The Most Important Underclassman Decisions of the 2020 NFL Draft

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterDecember 18, 2019

The Most Important Underclassman Decisions of the 2020 NFL Draft

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The 2020 NFL draft class is surprisingly full of top-tier senior talents—something that's become quite rare in a draft age dominated by juniors and even redshirt sophomores entering the lottery at record pace.

    This year will be headlined by seniors Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Derrick Brown, but it's the underclassmen who will once again fill out the majority of the first round. As players make their intentions known before the Jan. 20 deadline, here are 10 guys who will have a major impact on the first round.

    These aren't necessarily the 10 best underclassmen—it's those whose decisions will reverberate throughout the draft community.

EDGE Chase Young, Ohio State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    OK, this guy is the best player in the class, and his draft decision was thought to be well-known even before the season began as the consensus top player in the class. Then he told TMZ Sports on Friday the "plan" is to return to Ohio State and that he isn't focused on the draft this year.

    Consider me skeptical.

    Young will be the first or second pick—second if a quarterback-needy team owns the No. 1 selection—and shouldn't risk injury by returning to Ohio State. His decision will be a formality, but it's one every NFL team will wait for before stacking their internal draft boards.

CB Jeff Okudah, Ohio State

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Underclassman Jeff Okudah will be the top-ranked cornerback in the 2020 class as long as he declares—and he should.

    He has everything scouts want in the position. His 6'1", 200-pound frame is ideal for man coverage, and he's shown the physicality to play near the line of scrimmage in press coverage. He's also tall and long enough to hang in-phase with receivers downfield, where he's fast enough to keep pace with NFL-caliber wideouts.

    Okudah's stock won't get higher by returning to Ohio State, where a potential national championship this season is all he has left to gain before becoming a top-five pick.

Alabama's WR Trio

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith all head into bowl season with first-round grades on my draft board. But will all three enter the draft?

    Jeudy and Ruggs are near locks to enter, according to sources within the Alabama coaching staff. Jeudy has been the class of 2020's top receiver from wire to wire and is the No. 1 or No. 2 receiver on every team's board we've talked to.

    Ruggs isn't the complete prospect that Jeudy is, but his raw speed (projected to be in the low 4.2 range) and big-play ability have teams salivating at the thought of pairing him with modern passing attacks. Both players should be top-20 picks.

    Smith is the wild card.

    Many at Alabama we've spoken to thought Smith would bide his time and become the breakout player in 2020 after Jeudy and Ruggs left for the NFL. That timeline got bumped up when Smith scored five touchdowns against Ole Miss and notched 13 on the year. A secret no more, there has been pressure from agents to get Smith to consider the 2020 draft. Sources at Alabama aren't sure what the junior will do, which is why his decision will send a ripple effect through both the NFL draft and college football.

    Having Smith in the draft adds another potential first-rounder and makes the recruiting job at Alabama a little more pressure-packed at receiver. If Smith returns to Tuscaloosa, that's great news for Nick Saban and for the fringe first-round receivers in the 2020 class.

RB Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    With over 2,100 yards from scrimmage in his redshirt sophomore season, Chuba Hubbard put his name into the Oklahoma State record books alongside legends like Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas. Will he now put his name into the 2020 draft?

    Hubbard announced he would play in the Texas Bowl for the Cowboys, with his NFL decision coming after the Dec. 27 showdown with Texas A&M. Hubbard, a 6'1", 207-pounder with excellent vision and proven three-down ability, was college football's biggest breakout running back this season—a position that rarely sees players return to college once they've made a name for themselves.

    If he does enter the draft, an already good crop of running backs is immediately better. Hubbard would compete with D'Andre Swift (Georgia), Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), Najee Harris (Alabama) and J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State) for draft positioning, with all five likely to be top-50 picks.

QB Jacob Eason, Washington

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    You know the big names at quarterback—Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa—but every year there seems to be a surprise entry or late riser who makes noise in the first round. This year that could be Washington's big-armed junior Jacob Eason.

    You might remember Eason as the quarterback at Georgia before Jake Fromm. He won the starting job there before injuring his knee and missing most of the 2017 season. He then transferred to Washington and sat out the 2018 season under NCAA rules. This year, he showed off the traits that had him ranked as a 5-star recruit coming out of high school.

    There are warts with Eason—limited starting time is a big one, and critics will point to his struggles against better competition—but NFL coaches and scouts love big arms, tall quarterbacks and cocky passers. Eason is all three, and if he declares for the draft, he could become a first-round pick.

    It's easy to imagine Bruce Arians thinking about Eason as a replacement for Jameis Winston, or Tom Telesco thinking Eason can be the heir apparent to Philip Rivers. With supply and demand way out of whack at quarterback, players with Eason's gifts rarely fall in the draft.

EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos, who already declared for the draft, is a traits-heavy pass-rusher with eye-popping production against Big Ten offensive linemen and enough potential still in his game to excite evaluators.

    The position isn't loaded at the top. It's Chase Young, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (who is a tweener-type lineman and edge-rusher) and then Gross-Matos as top-20 players. That could be a huge boost to his stock.

    Much like with Brian Burns last year, teams will love Gross-Matos' speed and length. And like Burns, Gross-Matos could be a top-20 selection.

RB D'Andre Swift, Georgia

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Will a running back be drafted in the first round?

    That answer is up in the air, as mock drafts often leave running backs out of Round 1 because of a lack of obvious need or the perceived value of the position. But Georgia's D'Andre Swift's draft decision—which he announced will come after the Bulldogs' bowl game—is one teams are excited for since he could be a legitimate Round 1 back.

    Swift, whose game is reminiscent of Alvin Kamara's in college, is the rare college back who can run inside or outside, catch the ball and has pass-protection chops. He was limited toward the end of the season with a shoulder injury, but you'd think that scare should only push him to the NFL.

WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    It's important to manage expectations when talking about draft prospects, which is the job of an agent when talking to NFL teams. CeeDee Lamb's future agent will need to lay down realistic expectations for the 40-yard dash, where his client is not expected to perform well. But does it matter?

    One look at Lamb on a football field and you can see how dominant he is. His power in his routes, his explosive ability post-catch and the tenacity with which he attacks the football are all easy to evaluate.He might not be the biggest (6'2", 191 lbs) or fastest, but he gets open with power and beats cornerbacks with a big catch radius. And still, there will be evaluators who will overlook him because he lacks game-changing speed on a track.

    Lamb's decision to enter the draft after the College Football Playoff should be an easy one. He ranks as the No. 2 receiver on my board and should be a lock top-15 selection.

OT Jedrick Wills Jr., Alabama

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    For months, the top of the offensive tackle rankings have featured a mix of Andrew Thomas (Georgia) and Tristan Wirfs (Iowa), but a closer look at Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. has him shooting up my board. With Thomas already declared and Wirfs' decision expected any day now, Wills is the junior offensive lineman with the most intrigue left on the undecided list.

    The needs at offensive tackle will be huge in Round 1. The New York Jets, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars could all easily select a left tackle in the top 10 picks alone, and that creates a big need for viable starting tackles.

    Wills—a massive tackle (6'5", 320 lbs) with the rare movement skills in the college game to handle speed-rushers and get upfield in the run game—might not have the name recognition of Thomas or Wirfs, but his tape is superior. If you're banking on a pro-ready offensive tackle in this class, you're waiting to hear about Wills' declaration.

QB Jordan Love, Utah State

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    Eli Lucero/Associated Press

    As a graduate junior who has already declared for the draft and accepted an invite to the 2020 Reese's Senior Bowl, Jordan Love has a chance to somewhat redeem himself after throwing 16 picks to only 17 touchdowns this season.

    Fans of Love will point to his big arm strength, above-average mobility and penchant for making throws in risky situations and tight windows. That worked well for him in 2018 when he and Utah State enjoyed a breakout season, but he struggled to match his 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions with former head coach Matt Wells now at Texas Tech.

    Still, we've seen this story before, and the number of teams in desperate need of a quarterback will have to consider Love. Like Josh Allen before him, Love can spend a week under the watchful eye of NFL evaluators at the Senior Bowl and remind folks that his decision-making and mechanics can be coached but that his natural arm strength and mobility are hard to find.

    Like him or not, Love is a likely first-rounder and one of the most important underclassmen in 2020.

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