The week of the NFL Draft is a complicated time for those of us deeply ingrained in and committed to college football. It signifies an end to this season of mock drafts — which by this point have been rebooted and updated more than an operating system — and the hundreds of scouting reports that inform or misinform those projections. Reports, sourced or anonymous, power narratives that serve as the backdrop for a televised weekend of drama for fans of all 32 NFL teams.
A college-centric or exclusively college-focused perspective on the NFL Draft won’t paint the entire picture for a general manager trying to make a decision with his job potentially on the line. But staying true to analysis based mostly on how these players performed in helmets, pads and during high-level competition on Saturdays does set up a few distinct conflicts when compared to the general consensus from NFL circles.
After a decade of covering college football here at CBS Sports and assisting in our NFL Draft coverage, the conflicts usually fall into a few different buckets.
- Misplaced concerns with how a player “fits” at the next level: Just by earning an invitation to the NFL Combine, these players have outlasted cuts at every level and proven to be some of the most gifted football players in the country. There is an argument to be made for finding the right “fit” for a franchise or coaching staff, but when offensive and defensive players are downgraded because of how their size and measurables line up with a certain profile or expectation, I think mistakes are made in the evaluation process.
- Misplaced excitement based on measurables: The inverse of the “fit” concerns comes into play when NFL teams come back from the combine with testing numbers that overtake the evaluation process. Draft history factors into models and projections that use these numbers to inform decisions, but too often that can either overshadow the game film or contribute to bias and a new lens for reviewing a select player’s performance. Testing well is a great way for a player to boost their draft stock and increase how much money can be made on their rookie deal, but players who have proven their performance at a high level on Saturday tend to be the ones with intangibles that help them make it to a second contract.
- Draft value and scarcity: I understand the basic calculations that go into “a run on [position]” and why teams looking to address needs might choose to make moves or selections seeing that the number of high-end prospects at a certain position is starting to dissipate. I also generally disagree with passing on multiple best-player-available selections to address those needs.
As you’ll see in the rankings below, even these conflicts aren’t enough to create disagreement on some of the best players in the class. So with college performance as the basis and building blocks of the analysis, here’s how I’ve ranked the top 32 players in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft.
1. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: Can we talk about the ridiculous production here? Can we talk about the Wisconsin game? Young led the nation in sacks, ranked No. 2 in tackles for loss and was a unanimous All-American recognized as the best defensive player in the country all while missing two games due to NCAA suspension. His dominance was normalized by the end of the year, and his status as one of the best players in the country was so agreed-upon that I think we overlooked the fact that he could have turned in one of the best individual seasons for a defensive player ever with a full season under his belt.
2. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson: The development across his career, which saw him not only play but thrive at all three levels of Clemson’s defense, makes Simmons somewhat of a football equivalent to those “unicorns” we hear of in basketball circles. His closing speed as a pass rusher from the line of scrimmage is elite, he’s got great instincts for run support from the linebacker or safety position and he can smother tight ends and running backs in pass coverage. Any team that passes on Simmons on the basis of “fit” is missing the point. You bring in a player like Simmons and then build the rest of the defense to fit around his unique skill set.
3. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: The improvement that Burrow showed from 2018 to 2019 is not the end of his development. The jump to the NFL will be a reset of sorts, but in the same way he eventually became a master of LSU’s new offense and the most important leader in the locker room, Burrow will once again thrive when challenged with the need for continued growth. He does a great job of moving in the pocket, keeping his eyes down the field and avoiding the kind of negative plays that will throw an offense off-schedule. All of the skills showcased in his record-shattering 2019 season were the culmination of a lifetime of training, and in that long-term view of his development suggests that, yes, Burrow will continue to get better. It’s impossible to replicate the production from that record-setting season, but the skills and his mastery of them will continue to improve.
4. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Don’t believe the smokescreen — Tua is worth a top-three pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. It’s been clear that he’s special since his dynamic introduction as a freshman. There’s a character aspect to Tua that’s going to power the recovery that lies ahead after suffering a broken hip at the end of 2019, and not in a fluffy “aw, he’s such a great guy” pre-packaged kind of way that requires some soft piano music to tell the story. Tua speaks and acts with a confidence and determination that’s informed by his family and his upbringing, and that confidence has been infectious and attractive to the rest of an Alabama locker room that is loaded with other future pros.
5. Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State: As close to a total package cornerback as you’ll find in the 2020 NFL Draft, Okudah looks better on tape than he does to the average eye, and even to the average eye he flashes with his ability to mirror wide receivers and totally take them out of an offensive gameplan. His success doesn’t come as a surprise. Okudah entered Ohio State as a five-star prospect ranked No. 1 at his position and immediately became a key rotation player in a backfield loaded with other future pros, so there is evidence to suggest a high likelihood of Okudah continuing on that blue-chip path to Pro Bowls and All-Pro contention at the next level.
6. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn: When Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele needed a plan to try and stop LSU and its Joe Burrow-led offensive attack, the 3-1-7 scheme he put in place to hold the Tigers to a season-low 23 points would never have been possible without Brown. Auburn consistently pressured Burrow and got him off his spot thanks to the disruption that Brown was able to captain from a three-man front. Even though the sacks and tackles for loss were limited (a credit to Burrow), the record-setting quarterback met his match against one of the best interior defensive lineman we’ve seen since Aaron Donald.
7. Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina: There’s still so much left for Kinlaw to improve upon, and the tape he put together in 2019 showed the hints of the high ceiling for this defensive lineman. Kinlaw’s first step and timing off the snap put enough plays on tape to terrify opposing offensive line coaches, and with his skill set still evolving, NFL teams would be smart to try and move him around to keep opponents’ protection schemes off balance.
8. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: Route-running and hands are the best in the class, and to me, Jeudy rates as the best wide receiver prospect since 2014. Jeudy showed up as an early enrollee as a freshman and proceeded to torch his new teammates in spring practice and the Alabama spring game. He hasn’t let up at any step in his development since. I just don’t see a downside or a weakness, which is why I’ve rated him as the No. 1 player in a wide receiver class that’s loaded with high-end talent.
9. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma: Throw out all combine numbers and just put on the film to get a feel for what Lamb can bring to an offense. When it comes to yards after catch and turning good plays into great plays, Lamb has the kind of game-breaking ability that won’t be visible in the underwear Olympics.
10. Grant Delpit, DB, LSU: Context is good for a proper scouting analysis — such the context needed to know that Delpit was playing hurt for a large portion of the 2019 season, for example. So when he looks a step slow on 2019 film, that’s a big reason why. You need to take the evaluation back to 2017 and 2018, when Delpit first flashed in a big way as one of the best defensive backs in the country, to find the confidence to select a certified play-maker in the first round of the NFL Draft. A two-time first-team All-American and three-year starter for the Tigers at D.B.U., Delpit is an instinctive safety that’s been sharpened by competing with the best in the country across his college career.
11. Mekhi Becton, OL, Louisville: Becton’s physical gifts have him on the radar, but Louisville’s offensive line as a group didn’t always have the kind of cohesion that allowed him to shine properly. That was certainly the case during the woeful 2018 season, but even as the Cards’ offense started to click, the numbers haven’t been great. The OL group as a whole ranked No. 90 in line yards, No. 119 in standard down line yards and outside the top-100 in standard downs and passing downs sack rate. Becton won a ton of one-on-one matchups, but surrounded by more consistent play, he could find room to be even better.
12. Andrew Thomas, OL, Georgia: Hoping to cash in on an early bet that Thomas would prove to be a very effective pro. He easily stepped into the starting lineup of Sam Pittman’s offensive line at Georgia in a year the Bulldogs won the SEC and came just a few plays short of a national championship. Thomas himself knew at the time there was a lot of development left, but being comfortable going up against the best defensive linemen in the country as a freshman proved what his high recruiting rating suggested: Thomas has Pro Bowl potential.
13. Jaylon Johnson, DB, Utah: Health is a concern for Johnson following shoulder surgery, but to let that be a reason to overlook what he can bring to your franchise over the course of a rookie deal would be a mistake. Johnson is a tough defender with great ball skills, and he dominated man-to-man matchups in 2019 after a breakthrough 2018 campaign.
14. Tristan Wirfs, OL, Iowa: Back to the future pro training facility in Iowa City, where Kirk Ferentz has been routinely developing top NFL Draft picks. Wirfs stood out as one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten on the field, but his pro stock seems to be more tied to measurables and potential to dominate at different positions on the line of scrimmage. He might have an All-Pro ceiling, but based on my grades, I’ve got him running third behind Bekton and Thomas.
15. CJ Henderson, CB, Florida: While the anchor of my rankings are what these players have done in college, it’s not specifically tied to what was accomplished in the 2019 season alone. Henderson’s entire body of work throughout his three years at Florida has enough highlights that, when combined, could make a case for him being the best cornerback in the class. It was clear that this high school running back was comfortable as a game-breaking player in the secondary from the start of his freshman season when he returned interceptions for touchdowns against Michigan and Tennessee. He took on different roles in an evolving defense, but the elite defensive back rotation gave him a lot of flexibility in terms of fit for teams looking to shore up the back end of their defense.
16. Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama: Another secondary player with versatility as an added bonus, McKinney is strong enough to drop down into the box as a linebacker and has great instincts that help him read the offense and react quickly to make a play on the ball. McKinney was Alabama’s leading tackler in 2019 and led the SEC in forced fumbles en route to earning first team All-SEC and second team All-America honors at the end of the year.
17. Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU: After reviewing a good bit of Ed Orgeron clips for a piece on LSU earlier this month, I recognized that he dropped plenty of hints about what was to come from the Tigers’ offense in 2019. He was excited for how the offense would run with Burrow at the helm, but he was also very impressed with the development of the wide receivers during the summer of 2019. Jefferson leveled up in a big way, showing a new command of the position within the offense and flashing ball skills in traffic as he rocketed up NFL Draft boards while helping the Tigers win their fourth national championship.
18. Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma: It’s always been about pursuit with Murray, and that’s where I think he’ll find a comfortable place in NFL defenses for a long time. Murray started all 42 games of his three-year career with the Sooners and finished as the program’s 11th-leading tackler (No. 9 among linebackers). He was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2017 and averaged 11.1 tackles per game as a sophomore in 2018. After another productive season in 2019, the motor won’t stop, it’ll just relocate.
19. K’Lavon Chaisson, LB, LSU: A belief in positionless football brings about the idea of a “weapon” player, and that’s exactly what you have here with Chaisson. While lacking some of the back-end versatility that you might get from Simmons, Chaisson has all of the range and athleticism to accomplish pretty much any assignment at the first two levels of the defense. After missing most of 2018 with a knee injury, the Houston native came back stronger than ever in 2019. He helped lead the way as LSU’s defense locked in for a late-season renaissance that helped capture the national championship, and he earned defensive MVP honors for his play against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl semifinal.
20. Yetur Gross-Matos, DL, Penn State: After back-to-back All-Big Ten seasons, Gross-Matos leaves Penn State as one of the most productive defenders in program history. A four-star prospect coming out of Virginia, Gross-Matos was a regular contributor dating back to his freshman season in 2017. After just three years, he’s leaving the program ranked No. 10 all-time in sacks and No. 11 in tackles for loss.
21. Henry Ruggs, WR, Alabama: Just to reinforce the premise of the piece as stated in the introduction, this isn’t a denial of the belief that players like Ruggs are elite and capable of an All-Pro career in the NFL. Ruggs is ranked here behind some of his peers at wide receiver based on what was accomplished in college, and at Alabama, he was often running No. 2 or No. 3 behind the other receivers in the offense. If Jaylen Waddle and De’Vonta Smith were available in this draft, they might rank ahead of Ruggs as well. But my approach isn’t so hard-headed that I’m going to ignore the obvious flash plays and potential he showed in the open field when given the opportunity.
22. Jedrick Wills, OL, Alabama: The Tide offensive line ranked third nationally, allowing just 0.92 sacks per game in 2019 with Wills as a key part of that protection at starting right tackle for a left-handed quarterback. According to Alabama, Wills specifically allowed only one sack all season and just 3.5 quarterback hurries “while missing only seven assignments in 771 snaps for a success rate of 99.0 percent.”
23. Patrick Queen, LB, LSU: When Devin White was suspended for targeting in the 2018 season, Queen seized an opportunity to make himself one of the most impactful players in Dave Aranda’s defense. After filling in for White for one game, he worked his way into the starting lineup for four of the final games of that season and ended up thriving as a regular starter for the Tigers in 2019.
24. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU: While D’Andre Swift (listed below) was more consistent across his entire college career, the high-end play that Edwards-Helaire showed across the second half of the 2019 season anchors an argument as RB1 of this class. It’s not just the way he became a dynamic receiving threat out of the backfield, but also his situational awareness with the ball in his hands. Edwards-Helaire had a great sense for the sticks, and LSU might not have its national championship if not for a dozen of first-down plays in high-leverage situations provided by its star running back during the 15-0 campaign.
25. D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia: Again, Swift was more consistent across his career than Edwards-Helaire, so I’m not going to scoff if he’s the top running back taken in the draft. In a sense, he’s the safest option at running back because of that consistency and an instant-impact boost to any running back room. Swift was a key offensive contributor for three straight 11-plus win, SEC East title-winning and New Year’s Six bowl teams. Now he leaves Athens as the No. 7 player on the all-time rushing list.
26. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: All of the physical tools are there, but if we’re judging mostly on college performance, there’s going to be a gap between where I and many pro scouts see Herbert compared to his peers in this class. Going into both 2018 and 2019, there was a projected leap that always set the bar a little higher than what Herbert delivered. It’s hard to argue with success. Herbert proved to be a winner at the highest level while leading the Ducks to a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win, but Oregon was a championship-caliber team for several reasons (elite offensive line and defensive front seven) outside of the quarterback’s influence.
27. Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State: Speaking of Oregon, some of the best Brandon Aiyuk tape you’ll find comes from his performance in the Sun Devils’ low-scoring grinder of a win against the Ducks. Aiyuk started to emerge as a dangerous part of Arizona State’s offense and return game in 2018, but thrived in 2019 with one of the five most productive receiving seasons in program history. Aiyuk earned All-Pac-12 honors as both a receiver and return specialist for those dynamic efforts.
28. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: Watching Clemson almost guaranteed at least one of two catches from Higgins that simply aren’t going to be made by most wide receivers, particularly in the red zone. When you see Higgins pull down touchdown grabs over double teams enough, it becomes clear why Trevor Lawrence was so comfortable throwing 50-50 balls in his direction.
29. AJ Epenesa, DL, Iowa: A breakout season in 2018 set the stage with plenty of hype for 2019 that exceeded some of the production. Still, Epenesa was a first team All-Big Ten selection with 11.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, and he reinforced the interest in his professional prospects with a dominating performance against USC in the Holiday Bowl that saw him take home defensive MVP honors.
30. Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn: While less heralded than teammate Derrick Brown, Davidson was an equally disruptive force for a Tigers front that needed only three down linemen to cause havoc against some of the best offensive attacks in the SEC.
31. Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor: The high-level player development at Baylor under Matt Rhule is on display with Mims’ rise through the draft process. A three-star prospect coming out of high school, Mims’ raw athletic ability was rounded out by great ball skills and body control in traffic as the top target in Baylor’s passing attack last season.
32. Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota: Whatever measurables formula that has Winfield lower than this on prospect rankings is making the same errors that saw him overlooked in the recruiting process. The instincts and playmaking you get from a player like this on your team won’t show up on those circle charts, and letting Winfield fall will play to the benefit of some team that is going to get a spark-plug in the secondary.