We’re nearly two weeks away from the NFL draft, so it’s time to start digging into what’s going to actually happen when the first round begins April 23.
This week, The Baltimore Sun offers its big-picture predictions, with a look at which positions stand out, which don’t and how teams might value some of the nation’s best players:
Five quarterbacks will be picked in the first round.
With LSU’s Joe Burrow the consensus No. 1 overall pick and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa getting a clean bill of health on his injured hip, there’s been little drama this offseason about the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Both are considered locks to go in the top five, with the Bengals eyeing Burrow and the Dolphins and Chargers expected to make a run at Tagovailoa.
Behind those two, however, things get murky. Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love offer athleticism and arm strength, but both come with questions about their decision-making and consistency. Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts had an efficient, productive season both running and throwing under Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, but his accuracy hiccups and tendency to hold the ball too long might scare teams away. Washington’s Jacob Eason has the prototypical size to excite teams, but struggled against pressure.
Along with the Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers, the Colts, Patriots, Jaguars, Bears, Saints, Steelers and even the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers might be looking for a quarterback. But there are plenty of hurdles to clear. The Colts, Bears and Steelers don’t have a first-round pick, the Patriots are reportedly determined to give Jarrett Stidham a chance to start, the Jaguars seem invested in Gardner Minshew and the Saints and Buccaneers will probably look to draft players who can help their veteran quarterbacks win now.
Even the Chargers, who pick at No. 6, are a wild card. While many mock drafts have linked Los Angeles to Herbert, the Chargers have a big hole at left tackle and could grab a foundational piece such as Mekhi Becton, Tristan Wirfs, Jedrick Wills Jr. or Andrew Thomas at No. 6 and see which quarterbacks are still available when they pick again at No. 37. With Tyrod Taylor under contract and Cam Newton and Jameis Winston still free agents, drafting a rookie might not be a priority in 2020.
So how will five quarterbacks come off the board in the first 32 picks?
Teams will always be willing to take a risk to find a potential star at such a valuable position, especially after watching polarizing prospects Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson win MVP honors. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots draft competition for Stidham at No. 23, the Bears and/or Colts package picks to move into the first round, or a team seemingly content with its starter — like the Raiders and Jaguars — makes a splashy move. Even contending teams such as the Saints and Packers might look at their aging quarterbacks and decide to invest a first-round pick in a future starter.
It seems likely that Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert and Love will get picked in Round 1. Chances are at least one other quarterback will hear his name called before the opening night is over.
More offensive linemen than wide receivers will get picked in the first round.
The aforementioned Becton, Wirfs, Wills and Thomas are at the top of the class for offensive linemen and figure to be taken in the top 15, but there are plenty of intriguing prospects behind them.
Houston’s Josh Jones is at the top of the second tier of tackles, and Michigan center Cesar Ruiz is the rare interior lineman with first-round potential. Then there are projects with plenty of upside, like 6-foot-6, 350-pound Georgia tackle Isaiah Wilson, athletic USC tackle Austin Jackson and Senior Bowl standout tackle Ben Bartch of Division II St. John’s (Minn.).
With such a deep group of receivers, teams might prioritize offensive line help early knowing that a top pass-catcher might still be available in the middle rounds. In a breakdown of team needs on NFL.com, every team but the Patriots and Colts has offensive line listed as an area of concern. The same can’t be said of wide receivers.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see as many as six offensive lineman picked in the first round, while six or fewer receivers come off the board.
Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III will be the first wide receiver off the board.
While Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy are considered the top wideouts, there’s a case to be made that Ruggs is the most valuable. And it’s not just because of his game-breaking speed.
Ruggs ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds at the scouting combine, one of the best times ever recorded. But he’s also in the 90th percentile or better since 1999 for hand size (10⅛ inches), the broad jump (131 inches) and the vertical jump (42 inches), according to MockDraftable.com, which compiles prospect testing data. And he only dropped five passes his entire career, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ruggs’ straight-line speed alone is tantalizing, but when you add his agility and route-running ability to the mix, he might be the best receiver in this class. However ...
This speaks more to the talent at quarterback, offensive line and defense available at the top of the draft and the consideration of team needs than the quality of the receiver class as a whole.
Of teams in the top 10, the ones that might consider taking a receiver are the Redskins, Lions, Giants, Chargers, Cardinals, Jaguars and Browns. With the Redskins strongly linked to Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young, the Lions and Giants eyeing upgrades on defense or the offensive line, the Chargers considering a quarterback or offensive line help, the Cardinals acquiring DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans, the Jaguars having glaring holes on defense and the Browns needing a left tackle more than a complement to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, there just isn’t a demand for a receiver in the top 10.
No running backs will be taken in the first round.
We don’t need to rehash the great “running back value” debate here, but teams are learning that the position doesn’t affect winning football as much as others do, and is easily replaceable. Just look at recent history.
Todd Gurley was picked 10th overall in 2015 and blossomed into a star and borderline MVP candidate with the Rams, but was cut this offseason just two years after signing a four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million guaranteed. Melvin Gordon, the 15th pick in that 2015 draft, didn’t get a new deal from the Chargers and was forced to settle for a two-year, $16 million contract ($13.5 million guaranteed) with the Broncos this offseason as a free agent.
In 2016, Ezekiel Elliott was picked fourth overall. In 2017, Leonard Fournette went fourth and Christian McCaffrey went eighth. In 2018, Saquon Barkley went second, Rashaad Penny went 28th and Sony Michel went 31st. In 2019, Josh Jacobs went 24th. Of those picks, Elliott, McCaffrey, Barkley and Jacobs have become quality starters, but there’s a case to be made that they were the wrong selections at the time, considering who else was still on the board.
Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins all have the potential to be good, perhaps even great players. But with teams seeing regrettable second contracts for running backs and a limited number of effective years for even the best ball carriers, it’s likely that they’ll invest their draft picks elsewhere in the first round.
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Teams will value pass coverage over pass rush early in the draft.
There’s a growing debate over the effectiveness of pass rush vs. pass coverage, and that conversation will likely be had in draft rooms throughout the league.
There are some stud defensive linemen and edge rushers available, with Ohio State’s Chase Young, Auburn’s Derrick Brown, South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw and LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson leading the way. But, especially when it comes to interior linemen like Brown and Kinlaw, there are questions about how impactful those players can be.
A 2019 PFF study found that teams with elite coverage (67th percentile or better) and a poor pass rush (33rd percentile or worse) win, on average, about a game and a half more than teams with the reverse construction. There are plenty of variables to consider, such as quality of opponent and the volatility of pass coverage quality from year to year, but it’s an interesting look at how defenses will be assembled in the modern NFL.
Teams like the Lions, Panthers, Cardinals and Jaguars, who each pick in the top 10, might consider corners like Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah and Florida’s C.J. Henderson and a Swiss Army Knife linebacker/safety hybrid like Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons more valuable than the highly rated defensive linemen. It’ll be fascinating to see how the top picks shake out.