NFL draft prospects to watch: Alabama's Jerry Jeudy needs a bounceback game

We’re hitting the home stretch of the college football season — single tear forming — but there are many good games this week, with 22 of the top-25 teams in action, including four games involving two ranked teams facing each other. We didn’t feature a quarterback this week, for perhaps the first time all season, but we have two elite skill-position players and three outstanding defenders in our weekly watch of 2020 NFL draft prospects we’ll be honed in on this weekend:

Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy vs. Mississippi State

We still don’t officially know if Tua Tagovailoa will go in this one, as he’s listed as a game-time decision. That obviously carries a ton of weight when we evaluate Jeudy in this game, but the loss to LSU was a game that he’d like to have back. Even with his late touchdown and a few eye-opening routes in that one, Jeudy dropped two would-be touchdowns and three drops total.

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If Tua can’t go, it will be the Mac Jones show again at QB. Jones played most of the Tennessee game and all of the Arkansas game and was hit and miss. Against the Vols, Jeudy did most of his receiving damage with Tagovailoa in the game. He also took a big hit from Tennessee LB Daniel Bituli and was shaken up. Jones was 0-for-3 targeting Jeudy in that one, but the connection got back on track the next week against Arkansas with Jeudy going for seven catches, 103 yards and two scores.

Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy uncharacteristically had three drops against LSU last week. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy uncharacteristically had three drops against LSU last week. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jeudy had maybe his quietest game in his brilliant 2018 season against the Bulldogs, with six catches (on 10 targets) and none longer than 13 yards. He also had a drop on a screen pass and was forced to catch a lot of short stuff in that game with Mississippi State playing a lot of two-high zone. You can expect this coverage against Tagovailoa, but they could opt to be more daring vs. Jones.

Regardless, Jeudy could use a big game against a decent secondary just to remind everyone of how dangerous and special a prospect he is. There’s no shot whatsoever of him slipping out of the first round, and I’ll still wager dollars to doughnuts that he ends up in the top 10 — or the top half of the round at the very least.

But it’s a wonderfully deep WR class in 2020, and there could be a few teams in that range who might otherwise be convinced to pass on a wideout for another position if Jeudy turns in pedestrian production and suffers drops in bunches like he did last week. We still think it was out of character for him and not a sign of trouble, but you never can say that with certainty.

Georgia RB D’Andre Swift at Auburn

There is a nice little duel for RB1 honors in the 2020 NFL draft, and Swift’s name might be at or near the top of the list. His ability to generate yards, underrated strength and quality juice make him a possible first-round back, even if that position remains one that many teams won’t draft in Round 1. But Swift is still battling with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (who had 250 rush yards against a good Iowa defense last week), Clemson’s Travis Etienne (who has been on fire the past five games), Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Utah’s Zack Moss for that top slot.

This game for Swift against a tough Auburn defense will be a great look for NFL scouts. The Tigers have 64 tackles for loss in nine games and allow opposing backs a mere 3.3 yards per attempt. Other than Florida, most teams have not had success running the ball against an Auburn front that features multiple NFL prospects, headlined by DT Derrick Brown, a possible top-10 pick.

Georgia's D'Andre Swift is perhaps the leader for RB1 honors in the 2020 NFL draft. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Georgia's D'Andre Swift is perhaps the leader for RB1 honors in the 2020 NFL draft. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Auburn plays a lot of man defense and could have an advantage on the Bulldogs’ wide receivers. This could lead to a chess game where Georgia relies more heavily on its run game with Swift and Brian Herrien, but they also will have to win against some eight-man boxes. Another option is to get Swift out in space as a pass catcher.

Swift almost exclusively lines up in the backfield, with only a handful of snaps this season in the slot (16) or out wide (one), so most of his receiving production comes when he lines up in the backfield. But if the Georgia coaches look at what LSU did to Auburn, which was to slide RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire out as a receiver, it forced the Tigers to go to more zone. LSU also threw to its backs eight times in that game, seven of those to Edwards-Helaire.

We’d love to see Swift featured more as a receiver, as the past four games he has a combined five catches for 25 yards on 10 targets. He possesses the soft hands and run-after-catch ability the NFL is seeking in its backs these days, and this could be the week Swift is allowed to showcase it a bit more.

Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa vs. Minnesota

I found it interesting back in July when I asked Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz about Epenesa heading into this season, and it was clear that Ferentz was trying to slow the hype train.

“He hasn’t even started a game for us yet,” Ferentz said, and though the full quotation was much longer, it was clear that Ferentz was sending us a message that the preseason adulation for his junior pass rusher needed to be recalibrated in the coach’s mind.

The expectations for the 6-5, 277-pound Epenesa entering the season, frankly, were a bit too high. And conversely, it’s also fair to say that there has been some good play on tape from him this season that far exceeds his modest production through nine games: 22 tackles, 4.5 sacks, three passes defended and one forced fumble.

Early last week against Wisconsin’s very solid left tackle, Cole Van Lanen, Epenesa tossed him aside and turned in a great strip sack early in the game that led to a Hawkeyes field goal:

Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa had one of his better pass-rush moves of the season last week against the Badgers.
Iowa EDGE A.J. Epenesa had one of his better pass-rush moves of the season last week against the Badgers.

That said, Epenesa was held off the stat sheet almost the entire game after that. He turned in good performances in the two prior games against Purdue and Northwestern, but there has been enough inconsistency to question whether Epenesa can finish the season as a top-20 selection. There were even some whispers recently that that junior hasn’t closed the door on returning to school in 2020.

So we’ll see what ends up happening, but for now we’re including him in on this year’s draft crop. And this matchup against the unbeaten Gophers at home will give him a good opportunity to get his stock cooking a bit again. Minnesota LT Sam Schlueter had a nightmare game at right tackle vs. Iowa last year, getting sent to the bench after halftime. So far this season, however, he’s been very solid at a position that loomed as a question mark entering the year.

Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons vs. Wake Forest

There really isn’t another prospect in the entire 2020 draft class who quite matches up with Isaiah Simmons for us. Is he a safety? A linebacker? A little of both? Oftentimes prospects who have unique skill sets will be unfairly nitpicked because they don’t fit neatly into pre-made boxes.

But with the Clemson playmaker, we’re perfectly fine giving him his own box. After all, how many 6-4, 230-pound players move the way he does and impact games the way he does?

Clemson's Isaiah Simmons just keeps shrugging off his doubters with another impressive season. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clemson's Isaiah Simmons just keeps shrugging off his doubters with another impressive season. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Others, however, still want to see more of how he plays in coverage — both as a slot defender and deep safety — and also how he operates in the box taking on blocks against the run. This week’s game should provide some more evidence toward both of those.

Wake is coming off an upset loss to Virginia Tech and just lost No. 1 WR Sage Surratt for the season, with fellow WR Scotty Washington (who missed the last game with an undisclosed injury) also banged up. That might force the Deacons to lean on their three-headed ground game a bit more and use big QB Jamie Newman more as a runner. That might be one way to slow down the Tigers’ high-powered offense, which has picked up the past month or so.

But part of Simmons’ duties have been to cover the slot, which is actually the defensive location he’s found himself in the most snaps this season. Demon Deacons WR Kendall Hinton quietly has had a very nice season and does the vast majority of his work inside. He was targeted 15 times against the Hokies and turned in a 20-target game earlier this season in the shootout loss to Louisville.

Simmons could be a busy man on Saturday. We view him as a top-10 overall prospect regardless of position in this class, but his ultimate draft landing spot will depend on which teams feel they best can use Simmons’ rare skill set to the fullest.

Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray at Baylor

Kenneth Murray has become the heartbeat of the Sooners’ defense. Flip on the tape and sometime in the first handful of snaps you’re likely to see the high-energy linebacker waving his arms and loudly imploring his teammates to perform at his level of zeal. Scouts believe Murray is the real deal in the leadership department and credit a strong upbringing for his character.

LB Kenneth Murray has been the heartbeat of the Oklahoma Sooners' defense this season. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
LB Kenneth Murray has been the heartbeat of the Oklahoma Sooners' defense this season. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Murray actually went to OU over Baylor, among other teams, so he’s got a little personal motivation here. Although he made 12 tackles last season against the Bears, it actually was a poor outing overall in allowing five receptions in coverage (on six targets), missing three tackles and committing a penalty. Of course, he was on the field a whopping 92 snaps that game — a number he hasn’t come close to matching this season.

But Murray’s improvement on the field this year has been tangible. He looks more comfortable dropping in pass coverage and reading and reacting to route combinations. His football instincts are good, and his range is really impressive, although Murray can play out of control and lack gap integrity at times. But missed tackles also have reared their ugly heads in recent games; Pro Football Focus has credited Murray with five missed tackles over the past two games after he had only four in his first seven games of 2019. He also hasn’t had any tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles or other game-changing plays in a few games now.

Murray could use a more controlled and impactful effort on Saturday in Waco against the short, crisp passing attack of Baylor QB Charlie Brewer and their committee run game.

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