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B/R NFL's 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Players for 2020

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2017

B/R NFL's 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 Players for 2020

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The NFL 1000 series aims to rank the best players in the league right now but doesn't take into account potential or projection of talent. That left a big hole, which is why the NFL 20 for '20 was created.

    Who will be the NFL's best players in the year 2020?

    After projecting the top players at each position, I looked at who the 20 best players will be overall. Of course, this is a lot of speculation, but it's a fun way to recognize the best young guys in the NFL right now and look at the college players who could be impacting the game in five seasons.

    Will a young quarterback like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck take the No. 1 spot? Will J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack still be terrorizing offenses in five seasons?

    Did we miss anyone? Let us know in the comments.

     

20. Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 27

    Marcus Peters ranks as one of the most confident cornerbacks I’ve scouted in college football. That belief in his skills followed him to the NFL, and early on he’s showing all the traits to project as a great cover man five years from now. Peters is long but quick. He’s aggressive and smart. He has the hands to catch the ball and the attitude to attack the pass like it’s intended for him. He can be a bit too aggressive at times, and that’s something to watch moving forward, but it would be a shock if he’s not in the top cornerback conversation in 2020. 

    A physical cornerback with good size, Peters is a strong tackler in the open field and when the ball is in front of him. He has to improve his angles to be a better tackler in pursuit, but by 2020 that shouldn’t be an issue. 

    Peters has all the skills—height, length, speed, toughness, vision—to be an elite NFL cornerback in 2020. He has to limit some of the big plays he’s surrendered as a rookie, but that will come with reps and time.  

    Peters’ abilities were well-known at Washington, but off-field issues led to his slipping in the draft. If his first season is any indication of his long-term success, a lot of teams will regret that move.

19. Joey Bosa, Ohio State

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    Over the last two seasons, Joey Bosa has emerged as a truly dominant presence on the edge of the Ohio State line. He's dangerous in space with a very good first step and the long arms to reach the quarterback, but he has the power to counter athletic offensive tackles. Bosa's production and skills will make him a top-tier NFL defensive end five seasons from now. 

    Bosa has three skills that make him a dynamic run defender: length, power and toughness. He doesn't give up when engaged by blockers and uses his long arms and strong base to hold his edge and/or attack the ball. 

    Bosa has all the tools and productive potential to be an elite, All-Pro-caliber NFL player. With his athleticism and work ethic, he's unlikely to become a bust in the pros.

    Bosa has dominated the college ranks and looks like a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft. Fast-forwarding to his fifth NFL season, expect the former Ohio State defender to be an elite strong-side defensive end.

18. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

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    Michael Thomas/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 29

    Aaron Donald is the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL right now, and in five years, he still will be. We're talking All-Pro talent with amazing quickness, snap anticipation and football IQ to find and attack the ball in the backfield. 

    On his 2014 and 2015 film, the run game is one area where Donald struggles. He's not the biggest tackle (6'0", 284 lbs) and gets pushed around off the snap—or teams use his quickness against him on trap plays. Moving ahead five seasons, expect Donald to figure out how to better play the run and hold his ground on the inside.

    How good can Donald be in 2020? His quickness is already off-the-charts good, but he can still improve his hand use and his play recognition (especially against the run). While he's already looking like a top defensive tackle, there's still room for improvement. 

    Donald's first two years in the NFL have been fantastic, and there is no reason to think that he won't get even better in the next five campaigns. 

17. Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    One of the smartest pass-rushers I've scouted coming out of college, Vic Beasley just gets it. He's agile and flexible—deploying shoulder dips and hip shakes to make tackles miss him—but has the football IQ to know when and where to use each of his pass-rushing moves. And with amazing length and quickness, Beasley has the tools to become an elite pass-rusher.

    The biggest question on Beasley coming out of Clemson was his small frame (6'2", 236 lbs). That's not the body of an edge-holding defender, but where he's making his mark—and will continue to in the next five years—is as a run defender in space. Beasley's length and instincts will allow him to become a viable threat in taking away the outside run.

    There is no limit to how good Beasley can become. He looks like a young Von Miller in the Falcons defensive system and could definitely reach that mark by 2020.

    Beasley has been an impressive rookie, but remember this is a projection of where he'll be five seasons from now. By 2020, Beasley will have the strength to match his game-changing quickness.

16. Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    Pass protection is generally won on ability and length, and Ronnie Stanley has plenty of both. Playing in Brian Kelly’s offense at Notre Dame, Stanley is asked to protect the edge from a two-point and three-point stance, and he does it with a fluid movement usually seen from tight ends. Stanley can improve his hand use, and by the year 2020, he’s projected to be an elite pass protector thanks to the development he’ll see in the NFL. 

    The zone-blocking scheme is ideal for Stanley, and his score five seasons from now will be based largely on the system he’s drafted into. But the movement skills and angles he takes in college translate perfectly to the NFL—and his ability to beat linebackers to the rushing lane is top-tier regardless of the level of play.

    Stanley could be the top-ranked player on the list when we revisit this in 2020. He has all the tools to be a first-year stud in the NFL.

    Stanley, a redshirt junior at Notre Dame, would have been the top-ranked tackle in the 2015 draft class had he decided to leave school early. He has future blue-chip tackle written all over him. 

15. Lane Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    Right tackles don’t get the credit they deserve in the modern NFL, where they have to face defenses that loaded up the left side of their depth chart with pass-rushers to combat the belief that right tackles were the weak link. Lane Johnson is the best of the new-age right tackle: athletic, powerful and a graceful pass-blocker. 

    Johnson has the athleticism of a former quarterback and tight end but the power of a 300-pounder. He moves effortlessly to seal off the edge or kick an outside linebacker out of the frame. Johnson is still learning, too, and at 25 years old now, this projection factors in the strength and knowledge he’ll gain by 2020.

    Of the many offensive linemen selected early in the 2013 draft, Johnson has proved himself to the be the best of the bunch. He’s athletic and strong, and has found a home in the perfect scheme for his talents.

    The top right tackle in the rankings, Johnson is perfect for the zone-blocking scheme and powers the run game from his side of the ball.

14. Ronald Darby, Buffalo Bills

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    2020 Age: 26

    To be great in man coverage, you need the speed to run in the hip pocket of a wide receiver and the agility to run through breaking routes. Former Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby has both at high levels. He’s explosive in space and shows the instincts and eyes to jump routes and find the ball. And in his rookie season, he’s shown the hands to flip the field and generate turnovers as a cover man. Darby doesn’t shy away from a big matchup and has been a lockdown cornerback since entering the lineup for the Bills.

    The move from FSU to the NFL has seemed easy for Darby, but he can get better in run support and as an open-field tackler. The aggressiveness is there now; he just has to improve his aiming point.

    Darby has all the tools to be great in this league. He’s fast, confident, agile, long, and fearless when the ball is in the air. If he can continue to improve his timing and anticipation, he could be the NFL’s best cornerback by 2020. 

    Darby hit the ground running in his first NFL season, and with his size, speed and confidence it’s easy to place him as one of the league’s best when we move forward five seasons. 

13. Dante Fowler Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    The No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, Dante Fowler Jr. has all the tools to become an elite pass-rusher. His first-step quickness is unreal, and he matches it with power that allows for a sweet counter that few offensive tackles can handle one-on-one. Projecting ahead to 2020, Fowler will be a double-digit sack threat every year. 

    Fowler has great size (6'3", 261 lbs) and even played some interior defensive line at Florida. All that adds up to a stout run defender who knows how to use his length, power and quickness to get off blocks and attack the ball-carrier.

    The ACL injury that kept Fowler from playing as a rookie isn't considered career-threatening, which means he'll start 2016 back at normal. That's great news for Jacksonville and bad news for the rest of the AFC South.

    Forget about Fowler? We didn't. The stud pass-rusher missed the 2015 season with a knee injury, but he’s one of the most explosive defensive end prospects in the game.

12. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Ezekiel Elliott broke out in 2014 as Ohio State's starting back with Carlos Hyde gone to the NFL. He didn’t disappoint. Elliott, who measures in at 6’0” and 225 pounds, has run a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, according to an area scout I spoke with. That’s moving. On film, he looks to have the burst and lateral agility needed to elude defenders. And with that type of long speed, Elliott looks like an elite prospect.

    Elliott uses his size well. Those 225 pounds hit the hole with force, and he’s a leg-pumping, tackle-breaking machine from there. With great body lean and a meanness to his style of play, Elliott won’t be easy to bring down in the open field no matter who he’s playing against. 

    The open field is a place Elliott can thrive. He’s decisive when hitting the hole and has the vision to see and reach cutback lanes. He could do a better job in the open field as an outside-the-tackle-box runner.

    Elliott has the skills and physical traits to be special. If he improves his hands to be more of a threat on third downs, he may never leave the field in the NFL. He should be a double-digit touchdown threat every year.

    Part Eddie George, part Jamal Lewis, Elliott has NFL scouts excited heading into draft season. He’s big, he’s fast and he’s coming out of a system that perfectly prepares him for the NFL.

11. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 27

    Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the slipperiest wide receivers in the NFL. In terms of short-area quickness, burst and agility, he’s one of the best. If we’re talking straight-line speed, he’s good, but not in the top tier. And that’s OK when you think about his ability to make people miss underneath—which sets him up perfectly to be a deep threat with his leaping skills and body control.

    Beckham is a dangerous player on the move, as we’ve seen, and in the next five seasons he could become great. The only area that seems to be lacking now—and in the future—is his ability to play with power as a route-runner. Beckham still gets rubbed off routes and can lose positioning to stronger cornerbacks.

    We’ve all seen the one-handed catches. Beckham has ridiculous hand strength, hand size and concentration. What I want to see moving forward five seasons is the confidence and consistency to use two hands when needed and secure the “gimme” catches he has to make underneath.

    Can Beckham ever outlive the hype of his rookie season? That’s the big question, and it’s the only reason he doesn’t get a 20 for upside. His talent, though, is undeniable, and five seasons from now we could be looking at a Marvin Harrison-type receiver.

    Beckham set the league on fire in 2014, and with a good quarterback in Eli Manning for a few more years, he has the lasting power to still be a top-tier player 2020.

10. Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 29

    Khalil Mack was one of the best linebacker prospects I’d ever seen when he left Buffalo. His rookie season backed up that evaluation, and heading into his sophomore season he looked like a future NFL star. Mack has struggled some playing defensive end, but he’s still a beast in space and a nightmare to match up against with his speed, agility and instincts to find the ball. And looking ahead five years, Mack has all the skills to be truly elite. 

    As an outside defender, Mack is asked to hold the edge and force the ball back inside. He does that well with power and burst out of his stance. Playing on the left side of the defense, Mack is great at pursuing back-side runs and squeezing the offense.  

    You may have to go back to college, or look at his rookie film in spots, to see Mack in coverage often, but he has skills here. His footwork and hips are quick, and he’s decisive in breaking on the ball or getting his hands on a tight end off the line.

    Mack hit the ground running as a rookie and dominated the NFL. He’s slowed down some as a sophomore but is still a huge impact on every down. And his tools speak well to a large, sustained upside. 

    Defensive end or outside linebacker? That’s one big question when considering Mack’s future. He has looked best at outside linebacker, but in 2015 he has played largely at defensive end. No matter where he plays, the future is very bright.

9. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 32

    At age 27, Russell Wilson has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. At age 32, it's a safe assumption that his arm will still be at a high level. Wilson has a clean, easy delivery and puts a ton of velocity on the ball thanks to ideal passing mechanics and a strong core. That ability to throw with power underneath or loft the ball deep down the sideline makes his arm one of the best in the NFL.

    Wilson is an accurate quarterback, and this was an area where he needed to improve heading into 2015—and then he did with a masterful season. It would be natural to expect Wilson's accuracy to improve over the course of his career, and if he can keep up the passing on display in 2015, Wilson's score will shoot up over time.

    Wilson is a dangerous runner—perhaps the most dangerous running quarterback in the game. Whether it's mobility in the pocket or outside the pocket, Wilson is great. The only concern projecting forward would be that his smaller stature (5'11", 206 lbs) causes his body to wear down.

    Wilson has been a starter every week of his NFL career, but there is still room for improvement and development in his game. What Wilson showed in 2015 was an elite-level quarterback—a complete quarterback—and the type of player worthy of MVP consideration in the future.

    Wilson has led his team to a Super Bowl win and a narrow Super Bowl loss, and he's clearly emerged as a top young talent. As we look to his future, it's easy to see him as one of the league's premier talents.

8. Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 29

    Zack Martin spent his time at Notre Dame playing left tackle, and that ability in space is still evident when watching his film at right guard in Dallas. He’s a smooth mover on the inside, and his lack of top-tier length isn’t the issue at guard that it could have been at tackle. Martin will still struggle to reach stunts and twists at times, but projecting him out to 2020, look for Martin to remain one of the game’s elite. 

    Martin attacks the defense, and with his quickness off the ball and low center of gravity, he’s a beast to get moved back off the line. With technique that’s already close to perfect, Martin is a top-tier guard in 2015. Give him five more years to learn the guard position, and he’ll be a perennial All-Pro. 

    When we look back on this list in five seasons, Martin may be the best pure offensive lineman in the game—and that’s not easy for a guard to accomplish. But his experience at tackle in college set him up with the foundation to be great, and so far, he’s exceeding expectations. 

    The highest-ranked interior offensive lineman on the list, Martin showed at Notre Dame that he could be special. Now, he’s capitalizing on all that upside.

7. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 27

    Throw out the faulty scouting combine measurement of 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, because Amari Cooper has legit 4.35 speed. Coming off the line of scrimmage, defenders have to immediately respect Cooper’s ability to take the top off the field, and with his quick feet and body control, that makes him a dangerous player on comeback routes with big yards-after-catch potential.

    Cooper’s ability to throw off defenders with his footwork and hips is a sight to see. He’s fluid and so explosive that covering him through his transitions is already a tough job. Imagine where he’ll be in five seasons? Cooper’s route running has the potential to be Reggie Wayne-like.

    Something the game film showed at Alabama was that Cooper would drop the occasional easy ball. That looked to be a concentration issue more than anything, but it’s definitely something that came up in his rookie season. Cooper was credited with 18 drops by Pro Football Focus. This is too many, and Cooper must adjust to the hard throwing of Derek Carr as they grow together in Oakland.

    In talking to people around the league, the belief is that Cooper can become an All-Pro very soon if the quarterback situation in Oakland is indeed settled with Derek Carr at the helm. Cooper’s upside is nearly unlimited, and if it were possible to have more than 20 points here, he’d get them.

    When Cooper scored a 97 out of 100, I thought the scoring system had to be broken. But when you go back and look at his talent and upside, it’s easy to feel good about his being the NFL’s best receiver in 2020.

6. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    Before suffering a knee injury midway through the 2014 season, Todd Gurley looked like a perfect NFL running back prospect. Now, after his rookie season, that evaluation looks to be correct. At 6’1” and 222 pounds, Gurley shows on film the type of home run speed you want in a No. 1 back. He has short-area burst and quickness to make tacklers miss but also shows the long speed to pull away from the defense on big runs.

    There’s no reason to worry about Gurley's ability to break tackles or push the ball between the tackles. He has the build and strength that allowed him to excel between the tackles or when meeting a defender head-up in space. In fact, his power might have been underrated when looking at him predraft.

    Watch Gurley run back kickoffs at Georgia and you see the open-field vision on display. You can also turn on the film and see him cutting back against the defense to find creases and hit the speed button to daylight now that he's in the NFL.

    The real question with Gurley is how his repaired ACL will hold up in the NFL long term. He looked amazing as a rookie, so this may not be a factor, but it's worth mentioning. He has world-class talent in terms of speed, power and vision, but his upside and NFL future will be determined by the durability of his knee.

    Gurley has all the goods, as seen above, to be one of the NFL’s best backs every time he steps on the field. He makes an impact as a runner, receiver and true three-down running back.

5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 31

    Andrew Luck doesn't have the NFL's strongest arm, but he has more than enough arm to make every throw you'd ever want—and he can make them on the run to his left or right while adjusting his arm angle to make the pass. Luck also understands touch in ways few quarterbacks ever have. Put that all together, and you have an elite NFL arm.

    Anticipation and ball placement make Luck great, but he has room to improve in terms of decision-making and timing as a passer. In this way, Luck is more John Elway than Peyton Manning, but as he heads into the next phase of his career, this will make or break his potential stardom. Luck has the tools to be great, but he must be better than his 2015 film showed.

    A talented runner, Luck has the body type (6'4", 240 lbs) and athleticism to make plays in space. Moving ahead and looking long-term, the biggest concern is Luck protecting his body over picking up a few yards on runs.

    At just 26 years old in late 2015, Luck is still learning how to be an NFL quarterback, and his upside is unrivaled. Even looking ahead to 2020, Luck will just be entering his peak quarterback years. The fact that he missed half the 2015 season with injury does creep in as a concern, but unless he comes back in 2016 looking far less talented, Luck's upside is still a huge positive.

    Luck is already the best young quarterback in the game, and five seasons from now he'll be the uncontested best in the business. The heady franchise quarterback is the perfect combination of brains and brawn, and he's only improving in terms of mechanics, anticipation and ball protection. In 2020, we will be talking about Luck as an all-time great.

4. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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    Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 31

    J.J. Watt is doing things thought impossible for a 3-4 defensive end as a pass-rusher. He's quick, strong, instinctive and smart—combining those traits to get quarterback sacks, hits, hurries, pressures and the disruptive plays that won't show up on a stat sheet.

    The same athletic traits that show up for Watt as a pass-rusher make him a great run defender. He's excellent at shedding blocks and making plays in the backfield but is equally likely to play disciplined assignment football and hold his edge to keep blockers from getting to the second level.

    What more can Watt do? His numbers may continue to go up, but from an athletic standpoint, we've seen the best he has to offer, which keeps his upside score down.

    It's no surprise Watt is still the top-ranked defensive lineman for 2020. At 31 years old five seasons from now, he'll be putting the final touches on a Hall of Fame career.

3. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    Tyrann Mathieu has rare cover skills, and he’s the most versatile player on this list in that regard. Mathieu can cover in the slot and on the edge. He can play free safety, nickel cornerback or outside cornerback. He’s dominant in man coverage against receivers and tight ends. There’s not much the Honey Badger can’t do in coverage.

    He’s only 5’9” and listed at 186 pounds, but Mathieu is a bullet when taking on ball-carriers. He’s feisty, aggressive and has amazing closing speed to attack and secure the ball. And maybe most importantly, Mathieu doesn’t miss many tackles. 

    A healthy Mathieu is one of the NFL’s best defenders in the 2015 season. Projecting ahead to 2020, when Mathieu will be just 28 years old, it’s easy to see him maintaining his status as the game’s best defensive back.

    He may not have the size of Richard Sherman or the consistency of Earl Thomas, but that’s right now. In five seasons, Mathieu will have the tools and production to be recognized as the best.

2. Leonard Fournette, LSU

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    2020 Age: 25

    At 6’1” and 230 pounds, Leonard Fournette ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash, according to one area scout I spoke with. That’s moving, folks. Fournette has enough speed that the LSU coaches used him as a kick returner. It’s rare to see a man this big move that fast, but Fournette has excellent straight-line speed. 

    Fournette uses his 230 pounds to punish tacklers. He’s a build-up speed kind of back but has the flexibility in his hips to drop his shoulders and run over defenders. If you get in his way, he will run you over. 

    To project Fournette’s vision you have to look at his runs out of the backfield and as a return man. By combining the two, you see how he operates in the open field and how well he does when reading blockers. There’s room for improvement with his cutback runs, but Fournette has the vision to get loose in space and make defenses pay.

    There is no limit to how good Fournette could be from an athletic standpoint. He the athleticism and raw running instincts to be mentioned in the same category as Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley as prospects. 

    If you’re thinking Fournette may be the perfect running back prospect, it definitely looks that way. He’s still one year removed from draft eligibility, but the former prep standout has "future NFL star" written all over him.

1. Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys

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    2020 Age: 29

    Tyron Smith is the ideal blend of length, agility, awareness and toughness in the left tackle position. He’s able to hold his ground against bigger, stronger pass-rushers but has the footwork and athleticism to cut off the edge against speed rushers. Already an elite pass protector, Smith may be getting close to the best of our generation by 2020. 

    The Dallas run game is fantastic, and that tide started to turn when Smith was drafted in the first round in 2011. He’s an amazing athlete, which allows him to dominate at the first and second level and get to linebackers when other tackles would still be stuck on the ball. His movement skills and hand placement in the run game are study guides for young tackles.

    Smith has been such a fantastic pro that we forget he’s only 25 years old right now. Barring injury, the sky is the limit for him over the next five seasons. 

    You could make the case that Smith is the best left tackle in the NFL right now—and if he’s not, it’s probably Jason Peters or Joe Thomas. By 2020, expect the Cowboys’ blindside protector to be on that level.

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