NFL draft: 20 prospect observations from conference title game weekend

There were some interesting developments for the 2020 NFL draft that I saw over college football’s conference championship weekend. Here are 20 quick hitters as they relate to the ’20 draft picture.

1. I still don’t know what to make of Oregon QB Justin Herbert. He might end up as one of my trickier evaluations for the 2020 draft cycle. Herbert led the Ducks to a surprising thrashing of Utah, owners of one of the best defenses in the country and a playoff contender prior to the Pac-12 title game. But his play in that contest was very much along the same lines as what we’ve seen this season — and for most of his games since 2017. Good. Not great. Always leaving you wanting a little more.

On the one hand, I see Drew Lock (a similarly divisive player in the 2019 draft) and Ryan Tannehill (a comp I kind of like for Herbert) both playing well in the league and think … Herbert can do what they’re doing currently. On the other, Lock is a mere two games into his Broncos tenure and Tannehill is just now getting people excited about his play on a contending team (his second) in Year 7.

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Herbert has the talent to be good to very good in the NFL, but I am left to wonder how long it might take to steep it out of him.

2. I don’t know if Oregon RB CJ Verdell will come out after his redshirt sophomore season. But he’s a really interesting case and a player we need to commit to studying when he eventually does declare. Injuries have held him back this season, but Verdell absolutely gashed a Utes defense that features five Senior Bowl defenders and a few other NFL-caliber talents.

Coming into the game, Utah had allowed 675 rush yards and four TDs total on 299 carries, with a long run of 32 yards. Verdell himself rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries, with a long of 70 yards. This was nothing short of a banner performance that absolutely will be a big plus in scouts’ minds, whatever Verdell’s future plans end up being.

3. Speaking of that Utah defense, there are a lot of players there I am high on for the 2020 NFL draft. But two of them who are vying for Round 2 consideration, EDGE Bradlee Anae and DT Leki Fotu, had disappointing games Friday night. The best player on that Utes defense in the Oregon game was LB Frances Bernard, who is a player on the rise who could keep that ascension going at the Senior Bowl.

4. Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts has made big plays and revived his career with a fine senior season. But that’s as a college quarterback. Earlier in the year, we thought he might be trending toward being a top-50 pick in April. Full disclosure: We’re backing off that now. 

Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts remains a tricky NFL evaluation despite some high-level traits. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts remains a tricky NFL evaluation despite some high-level traits. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Some team is bound to be enamored with his exceptional leadership and poise, and there absolutely is a home for his physical talents in the NFL. The Lamar Jackson experiment is proof that atypical talents can thrive in the right environment in this league. 

But Hurts’ shortcomings in reading defenses, holding the ball too long and staring down his targets will take him off some teams’ boards as a QB. He’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. Hurts just has to land in the right NFL situation so his talents can properly be steeped. Where he lands is crucial.

5. Breaking: Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb is special. My grades are nowhere close to being set in stone, and I am taking a longer look at the wideouts next week. But there’s a good chance he’ll end up my personal WR1.

6. Saturday’s game against Baylor was the worst I have seen from Oklahoma C Creed HumphreyPro Football Focus agreed with me, giving him a 40.4 rating for that contest — by far his lowest of the season. Two false start penalties and several pressures allowed (especially by bull-strong Baylor NT Bravvion Roy) made it a tough afternoon for Humphrey. He’s a redshirt sophomore and could stay in school, but he’s also often discussed in media circles as a possible first-rounder. Saturday was a reminder that Humphrey has work to do.

7. Baylor DL James Lynchwhom we highlighted as a player to watch last week, had a big game (two sacks, forced fumble) against the Sooners. He’s a hard-charging end in their 3-4 front who rarely leaves the field and seems to get better as games go on. Don’t know what the 6-4, 295-pound junior’s draft plans are for 2020, but if he enters he could be in the mix for a top-50 spot.

8. Florida Atlantic TE Harrison Bryant is a name you 2020 draftniks should know if you don’t already. He didn’t have a great game in the Owls’ blowout win over UAB, dropping two passes, but that hadn’t been a problem this season. He’s a fun player to watch who has caught seven TDs in his past six games and who went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark on Saturday. I think he’ll end up a third- or fourth-round pick, even if his blocking and strength need work.

9. Memphis has been a surprising source of offensive talent in recent years, producing players such as Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and Anthony Miller. The Tigers have a few more 2020 prospects on that side of the ball, including RB Patrick Taylor Jr., WR Damontie Coxie and TE Joey Magnifico, who has a future on our all-name draft team whenever we get around to posting that one. 

But the Memphis player who absolutely fascinates me is WR-RB-RS Antonio Gibson, who has really come on down the stretch. The 6-2, 220-pound Gibson rushed three times for 32 yards and a score; caught 11 passes for 130 yards and a TD; returned three kickoffs for 72 yards; and made the game-winning reception with 1:14 remaining in Memphis’ 29-24 AAC title game win over Cincinnati. Depending on how Gibson tests, I see a Cordarelle Patterson-like comp in the offing.

10. Georgia QB Jake Fromm had a rough SEC title game Saturday. Circumstances aside, it’s clear he could use his senior season to refresh and rebuild his stock. I just don’t see a first-round pick happening this year, and he’d be best off coming back to school from our perspective. He’s got the intangibles to be good eventually, but Fromm remains an unfinished prospect.

Georgia QB Jake Fromm struggled against LSU in the SEC championship game. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Georgia QB Jake Fromm struggled against LSU in the SEC championship game. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

11. We seldom talk kickers here, but if there was a draftable prospect at the position in 2020 coming into Saturday, we’d have offered up Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship as the most likely option. But following two (narrow) misses on Saturday, he’s now had a few clutch moments escape him this season. He still feels draftable to us, but the missed kicks were a tough look, especially after he couldn’t convert on the potential game-tying miss in the loss to South Carolina.

12. If doubters remained for LSU QB Joe Burrow entering Saturday, surely they saw what he did against a very good Bulldogs defense and changed their minds. Right? Burrow’s escapability against the rush was on prime display. Nothing seems to bother the guy. That poise has generated comps such as Tom Brady (!), Tony Romo and Rich Gannon. I see elements of all three players in Burrow’s game. He’s special, folks. Let’s not overthink it just because he doesn’t possess a howitzer for an arm.

13. If he was somehow eligible for this coming draft (he’s not), LSU’s 18-year-old true freshman CB Derek Stingley Jr. would be a top-five pick — possibly No. 3 after Burrow and Ohio State’s Chase Young. Let’s put it this way: Stingley is to CB prospects what Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is to QBs. Let’s enjoy Stingley these next two years in college, and oh, by the way … the Tigers plan to feature him on offense next season. It’s going to be fun.

14. The Tigers’ other corner of note, Kristian Fulton, is pretty good in his own right. After an up-and-down game against Texas early in the season, followed by a few slip-ups in coverage a few games later against Utah State, Fulton has looked the part of a first-round corner in April. He was really good again vs. Georgia.

15. Hawaii QB Cole McDonald was a player whom I thought could have a great season and possibly be a top-50 pick with another strong year. Well, that hasn’t happened and I honestly don’t know how NFL teams will view him. The redshirt junior threw a bad pick against Boise State in the MWC title game and remains a talented but highly flawed thrower. 

He was benched at one point this season and isn’t guaranteed to come out, but the staff might like Chevan Cordeiro (Tua Tagovailoa’s backup in high school) better going forward. McDonald now must prove he’s worth a Day 3 pick if he does choose to come out.

16. Boise State WR John Hightower scored his eighth TD of the season against Hawaii and has a chance to go over the 1,000-yard receiving mark in the Broncos’ bowl game against Washington. Even though Hightower is raw as a player and said to be a bit quiet and somewhat detached from his teammates, he can flat out roll. A blazing 40-yard dash could land him in the top 75 picks, we think.

17. Clemson WR Tee Higgins is an acrobat. He was nothing short of magnificent against Virginia in the ACC title game, making nine catches for 182 yards and three touchdowns. And did you see this sideline wizardry?

Even with a loaded WR class in 2020, Higgins deserves to be at or near the top. He’s a special talent with WR1 potential in the NFL — think a slimmer version of A.J. Green. If he’s not a top-20 pick, someone is going to get an absolute steal.

18. Kind of a ho-hum first half of the Big Ten championship for Ohio State’s Chase Young. With two or three Wisconsin blockers committed to him on many plays, it was more than excusable. But then Young did this:

The second half was vintage Young. There’s no changing it: He’ll be our top-ranked prospect in this class, regardless of position.

19. Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus had another eye-opening game. A week after he caught a 47-yard TD and sprung a 70-yard run by Garrett Groshek with great downfield blocking, Cephus again came up big against Ohio State with a high-point grab to set up a TD at the end of the first half. The 6-1, 207-pound Cephus totaled seven catches for 122 yards against a strong Buckeyes secondary and could declare for the 2020 draft with such a strong finish.

NFL teams will need to do their homework on Cephus after he was accused of (and found not guilty of) sexual assault, but barring any red flags there, he’s another gifted pass-catcher with NFL ability who could come out early.

20. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins ran 33 times for 172 yards and a touchdown against a good Badgers defense — his third straight game with at least 33 touches. His contact balance, lower-body strength, downhill style and strong burst make him a very easy projection into the Round 2 range in this coming draft. He’s not quite as gifted a runner as Georgia’s D’Andre Swift or Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, but Dobbins is close. 

The one negative I saw in Saturday’s game was Dobbins’ pass protection, as he missed a few clear assignments. That hadn’t been much of an issue coming into the game, however, so I don’t see that as a major worry. This RB class is really strong, but I have a hard time seeing Dobbins slipping out of Day 2.

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