By Steve Silverman
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The NFL Draft is eight days away, and there is a general perception that it is a below-average draft that features weakness at the quarterback position.
There are certainly questions about this year’s QB class, but the rest of it looks quite strong. It is primarily about defensive players, and that’s not an issue. Just try winning in this league without defense.
Perhaps if the Falcons had just a bit more of it in early February, the Patriots would not be celebrating their fifth Super Bowl title throughout the offseason and making a visit to Donald Trump’s White House on Wednesday.
While late movement could change the way the draft plays out, it looks like the top six picks could be defensive players, along with eight of the first 10.
It starts with Myles Garrett and Solomon Thomas at the top of the draft. Both defensive ends have a chance to be game-changing players, although Garrett, from Texas A&M, is more of the traditional defensive stud who can dominate against the run, overpower blockers with his strength and then show off his closing speed.
Thomas is a different story. The Stanford product has the speed to change opposing blocking schemes from Day 1. His quickness will allow him to move inside on occasion and wreak havoc.
He is more of the eye-catching player because he will flash his speed and string a series of moves together that blockers struggle to keep up with.
Safety Jamal Adams did not blow anyone away with his 4.56 time in the 40 at the Combine, but helped his cause by posting a 4.33 at LSU’s Pro Day earlier this month. He is a sharp, smart and aggressive football player who was at his best in big games while playing for the Tigers.
While it’s important for a safety to learn his team’s system, it’s the most instinctive position left in football. A safety must be able to react to what he sees, and everything is in front of him. He sees how the offense is set up and how the rest of the defense is preparing to stop it. As a result, he knows what the quarterback is looking at it, and he has to be able to figure out what the quarterback is thinking.
The ideal safeties in NFL history have been Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley and Ed Reed. Adams may be just a notch below those three all-time greats.
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore should be able to make the jump from Ohio State to the NFL with little lag time. Lattimore is also very instinctive for his position, and he has the speed and burst to come up with the interception on any ball he can reach. He may have a few issues against the run, but he can upgrade any team’s coverage ability.
Reuben Foster of Alabama, the top linebacker this year, is one of the most intriguing players in the draft. He is a bit smaller than the prototype at 6 foot, 229 pounds, but he does not play small. He is a huge hitter for his size, and his big advantage is his range. Not only can he go sideline-to-sideline to make the hit, he gets there so quickly that he can square his shoulders on the ball carrier before he turns upfield.
This causes explosive hits that result in turnovers.
Other key first-round defensive players include Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, Temple outside linebacker Haason Reddick and Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett.
As far as the quarterback position is concerned, there has been some discussion about Mitchell Trubisky’s all-around talent and upside, be I remain a bit dubious because of his lack of experience against big-time competition. He performed brilliantly at North Carolina in 2016, but that is the whole of his college work.
A generation ago, the Cincinnati Bengals saw a can’t-miss quarterback prospect in Akili Smith. They selected him with the third overall pick in the 1999 draft because he had been brilliant with the Oregon Ducks in 1998.
He turned out to be the biggest bust in Cincinnati history. He was simply awful in the NFL despite his strong arm and great athleticism. His decision-making ability prevented him from executing, and his confidence fell apart.
DeShaun Watson is the opposite of Trubisky, because he has been steeled by his experience and has played big game after big game throughout his college career at Clemson. He is decisive, athletic and confident, and he has passed every test.
Detractors point out his 30 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he has thrown 1,070 passes during that time, and half of those interceptions were the result of poor routes by his receivers or passes that slipped through their fingers.
Watson should be a winning and productive NFL quarterback, and he could develop into a superstar. But this draft will be remembered for its defensive players, because the quality of the top stars is very high.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy