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When recently writing about former University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. used the word that may end up being the key to the whole 2020 NFL Draft: “Smokescreen.”

While this week’s NFL combine in Indianapolis is all about teams gathering information on prospects, throwing everyone else off to what you’re doing is often perceived as being nearly as important. “You can’t always believe what you hear at the combine” is a popular phrase this time of year, and the level of disinformation only grows proportionally the closer one gets to the draft.

Actually, it already began. Last week the Miami Herald reported that the Dolphins may not be as excited about Tagovailoa as popularly believed, and there were reports out of Detroit that the Lions were seriously considering taking him at No. 3 overall. 

That would mean jettisoning starting Mathew Stafford, something general manager Bob Quinn went out of his way to shoot down on the Lions' wesbite with: “He’s here. He’s our quarterback. And all those rumors, not sure exactly where they came from, but like I said before, they’re 100% false.”

Yes, there’s going to be a lot of smoke between now and the draft in Las Vegas, April 23-25.

“The teams that need quarterbacks, they're clumped together — five, six, and seven, Dolphins, Chargers, Panthers, and they're clumped together — 12, 13, 14, with the Raiders, Colts, Bucs,” Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network explained on a conference call with reporters last week. “So how the jockeying for position takes place for the quarterbacks is going to be a lot of fun to follow.”

Detroit is in the enviable position because it would be a total shock if Cincinnati didn’t take local product Joe Burrow at No. 1, and Washington didn’t quickly scoop up edge rusher Chase Young second.

With so many teams desperate to add a quarterback the Lions can wait for the best offer to come along. The less they tip their hand about what they want to do the more demand goes up.

“That’s why for quarterbacks, these picks are so valuable,” Kiper said. “If teams want to move up, that’s the spot.”

For Tagovailoa, Monday and Tuesday are his most important days in Indianapolis as its when the quarterbacks go through their medical testing. With another positive report of progress in his recovery from hip surgery the smoke will start getting thicker as prospective teams start positioning themselves.

“I think he goes in the top five,” Kiper said.

Meanwhile, the football world gets ready for a giant game of chicken and seeing who will blink last.

Before getting into nine other things Alabama fans need know about the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, Kiper currently projects the Crimson Tide to have five first-round players:

3. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Detroit Lions

6. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

17. Xavier McKinney, S, Dallas Cowboys

22. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Buffalo Bills

He also has five LSU players going in the first round, although three with the final few picks.

There are a lot of parallels with the latest mock draft of his ESPN colleague Todd McShay, with one big exception: McShay also has outside linebacker Terrell Lewis at No. 27 by the Seattle Seahawks.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah also has five Alabama players in the first round in his pre-combine mock:

5. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

6. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Los Angeles Chargers

15. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos

17. Xavier McKinney, S, Dallas Cowboys

21. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

In his latest mock draft, Kevin Hanson of Sports Illustrated projects six Alabama first-round selections:

3. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins (via trade)

7. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, New York Jets (via trade)

12. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

15. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Denver Broncos

23. Xavier McKinney, S, New England Patriots

25. Trevon Diggs, CB, Minnesota Vikings

2] The schedule

The routine is the same. Players started reporting on Sunday to go through a five-day process.

Day 1: Arrive, registration, orientation, interviews
Day 2: Measurements, pre-exam at hospital, Interviews
Day 3: Media, medical exams, position coach interview, psychological testing
Day 4: NFLPA meeting, interviews, bench press, psychological testing
Day 5: Limited testing/interviews, on-field workout

What’s dramatically different is that instead of doing on-field testing in the mornings, players will be doing them in prime time on the NFL Network beginning Thursday.

Thursday, 3-10 p.m. CT: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III
Friday, 3-10 p.m.: Jedrick Wills Jr.
Saturday, 3-10 p.m.: Raekwon Davis, Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis
Sunday, 1-6 p.m.: Shyheim Carter, Trevon Diggs, Xavier McKinney

3] New drills

The players will be going through some different drills this year, including RPO reads and a smoke-route reads for the quarterbacks designed to gauge how fast one can catch and a release a throw off a snap.

The wide receivers will have a new red-zone drill. 

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Running backs will have to go through option routes off different looks.

The linebackers will do more in coverage.

“I think all of those are real positive,” Jeremiah said. “It's been long overdue to have our evaluation tools match where the game is."

4] Who’s there?

Alabama had 10 different players invited, and all are expected to attend. The only one to announce he won’t go through drills is Tagovailoa.

  1. Shyheim Carter, S, 6-0, 191 pounds
  2. Raekwon Davis, DT, 6-7, 312
  3. Trevon Diggs, CB, 6-2, 207
  4. Anfernee Jennings, OLB, 6-2, 252
  5. Jerry Jeudy, WR, 6-1, 193
  6. Terrell Lewis, OLB, 6-5, 258
  7. Xavier McKinney, S, 6-1, 200
  8. Henry Ruggs III, WR, 5-11, 188
  9. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, 6-0, 217
  10. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, 6-5, 320

5] Don’t expect many leaks on Tagovailoa

Every team doctor is going to have a chance to check Tagovailoa, but nothing being said in the media will change how teams evaluate him. Due to the type of injury involved teams will recheck him, monitor his progress, and wait for a chance to put him through individual drills.

In this case, the last thing they’re going to want to do his share information.

“The only reason that information will get out is if a team wants to get it out, hoping that somehow he would end up dropping,” Jeremiah said. “So that's going to be interesting to see what happens with him on the medical front. I don't anticipate we'll get many answers there.”

Incidentally, Patrick Mahomes winning the Super Bowl can only help Tagovailoa. Remember, he didn’t play his first year with the Chiefs, who had Alex Smith at the time. So the idea of Tagovailoa needing time to recover won’t scare anyone off.

6] The player to watch is Henry Ruggs III

Jeremiah considers Ruggs to be such an undervalued prospect that he called the wide receiver “instant death for corners.

“I think he's going to absolutely fly,” he said about the 40-yard dash. “Everybody knows it's coming. He's still going to do it. I think the second number will be a two. I don't know what the third number will be. But he's the closest thing to Tyreek Hill that I've seen, since Tyreek Hill entered the league. And just looked like he's been on a different speed than everybody else. This kid does the same thing.”

For some reason a number of analysts are counting Alabama’s depth at the wide receiver position as a reason why Jeudy may not be the first wide receiver selected, but not against Ruggs. Some of that may have to do with Ruggs also playing special teams, as both a returner and a gunner in kickoff and punt coverage.

“Some of the production doesn't blow you away, but Ruggs only dropped one ball,” he continued. “A lot of times, when you get these speed guys, you get inconsistent hands. This kid's got great hands and he can fly. Now, he's not nearly as polished when you're talking about his teammate Jerry Jeudy as a route runner. I am willing to bet if you went and polled the 32 defensive coordinators in the NFL, gave them the video of the top three receivers, said which of these guys do you not want in your division, I would be willing to bet a lot of money that Henry Ruggs would get the most votes. That's the guy you do not want to face.

“That's why I believe it's not over who will be the first receiver. It's not a two-man race; it's a three-man race.”

Kiper is projecting Ruggs to the Bills “because Josh Allen needs that down-the-field threat.” It doesn’t hurt that former Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is in Buffalo, either.

Incidentally, Jeremiah also called current Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle a “freak. He can fly,” and projects both he and DeVonta Smith to both be first-round selections next year.

Henry Ruggs III

Could Henry Ruggs III be the first wide receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft?

7] Is Xavier McKinney the best safety in the draft?

The buzz heading into the workouts is that McKinney might be an ideal fit for the Dallas Cowboys, as he’s a top-notch communicator and can play down near the line of scrimmage.

“I had some scouting influences on me when I started that had come from New England, and Coach [Bill] Belichick would always preach to those guys, you cannot win with a dumb safety,” Jeremiah said. “You've got to have an intelligent and good communicative safety, and I think that's what McKinney is to the point where they had so many linebacker injuries at Alabama they kind of played him down there in that nickel backer role and let him call the fronts and communicate.

“I think he's one of the safest players in the draft. I think he'll be an unbelievably great fit in Dallas.”

8] Could Jedrick Wills Jr. be the first offensive lineman selected?

He doesn’t have ideal size for tackle, but Wills has been described as being able to move like a tight end who can maul defenders in the running game. When he sets the edge, it’s set.

At right tackle, which meant protecting Tagovailoa's blind side, Wills graded out at over 91 percent for the Crimson Tide last season. He allowed only one sack and 3.5 quarterback hurries while missing just seven assignments out of 771 snaps for a success rate of 99.0 percent.

NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein has compared Wills to Philadelphia Eagles’ Jason Peters, which helps explain why he’s widely considered a top-15 selection, and most don’t think he’ll slide past Cleveland at No. 10. Andrew Thomas of Georgia gets the most attention because of his size, but Wills' biggest challenger to be the first offensive lineman selected is Louisville's Mekhi Becton.

9] Can Trevon Diggs get into the first round?

It depends on whom you ask. 

The cornerback is the player with the best opportunity to improve his draft stock and show he's worthy of bring selected in the first round. With linebacker Terrell Lewis it’s also about the medical tests.

Diggs has ideal size, so scouts will be looking at two things especially:

“The question is just pure deep speed,” Jeremiah said. “But real fluid. Obviously Stefon's brother there, the wide receiver with the Vikings. Former wide receiver, kickoff returner. Really skilled athlete. The question is just how is his deep speed and he's just okay as a tackler.”

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com has Trevon Diggs at No. 20 to Jacksonville in his latest mock.

10] Jalen Hurts

He’s also at the combine and will only work out as a quarterback. Kiper projects him to be a fourth-round selection.

Bonus: The biggest smokescreen

What’s the biggest smokescreen Kiper’s ever seen at a draft?

“Great question,” he said during a teleconference with reporters. The one that initially came to mind occurred just three years ago.

In 2017, the Chicago Bears wanted quarterback Mitch Trabisky, but had the third-overall selection in the draft. In order to make sure they got him, they traded up one spot and gave San Francisco picks No. 67, 111 and a third-round selection in 2018 to move up.

Here’s the amazing thing about the Trabisky trade: It would be easy to say it was the kind of move that led to the 49ers playing in the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t.

The 49ers took defensive end Solomon Thomas out of Stanford with the third-overall pick. He’s struggled mightily so far.

General manager John Lynch traded the third-round pick to the Saints, who used it to take running back Alvin Kamara, the NFL offensive rookie of the year. His development helped lead to Mark Ingram II leaving via free agency for the Baltimore Ravens.

The fourth-round pick was traded so the 49ers could get back in the first-round and take a chance on former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster at No. 31 overall. They released him in 2018.

The 2018 third-round pick acquired from the Bears, used to take linebacker Fred Warner, has been the most productive player for the 49ers in the deal.

Meanwhile, Mahomes went eight picks after Trubisky to the Chiefs at No. 10.