NFL draft winners and losers: Burrow not only LSU-Alabama standout
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 who helped themselves in the Tigers’ massive victory in Tuscaloosa on Saturday:
(Other 2020 draft prospects are also listed in boldface.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Willis Jr. shined in this one, Leatherwood struggled. Willis, by the way, is an ascending prospect. Would it stun us if Willis 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.
What a ridiculous cheap shot by Landon Dickerson pic.twitter.com/b0MiVgLBbE
— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) November 9, 2019
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.
Two Washington prospects headed in opposite directions
Washington QB Jacob Eason faces a fascinating decision on whether to enter the 2020 NFL draft in about two months’ time. Some feel his arm talent, size and fearlessness could be enough to tempt an NFL team in Round 1 should Eason enter. But there remain glaring concerns about his consistency, ability to read coverage and work through progressions and his poor reps against pressure to make Eason a complex evaluation for scouts.
Most of those concerns were on display in the Huskies’ 19-7 win at Oregon State. In fact, you could lump the past two games — including the late home loss to Utah — together and find plenty of reasons why Eason isn’t close to a finished product.
I spoke on Friday with ESPN’s Ryan Leaf, who keeps close tabs on the Pac-12, about the conference’s quarterback prospects for a piece I am working on for later this week. But what Leaf had to say about Eason prior to the Oregon State game really stuck with me.
“He’s got to come back,” Leaf told me by phone. “He’s regressed a bit from where he was earlier in the season. He struggles a lot at stepping up in the pocket. His thing is, if he feels any pressure coming towards him, his immediate reaction is to plant that foot and spin out of the pocket. It’s really gotten him in trouble.
“[Washington head coach] Chris Petersen said that the tackles have done a really good job of giving him a pocket and he’s not utilizing it. Last week’s performance against Utah — four touchdown passes, yes, but one was [against prevent coverage] at the end, and two bad interceptions that really cost them.”
Leaf thinks whenever Eason does go pro, he’ll kill the NFL scouting combine with his size (6-6, 227 pounds), athleticism and arm skill. But if it was up to the former Pac-12 star, Eason should “take a page out of the Justin Herbert playbook” and return to school for another season.
Eason only completed 16 of his 32 pass attempts against Oregon State for a mere 175 yards and two picks. But five of those catches and 90 of those yards went to TE Hunter Bryant, whose receiving skills have been eye-opening this season.
That TD was set up by this Eason to Hunter Bryant 50 yard play. It was a 60 yard TD, but a holding call brought it back.. Still a long gain for Washington pic.twitter.com/4VFZRlnTKK
— I’M SEEING GHOSTS (@FTBeard11) November 9, 2019
Bryant also had a touchdown catch in this game wiped out by penalty and a drop on a would-be 29-yard grab where he was slammed to the ground on his back. He was the best player on offense for the Huskies, along with RB Salvon Ahmed, who ran for 174 yards and two scores. Watching Bryant’s natural receiving skills and athleticism made me think of Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. last year when he ended up as the 50th overall selection.
Injuries have really hindered Bryant’s ability to stay on the field the past few seasons, but he’s raised his game this season. The football watching-nation saw Bryant’s miracle one-handed grab in the Rose Bowl in January against Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah, who could be a top-10 pick in 2020.
Bryant won’t go that high, but he’s one of the favorites now to be TE1 in this class should he declare, assuming his health concerns are alleviated and the 6-2, 239-pound tight end’s size and lack of blazing straight-line speed are not major issues. His competitive-catch skills and tackle-breaking ability are special.
Back to Tua for a second …
I was listening to Yahoo Sports’ NFL podcast last week with Charles Robinson and Terez Paylor, and Charles hit on a fascinating point — even before the Miami Dolphins won their second game of the season on Sunday and further hurt their chances of earning the top pick in the 2020 draft.
What if, Charles mused, the Dolphins don’t take either Tagovailoa or Burrow? The only way that happens, as Charles pointed out, is if they secure a veteran QB — and a big one — prior to the draft.
The biggest name who could come free this spring? None other than Cam Newton. We’re not sure the Carolina Panthers’ future plans with Newton and Kyle Allen, so it’s all just speculative at this point. And Newton’s foot injury clearly is a major concern.
But what if the Dolphins, who are teeming with salary-cap space, throw a big contract offer at Newton should he come free? Newton could be the face of the franchise and one of the kings of Miami in that scenario. He also would be a huge draw at the box office, which is something that might make owner Stephen Ross sit up in his chair.
By no means is this any kind of surety, but it certainly would be fascinating. The Dolphins still would have a ton of money to throw around in free agency on some expensive pieces around Newton on offense (Amari Cooper? Brandon Scherff? A.J. Green? Rodney Hudson? Melvin Gordon? Hunter Henry? Rodney Hudson?) and then focus on defense in the draft.
With three first-round picks, imagine the talent they could get if they didn’t have to draft a QB up high. A haul of, say, Ohio State EDGE Chase Young, LSU CB Kristian Fulton and Alabama S Xavier McKinney — along with a slew of Day 2 and 3 picks, plus all their 2021 draft ammo — would put the Dolphins on the immediate road back to improvement.
It’s a truly fascinating possibility that we never could have seen coming as recently as perhaps a month ago. Such is life in the NFL, but sharp front offices will always adjust to unexpected developments and pivot when needed. Dolphins GM Chris Grier was on hand for LSU-Alabama, and the odds still say that the draft is the most likely route of addressing Miami’s QB need.
But landing Newton would change all of that.
Other NFL draft notes from around college football
Boise State EDGE Curtis Weaver has had a nice season so far, and he was a huge factor in the Broncos’ 20-17 overtime win over Wyoming. The 6-3, 254-pound Weaver is the Mountain West’s career sack leader, adding two sacks — both right before halftime as the Cowboys were driving to take a touchdown lead — to up his season total to season and career totals.
There are some who have questioned whether Weaver’s athleticism is top notch, and his level of competition is a notch down from other Power-5 rushers. But he’s displayed clear improvement season to season, plays with a great combination of finesse and power and has a clear pass-rush plan when he hunts quarterbacks.
We view Weaver as a top-50 pick and a borderline Day 1 selection until further notice. He’s had a strong season and matched a lot of the national hype he got in the preseason.
One pass rusher whose draft stock might have taken a hit this weekend was Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara. His season is now over after a broken fibula, and the timetable of the injury will complicate his draft evaluation. The 6-5, 245-pound rusher has had some dominant tape (check out the Virginia game) but also a few games that will leave evaluators digging even deeper.
But the possibility of landing in Round 1 just went down with the injury, which also robbed Okwara of the chance of finishing the season on a high note.
I was watching the Iowa State-Oklahoma game on Saturday and just marveling at the Cyclones’ tight ends. The clear standout of the group is 6-6, 252-pound redshirt sophomore Charlie Kolar, who is likely to return to school (we suspect) and become a major weapon for QB Brock Purdy for the next year-plus. Kolar grew up in Norman, Okla. and stung the Sooners with a touchdown in the waning seconds. The Cyclones’ two-point try failed, however, and they lost, 42-41, in a thriller.
Although none of Iowa State’s three standout tight ends individually put up big receiving numbers, all three found the end zone. Dylan Soehner, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound redshirt junior scored their second touchdown to cut Oklahoma’s lead to 14, and 6-7, 245-pound redshirt junior Chase Allen helped fuel the Cyclones manic comeback with a TD down three scores early in the fourth quarter.
Where do they find these guys?! Their size and length alone are eye-popping, but watching each of them move around had me very excited. Allen especially had a great game, even considering his holding penalty that wiped out a rushing TD.
All three could return to school with more eligibility. But Iowa State — a school that hasn’t produced an NFL-caliber tight end since Mike Banks, who had a cup of coffee with the Arizona Cardinals in the early 2000s — might suddenly have one of the most impressive TE rooms in the entire country.
South Carolina WR Bryan Edwards is the Gamecocks’ best offensive weapon by far in what has been a trying season on that side of the ball. And everyone in the house knew he would be the target with the Cocks down to their final play down 20-15 to Appalachian State.
That’s when this happened:
Edwards was open by 14 yards pic.twitter.com/85xHpn4bKk
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) November 10, 2019
Edwards got as open as you will ever see from a receiver in the red zone. The gut-wrenching part is that his quarterback overthrew him badly, and the pass was pretty much uncatchable for any receiver in the country.
That’s obviously no knock on the 6-3, 215-pound Edwards, who had a terrific game against Alabama (which always helps) and who finished this contest with nine catches for 90 yards and a score. The fact that he did so — and played 64 grueling snaps, many of them trailing and thus passing almost every down — with a sprained knee is pretty phenomenal.
Edwards has been a bit overlooked at times in what is shaping up to be a banner year at wide receiver. But his competitive demeanor (watch the end around on the first play from scrimmage vs. Bama), my-ball attitude, excellent body control and great run-after-catch ability must be respected.
I think Edwards is a Day 2 prospect with a very high floor who could make an excellent WR2 for an NFL team wanting to add size and physicality to its receiver corps.
I wanted to wait to offer my analysis on Princeton QB Kevin Davidson, who has become an out-of-nowhere NFL prospect this season, until after the Tigers’ huge game this past Saturday at Yankee Stadium in a battle of unbeaten Ivy League heavyweights with Dartmouth.
Well, Davidson struggled in the game, which Princeton lost, 27-10. On Princeton’s first play from scrimmage, Davidson was sacked. On the second play, he was harassed on an incompletion that had no chance of being caught.
After the opening three-and-out, Davidson threw a bad pick-six to a defensive lineman on a screen pass on Princeton’s second possession that put them in an early hole. That set the table for a frustrating game in which Davidson completed 26-of-43 passes for 210 yards, one touchdown pass and two picks on the day against a Big Green defense that is atop the Ivy rankings and which features an NFL-caliber corner in Isiah Swann, who picked Davidson deep in Princeton territory. His longest completion on the day was a 30-yard catch and run, but mostly everything else was short and quick.
But trust us when we say that NFL scouts absolutely have Davidson on their radar and will keep him on it, even after a tough day at the ballpark. They’ve been arriving at Princeton more than they have in a few years, probably since TE Seth Devalve (a 2016 Cleveland Browns fourth-rounder) was in school. And one game isn’t going to crush the fate of the 6-4, 225-pound passer who has a very good arm, decent footwork and a platform you can work with in a developmental QB. Davidson had preferred walk-on offers from Notre Dame and Ohio State coming out of California, so this clearly is a talented player we’re talking about.
Scouts have wanted to see Davidson up close this season because this has been the most extensive playing time the senior has received after backing up former Ivy League Player of the Year Chad Kanoff (who is on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad) and All-American John Lovett (who has transitioned to tight end and is on the Kansas City Chiefs’ injured reserve list).
But finding tape on Davidson had proven to be difficult prior to Saturday’s game, too. NFL scouts are funneled college tape from programs coast to coast via NFL Films through what’s known as the “Dub center,” but as of last week it featured only two of Davidson’s games in a season where he’s completed 68.6 percent of his passes, averaged 8.8 yards per attempt and registered a 20-5 TD-INT ratio.
The positives from the Dartmouth game were that Davidson delivered a good TD pass right before the half to keep his team in the game, and he kept gunning despite all the pressure (three sacks and four more QB hits) the Big Green delivered. That appears to show the kid has some grit as well.
We’re probably talking about a seventh-round or undrafted projection for Davidson at this point. He could end up being invited to one of the postseason all-star games and might be in line for an NFL scouting combine invitation, either of which would help get more sets of eyeballs on him.
But tough game or not, we’re keeping tabs on Davidson because he will end up on an NFL offseason roster, we believe, in 2020.
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