It’s a very rich draft at wide receiver, above average at corner (the high school 7-on-7 tournaments around the country are producing crops of players who can catch and defend against the catch), and good at running back, defensive tackle and quarterback . . . and suspect everywhere else. So, a 2020 NFL Combine Preview.
I asked Daniel Jeremiah, the worthy successor to Mike Mayock on the 28-hour NFL Network TVing of the event beginning Thursday from 4-11 p.m. ET), to give me his top 10 in this draft entering the combine, along with an early top 10 mock draft. They’re pretty different, side by side:
The headlines and opinions, from Jeremiah and others, are interesting heading into the official start of the draft season.
• The Hawaiian’s health. Every quarterback opinion this year is prefaced with, “If Tua Tagovailoa’s healthy . . .” As in: If Tua’s healthy, and his surgically repaired hip checks out, he won’t go below Miami at five. But it’s a big if. Tagovailoa’s a marvelous prospect, but he had two high ankle sprains and a major hip injury in his last 14 months of college football. This week gives 32 team medical staffs the chance to evaluate the hip (especially) and to probe whether his injuries will become professionally chronic, or whether they’re flukes. It’s a really important week for him.
“If I’m picking, let’s say, five, six or seven,” Jeremiah told me Saturday night, “you’ve got the Dolphins, the Chargers, the Panthers. That’s quarterback alley right there. If I’m the Dolphins and I’m picking 5 and my doctor tells me, ‘Look, I think he needs to sit out this entire season to get 100 percent healthy, but in my opinion, the odds are in our favor—that he will return to 100-percent health and will be no more likely to re-injure this hip than you or I, or any other player on the team—then you pick him. I wouldn’t even care if you redshirt him.”
If not? That’s when the pressure will really be on the medical staff. Anthony Munoz, with an iffy knee, got flunked on his pre-draft physical by 14 NFL teams and went on to play 13 years at the highest Hall of Fame level for Cincinnati.
• The Burrow coronation. He’ll speak to the press Tuesday morning and be asked whether he intends to play for the Bengals if picked one overall by Cincinnati, as is expected. That’s one story. The rest of his story? The Bengals, and those hoping he falls, will continue to probe his past, particularly this: One team told me if Burrow had left LSU after his mediocre 2018 season, that team would have given him approximately a fifth-round grade. And now he’s likely to go number one. So should 15 otherwordly games in 2019 (60 touchdowns, six interceptions) bury the evidence of 2018?
Jeremiah: “He was training an hour from my house with [QB coach] Jordan Palmer. He was out there with Sam Darnold and Josh Allen and Kyle Allen. I went up there and watched him work out, throw. I had a chance to visit with him for 20 minutes. I said, ‘Joe, you’re gonna get asked this question at the combine: Why the unbelievable leap from last year to this year?’
“He said, first of all, he’s a grad transfer. Most grad transfers transfer in the spring. He said, ‘I got to LSU after the freshmen had already reported for full camp.’ So you talk about trying to learn everything in a heartbeat and try to get to know your teammates, and then plug in and be ready to play. That’s the first part of it. Second part, he hadn’t played much football in the previous three years. There was some rust. Okay, this makes sense. And then schematically, and this is the big one, they were in a lot of seven-man protection in that offense last year. Burrow, his greatest gift, and you can see it this year when you watch him, is he has the vision to be able to take a snapshot of the entire field, to see everything, to process, and to throw accurately. Well, when you’re in seven-man protection and you limit the number of guys that can get out on a route, you’re limiting the answers you can give somebody. He was handicapped by them trying to mass-protect him. There’s no room for him to use his athletic ability to take off and go if you want. There’s no room for him to slide around, more around, find windows. It was just a congested brand of football.
“And then, you look at this year. He gets [passing-game coordinator] Joe Brady in there. He becomes a master of the offense. At the beginning of the season, they were in a bunch of six-man protection, which he’s playing really well. And he said eventually Joe Brady said in week three or four, ‘Let’s just go five-man protection. Let’s get everybody out into the route.’ When they did that, [he] completed about 80 percent from that point on.
“His super-power is his ability to see the entire field, to work through progressions, and then throw the ball accurately. So they kind of unlocked that super-power this last year. And the rest is history.”
I told Jeremiah: “You’ve got to tell America that on TV this week.”
“I’ve only got 28 hours!” he said.
• The next wave of QBs. Oregon’s Justin Herbert had a great Senior Bowl week and could creep into the top 10. Jordan Love of Utah State could go between 15 and 28. Jeremiah has a pre-combine top 50 out today. He has Love 20, Herbert 21, Washington’s Jacob Eason 47 and Georgia’s Jake Fromm 50.
• Washington should not listen to ransoms for Chase Young. The Ohio State pass-rusher might be better than Nick Bosa. Might be. With last year’s first-round rusher Montez Sweat and (possibly) formidable rusher Ryan Kerrigan in place, Washington could have one of the game’s best pass-rushes on day one. “There’s some guys you don’t trade off of,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t trade off of quarterbacks and I don’t trade off of elite edge rushers because that’s how you win football games. You win championships with great quarterback play and pass rush. We saw two teams at the Super Bowl, one with the great quarterback, the other one with the great pass rush. That’s how the game’s played right now.”
• Embarrassment of riches at receiver. Last year in the draft, 12 wide receivers went in a 52-pick span, between 25th overall (Marquise Brown) and 76th (Terry McLaurin). It’s amazing how many had instant impact in year one: Brown, McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman and DK Metcalf. This year, Jeremiah has given 27 receivers grades in the top three rounds; he says it’s the best draft for receivers in the 18 years he’s scouted college players. Since three receivers got picked in the top 10 in 2017 (Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross went 5-7-9) and significantly underachieved, teams have largely taken the attitude that since there are so many good ones in the crop, let’s pass on receiver now and get one in the third our fourth round—such as McLaurin at 76 last year by Washington.
“It’s not just last year where we’ve seen the day two group [rounds two and three] outshine or at least be neck and neck with the day one group,” Jeremiah said. “I think this class this year goes deeper than that. Last year, I probably had 18 or 19 players with top-three-round grades. This year there’s just more of them.
“And it makes sense, with the way the game is being played. These college teams are playing four and five wide receivers at all times. These guys are catching a million balls and the NFL offenses are still asking these guys to swallow a phone book playbook. When you look at what Deebo Samuel did in the Super Bowl . . . Just get the ball in his hands. Use him in the run game. Throw to him. Everything.” Which brings us to . . .
• The positionless player. Pro Football Focus has done a good pointing out how so many teams—Baltimore most notably, but San Francisco and others—have been playing defensive players at multiple spots freely and as a matter of strategy. Samuel’s a good example, or Tyrann Mathieu all over the back end of the Kansas City defense. In this draft, PFF points out that Clemson safety/inside linebacker/outside linebacker Isaiah Simmons played more than 100 snaps at four different positions, and that’s why Simmons has top-10-pick value this year. He’d be a perfect player for Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who had a bunch of Swiss Army Knife players.
“Are we heading toward the position-less player profile as we go into the future? That’s where I think it’s going,” Jeremiah said. “And I think guys like Isaiah Simmons have tremendous value. I’ve talked to a couple defensive coordinators around the league about this and they see it. It’s like the way the NBA went. You just want to get as many tall, long, explosive guys on the field as you can. And some weeks you might deploy them differently than others.”