AROUND THE NFL

The end of the line for QB EJ Manuel:

 

The disappointing career of EJ Manuel has come to an end after he retired from the NFL.

 

The No. 16 overall pick from the 2013 draft by the Buffalo Bills has quit just three months after he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs to back up Patrick Mahomes.

 

Manuel started 17 games over four seasons with Buffalo before signing with the Oakland Raiders prior to the 2017 season to back up Derek Carr.

 

His run in Oakland lasted only one season as he was cut before the next year following the team’s acquisition of AJ McCarron.

 

If this is truly the end for Manuel’s NFL career, his final numbers include 30 games played with 18 starts, 343 of 590 passes completed for 3,767 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

 

Manuel’s retirement is just the latest development for a brutal 2013 class of quarterbacks. None of the 11 QBs drafted are currently NFL starters, while the majority are out of the league.

 

More from Eric Edholm of YahooSports.com:

 

The quarterback draft class of 2013 hasn’t officially been pronounced dead yet, but it’s on serious life support.

 

With the retirement of EJ Manuel, the class’ top overall QB selection (16th overall) that year, we can pretty much say that 2013 was not a good year to be needing a passer in the draft. (In fact, it was just a bad year to need a QB in general; I mean, look at this free-agency class at the position — yuck.)

 

Monday also delivered more 2013 QB draft news in the form of Geno Smith signing with the Seattle Seahawks. He was the second quarterback drafted in that class, 39th overall, after being mentioned as an early season possibility for the No. 1 overall pick. Can you imagine that happening now?

 

Smith is one of the few barely left starting from the crop. First, he must make the roster. Second, he must be prepared to sit and watch Russell Wilson, who has never missed an NFL game. It will be Smith’s fourth team in as many years. And he has been — gulp — one of the better quarterbacks from that draft class.

 

Seriously.

 

Just how bad was this group?

There were 11 quarterbacks drafted in 2013. Five of them started games in the NFL. Only three — Manuel, Smith and Mike Glennon — started more than seven regular-season contests. As of Tuesday, only four remain on NFL rosters: Smith in Seattle; Matt Barkley with the Buffalo Bills; and Glennon and Landry Jones, both fighting for roster spots with the Oakland Raiders.

 

The 2013 group’s combined statistics so far in the league: 1,643-of-2,766 passing (59.4 percent) for 18,655 yards, 103 TDs and 98 interceptions. Even if we add in the undrafted Matt McGloin, who emerged as a surprise rookie starter for the Raiders that season, there’s little doubting how brutal this group has been.

 

For perspective, last year’s QB draft class already has accumulated 12,143 yards, 71 TDs and 58 INTs in one NFL season and could pass the 2013 group in those numbers by about Week 6 this coming season. The 2017 QB draft class already has 4,360 more yards, 49 more TD passes and only one more INT than the 2013 class did.

 

What did we think of the 2013 QBs at the time?

Smith was off to a scorching start for West Virginia in his final college season, following two good statistical years there. In his first five games of 2012, Smith completed 166 of 204 passes (81.4 percent) for 1,996 yards, 24 TDs and zero interceptions. People were losing their minds and anointing him the obvious No. 1 overall pick favorite.

 

But he and the Mountaineers struggled down the stretch, losing six of their final eight games (with wins over a brutal Kansas team and a sub-.500 Iowa State club). Smith especially played poorly against Kansas State, and the more scouts dug in on him the less they were impressed.

 

Manuel wasn’t considered a major NFL draft prospect until late in his junior season when he led a bowl-game comeback over Notre Dame, and he built on that with a solid senior season. The Seminoles won the ACC championship and beat a good Northern Illinois team in the Orange Bowl for a 12-2 record. Manuel put up solid numbers (3,392 pass yards, 68 percent completions, 23 TDs, 10 INTs; 310 rush yards, four TDs). His size, athleticism, arm and experience in FSU’s pro-style offense made Manuel’s appeal grow as the process went on.

 

But the player many thought would be the favorite to be picked first overall entering the 2012 college football season was Barkley. He returned to school for his senior season and was built up to lofty levels. After a solid start, Barkley struggled against Stanford and suffered a late-season shoulder injury that knocked him out of the team’s bowl game. Even still there was talk Barkley — despite great physical traits — could be the second or third QB off the board.

 

There was also the consistent Glennon, the productive Jones and the intriguing Ryan Nassib and Tyler Wilson. Still, few were calling this an excellent group entering the draft, and no one knew for sure which passer would be drafted first.

 

The results were surprising at the time, with one quarterback drafted in the first round (Manuel) and only two drafted in the first 72 selections (Smith). It appeared that most teams had figured out this class was not special. Barkley lasted until Round 4 (98th overall). And whatever intrigue there was for Nassib, it was quickly dissipated when his former college coach, Doug Marrone, felt it was better to take Manuel at No. 16 overall than to wait on Nassib, who went in Round 4, 12 picks after Barkley.

 

New coaches were left hanging for QB talent

This was a big disappointment for the nine new NFL head coaches that offseason, a number of whom — Andy Reid, Bruce Arians, Chip Kelly, Marc Trestman, Mike McCoy among them — who were hired for their offensive acumen and QB-developing chops. A year after Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson emerged as rookie playmakers, and two years following the Cam Newton-Andy Dalton-Colin Kaepernick draft, teams were more willing than ever to throw their talented, young quarterbacks into the mix early.

 

But the 2013 class wasn’t going to bear much fruit. In either the short or long terms.

 

NFC NORTH

 

MINNESOTA

TE KYLE RUDOLPH and the Vikings may have a different sense of his value.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Vikings are trying to figure out a way to balance the books, and Kyle Rudolph‘s desire to stay in Minnesota.

 

But the veteran tight end told Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he wasn’t prepared to take a pay cut to do so.

 

Rudolph replied “No way” to a question about taking less, and then added: “No I won’t, I am too young for that.”

 

The 29-year-old tight end is due to make $7.5 million this year, and the Vikings have had to restructure other contracts recently to sign draft picks to rookie deals.

 

There has been speculation about a trade, and Rudolph indicated there was interest from other teams, but moving him wasn’t anyone’s preference.

 

“I don’t think anyone wants to,” he said. “We want it to end right with me being here.”

 

The Vikings added some cover by drafting tight end Irv Smith in the second round, which only added to the possibility that Rudolph might not get his wish.

 

NFC WEST

 

SEATTLE

This would seem to be a backup QB signing that makes sense.  Reuters:

 

The Seattle Seahawks are giving journeyman quarterback Geno Smith a shot at backing up the NFL’s highest-paid player.

 

Seattle signed the 28-year-old on Wednesday and said he will compete with former Denver Broncos first-round pick Paxton Lynch to back up starter Russell Wilson.

 

The New York Jets’ second-round selection in 2013, Smith joins his fourth NFL team. He was 12-18 as a starter over four seasons with the Jets, lost his only start with the New York Giants in 2017, and attempted just four passes with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018.

 

In 40 career games, Smith has completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 6,182 yards with 29 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. Smith has also rushed for 661 yards and seven scores.

 

Lynch, 25, was 1-3 as a Denver starter and completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 792 yards with four touchdowns and four picks. The Broncos cut him last September, and he signed with Seattle in January.

 

Last month the Seahawks signed Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, to a contract extension through 2023 that averages $35 million per season.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com on the unprecedented territory that QB TOM BRADY is heading into:

 

When Tom Brady had a good season last year at the age of 41, he was doing something exceedingly rare in the NFL, but not totally unprecedented: Warren Moon played pretty well at age 41, and Vinny Testaverde and Brett Favre both had their moments after their 41st birthdays.

 

But unless Brady gets hurt or totally falls off a cliff this year, Brady really will do something unprecedented.

 

Brady will turn 42 in August, and that really is an age at which no quarterback has ever had even a mediocre NFL season. George Blanda threw six touchdowns as a 43-year-old in 1970, and that’s the most touchdowns any quarterback has ever thrown in a season after turning 42.

 

Modern training and improved medicine may make it easier for quarterbacks to last longer in the NFL, so perhaps some of the quarterbacks who came along in the years after Brady — Drew Brees or Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger — could replicate his longevity. But more likely we’ll see in the years to come that Brady is simply an extreme outlier, one who has played at a high level for longer than any other quarterback.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

Owner Christopher Johnson offers an explanation as to why he canned his GM Mark Mccagnan.  Daryl Slater of NJ.com:

 

Late Wednesday afternoon, Jets acting owner Christopher Johnson attempted to explain why he just made one of the organization’s most puzzling decisions ever. (And the Jets have made many puzzling decisions in their star-crossed history.)

 

Johnson on Wednesday fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after letting him help hire coach Adam Gase, spend $120 million in free agency, and make a franchise-altering draft pick (defensive tackle Quinnen Williams at No. 3).

 

Johnson said he couldn’t have fired Maccagnan after last season, because he needed to take a deeper look at the organization this offseason, which he did. And while spending more time around the Jets this offseason, he realized Maccagnan had to go, based partly on what he observed about the Maccagnan-Gase relationship. (Johnson declined to provide specifics.)

 

“There’s never a good time to make a decision like this, honestly,” Johnson said. “But it’s a process. I made the decision to get kind of deeply embedded in this organization more than I have in the past. In the offseason, I was part of a lot of discussions about the free agents, and sat in on dozens of interviews with guys at the combine, and sat in on scouting meetings. I watched this process. I understood more fully Mike’s role in this building and what I’m hoping for in a future GM. It was a decision that evolved. It took a while. And maybe I was slow at that decision, but I finally came to it in the last few days.

 

“I think that there was pretty good synergy [between Gase and Maccagnan], but it was not everything I was hoping for. I made the decision that I want to find a better fit for this building. It’s more than a talent evaluation guy. I want a great strategic thinker, a great manager, a communicator, someone who can collaborate well with the building. I’m convinced we’re going to find that person. The more I looked, the more I realized that I wanted to move on.

 

“It was only through diving deep in this organization, it was only through going through this particular offseason deeply, that I understood how this organization was lacking in certain ways. This isn’t a decision I could’ve made at the end of the season. I think that by diving deep in the organization, I had a better idea of what was wrong and where I wanted to head with this.”

 

Normally, a GM on shaky ground — as Maccagnan was, based on his struggles from 2015-18 in both the draft and free agency — gets canned immediately after the season.

 

Since Maccagnan had just two years left on his contract, which ran through 2020, and since Johnson decided to fire coach Todd Bowles after last season, it wouldn’t have been a shocker to see Maccagnan also get axed at that point.

 

Instead, Johnson let Maccagnan work with Gase for four months before deciding the marriage wasn’t going to work, even though Maccagnan and Gase were able to spend a significant amount of time getting to know each other during Gase’s interview process. Johnson has been widely criticized for the timing of Maccagnan’s firing.

 

Gase is now the Jets’ interim general manager, but Johnson said he will hire a full-time replacement for Maccagnan. Johnson also said the Jets’ power structure will remain the same, with Gase and the new GM both reporting to the acting owner, and Gase not having control over the 53-man roster.

 

But Gase obviously will have some input on the GM hire — Johnson said Gase will “assist” in the process (along with other people in the Jets’ building) — which clearly boosts his level of influence in the organization, both in the short and longer term.

 

For the Gase-Maccagnan and Bowles-Maccagnan arrangements, both men reported directly to Johnson, with the coach having final say on who played and the GM having final say on the 53-man roster. Few NFL coaches have final say on personnel decisions, as the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Raiders’ Jon Gruden do. The Chiefs’ Andy Reid also has significant input.

 

Gase had roster control in Miami, where he coached from 2016-18. Yet when the Jets hired him, he said he didn’t want that authority with them. Now, he has it, but only until the new GM arrives, even though it’s pretty clear Gase has gained power from Maccagnan’s firing, regardless of what Johnson says.

 

Field Yates sums things up with a Tweet:

 

The Jets’ plan, recapped:

 

1. Let Mike Maccagnan run a free agency period in which they spent $191.2M on Le’Veon Bell, C.J. Mosley, Jamison Crowder and Henry Anderson.

 

2. Let Maccaggnan run a draft in which they had the 3rd pick.

 

3. Fire Maccaggnan three weeks after the draft.

 

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network has emerged as a candidate to be Gase’s GM.  Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News also tweets out some other names from the scouting community:

 

@MMehtaNYDN

 

Some names to keep an eye on during Jets GM search:

 

1) Joe Douglas (Eagles VP of Player Personnel)

 

2) Lance Newmark (Lions Director of Player Personnel)

 

3) Adam Peters (49ers VP of Player Personnel)

 

4) Champ Kelly (Bears assistant director of Player Personnel)

 

Mehta, who seemed to get info from Mccagnan, is not impressed:

 

Ladies and gentlemen, dig up the bearded ladies, face painters, contortionists and trained elephants. Set up the custard pie stands under twinkling lights. Oh, and don’t forget the clown car.

 

There’s a new (old) circus in town.

 

The Jets morphed back into a familiar laughingstock Wednesday by inexplicably firing Mike Maccagnan less than three weeks after Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson privately — and explicitly — told people on One Jets Drive that reports of the general manager’s impending ouster were pure fiction, according to sources.

 

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Johnson is disingenuous, reactionary, erratic or just plain clueless. Take your pick.

 

Johnson delivered the pink slip, but he’s not the only one with fingerprints all over this disjointed mess. Adam Gase’s cojones should be sent to Canton via Fed-Ex for the coup that he just pulled off.

 

Regardless, the acting owner’s choice to pull the plug after Maccagnan headed a coaching search, spent more than $120 million in free agency and oversaw a draft that included the No. 3 pick was the latest example that perhaps the Jets are what so many have always believed them to be: A lost, dysfunctional outfit unable to get out of its own way.

 

Although a fair case could have been made to relieve Maccagnan of his duties when Todd Bowles was fired after the season, the timing of this move reeks of amateurism. Vice President of Player Personnel Brian Heimerdinger, who has been credited for orchestrating the trade last year to position the Jets to draft Sam Darnold, was collateral damage.

 

Gase will act as the interim general manager until Johnson (and presumably Gase) will hire Maccagnan’s replacement. Gase’s preferred choice is Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, who worked with Gase in Chicago for one year, according to sources.

 

Johnson offered a perfunctory statement with hollow words about Maccagnan’s “strategic vision” and his desire to make a change for “the best long-term interests of the New York Jets.” It was a transparent and empty attempt to walk back virtually every one of his public statements touting his belief in his general manager in the past two years.

 

Remember, Johnson was waxing poetic about the synergy on One Jets Drive at league meetings two months ago.

 

“I think he’s terrific at his job,” Johnson said about Maccagnan in March. “He has a plan that I believe in. It’s really key that he’s working well with Adam.”

 

It’ll be difficult to take anything Johnson says seriously moving forward.

 

Johnson also heaped praise on big free-agent signings Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley, while leaving out one detail. Gase absolutely made it clear that he didn’t want Bell, according to sources. The head coach left no doubt that he didn’t want to spend a lot of money on any running back or center.

 

Johnson might be well intentioned, but this decision is an indictment on his ability to successfully operate this franchise. His inexperience is glaring.

 

Consider: He gave Maccagnan and Todd Bowles extensions in December 2017 through 2020 only to fire his head coach one year later and the general manager 17 months later.

 

Although firing a general manager after the draft isn’t unprecedented, this was a nonsensical decision by Johnson for myriad reasons.

 

How many owners would give their GM autonomy to run a head coaching search only to fire him before that head coach ran his first practice, let alone play in a single game?

 

How many owners would allow their GM to spend a mountain of money in free agency, go out of his way to praise those signings and then whack him?

 

How many owners would allow their GM to run an entire draft that included the third overall pick and then show him the guillotine?

 

Would could Johnson have possibly unearthed in the past few months that he didn’t already know about Maccagnan in the past two seasons?

 

It’s fair to question Maccagnan’s draft and free agency record. It also makes sense to delve deeper into how Maccagnan worked with others in the building. Johnson wants to build a winning culture in all parts of the organization.

 

But this is all information that Johnson needed to collect over the past two years. If he had reservations about any of it, he should have fired Maccagnan after the season rather than empower him to make critical decisions that will impact the franchise for the next several years.

 

I don’t question Johnson’s desire to make the Jets a winner, but his waffling has helped turned the Jets into a punchline yet again. These are moves that Knicks owner James Dolan would be proud of.

 

But Johnson didn’t arrive at this decision alone. Gase, who feigned outraged last week at the thought of a rift with Maccagnan, played this perfectly for himself. He wanted control all along and he’s getting it.

 

Strip away the team propaganda and B.S. and here’s what left: Johnson chose Gase over Maccagnan. He sided with a man he’s known for four months.

 

So much is riding on this decision. Sam Darnold’s future. Johnson’s legacy.

 

Time will reveal whether Christopher Johnson set the franchise on the right path with this decision. Will Woody Johnson return from the across the pond a happy man or walk into a bigger mess than he left behind when he took the job as the UK Ambassador?

 

Right now, one thing is abundantly clear: Gang Green has surpassed the Giants and Knicks as the biggest joke in town. Now all Johnson needs to do is order some balloons and cotton candy to One Jets Drive.

 

Mike Florio:

 

The best power plays are the ones that don’t come off as power plays.

 

Only four months after being named coach of the Jets and without ever winning a single game for the team, Adam Gase has made a power play and won. He’s won it so decisively that the guy who resolved the power play claims there was no power play at all.

 

“This has nothing to do with Adam,” Jets CEO and chairman Christopher Johnson told reporters on Wednesday regarding the firing of G.M. Mike Maccagnan, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.

 

It has everything to do with Adam, who quickly emerges with the title of interim G.M. and who will be directly involved in hiring the next G.M. And who possibly will have final say over the football operations, whether in writing or implicitly.

 

Intentional or not, it was a coup. And Gase won it. And Johnson either isn’t telling the truth about it or he’s genuinely oblivious to it.

 

Regardless, the good news/bad news for Gase is that he’s now in charge. For better or worse. And if it’s not better, it will be worse for him, sooner than later.

 

It didn’t take long for Gase to use his newly-acquired power, shipping one of Mccagnan’s bad picks out of town.  Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com:

 

On Wednesday, just hours after it was announced that general manager Mike Maccagnan had been fired, the Jets agreed to send linebacker Darron Lee to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2020 sixth-round pick, a source told Yahoo Sports.

 

Lee, 24, was a first-round pick of the Jets in 2016, when the team selected the 6-foot-1, 232-pounder 20th overall out of Ohio State. In three seasons with the Jets, Lee averaged 80 tackles and four pass deflections per year, all while participating in 40 of 48 possible regular-season games (36 starts).

 

However after the firing of Jets head coach Todd Bowles in late December — a champion of Lee’s — and the team’s decision to hand fellow off-ball linebacker C.J. Mosley a massive five-year, $85 million contract, it became clear the team was nearly done with Lee. The Jets hammered that home earlier this month, when they declined a fifth-year option on his deal that would have paid him close to $10 million in 2020.

 

From the Chiefs’ perspective, Lee is a low-cost option. His salary-cap charge for 2019, the final year of his original rookie deal, will be $1.8 million. He adds depth to a position the Chiefs couldn’t upgrade in a significant fashion during the offseason.

 

Though Lee, 24, struggled against the run in the Jets’ 3-4 defense due to his lack of bulk, he has shown upside in coverage, where his athleticism — he tested as an elite athlete at his position and ran a blistering 4.42 40-yard dash during the 2016 pre-draft process — helped him post career highs in pass deflections (five) and interceptions (three) in 2018, when he also logged 74 tackles until he was suspended after the 12th game for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

 

The Chiefs are hoping Lee is a better fit in their 4-3 defensive scheme. He’ll try to crack a starting group that projects to be Damien Wilson, a free-agent signee from the Dallas Cowboys, and holdovers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

A LOTTERY?

If the NFL mirrored the NBA, the league’s smallest market also would have been in prime position.  According to Gil Brandt, the Jaguars would have been in position to draft QB KYLER MURRAY:

 

How the 2019 draft order would have shaken out if the NFL had a draft lottery with the same result as last night’s NBA lottery:

 

1.  Jags

2.  Bills

3.  Cards

4.  Bengals

5.  49ers

6.  Jets

7.  Raiders

8.  Bucs

9.  Giants

10. Lions

11. Broncos

12. Dolphins

13. Packers

14. Falcons

 

More from Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Plenty of you don’t want an NFL draft lottery. I do.

 

Who know who else does? Whoever runs the NFL’s official, blue-checked NFL draft account on Twitter.

 

“Hey, NFL, we want a draft lottery, too,” the league’s draft account tweeted on Wednesday afternoon.

 

Gil Brandt of NFL.com took things a step farther, producing a list of what the top 14 picks in the 2019 NFL draft would have been, if the NFL had a draft lottery like the 2019 NBA draft lottery — and it it had played out the same way. (The Jaguars would have had the first pick, followed by the Bills and the Cardinals.)

 

The better approach, in my view (and in the view of not many others), would be to give all non-playoff teams the same shot at getting the first pick. That removes the temptation to try to lose games after a team is, as a practical matter, eliminated from postseason consideration. (That temptation is currently very real.)

 

And if the process is going to be weighted, the enhanced chances of winning the top pick should go to those non-playoff teams that win down the stretch, creating an ongoing incentive to pursue victory, long after the season is otherwise lost.

 

The league will never do a draft lottery, unless it can be done in a way that indeed removes the temptation to tank. Any other approach (like the one used by the NBA) acknowledges and legitimizes the idea that it’s good to be bad. Which won’t be good for business, especially as more and more of the league’s business hinges on the money legally wagered on teams who are presumed to at all times be doing whatever they have to do to win.

 

The NFL Draft Lottery – primetime at the Pro Bowl, or primetime at the NFL Draft Combine or an event all its own, conducted in the market that will host the draft in April…

 

 

2020 DRAFT

Mel Kiper, Jr. offers his first Big Board for next spring:

 

Twenty underclassmen and five seniors. Fourteen offensive players and 11 defenders. Eleven prospects from the SEC. And five … wide receivers?

 

Yes, the 2020 NFL draft class could be quite different from 2019, when only one wideout went in the first round. In fact, my top overall prospect is a receiver. This could be a really fun year as we continue to evaluate the interesting skill-position talent who could enter next year’s draft.

 

A few notes on my first Big Board for 2020, where I rank my top 25 prospects:

 

These aren’t detailed scouting reports. I still have a lot of work to do on these players.

 

Keep in mind that several prospects here have started only one season, so there is a lot of projection involved.

 

Height and weight are based on what we have from schools. We don’t get official numbers until the 2020 combine next March.

 

Let’s get to the Big Board, and come back Friday for my position-by-position rankings.

 

Note: An asterisk denotes the prospect is a rising junior.

 

1. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama*

Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 192 pounds

Yes, you’re reading that correctly — I have a wide receiver No. 1 in my first Big Board. Jeudy is a tremendous talent, a natural pass-catcher who can beat defenders on every route. He showed elite ball skills last season, catching 68 passes with 14 touchdowns and averaging 19.3 yards per reception. Jeudy doesn’t have the size of Julio Jones and A.J. Green, who were picked in the top six in the 2011 draft, but he’s the most talented receiver since that duo entered the NFL.

 

2. Grant Delpit, S, LSU*

Height: 6-3 | Weight: 203

The NFL comp for Delpit is easy; it’s former LSU safety Jamal Adams, who was drafted No. 6 overall by the Jets in 2017 and is coming off his first Pro Bowl. Delpit is a complete safety who is stout against the run and can cover the deep middle of the field. He had 74 tackles, five interceptions and nine pass breakups last season. The Adams comp comes in when you watch Delpit make plays in the backfield — he had five sacks in 2018. He’s also a great athlete.

 

3. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 265

Young caught my eye as a true freshman in 2017, when he had six tackles for loss while playing in a super-talented Buckeyes defensive line rotation. And after Nick Bosa went down early in 2018, Young was the team’s best defender. He’s a natural pass-rusher with a lightning-quick first step off the ball. He finished the season with 9.5 sacks, 14.5 total tackles for loss and batted down five passes. He has the talent to be the first edge rusher off the board next April.

 

4. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama*

Height: 6-1 | Weight: 218

You should know about Tagovailoa by now. I wrote about my thoughts on him in December, and he was atop Todd McShay’s debut 2020 mock draft. The reason I don’t have the Heisman runner-up as the surefire No. 1 prospect in next year’s draft? Sample size. He has started only one season, and there were some worrying moments in the games against Georgia and Clemson. Tagovailoa is not a finished product, and he’s playing with the best offensive talent in college football. I want to see more from him this season. Still, there’s a reason he’s my top-ranked quarterback and the favorite to go No. 1 in 2020. He’s an extremely accurate thrower with great athleticism and advanced footwork. The left-handed passer should star again in 2019, and I’m excited to see how he has progressed.

 

5. A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 277

Epenesa, one of the highest-rated recruits Iowa has ever landed, was a monster as a sophomore last season, putting up 10.5 sacks, 16.5 total tackles for loss and forcing four fumbles. He has long arms and the 6-foot-5 frame to be great against the run. I wouldn’t be shocked if he had 15-plus sacks this season. He could be an elite NFL pass-rusher.

 

6. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 262

Recent fourth-round pick Shareef Miller got all of the attention going into the 2018 season, but Gross-Matos was the Nittany Lions’ most productive defender. He stood out every time I turned on the Penn State tape. With eight sacks and 20 total tackles for loss, Gross-Matos is a really good penetrator, but he also can finish. That’s what I like most about him. And if you’re keeping track, this makes three Big Ten defensive ends in my top six for 2020.

 

7. Walker Little, OT, Stanford*

Height: 6-7 | Weight: 313

Little started as a true freshman at left tackle for the Cardinal and has been a brick wall the past two seasons. With stellar size and athleticism, he is the complete package for a blindside protector tackle at the next level.

 

8. CJ Henderson, CB, Florida*

Height: 6-1 | Weight: 186

The ball skills are what sticks out with Henderson. He has six total interceptions and 11 pass breakups in his two seasons at Florida. At 6-foot-1, he’s a big corner with the athletic traits to be a shutdown defender. Here’s a clip of Henderson picking off 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock when Henderson was a true freshman.

 

9. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 320

Like Little, Thomas started as a true freshman for a big-time program. He played right tackle in 2017, then moved to left tackle last season after Isaiah Wynn entered the draft. Thomas has extremely long arms, and the versatility to play multiple positions will make him stand out to teams.

 

10. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon

Height: 6-6 | Weight: 233

Herbert was in the top 10 of my Big Board for much of the 2019 cycle, and he could have been a first-round pick if he had entered the draft. I wasn’t surprised he decided to return to school, though, and it could be a great decision for him. He has all of the makings of a No. 1 overall pick — great size, a big arm to make every throw, limited interceptions, good athleticism. But then you watch his games against Bowling Green and San Jose State, in which he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had four picks. What happened there? Herbert misses some throws that first-round picks just can’t miss. I’d like to see more consistency out of him in 2019.

 

11. Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama

Height: 6-2 | Weight: 199

A broken foot limited Diggs to only six games last season, but the converted receiver was emerging as a great player in his first season as a starter, breaking up six passes and adding an interception. Diggs, whose brother is Stefon, is fully recovered from his foot injury. He could get some time at Nick Saban’s “star” position in 2019, playing some slot corner and safety. He is extremely athletic with a solid 6-foot-2 frame.

 

12. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson*

Height: 6-3 | Weight: 225

We often talk about linebackers who are perfect for the current NFL. That means three-down players who can run, tackle and cover. You don’t see many 250-pound off-ball linebackers anymore, and that’s because tight ends would torch them in coverage. Simmons, a converted safety, is a linebacker who is perfect for today’s pro game. He is extremely athletic and can run sideline to sideline. He had 89 total tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss last season.

 

13. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma*

Height: 6-2 | Weight: 189

The speedy Marquise Brown, who went in the first round last month, was the receiver who got most of the attention for the Sooners in 2018, but Lamb put up great numbers, too. He is a better route runner than Brown, and he can stretch the field with the best wideouts in college football. He had 65 catches and 11 touchdowns last season while averaging 17.8 yards per catch. Check out Lamb’s body control on this perfect touchdown pass from Kyler Murray in the Big 12 title game last season.

 

14. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 325

Brown made a few appearances on my Big Board last year, and he could have been in the mix as a first-rounder in the 2019 class. He broke out in 2017 with nine tackles for loss, and he added 10.5 TFL last season. Brown is still raw as a pass-rusher — he gets into the backfield because of his power more than his finesse — but I’m hoping to see a more refined player after he came back to school.

 

15. Dylan Moses, ILB, Alabama*

Height: 6-3 | Weight: 233

When Quinnen Williams visited Bristol last month, I asked him to give me the name of the next Alabama defender to dominate. His answer? Moses. Of course, Moses has been on the radar for years, after LSU offered him before he had even started eighth grade. He has developed into an elite athlete and tackler, and he is likely to step into Mack Wilson’s vacated middle linebacker spot in 2019. Moses had 86 total tackles with 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

 

16. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson*

Height: 6-4 | Weight: 200

Clemson keeps producing elite wide receivers, and Higgins could be next in line. What stands out is how well he uses his 6-foot-4 frame to take advantage of his mismatch against smaller defensive backs. Here’s an example of Higgins boxing out a cornerback for a touchdown. He did that often last season, catching 59 passes with 12 touchdowns. Higgins is also a stellar athlete who has improved as a route runner.

 

17. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 320

NFL teams want their right tackles to be maulers in the running game. That’s Wirfs, a state wrestling champ in high school who created some buzz in March for doing four hang-clean reps of 450 pounds. He’s powerful on tape, too, moving defenders off the ball and pancaking pass-rushers. Since Kirk Ferentz became the Iowa coach in 1999, no true freshman offensive tackle had started a game. That changed with Wirfs in 2017, when he played at left and right tackle. Wirfs is an ascending talent.

 

18. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia*

Height: 6-2 | Weight: 220

I was really impressed with Fromm’s poise and decision-making in Georgia’s run to the national title game in 2017. A true freshman leading the way for the Bulldogs’ comeback in the College Football Playoff win over Oklahoma was tremendous to see. Fromm doesn’t have great measurables or a great arm, but he’s accurate, and he doesn’t make mistakes. You could see his improvement in 2018, and I expect him to take another step this season.

 

19. Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado*

Height: 6-2 | Weight: 220

Shenault is like a big running back playing receiver. He’s dynamic after the catch, and he moves around the formation. Colorado even played him as a Wildcat quarterback at times. He had 86 catches and six touchdowns last season, and he added five rushing touchdowns in only 17 carries. Shenault could play in the slot in the NFL. He’s just fun to watch. Check out this route and catch.

 

20. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson*

Height: 5-10 | Weight: 200

The lone running back on my Big Board, Etienne is a game-breaker with electric athleticism, quick feet and power to break arm tackles for big games. He rushed for 1,658 yards last season and averaged 8.1 yards per carry, and he’s in line for another monster year in 2019. Where I’d like to see him improve is as a receiver; he has only 17 total catches over the past two seasons. Clemson has a ton of weapons, of course, but first-round running backs need to be three-down players.

 

21. Tyler Biadasz, C, Wisconsin*

Height: 6-3 | Weight: 319

Biadasz, who has started 27 straight games at center for the Badgers, is a gifted athlete. Wisconsin uses him to pull at times, and it’s fun to watch him get his hands on defenders on the edge. He’s also really strong technically. Biadasz had hip surgery earlier this year and was held out of spring practice, but he’s expected to be a full-go for the season.

 

22. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama*

Height: 6-0 | Weight: 183

Ruggs is a speedster. He is the early favorite to be the fastest prospect in the 2020 draft. Jeudy is more explosive, but Ruggs has more straight-line speed. Alabama uses Ruggs on more than just vertical routes, however, as he had 46 catches for 741 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Check out this tunnel screen that he ran in for an easy score. He also averaged 19.1 yards per catch as a freshman in 2017.

 

23. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia

Height: 6-1 | Weight: 200

Hall was a breakout star last season — he led FBS with 22 pass breakups, turning those into two interceptions. He’s a physical corner who isn’t afraid to tackle. The question about corners is always speed, and we won’t get his workout numbers until after the season, but after watching Hall closely on film, he sticks to receivers on film. I don’t see any concerns about his ability to run with receivers down the field.

 

24. Trey Adams, OT, Washington

Height: 6-8 | Weight: 316

Adams ranked No. 13 on my preseason Big Board last year, but he suffered a back injury before the season and missed the first 10 games. He decided to return to school for his senior year, and it was a good decision based on his injury history; he also tore an ACL in 2017. Adams has a massive frame, and he could rise if he stays healthy.

 

25. Terrell Lewis, OLB, Alabama*

Height: 6-5 | Weight: 256

This is all about projection because Lewis is an enormous talent who hasn’t stayed healthy. After hurting his elbow in 2017 and playing in only four games, he tore his ACL before the 2018 season and missed the entire year. He was going to be a starter on the outside for the Crimson Tide. Lewis has a ton of upside as a pass-rusher, and people inside the program rave about his talent. I’m excited to see him in 2019.