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The 2020 NFL Draft: who should we be looking out for?

Tristan Varakuta previews this likely favourites in this year's unorthodox NFL Draft, as well as evaluating the effects of its alternative format.

The 2020 NFL Draft will be without the pageantry normally expected of the event. It was scheduled to take place in Las Vegas to coincide with the Raiders’ arrival in the city but, instead, it will take place remotely. This move should come as no surprise following the NFL’s decision to ban all in-person meetings between teams and players in the lead-up to the draft due to Coronavirus. It will be interesting to see how this affects the draft process, as teams won’t be able to get up close to any of the prospects they are evaluating. Perhaps certain prospects will fall down in the draft order, as they will not have had the chance to smooth out any injuries or off-field concerns with potential suitors.

Quarterbacks: Reigning Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow is almost certain to be selected first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, after a meteoric rise over the past 12 months. This time last year, Burrow would likely have gone undrafted if he had chosen to declare for the NFL draft. His college football career up to that point had been extremely disappointing: after failing to win the starting quarterback job at Ohio State three seasons in a row he transferred to LSU and had a disappointing first season. However, since LSU implemented a new offensive system last spring, Burrow has been unstoppable. He led LSU to a national championship, with the team going undefeated and beating five of the top-10 ranked college football teams in what was arguably the greatest college football season by a quarterback of all time. Having grown up a stone’s throw away from Cincinnati, it will be truly shocking if the Bengals don’t select him.

A victim of Burrow’s ascendance is Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa has had an illustrious college career, and in his first season, he came off the bench in the national championship game as a freshman to lead a comeback victory. He went on to repeat this feat, winning a second national championship the following season as the starting quarterback. However, in 2019 he suffered a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture from a brutal sack, thereby missing large parts of the season. There are lingering question marks over the long-term impact of this injury which have not been resolved, with coronavirus preventing teams from conducting medical examinations on Tagovailoa. With both Miami and the Chargers on the hunt for a quarterback, one of these teams will likely move in and grab him in a blockbuster trade, with the other taking Justin Herbert as a consolation prize. Herbert is a typical quarterback at 6’6”, with all the physical attributes needed to play in the NFL. He impressed at the Senior Bowl and has high potential, but his football IQ and tendency for misthrows may hold him back in the NFL.

Wide Receivers: The 2020 wide receiver class is being hailed as one of the best of all time and is expected that over ten will be selected in the first two rounds of the draft. Spear-heading this class are Alabama duo Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. Jeudy is an extremely polished prospect with crisp route running and excellent ability to gain yards after the catch, whilst Ruggs offers truly electric speed, having recorded a 4.27 second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine. Ruggs’ skillset may not translate well to being a number one receiver in the NFL, but the attention he would demand as a secondary threat, and the dimension his pace could add to an offence, means he is certain to command a first round pick. Ceedee Lamb is also projected to go high. Whilst he may not have the blistering pace of Ruggs, his excellent ball handling skills and ability to win 50/50 match-ups potentially make him a more viable number one receiver in the NFL.

Tackles: It is expected that four elite tackle prospects will be selected in the first round, although it is difficult to predict the order they will be selected in. How General Managers rank them will be based on the classic draft dilemma: whether to draft sure-fire prospects or draft for potential. Jedrick Wills is perhaps the best overall prospect: he is polished in both pass-protection and run-blocking. However, teams may be put off by the fact he played right-tackle at college level. Andrew Thomas is a powerful run-blocker and would be an attractive prospect for teams running power-scheme offences, but his pass protection will need development. Tristan Wirfs, although less polished than the previous two prospects, offers tremendous upside due to his mobility and will likely attract attention from zone-scheme teams. Mekhi Becton’s skills as a tackle are a cut below the other three prospects, but his unique physical stature (6’7”, 369 lbs) means that he has the highest potential of the bunch. Coaches who believe they can teach Becton the skills to succeed at the next level may see him as a potential Hall of Famer.

Defence: Defensively, this year’s draft is thin on the ground compared to previous years, although Ohio State’s Chase Young is on par with any of the great edge rushing prospects to enter the NFL over the past 5 years. He matches elite physical attributes with a unique polish as a pass rusher. Young’s varied skillset means that teams will expect him to be an elite NFL pass rusher from the first day he sets foot on their training field and it is highly likely he is selected in the first three picks of the draft. Jeffrey Okudah offers similar promise as a cornerback and should be selected in the top 5. Moreover, Isaiah Simmons is a unique prospect and could be selected anywhere in the top half of the first round. Simmons’ athleticism is unrivalled; his 40-yard-dash time of 4.39 seconds at the combine was faster than all but six receivers, despite the fact that he weighed in at 238 lbs. At Clemson he was equally adept at rushing the quarterback, disrupting the run, or dropping into coverage. Coaches seeking to add complexity to their defensive schemes will love him as a prospect.

Overall, this year’s draft promises spark, and I would expect some blockbuster trades early on in the first round, as teams scramble to secure their franchise quarterback. How teams rank the tackles is likely to be extremely influential in the first round. It will be particularly interesting to see where this impressive class of wide-receivers get selected. A surplus of talent could perhaps mean they fall lower in the draft than many expect.

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