At this time a year ago, few people were weighing the NFL potential of Kyler Murray. Quinnen Williams was fighting for a starting spot. Duke’s Daniel Jones was a possible mid-round curiosity.
Josh Allen, T.J. Hockenson, Devin Bush — all well-regarded but hardly first-round locks before last season.
And yet, sure enough, those players ended up making up six of the top 10 selections in the 2019 NFL draft.
So here we are as college football teams are getting set to report to training camps, and this much is certain: There will be first-round prospects in 2020 who come from a bit off the radar. High ones, in fact. It happens every year.
Our mission was to locate a few before they blow up this coming season. The goal here was to ID players who are not routinely mentioned as potential high picks, and certainly not first-rounders, in the spate of 2020 NFL mock drafts that already populate the internet.
We aimed to look more heavily at the positions that get drafted more often than the others in Round 1 — quarterbacks, pass rushers, defensive backs, defensive tackles, wide receivers and offensive linemen. There have been 319 first-round picks over the past 10 years (the Patriots were usurped of one for the deflate-gate punishment), and those positions comprised more than two-thirds of those selections.
Utah State QB Jordan Love
It would not be a shock to see the redshirt junior receive some first-round love before long.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound passer is a smooth operator with an easy release and beautiful touch. He consistently made big throws in completing 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards, 32 TDs and only six interceptions. He also ran for seven TDs and used his good mobility to sidestep pressure time and time again. His poise, calm and smarts are evident when watching him operate under duress.
Turn on the Michigan State tape — one of the best defenses in the country a year ago — and you see Love making throw after big throw in a near upset of the Spartans. Linebacker Joe Bachie sealed the game with a tipped-pass INT with Love and the Aggies trying to tie the game in the closing moments, but Bachie was impressed with what he saw.
“[Love] and that whole team were better than they had shown on tape the year before,” Bachie told Yahoo Sports at Big Ten Media Day. “He had a strong arm, was very composed in the pocket, and if we wouldn’t have made that play at the end of the game, he could have led the team down the field to score a touchdown to win the game easily.
“That dude is a really good quarterback. Another year or two and he’s going to be drafted [high].”
Love’s challenge is tough with the Aggies replacing nine starters, including four offensive linemen and most of his top receiving targets. But if he can stack back-to-back big seasons, we see his profile skyrocketing.
Tough tests at Wake Forest and LSU will provide NFL scouts a terrific look at his promise.
Hawaii QB Cole McDonald
McDonald flashed tremendous upside as a gunslinging passer as a sophomore, throwing for 3,875 yards and 36 TDs with only 10 picks. The 6-2, 205-pound McDonald also ran for 359 yards and four scores.
That McDonald had that much success with two injuries last season was even more telling. The first, an MCL sprain, caused him to miss an early game. (And the Hawaii coaches took hilarious measures to hide that injury.) The second injury could make any man cringe at hearing it.
“I had some internal bleeding in my side that didn’t drain out properly,” he said. “It was all in my scrotum. … I couldn’t walk for about a week. … I played hurt most of the season. It was pretty brutal.”
Uh ... yeah.
McDonald is far from a polished product, injuries or not. He didn’t play as well down the stretch and will need to show far more consistency this season with a loaded Rainbow Warriors offense, even with the loss of WR John Ursua following a 1,389-yard, 16-TD season.
He’s also a free spirit who might not completely endear himself to some hardline NFL evaluators. Others, however, might love his personality and makeup.
If there’s a passer who could rise up the draft boards this fall, it could be McDonald. He’s a project to be sure, but he has tantalizing upside with a better 2019 season. The Air Raid offense in which he operates is no longer considered verboten in NFL circles, and there are enough Mahomes-esque elements in McDonald’s game to get some team lathered up.
Stanford TE Colby Parkinson
I struggled to find a wide receiver who applies to this list given that it could be a loaded class. But Parkinson could be that rare first-round tight end who headlines a so-so 2020 lot at the position.
Although he has a mere 39 receptions in his career, 11 of them have gone for touchdowns. At nearly 6-7 and more than 240 pounds with a wide catch radius and a nice frame, Parkinson is a matchup nightmare.
He averaged 16.7 yards per catch last season and was great down the stretch, especially in a four-TD, 166-yard performance against Oregon State. Parkinson appears to be in line for more work added to his plate (especially with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside gone) and could even be a focal point of the Cardinal passing game, triggered by mid-round QB prospect K.J. Costello.
“Colby Parkinson is going to be mentioned among the best tight ends in America, if not the best,” head coach David Shaw said, via The Athletic.
Stanford has a great tradition of supplying the NFL with pro-ready tight ends, and Parkinson appears to be the next in line.
Washington State OT Abraham Lucas
Lost in the shadows of teammate Andre Dillard, a senior who became the 22nd pick in the draft this spring, Lucas earned praise from his head coach.
“The most impressive thing is Abe’s one of the best offensive linemen in the conference as a freshman,” Cougars head coach Mike Leach said late last season.
We agree and think there’s a chance Lucas considers coming out after his redshirt sophomore season. If not, throw him into the first-round mix in 2021. The 6-7, 320-pounder’s natural athleticism is clear as day after he arrived on campus as a 260-pounder a few years ago. Lucas reportedly can run a 40-yard dash in the 5.0-second range and a 20-yard shuttle in the 4.3-second range.
That’s right about where Dillard tested. Leach has found success taking top-tier athletes and bulking them up into NFL-caliber blockers. Lucas appears to be the next success story in that chain.
“I don’t know where his ceiling is but it’s up there pretty good,” Leach said.
LSU EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson
In the Tigers’ 2018 season opener, Chaisson looked like one of the best players on the field against Miami — before he suffered a torn ACL in that game, of course. Chaisson flashed as a freshman in 2017 in a reserve role and had a sack and five tackles in the game against the Hurricanes. What he lacks in experience and production, he makes up for in upside and raw talent. If he proves his health is good, able to unleash that lightning-quick first step this season, watch out.
And Chaisson will be hunting quarterbacks this fall with a streamlined role on one of the deepest defenses in the country.
Chaisson is said to be recovered and ready to go physically. The Tigers plan to use Michael Divinity — another potential high draft pick — as an inside backer and third-down rusher, a spot they call the “F-linebacker.” Chaisson will man the “Buck” spot. The pair of Chaisson and Divinity, along with Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP Rashard Lawrence, will make the Tigers a handful up front.
Although Chaisson is a redshirt sophomore and just turned 20, we could see him testing the NFL draft waters after a big season. If he has a chance to go in the top 40 or 50 picks, there might not be a reason to stick around. Agile and versatile rushers such as Chaisson are hard to find.
Boise State EDGE Curtis Weaver
The 6-3, 266-pound Weaver has received a lot of preseason accolades, including being named preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and even receiving some All-America mention. The next line of progression is appearing heavily on NFL draft radars.
In a breakout season in 2018, Weaver racked up 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and a conference-best 56 pressures. He’s one of the nation’s most natural pass rushers with a knack for making disruptive plays. Pro Football Focus even credited Weaver with pass-rush success rate of 26.8 last season, which was the third-highest rate among returning pass rushers at the FBS level.
Although Weaver has two years of eligibility left, stacking a third straight year of strong production — he has 23 career sacks entering the season — could convince Weaver to declare early. He has top-40 pick upside. His lack of length is something to consider, but the Broncos are expected to expand his role and duties as the team’s hybrid “Stud” end.
A big game in the opener against Florida State could kickstart his draft rise, and a strong scouting combine workout could seal up a high selection if Weaver declares early.
Florida State DT Marvin Wilson
Wilson is an interior pressure player who has a five-star background as a recruit and might be on the verge of busting through this season. The 6-5, 311-pound defensive tackle already has been very good on the college level, even with a few roadblocks along the way, but 2019 should be Wilson’s marquee season.
Early in his career, he was stuck behind some veteran defenders and an MCL injury also slowed him some. But last season Wilson generated a ton of pressures and hurries while rushing from either a nose or shade technique, or even lined up opposite offensive tackles.
Those pressures will become more sacks and tackles for loss this season. The loss of first-round pick Brian Burns will hurt the unit, but the Seminoles have other talent up front on that defense.
I love this quote about Wilson from former FSU first-round DT Corey Simon on Wilson: "He’s got the tools, the quickness, the ability to use his hands," Simon said. "All of those things are pivotal for a defensive lineman to excel in this game.
“His motor has gotten much better. I think finding the optimal weight for him to be able to play an entire game over the stretch of the season is something that he’s working on. He plays with that sort of aggression that you have to have. He’s got that tad bit of crazy in him to go out there and excel as a defensive lineman."
Texas A&M DT Justin Madubuike
Get to know Madubuike, who should be getting more love than he is at the moment. Madubuike already has put up some fantastic performances against some of college football elite, including Clemson and Alabama. Those highlights display some real gap-splitting ability from the 6-4, 305-pound interior force.
It’s no surprise to learn that he’s a converted end given his quickness, but he belongs in the trenches and can hold his own with power. Continued work on leverage and winning interior hand-fighting battles will raise his profile even more, building off a 5.5-sack season.
Madubuike was a massive key to the Aggies’ improved run defense last season, although he’ll be less protected with A&M losing some talent up front. Being the key blocking focus for offensive lines will test him physically and mentally, but the Aggies coaches appear thrilled with his potential this season.
Missouri DT Jordan Elliott
Tigers coaches raved about the 6-4, 315-pound junior’s upside following spring practice, and the Texas transfer appears to be on the verge of a breakout season.
The SEC is so ripe with DL talent, so this could be our biggest off-the-radar pick on this entire list. Elliott has made huge strides in the weight room and has developed into one of the Tigers’ most disruptive defenders. His performance against an Arkansas interior (that featured fourth-round OG Hjalte Froholdt) is a sign of things to come.
D-Line U has produced front-line NFL talent for years now, and Elliott is the next in line. The redshirt junior has another year of eligibility, but we could see him testing the NFL waters with a big season for a good Mizzou club.
There’s enough talent up front on this team, even without an established pass rush, for Elliott to emerge as a premier playmaker without having to face combo blocks on every single play.
Stanford CB Paulson Adebo
The redshirt junior has started to see his NFL stock rise, and for good reason. He has the size and length NFL teams are looking for at 6-1 and 190 pounds, as well as the production to back it up. Adebo finished last season with four interceptions and 20 passes defended, which was second among all FBS players behind Virginia’s Bryce Hall.
The French-speaking corner has family roots in Benin and just turned 20. Adebo is regarded in the program as a highly intelligent and confident player who doesn’t let mistakes bother him.
That thick skin and short memory are ideal for the position. Witness his games against USC and Oregon last season where he allowed some catches early before locking down late. Adebo’s three passes defended in overtime against the Ducks was one of the most clutch performances by a defensive back all of last college football season.
PFF also gave Adebo an overall grade of 89.3, which was tops among Pac-12 corners by a big margin. He’ll be in the crosshairs this season, and a challenging schedule will tax a Stanford defense that lost talent and finished last season ranked ninth overall in the conference in yards allowed.
All signs point to Adebo being highly regarded in NFL circles in the coming months. He’s also in great hands with Shaw, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and veteran defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who has coached up some phenomenal DB talents such as Earl Thomas, Chuck Cecil, Chris McAlister, Quentin Jammer, Kenny Vaccaro and Justin Reid over the years.
Akina has put his stamp of approval on Adebo as well. We expect him to face a tough decision on whether or not to declare following this season.
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