NFL draft winners and losers: Pac-12 might have its strongest draft crop in years

The Pac-12 had its worst NFL draft showing this past spring since the conference expanded from 10 teams to 12, landing only three players in Round 1 and none in the top 20 selections. As recently as the 2015 NFL draft, the conference even outpaced the mighty SEC in first-round selections — nine to seven that year — but it has been a different story since.

The past few years, the top-level talent has fallen behind the pack out west. Only the Big 12 has had fewer first-round selections the past five years of the other Power-5 conferences, and the Big 12 at least can claim owning the top overall selection (Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) each of the past two years.

The Pac-12 was able to boast nine top-10 picks in 2015 through 2018, including QBs Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. Throw in current MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey, along with standouts such as DeForest Buckner, Kenny Clark, Andrus Peat and others, and there are some respectable names in the conference lot.

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But with the NFL struggles of ex-Pac-12ers Mariota, Rosen, Garett Bolles, Solomon Thomas and Joshua Garnett (a 2016 first-rounder who isn’t even on an NFL roster), the recent trades of Leonard Williams and Marcus Peters plus injuries to John Ross, Damarious Randall and others, it has been a tough few years.

So is the Pac-12 suddenly a wasteland for high-end prospects? Actually … far from it, we feel. It turns out that the 2020 NFL draft could actually be a revival year of sorts for the conference, even if the forecast for possible first-round selections remains a bit murky.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert remains a surefire first-round pick, even if he ends up the third quarterback selected. We still believe Colorado WR Laviska Shenault, despite an injury-plagued season, will find a way into the top 32 selections. And there could be two or three more from the Pac-12 who wedge their way in, too.

Washington QB Jacob Eason has been up and down this season but is one of many notable Pac-12 NFL draft prospects for 2020. (Getty Images)
Washington QB Jacob Eason has been up and down this season but is one of many notable Pac-12 NFL draft prospects for 2020. (Getty Images)

Washington QB Jacob Eason is a highly talented but flawed prospect who we think still could be “toolsy” enough to be a Round 1 pick. His Huskies teammate, OT Trey Adams, already would have been a first-rounder had medical concerns not clouded his projection, but a strong senior season has him back on the rise pending his NFL health evaluations.

Beyond those two, we also could see Cal S Ashtyn Davis, USC OT Austin Jackson, USC DT Jay Tufele, Utah DT Leki Fotu, and Stanford CB Paulson Adebo possibly finishing the season strong enough and testing well enough at the NFL combine (assuming they all enter this draft class) to make a first-round push.

The Pac-12 also has been hovering in the middle of the pack in recent years in terms of total picks as well. The SEC dominated the 2019 NFL draft with 64 players selected, and the Big Ten came in second with 40. Next was the Pac-12, which had a total of 33 players picked, just ahead of the ACC (28) and the Big 12 (26).

It’s been common practice to bag on the ACC and Big 12 for their lack of NFL draft depth in recent years, but the Pac-12 hasn’t been that much better. This year, however, might tilt things back a little more in the conference’s favor.

There is also a slew of solid second-tier prospects who could populate the second and third days of the 2020 NFL draft. There have been some nice risers (Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk, Washington TE Hunter Bryant), a few returners who have answered questions about their profiles (Utah RB Zack Moss, Utah EDGE Bradlee Anae, Utah CB Jaylon Johnson, Utah QB Tyler Huntley, Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin, Washington CB Myles Bryant, Washington OT Jared Hilbers, Cal LB Evan Weaver, Oregon LB Troy Dye, plus three-fifths of the Oregon offensive line), and a few breakout players (see below) who appear to make this a deeper Pac-12 class than we’ve seen in a few years.

There are a few injury situations that must be cleared up (such as with Oregon TE Jacob Breeland, Stanford OT Walker Little and QB K.J. Costello, and others) before we can start getting a clearer picture. And as is the case with Little — a possible first-rounder whenever he does come out — and a slew of underclassmen, we still won’t know for more than two months which players will declare and which will return to school.

The average for Pac-12 first-round picks the past five years has been 5.2, but that number is skewed by the big class in 2015; over the past four years, that average is down to 4.3 first-rounders on average. The average from the conference since 2015 has been 34 total players selected.

We think the 2020 draft could boost those numbers slightly. For now, we’ll set the over/under for first-round Pac-12 picks at 4.5 and the overall conference draft picks total at 38. That should be viewed as a nice step up after a few leaner years.

Notes from Notre Dame

We attended Saturday’s narrow escape by the Irish over Virginia Tech in the final moments and came away once again disappointed in QB Ian Book’s profile as an NFL prospect.

To be fair, Book finished the game with 336 yards passing and two touchdowns and engineered the game-winning drive by converting two fourth downs and scampering into the end zone for the game-winning score. He also did so without two starting offensive lineman (one of whom went down in the game) and one key running back, Tony Jones Jr.

That was the good news. The bad is that Book continues to lack the accuracy, poise or decision making that it requires to be an NFL passer right now. The junior has a lot of skill, and returning to school might benefit him greatly. We just can’t help but get a Mitch Trubisky-ish vibe from the Irish signal caller when we watch him.

Notre Dame QB Ian Book led the game-winning drive vs. Virginia Tech but also struggled at times. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame QB Ian Book led the game-winning drive vs. Virginia Tech but also struggled at times. (Getty Images)

Against a defense that has been pretty middling this season, Book threw two red-zone interceptions, overthrew open receivers and got lucky on that final scramble. The Irish were out of timeouts, and getting tackled inbounds would have meant a running clock and a fourth-down situation with even more chaos in the waning moments.

As Kelly McGillis’ character from “Top Gun” once famously said of her wild-card love interest, Maverick, “Unfortunately, it worked. ... The encounter was a victory, but we show it as an example of what not to do.”

We feel the same about Book’s play at times.

For the Irish, the clear standouts from the game on offense were WR Chase Claypool, who came up with several big grabs late, and OLs Liam Eichenberg and Aaron Banks, two NFL prospects we like to varying degrees. On defense, the standouts included 6-foot-3 CB Donte Vaughn, junior DT Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (who lived in the backfield) and EDGE Khalid Kareem, who might have had his best game of the season.

But it was a disappointing game for Book and for TE Cole Kmet, a favorite of ours who caught a TD and should have had a second score on a Book overthrow. But Kmet also committed a poorly timed penalty, struggled to consistently gain separation at times and couldn’t come down with a few catches we’d like to see him make.

Pac-12 sleepers? We have some at Utah, Oregon State

Utah features one of our favorite new 2020 draft sleepers. Coming into the season, NFL scouts tended to be most interested in two members of the Utah secondary: CB Jaylon Johnson, whom we mentioned above, and S Julian Blackmon. Johnson has come on of late, running back a pick-six of Washington’s Jacob Eason on Saturday, and Blackmon (who can play safety and corner) has been very solid throughout this season.

But the prospect whom scouts have been downright giddy about this season is their teammate, S Terrell Burgess. Following a solid few years in Salt Lake City in which the converted wide receiver has become more comfortable on defense, Burgess won the starting safety job this year and has been the unexpected breakout prospect scouts are suddenly infatuated with.

Burgess is coming off another strong performance in the win over Washington, with a career-high 10 tackles (one for loss). He was lined up more as a box safety and blitzer on Saturday, but he also has spent plenty of time lined up as a deep safety, as well as a slot corner and even a wide corner throughout the season.

Scouts and the Utah scouting staff love the 6-foot, 198-pound Burgess’ range, intelligence, toughness and athleticism and believe his best football is still ahead of him. His coverage skills were especially on display in the Washington State game, as Burgess had three passes defended and two receptions allowed (on five targets) for minus-3 yards, per Pro Football Focus.

Off the draft radar entering the season, Burgess now could crack the top-100 picks with a strong postseason, and that athleticism should translate very nicely to the combine testing process. He’s PFF’s highest-graded defender this season, which is saying something on a unit with some definitive NFL-grade talent.

Another pair of sleepers can be found up the road at Oregon State, a program on the rise. QB Jake Luton and WR Isaiah Hodgins are another two players who have put themselves squarely in the 2020 NFL draft picture, even though Hodgins (a junior) could opt to return to school next season.

Luton is a fascinating study. At 6-foot-7 and 229 pounds, he fits the mold of the classic NFL quarterback build. Not too long ago, that size would have made him a pro prospect almost by itself. (Right, Denver Broncos fans?) But in a strange way there almost has been a bias against taller passers in recent years in the eyes of some NFL evaluators, even if we feel that’s a bit of an overcorrection for a few extremely tall, highly drafted busts at the position.

The lesson seems to be: scout the traits and the player, and then worry about the measurables and whether they’ll be a hindrance at the next level.

In Luton’s case, we don’t believe it’s an issue whatsoever. He’s quite athletic for his size, clearly moves around the pocket with ease and is not just a strong-armed gunner who checks off the physical boxes. Here’s a nice example of Luton facing a heavy rush from Oklahoma State, resetting, moving under control out of the pocket and throwing off platform to Hodgins, his favorite target.

Oregon State QB Jake Luton makes a nice throw on the run to WR Isaiah Hodgins. (Via FS1)
Oregon State QB Jake Luton makes a nice throw on the run to WR Isaiah Hodgins. (Via FS1)

NFL scouts have been flocking to Corvalis, Ore. to check out both players recently amid their breakout seasons. Luton has a 19-1 TD-INT ratio on the season and was one pass attempt short of tying the Oregon State record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception — held by current Kansas City Chiefs savior, Matt Moore, interestingly — when he threw his only pick of the season against that great Utah secondary we highlighted above.

The Utah game was Luton’s worst of the season, but he otherwise has been very impressive this season, especially in clean pockets. PFF has charted their college analytics for QB prospects and has found that clean-pocket passing efficiency tends to be one of the more indicative numbers when it comes to projecting NFL success. Luton has registered a 122.1 NFL passer rating in those situations, which is on par with some QB prospects who could land in Round 1, such as Eason and Justin Herbert.

Hodgins had a nice 2018 season but has taken his game to an even higher level in 2019. He’s already surpassed his career highs for catches and yards and has more than doubled his 2018 TD output with 12 scores to only five TDs a year ago.

The 6-4, 207-pound wide receiver is the son of former St. Louis Rams fullback James Hodgins and could be mulling a decision on whether or not to enter a WR-rich 2020 class. He has a wide catch radius, an NFL frame, good concentration, and plays with a see-ball, get-ball mentality on contested passes. Some have questioned Hodgins’ testing speed, but his football speed appears to be plenty fast. Here is Hodgins dusting UCLA CB Darnay Holmes, who is in trail coverage and is one of the faster straight-line players in college football:

We can’t wait to see this duo perform down the stretch against a difficult slate — Washington, Arizona State, at Washington State and at Oregon. If Luton and Hodgins continue their impressive seasons in those games, there will be no excuse not to move them up in the 2020 NFL draft rankings.

Memphis man of mystery

One of the more entertaining games of the weekend was the SMU-Memphis shootout that produced 102 combined points and a slew of wild highlights. On a weekend where seven of the top 15 ranked teams in college football were on a bye, this was the kind of Saturday night explosion we needed. And a player I had not yet laid eyes on was perhaps the biggest breakout star of the day.

Memphis WR Antonio Gibson was a one-man show in a game full of fireworks, scoring three touchdowns (in three different ways) and totaling 227 yards from scrimmage and another 159 yards on three kick returns. Gibson caught a 50-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Tigers the lead for good; he ran the opening kickoff in the third quarter back for a 97-yard TD; and then put the game out of reach mid-fourth quarter with a stunning 78-yard run in which Gibson broke several tackles, ripped off a vicious jump cut to avoid another and then burned his way to the end zone.

That’s a season’s worth of big plays for some good players! And there’s a reason for the shock of it all: Gibson had only scored two touchdowns in 2018 while struggling to learn Mike Norvell’s complex playbook. Although Gibson scored TDs on four of his first seven catches of this season, he had been a lightly targeted deep threat (2.6 targets per game) coming into the SMU contest.

But now it appears the Tigers really have a late-blossoming prospect on their hands. The 6-2, 220-pound receiver spent two years at junior college and is just now learning the nuances of route running for the position. The fact that Norvell used Gibson in the backfield as a runner in such a big game against the unbeaten Mustangs, the 15th-ranked team in the country, speaks volumes about how far he has come.

Memphis has been a shocking well of talent in recent years, producing a slew of hybrid offensive talents such as Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard. Basically, Norvell has turned over every rock he can to find skilled players and use them in a variety of ways: receivers as runners, runners as receivers and both as returners.

Take another look at that Gibson run and you easily can see some Cordarrelle Patterson-like qualities. Still, we need to pump the brakes a bit because of Gibson’s slower learning curve to this point. But if he tests well, Gibson absolutely could be a surprise draft prospect we need to do a lot more work on. Not too many 220-pound players move with that kind of speed, agility and instincts.

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