With free agency beginning to lose steam and the draft on the horizon, it’s put up or shut up time around the NFL. Judgment day is upon us as Tua Tagavailoa, Chase Young and the rest of this year’s draft hopefuls are a mere three weeks away from learning their respective fates. With COVID-19 effectively putting the kibosh on travel (meaning a moratorium on in-person visits), game highlights and intel gathered at the Combine are about all teams have to base their decisions on.
Grilling prospects can serve an important purpose, weeding out players with character concerns or others who struggle to grasp the intricacies of NFL verbiage, but the interview process isn’t foolproof. Neither is the Combine, a glorified track meet with the added wrinkle of spandex-clad 300-pound men weaving between cones.
But that’s what watching film is for. The occasional extenuating circumstance can’t be completely dismissed (injuries, weak supporting cast, etc.), but more often than not, the player you see on tape is the one you’re going to get. It’s up to draft evaluators to determine who passes the eye test, finding that elusive needle in a haystack of pro prospects. Because seeing is believing, here are clips that may change your mind—or reinforce your existing beliefs—about some of 2020’s best and brightest.
Joe Burrow – vs. Oklahoma (2019 Peach Bowl)
If there was any lingering debate over Burrow’s claim to the No. 1 overall pick, the reigning Heisman winner put that discussion to bed with his annihilation of Oklahoma in a tour-de-force Peach Bowl performance. Burrow didn’t just beat the Sooners—he obliterated them. Sure, the Big 12 isn’t known for its defensive prowess (Lincoln Riley’s offensive leanings have long come at the expense of his underachieving defenses), but Burrow still deserves credit for putting on an absolute clinic on a national stage. Stacking up eight touchdowns (seven passing, one rushing) and nearly 500 passing yards in a playoff setting should serve as concrete evidence that Burrow is no ordinary QB1. You’re getting a good one, Cincy.
J.K. Dobbins – at Michigan (2019)
Dobbins finished his college career in style, throttling opposing defenses to the tune of 2,003 rushing yards (tying him with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for third-most in the country) and 23 combined touchdowns (21 rushing, two receiving) throughout his immensely successful 2019. The junior ball-carrier was at his most dominant at the Big House last November, pillaging the arch-rival Wolverines for a career-best 260 yards (211 rushing, 49 receiving) and four rushing scores in Ohio State’s 56-27 onslaught. That preserved the Buckeyes’ perfect record, which would last until their semi-finals loss to Clemson a month later. Even in defeat, Dobbins was brilliant, contributing 221 scrimmage yards in his OSU swan song.
Justin Herbert – vs. Arizona (2019)
Herbert’s decision to return for his senior year at Oregon (a choice made easier by the arrival of his younger brother, a freshman tight end) wound up being the right call as the 22-year-old cemented his Day-1 status by slinging a career-best 32 touchdowns for his hometown Ducks. The Rose Bowl and Senior Bowl MVP was firing on all cylinders when Oregon played host to conference-rival Arizona back in November, burying the visiting Wildcats with four touchdowns and a season-high 333 yards through the air. Bright (he was an Academic All-American) and surprisingly mobile for his size (he blazed a 4.68 at the Combine), the 6’6,” 236-pounder embodies all the traits of a top-10 pick.
Justin Jefferson – vs. Oklahoma (2019 Peach Bowl)
Jefferson’s farewell season in Baton Rouge was a three-scoop sundae with all the toppings. The LSU alum tied for the NCAA-lead in catches with 111 while finishing runner-up to teammate Ja’Marr Chase in touchdowns with an eye-popping 18 receiving scores on the year. Chase brought the house down in LSU’s championship victory over Clemson (9-221-2) but the semi-finals belonged to Jefferson, who plastered the Sooners en route to new career-highs in catches (14), yards (227) and touchdowns (four). Rather than resting on his laurels after one of the most prolific receiving seasons in recent memory, the likely first-rounder added to his immaculate resume by acing the Combine in February, testing in the 82nd percentile of SPARQ athletes.
Jerry Jeudy – vs. Michigan (2020 Citrus Bowl)
It speaks to Jeudy’s overflowing well of talent that 2019, a year that saw him soak up 77 grabs spanning a more-than-respectable 1,163 yards, could somehow be construed as a down season. That’s what happens when you set the bar as high as Jeudy did during his breakout 2018, disrupting defenses by amassing 14 touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. The consensus All-American also took home the Biletnikoff Award, an honor bestowed annually to college football’s top receiver. Even with Tua Tagavailoa on crutches, Jeudy still delivered a parting shot for the ages, lighting up Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines for a career-high 204 yards on six catches in his college finale. Tuscaloosa has been a receiver hot bed of late with Jeudy and Henry Ruggs a mere three weeks from joining fellow ‘Bama standouts Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley in the pros.
CeeDee Lamb – vs. Texas (2019)
Lamb showed us his entire arsenal against Texas, stomping Oklahoma’s long-time conference foe with a frame-worthy collage of strength, balance, tackle-shedding and precise route-running in the latest installment of the Red River Rivalry. The junior wideout made Gus Johnson hoarse from scoring so many touchdowns against the Longhorns (he went for the hat trick) including a 51-yard, third-quarter gallop, the end result of a flawlessly-executed Jalen Hurts flea-flicker. Sure, Lamb’s head-spinning stats were inflated by his participation in one of the country’s most potent offenses (he wasn’t exactly roughing it with Heisman winners Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield under center). But after wowing at the Combine in Indy (70.5 SPARQ percentile), there’s no doubt Lamb’s tantalizing skill set will play at the next level.
Jordan Love – vs. UNLV (2018)
Love looked like a Day-1 shoo-in after dominating the Mountain West as a red-shirt sophomore, but after submitting a turnover-plagued junior campaign in 2019 (his 17 interceptions led the nation), that’s no longer the certainty it once was. The regression bug hit like a ton of bricks as Love tanked in ugly losses to Air Force, Wake Forest, BYU and Boise State (not exactly a murderer’s row). But even after finishing his career with a bad taste in his mouth, there’s still hope the raw 21-year-old can carve out a role as an NFL difference-maker. He was certainly up to the task against UNLV, flaming the Runnin’ Rebels for 322 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. A fringe first-rounder who helped himself with a strong Combine showing (75.5 SPARQ percentile), Love could be in the crosshairs of a quarterback-needy team like the Patriots, assuming they don’t trade up for Herbert or Tagavailoa.
Jeff Okudah – at Nebraska (2019)
The pros are littered with ex-Ohio State corners—Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, Bradley Roby, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to name a handful—and in a few weeks’ time, Okudah will be making the same pilgrimage from Columbus to the bright lights of the NFL. That would be a big leap for some but not the ball-hawking Okudah, a rangy defender who highlighted his play-making chops with a career-best performance in last September’s road win over Nebraska. Two of Okudah’s three interceptions as a Buckeye came in that contest as OSU thumped the Cornhuskers by a ruthless 48-7 margin. With Chase Young on the Redskins’ radar and Okudah a possibility for Detroit at No. 3 (keep in mind the Lions just traded Darius Slay to Philadelphia), Ohio State defenders could account for two of the top three picks in this year’s draft.
Jalen Reagor – vs. Oklahoma State (2018)
Reagor largely disappointed in 2019—the same could be said of TCU as the Horned Frogs limped to a 5-7 regular-season record while finishing an embarrassing 3-6 in conference play. But I prefer to remember the good times, back when Reagor was thought of as a can’t-miss prospect with sky-high potential. The 21-year-old burst onto the scene as a hungry sophomore in 2018, showing a keen nose for the end zone by scoring a touchdown in seven straight games including his eight-catch, 91-yard gem against Oklahoma State in TCU’s regular-season finale. Reagor was equally dangerous on the ground, rolling up a career-best 121 rushing yards with most of those coming on a season-long 83-yard touchdown dash. Even after an underwhelming Combine (he bombed the three-cone drill with a Metcalf-esque 7.31), Reagor’s raw talent could still earn him a seat at the first-round table.
Henry Ruggs – Southern Mississippi (2019)
Ruggs never put up huge counting stats at ‘Bama but it was easy for him to get lost in the shuffle with so many other mouths to feed in Tuscaloosa (Jerry Jeudy, Calvin Ridley, Jaylen Waddle, Irv Smith, Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Najee Harris … should I keep going?). A field-stretcher with elite wheels (he clocked an outrageous 4.27 at the Combine), Ruggs was a man possessed against Southern Miss, torching Brett Favre’s alma mater for 148 yards on just four catches. How’s that for efficiency? Whichever team stakes claim to Ruggs in the upcoming draft could be getting the next Tyreek Hill.
Laviska Shenault – Arizona State (2018)
Shenault didn’t put his best foot forward at the Combine—or last season for that matter—but he was a rock star in 2018, erupting for a stout 86-1,011-6 receiving line while being recognized as a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection. Shenault’s finest hour came when he protected his home turf in a hard-fought win over Arizona State, lighting the lamp for four touchdowns (two receiving, two rushing) while simultaneously setting a career mark with 13 catches. Every bit of his listed 220 pounds, Shenault can be a thunderous runner with the ball in his hands. The color analyst for Pac-12 Network may have put it best when he said, “When you’re guarding Laviska Shenault, you’re going to take some Ls.” Shenault certainly has the make-up to be a productive pro, health permitting.
D’Andre Swift – vs. Auburn (2018)
Georgia, aka Running Back U, continues to churn out pro talent with the best of ‘em. Swift, the latest in a long lineage of Bulldog ball-carriers (fellow alums Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have each gone on to NFL success), was a machine in Athens, topping 1,000 yards rushing in each of his two seasons atop the team’s backfield depth chart. The Philly native did it all in Georgia’s triumph over Auburn in 2018, roasting the overmatched Tigers like marshmallows on a simmering campfire. There was no stopping No. 7 as Swift emptied his whole bag of tricks on Auburn, catching balls out of the flat, breaking off chunk gains up the middle, tiptoeing down the sideline, laying cats out in pass-protection and even taking direct snaps out of the “Wild Dog” formation. Swift’s gridiron masterpiece amounted to 229 yards from scrimmage (186 rushing, 43 receiving), easily his most on the collegiate circuit.
Tua Tagavailoa – Oklahoma (2018 Orange Bowl)
Tagavailoa’s durability has been called into question in the lead-up to this year’s draft and rightfully so coming off hip surgery, but don’t let recent events cloud your judgment. When he’s not in a hospital bed, Tua is a headache no amount of game-planning or Excedrin can solve. Tagavailoa has probably put forth better statistical performances than his four-touchdown outburst against the Sooners (not exactly a defensive juggernaut) in 2018. But given the high-stakes environment—and the fact he was coming off an ankle sprain suffered weeks earlier—out-gunning Kyler Murray in the national semi-finals may be Tua’s greatest accomplishment to date.