NFL draft winners and losers: OSU's Chase Young, Jeffrey Okudah look like top-10 locks

I spent last Friday night watching Ohio State dismantle Northwestern, 52-3. Also in attendance were general managers from nearly 16 percent of the NFL’s teams. The draw was the tremendous wealth of talent of the Buckeyes, and the GMs and several other scouts and personnel directors could not have been disappointed.

Buckeyes pass rusher Chase Young had a sack on the third play of the game. Jeffrey Okudah, one of the best cornerbacks in the country, didn’t allow a reception on three targets. Fellow DB Shaun Wade, a do-it-all performer in the Buckeyes’ secondary, broke up a pass and was strong in coverage. RB J.K. Dobbins had probably his finest game in what has been an impressive bounceback season, playing his way into the top-50 range next spring.

And on and on … it was a complete performance by a roster teeming with NFL talent. One GM we spoke with prior to kickoff said he doesn’t typically scout the same team in back-to-back weeks but that he might make an exception to go see Ohio State hosting Wisconsin in person next week.

In my mind, after speaking with NFL folks and people at Ohio State, Young and Okudah appear to be no-brainer top-10 selections as things stand right now for the 2020 NFL draft. Yes, mark it down in ink: Barring any unforeseen changes to their statuses, they’re both going to be gone in that range. Young isn’t likely to escape the top five, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Buckeyes teammates end up as the first two defensive players drafted.

I started thinking about how the top 10 for next year’s draft is shaping up, and I believe there currently are about 20-25 players who could end up in that range. The number will whittle down a bit over the second half of the college football season, and it will slim down even further once we get into the latter part of the winter and early spring following the Senior Bowl, NFL scouting combine and pro day results.

I believe that short list of top-10 candidates could include as many as six quarterbacks right now. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has accomplished too much not to be a top-five pick, I think, even with some NFL teams not in love with him and with Tagovailoa suffering an ankle injury Saturday. (He’s expected to miss a little time but be fine eventually.)

The other QBs who have the chance to be in that top-10 discussion include LSU’s Joe Burrow (who could pass Tagovailoa as QB1 in this class), Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington’s Jacob Eason, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Utah State’s Jordan Love. I am putting Georgia QB Jake Fromm on the outside of this top-10 “watch list” for now after talking to some NFL people, although I will say that there is mostly solid appreciation for him as a high-floor prospect. Fromm could (and I think should) end up a first-round pick when it’s all said and done.

There are reasons why Eason, Hurts and Love might not be anything close to top-10 cinches, but it’s clear that there’s fascination for the skill sets of all three players in NFL circles. The development of Burrow and these three QBs has been a pleasant surprise for the 2020 forecast, and we absolutely need to step back and witness what might be history.

The 1983 draft class, which produced three Hall of Fame passers, is generally held as the best quarterback collection of all time. Although I have no clue whether the 2020 class will match that greatness, it’s certainly not out of the question to think that next spring we could break the mark of most first-round QBs set that year with six.

Other top-10 possibilities include three offensive tackles (Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood); three wide receivers (Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, plus CeeDee Lamb); three defensive backs (Okudah, LSU safety Grant Delpit and Alabama CB Trevon Diggs); two defensive tackles (Auburn’s Derrick Brown and South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw); and two pass rushers (Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa).

A handful of other highly skilled players, such as Clemson’s hybrid defender Isaiah Simmons — more on him below — and Colorado’s talented wide receiver, Laviska Shenault, who will be highly debated players with a wider range of grades but who could sneak into the top-10 discussion with some momentum. LSU CB Kristian Fulton and two centers (Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey) also have some strong supporters in scouting.

So that’s 25 players right now I could see vying for that top-10 turf. The 2020 NFL draft picture still needs a lot more clarity, including which underclassmen will declare. But the picture is starting to come into focus — and it’s clear that quarterbacks will have a huge say in the makeup of it next spring.

Alabama’s Ruggs: more than just elite speed

I received a little flak from Denver Broncos fans when I projected them a wide receiver (Bama’s Ruggs) in our first mock draft of the season. And I get that. Denver’s offensive line has been a sieve, even with a lot of resources committed to the position.

But my love for Ruggs remains. Watch the play he made this weekend in chasing down Tennessee DB Nigel Warrior after one of the worst interceptions of Tagovailoa’s college career.

It displays two things: rare, game-changing speed and outstanding effort. At one point Ruggs is about seven or eight yards away from Warrior, and yet Ruggs chases him down (along with Bama teammate Jaylen Waddle) with plenty of room to spare.

The effort part really stands out, though. It also reflects what we’ve heard about Ruggs, which is that the Crimson Tide coaching staff has raved about his work ethic and competitiveness. Ruggs and Waddle famously raced each other in the spring — looks like Ruggs got him by a nose? — and the entire Bama WR unit (also including the impressive, productive DeVonta Smith) reportedly competes with one another often individually on different physical challenges as well as in the meeting room when it comes to breaking down opponents, identifying coverages and other mano-y-mano competitions.

Scouts eat this stuff up. They respect the physical skills of a player first, but competitive drive and effort are often things that can’t be taught or manufactured. That’s why I think there’s little chance Jeudy and Ruggs are not very high picks in April, even as Ruggs currently averages four targets per game with such a crowded house.

Playing at Bama is viewed by many as taking the easy road to success, but it’s quite the opposite. Even as some scouts lament that Nick Saban often squeezes every last drop out of players, he also has created one of the most hyper-competitive college incubators where players either fight their way into roles or they’re cast aside.

That’s why Bama players have and will continue to populate the upper reaches of the draft. First off, they’re often among the most talented players. But they also are given a three- or four-year lesson on what it takes to compete at the highest level.

Clemson’s hotly debated defender

Earlier I mentioned Clemson’s Simmons, who might be one of the more fascinating studies in the 2020 draft class. I had heard Simmons could leave school after last season as a redshirt sophomore, and based on my intelligence he would have figured somewhere into the top 40 or so selections had he gone.

But Simmons returned for one more season with the Tigers and has emerged as one of the nation’s most versatile pieces. According to Pro Football Focus, Simmons has lined up in five different spots on defense — on the line as a rusher, as a box linebacker, back at safety and out in coverage at both outside corner and in the slot. Additionally, he’s also played extensively each game on four of Clemson’s core special-teams units: kick coverage, punt coverage, punt return and field-goal/extra-point block team.

That speaks to Simmons’ exceptional versatility. Watching him anywhere on the field, it’s evident that he’s a plus athlete. With a 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame and great speed, Simmons would figure to fit the modern prototype for an NFL defenders. You can blitz him, drop him into coverage, ask him to be a run defender and also walk him out on backs, tight ends and even some receivers.

Watch Simmons strike fast and decisively in defending the read-option Saturday against Louisville, just a terrific play against an athletic quarterback:

Watch how fast Isaiah Simmons closes on the QB keeper.
Watch how fast Isaiah Simmons closes on the QB keeper.

And then a few series later, here’s Simmons covering the slot. Watch how he comes off his man on the pick route, erases the screen pass and knocks the ball loose:

Isaiah Simmons erases the screen pass and knocks the ball loose.
Isaiah Simmons erases the screen pass and knocks the ball loose.

You can see this type of playmaking all over Simmons’ tape. But there are still questions about where he fits best in an NFL scheme and whether he has the take-on strength to consistently play near the line of scrimmage. He’s regarded as a bit upright and could use better technique when engaging with bigger, stronger blockers.

We find some of those nitpicks to be a bit harsh, as Simmons’ combination of physical gifts, versatility and playmaking ability are just very hard to find. At this point, it would be surprising if Simmons isn’t a first-round pick — and possibly a high one. He’s the Tigers’ leader this season in tackles (56), tackles for loss (10), sacks (six, for minus-42 yards) and what the staff grades as “quality plays,” after watching the tape (eight). Simmons doesn’t have an interception yet this season, but he’s second on the team in passes broken up (four) and has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Most NFL scouts appear to be evaluating Simmons as a linebacker first, but his versatility must be factored into his overall assessment. Even if some teams are still grappling over how he can win and fit into each of their respective schemes.

Bullish on Baylor improvement, Matt Rhule as NFL candidate

I had two separate conversations with NFL scouts last week who each mentioned how impressive the Baylor program has become in short order. Head coach Matt Rhule endured a brutal 1-11 debut season in 2017 in the aftermath of the Art Briles debacle, but one of the hottest coaches in America has turned things around in a jiffy, leading the Bears to a winning record and bowl game victory in 2018 and now to a 7-0 mark and top-20 ranking this season.

An NFC area scout whose territory includes Baylor said that Rhule is personally involved in assisting scouts more than others big schools’ programs are and that scouts have learned to trust him when it comes to giving forthright assessments of the Bears’ players. That’s an important aspect to scouting, getting accurate information from the sources closest to prospects and developing relationships with scouts.

A scouting director who first got to know Rhule at Temple (where he was an assistant on both sides of the ball before becoming head coach in 2013) said that the coach’s knack for talent development can’t go overlooked.

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule has the attention of the NFL. (Getty Images)
Baylor head coach Matt Rhule has the attention of the NFL. (Getty Images)

When Rhule first took over the top spot at Temple, they were almost bereft of NFL-caliber talent. By the time he finished his four-year tenure there, Temple had 10 players drafted (including three in the first two rounds) who had played under Rhule. The Owls had gone nearly 15 years prior to that without producing that many draftable players.

Baylor is not chock-full of 2020 NFL draft prospects, but scouts have taken note of the talent of WR Denzel Mims, QB Charlie Brewer, RB John Lovett and DLs Bravvion Roy, James Lynch and James Lockhart, among others as NFL-caliber players who will come out this next draft or in 2021.

But beyond that, the director noted that they’re also doing work on Rhule as an NFL head coaching candidate. He spent a year as an assistant for the New York Giants and reportedly was the New York Jets’ top candidate before they hired Adam Gase. Rhule reportedly turned down the Jets’ job — after growing up with Jets posters on his wall as a kid — when former GM Mike Maccagnan insisted on final say over Rhule’s prospective assistant-coaching hires.

There are some folks who believe Rhule absolutely will be an NFL head-coaching candidate for the right franchise and that he might jump at the opportunity after two very successful turnarounds at two programs more than 1,500 miles apart. He had to start fresh at both places and overcome some major hurdles to produce winning teams in short order. Rhule won 28 games at Temple in less than four seasons — the same number of games the program amassed between 1992 and 2006 combined.

Wake Forest WR on the rise

Get to know Sage Surratt. The Demon Deacons’ leading receiver was held out of the end zone Saturday for the first time in his seven games this season, and yet he was the best player on the field in Wake Forest’s 22-20 victory over the Seminoles.

Surratt hauled in seven passes for 170 yards in the game, including this acrobatic, tightly covered play that gives a clear view of just how good Surratt can be in contested-catch situations:

Sage Surratt has been one of the most improved receivers in the country.
Sage Surratt has been one of the most improved receivers in the country.

I’ve been impressed with his consistent production: seven or more grabs in five games this season, as well as his nine scores this season despite Wake having to start two different quarterbacks this season because of injury. He also has shown improved skill as a blocker and has displayed good hands outside of a two-drop performance against Boston College. I don’t yet know the third-year sophomore’s plans for the 2020 draft, and he could opt to return to school with this coming draft shaping up as one of the deeper WR crops in the past few years.

But whenever he does come out, the 6-3 Surratt’s length, high-pointing ability and underrated vertical prowess all must be respected thoroughly. He’s one of the more improved receivers in the country this year.

Small-school TE star becomes two-way player

I love to dip into the FCS ranks from time to time to highlight prospects who do exceptional things, and Portland State TE Charlie Taumoepeau was worth mentioning this week, we felt. In the Vikings’ 38-30 win over Northern Colorado on Saturday, Taumoepeau actually contributed nothing as a pass catcher with a zero-catch game. (Portland State ran the ball 55 times and completed only eight passes in the win.)

But the 6-3, 245-pound Taumoepeau not only started at tight end (and was a factor as a run blocker as the rushed for 344 yards), but he also took snaps as a defensive end. The Vikings have gotten him involved as a two-way player the past few games.

Taumoepeau was a lightly recruited high-school receiver who has made the switch to tight end in college, and even with a drop in his receiving production this season — and two games missed with a hamstring injury — he’s received high marks for his contributions.

Scouts were disappointed to see him miss the Boise State game this season, and Taumoepeau had an ankle setback last year that will force NFL teams to dig into whether he’s injury-prone. But his moonlighting on defense this season only shows what kind of talent he has, and tallying a combined 255 receiving yards and four TDs vs. FBS programs Nevada and Oregon in 2018 have him on NFL radars. I believe he’ll be a Day 3 pick next spring.

There are some things working against the smaller-program receiver, and his blocking is not at all NFL-caliber at this point. But I believe he could work out better than expected and might be on the radar for the Senior Bowl in January. A big week there could kick-start his draft stock a bit after the down statistical season and parlay that into a spot as a top-150 draft pick.

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