There is no better scouting opportunity than a big game. Evaluators want to see how players handle pressure, how they handle a prime-time stage and—maybe most importantly—how well they handle competing against the best of the best.
That's what makes this weekend's kickoff of the College Football Playoff a scouting delight.
The four teams feature 41 players ranked inside my top 200 players for the 2020 NFL draft. That doesn't include star underclassmen like Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields—two players who won't be eligible for the NFL draft until next season—or stud freshman Derek Stingley Jr., who is still two years away from the NFL.
It's no surprise to see these four teams represented on the biggest weekend of the college football season. Other than Alabama with 16 players in the top 200 overall, LSU (12) and Ohio State (12) have the most of any college football program. The others—Oklahoma with 10 and Clemson with 7—are young teams with a high number of prospects to evaluate for 2021 and beyond.
Which matchups will scouts be watching over and over again? There are a ton, as the first round of the playoff features a plethora of awesome player vs. player matchups we'll be drooling over.
Clemson vs. Ohio State
Best Matchup: WRs Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross (Clemson) vs. CBs Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade, Damon Arnette (Ohio State)
Hopefully the broadcast is ready to show a lot of overhead views so we get to watch the matchup between the amazing Clemson wide receivers and the equally talented Ohio State cornerbacks. This is the battle that will dictate the game, and it's one of the best unit vs. unit matchups of the season.
Higgins, Okudah and Wade are all projected as 2020 first-rounders. Ross will be a 2021 first-rounder. Arnette, a savvy senior who is excellent in the slot, is a 2020 top-100 player. This matchup is amazing.
Clemson Players to Watch: LB Isaiah Simmons, WR Tee Higgins, CB A.J. Terrell, OG John Simpson, RB Travis Etienne, S K'Von Wallace, OT Tremayne Anchrum
Ohio State Players to Watch: EDGE Chase Young, CB Jeff Okudah, RB J.K. Dobbins, CB Shaun Wade, CB Damon Arnette, LB Malik Harrison, WR Binjimen Victor, WR K.J. Hill, LB Tuf Borland, S Jordan Fuller, DL Robert Landers, DL DaVon Hamilton
Clemson Sleeper: CB A.J. Terrell
Much will be made of the Ohio State cornerbacks in this game, but Clemson has to stop the Buckeyes' passing attack that has seen Justin Fields throw just one interception (on a Hail Mary) all season. The job of stopping K.J. Hill and Binjimin Victor will go largely to top corner A.J. Terrell. He's had a quiet season nationally, but Terrell is a legit top-40 player with first-round potential.
Ohio State Sleeper: LB Tuf Borland
When you play Clemson, you have to be ready to stop running back Travis Etienne. Ohio State has the front seven to do that; and while much of the focus will be on Chase Young and Malik Harrison, it's middle linebacker Tuf Borland who continually impresses against the run game.
LSU vs. Oklahoma
Best Matchup: CB Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU) vs. WR Cee Dee Lamb (Oklahoma)
Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. isn't draft-eligible until 2022, but he's already one of the best cover men in college football. He'll likely draw the task of shadowing CeeDee Lamb—something no one has been able to do effectively all season. Will Lamb have the speed to separate against the talented LSU secondary? A poor showing from Lamb could only accentuate concerns from evaluators about a lack of speed.
LSU Players to Watch: QB Joe Burrow, S Grant Delpit, CB Kristian Fulton, EDGE K'Lavon Chaisson, WR Justin Jefferson, DL Rashard Lawrence, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, TE Thaddeus Moss, IOL Damien Lewis, LB Jacob Phillips, OL Lloyd Cushenberry III, TE Stephen Sullivan, EDGE Michael Divinity Jr.
Oklahoma Players to Watch: WR CeeDee Lamb, LB Kenneth Murray, OL Creed Humphrey, DL Neville Gallimore, QB Jalen Hurts, WR Charleston Rambo, RB Trey Sermon
LSU Sleeper: LB Patrick Queen
We know that the Oklahoma offense runs through quarterback Jalen Hurts. Because of this, LSU has to not only create pressure off the edge but also stop him when he does get outside the pocket on designed or improvised runs. Safeties Kary Vincent Jr. and JaCoby Stevens can't be asked to spy him because the Tigers need to use them in middle of the field coverage, which puts the pressure on athletic linebacker Patrick Queen. If he can corral Hurts, LSU has a chance to dominate this ballgame.
Oklahoma Sleeper: DL Neville Gallimore
Quarterback Joe Burrow has excellent pocket movement and an ability to step up or out to evade the pass rush while keeping his eyes down the field. Oklahoma will want to combat this with a strong interior pass rush, which defensive tackle Neville Gallimore is an expert at producing. Gallimore can have a player-of-the-game-type impact if he can get pressure on Burrow up the middle to stop his ability to create on the move.
The Scout's Report
—As the season comes to a close, many scouting departments are getting back together to wrap up notes and start preparing for the postseason all-star games. As that happens, rumors will begin leaking out of departments. Here are some of the things I'm hearing this week:
—The New York Jets have won enough games down the stretch to be projected as owners of the No. 10 pick. That might seem like good news, but it could push them out of range for a big-time pass-rusher or left tackle. I've heard reliably that offensive tackle is the "most realistic top target" for the team from a scouting source inside the facility. It's a deep wide receiver draft, so even as the team prepares to lose Robby Anderson to free agency, it would be a surprise if the Jets drafted a skill player early.
—The Baltimore Ravens look unbeatable right now, but the front office is frantically doing work on how to stay ahead of the curve, knowing how short Super Bowl windows are. One scout with the team said the decision-makers are heavily focused on drafting pass-rushers and building up a defense that can dominate when they have a lead.
—Chris Ballard has a big job ahead of him this offseason as the Indianapolis Colts must make a decision at quarterback while also bolstering the offense following a draft that was heavily invested on defense. A high-placed scouting source told me this week they expect wide receiver to be high on the team's wish list in the first round of the 2020 draft.
—What will the New England Patriots do this offseason? I've speculated that we'll know how they feel about the future based on if the draft is targeted toward patching roster holes or filling future needs. Inside the building, the expectation from scouts is obvious—tight end and offensive line will be priorities, with sleeper needs at cornerback and safety where youth is needed. Perhaps most surprising is that no Patriots sources have mentioned a need at quarterback—which could tell us a lot about Tom Brady's future or the team's trust in rookie Jarrett Stidham.
—The Green Bay Packers haven't drafted a wide receiver in the first round since 2002 when Javon Walker came to the team from Florida State, but that trend could end this year according to scouting sources with the team. The Packers know how deep this receiver class is and are ready to give Aaron Rodgers a legitimate target outside of Davante Adams.
—The San Francisco 49ers have a first-round selection and then don't pick again until Round 5. Scouts are joking that San Francisco is not even watching first-round talents because they expect general manager John Lynch to trade back and accumulate more middle-round selections in this class.
The Big Board
1. Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
2. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
3. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
4. Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
5. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
6. Derrick Brown, IDL, Auburn
7. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
8. Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Alabama
9. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
10. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
11. A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
12. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama
13. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
14. Javon Kinlaw, IDL, South Carolina
15. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
16. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
17. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
18. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
19. Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma
20. Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
21. CJ Henderson, CB, Florida
22. Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
23. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
24. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
25. Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado
26. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
27. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
28. Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State
29. Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
30. Tyler Biadasz, IOL, Wisconsin
31. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
32. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
7. The end of the decade means tons of "best of" lists from NFL writers. I cannot be the only holdout, so here is my ranking of the 10 best draft prospects (based on predraft grade assigned) of the last decade:
10. Quinnen Williams, Alabama
9. Chase Young, Ohio State
8. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
7. Julio Jones, Alabama
6. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
5. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
4. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
3. Patrick Peterson, LSU
2. Von Miller, Texas A&M
1. Andrew Luck, Stanford
6. The Jan. 20 deadline for underclassmen to enter the NFL draft feels far away, but players are already announcing their intentions on Twitter and Instagram.
Here's an unofficial list of the players who have announced they intend to enter the draft:
- Appalachian State RB Darrynton Evans
- Arizona RB J.J. Taylor
- Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin
- Arkansas S Kamren Curl
- Auburn EDGE Nick Coe
- Boise State OT Ezra Cleveland
- Boston College RB AJ Dillon
- Colorado WR Laviska Shenault Jr.
- Florida CB CJ Henderson
- Florida State RB Cam Akers
- Georgia OT Andrew Thomas
- Georgia OT Isaiah Wilson
- Kentucky WR Lynn Bowden Jr.
- Louisiana Tech CB Amik Robertson
- Louisville OT Mekhi Becton
- Maryland RB Javon Leake
- Maryland RB Anthony McFarland Jr.
- Miami WR Jeff Thomas
- Michigan EDGE Josh Uche
- Mississippi State CB Cameron Dantzler
- Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill
- Missouri OT Trystan Colon-Castillo
- Missouri DL Jordan Elliott
- Missouri TE Albert Okwuegbunam
- Oregon State WR Isaiah Hodgins
- Penn State EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos
- San Diego State IOL Keith Ismael
- South Carolina TE Kyle Markway
- Stanford TE Colby Parkinson
- TCU WR Jalen Reagor
- Texas A&M DL Justin Madubuike
- Utah CB Jaylon Johnson
- Utah State QB Jordan Love
- Utah State LB David Woodward
- UCF WR Gabriel Davis
- Washington TE Hunter Bryant
- Washington QB Jacob Eason
5. Stock Down
Ohio State has so many talented defenders that getting through the tape to study them all takes a lot of time, but finally we're getting caught up. One player slipping down the board following more tape study is safety Jordan Fuller. A senior, Fuller is smart and tough, but he doesn't show the athleticism or range on tape that NFL safeties need in today's game. Fuller looks more like a Day 3 prospect who will be a solid backup and good special teams performer.
4. Stock Up
Auburn entered the season with two well-known players on the defensive line in Derrick Brown and Nick Coe. Brown dominated this season as a top-10 player on my draft board, while Coe struggled before declaring as a junior for the 2020 draft. But one player continues to pop off the film that didn't have the big preseason hype—defensive lineman Marlon Davidson.
A 6'3", 280-pounder with good positional versatility, Davidson quickly surpassed Coe as the Tigers' second-best lineman. He might be labeled as a tweener by some teams, but Davidson can play either end or tackle and won't have to leave the field on passing downs. He has massive value as a three-down lineman.
3. Sleeper of the Week
There isn't a quarterback in this class that fits the bill of a late-rounder who lacks height or arm strength but otherwise has starter tools. That's how guys like Gardner Minshew II fall and then become starters, after all. But teams looking for a late-round developmental quarterback should take a look at the man who replaced Minshew at Washington State.
Anthony Gordon is just a one-year FBS starter and could weigh in under 200 pounds on a 6'3" frame, but he has touch accuracy and a good enough arm to impress on film study. As a Senior Bowl player, he'll get a long look in Mobile, Alabama, under the watchful eyes of NFL evaluators who are always looking for talent at the position that can be had later in the draft.
2. The NFL coaching carousel will begin moving on Sunday night or Monday morning following the end of the 2019 regular season. With that will come a flurry of activity as owners and general managers position to gain priority on the interview list of top candidates.
Based on conversations with NFL power players over the last month, the top candidate won't be Urban Meyer or Lincoln Riley from the college ranks; and it won't be a former NFL head coach like Mike McCarthy or Ron Rivera.
The top candidate? Baylor's Matt Rhule.
Rhule has proven NFL interest based on his interview with the New York Jets last offseason. A former coach with the New York Giants, Rhule has experience in the pros and has turned around programs at Temple and Baylor en route to becoming the hottest college coach on the market.
Whether it's the Panthers and Redskins with already open jobs or the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys should those jobs open, expect teams to have Rhule near the top of their interview wish lists.
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