulder, allowing the former MVP to do more by doing less. Run CMC has been an all-around win for this club.
The third receiver selected in Round 1 in 2017, Ross was supposed to be the burner to take the top off defenses and ignite the Bengals' offense. He'd force defensive coordinators to start sliding a safety to his side, which would free up A.J. Green to do work, create more running lanes for Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, and enable Andy Dalton to finally reach his true potential. At least, that was the plan on paper. But two years, 16 total games and 21 catches later, expectations for Ross (and the Bengals' offense) have been discreetly filed away. The Washington product said earlier this month he expects 2019 to be his " best year," a statement he can confidently make, considering the bar is at his shins. But with Green likely sidelined to start the season, Ross has a prime opportunity to be the Bengals' feature perimeter receiver and form a sleeper duo with Tyler Boyd. Despite the limited number of catches, Ross has -- to his credit -- scored seven touchdowns. Let's hope the hamstring injury that's kept him out of training camp practices doesn't carry over into Week 1.
Where Ross' career stalled before it ever got out of the gate, Mahomes' has gone better than anything Andy Reid could've ever drawn up. The young passer had the opportunity to learn and develop his skills on a playoff team led by a veteran quarterback playing at the height of his powers. When given the keys to Arrowhead Stadium in his second season, Mahomes balled out, producing a 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown campaign that earned him an MVP award and helped propel the Chiefs to their first Championship Sunday appearance in 25 years. Mahomes' numbers will almost certainly regress in Year 3. And yet, he might still finish the season as the NFL's best quarterback. He has all the necessary traits, all the offensive weapons and a head coach who consistently crafts unique and creative game plans. Hard to see anything other than a video game curse standing in the way of another monster season for No. 15.
The first pick in what will go down in Saints history as a franchise-altering draft class, Lattimore picked off five passes in Year 1, had the second-best passer rating allowed among corners, per PFF, and took home the Defensive Rookie of the Year award at NFL Honors. After an incredible start like that, some sort of drop-off was to be expected. But Lattimore took a step back last season, breaking up half as many passes and allowing 44 percent more receiving yards than he did as a rookie. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn said Lattimore recognizes some of the distractions that arose after his spectacular first season affected his play in Year 2. That willingness for self-reflection and self-improvement bodes well for the young corner, who still has every bit of the skill set he needs to be a top-10 player at his position.
Is there a more stark contrast between "what was" and "what is" than the Texans' QB room, thinking back to the pre-Watson days? The litany of middling or worse QBs ( Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, Ryan Mallett, et al.) to don the bullhorn decals leading up to the 2017 draft was the deciding factor in my recent decision to rank DeAndre Hopkins the No. 1 receiver in the NFL. With those names fresh in mind, think about just how transformative Watson's arrival has been to the Texans' franchise. The Clemson QB wasted little time silencing concerns that his game wouldn't translate to the pro level, ripping off an incredible four-game stretch as a rookie in which he threw for 1,171 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five picks with a 115.9 passer rating. And after a torn ACL (in practice, not a game) cut short what was shaping up to be an all-time great inaugural campaign, Watson elevated his play in Year 2, proving his rookie heroics weren't an illusion. He finished the season with the sixth-best passer rating (103.1) in the NFL, posting a 17:2 TD-to-INT ratio in his final 10 games. The biggest knock on the Pro Bowl passer is that he tends to hold the ball too long. This contributes to -- but certainly is not the primary cause of (looking at you, O-line) -- his league-leading 62 sacks taken. Small potatoes in the grand scheme of all the good he brings to the table. I really don't understand why he doesn't get more love.
Reddick's stock skyrocketed after a strong combine performance that included the fastest 40 time (4.52) of any defensive lineman. And in that sentence lies part of the issue with what's gone wrong for Reddick early in his career. He worked out in Indy with D-linemen but projected as an inside linebacker at the pro level. Then, shortly into his rookie season, he moved to outside 'backer. A man seemingly without a defined role, Reddick has yet to make a profound impact in his first two seasons, tallying 112 total tackles and 6.5 sacks in 32 games (but 15 starts). With the Temple product playing for his third defensive coordinator in three years and making a return to inside linebacker, it's hard to know what to reasonably expect from Reddick. It doesn't help that the 24-year-old's been sidelined since late July after undergoing a knee scope to trim his meniscus.
Barnett joined a loaded Eagles roster in 2017, slotting in behind Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Vinny Curry at defensive end on the depth chart. The powerful pass rusher capped off a solid rookie campaign by recovering a Tom Brady fumble in the final minutes of Super Bowl LII to help the Eagles clinch their first Lombardi Trophy. Barnett was poised for a bigger role and more production in Year 2, but a shoulder injury limited him to just six games. Healthy and (perhaps overly) active in training camp, Barnett is set to start the season opposite Brandon Graham on the Eagles' edge. A sack-filled campaign for the third-year pro could mean a big payday next summer.
A rangy, ball-hawking safety who NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah raved "had the best ball skills of any safety I've ever evaluated in college," Hooker picked off three passes in his first six NFL games before tearing his ACL in his seventh. Similar to Lattimore, Hooker couldn't keep pace with his own precedent, failing to produce the same gaudy stats as a sophomore as he had in his abbreviated rookie campaign. But interceptions and tackles aren't everything, as the young safety acknowledged back in December. With a full offseason to work on his craft, a clean bill of health and a talented supporting cast, Hooker should flourish this season. The Colts have an uber-talented secondary, and Hooker will have a chance to show he's the best of the bunch (and why the grade above is grossly premature).
The first of four Nick Saban disciples selected in the first round, Humphrey has enjoyed the most pro success of the 'Bama quartet. And the buzz out of Owing Mills, Maryland, where he's reportedly having the best camp of any Ravens cornerback, suggests the physical defender could enter into game-changer territory this season. He's far from a polished product at this point, but his play helped propel the Ravens secondary to the No. 1 spot on my colleague Chris Wesseling's ranking of the deepest position groups earlier this summer. With a number of quality veterans in Baltimore's DB room pushing for snaps, and the severe neck injury to Tavon Young, Humphrey will have no choice but to keep improving.
Allen, like a number of his fellow first-rounders, saw his rookie season curtailed due to injury. But he rebounded well as a sophomore, generating eight sacks and showcasing his effectiveness against the run. He was one of 63 defensive linemen to accrue more than 200 snaps on run plays last season, tying for eighth in tackles while whiffing on just one, according to Pro Football Focus. With so many question marks emerging on the offensive side of the ball, Washington needs Allen to make another leap early in Year 3 for the team to keep pace with the rest of the NFC.
Jackson's first two NFL seasons have been plagued by inconsistency. One week, he's holding Patriots pass catchers to four receptions for 48 yards on 11 targets, and the next, he's allowing Colts receivers (most notably T.Y. Hilton) to haul in 10 of 11 targets for 172 yards and two scores, per PFF. Jackson is an incredible athlete, capable of producing in all three phases of the game. But so far, he's struggled to excel in any. That could change this year, as Jackson said earlier this summer that he's spent the offseason sharpening his mental approach to the game, a factor NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt noted when designating the speedy corner one of his breakout candidates for 2019. Hopefully the mental prep will help the Titans corner quickly move past the 75-yard score he surrendered to Eagles receiver Marken Michel in Week 1 of the preseason.
A physical specimen and the first tight end off the board in 2017, Howard hasn't quite lived up to the high expectations pinned on him as a college prospect. Although he has 11 touchdowns in his first two years, he ranks fourth in receiving yards and receptions among tight ends in his own class, and he missed the final six games of last season due to foot and ankle injuries. All that said, he does boast the highest yards per target (11.46) of any tight end over the past two years (min. 25 targets). It's fair to question whether the mismatch nightmare was mismanaged by the previous Bucs regime, leading to his perplexing career per-game averages (2.5 catches/41.5 yards). You had better believe chunk-yardage king Bruce Arians will figure out a way to maximize a guy who's 6-foot-6, 251 pounds and runs a 4.51 40.
Bolles has played more than any Denver offensive lineman since 2017, but don't confuse availability with quality. Although the Utah product deserves recognition for starting all 32 games and playing more than 98 percent of the team's offensive snaps since entering the league (per Next Gen Stats), he's also suffered major lapses in discipline and technique over that period. Of the 49 tackles who played at least 800 snaps last year, Bolles' 13 penalties tied for third-most -- a marginal improvement from the 15 (tied for second) he collected as a rookie, according to PFF. The Broncos added offensive line maven Mike Munchak to their staff this offseason to help address what's become a recurring problem area on the roster. If anyone can get Bolles on track, it's the former Hall of Fame guard.
Lions fans -- like NFL.com editor Gennaro Filice -- were thrilled when Davis, considered one of the most plug-and-play picks in the draft, fell to Detroit two years ago. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah evaluated Davis as a
stout, instinctive run defender who needed time and practice to improve against the pass. We saw this evaluation play out in real time during Davis' debut season, as the former Gator racked up 96 tackles in 14 games while earning a woeful 40.7 coverage rating from PFF. In Year 2, under new head coach Matt Patricia, Davis' coverage skills improved slightly (his yards per reception allowed dropped from 10.3 to 8.6), as did his sack total (rose from 2 to 6). In an effort to wreak even more havoc on opposing quarterbacks, the third-year pro spent the offseason
refining his pass-rushing techniques and studying various roles in Patricia's defensive scheme, per the Detroit Free press. Davis will need to continue to improve his versatility if he's to avoid being a liability in the middle of the
* Davis' third NFL campaign may already be off to a tough start after he suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 of the preseason.*
There haven't been many moments to celebrate in Harris' short career, and he knows it. He's generated just three total sacks and 38 combined tackles, while missing a good chunk of his sophomore season due to a calf injury. On a roster deficient in warm bodies to rush the passer, Harris still has an opportunity to prove the Dolphins didn't err in drafting him 22nd overall. But he's going to have to start stacking impact plays soon ... a lot of them.
Engram has the size, speed and catch radius to be a top-tier receiving tight end in the league, but inconsistency, injury and inept quarterback play have hindered the speedy pass catcher. Although he cut down on the drops (11 in 2017; 3 in 2018) and strung together a few productive outings to close out last season, Engram has yet to prove he can be a reliable (and available) option for Pat Shurmur. The Giants' second-year coach will need him to be both for the franchise to have a legitimate shot at the postseason in 2019. With Odell Beckham Jr. in Cleveland and seemingly the entire Giants receiving corps banged up or suspended, Engram's in line to see just about every early target that doesn't go Saquon Barkley's way.
One of the highest-rated prospects at his position going into draft week, Conley saw his stock plummet when a woman accused him of rape two days before Round 1 kicked off. After conducting their own investigation into the allegations, the Raiders felt confident enough in the young corner's version of events that they ended his draft slide. (A grand jury would later opt not to charge him in the case.) Hampered by a shin injury that extended into the season and eventually claimed all but two games of his rookie campaign, Conley entered Year 2 with much to prove. Unfortunately, it would get worse before it got better. After playing the majority of the team's defensive snaps to start the season, Conley was on the field for just 12 total plays in Week 5 against the Chargers before being benched outright against the Seahawks the following game. That heavy serving of humble pie seemed to go down well, however, as he returned from the team's Week 7 bye seemingly a different player. From Week 8 until the end of the regular season, Conley started every game and allowed the fifth-fewest yards among CBs (min. 200 snaps). That span included two separate meetings with the Chiefs, whom he limited to just 26 total yards on three catches, per PFF. With the good finally starting to outweigh the bad in Conley's young career, there's plenty of reason to believe the best is yet to come for No. 21.
The Swiss Army Knife out of Michigan never quite found his footing in Cleveland, and much of that feels like the fault of the coaching staff and his tweener status -- too small to play linebacker and lacking the coverage skills to play free safety. At times, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had Peppers lined up 15 to 20 yards off the ball, when he should've been closer to the line of scrimmage making impact plays by bursting through gaps. Peppers started to come on in Year 2, enough, in fact, to entice the New York Giants to acquire him in the deal that sent Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. Perhaps a change in scenery is exactly what the former Paul Hornung Award winner needs to reach his full NFL potential.
Coming off the Falcons' gut-wrenching Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, which capped a season in which they ranked T-16th in the NFL in sacks -- despite Vic Beasley leading the league in the category -- Atlanta drafted McKinley, who projected as one of the best pass rushers in the class. Together, Takk and Vic would form a ferocious 1-2 punch that would terrorize opposing QBs for years! ... But in their first two years together, neither has posted a double-digit-sack season. In his short career, McKinley has formed a bad habit of disappearing for long periods, including a six-game stretch from Weeks 9 through 14 last season when he had zero sacks, one QB hit and just 10 hurries in 127 pass-rushing snaps, per PFF. If everything comes together for McKinley (and Beasley, too, for that matter), the 2019 Falcons have as high a ceiling as any team in the league.
Sure, if the Bills could redo the 2017 draft, they probably would've kept the 10th overall pick and taken Patrick Mahomes instead of trading down. But as far as consolation prizes go, Buffalo could've done far worse than White. (Just read the next blurb to see how much worse). After a rock-star rookie season -- in which he had four picks, 13 pass breakups and was in contention for Defensive Rookie of the Year -- White finished the 2018 season ranked fourth among cornerbacks in coverage snaps per reception and 10th in passer rating when targeted (min. 400 coverage snaps), but drew three times as many flags as in Year 1, per PFF. The excessive penalties in part prompted Bills CBs to practice in oven mitts (to prevent them from holding) earlier in camp. If White can recapture his rookie form, he could finish the year as a top-10 player at his position.
When you go by "Taco," everybody wants you to succeed. Why? Because everybody loves tacos. They're delicious, easy to eat and hard to screw up. That's why a bad taco is so disappointing. And Vidauntae has been a bad taco. Imagine how Jerry Jones and Co. must feel after investing a first-round pick on Mr. Charlton, thinking he'd be, at worst, an insurance policy for DeMarcus Lawrence (who had an up-and-down NFL start himself and was entering a contract year) and at best, a perfect bookend to him. But as it turns out, that wasn't the worst-case scenario for Taco, who hasn't earned more than 40 percent of Dallas' defensive snaps in either of his first two seasons, according to Next Gen Stats. No surprise, then, that he's managed just four sacks and eight QB hits through 27 games. It's a credit to the incredible run of success the Cowboys have had in the draft this decade that they can endure what's increasingly looking like a big miss.
Njoku's potential is there. You can see it on film. His targets, receptions, receiving yards and yards after catch all increased from Year 1 to Year 2. But he continues to be dogged by drops (tied for most among TEs in 2018, per PFF) and poor blocking. Head coach Freddie Kitchens recently commented on Njoku's inconsistency, telling reporters, "I just want to know what I am getting when we go to the field, and then we can plan accordingly, but if you never know what you are going to get, then it is hard to plan." Kitchens makes Njoku sound like a box of chocolates. If No. 85 can finally put the pieces together in Year 3, the Browns' talent-heavy offense should free up space for him to catch and run for days.
Hindsight is 20-20, but it's laughable now to think Watt was the eighth pass rusher off the board in 2017. After a strong rookie campaign in which he started 15 games and accumulated seven sacks, the Steelers linebacker ripped off 13 QB takedowns and earned himself a trip to the Pro Bowl as a sophomore. J.J.'s brother leads his draft classmates in tackles for loss (22) and ranks second in sacks (20) since entering the league, which I'm sure doesn't sit well with Niners and Cowboys fans. Speaking of J.J., he ranked a sliver behind T.J. in run stop percentage (10.6 to 10.4) and tackles against the run (35 to 34) last season, per PFF. After disappointing returns with their previous two first-round picks ( Bud Dupree in 2015; Artie Burns in 2016), the Steelers hit gold with Watt.
Before the wheels came off on his career, Foster showcased his first-round talent and validated the Niners' decision to overlook some of the red flags that caused his draft-day drop. He was one of the better run-stopping linebackers in the league as a rookie, providing a physical presence in the middle of the 49ers' defense. But a string of off-field issues, including a domestic violence arrest, led to his release midway through his sophomore campaign. Although prosecutors would later dismiss those charges, Foster was fined two game checks and issued an apology for his actions. Anytime a team feels compelled to release a first-rounder less than two seasons in, it's hard to evaluate that pick as anything other than a failure.
Brandin Cooks had just wrapped his second consecutive 1,000-yard season when New Orleans shipped him to New England for this pick.
Saints fans who harbored reservations about the trade were able to cast their concerns away as soon as they saw Ramczyk hit the field. Thirty-one starts and 2,121 snaps later, there's no questioning the former Badger's value to the franchise. He's been a stalwart on the right side of the line, allowing just 16 hurries and four sacks in 550 passing snaps last season, per PFF. New Orleans simply crushed this draft.