2020 NFL Draft prospects from the ACC: Clemson players lead the way, starting with Tee Higgins and Travis Etienne
ACC teams have an assortment of legit 2020 NFL Draft prospects, so let's take a look
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Start the college football season fully aware of the top prospects across the country. It'll also give you a jump on the 2020 NFL Draft, which is only eight months away. And, heck, once the NFL's regular season ends right before the new year, draft season will shift into full gear.
In this preview, you'll get the marquee prospects from the ACC, home of the reigning champion Clemson Tigers.
(Note: Because, I'll keep their write-ups short and sweet.)
Tee Higgins, WR
Higgins is 6-foot-4, 205-pound high flyer with scary downfield speed and natural ball skills. He's averaged nearly 17 yards per grab in his first two collegiate seasons and scored 12 touchdowns in 2018. He has first-round pick written all over him.
Isaiah Simmons, LB
Simmons, who came in at No. 4 on Bruce Feldman's "Freaks" list this summer, is a 6-4, 225-pound linebacker/safety hybrid with All-Pro potential. He logged 88 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and six pass breakups a season ago. His elite athleticism puts him near the ball ... frequently.
Travis Etienne, RB
Etienne won the ACC Player of the Year award last year with over 1,600 yards and 24 scores on the ground on just 204 carries. Though he runs slightly high, Etienne has nasty one-cut skills and electric downfield speed. He's the definition of a power hitter at the running back spot and is a headliner in what should be a crowded class at his position.
A.J. Terrell, CB
Somewhat overshadowed by eventual second-round pick Trayvon Mullen, Terrell had an underrated 2018 with three pass breakups, three picks, and not many passes thrown in his direction. He has the fluidity and click-and-close ability to be a first-round corner in 2020.
Marvin Wilson, DL
Listed at 6-5 and 311 pounds, Wilson looked stockier on the field in 2018 and appeared to be the classic nose tackle type with three-technique quickness for the Seminoles. The former No. 6 overall recruit and top defensive tackle in the country per 247 Sports registered 41 tackles with four tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore last season.
His first step pops on film, as do his active, constantly churning hands. But if Wilson wasn't able to gain an advantage with his burst off the snap, he had trouble penetrating the backfield because of a lack of power in his pass-rushing moves, and at his height, it's difficult for him to get under interior linemen to bull rush them into the quarterback. On occasion, he flashed a nasty swim move. Wilson needs to lean on that more often.
His sheer size, athleticism, and advancing pass-rushing/block-shedding maneuvers will have him the early-round radar all season.
Cam Akers, RB
Akers, the No. 3 overall recruit at top RB in the 2017 high school class according to 247 Sports, had a down sophomore year on paper that was barely his fault. Florida State had arguably the worst offensive line in the Power 5, rarely providing clear running lanes for Akers or any other Seminole back. However the ultra-talented, twitched-up ball carrier still managed 4.4 yards per rush on his 161 carries.
As a true freshman in 2017, Akers ran for 1,025 yards on 194 attempts (5.3 yards per) with seven scores on the ground. Already at 5-11 and 212 pounds, the Florida State feature back has a rock-solid frame and possesses scary lateral cutting skills. Plus, his contact balance is well above average.
In what looks like a loaded running back group, Akers will have to piece together a strong junior year go on Day 2. I think he has it in him to do just that.
Levonta Taylor, DB
Another highly touted recruit -- the top cornerback and No. 7 overall recruit in the 2016 class -- Taylor had a lockdown 2017 in which teams didn't target him often at all, but he still managed three pass breakups and two interceptions. He regressed in 2018 and was limited to just seven games due to injury.
The 5-10 cornerback is now up to 191 pounds, a nice benchmark for sub 6-0 players at his position. And look for him to man multiple roles in the Seminoles this year -- not just the corner spot. Think Tyrann Mathieu at LSU. With more opportunities to play with his eyes on the quarterback, the dynamic mover will be put in plenty of situations to get his hands on the football. He'll need to make more game-changing plays to revitalize his draft stock.
Hamsah Nasirildeen, LB
Nasirildeen is off the national radar right now, but he led the team with 91 tackles at 6-4 and 215 pounds last year. The former No. 14 overall safety recruit in the country with offers from Alabama, Clemson, and South Carolina flows effortlessly around the field in a Derwin James-type safety/linebacker role.
While he has spindly legs and could stand to add more weight to his frame for increased power, as a sophomore in 2018, Nasirildeen showcased the ability to sift through traffic to get to the ball carrier on outside runs and serious range to close receivers down the field.
He needs a big boost in production in coverage -- one pick, two pass breakups last season -- but looks like a freakish specimen with his arrow pointing up, and he's playing a position that's becoming increasingly valuable in the NFL.
Tamorrion Terry, WR
Terry was Florida State's most reliable receiver in 2018, and he just so happened to be the most explosive. The blazing, 6-4 redshirt freshman registered 744 yards through the air (22.9 percent of the the team receiving yards) on 35 catches -- 17.3 yards per -- and a team-high eight receiving touchdowns.
His releases off the line are a major work in progress. Terry has to get quicker with his press-beating moves and must play with significantly more physicality to work through the five-yard area in which contact is allowed.
But, at 6-4 with immense long speed and the ability to turn, track, and high-point the football, he's a fun, niche prospect.
Michael Pinckney, LB
Pinckney is a constantly moving, decently explosive linebacker who's more impactful against he run than he is in coverage right now, although I wouldn't call him a liability on pass plays.
I love how fast Pinckey processes what's happening around him and his quickness to the football. He turns and runs with running backs well but needs to get a step faster for those plays and when ranging across the field to make tackles. The Miami star is already an effective blitzer and can beat blocks en route to the ball carrier.
If he's gained that step of speed, look out. He should improve from his 74-tackle, 11-tackle-for-loss, 3.5-sack, two-pass breakup stat line of a year ago and find himself on the Day 2 or early Day 3 radar.
Trajan Bandy, CB
As a sophomore in 2018, Bandy recorded three picks and eight pass breakups to go along with 36 total tackles. The 5-9, 190-pound cornerback is more of an athlete than a refined technician in press coverage, but if he shows more polish in the latter area he could become a highly touted prospect.
Even when initially beaten off the line, Bandy has jets to recover and the vertical to high-point the football. While not the most physical corner, he has the quick reactionary skills to stay locked onto his receiver throughout the entire route. Size may ding him during the pre-draft process, but Bandy looks like a No. 2 cornerback in the NFL.
Shaq Quarterman, LB
An 80-plus tackle defender in each of his three seasons at Miami, Quarterman is undoubtedly active. He has an always humming motor and is very authoritative against the run, often blowing up blockers when he can't slip by them.
He's quicker than fast though and that attribute shows up in coverage as well as when he ranges across the field. Quarterman really gets after it as a blitzer and is like lightning when attacking downhill. He's a similar player to Pinckney, I just see more explosiveness and natural coverage ability from his linebacker mate at his point.
Others to Watch
Bryce Hall, CB
Hall is myheading into the season. I was shocked when he decided to return to Charlottesville for his senior year after the glorious junior campaign he had with the Cavaliers.
The 6-1, 200-pound outside corner led the nation with 21 pass breakups and intercepted two more throws in 13 games. While he's not the twitchiest mover at the position, he's smooth enough athletically that his length is a major problem for opposing pass offenses. Hall reads route concepts well and rarely is found with his head turned away from the football as it's arriving.
After what will likely be another super-disruptive season at Virginia, expect the chatter about Hall to center around him being one of the first cornerbacks off the board in the 2020 Draft. He's that good.
Essang Bassey, CB
Bassey enters this college football season as my No. 4 cornerback and No. 28 overall prospect in the 2020 class. Incredibly twitchy with keen awareness and fantastic ball skills, Bassey is always around the football when it's headed his way.
After 16 pass breakups and three picks along with 75 tackles as a sophomore in 2017, Bassey proved that year wasn't a fluke with 15 passes defended with one interception in 2018. His electric movements keep him in the pocket of receivers, and he breaks on the football with ease. With another strong year in the ACC -- which I fully expect -- Bassey will likely be a first-round caliber corner.
Kenny Cooper, IOL
Cooper has appeared in 27 games over the past three seasons in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, so he's unsurprisingly much further ahead as a run blocker than he is protecting on a pass play. His experience will go a long way for his draft stock during the pre-draft process.
Mark Gilbert, CB
Gilbert was on the draft radar at the outset of the 2018 college football season thanks to his 15-pass breakup, six-interception masterpiece as a sophomore in 2017.
But a dislocated hip in the Blue Devils' second game ended his year. At 6-1 and 175 pounds, Gilbert is a lanky corner prospect but knows how to utilize his length to his advantage. And he's a fluid athlete best in man coverage -- particularly press bail. He consistently stays in phase down the field and has veteran-level awareness to find the football as it's arriving.
Gilbert -- who just so happens to be Darrelle Revis' cousin -- will want to get stronger in his upper half to deal with bigger wideouts on the outside and obviously needs to get back to 100 percent from his hip injury. If both of those things happen and he showcases the same suddenness and ball skills that were clear in 2017, he could be a Day 2 pick.
Deon Jackson, RB
As a sophomore, Jackson ran for 847 yards on 161 attempts (5.3 yards per) behind a lackluster offensive line at Duke. He has legit NFL size at 6-0 and 215 pounds and has noticeably above-average vision and explosiveness through the hole. He runs with impressive forward lean, solid power to run through weak arm tackle attempts, and enough downfield juice to hit some home runs.
Jackson had a 60-yard run and 74-yard touchdown catch against Pittsburgh. On the first play against Miami last year, he bounced around the line of scrimmage before erupting for a 75-yard run.
Jackson is the unquestioned feature back in the Blue Devils' offense that will prominently feature him in 2019, with Daniel Jones off to the NFL. He has a host of household name backs at marquee schools in front of him, but Jackson has the light feet, vision, and long speed to be a sneaky early Day 3 selection and contribute early in the NFL.
Alton Robinson, EDGE
As a junior in 2018, Robinson burst onto the scene with 17 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and three forced fumbles as Syracuse's base left defensive end.
At 6-4 and 260 pounds, Robinson has ideal edge rusher size for the next level and is a smooth, speed-to-power rusher with an above-average arsenal of pass-rushing moves on which to rely. For as quick as his first step is, he's not overly bendy around the corner. He's more advanced as a pass-rusher right now than he is against the run, and I'm fine with that.
You don't see a rep with clunky movements from Robinson, and he can win to the inside, outside, or straight through the right tackle with his bull rush. In what looks like a somewhat thin edge-rusher class, Robinson has the talent and refined game to emerge as one of the best of the bunch after Ohio State's Chase Young.
A.J. Dillon, RB
Dillon is a moose. He's an impossibly powerful 250-pound back with supercharged legs that lead to him being unfazed by most tackle attempts on his frame.
The former ACC Rookie of the Year isn't just a plodding bulldozer. He has stunning speed for someone his size and plus contact balance to absorb hits and keep moving. Also, while it does take him some time to get into top gear, his change-of-direction ability is impressive.
After a sparkling 2017 with nearly 1,600 yards on the ground, Dillon had 1,108 at 4.3 yards per carry in 2018 and has scored 24 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons at Boston College. He'll be on the Day 2 radar after what should be a big year for the Eagles and a freakish combine in Indianapolis.
Mekhi Becton, OT
Listed at 6-7 and 369 pounds, Becton is one of the largest humans playing college football in 2019. And despite his gargantuan size, he's a gifted mover in his pass sets and doesn't routinely get pushed backward because of his high center of gravity. Then again, nearly 370 pounds is difficult to move for anybody.
Of course, small, speedy edge rushers give Becton some problems, but he's a very calm blocker who understands angles and that his frame and vine-like arms create a super-wide arc for defenders to run around to get to the quarterback.
And because he's so huge, his power looks effortless both as a pass protector and run blocker. Going into his junior season, Becton is better blocking for the pass than he is on run plays, which bodes well for his draft stock. He has the size and inherent gifts to be a big riser during draft season.
Reggie Floyd, S
Floyd has lived around the football the past two seasons at Virginia Tech. After 72 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and three picks in 2017, he had 80 takedowns, 9.5 tackles for loss, and two picks in 2018.
I'm enthralled by Floyd's range, assertiveness, and football IQ from the slot defender / dime linebacker role and the fact that he can fly across the field in coverage too. He's an outstanding tackler who essentially thwarts any chance of a chunk play occurring on an outside run if he's positioned on that side of the field.
At 6-0 and 222 pounds, Floyd has the looks of a modern day linebacker/safety and, after what is poised to be another stat-sheet filling season at Virginia Tech, he should be on the Day 2 radar. Some first-round consideration wouldn't surprise me.
James Smith-Williams, EDGE
The latest creation from the athletic defensive line laboratory that is NC State, Smith-Williams came in at No. 3 on Bruce Feldman's "Freaks" list of 2019. Why? Well, per Feldman, Smith-Williams stepped on campus as a 196-pounder. He's now 265 with minimal fat on his body.
On the field, Smith-Williams is bit of a project. He tallied six sacks and nine tackles for loss last season but got stuck on blocks on the edge relatively often. The burst is there and so are the active hands. He just needs to be able to covert his speed to more power and pack a stronger punch into his pass-rushing moves.
With his chiseled frame and jagged athleticism, Smith-Williams is primed to be a sleeper prospect in the 2020 Draft.
Charlie Heck, OT
Heck stands out on film at 6-8 and 310 pounds. He struggles to get underneath edge rushers, which hurts him when facing bull rushes. However, he has relatively quick feet, good balance, and is aware that his long arms are his best friends in pass protection, often striking first and locking out successfully.
With more weight and power in his lower half, Heck should improve as a run blocker which would bode well for his status as a draftable tackle prospect. His size, length, and overall pass-blocking prowess already looks like like someone worthy of hearing his name called during the draft.
Dane Jackson, CB
As a redshirt junior, Jackson stood out on Pittsburgh's overachieving defense in 2018 with 14 pass breakups and four forced fumbles. He held his own against Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Co. against Clemson in the ACC title game.
At 6-0 and 190 pounds, there's nothing outrageous about Jackson's game but he has just enough athleticism and awareness to disrupt at a consistent rate on the outside.
Day 3 is certainly within reason for the Pitt star. With another strong season and an impressive combine, Day 2 won't be out of the question.
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