The flow of pre-draft information is far from normal.
Usually, players would be taking visits and agents would be taking inventory of those meetings and we would be within range of the timeframe when you could start to piece together part of the first few rounds. There would be more chatter about the draft. Everything about this month already feels different.
There would be a few ticks and tells starting to show – and there is always no shortage of smokescreens – and teams would be heading into war rooms to start finalizing their boards, position by position, which invariably leads to leaks. Sometimes someone overhears something – or manages to see something – he or she probably should not have, and that information gets passed around. Scouts and execs chat with those they have the closest relationships with, in the evaluation and agent community, and things get out.
This year, with the process compromised on many levels by the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn't much time for that. There are planning meetings and contingency meetings that need to be organized. Zoom and Skype help, but that is not the same as having the entire organization, including medial people, assembled in the same room. There are technology issues and planning issues and nothing about this entire run-up feels quite right to those entrusted with actually coming out of April with the best players possible from a draft that the NFL league office and the owners seem hellbent on having April 23 no matter what.
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Mock drafts are always a dicey exercise at best – especially any time before the week of the draft itself – and will be even more scattershot this time around. Players aren't getting to spend anything close to the time with teams they normally would. Personal workouts ground to a halt. No meetings and dinners with owners. No last-minute decisions to get the entire team brass flying to some college for a private workout on campus. None of that. Medical information is not nearly what it would normally be.
However, I have been able to cobble together a list of players who, based on smart evaluators and what I have been able to cull from the scouting community, I expect to do a lot better than most are projecting when the draft begins. This year, more than any ever before, it will come down to the tape, and the baseline metrics that are available from the combine and those pro days that did take place, before that process was shut down as well.
I would not be surprised if any of the following players ended up going in the first round, despite the distinct lack of overt buzz around them and their absence from mock draft nation, by and large:
Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
If you just look at the athleticism, speed, ridiculous body frame and most metrics, this kid is a bigger Von Miller. Wingspan off the charts. Essentially had Miller's vertical and broad jump, only carrying 20 more pounds and two more inches. Injuries slowed him some at Alabama, but it wasn't that long ago that Nick Saban flew to D.C. unannounced to try to prevent Lewis from taking a recruiting trip to 'Ol Miss, as Lewis told me on my radio show last week. Saban used him all over the field, including dropping 3 yards downfield to cover receivers. His sack numbers aren't huge, but he was around the football. Great energy. Engaging kid. The potential is scary. Even with all the time missed for injuries, he has rare physical ability. He would make a lot of sense for the Eagles –who he did get to meet with before all of that went away – late in the first round. And probably Seattle and Baltimore, too, among others.
Marlon Davidson, IDL, Auburn
If you haven't seen the clip of this kid from his combine media interviews talking about why he loves to play football, you need to check it out. He is the real deal, and while playing next to Derrick Brown resulted in him being overshadowed some, teams know the deal. He's an excellent athlete who carries his weight well. He can give interior pass rush and looks like he could play multiple spots across the defensive line. Had a strong showing at his pro day. Stayed in school for fourth year to fulfill a promise to his mom. I get the sense that defensive line coaches – creative ones in particular – like him a lot more than the draftniks.
Jordyn Brooks, LB, Texas Tech
There has been some chatter about his medicals, and his shoulder in particular, after a labrum repair by the Dallas Cowboys' surgeon back in December. There should be more clarity on his current situation coming from that surgeon this week, I'm told. Still, this kid ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash for scouts just 10 days after being cleared to run … without the ability to train normally before that. Sick athletic traits. My pal Bobby DePaul, who has 25 years of NFL experience in personnel, was kind enough to break down this entire linebacker class on film for me. If not for the medical concern, he would have Brooks as the second-best stack LB in the entire draft. Some other evaluators I trust also have a first-round grade on him, ahead of Kenneth Murray in some cases. DePaul's synopsis on Brooks: "Athlete, 3 downs, play speed and close, blitz/space production, Wagner." Yeah, that Wagner is Bobby Wagner, DePaul's high-end comp for Brooks. He has the speed teams so covet in this spot with nickel the new base.
Jeremy Chinn, S, Southern Illinois
Told you guys about him prior to his combine, when, based on the numbers I was privy to from his pre-combine workouts, I expected to be off the charts. And Chinn delivered, big-time, in Indy. He left the scouting world with a mic drop. The production in college, every year, speaks for itself, and he continued to grow and add speed and muscle every year. Bright and engaging, like the rest of this list, there is not anything to worry about off the field or with his makeup or character. His uncle is Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater, and Chinn can thump, too, and also has the athleticism to play centerfield. Has all the athletic traits teams covet in the modern pass-happy game, and also flashed the ability to get home on blitzes. This is not a great safety class and smart teams were already telling me they had a late 1/early 2 grade on him before he blew up the combine, back when mock nation had a fifth-round grade on him in many cases. I continue to hear great things, and expect him to join safeties like Byron Jones, Darnell Savage, Terrell Edmunds, Deone Bucannon, Keanu Neal and others as a guy who rose from relative pre-combine obscurity to hearing his name called on the first night of the draft.