NFL draft: 2020 prospects to watch in Power Five conference title games

Yahoo Sports

We’ve got one full weekend left of college football prior to the bowl games. That might be saddening for some, but these games feature some tasty matchups with a slew of NFL prospects in action. We break down five who might have the most on the line on Friday and Saturday:

Oregon QB Justin Herbert vs. Utah

This one is cut and dry: Herbert could use a really impressive game against a top-tier defense.

The Utes are exactly that, with seven draftable prospects this year alone, and the stats back it up: 16 offensive TDs allowed in 12 games and the fourth-best defense by opponents’ passing efficiency. Herbert’s best five Pro Football Focus grades this season came in games against Colorado, USC, Nevada, Montana and Arizona. Among those FBS teams, only the Trojans (63rd) rank in the top 100 teams in passing-efficiency defense.

NFL scouts love Herbert’s traits. Many are dismayed by his lack of high-end consistency. Some teams really like him, though, so it would be a surprise if he escaped the top 15 picks or so. But he has a chance to crack the top five if, say, a few talented passers — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Utah State’s Jordan Love and Washington’s Jacob Eason come to mind — choose not to declare for the draft or are set back in other ways.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert warms up before the Arizona State game in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Oregon QB Justin Herbert warms up before the Arizona State game in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Utah can cover, stop the run, rush the passer and tackle well. Herbert must be sharp in the Pac-12 title game, but he must also take a page from the USC playbook when they beat the Utes: you must try to challenge them deep when possible. It’s not easy, but it’s essential. It’s also a glaring shortcoming in Herbert’s game, which is being too risk-averse when big-play opportunities present themselves.

This is a great stage for the immensely talented Herbert to prove himself in what could be his penultimate college football game.

Georgia QB Jake Fromm vs. LSU

Fromm may or may not come out in the 2020 NFL draft, and this game might actually play into his decision more than you might realize. We did not fit him into the first round of this week’s 2020 mock draft — partly because we’re not sure he’s guaranteed to be a top-32 selection and partly because Fromm might end up back in Athens next year.

If Georgia loses this game against LSU (and/or Fromm struggles), he might be compelled to return to school, as we’ve surmised is a very realistic possibility in recent weeks. But if he balls out and the Bulldogs win, it not only would extend their seasons, but it also could help propel him into leaving early.

I checked in this week with a source with knowledge of the situation to see if there was any intel on Fromm’s looming decision on the draft. It appears that if Fromm has made up his mind already on that, he’s keeping it very close to the vest, with perhaps only close family members and head coach Kirby Smart likely knowing his plans. And it’s entirely possible, we were told, that Fromm hasn’t even made his mind up yet.

Georgia QB Jake Fromm warms up before the Georgia Tech game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Georgia QB Jake Fromm warms up before the Georgia Tech game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

That’s why this SEC title game feels pretty big — both for him and the Bulldogs, of course. Fromm has been more hot than cold on those giant stages (conference title games, bowl games and playoff games) in his three years, but he’s had a fairly uninspiring junior season. Certainly, injuries and other factors have held him back, but Fromm hasn’t played his best ball either. 

Facing a talented but flawed LSU defense gives Fromm a great opportunity to improve his draft stock, be it for this year or next. Dueling with Joe Burrow presents its own challenges, but Fromm will be short-handed in this game either way. RB D’Andre Swift is battling a very sore shoulder and might not be close to full strength, WR Lawrence Cager (ankle) is doubtful and talented freshman WR George Pickens is out for the first half after being ejected last week for fighting against Georgia Tech.

This will be a big-league challenge for Fromm and could play a role in his NFL decision that must be made in the next six or so weeks.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor vs. Ohio State

As we discussed in the video above, Taylor has had a fantastic season — and is coming to the close of an unprecedented three-year run. There are a million statistics that display this, but here’s one simple one: No one has ever rushed for more yards over a three-year span than Taylor’s 5,932 yards.

We love his production, his athletic traits, his impeccable character and toughness and his burst to consistently churn out productive runs. Another telling stat — Taylor’s 55 rushes of 10 or more yards is tops in FBS — displays this perfectly.

But we also have two big questions. Taylor’s ball security is the biggest one — he has 17 fumbles over three seasons, including five this year, which are actually more than he had in 2018. The other worry we have is with his vision, which sometimes can be better. A lot of his runs are very well-blocked for Taylor, and he doesn’t always see creases before they develop.

If Taylor can have a clean sheet on ball security and show some good vision against Ohio State on Saturday night in the Big Ten title game, it could help his cause and give him a chance to stand out in what’s looking like a glut of really talented backs atop the 2020 draft.

The Buckeyes shut Taylor down right before Halloween, allowing him only 52 yards — and very few coming after first contact — on 20 carries. It was the only game this season where he didn’t have multiple rushes of 10 or more yards. A big game here on a prime-time stage would go a long way toward answering the short list of concerns with Taylor as an NFL prospect.

LSU EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson vs. Georgia

Perhaps more so than any defender this week, Chaisson has a great chance to make himself some money with his performance. He had some nice moments against the talented OT duos of both Alabama and Auburn, and the Bulldogs feature a pair of exterior blockers that are right up there: OTs Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson.

Of the two, Thomas is more NFL-ready. Both possess wide frames and powerful punches, but Thomas — a possible top-10 pick in 2020 — is just a more refined player now in our view. We’d love to see Wilson come back to school, take over for Thomas at left tackle and be one of the best OT prospects in 2021. But either way, this is a terrific test for Chaisson if he’s looking to declare early in 2020.

LSU edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson in action against Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
LSU edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson in action against Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Chaisson was able to get into the chest of Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood a few times and out-leverage him against both the run and pass. But Chaisson also got buried a couple of reps against Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho when he exposed his chest too much. What we love about Chaisson is that he has a counter move, an inside spin that he beat Auburn’s right tackle, Jack Driscoll, on a few times.

The Georgia tackles will be ready for that inside counter. It’s become something of a go-to move for the 6-4, 250-pound Chaisson. He must be ready to fake that counter and work some arm-over moves back to the outside — all while leveraging and being gap-sound enough against Georgia’s bread-and-butter run game.

The biggest knock against Chaisson, other than a lack of experience, is really his take-on strength. He’ll flash it at times but must be better at engaging his lower half when doing so. Let’s put it this way: Against the mass and reach of Thomas and Wilson, he can’t afford not to. There is money on the line for Chaisson in this fantastic battle.

Baylor DL James Lynch vs. Oklahoma

Lynch is a name we probably should be talking about more, especially as he was just named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, although he certainly could return to school and be close to the front of the line for 2021 DL prospects. 

Still, there has been enough high-level performance from the 6-4, 295-pound Lynch this season (first in the Big 12 with 10.5 sacks, third with 14.5 tackles for loss) that he merits some real attention, just as NFL scouts have started digging in deeply on him. Baylor head coach Matt Rhule called Lynch “one of the most selfless, diehard players I’ve ever been around,” and it shows on tape in his high-energy play.

Baylor defensive tackle James Lynch drags down Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Baylor defensive tackle James Lynch drags down Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In Baylor’s previous matchup against the Sooners, a 34-31 loss that came down to a late field goal three weeks ago, Lynch was on the field for a grueling 89 snaps — 48 of them rushing elusive QB Jalen Hurts — out of a possible 97 in the contest. He was both good and bad in that game, generating five pressures per PFF and forcing a brilliant goal-line strip on Hurts, but also missing a pair of tackles.

Lynch mostly lines up as a 5-technique in the Bears’ defense, predominantly on the defensive left side, and will mostly face off against Sooners RT Adrian Ealy and RG Tyrese Robinson, both talented underclassmen. They did a respectable job on Lynch the first time around, but we expect the fiery defender to have a good performance in this one.

The Big 12 does get a bit of a bad rep in terms of producing NFL defensive talent, but it’s fair to point out that only two defensive linemen from the conference were drafted in 2019. This coming draft will be better, as there is a little more depth among the Big 12’s trench players. 

But adding Lynch to the mix would boost the crop even more, as I think he could end up being a top-50 or 60 player if he were to declare.

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