Every NFL team's scouting staff starts the summer with a simple question: Who are the top seniors we need to evaluate in the coming college football and draft season?
The work of identifying those seniors starts sooner, though.
Scouts who visit schools in the fall to check on top seniors are taught to ask coaches and strength staff about upcoming seniors as well. "Who are the best players for next year?" has to be a question in the repertoire of scouts making house calls to top universities.
Any area scout worth their salary already knows who the top seniors are for 2020, and they probably have started a list of top seniors in their area for 2021, too. If you're a Southeast area scout for the New England Patriots, you'd better come into summer meetings with the director of college scouting, director of player personnel and general manager knowing who the best of the best in your region are.
Those of us who scout in the media are doing the same thing throughout the summer—accumulating a list of the best seniors, watching available film from the 2018 season to see their traits and making notes on what they do and don't do well. Evaluators will add to that information throughout the upcoming season as they look for areas where players have improved or have taken a step back.
With the college football season only five weeks away, much of the summer prep work is heating up. And the top senior in the country is obvious.
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert grew up in Eugene. He stayed in town to attend college and stuck around for his senior season to play with his younger brother even though many believed he would be a top-10 pick in the 2019 draft. He's grounded, rooted and solid. Scouts will like that, but most general managers will love it.
Herbert likely won't be making headlines for running from police or doing anything inappropriate in an Uber. He's a small-town kid with a big-time arm and plus athleticism.
Herbert first turned heads when he won the starting job as a true freshman, which hadn't been done at Oregon since 1983. Ever since then, scouts have been raving about his size (6'6", 233 lbs), his ability to make plays with his legs and his picturesque throwing motion and arm strength.
In the wake of the 2019 NFL draft, multiple evaluators believed that had Herbert entered the draft, he would have been the second quarterback selected. One general manager said that had Kliff Kingsbury not become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and selected Kyler Murray, Herbert would have been the first one off the board.
Herbert is a known talent entering the season with high expectations, which can sometimes set quarterbacks up to fail. Jared Goff entered his final season at Cal with No. 1 overall pick hype, but every missed throw led folks on Twitter to bash his ability. Josh Allen went back to Wyoming for a redshirt junior season and battled injuries and naysayers while seeing his draft stock remain relatively unchanged as a top-10 pick.
Herbert will have a target on his back, but evaluators will want to see how he performs under that pressure. A kid who grew up 10 miles from where he plays college football needs to be tested. The 2019 season will be one such test.
The top player in the class doesn't have to be a quarterback, though. Herbert will face a fair amount of competition from others across the country.
Derrick Brown (Auburn) and Raekwon Davis (Alabama) were high-impact defensive tackles in 2018, and both opted to return to college for their senior seasons. While no defensive tackle has been selected first overall since Dan Wilkinson in 1994, a big season could push both way up draft boards. And don't sleep on South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw, a 6'6", 305-pound defensive tackle, either.
This past season, Kentucky senior outside linebacker Josh Allen became a top-10 pick thanks to his versatility and production. Michigan State's Kenny Willekes has flashed amazing potential and a nonstop motor playing right defensive end for the Spartans, which makes him someone to watch closely. If Alabama's Anfernee Jennings can stay healthy and get back to his early career impact, he also could shoot way up draft boards.
Eric Fisher was the last offensive tackle selected first overall back in 2013, as play has dropped off at the position across the NCAA. However, Washington's Trey Adams will give Herbert a strong run from inside his own conference for top senior in the class. NFL teams will also pay close attention to Jon Runyan (Michigan) and Prince Tega Wanogho (Auburn), both of whom could emerge as the top senior in the draft class with good years.
The 2020 draft has the early look of a good overall group, which only happens with a strong senior class anchoring it. Whether it's Herbert, Willekes, one of the outside pass-rushers or an out-of-left-field-type prospect, it does seem like a strong senior class will headline the 2020 draft.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.