The week of the NFL Draft is a complicated time for those of us deeply ingrained in and committed to college football. It signifies an end to this season of mock drafts — which by this point have been rebooted and updated more than an operating system — and the hundreds of scouting reports that inform or misinform those projections. Reports, sourced or anonymous, power narratives that serve as the backdrop for a televised weekend of drama for fans of all 32 NFL teams.
A college-centric or exclusively college-focused perspective on the NFL Draft won’t paint the entire picture for a general manager trying to make a decision with his job potentially on the line. But staying true to analysis based mostly on how these players performed in helmets, pads and during high-level competition on Saturdays does set up a few distinct conflicts when compared to the general consensus from NFL circles.
After a decade of covering college football here at CBS Sports and assisting in our NFL Draft coverage, the conflicts usually fall into a few different buckets.
Misplaced concerns with how a player “fits” at the next level: Just by earning an invitation to the NFL Combine, these players have outlasted cuts at every level and proven to be some of the most gifted football players in the country. There is an argument to be made for finding the right “fit” for a franchise or coaching staff, but when offensive and defensive players are downgraded because of how their size and measurables line up with a certain profile or expectation, I think mistakes are made in the evaluation process.
Misplaced excitement based on measurables: The inverse of the “fit” concerns comes into play when NFL teams come back from the combine with testing numbers that overtake the evaluation process. Draft history factors into models and projections that use these numbers to inform decisions, but too often that can either overshadow the game film or contribute to bias and a new lens for reviewing a select player’s performance. Testing well is a great way for a player to boost their draft stock and increase how much money can be made on their rookie deal, but players who have proven their performance at a high level on Saturday tend to be the ones with intangibles that help them make it to a second contract.
Draft value and scarcity: I understand the basic calculations that go into “a run on [position]” and why teams looking to address needs might choose to make moves or selections seeing that the number of high-end prospects at a certain position is starting to dissipate. I also generally disagree with passing on multiple best-player-available selections to address those needs.
As you’ll see in the rankings below, even these conflicts aren’t enough to create disagreement on some of the best players in the class. So with college performance as the basis and building blocks of the analysis, here’s how I’ve ranked the top 32 players in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft.
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1. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: Can we talk about the ridiculous production here? Can we talk about the Wisconsin game? Young led the nation in sacks, ranked No. 2 in tackles for loss and was a unanimous All-American recognized as the best defensive player in the country all while missing two games due to NCAA suspension. His dominance was normalized by the end of the year, and his status as one of the best players in the country was so agreed-upon that I think we overlooked the fact that he could have turned in one of the best individual seasons for a defensive player ever with a full season under his belt.
2. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson: The development across his career, which saw him not only play but thrive at all three levels of Clemson’s defense, makes Simmons somewhat of a football equivalent to those “unicorns” we hear of in basketball circles. His closing speed as a pass rusher from the line of scrimmage is elite, he’s got great instincts for run support from the linebacker or safety position and he can smother tight ends and running backs in pass coverage. Any team that passes on Simmons on the basis of “fit” is missing the point. You bring in a player like Simmons and then build the rest of the defense to fit around his unique skill set.
3. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: The improvement that Burrow showed from 2018 to 2019 is not the end of his development. The jump to the NFL will be a reset of sorts, but in the same way he eventually became a master of LSU’s new offense and the most important leader in the locker room, Burrow will once again thrive when challenged with the need for continued growth. He does a great job of moving in the pocket, keeping his eyes down the field and avoiding the kind of negative plays that will throw an offense off-schedule. All of the skills showcased in his record-shattering 2019 season were the culmination of a lifetime of training, and in that long-term view of his development suggests that, yes, Burrow will continue to get better. It’s impossible to replicate the production from that record-setting season, but the skills and his mastery of them will continue to improve.
4. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Don’t believe the smokescreen — Tua is worth a top-three pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. It’s been clear that he’s special since his dynamic introduction as a freshman. There’s a character aspect to Tua that’s going to power the recovery that lies ahead after suffering a broken hip at the end of 2019, and not in a fluffy “aw, he’s such a great guy” pre-packaged kind of way that requires some soft piano music to tell the story. Tua speaks and acts with a confidence and determination that’s informed by his family and his upbringing, and that confidence has been infectious and attractive to the rest of an Alabama locker room that is loaded with other future pros.
5. Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State: As close to a total package cornerback as you’ll find in the 2020 NFL Draft, Okudah looks better on tape than he does to the average eye, and even to the average eye he flashes with his ability to mirror wide receivers and totally take them out of an offensive gameplan. His success doesn’t come as a surprise. Okudah entered Ohio State as a five-star prospect ranked No. 1 at his position and immediately became a key rotation player in a backfield loaded with other future pros, so there is evidence to suggest a high likelihood of Okudah continuing on that blue-chip path to Pro Bowls and All-Pro contention at the next level.
6. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn: When Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele needed a plan to try and stop LSU and its Joe Burrow-led offensive attack, the 3-1-7 scheme he put in place to hold the Tigers to a season-low 23 points would never have been possible without Brown. Auburn consistently pressured Burrow and got him off his spot thanks to the disruption that Brown was able to captain from a three-man front. Even though the sacks and tackles for loss were limited (a credit to Burrow), the record-setting quarterback met his match against one of the best interior defensive lineman we’ve seen since Aaron Donald.
7. Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina: There’s still so much left for Kinlaw to improve upon, and the tape he put together in 2019 showed the hints of the high ceiling for this defensive lineman. Kinlaw’s first step and timing off the snap put enough plays on tape to terrify opposing offensive line coaches, and with his skill set still evolving, NFL teams would be smart to try and move him around to keep opponents’ protection schemes off balance.
8. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: Route-running and hands are the best in the class, and to me, Jeudy rates as the best wide receiver prospect since 2014. Jeudy showed up as an early enrollee as a freshman and proceeded to torch his new teammates in spring practice and the Alabama spring game. He hasn’t let up at any step in his development since. I just don’t see a downside or a weakness, which is why I’ve rated him as the No. 1 player in a wide receiver class that’s loaded with high-end talent.
9. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma: Throw out all combine numbers and just put on the film to get a feel for what Lamb can bring to an offense. When it comes to yards after catch and turning good plays into great plays, Lamb has the kind of game-breaking ability that won’t be visible in the underwear Olympics.
Source. CBS Sports
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