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Lingering Questions About the 2020 NFL Draft's Most Polarizing Prospects

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 14, 2020

James Morgan, who played for Florida International last season. has become a sleeper favorite at quarterback in this year's NFL Draft.
James Morgan, who played for Florida International last season. has become a sleeper favorite at quarterback in this year's NFL Draft.Mark Brown/Getty Images

The 2020 NFL draft is less than a week-and-a-half away, yet we still don't know very much. 

Sure, LSU's Joe Burrow will probably be the first quarterback (and player) drafted. But who will be the second quarterback: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon's Justin Herbert? Will Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young or fellow Buckeyes cornerback Jeff Okudah (or someone else) be the first non-quarterback drafted? Who is the top wide receiver: Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, teammate Henry Ruggs III or Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb? Who is the top offensive tackle? Where does all-purpose Clemson defender Isaiah Simmons fall into all of this? Will Giants general manager Dave Gettleman short out the electricity in his house by trying to attach the internet router to his roof like an old television antenna?

All of these questions are being debated elsewhere on a thousand websites, radio shows and podcasts. We're here to answer some questions which go beyond the first 10 picks or so. Let's examine some polarizing prospects, positional logjams and other questions that will define not just how draft weekend shakes out, but the fortunes of many teams and players for years to come.

   

Question: Is there a hidden gem at quarterback in this draft class?

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 21: Quarterback Jacob Eason #10 of the Washington Huskies passes against the Boise State Broncos during the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becke
David Becker/Getty Images

There's Burrow up top, followed by Tua and Herbert in some order. Then there's Utah State's Jordan Love, who is this year's Patrick Mahomes Scratch-Off Sweepstakes lottery ticket. Every draft class needs one polarizing scrambler, so Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts rounds out the top five. 

Then what? Is there a Russell Wilson in this class? Or at least a Gardner Minshew II? Or anyone even worth drafting?

Answer: Each of this year's lower-tier quarterbacks has one thing (and exactly one thing) to recommend him:

  • Jacob Eason, Washington: 100 mph fastball.
  • Anthony Gordon, Washington State: Quick release.
  • Steven Montez, Colorado: Mr. Intangibles Guy.
  • James Morgan, Florida International: Fun to watch.
  • Jake Fromm, Georgia: Was on television on Saturday afternoons a lot. 

You get the idea. A general manager who graduated from the Mike Mayock School of Arm Talent could fall in love with Eason, while fans of pesky Air Raid quarterbacks will prefer Gordon. Early adopters who love sleepers could become enamored with Morgan's mid-major Playground Favre approach, while those who base their evaluations on the whiteboard will favor Montez. Fromm is the best of the bunch according to "he started in the SEC forever, so he must be good" logic. 

Any of these quarterbacks are worth drafting in the sixth or seventh rounds and stashing on the bench, because it's always worth investing a little extra in quarterback. But any team seeking help at quarterback anytime soon should call Cam Newton or Jameis Winston's agents before taking their chances with this bunch.

  

Question: Is LSU's Justin Jefferson 'just a slot receiver?'

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 13: Wide Receiver Justin Jefferson #2 of the LSU Tigers avoids a tackle by Safety K'Von Wallace #12 of the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff National Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 13
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Jeudy, Lamb and Ruggs (in alphabetical order) are the top three receivers in this draft. After that, there are at least a half-dozen players who could be the fourth receiver off the board.

Jefferson, who caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns for the national champions last year, is usually listed near the top of that group. But he operated out of the slot on 81 percent of his snaps last season, according to the Sports Info Solutions Football Rookie Handbook, and he's better at weaving through traffic from bunch formations than beating top cornerbacks one-on-one down the field. Could Jefferson be too limited to merit a first-round pick?

Answer: First of all, calling a player "just a slot receiver" stopped making sense about 25 years ago. Slot receivers are essentially specialized starters in the NFL. Second, traditional Julian Edelman-type slot specialists are typically undersized jitterbugs; Jefferson is 6'1" and 202 pounds, making him suitable for all-purpose duty. (Also, Edelman lines up split wide more often than you think, but let's not drift off-topic).

Jefferson's strengths are his ability to make tough catches in traffic, rumble for yards after the catch like an ornery tight end and go all-out when blocking for a teammate. There are many NFL schemes (including all of the variants on the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay offense) that feature receivers like Jefferson in significant, multifaceted roles.

Ultimately, the choice between Jefferson, a burner like TCU's Jalen Reagor, a king-sized target like Clemson's Tee Higgins, a route technician like Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk or someone else comes down to the schemes and preferences of teams like the Eagles and Vikings, who will likely be picking receivers near the bottom of the first round. Wherever Jefferson goes, he'll end up with a major role in the offense. And yes, that role will probably involve a healthy dose of slot duties.

  

Question: What will become of this year's 'slow' wide receivers?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07: K.J. Hill #14 of the Ohio State Buckeyes gets tackled after a reception against Rachad Wildgoose #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers during the Big Ten Football Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2019 in Indianapolis,
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While drafniks overemphasize 40-yard dash times, most teams are wary of drafting a wide receiver who clocks in at or above 4.6 seconds. Such receivers are just too slow to be of much use in the NFL under most circumstances. 

Mid-tier prospects such as Ohio State's K.J. Hill (4.60), Liberty's Antonio Gandy-Golden (4.60) and Tennessee's Jauan Jennings (4.72) all fell at or below the threshold, while Florida's Van Jefferson and Minnesota's Tyler Johnson did not run at the combine after looking a step slow on their college tape. Will they be odd men out in a stacked receiver class?

Answer: Each player and situation listed above is different.

  • Hill was uncoverable on short routes and caught everything in sight during Senior Bowl week. Teams will look at him as a slot weapon and wave off his combine result.
  • Gandy-Golden is 6'4", 223 pounds and also had a fine Senior Bowl, where he trucked major-program cornerbacks who tried to jam him and effortlessly hauled in over-the-shoulder throws. He'll get picked early on Day 3 of the draft as a developmental deep threat.
  • Jefferson is also a member of Team Senior Bowl Standout. He and Johnson made their livings as precise route-runners at the college level. That will probably get them drafted in the middle rounds, though both could end up suffering from Laquon Treadwell Syndrome: If you need perfect routes to get open in college (as former Vikings first-round pick Treadwell did), it could mean you aren't athletic enough to do it in the NFL.
  • Jennings is the enigma of the bunch: a super-competitive receiver with a career peppered by injuries and little incidents, from a marijuana arrest to an Instagram video ripping outgoing Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. No one thing is a big deal (seriously, who hasn't ripped Butch Jones?), but it all adds up to a legitimate reason to slide Jennings to the back of a crowded field.
  • Long story short, this will be a great draft for teams that need multiple wide receivers to bargain-shop for sleepers in the late rounds, because there will be lots of options available. 

  

Question: Is Iowa's A.J. Epenesa an elite edge-rusher or just another guy?

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 27:  Austin Jackson #73 of the USC Trojans blocks A.J. Epenesa #94 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second half of the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium on December 27, 2019 in San Diego, Californi
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Answer: Neither. Epenesa, who posted poor combine numbers but recorded 22 total sacks in 2018 and 2019, is an old-fashioned defensive end. He isn't going to scream off the edge for 15 sacks per year like Von Miller, but he will be stout against the run and bull-rush his way to some sacks at the NFL level. Defenders don't all have to fit the same mold to be effective.

  

Question: Will LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson be a double-digit sack monster or an all-time bust?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 13: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers pitches the ball under duress by K'Lavon Chaisson #18 of the LSU Tigers during the College Football Playoff National Championship held at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 13, 20
Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Answer: Yes, Chaisson will be a double-digit sack monster or an all-time bust. Or he may fall somewhere in between. The pure talent is undeniable, but Barkevious Mingo looked unstoppable at LSU, too, and Chaisson has a similar playing style.

  

Question: Is Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray too aggressive?

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Murray was one of the most prolific defenders in the nation over the last two seasons, recording 257 total tackles, including 29.5 for loss. He also has an A-plus-plus character/effort reputation. Unfortunately, Murray has a habit of mixing big mistakes with his big plays because he overpursues ball-carriers and never met a head fake or pump fake that he didn't want to chomp on. Is Murray a future Pro Bowl middle linebacker or a missed tackle/play-action touchdown waiting to happen at the next level?

Answer: Murray is the sort of defender who will make a dozen tackles over the course of a game and whiffs (or gets caught out of position) on one or two. There are plenty of defenders in every draft class who get credit for being "fundamentally sound" or "assignment clean" because they only make six or seven tackles over the course of a game and often don't get close enough to the action to overpursue anyone. An NFL coach can correct Murray's flaws in the film room. Good luck coaching up a less dynamic linebacker to make him faster and more explosive.

Murray is a lot like Luke Kuechly, who was always around the ball at Boston College and didn't miss a beat when he turned pro. That tells you all you need to know about his NFL prospects.

  

Question: Where will California safety Ashtyn Davis be drafted? And what will that mean for other injured prospects?

John Hefti/Associated Press

Davis is one of the most interesting stories in this class. The son of a popular 1990s California hip-hop artist (Davis' father was a member of Code III, who opened for the likes of Rage Against the Machine and the unforgettable Body Count), he overcame a painful medical disorder and family substance abuse issues as a youth to become a track star, according to Bruce Feldman of The Athletic. Davis then walked on at Cal as a football player and worked his way up the depth chart. 

One general manager called Davis the "mystery man" of this draft class, according to Peter King of NBC Sports, because he played through a groin injury which required surgery in December and prevented him from participating in most drills at the combine. The coronavirus pandemic has since made it difficult for him to provide teams with medical information or up-to-date workout results.

Answer: Davis falls into the same broad category as Tagovailoa, and there are many smaller-name prospects coping with the same unfortunate mathematics: injuries + quarantines = questions, especially for high-upside work-in-progress types like Davis (who could fit the safety-cornerback hybrid mold if he's as fast as he looked on tape) and Tua. 

Tua's draft stock won't be hurt much by coronavirus restrictions since teams will gladly give a quarterback prospect a redshirt year if he needs one. But this offseason, many general managers figure to put a premium on players who will be ready to hit the field the moment camps open, whenever that may be. That could impact Davis, as well as dozens of others who may slide down a round or two simply because teams never quite got all the predraft information they needed. 

              

 Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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