Thursday 23rd April 2020 is almost upon us. This will be a unique draft, with the current COVID-19 crisis resulting in a virtual draft with team “War Rooms” spread out in the homes of the General Managers, Scouts, Coaches and the various other members of the player personnel departments. Commissioner Roger Goodell will be announcing the picks from his basement with the various experts and analysts sat in their own living rooms and home offices giving their takes on the decisions taken.
The build-up has been almost four months long following the end of the College season and there are more mock drafts out there than ever before. All fans have been able to use mock simulators such as Pro Football Network and The Draft Network. Every opinion is out there. Having studied the run up to the Draft I think there are a number of things to look out for on opening night.
1. There will be important early trades.
Due to the nature of how this year’s draft will work there has been a suggestion that teams may play safe and not trade around as much as in previous years. There are always round 1 trades: some pre-draft (as with this year) and others on the night. In the last five years between 12 and 15 of the first round picks have involved trades. Despite this year’s difficulties I predict the same will be true for the 2020 Draft and we are already at 6 pre-draft.
There are a number of teams with very healthy draft capital who could use that to move around to suit their needs; Miami being the most notable (picks 5, 18, 26) but also Jacksonville (9, 20), Minnesota (22, 25) and the shiny new Las Vegas Raiders (12, 19). The Baltimore Ravens, trying to make that step up from playoff regulars to champions, may also use their two 2nd round picks to move up from number 28.
Other teams to watch for trading up could be the Denver Broncos (using either their 2nd round or three 3rd round picks) and the Indianapolis Colts (using their two 2nd round picks to get back into a late 1st round pick). The Seattle Seahawks are now well known for trading back from their first round pick and the San Francisco 49ers (picking at 13 & 31) could look to trade back on their later pick to add in round 2 or 3 picks.
In recent days there has also been chatter around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at 14) and the Atlanta Falcons (at 16) looking to trade up. Whilst I can see the reasoning, with the Buccaneers looking to capitalise on the acquisition of Tom Brady and the Falcons trying to rebound, they do not have the draft capital to put together straightforward attractive propositions. Both will need to be creative to move up. Finally, the post-Brady New England Patriots will be ones to watch as they could seek to move up or down to rebuild (mystery always surrounds the direction Belichick wants to go in the draft).
2. The first six picks will dictate the night.
Opening night will either begin predictably with the Bengals taking Joe Burrow and the Redskins selecting Chase Young, or, it will be wild from the off with the Dolphins trading up for Burrow. Miami are probably the only team with enough draft capital to offer Cincinnati, across 2020 and 2021, to take Burrow. If this happens, then the top six picks will be thrown wide-open. Would the Bengals still try to take a QB? Would this trade also involve Detroit Lions as I doubt the Bengals would drop lower than pick number 3? Would the LA Chargers scramble to trade up in order to secure Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa?
Alternatively, what if one of the top QBs (Herbert or Tua) falls as either the Dolphins or Chargers pass on a QB to address one of their other needs. A number of teams sat from picks 7 (Carolina Panthers) onwards will be holding their breath for the half a dozen picks, hoping that their predictions of how they have modelled the top six picks playing out has happened as expected.
3. Look for teams with GMs and Head Coaches already on the hot seat.
This begins with picks 3 and 4: the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants. In Detroit, Bob Quinn needs to hit big-time with his picks in order to provide Matt Patricia with a chance of keeping his job through next season. Look for them to be open to trade down from 3 but still pick up a top quality defensive player and then use that additional capital to come back in late to round 1, probably doubling-down on defense.
For the Giants, GM Dave Gettlemen has one more shot at this before the New York media have a feeding frenzy about his player recruitment strategy. The new coach, Joe Judge, will be given time but Gettlemen will not. The Giants will also be open to trading back from 4, to increase on day 2 picks, but their market may be a little soft and they could have to sit and pick. This is where Gettlemen will have no right answer with about half the Giants fanbase pleading for a top offensive tackle (which is more the Gettlemen pick) and the other half screaming just as loud for Isaiah Simmons, the defensive swiss-army knife who could be a generational talent.
A few picks further down the board the Jacksonville Jaguars front office desperately need to make major roster improvements in order to prop up GM David Caldwell and Head Coach Doug Marrone. The Jaguars team, almost AFC Champions in the 2017 season, has been decimated within the space of the two subsequent seasons. They have their two first round picks and I think they will aim to hit two defensive ‘home-runs’, one in the front seven and the other in the secondary.
4. Some players will land straight into a team’s lap.
Within the first ten picks we will only know on the night whether the market for the top QBs is hot or not. If it is hot then one consequence will be the unexpectedly fall for some key defenders. The likes of Isaiah Simmons (particularly if the Giants go for a tackle) and Derrick Brown could easily fall into the pick 7-10 range which would see them land straight into the laps of teams like the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars. Last year the Jaguars sat at pick 7 and watched defensive end Josh Allen fall all the way to them, could it happen again with someone like Brown? In Carolina, it would be a terrific start to the Rhule Revolution if they could sit at pick 7 this year and see Isaiah Simmons still on the board.
5. There will be three phases to round 1.
For me, round 1 of the draft divides up nicely into three quite distinct phases. First up during picks 1-10 I believe you will see the top three QBs (Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa), the four best defensive players (Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Isaiah Simmons and Derrick Brown), and three offensive tackles (most likely Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs and Mekhi Becton) off the board. Not going as far as the exact order but I’m fairly confident those will be the ten players.
In phase two (picks 11-20) the wide receivers will start to fly. I would expect CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and possibly Justin Jefferson to hear their names called. The final top tier tackle (Andrew Thomas) and top prospect defensive talent such as K’Lavon Chaisson, AJ Epenesa, Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen should also be in the mix.
Cornerbacks will be popular from the late teens and into the twenties. Here is a position where, once you are past Jeff Okudah and CJ Henderson, there is not an accepted consensus. Names like Jaylon Johnson, Trevor Diggs, AJ Terrell, Jeff Gladney and Kristian Fulton could find themselves first rounders or sat waiting to be called early on day 2. The final phase (picks 21 onwards) is less clear as it is dependent on the early picks. However, expect to see more tackles (possibly Austin Jackson or Isaiah Wilson) and wide receivers (Denzel Mimms, Jalen Reagor or Laviska Shenault JR are all in with a chance) selected. At some point in those final first round picks will also, I believe, see the fourth QB (Jordan Love) taken.
6. Some teams and some position groups will be bored on opening night
As noted above, the first round will be dominated by certain position groups (offensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and quarterback). In contrast there will be other groups who may not be represented at all on day one. It would not shock me to find no selections at tight end, running back, safety or interior offensive lineman (center / guard).
In addition to position groups there will be some teams just watching the action unfold as the opening night goes on. The Indianapolis Colts and the LA Rams both have sufficient capital in the second and third rounds to make a run at coming up to round 1 but it is unlikely that the other teams without a first round pick (Pittsburgh, Houston and Chicago) will be able to gatecrash the party without some sort of player plus pick trade. All three of those teams will need to ensure they nail their round 2 and 3 picks and there is plenty of talent available across the top 100 players.
7. Look for the effects of the lockdown.
Listening to NFL analyst and all-round draft expert Daniel Jeremiah he has mentioned on his “Move the Sticks” podcast that he thinks teams may be more inclined to see the 2020 Draft as a “hit the middle of the fairway” exercise. In the current circumstances the preparations for the completion of assessments on prospects has been severely hampered. Almost no pro-days or visits to team facilities, with little opportunity for medical teams to assess impacts of prior injuries. Luckily the Combine took place as normal as did the Senior Bowl and teams will have the mountains of game tape and scout assessments from the 2019 College season. However, as a rule, teams will not have the same amount of “first-person” evidence to go on in comparison to previous years.
Expect teams to be a little cautious about selecting players where there are over-hanging injury concerns or other red flags in relation to character or work ethic. Teams may play it safe, which could result in some high risk / high reward players dropping further than expected. In addition, any draft prospects who did not get a Combine invite or have been nursing a current injury since the end of the College season may drop down team boards. Not naming names here as I don’t think that would be fair but there may be some day 2 (or early day 3) bargains to be had for teams willing to risk missing the fairway.
So, this year’s draft will be a little different in some ways. It will be a million miles away from what was originally envisaged where selected players were due to arrive on-stage via a barge. However, in other ways it will be a very familiar draft. All teams are full of hope at this point in the year, hope that their rookie class will help propel them to bigger and better things next season. For the rookies this is still their dream coming true, the payoff for years of effort. Here’s hoping this year’s NFL Draft is a welcome distraction from current events and something to help focus us all on the future and better days ahead. Enjoy the Draft!