IT’S 2020 NFL DRAFT WEEK, and it sure feels like a sports-desperate world will be watching this draft more than ever before. Coronavirus has the world in quarantine, and with sports on indefinite hiatus, the NFL Draft is about as close as we get to the real thing. Heck, all of us just spent our evening live tweeting and hyperventilating over a sports documentary last night.
The most important assets in any NFL Draft will always be the quarterbacks, but we already covered the presumed top-seven QBs last week. Today let’s look at 10 other key players to watch at the 2020 NFL Draft. These aren’t my top 10 prospects by any means, and I’m not even really ranking them in any order, other than approximately the order I expect them to be drafted.
More than anything else, these 10 players are “my guys.” They’re the 10 prospects I’m most intrigued to see where they land on Thursday and Friday night as the 2020 NFL Draft unfolds…
EDGE Chase Young, Ohio State
Chase Young is the best player in the 2020 draft.
That is, Chase Young is the best non-QB in the draft. Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa may end up more valuable because, you know, quarterbacks, but Young is the safest pick in the class.
It’s a passing league, and if you can’t have an elite QB, the next best thing is a guy that disrupts them. That’s Chase Young. Young has all the makings of a stud pass rusher. He’s freakishly long and athletic and he plays with an endless frenzy that energizes the entire defense. He has a super quick first step and got better and better over three years at Ohio State, improving from 3.5 sacks as a freshman to 10.5 as a sophomore and 16.5 this season.
Young does the other things, too. When he can’t get to the quarterback, he has the agility and athleticism to bat passes down, often the hallmark of a great defensive end. He also makes plays by forcing fumbles. Young forced six this season and added 21 tackles for loss. He looks like the next elite disruptive pass rusher, along the lines of Dwight Freeney or Jared Allen.
With Burrow locked in at #1 and Washington sitting at #2 with a presumed franchise QB already in tow, Chase Young looks headed to the nation’s capital. Even the Washington Haskins can’t screw this one up, right Rajan Nanavati??
LB/S/?? Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Chase Young may be the best non-QB in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Isaiah Simmons is definitely my favorite prospect to watch.
Tune in to any Clemson game over the past couple seasons and you’re sure to see Simmons. It’s impossible not to because he is literally everywhere.
Quarterback sacked? Simmons is in on the pressure. Interception over the middle? It’s Simmons with the pick. Run busted outside headed toward the sideline? Simmons beats him there and makes the tackle. Deep pass 25 yards downfield? Oh yeah, that’s somehow Isaiah Simmons covering a quarter of the field away after living in your backfield all game.
Simmons is an athletic freak that, as recently as 10 years ago, might have struggled to find himself the right home. The old NFL liked certainty and clear positionality, and Simmons is a tweener. Is he a linebacker? Is he a safety? Possibly even an edge rusher?
A decade ago, those questions might have doomed Simmons. Now they’re exactly why he’s so valuable. Simmons is a stud defender, period. Nothing else matters. That he doesn’t have a clear position adds value, not detracts from it. Simmons is a wildcard, something the quarterback can’t account for. The QB is going to get to the line, survey the field, and see 10 defenders and one Simmons. He might rush the passer on that play, drop deep to defend, or somewhere in between. He’s a one-man defensive disguise.
A few years ago, Derwin James slipped in the draft because no one was knew what position he was. Turns out it didn’t matter. James was one of the best defenders in the league already as a rookie. His position was “defensive disruptor,” and he was elite.
The Chargers are sitting there at #6, and Isaiah Simmons could be on the board. Can you imagine a defense with both Isaiah and Derwin out there?
WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
After the star quarterbacks, the incredible wide receiver class has been the talk of the 2020 NFL Draft. Three names sit at the top of almost everyone’s WR board, but CeeDee Lamb is my belle of the ball.
Lamb is another player that simply fits where the NFL is headed next, a receiver that does a bit of everything. Lamb had outstanding hands that snag everything in sight, and while he doesn’t have elite high-end speed, it’s his quickness and shiftyness that I love. Lamb is a YAC god. Just get the ball to CeeDee in space and let him do the rest.
Oklahoma knew that too. That’s why they got him the ball on punt returns and jet sweeps. Most teams reserve those roles for their fastest players, but the Sooners wanted the ball in the hands of their most dynamic playmaker. Lamb can play either outside receiver spot or line up inside at the slot.
He’s also known for his high football IQ and his elite work ethic. That means Lamb is a guy who will know every play and know just how to get himself into space. His versatility makes him a star in the modern NFL, where he can run any route on any play. More than any other wideout in this class, he’s the guy I want on my team.
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OT Tristan Wirfs, Iowa
Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I’m some sort of offensive line expert. Wirfs is at or near the top of every draftnik’s OT board, and the top tackle on the board has been a much safer and more predictable pick than most other positions in recent years.
We don’t always know how the “skill” guys will end up, but the beefy ones are more predictable, perhaps less team- or system-dependent. Wirfs is super athletic and one of the younger high-end prospects at age 20. He won’t be a sexy pick but he should have a favorable outcome.
RB J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
More and more, running back is the overlooked and forgotten position as NFL teams have realized RBs are fungible and easily replaceable. They also have shorter shelf lives and are almost never worth that big fat second contract, even the elite ones. A decade or two ago, running back was a glamour position. Now we thumb our noses at it.
That’s why I’m starting to veer the other way. No, that doesn’t mean I’d take a running back in the top five now, not even Saquon Barkley. And it doesn’t mean I’d be excited to offer the next Todd Gurley or David Johnson a fat extension. But as everyone rushes to avoid running backs entirely, there’s a happy medium that has become quite valuable — spending a second- or third-round draft pick on the position.
Just look at recent drafts. Nick Chubb went in round two in 2018. Derrick Henry did the same in 2016. In between, we saw Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt all taken in the second or third round. A decade ago, many of these names might have snuck into the first round. Now they’ve become bargains.
I still don’t want to offer those names a big extension, but a second- or third-round pick for four great years of production sounds like a pretty good deal to me. That’s why I’m in on J.K. Dobbins, the best pure runner in the draft. D’Andre Swift is more rounded but too small for a full load and might go in the first. Jonathan Taylor is a speed demon but can’t run between the tackles and didn’t show up in the biggest games.
Dobbins was just the opposite. He didn’t rack up 2003 rushing yards this season by piling on against the Florida Atlantics of the world. Dobbins had 211 yards and 4 touchdowns at Michigan. He had 335 yards in two dominant games against Wisconsin, then capped off his career with 174 yards on just 18 carries against Clemson in the playoffs.
It’s tempting to look at the NFL Draft and dream about 10-year starters, and Dobbins won’t be that, because no running back is these days. But he looks like a darn good starter on a cheap rookie contract for the next half-decade, and that’s become pretty valuable these days.
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
The only reason I might not take Dobbins is because I like Clyde Edwards-Helaire even more.
Edwards-Helaire does everything. He has a motor that just won’t stop, a quick first step, and burst when he hits the hole. He also has elite balance. Edwards-Helaire waits patiently for an opening, then bounces off guys when he gets there. The first guy almost never brings him down. He’s also an excellent route runner and elite receiver, and he’s a terrific kick returner.
Of course, Edwards-Helaire is only 5'7, so naturally, people are ignoring all the production and dinging him for his height. I’ve seen a lot of Darren Sproles comps, and Sproles was a terrific third down player, but that’s selling Edwards-Helaire short. I see something more like Maurice Jones-Drew, a bowling ball runner with a low center of gravity. Like MJD, CEH is light on his feet and runs through and around defenses that can’t keep up with his combination of strength and quickness. He’s going to be a good one.
S Grant Delpit, LSU
I’m not an LSU fan, nor Ohio State for that matter. I’m just a fan of elite football, and Grant Delpit is an elite football talent.
I can’t watch Delpit and not see Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger LSU safety who finished top-five in the 2011 Heisman race. Delpit was nothing like that this year in an injury-plagued season, but he’s that type of playmaker. Delpit can be a bit inconsistent overall, but he consistently makes big plays, whether a sack or another interception. He flies around the field and has a knack of showing up in the middle of a big play. He’s a ball hawk.
He’s also a major injury risk that can’t seem to stay healthy, and that alone looks like it will drop Delpit from the top half of the first to somewhere on Day 2. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge steal.
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QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
I said no quarterback talk, but I can’t help but include my favorite sleeper. There’s not one but two Alabama alumni with star potential at the position.
Hurts nearly matches Tagovailoa’s accuracy, ball protection, and winning record. He is nothing near the arm of Tua or Burrow, but he makes up for that by offering value as a runner, another player that fits where the game is headed. I could see a Dak Prescott type outcome if Hurts falls to the second or third and lands on the right savvy team.
S/CB Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
Unlike LSU, Ohio State, or Oklahoma, I am in fact a Minnesota homer. That means I watched Antoine Winfield Sr. anchor the Vikings defense for nearly a decade as one of the best run-stopping tacklers in football at cornerback. His son looks cut out of a similar mold.
Winfield Jr. has dad’s instincts and nose for the ball. He’s a tough tackler, and he’s both quick and fast. He had 83 tackles this year and was always around the ball with seven picks and three sacks. Unlike dad, Winfield Jr. is more of a tweener that could end up playing some corner, some safety, or both. But again, that’s a value add in today’s NFL. He’s a first-round prospect for me.
WR Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
Johnson is the one guy in this piece that probably won’t go off the draft board until Day 3, but I don’t get it. He was a major producer for a Golden Gophers offense that wasn’t even that good at passing, outside of him. Minnesota finished with only 30 passing TDs and under 3300 yards. Tyler Johnson was responsible for almost half of that production, at 1318 yards and 13 TDs. It’s a good sign when you can dominate that much, even when the entire defense knows it’s coming your way.
Johnson is a terrific route runner that just knows how to create separation and get himself open, and he’s another guy that runs really well after the catch. He isn’t usually listed among the other outstanding wideout talents in this draft, but perhaps he should be. ■