Who's Replacing CFB Stars Headlining the 2020 NFL Draft?
Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Tua Tagovailoa and others will headline a star-studded first round of the 2020 NFL draft Thursday. But while those players will be filling positions of need (or at least trying to) for their new NFL franchises, their departures leave their alma maters facing some serious question marks.
Those question marks are even more concerning than usual in light of COVID-19 either truncating or completely canceling spring practices for a lot of college football programs.
But if and when there's a 2020 college football season, LSU still needs a quarterback, Ohio State has to replace two projected top-five picks on defense and Alabama needs to adjust to life without possibly the top two wide receivers selected in the draft.
Who will be filling those roles?
The following projections are presented in alphabetical order of the last name of the departing player. Not every player listed is projected to go in the top 10. Nor is every projected top-10 pick on this list. But each of these now-former college stars should be selected Thursday night.
Derrick Brown, Auburn DT
The Master (in 2019): 54 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 4 PD, 2 FF, 2 FR
The Apprentice (Coynis Miller Jr.): 4 TKL, 2 PD
The 2019 NFL draft was overflowing with quality defensive tackles. Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Jeffery Simmons all went in the first 19 picks. But this year, Derrick Brown and Javon Kinlaw may be the only interior defensive linemen taken in the first round, and there's little question that the big dude from Auburn is more intriguing than the big dude from South Carolina. Brown might (should) go in the top five.
Not only did Brown put up impressive numbers last year, but that was par for the course for the past three seasons. He had at least 48 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in his sophomore, junior and senior campaigns, anchoring an Auburn D that ranked in the top 17 nationally in points allowed per game in each year.
But with Brown and defensive end Marlon Davidson (174 tackles, 14.5 sacks over the last four years) both out of the picture, Auburn has some question marks on that D-line for 2020.
As far as replacing Brown goes, it's a toss-up between Coynis Miller Jr.—a 4-star recruit in the 2018 class—and former JUCO transfer Daquan Newkirk, who have a combined 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and zero sacks over the past two seasons. Each one has a lot of potential, though. There just wasn't much opportunity for playing time in the past.
Joe Burrow, LSU QB
The Master (in 2019): 76.3 COMP%, 5,671 YDS, 60 TD, 6 INT, 202.0 PER; 115 CAR, 368 YDS, 5 TD
The Apprentice (Myles Brennan): 60.0 COMP%, 353 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT, 137.4 PER
Joe Burrow was awesome. Heisman winner. Single-season-passing-touchdown-record setter. If you're reading about college football in April, you remember.
Who can possibly follow in his footsteps?
We all kind of assumed LSU would replace the former graduate transfer with another immediately eligible transfer, but that didn't happen.
At least it hasn't happened yet. In about a month—May 20, according to Kendall Rogers of D1Baseball—the NCAA will vote on the one-time transfer waiver proposal. And USC's former 5-star quarterback JT Daniels entered the transfer portal last week in hopes of starting elsewhere in 2020 if that vote passes. If it does, LSU seems like the most obvious destination for him.
If Daniels isn't an option, though, it will most likely be up to Myles Brennan to keep this high-powered offense firing on all cylinders. (True freshman Max Johnson is also a candidate, though only getting in three spring practices before COVID-19 shut things down makes that less likely to happen.)
Like Burrow, Brennan was a 4-star recruit who spent his first three collegiate seasons as a scarcely used backup. No one really knows what to expect from him. But with a one-two punch of Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. in the receiving corps, he's at least entering a good situation.
K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU OLB/EDGE
The Master (in 2019): 60 TKL, 13.5 TFL, 6.5 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF
The Apprentice (Marcel Brooks): 8 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 SK
Most of the discussion about LSU's 2019 defense centered around the secondary. Grant Delpit entered the year looking like the obvious choice for best defensive back in the nation. Derek Stingley Jr. ended the year at or near the top of that conversation.
But outside linebacker/pass-rusher extraordinaire K'Lavon Chaisson had quite the bounce-back year after sitting out almost all of 2018 because of a torn ACL.
He led the Tigers in both tackles for loss and sacks, despite missing a pair of games in mid-September. He had 10 tackles (3.5 for loss) in the marquee road win over Alabama, and he had a combined 10 tackles and 3.0 sacks between the SEC championship win over Georgia and the CFP semifinal desolation of Oklahoma.
Who is next in LSU's lineage of edge-rushing outside linebackers?
Arden Key was that stud before Chaisson, and now it looks like Marcel Brooks' time to shine.
One of three 5-star recruits in LSU's 2019 class, Brooks saw little playing time with Chaisson, Jacob Phillips, Patrick Queen and Damone Clark holding down the four linebacker spots. Clark will be back in 2020, but the other three declared for the NFL draft, leaving the door wide-open for Brooks to step in and become one of the leaders of this defense.
Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Alabama WRs
Master No. 1 (Jerry Jeudy in 2019): 77 REC, 1,163 YDS, 10 TD
Master No. 2 (Henry Ruggs III in 2019): 40 REC, 746 YDS, 7 TD
Apprentice No. 1 (John Metchie): 4 REC, 23 YDS
Apprentice No. 2 (Tyrell Shavers): 1 REC, 20 YDS
There's no telling which of these Alabama wideouts will be drafted first, but there's a good chance they'll both be off the board within the first 15 picks. Jeudy did more damage against opposing defensive backs than Ruggs did over the past two seasons, but they're both elite and they'll be tough to replace—even for Nick Saban, who gets his pick of the recruiting litter year after year.
The Crimson Tide do still have DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who will be the undisputed No. 1 and No. 2 on the WR depth chart. But they're going to need two other receivers to take a huge step forward if they intend to continue destroying teams through the air.
Shavers was "that other" top 100 overall recruit Alabama picked up in its 2017 class. Jeudy (No. 21), Smith (No. 62) and Ruggs (No. 75) lived up to the hype and then some, but now we find out if Shavers (No. 88) can make any sort of impact. The rising redshirt junior only has one catch thus far in his college career.
Metchie is more likely to get the third spot in the starting lineup, though that is hardly guaranteed. The rising sophomore ranked fifth in receptions among Alabama wide receivers in 2019, but one short catch in each of four blowout wins isn't much.
Slade Bolden (2 REC, 34 YDS), Xavier Williams (no stats in two seasons), and incoming freshmen Traeshon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell could all factor into the rotation, too.
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma WR
The Master (in 2019): 62 REC, 1,327 YDS, 14 TD
The Apprentice (Jadon Haselwood): 19 REC, 272 YDS, 1 TD
Much like Alabama, Oklahoma never seems to be hurting for elite wide receivers.
In five seasons, the Sooners went from Sterling Shepard to Dede Westbrook to "Hollywood" Brown to CeeDee Lamb without missing a beat. So while most teams would have a hard time replacing a deep threat who accounted for 3,292 yards and 32 touchdowns over the previous three seasons, Oklahoma shouldn't have any trouble.
That's because Lincoln Riley stocked up on pass-catching talent in last year's recruiting class, adding No. 1 WR Jadon Haselwood, No. 3 WR Theo Wease, No. 11 WR Trejan Bridges and No. 3 TE Austin Stogner.
Rising junior Charleston Rambo—who ranked second to Lamb in catches, yards and touchdowns last year—will almost certainly be Oklahoma's No. 1 guy in 2020. However, with Nick Basquine and Lee Morris both graduating in addition to Lamb's departure, there are a lot of targets available for that 2019 class.
Haselwood already had a semi-significant role in the offense as a true freshman, tying for third on the team in receptions. He is capable of much more than that, though. Don't be surprised if it's a repeat of 2018, when Brown and Lamb each had at least 65 receptions for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Jeff Okudah, Ohio State CB
The Master (in 2019): 34 TKL, 3 INT, 9 PD, 1 FF
The Apprentice (Sevyn Banks): 11 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD
The good news for the Buckeyes is that Shaun Wade is sticking around for what will be his redshirt junior season. He easily could have gone pro, but he'll be back and will be tasked with shadowing the opponent's top wide receiver more often than not in 2020.
The bad news is the rest of the starting secondary is gone, and Jeff Okudah is a star who will not be easily replaced.
Even if the Buckeyes had 5-star corners on the roster, it would've been a challenge. But highly touted CBs have eluded Ohio State's grasp in recent years. Sevyn Banks was the No. 23 corner in 2018 in 247Sports' composite rankings, and he was the only top-50 corner who chose the Buckeyes in 2018 or 2019.
While recruiting stars mean about as much as SAT scores once you're in college, it does seem to make Banks a de facto top candidate for a starting gig in 2020. Rising junior Cameron Brown and rising senior Marcus Williamson will also be in the mix, but at least Banks has some experience in Ohio State's secondary, breaking up three passes last season and intercepting a fourth.
Isaiah Simmons, Clemson LB/DB
The Master (in 2019): 104 TKL, 16.5 TFL, 8.0 SK, 3 INT, 8 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR
The Apprentice (Mike Jones Jr.): 18 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 PD, 1 FF
Isaiah Simmons was officially listed as a linebacker, but that "LB" really stood for "Little Bit (of Everything)." His combination of 16.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defended in a single season is a bit mind-boggling, regardless of how much better Clemson was than the rest of the ACC.
Of all the players on this list, he's going to be the most difficult to replace, because he was so damn versatile. It's like needing to replace two or three players, which could get dicey for a defense that has to replace four other critical starters, too.
The heavy favorite for the first crack at trying to fill Simmons' shoes is Mike Jones Jr.
The rising redshirt sophomore saw action in all 15 games this past season and already entered the offseason as the leader in the clubhouse, so to speak. But he impressed during the spring, too. The Athletic's Grace Raynor wrote about Jones in mid-March, with a mention from head coach Dabo Swinney that his "stock is way up."
Trenton Simpson, a 5-star true freshman, may also factor into the equation, but it looks like the starting job is Jones' to lose.
D'Andre Swift, Georgia RB
The Master (in 2019): 196 CAR, 1,218 YDS, 7 TD; 24 REC, 216 YDS, 1 TD
The Apprentice (Zamir White): 78 CAR, 408 YDS, 3 TD
The aptly named D'Andre Swift averaged 6.6 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per reception in his three seasons with Georgia.
He'll enter the NFL after back-to-back seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards and more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage. A shoulder injury limited him to just six touches in his final two games, but prior to the SEC Championship Game, Swift had accounted for 49.9 percent of Georgia's rushing yards.
The Bulldogs are still loaded in that department, though.
Zamir White was a top-10 overall recruit in the 2018 class, and a guy who likely would have seen a decent amount of action as a true freshman if he hadn't suffered a torn ACL in fall camp that year. James Cook was also a top-50 overall recruit that year, and his career averages (6.6 yards per carry, 9.2 yards per reception) are almost identical to Swift's.
They also have Kenny McIntosh, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry (on 25 carries) as a true freshman last season. And just for good measure, they added Kendall Milton in this year's class, who narrowly missed a top-50 designation from the 247Sports' composite rankings.
Wake Forest graduate transfer QB Jamie Newman is nowhere near the statue in the pocket that Jake Fromm was, either. Newman was one of five players with at least 2,850 passing yards and 570 rushing yards last season.
So while the expectation is that White will be the starter, it wouldn't be a surprise if this is more of a "rushing attack by committee" approach, similar to what Clemson had en route to the CFP No. 1 seed in 2017 when QB Kelly Bryant led a quintet of Tigers who each tallied at least 58 carries (more than four per game).
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama QB
The Master (in 2019): 71.4 COMP%, 2,840 YDS, 33 TD, 3 INT, 206.9 PER
The Apprentice (Mac Jones): 68.8 COMP%, 1,503 YDS, 14 TD, 3 INT, 186.8 PER
When healthy, Tua Tagovailoa was one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time. Don't need to look much further than the career passer efficiency rating leaderboard to confirm that. His 199.4 PER was 18.1 points better than the next-closest quarterback (Kyler Murray).
As great as he was, though, Alabama's offense wasn't any worse for wear in Mac Jones' four starts. He threw for at least three touchdowns in each of those contests, leading the Crimson Tide to 45 points in the Iron Bowl and 35 points in the Citrus Bowl win over Michigan.
It's not like he came in and just dinked and dunked his way to impressive numbers, either. In 111 fewer pass attempts than Tagovailoa, Jones had the same number of passes of 50-plus yards. (They each had five.) His 85-yard strike to Jerry Jeudy on Alabama's first snap of the Citrus Bowl was a thing of beauty and perhaps the primary moment that made it seem like the 2020 job was his to lose.
And because Alabama was unable to hold any of its spring practices this year, it's hard to imagine that changing at this point.
Maybe if the Crimson Tide had their full allotment of practices, Tua's younger brother, Taulia, or true freshman Bryce Young could have supplanted Jones on the depth chart. As is, Jones should be the starter, provided he doesn't suffer an injury in fall camp—assuming there is fall camp at all.
Chase Young, Ohio State DE/EDGE
The Master (in 2019): 46 TKL, 21.0 TFL, 16.5 SK, 7 FF, 3 PD
The Apprentice (Jonathon Cooper): 6 TKL, 1 SK, 1 PD
Chase Young's junior year was a tour de force.
He ransacked Wisconsin on Oct. 26, didn't play again for almost a month because of a two-game suspension and a bye week, but came back and destroyed Penn State. Between those two contests against opponents that had realistic CFP aspirations for much of last season, he had 15 tackles, seven sacks and four forced fumbles. The only reason he didn't eviscerate the Badgers again in the Big Ten championship is because they double- and triple-teamed him all night long.
The idea of replacing him is preposterous.
But Ohio State has to try, and Jonathan Cooper figures to be the one attempting to do the impossible.
At least he's a grown man with a good deal of experience and not some tenderfoot seeking his first career sack. Cooper only played in four games last year because of a high ankle sprain, so he was able to take a medical redshirt and return for a fifth season. He'll be looking to build on a career stat line of 53 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
The other "at least" is the Buckeyes still have Zach Harrison (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks in 2019) and Tyreke Smith (12 tackles, 3.0 sacks) in the pass-rushing defensive end department, and aside from Malik Harrison, the linebacker corps is well intact. Even if Cooper isn't half the wrecking ball that Young was, this defensive front seven should still be excellent.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.