Projecting 2020 NFL Draft Stock of CFB Title Game's Biggest Stars

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2020

Projecting 2020 NFL Draft Stock of CFB Title Game's Biggest Stars

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The stage is set, and the showdown between LSU and Clemson is ready to rock the college football universe.

    It's two explosive offenses going head-to-head for the national title as Dabo Swinney's Tigers try to win back-to-back championships. They'll deserve it if they can knock off Ed Orgeron's Tigers, who are led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.

    We'll probably be sick of hearing about the game over the next week-plus, and, by the time it gets here, we'll know every nook and cranny of the showdown and its top matchups. But even though Ohio State would have brought more high-level NFL draft firepower, Clemson has its share.

    This isn't Swinney's best team, but there's enough upperclassman leadership to have his squad undefeated and provide a test for the Bayou Bengals. Oh, about Orgeron's team? Everything lined up perfectly for LSU this year with Burrow's leap forward and tons of NFL talent on both sides of the ball.

    Star power abounds on January 13 in New Orleans, and while it will be a one-sided crowd in the Big Easy, this list gives equal opportunity.

    Let's take a look at the 2020 NFL draft stock for the best pro-eligible players on both teams ahead of the national title game.

Joe Burrow, LSU Quarterback

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    The only remaining debate is whether Burrow should be the No. 1 pick.

    Win the Heisman Trophy? Check.

    Surge from mid- to late first-rounder? Check.

    Leapfrog all the pro scout darlings such as Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert? Check. 

    Win the national championship? Well...we'll all get to see if that happens, but who would bet against the Bayou Bengals after they dominated Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl 63-28?

    All Burrow did in that game was complete 29 of 39 passes for 493 yards and seven touchdowns, distributing the ball to all his weapons. Though Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase saw double-teams and wasn't a statistical factor, it didn't faze Burrow one bit in a record-setting performance.

    He can make all the throws, rarely misses opportunities and leads the high-powered LSU offense to historic highs that could win a title. If you're an NFL scout, what more do you need to see? 

    There may be a few system questions since LSU runs a spread offense influenced by passing game coordinator Joe Brady, but Burrow has proved everything at every turn. With the Cincinnati Bengals on the clock for the first overall pick, it would be silly for them to do anything but bring Burrow back to Ohio.

    Would it be a bad pick to take Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young? No. But Burrow is the type of signal-caller and the type of leader you build a franchise around. This is a no-brainer, and if you still have doubts about his NFL ability, you've beaten that drum as long as you could.

    Everybody else sees what Burrow brings. 

    Prediction: First round, first overall

Tee Higgins, Clemson Wide Receiver

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    Tee Higgins is the best receiver in this year's class.

    He's 6'4" and 215 pounds, athletic and has the most pro upside. There are plenty of excellent prospects such as Alabama's Jerry Jeudy (and other Crimson Tide pass-catchers), Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, Colorado's Laviska Shenault Jr. and others, but Higgins is on another planet.

    He's smooth and stretches the field better than any other receiver in the nation, though Lamb would give him a run for his money.

    Though he suffered an apparent head injury early in the 29-23 CFP semifinal win over Ohio State and wound up with just four catches for 33 yards, his downfield threat loosened things up for the Tigers to play more like themselves in the second half after he returned in the third quarter.

    Entering the game, Higgins was a big-play magnet, catching 52 passes for 1,082 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 20.8 yards per catch. Factor in his size and elite athleticism, and scouts should be drooling.

    Higgins will wow everybody in workouts, and when you couple that with his production over the past couple of seasons, he's a no-brainer first-round pick.

    If Clemson is to repeat as national champion, Higgins must have a massive game. It will be a terrific showdown when Higgins and Justyn Ross face Derek Stingley Jr. and Kristian Fulton. The winner of those matchups may just win the game.

    Look for Higgins to have another big day on the national stage and push his stock higher. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Higgins as the No. 3 receiver behind Jeudy and Lamb, but Higgins probably will shoot up lists. Even so, he's a strong pick after the first wave of talent. 

    Prediction: Mid-first round

Grant Delpit, LSU Safety

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    Electrifying LSU safety Grant Delpit won the 2019 Thorpe Award, which goes to college football's top defensive back. But anybody who watched him play a lot this year knows it wasn't his best season.

    As a sophomore a year ago, Delpit may have been college football's best player, but the Thorpe Award went to Georgia's Deandre Baker. So this year's award was perhaps a bit of a makeup call for the Bayou Bengals defender.

    Battling nagging injuries throughout the year, Delpit still played in all 13 games, recording 59 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions and a sack. Having a player of his ilk on the back end of the defense benefited LSU all season, but that dynamic offense overshadowed his year.

    Regardless, Delpit is still a likely instant-impact star. At 6'3", 203 pounds, he's big and rangy enough to play in the box and wreak havoc in the running game. He's also athletic enough to play the pass and be a ball-hawking center fielder.

    Delpit is the best NFL safety prospect for 2020, and that's why he's a likely top-20 pick.

    It wouldn't be a shocker to see several defensive backs go over Delpit, such as Ohio State's Jeff Okudah and possibly even LSU teammate Kristian Fulton, but both are cornerbacks. The first team that needs a safety should go for Delpit.

    The Dallas Cowboys would probably love him in the middle of the first round, and though the Oakland Raiders took Johnathan Abram last year, they could team him with Delpit if he's still around when they select.

    There's little chance Delpit will slip out of the first round.

    Prediction: Mid-first round

Isaiah Simmons, Clemson Linebacker

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    Isaiah Simmons is one of the draft's most intriguing prospects because of his versatility.

    Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? How will the lucky team that drafts him elect to use him?

    Truthfully, the 6'4", 230-pound defensive star could excel anywhere, and he probably will line up at a lot of different spots, whether the need is to get after quarterbacks, play in coverage, help in the running game or swarm sideline to sideline.

    While he isn't the most polished tackler, he is an electric athlete who arrives in a hurry and packs a punch. He has 97 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss, and has seven sacks, three interceptions and six pass breakups.

    Simmons' skill set will translate perfectly to the pros, and his athleticism will be one of the NFL combine's biggest storylines. He was the quintessential leader for coordinator Brent Venables' unit this season, and it's vital he helps in coverage against LSU.

    From his linebacker spot, he'll have to match up against guys such as LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss and neutralize him. He'll also be tasked with slowing Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whether it be in the running or passing game.

    A huge day will help Simmons' stock, but he'll be a can't-miss guy after workouts anyway. Look for him to continue to skyrocket up draft boards as a plug-and-play talent.

    He'll go in the top 15 for sure and maybe even in the draft's top 10 picks.

    Prediction: Early to mid-first round

Justin Jefferson, LSU Wide Receiver

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    Projections for Justin Jefferson are all over the place for this year's NFL draft, and it's possible the LSU junior receiver could return to Baton Rouge for his final season.

    With Burrow's departure, the chances Jefferson could improve his stock by sticking around another year are slim, so he'll likely go pro.

    If the CFP semifinal game against Oklahoma was a draft audition, the 6'3", 192-pounder knocked it out of the park. He had four touchdown catches in the first half and narrowly missed another that Burrow barely overthrew.

    Though Jefferson was overshadowed by Chase for much of the season, he still had a spectacular year.

    Before the semifinal showdown, he amassed 1,207 yards on 88 catches and scored 14 touchdowns. Add his numbers against the Sooners (14 catches, 227 yards and four touchdowns), and you have a season worthy of individual hardware.

    Jefferson is big, long and fast. He may not be the best athlete at his position, but he's a terrific pass-catcher and route-runner. His change-of-direction and agility could improve, but he is a prime NFL target. Still, opinions differ on where he should be drafted.

    Miller rated Jefferson as the ninth overall receiver, which is probably a strong pick now after he moved him up from the 11th-rated receiver earlier. ESPN.com's Todd McShay has Jefferson going 15th overall to the Indianapolis Colts, which seems high.

    Most likely, Jefferson would be a tiny reach at the end of the first round but a great Round 2 pick by a team needing a No. 2 or 3 receiver. We'll see how he grades out in front of scouts and where he fits after the combine.

    But Jefferson's stock should continue to rise.

    Prediction: Late first or early second round

Travis Etienne, Clemson Running Back

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    One of the most intriguing storylines is how the pros will view the running back pecking order.

    This is an exceptional crop, led by guys such as Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Florida State's Cam Akers and Alabama's Najee Harris.

    Sitting near the top of the list (or, at least some teams' lists) is junior Clemson star Travis Etienne, who at times has carried the Tigers. Just how dynamic is he? Throughout his career, he's averaged 7.9 yards per carry to go with 55 rushing touchdowns.

    He's run for at least 1,500 yards in back-to-back seasons, and with Ohio State clogging the inside against the Tigers in the CFP semifinals, Swinney went to Etienne through the air, and the running back responded with a 34-yard, game-winning touchdown catch. He finished with three grabs for 98 yards and two scores, though he had just 36 rushing yards.

    But, as colleague Adam Kramer wrote, not every NFL team values Etienne the same way.

    Miller has Etienne going 73rd overall to Jacksonville. Is that low for a player of his talent? Yes. But running backs aren't valued, and it's tough to argue that he should be taken over the backs above him.

    Prediction: Late second to early third round

K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU Edge-Rusher

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    One of the biggest value picks in the NFL draft is always an edge-rusher. Teams need athletes who can affect the game by pressuring the quarterback, and with all the different packages and schemes these days, there are a lot of ways to create havoc.

    A key to coordinator Dave Aranda's Bayou Bengals 2019 defense was redshirt sophomore K'Lavon Chaisson. He entered the season with a history of injury issues and a propensity to take plays off, but this year, there was none of that.

    He's an elite athlete who played outside linebacker and likely will project in that role in the NFL. He could return to Baton Rouge to continue to polish his game next year, but Chaisson has enough upside to make a lot of teams want him.

    Beating Georgia's Andrew Thomas, a potential top-10 pick, multiple times off the edge was a coming-out party for him as announcers called his name throughout the SEC Championship Game. He finished with four tackles in a sack in that tilt.

    He also was a force in the Alabama contest, when he went against another future NFL lineman in Alex Leatherwood.

    At 6'4", 250 pounds, Chaisson could use another year to bulk up some, but even though his season wasn't flashy with just 4.5 sacks, the Houston native is an elite athlete and should be an early-round pick if he declares.

    Chaisson has elite burst and an excellent first step at the point of attack. He needs to be more consistent, but he can do a lot of different things to generate pressure. Since it's such a standout year at edge-rusher, he has a difficult decision in front of him.

    Young is the obvious stud. But Boise State's Curtis Weaver declared early, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa is a can't-miss prospect, and others such as Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos and Notre Dame's Julian Okwara are quality prospects too. Where does Chaisson fit?

    Prediction: Late first to early second round

A.J. Terrell, Clemson Cornerback

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    At 6'1", 190 pounds, A.J. Terrell is a prototypical NFL cornerback, a natural enough athlete to play the field or boundary corner, and flashes exceptional coverage skills and speed.

    Though Clemson's defense was expected to take a step back this season, it didn't because of leaders like the junior from Atlanta, who was one of Swinney's many out-of-state recruiting victories. 

    While a lot of defensive backs' pro stock is weighed mightily by measurables, Terrell has proved time and time again his talent is reflected in the numbers.

    For his career, he has 96 tackles, 12 pass breakups and six interceptions. He also scored the first points of last year's national-title game with a pick-six. Terrell is a force no matter where he lines up, and he's been a shutdown cornerback for Venables' unit this year.

    Though he isn't the best tackler, he plays cornerback aggressively, and his pedigree at Clemson will translate well to the pros. This is a school with a proven ability to develop defensive backs, and NFL franchises will take note of that.

    Terrell is rarely burned, features excellent catch-up speed and makes plays when the ball is thrown his way. He isn't expected to be a first-round pick, but he's the type of athlete who could flash at the NFL combine, and there is no bigger college stage than the one he'll have against LSU.

    Going up against future NFL receivers such as Chase, Jefferson and Terrace Marshall Jr. will provide him the opportunity to not only impact the game but also to impact his draft stock. 

    Prediction: Mid-second round

Kristian Fulton, LSU Cornerback

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    With all of LSU's offensive weapons, it's easy to forget about the defensive playmakers Orgeron and Aranda have stockpiled, but there are plenty of guys who will soon outfit NFL rosters.

    After Greedy Williams became the latest player from "Defensive Back University" to get selected a year ago, the Bayou Bengals will put at least another pair in this year with Delpit and Fulton.

    The future is bright, too, with elite freshman Derek Stingley Jr. and incoming freshman Elias Ricks just two of several potential elite players in tow.

    Fulton's best asset is coverage ability, and the 6'0", 200-pound defender has quality size and tackling ability too. Ohio State's Okudah is the best cornerback in the draft, but it would not be surprising to see Fulton come off the board around the same time Delpit.

    It's more likely he'll leak to the bottom half of the first round, though, and don't be surprised if a team such as the 49ers, Chiefs, Cowboys or Eagles take him. All of them need cornerbacks, and with Okudah likely to go in the top five picks, Fulton will be around.

    He is explosive and dynamic as a press corner. He doesn't have phenomenal length, but he's big enough and is physical for his size. He's got much more upside than a player like Florida's CJ Henderson, and Fulton could wow scouts at the combine and in individual workouts.

    Much like Delpit's season, it wasn't a flashy year for Fulton, who had just one interception, but he did have 32 tackles and 13 passes defended. He teamed with Stingley to form one of the nation's top cornerback duos, and the senior should have a good NFL career.

    Prediction: Late first round

John Simpson, Clemson Offensive Guard

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    There's nothing sexy about projecting NFL offensive linemen, especially interior players. While you often see tackles drafted early, the guards and centers normally go unselected for a while unless they are top-shelf players.

    So, while John Simpson may not be a first-rounder, he could be one of the first guards taken. He has a lot of upside and is a cornerstone of a Clemson offense that paved the way for running back Travis Etienne and quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have huge seasons yet again.

    The senior All-American should be an NFL fixture and could become an All-Pro. SI.com's Pat Forde predicts he'll be Clemson's highest-picked O-lineman in years. 

    At 6'4" and 330 pounds, Simpson is quick on his feet for a big man and is a road-grading force in the running game.

    This isn't considered a strong class of guards, which could bode well for him. After the Tigers throttled South Carolina 38-3 on Nov. 30, Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline wrote: "While people will fawn over that touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence, which was a terrific throw, I was more impressed with left guard John Simpson, who used great body positioning, hand technique and strength to remove Javon Kinlaw from the play and keep the pocket clean."

    Simpson may not be the top guard overall, but there's little chance a staple starter on the front will hang around until the third round.

    Prediction: Mid- to late-second round