High-Ceiling Prospects Teams Need to Take a Risk on in the 2020 Draft
The NFL draft comes with all types of risks. Some prospects carry question marks about their durability, collegiate production, translatable skill sets and position conversion to the pros. Yet, the reward for taking a chance on those players often outweighs the possibility of a miss.
Last year, the New York Giants selected quarterback Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick. He started three years at Duke and finished with 52 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions with a 59.9 percent completion rate. Those numbers don't align with those of a promising top-10 pick.
Jones still has more to prove, but he flashed enough as a rookie to give Big Blue hope. The 22-year-old threw for 3,027 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 61.9 percent of his attempts in 13 games.
Two years ago, the Indianapolis Colts selected linebacker Darius Leonard in the second round out of South Carolina State, an FCS program. The 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year has a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro season under his belt.
Even if a draftee carries doubts, a swing for the fences on a player's upside could pay dividends.
Let's take a look at eight high-ceiling prospects who shoulder risk because of injury, uneven collegiate production, competition-level concerns, size or holes in their skill sets. We'll also suggest a couple of teams that should use an early-round pick on them in the April 23-25 event.
QB Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa's recovery from a dislocated right hip, which required surgery, raises the biggest concern about his NFL future. The Alabama product went down in a November game against Mississippi State.
During the week of Super Bowl LIV, Tagovailoa provided a straight-forward answer to a question about his draft stock on FS1's First Things First (h/t Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports):
"It's just hard, especially with the injury. No one can really tell if it's going to heal correctly, [or] if it isn't. That's why I think at the combine ... my main focus is to win my medical. That's pretty much it. Everyone else is going to be there to win the 40, win the bench press. My main concern is to go over there and win my MRI, win my CT scan there."
Without definitive answers to his short-term availability, NFL teams will have to figure out if he's worth stashing for a year or two.
On the field, Tagovailoa throws with precision. The 21-year-old can also move the pocket when necessary, but because of his recent injury, teams may be apprehensive that he'll overextend plays. Overall, the three-year collegian recorded 7,442 passing yards, 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers may target Tagovailoa with their top-10 selections.
The Dolphins have Ryan Fitzpatrick on the books for at least another year. In 2019, he played well down the stretch, throwing for seven touchdowns and one interception in the last three games. Miami also has 2018 first-rounder Josh Rosen to bridge the gap until Tagovailoa can take the field.
Los Angeles could turn to Tyrod Taylor, who worked with head coach Anthony Lynn during the 2015 and 2016 seasons in Buffalo. The Chargers skipper served as a running backs coach, offensive coordinator and interim head coach in place of Rex Ryan during that period.
As an experienced starter, Taylor could keep the seat warm for Tagovailoa, who'll be worth the wait if he receives positive news from his medical checks.
QB Jordan Love, Utah State
Jordan Love's passing numbers worsened from his sophomore to junior seasons at Utah State, as his touchdowns dropped from 32 to 20 and interceptions rose to 17 after he threw just six in 2018. Teams will dig into why during the draft process.
For starters, Love adjusted to a new coaching staff. Matt Wells, the program's former skipper moved to Texas Tech, and Gary Andersen took over in his second stint with the team.
Love also lost his top three senior wide receivers, Ronquavion Tarver, Jalen Greene and Aaren Vaughns. Running back Darwin Thompson declared for the draft and went to the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round.
He acknowledged the effects and his shortcomings, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star.
"It was a little bit of a different year for us," Love said. "If you just look at it, we lost a lot of dudes coming from last year, we got a new coaching staff. There were a lot of changes, things we had to work with, things we had to obviously get better at. I didn't play the way I wanted to."
On the other hand, Love has the arm strength and mobility to entice front-office executives who prefer athletic quarterbacks capable of extending plays and moving the chains in short-yardage situations. Love scored seven rushing touchdowns in 2018.
In a stable system, he may look like the impressive quarterback from two years ago.
The Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers pick 13th and 14th, respectively. Both clubs should consider Love, assuming Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tagovailoa are off the board within the first 10 picks.
If the Buccaneers don't re-sign quarterback Jameis Winston, head coach Bruce Arians' aggressive passing attack could feature Love's strong arm behind wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the perimeter.
RB Zack Moss, Utah
In the modern-day NFL, one-cut power rushers are fading as lead running backs—unless they're extraordinary high-volume ball-carriers like Derrick Henry.
Henry isn't a smooth pass-catcher, but he claimed the rushing title (1,540 yards) and looked unstoppable toward the end of the campaign, averaging 149.1 rushing yards per contest from Week 10 to the AFC Championship Game.
Zack Moss doesn't have Henry's 6'3", 247-pound stature, but he's a physical downhill rusher who can mow over defenders. At 5'10", 222 pounds, the Utah product punished opponents throughout 2019, leading the nation in missed tackles forced (78), per Pro Football Focus.
The NFL Scouting Combine won't allow Moss to fully show off his physical nature. His 40-yard dash time won't impress scouts either. But he can display his soft hands in the pass-catching drills, as the former Ute recorded 66 receptions for 685 yards and three touchdowns through four years.
The Detroit Lions need a durable complement to running back Kerryon Johnson, who's missed 14 out of 32 contests with knee injuries. As a Day 2 pick, Moss might give offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell flashbacks of Marshawn Lynch, who led the play-caller's ground attacks in Seattle.
The Dolphins don't have a clear-cut starting running back. In 24 games, Kalen Ballage had 110 carries for 326 yards and four touchdowns. As a rookie, Myles Gaskin showed promise late in 2019, logging 25 rush attempts for 98 yards and a touchdown in Weeks 15 and 16. Moss could take over as the featured ball-carrier within an unproven group.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
At 5'9", 176 pounds, K.J. Hamler is projected as a slot receiver. Offensive coordinators will have to exercise their creativity to free him in open space.
Some teams may view Hamler's stature as a severe limitation, while other clubs could envision him as a big playmaker on offense and kick returns.
At Penn State, Hamler averaged 16.9 yards per reception and racked up 1,258 return yards. He led the program in catches (56), receiving yards (904) and touchdowns (eight) in 2019.
Fortunately for Hamler, pro-level spread offenses can optimize his blazing speed and agility. Once he secures possession, he's a handful to bring down. Coordinators can feature him on jet sweeps, end arounds and bubble screens to max out his skill set.
At 33 years old, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson can still burn defenders deep with his quickness and solid hands, but he missed 13 games with a core-muscle injury in 2019. As an alternative, Hamler could produce the chunk plays that the offense sorely missed.
The Denver Broncos can add juice to their passing attack, acquiring a speedster for the slot receiver spot. From 2016 to 2018 at Missouri, quarterback Drew Lock built a solid rapport with wideout Johnathon Johnson, who was listed at 5'10", 180 pounds.
Since Lock isn't a stranger to throwing to a smaller receiver, Hamler could be a good fit in Denver, where the offense needs an explosive playmaker alongside big-bodied pass-catchers Courtland Sutton (6'4", 216 lbs) and Noah Fant (6'4", 249 lbs).
EDGE K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU
In LSU's 2018 season opener, K'Lavon Chaisson tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the year. The edge-rusher returned this past campaign, registering 60 tackles, 13.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Chaisson doesn't have gaudy single-season sack numbers, but his surgically repaired ACL didn't take away from his fluid movement. He remains quick and has a physical presence, which is a great sign.
Still, with only 24 collegiate games played, inexperience could knock Chaisson down draft boards. With that said, teams should avoid calling him a raw prospect because he knows how to collapse the pocket and use his length take down ball-carriers.
The 6'4", 250-pound Chaisson's low to moderate sack numbers and limited time as a starter may keep him out of the first round, but the front office that gambles on his upside could reap high rewards. He's a functional pass-rusher with the potential to become so much more because of his athleticism.
At the end of Day 1, the Dolphins can use their last first-round pick (No. 26) to address the pass rush. In 2019, none of Miami's defenders recorded more than five sacks or 18 quarterback pressures. Chaisson can top those numbers as a rookie.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Baltimore Ravens may consider a Matt Judon trade, as he's due for a new contract. If general manager Eric DeCosta likes what he sees in Chaisson, the front office can deal the veteran and pick up the LSU product in a cost-saving approach.
EDGE Curtis Weaver, Boise State
On paper, Curtis Weaver seems like an ideal prospect to bolster a weak pass rush. He's registered 34 sacks through three seasons. Yet, the 6'3", 265-pound edge-rusher's production may not translate to the NFL.
Benjamin Solak of The Draft Network highlighted the stiffness in Weaver's movement, noting the possible need for a position change.
"Does not have ideal bend for an outside rusher and seems more like a big 5-tech at this current juncture of his development," Solak wrote.
At Boise State, Weaver frequently rushed the quarterback from a stand-up position over the last two seasons. At his size, without much wiggle or a repertoire of pass-rushing moves, he may not be a dynamic edge-rusher against bigger, stronger offensive linemen.
If Weaver moves inside, two-man gap assignments could nullify his pass-rushing technique as he battles with stout interior linemen and focuses on filling holes in run defense.
On a positive note, Weaver's motor and good use of hands to shed blocks should help him. Of course, he'll need more than relentless effort to log quarterback pressures and sacks. Because of his ability to line up in the three-point stance, defensive coordinators can move him across the formation to find a good position fit.
Weaver should land with a team that uses multiple fronts—both odd- and even-man alignments. Under head coach Matt Patricia, the Lions fit the description. The New England Patriots are known for mixing up their game plans with an opponent-based approach.
Detroit will likely add an edge-rusher after it finished 28th in quarterback pressures (124). New England's top two pass-rushers, Jamie Collins Sr. and Kyle Van Noy, may test the free-agent market. On Day 2 of the draft, Weaver could find a home with either squad.
LB Troy Dye, Oregon
At 6'4", 226 pounds, Troy Dye's frame looks too slight to handle the rigors of playing linebacker in the NFL. In terms of high potential, he must showcase his athleticism at every turn. In the best-case scenario, the Oregon product can become a quality weak-side linebacker and effective second-level blitzer.
During the draft process, teams will wonder if he can hold his own against polished veterans with fully developed bodies. The finesse linebacker will need to spend time in the weight room and take on a bulking diet to grow into a full-time role.
As a collegian, Dye made plays all over the field, logging 391 tackles, 41.5 for loss, 13 sacks, 14 pass breakups and five interceptions in four years. Those numbers should garner interest as teams look for linebackers who can play all three downs.
Furthermore, Dye can drop into shallow zone coverage to limit pass-catching tight ends.
The Las Vegas Raiders don't have a linebacker equipped to cover the middle of the field and desperately need athleticism on the second level. Dye could address the Silver and Black's perpetual problems with defending tight ends in the seam areas.
The Los Angeles Rams may lose linebacker Cory Littleton to free agency. He's arguably the best player at his position set to hit the open market. With only a projected $19.5 million in cap space, general manager Les Snead should consider Dye as a possible low-cost replacement for Littleton.
S Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
Without going to Google first, most people wouldn't be able to find Division II Lenoir-Rhyne* on a map.
Geography has nothing to do with NFL scouting, but Kyle Dugger comes from a small program that doesn't have any active pro players and hasn't had one since defensive end John Milem in 2001. If he tests well at the combine, the 6'2", 220-pound safety could become the highest-drafted prospect from the school.
With that, Dugger has a lot to prove. Yet, the 23-year-old impressed during Senior Bowl week, per Dane Brugler of The Athletic:
"Regardless of background or school, Dugger was one of the best players on the field. He controls his feet very well in coverage to mirror backs or tight ends, flashing some burst out of his plant-and-drive. ... With his play recognition and natural twitch, Dugger could start at safety or linebacker at the next level."
Since the start of 2018, Dugger has logged five interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Because of his tackling and ball-tracking abilities, the Lenoir-Rhyne product can play strong or free safety.
If the Cleveland Browns allow Damarious Randall to walk in free agency, Dugger can step into his position under defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who worked with a pair of versatile safeties in Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt with the San Francisco 49ers in 2019.
Elsewhere, the Eagles have two question marks at safety. Rodney McLeod has an expiring contract, and Malcolm Jenkins wants a new deal before the 2020 season. General manager Howie Roseman can roll the dice on Dugger as a long-term solution.
*It's in North Carolina.
Salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.