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NFL draft: Joe Burrow wasn't the only standout prospect in LSU-Bama thriller

Eric Edholm
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The latest “Game of the Century” didn’t disappoint as great college football theater, and LSU-Alabama also provided some scouting clarity in probably the most important regular-season game of the year as it relates to 2020 NFL draft prospects.

Some players stepped up in a big way. A few others disappointed.

It’s one game, and we’ll keep that fact in perspective. One game does not a complete evaluation of a player make. However, it’ll be hard not to keep coming back to the big ones such as LSU 46, Alabama 41. NFL evaluators — consciously or not — often will start with how players performed on the biggest stages against the best competition and work backward from there.

So yes, this one meant more. And here are the players from both teams who helped and hurt themselves in the Tigers’ massive victory in Tuscaloosa on Saturday:

(Other 2020 draft prospects are also listed in boldface.)

Stock Up

LSU QB Joe Burrow

The fastest-rising quarterback again stepped up and delivered. Many who watched this game — and perhaps were laying eyes on Burrow extensively for the first time — went for the easy cheese and said on Twitter that he clearly was the better prospect than Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Burrow connecting on 31 of 39 passes for 393 yards with three touchdowns understandably will do that for folks. So will a net 96 yards rushing (not counting the sack yardage he lost). And Tagovailoa missing — sometimes badly — on 19 of his 40 pass attempts played a part.

Tagovailoa played hurt. Did you see the red-zone scramble he turned down with about six minutes left in the game? Tua turned down a wide-open lane for a TD, one he certainly doesn’t on a healthy ankle.

Tagovailoa rallied his team and made some big throws, especially on third and fourth downs in the second half, to keep the Tide in it after falling down by 20. Did he struggle at times? Absolutely. But in no way did he hurt his cause for the draft, and that’s why I did not include him in the “Stock down” section below.

This was more about Burrow appearing to be in full command most of the game, never blinking once against a Bama defense littered with NFL talent. I’d like to see him sense pressure better; Burrow a few times hung onto the ball too long and paid the price with some costly sacks, five of them in total.

LSU QB Joe Burrow delivered in a big way at Bryant-Denny Stadium against Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LSU QB Joe Burrow delivered in a big way at Bryant-Denny Stadium against Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Part of that was because LSU used five-man protections almost the entire game. A few tight ends chipped and backs stayed home, but that was the exception. The Tigers’ gameplan was to flood Bama’s secondary with pass catchers and trust Burrow and the offensive line to hold up. LSU’s line started to wilt, but Burrow made so many NFL-caliber throws and used his legs to keep plays alive. The Tigers had a plan that suggested they had concrete faith that Burrow would deliver a masterpiece, and he did.

As for the No. 1 pick, it’s possible that Burrow could end up there. But as I wrote earlier this season, there likely will be no consensus with the top pick between them; some clubs might even favor the physical traits of Oregon’s Justin Herbert because there will always be teams that scout in this manner.

But after watching that game, don’t you feel better about Burrow potentially being the No. 1 overall pick (or at worst, top three)? I sure do.

LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire

A few folks gave us guff for including him in our pregame scouting preview with the idea that he was anything but a second- or third-tier RB prospect. After watching Edwards-Helaire knife, pinball and scratch his way to 104 yards rushing and 77 more receiving, it was hard not to think that he did as much for his stock as anyone in this game for the Tigers.

He’s going to fall beneath some ideal-height thresholds at a mere 5-foot-7 and might not test through the roof if he declares after this season, as we expect him to. But go watch this game tape again and tell me he doesn’t remind you a little of Maurice Jones-Drew.

LSU EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson

It was the best game of the season for Chaisson, a player we loved coming into the season as a possible first-round riser.

In this game he had a team-high 10 tackles, with 3.5 for losses, along with a big hit on Tagovailoa. Chaisson was in on the fourth-down stop in the red zone on Bama’s first possession, and he bench-pressed Alabama LT Alex Leatherwood on a 3-yard tackle for loss on Bama’s first possession of the second quarter.

This was the type of performance evaluators likely needed to see to stamp a first-round grade on him. Chaisson is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential after missing all but one half of a game last season with a torn ACL. His explosiveness is back, and so is that playmaking knack.

LSU DL Rashard Lawrence

It’s fair to say that Lawrence was having a good season prior to the Bama game, but not a great one. In this contest, he stood extremely tall. Lawrence finished with four total tackles, half a sack and two crucial passes deflected. One came on Bama’s first drive, knocking down Tagovailoa’s pass to a wide-open Najee Harris in the flat for what might have been a TD instead of a turnover.

The 6-3, 317-pound Lawrence might not have a ton of special traits, but he certainly showed in this game he can turn in special performances. He was huge.

Alabama RB Najee Harris

Can I take a bit of an “L” on Harris?

Entering the season, I had doubts about his fit as a lead back in the NFL. The questions then centered on his lack of great vision, his extremely limited work as a receiver and his burst as a runner who can get to the second level consistently.

Of those gripes, the one that might stick is the vision one; he needs clearer lanes than other backs to be effective. But my goodness, he has made me mostly eat crow this year with a standout season that cannot be explained by Bama’s explosive skill-position talent or a banner offensive line.

Alabama RB Najee Harris was a monster against LSU. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Alabama RB Najee Harris was a monster against LSU. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Time and time again in this one, Harris plowed through would-be tacklers and showed soft, reliable hands as a receiver (albeit with one drop), especially on a gorgeous 15-yard TD catch that showed concentration and rare body control for a back. And of his 146 rushing yards in the game, 103 came after contact, per Pro Football Focus. Harris kept Bama in this game and inspired his teammates with his bullish runs and timely first downs.

He was the top RB recruit in the country in 2017, and we’re starting to see his talents blossom in a lead role. Harris has made improvements in some of his more deficient areas to the point where I must reassess his profile at the next level. He has been great all season.

Alabama WR DeVonta Smith

Like Harris, my thoughts on Smith were always muted by the fact that he doesn’t have the natural receiving chops and route-running skill of Jerry Jeudy, nor the blazing speed or football character of Henry Ruggs III.

But Smith has started dousing a lot of the questions that have followed him with yet another big performance. His seven catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday showed that he can roast single coverage, doing most of his damage against LSU freshman phenom Derek Stingley Jr. Smith also helped save a touchdown with a tackle on LB Patrick Queen following an interception.

At 180 pounds or less, Smith’s size is a concern. He also will need to have his character thoroughly vetted by NFL clubs, and Smith is still prone to mental mistakes (such as the false start in the first quarter). Even so, there is a playmaker here who is starting to earn a reputation as a big-game performer. After catching Tagovailoa’s title-winning TD pass as a freshman, Smith came up big last year in the playoff semifinal vs. Oklahoma and now has delivered three huge statistical games this season in perhaps the best WR crew in recent college football history.

Smith is a fascinating study, albeit a tricky one.

Alabama EDGE Anfernee Jennings

Making eight tackles and two sacks, Jennings was perhaps the Crimson Tide’s most impactful defender. One of those sacks helped thwart LSU’s second drive after it got deep in Bama territory, holding it to a field goal. The second sack put LSU in a third-and-16 situation and forced the Tigers to punt; Jaylen Waddle then returned it for a tide-changing score.

Jennings was all over the place in the game, even standing up as a “Mike” linebacker at times and giving the Tigers a look they hadn’t seen that much of prior to this game. All told, he played 79 of the 82 defensive snaps and made his impact felt throughout, even with one missed tackle.

Jennings has been overshadowed on this defense at times, but he was big in this one.

Alabama S Xavier McKinney

If Jennings was not Bama’s best defender, then McKinney was. With a game-high 13 tackles (2.5 for loss) and two sacks — including a strip-sack in Bama’s only turnover of Burrow — McKinney was everywhere. McKinnie lost track of Edwards-Helaire on his touchdown catch in the waning seconds of the first half but otherwise was strong in coverage.

McKinney also blocked an extra-point try on LSU’s second TD and was a sturdy last line of defense, especially when Burrow and Edwards-Helaire broke through to the second level on runs.

We’ve been a little harder on McKinney this season than other draft analysts, but this is the type of game that makes you reevaluate a player. He fills the Minkah Fitzpatrick role in this year’s defense, and Fitzpatrick’s standout season with the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t hurt McKinney’s NFL projection, even if they’re two different players and McKinney lacks Fitzpatrick’s elite athleticism.

Stock Down

Alabama CB Trevon Diggs

It was an uneven performance from Diggs, who struggled at times to contain LSU’s fine sophomore receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, and who allowed a total of nine receptions (on 13 targets) for 133 yards and a touchdown. Chase screwed Diggs into the ground on the game’s first touchdown and highlighted scouts’ biggest gripe with the Bama corner: his flawed technique and footwork.

Diggs has great size for the position (6-2, 200) and outstanding athleticism. He can sometimes get away with being less than ideal, technique-wise, but not in this game. And not consistently in the NFL. Diggs looked like the second-best corner in this game behind LSU’s Kristian Fulton, who was great in this one, and they could end up jockeying to be the top senior corner drafted in 2020. This game tilted in favor of Fulton.

Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy

He hauled in a fourth-down, had-to-have-it touchdown with 5:32 left in the game, and it displayed the staff’s trust in him to get the job done. But that came after two TD drops (plus a third drop in the game) by Jeudy, who has seen his big-play production slip this season.

Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy reacts to dropping a would-be TD pass vs. LSU. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy reacts to dropping a would-be TD pass vs. LSU. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

LSU mostly covered Jeudy with JaCoby Stevens, Kary Vincent Jr. and even Cameron Lewis, an injury fill-in who played his most defensive snaps since the Vanderbilt blowout of Week 4. That spoke volumes. Even with safety help over the top, the Tigers trusted a safety and two lesser corners cover Jeudy. And he delivered an uninspiring five catches for 71 yards and that score.

Jeudy remains one of the best receivers in college football, and this game isn’t going to crush his stock. But there have been times this season when he has been quiet for long stretches. And while we’re at it, it wasn’t the best game for Ruggs, either. Both could end up in or near the top 10 picks overall, but they have more work ahead of them.

Alabama LT Alex Leatherwood

Coming into the game, there was some hope and promise for Leatherwood based on the way he stood out at left tackle compared to his performance at right guard last season. He’s light-footed and an easy mover whose traits aren’t tough to spot.

This performance was a tough one for Leatherwood, who was eaten up by Chaisson on more than one occasion. Leatherwood had trouble moving people in the run game, contributing to the Tigers’ seven tackles for loss, and was credited with three pressures, two QB hurries and one hit allowed on Tagovailoa, who took a beating early in the game.

Compared to how RT Jedrick Wills Jr. shined in this one, Leatherwood struggled. Wills, by the way, is an ascending prospect. Would it stun us if Wills is drafted before Leatherwood? No, it would not.

LSU S Grant Delpit

He gamely played through an ankle injury and was not 100 percent. His toughness isn’t in question, and Delpit’s range and coverage ability remain top notch, even in allowing Ruggs to slip by for a 26-yard reception.

The biggest question about Delpit, without a doubt, remains his tackling. He missed on at least four in this one, and it’s been a recurring problem all season. Delpit has missed on at least one tackle in almost every game we’ve watched of his this season.

Does that read like a top-10 pick to you? We’ve tried to put on our GM hats with Delpit, and imagining a team selecting a safety in the upper reaches of the first round with this major concern is troubling. Malcom Jenkins faced similar questions when he was coming out, and Jenkins was selected 14th overall.

The good clearly outweighed the bad there, and Jenkins has been a terrific pro. We suspect Delpit will end up in the same draft range when it’s said and done, and he has a very strong template as a player. But those tackle concerns are too big to ignore and too tough to justify some of the top-10 chatter we’ve heard.

LSU CB Kary Vincent Jr.

Vincent was limited to 35 defensive snaps in this one, getting hurt after taking a possible cheap shot from Alabama C Landon Dickerson.

Prior to that, Vincent allowed four catches for 60 yards combined to Jeudy, Ruggs and Waddle, and likely would have given up much more had Jeudy not dropped two passes on Vincent’s watch. With a smallish frame (5-10, 185) that could limit him to slot duty in the NFL and limited ball production (three picks and nine passes broken up in three seasons), Vincent can’t afford to have the kind of coverage lapses like he did in this game.

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