It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If everything had gone as planned, the players whose names will be called during the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft on Thursday night would have reached the podium by boat, courtesy of a stage positioned in the middle of Las Vegas’ iconic Bellagio fountains.
But instead of an over-the-top celebration in the newest city to get an NFL team, this year’s draft will be an entirely virtual affair. Like everything else, the novel coronavirus has upended the NFL’s best laid plans. And the virus’ impact goes well beyond the production elements of the broadcast: Because of social distancing measures, most teams weren’t able to have in-person workouts with this year’s prospects. So despite featuring some of the most exciting players to turn pro in several years, the current public health crisis could have a profound effect on this year’s rookie class.
Ahead of first-round coverage on Thursday night-- which begins at 8pm ET on both ESPN and NFL Network -- here are 5 things to watch for during a draft unlike any other.
The consensus No. 1 overall pick is Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow. During his final year as the starter for the Tigers, the Ohio State transfer set a number of individual and team records, including most touchdowns in a season (65), most passing yards in a college football playoff title game (463), and most touchdowns in a bowl game (8 against Oklahoma). Whether or not the Cincinnati Bengals trade the pick (and they’d be fools to do so), Burrow will be the first player off the board.
But after that, the roster of viable NFL quarterbacks may be deep. Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma (and Alabama), and Jake Fromm of Georgia have all, at different points, been singled out as potential stars at the professional level. And with QBs like Patrick Maholmes and Lamar Jackson redefining the position in their image, there’s major upside to athletic QBs like the shifty Jordan Love of Utah State and Washington’s big-armed Jacob Eason. Of course, there’s another QB we haven’t even mentioned yet….
When it comes to former Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, it’s hard to think of another QB prospect with his level of talent that has so many question marks. His performance in the 2018 National Championship game was legendary and for most of his career, he was projected as the type of “can’t miss” QB prospect that NFL coaches and GM's would happily bet their future on. However, the serious hip injury that ended his last college season has scouts concerned about his ability to stay healthy. Since quarantine, Tua has been recording more video than a teen on TikTok, but the inability of teams to have their own doctors and trainers check him out makes him a major question mark heading into the draft. Most mock drafts have him off the board somewhere between the Detroit Lions at No. 3 and the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 6; after Chase Young to Washington at No. 2, the first round figures to take shape depending on where he gets selected.
This year’s draft features what could be a historically great class of wide receivers. At the very least, experts are comparing WR's to the 2014 class, when six receivers went off the board in the first round, including future superstars Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans. This year, it looks like five receivers will be taken in the first round, with as many as 11 pass catchers off the board in the first two rounds.
That means there’s a lot of depth out there and it should be fascinating to see what skills different teams prioritize as the players get picked. CeeDee Lamb of Oklahoma, and Alabama teammates Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III should be the first of the position group to be selected, but it will be interesting to see where each player ends up, along with late-first-round talents like Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk and Tee Higgens
The aphorism about hands and bushes is particularly relevant to the draft, where early-round busts can haunt your team for years. We already mentioned the scouting challenges but rookies must also contend with the steep learning curve when mastering entirely new systems. These issues can be addressed during the organized team activities (OTAs), but there’s no guarantee those scheduled for next month will even take place.
This is to say, team’s have never had more motivation to trade picks for proven veterans. A successful team like the 49ers -- who went to the Super Bowl but have two first-round selections -- might be in the market to shop their high picks. With all of the uncertainty the league is facing, a lot of teams could decide that an established player is better than a prospect, which could make for an interesting draft in terms of trades.
Speaking of uncertainty, the league is holding a mock draft as we type this to test the logistics of the draft process itself (Update: early reports were...not good). It’s just one of the many ways COVID-19 is impacting the event. With the various commentators, draft experts, talking heads, league officiants, and newly-drafted players spread out over different locations, it could be a zoom-call trainwreck. Or, if Friday’s WNBA draft is any indication, it might actually be smoother than a typical draft as the networks lean into pre-produced segments. Either way, it will be fun to find out. The biggest questions remain: Will Commissioner Roger Goodell still hold up a team jersey for each selection, and more importantly, will they pipe in the natural sound of fans booing him relentlessly?
Round One of the 2020 NFL Draft gets underway Thursday, April 23, at 8pm ET on ESPN and NFL Network