This has been one weird draft year, and not for the normal reasons. It was just a few weeks ago, or at least it feels that way, that we were arguing over whether we should even be doing this amid a global pandemic.
But here we are, at the end of April, just a few hours from answering so many questions.
We’ve known since New Year’s how tonight would start, and at least that much hasn’t changed. Barring something wholly unexpected, the Bengals will make LSU’s Joe Burrow, who grew up just two hours away, their new quarterback. Then Washington will select his ex-teammate, Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young, second overall. And then the draft will begin.
Will the Lions be able to move the third pick? Will the Giants get out of No. 4? Will Tua Tagovailoa slip? How about Justin Herbert? Will Jordan Love even land in the first round?
We’re gonna have answers soon. Ahead of that, we’re going to get you ready for it all, one last time.
It’s Draft Day! In the GamePlan, we’ve got …
• A ranking of storylines for tonight.
• A look at why vets could move tomorrow, rather than today.
• A fun look back at the 2014 draft, and what it shows us.
But we’re starting with what I think you want, which is what I’m hearing ahead of the big night we’ve got coming.
Let’s get right to it, then. Here are 20 things you need to know ahead of the 2020 NFL draft, about what’ll happen after Burrow and Young come off the board.
• The first night of the draft is always about the quarterbacks to all of us in the general public. But to those on the inside, this year, Round 1 is about a decidedly less sexy position—offensive tackle. The first four (Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs) should go within the first 10 or 11 picks. And within a 13-pick stretch in the top half of the first round—from the fourth pick to 16th—I’d say there are 12 teams in play to take one, with the Raiders being the outlier. Even the Jaguars and Falcons are in play, with potential to move their own tackles inside, as are the Niners, who’d be interested in an heir for Joe Staley on the left side. That could lead to movement anywhere from No. 3 to 13 (with the Lions, Giants, Jaguars, Raiders and 49ers among those looking to deal down or, in the case of Jacksonville, out to 2021). And it could lead to the second cluster of tackles (Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland, USC’s Austin Jackson, Houston’s Josh Jones, Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson) to start coming off the board earlier than most expect. My guess would be Jackson would be the first one in the second group, and could get scooped up by Miami at 18.
• The reason for this? It’s threefold. One, this is a good tackle class. Two, there’s clearly a scarcity of good linemen across the NFL, caused in part by how they’re being developed at lower levels, and evidenced in even average linemen getting big paydays. And three, in a year without “30 visits” and private workouts, drafting big men is seen as the safe play (they’re less of a projection than other guys, because the tape is more telling on them). That last factor, plus a lack of depth at the interior positions, should help Michigan C Cesar Ruiz and LSU C Lloyd Cushenberry as well.
• One last thing on that group: Over the last three or four weeks, it became clear to me that Thomas was the cleanest of the top four. He’s a true left tackle with consistent tape who played at the highest level of college football. And when I asked around over the last week where his shortcomings are, the best I could come up with is that maybe he lacks a little edge in the run game and/or the limitless potential of someone like Becton (who’s had consistency and weight issues, and is seen as high maintenance). That makes me wonder if Thomas goes higher than most think.
• Alright, now for the quarterbacks. The pressure points all along for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert have been Miami at No. 5 and the Chargers at No. 6, and there have been rumblings for a few weeks now that each team may pass on the position altogether at those spots and address tackle needs instead. I’ve said this a few times this week, but I can’t find anyone inside the league who believes Miami is taking Tagovailoa at No. 5—which could mean that GM Chris Grier’s put up a tremendous smokescreen. And Herbert’s place with the Dolphins and Chargers is similarly hard to gauge, especially given that some believe Miami could take a tackle at No. 5 and come back with Jordan Love (the “poor-man’s Patrick Mahomes” comp did come up in their building) later on. We’re less than a half-day out.
• One receiver getting a lot of love of late: LSU’s Justin Jefferson. I’m not sure it’ll be enough to crack the top group (Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs), but Jefferson is heady, productive, and ran much better than anyone expected. The ceiling for him? Well, if Tampa can’t move up to get a tackle, and is stuck at No. 14, Jefferson could be the perfect slot to give Tom Brady one more piece of firepower. I think his floor is probably the Vikings at No. 22.
• While we’re on the receivers, I don’t think one goes in the top 10, but the four aforementioned could come off the board in the 10 picks after that, indicative of the kind of class this is. As teams see it, there isn’t a Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones here. In fact, the two kids coming next year—LSU’s JaMarr Chase and Clemson’s Justyn Ross—are considered higher-end players than any of the receivers this year. But there is depth this year, and so that means two things. One, there should be a few different runs on the position over the first three rounds. Two, some teams (Philly?) might wait until the second or third round to address their need there, knowing good players will still be on the board.
• Speaking of receivers, I have both the Chiefs and Saints taking defensive players in my mock—I gave Jordyn Brooks to New Orleans and Kristian Fulton to Kansas City. But there are at least rumors that both would be tempted if a burner were to fall into their laps. Could the Saints move up for Ruggs if he falls into striking distance? Could the Chiefs consider someone like Jalen Raegor? These are at least fun thoughts, and I think have been considerations for both teams. I’ve also heard the Chiefs have investigated what it would take to move up into the mid-20s, and are looking at the idea of dropping back, too, maybe as far back as 40. And here’s one more skill player to keep an eye on for Kansas City: Georgia RB D’Andre Swift. Andy Reid has zero history of taking a tailback high over 21 years, so I’ve had my doubts about the idea. But maybe Swift is that guy for him.
• Another team that could move around at the bottom of the round is the Vikings, with rumblings that they could move up from No. 22, down from No. 25 or both. That’d make sense, too, if they have eyes for someone like Jefferson at receiver, and might like a corner, maybe someone like Utah’s Jaylon Johnson (who’s talented, but off some teams’ boards because of his injury woes), who they could get later in the round. (There’s also been some buzz that they could be in the tackle market, with the idea that left tackle Riley Reiff could move inside to guard).
• The Ravens have been calling around on linebackers, and they could be another candidate to move from their spot. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Brooks, Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen are all gone by the time the 28th pick rolls around. The next linebacker to go after those three, I’d think, would be Wyoming’s Logan Wilson. So the Ravens could move up for one of the aforementioned three, or down to better position themselves to fill that need.
• C.J. Henderson is one name that’s gotten hot in recent weeks, with the idea that a team (Atlanta?) could even trade up for him. The Florida corner’s tape is inconsistent, but the good on there is really, really good. “Henderson’s bad tape really is as a tackler,” said one AFC scouting director. “And the bad there is really bad. But as a pure cover guy, he’s really good, and that’s why the gap (with top corner Jeff Okudah) is closing. You’re drafting a corner to cover people.” My belief is that the Jets and Raiders would probably think long and hard about taking him at No. 11 and 12.
• I know people have been all over Dallas’s center need. I don’t think the Cowboys take Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz with the 17th pick. Could they trade back up into the bottom of the first round to grab him? Maybe. But I have heard they’re encouraged by the progress they’ve gotten from 2019 third-rounder Connor McGovern, and believe they can play him there if they exit this weekend without a top player at the position.
• I don’t think Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons goes as high as I initially believed he would. The feedback I’ve gotten from teams is that you’re going to have to have a detailed plan for how to use him—he’s not a centerfielding safety, he’d struggle to hold up physically as a down-to-down linebacker and the old big box safety role doesn’t exist in a lot of defenses anymore. He had a very creative defensive coordinator in Brent Venables the last few years, and he’ll have to find a home with someone like that. “If you don’t have a clear plan,” said one veteran scouting director on Wednesday, “it’s a recipe for disaster.” I don’t see Simmons going in the top seven picks at this point (though I’d allow for a Chargers curveball).
• And one more who’s fallen a little: South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. I don’t think he has much of a shot to go in the top 10 anymore, even though he may have more pass-rush potential than Derrick Brown. There’s some injury concern with Kinlaw, and questions over whether he’s maxed out as a player.
• All three of the teams with multiple first-round picks are looking to trade at least one of them. I’ve heard the Niners would prefer to move No. 31 than No. 13 but are open to both in trying to fill the cavernous gap left in the second, third and fourth rounds by the Dee Ford and Emmanuel Sanders trades. The Raiders, I’m told, would love to get back into the second round with a move down (their second-rounder went to Chicago in the Khalil Mack trade). And Jacksonville could move No. 9 or No. 20, and potentially move assets to 2021.
• Another player a lot of teams like: LSU pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, who’s helped by the fact that it’s hard to find true edge rushers after Chase Young. Alabama’s Terrell Lewis is considered an enormous risk injury-wise, and likely falls (and maybe far) in the draft because of it. A lot of scouts I’ve talked to have come to view Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa as just a guy. And that leaves Chaisson and Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos as the two with top-shelf ability for teams look to add to their rush.
• Jordan Love will be a fun one to watch. And like I said, the “poor man’s Mahomes” thing has been out there forever. What does he lack that Mahomes had? Coming out of Texas Tech, the one thing that was obvious to scouts was that Mahomes’s vision and instincts, for as raw as he might’ve been, were special. Love hasn’t shown any of that, and there’s also a large gap in on-field decision making. But, as one exec said, “He’s a good kid, and the arm talent does remind you of [Mahomes].” I’ve heard Love connected to the Saints, Packers and, again, Dolphins.
• The mean of this draft really will be between picks 20 and 50, where we could see runs on corners, receivers and the second run on offensive tackles take shape. So expect to see teams late tonight trying to deal out into the second round, and as far back as the middle of the round, because they might think a player they get at No. 28 is similar to what they’d take home at 48. Among the teams that could bail from the bottom of the first, in addition to the Chiefs, Niners and Ravens: the Seahawks and Titans.
• As much as we’ve heard about the Lions moving down from No. 3, and they’re trying, the Giants are making a similar effort to look into moving down from No. 4. Does that mean they do it? No. But it is a sign that GM Dave Gettleman is bending a little bit, given his lack of prior history of ever moving down. New coach Joe Judge is from New England, which, of course, has made a habit of trading down over the years.
• I’m going to be keeping an eye tonight, and over the weekend, on teams starting to set themselves up for 2021. I heard there’s a quarterback coming out of Clemson next year who’s pretty good.
• Last thing from me: I really thought, when the league decided to go forward with this, that it would feel a little less normal than it does. A few hours in, today feels like a pretty regular draft day.
Let’s make this one easy … Top five storylines for tonight …
1) Where’s Tua going? Obviously, a lot rides on where the Dolphins and Chargers stand on him. If he gets past those two, it’s anyone’s guess. Would the Jags take a swing? Raiders? Patriots? This one’s about as up-in-the-air as any situation I can remember with a top quarterback going back to Johnny Manziel (more on that in a minute).
2) Where’s Herbert going? The Oregon QB isn’t quite the compelling figure his Alabama counterpart is. But there are teams out there (the ones I know of don’t need QBs) that actually view Herbert as the best prospect at the position in the class. His stock has, all along, seemed to be a little less volatile than Tagovailoa’s. We’ll see what manifests of that tonight.
3) Where’s Love going? Three quarterback questions? Three quarterback questions.
4) When does the first receiver go? Because it’s a flashy position, there’ll always be eyes on what happens with the wideouts. And right there at No. 12, I think we could see a bunch go—with the Raiders, Niners, Bucs and Broncos picking one after another.
5) What will it look like? We’re all so conditioned to seeing the draft look a certain way and tonight’s festivities promise to be jarring in how that will change. And never have the internet connections and generators (just in case) at people’s houses been more important than they will be starting at 8 p.m.
THE BIG QUESTION
Will big-ticket veterans be moved on Thursday?
I think there’s a shot of it. But here’s the thing—I’m not sure that any of the guys on the block (Yannick Ngaukoe, Trent Williams, O.J. Howard) need to go for a first-round pick. And even if you say Ngaukoe should, the Jags may prefer to get a 2021 pick anyway.
So it’ll be interesting to see what happens on Friday morning, with teams being a round through the draft, and their remaining needs for next year a little clearer.
One other piece of housekeeping here, too: Only three fifth-year options on 2017 rookies have been officially exercised at this point (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Tre’Davious White). Some left on the ledger are obvious (Mahomes, Deshaun Watson). Others are more difficult. And clearly, at least a few teams are waiting to see how the draft plays out before making decisions on their former first-round picks.
WHAT NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT
Past history. And what I mean by that is the past history in the draft that shows us that quarterbacks can go earlier or later than we ever thought—and you don’t have to go all the way back to the long green-room waits of Aaron Rodgers (2005) and Brady Quinn (2007) for hard evidence of that.
In fact, a lot of people have forgotten how crazy 2014 was. I was onsite in Minnesota for that one, with the Vikings set to draft a new quarterback to pair with new coach Mike Zimmer. They liked Manziel at the time, but, with Zimmer in the saddle, seemed resolute about taking a defensive war daddy with the eighth pick. And they did that in tabbing versatile UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.
As that happened, much was going on around them. Rumors had Blake Bortles falling all the way into the 20s during draft week. Instead, the Jaguars shocked everyone, having kept their interest air-tight quiet before taking him third overall. Meanwhile, Manziel was rumored to be in play for a handful of teams in the top 10 (Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa), and some felt his floor was the Rams at No. 13.
Well, St. Louis took Aaron Donald there, Manziel started falling, and the Vikings wound up making a bid to move up and get up from No. 40 to take him in the early 20s, only to be beaten to the punch by the Browns. The Vikings settled for a trade up for Teddy Bridgewater instead, taking him at No. 32. And within five years, all three of the quarterbacks were gone from the teams that drafted them.
As it stands now, six years later, Derek Carr is the only one of the 14 quarterbacks drafted that year who is still with the team that drafted him.
So that would just be an example of how these things can go, and how crazy things might get tonight with Tagovailoa and Herbert (but not, of course, Burrow).
THE LAST WORD
Here’s hoping everyone gets to enjoy tonight. It should be a blast. I’m exhausted, but pumped to see how all this plays out.
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