2020 NFL Draft: Joe Burrow, Yetur Gross-Matos and the prospects who've boosted their stock most in 2019
These 10 prospects have improved their draft stocks the most with strong 2019 seasons
For as sad as it is that the regular season of the 2019 college football season is over, among many other things we can take from it myriad players who drastically improved their draft stock with sparkling campaigns across the country.
Joe Burrow going to win the Heisman in a few days, and he's the obvious headliner here. Beyond him, I've identified nine more prospects (plus an honorable mention) who did themselves plenty of good on the draft front in 2019.
Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
There are so many things I can write about Burrow's 2019, but I'll whittle it down to this: In the seven draft classes I've evaluated, I don't believe any other prospect has risen further faster than Burrow -- especially at the game's most vital position. He was on the fringe of even being draftable after a 2018 that was mostly mediocre with some high-level flashes.
Then he transformed into The Terminator. After Baker Mayfield, Tua Tagovailoa, and Kyler Murray seemingly took efficiency at quarterback to an entirely new stratosphere at the collegiate ranks, Burrow has played better than what we've seen in the past. His 203 passing efficiency mark trails only Tagovailoa this season in college football history. Good lawd.
From his laser-like accuracy to his impressive drifting inside the pocket and impact scrambles, Burrow has been essentially unfazed all season. He's made outstanding decisions and given his wideouts chances to make plays on the football every week. He will be the slam dunk, consensus top quarterback in the 2020 class. Exactly zero people, well maybe besides Burrow, his family, and Ed Orgeron, saw this meteoric of a rise coming.
Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State
As a sophomore, Gross-Matos earned the distinction of somewhat raw physical freak. At 6-foot-5 and over 260 pounds, the 20-year-old edge rusher had eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He wasn't consistently winning at the point of attack as a pass rusher though.
As a junior, Gross-Matos' traditional numbers didn't improve -- eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 10 games -- but, importantly, he demonstrated a clear step forward using his hands against pass protectors while maintaining his sturdiness against the run. In 2018, YGM looked like a specimen who mainly relied on his athletic superiority to win. This year, he's used finesse to beat blockers, and he's certainly not any less impressive physically as a 21-year-old.
For someone who'll turn 22 in February, YGM earned the label of someone with an arrow pointing up at a premier position. He needed to polish his game quite a bit even after his breakout sophomore campaign, and he did. YGM is probably going to crush his combine workout too, so he'll (likely) check important boxes during the pre-draft process. And his improvement as a junior has probably locked him into Round 1.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
No one could knock Taylor's production at Wisconsin entering the 2019 season -- consecutive 1,700-plus yard seasons -- and his stellar long speed is easy to see in essentially every game.
But there was some concern about his lack of involvement in the Badgers' pass game due to his first two years in Madison, as he caught a grand total of 16 passes for 155 yards. Was Wisconsin's offensive philosophy to blame for that pedestrian total, or was an issue Taylor had catching the football the culprit?
The true junior proved to be reliable catching the ball if he's part of the game plan in that respect. Heading into the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, the ultra-productive runner has 22 receptions for 201 yards with five receiving scores on the season. At close to 6-foot and 220 pounds with good lateral quickness and track speed, Taylor will be effective on handoffs in the NFL, and his new-found receiving prowess will help him move up draft boards around the league, as many teams will view him as a prospect who can also help the pass game on Sundays.
Jedrick Wills Jr, OT, Alabama
Wills had an adequate 2018 season at right tackle for the Crimson Tide. Nothing he did screamed "future first-round pick." As a junior he's played with more power and balance in pass protection, a combination vital for young blockers once they reach the NFL level.
Many struggle early on dealing with strong defensive linemen, and a good amount of early picks are further ahead blocking for the run than they are for the pass, which doesn't bode well in today's pass-crazy NFL.
At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Wills will check the size box to play right tackle in the pros. And while he's not light-footed, his footwork isn't clumsy. He plays with tremendous knee bend. Because of how low he sinks, the mass on his frame and simply how strong he is, Wills often overwhelms edge rushers, and his arms are long enough to stave off smaller defenders as they try to turn the corner.
From someone who started the year on the Day 3 radar with Day 2 potential, Wills is now squarely in the first-round conversation after a dazzling display of technically sound power for Alabama's ground game and aerial attack this season.
Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota
Winfield had flashed throughout his Minnesota career; he just repeatedly got injured. The defensive back with NFL bloodlines finally enjoyed a clean bill of health this season and thrived on the back end with 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and an eye-popping seven interceptions.
At 5-foot-10 and around 200 pounds, he'll be on the smaller size for the traditional safety position. However, that position really doesn't exist anymore in the NFL. Safeties have essentially become "slot defenders" who occasionally play the deep portions of the field. Winfield isn't the twitchiest defensive back in this class, yet his instincts and ball skills are outstanding, and he's a force in the run game.
In 2018, he had 17 tackles and a pick in four games. In 2017, two pass breakups and 20 tackles in four contests. Staying on the field all season for the Golden Gophers and loading the stat sheet was huge for Winfield's draft stock.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
After landing in Columbus as a top recruit from Texas -- the No. 2 all-purpose back in the 2017 class, per 247 Sports -- Dobbins looked the part in his true freshman season with 7.2 yards per carry on 194 rushes. The hype was born.
But in 2018 with a larger workload, Dobbins' efficiency plummeted to 4.6 yards per carry, and Dwayne Haskins emerged as the foundation on the Buckeyes offense. Dobbins was an afterthought.
This year, Dobbins has returned as a vital element to what Ohio State does offensively. On 250 carries, the most in his three-year career, he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry with 19 rushing touchdowns. Bulked up to close to 220 pounds, the compact, springy runner has been crafty bouncing between the tackles and has hit a plethora of chunk plays down the field. Dobbins will likely get an opportunity on the national stage in the College Football Playoff against a top-tier defense (or two), but what he's already achieved as a true junior has significantly raised his draft stock. He's on the Day 2 radar.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
Hurts has truly had one of the most fascinating college football careers. After entering Alabama as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the nation per 247 Sports, in what turned out to be a bust of a class at that specific position, he started as a true freshman and lost to Deshaun Watson and Clemson in an epic national title game. That year, Hurts completed over 60% of his passes with 23 touchdowns and nine picks while rushing for 954 yards with 13 more scores on the ground. Hurts played more than just admirably for being so young, but he was clearly a limited passer with outstanding rushing skills.
Then in 2017, his completion percentage dipped slightly, and he got very risk averse -- which led to just one pick on the year -- with 17 touchdowns through the air and 855 yards rushing with eight scores. After a disappointing first half of the national title game against Georgia, Hurts was famously replaced by Tua Tagovailoa.
He played at times in 2018 for Nick Saban's club and looked more polished passing from inside the pocket -- 72.9% completion rate, eight touchdowns, two picks -- but a transfer was imminent as Tagovailoa set his opponent's secondaries on fire every week.
At Oklahoma in Lincoln Riley's hyper-creative Air Raid offense, Hurts has continued to improve as a passer, and his athleticism has been accentuated in the designed run game. He's completed close to 72% of his throws at nearly 12 yards per attempt with 31 touchdowns and only six interceptions. As a runner, Hurts already has already amassed over 1,200 yards for the Sooners and struts into the Big 12 title game with 18 touchdowns on the ground. My goodness. He's still somewhat raw when it comes to getting through his reads quickly and not instantly morphing into a running back against pressure. But his accuracy has gotten sharper.
The NFL in general isn't anti-Air Raid anymore, so Hurts' time under Riley's tutelage will likely work wonders for him during the pre-draft process. I will not be surprised when his name is called on Day 2.
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State
Akers' story isn't much different than that of Dobbins. Like his Ohio State contemporary, Akers was an enormous recruit -- he was the No. 2 running back and No. 3 overall recruit in the country in 2017, per 247 Sports -- and instantly looked the part in his true freshman season at a major program.
As Florida State's offensive line deteriorated to dust in 2018, Akers went from 1,025 yards at 5.3 yards per carry to 706 yards at 4.4 yards per carry. The jolts of outstanding cutting and contact balance were there, but he simply didn't get running room often.
With the Seminoles' front returning to respectability this season, the true junior has been one of the most elusive ball carriers in the country. As of November 9, per Pro Football Focus, he led the country with 61 missed tackles forced.
At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Akers has ideal running back size and serious juice in his legs to bounce laterally or explode forward for a long gain. He heads into Florida State's bowl game with over 1,100 yards on the ground this season at 5.0 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. Stock up for Akers this year, without question.
Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Leatherwood simply was not good at right guard last season for the Crimson Tide. Too often he was overwhelmed by power, and that lack of functional strength on the inside led to him getting overly anxious to get his hands on defensive linemen before they could get into his body. The result? A fair amount of off-balance "lunges," which are never good for a blocker.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder has a body to play tackle and is able to tap into his athletic gifts there more than in a phone booth on the interior. And he's flourished at left tackle in 2019 for the Crimson Tide. Leatherwood's athletic gifts are easy to see in every game. He glides in pass protection and it isn't a difficult task for him to get to the second level on a screen or combo block. I'm talking about the No. 1 offensive tackle and No. 4 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class here. He's super-talented.
Could Leatherwood add some weight/power once he reaches the NFL? Yes, definitely. Needs to. But his pass protection is reliable, he has long arms, and has almost totally removed his tendency to lunge at defenders. In something you rarely see at the collegiate level pertaining to a draft prospect, Leatherwood kicked from guard to tackle, and his stock has soared.
Devin Duvernay, WR, Texas
Before 2019, Duvernay had 70 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns -- in three seasons at Texas. This year? He's been that dude for the Longhorns out of the slot. Duvernay has caught a ridiculous 103 passes for 1,294 yards with eight receiving touchdowns.
And he's been as sure-handed as any pass catcher in the country. For a slot wideout, Duvernay's movements aren't exceptionally quick-twitch, but he has scary acceleration out of his break during a route or after the football is in his hands, and that element of his athletic profile allows him to create separation not just on underneath routes but down the field too.
He seemed like a possible late-round selection after a reliable but far from spectacular junior campaign. Now Duvernay, a Senior Bowl invitee, has a chance to be a top-100 selection with the league clearly prioritizing separation skills over contested-catch ability.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU
As a sophomore in Baton Rouge, this fire hydrant of a runner averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 145 attempts with seven scores. Decent season. Nothing that indicated he was truly on the draft radar for all 32 teams.
Now, he's essentially a lock to get drafted after a masterpiece of a 1,200-plus yard season while averaging 6.8 yards per tote.
Edwards-Helaire is only listed at 5-foot-8, which will scare some teams away, foolishly. He's built low to the ground and his 200-plus pound frame makes him a nightmare to actually bring to the turf. He possesses a jump cut and spin move straight out of a video game.
He's not going to run 4.40 at the combine. Not a huge deal. His contact balance and ability to make defenders miss in tight quarters will help him outplay his draft position. The team that picks him will likely have a plan to use him in the pass game too, as he's shown to be an asset in that area with 43 catches for 338 yards this season. At some point during draft season, do yourself a favorite and watch CEH against Alabama.
Honorable Mention: Logan Wilson, LB, Wyoming
Linebackers on the draft radar from the Mountain West are usually one of two things (and I mean no disrespect here, it's just how it's been) -- small, quick and super-productive, or NFL-sized with slower feet and decent production.
Leighton Vander Esch was the exception at nearly 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds with elite athleticism and a loaded statistical resume. While I'm not expecting Wilson to land in the first round like Vander Esch did, he could be another exception listed at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds with smooth athleticism and plenty of tackling and coverage production.
After averaging 101 tackles, two picks, two sacks, nearly nine tackles for loss, and a little more than two pass breakups per year in his first three seasons with the Cowboys, Wilson returned to school for his redshirt senior campaign and instead of falling short of the lofty standards he set, the rangy linebacker has exceeded those as a cover man, which is vital for the modern-day linebacker. With a bowl game upcoming for Wyoming, Wilson has 99 tackles, four picks (one being a gimme off a tip) and seven pass breakups.
Showing he could maintain his high-level of production while consistently demonstrating comfort sinking in zone coverage -- and making plays on the ball -- will bode well for Wilson once he reaches the NFL level. The week at the Senior Bowl will be enormously important for him, but his play in Laramie this year has made him a draftable prospect who may not have to wait until the final stages of the draft to hear his name called.
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