Looking ahead to Bama’s 2020 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft has recently become a sports-flavored version of three-card monte, with Bama seemingly supplying one out of every three cards for NFL teams to select.

While the real math isn’t quite so tilted in Alabama’s favor, it also figures to be some time before Alabama stops being such a major presence on draft day. Nick Saban’s player development skills are the best in the business, and the 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide team figures to have more than its share of NFL-caliber hopefuls on the roster.

Here’s a brief look at Alabama’s upcoming seniors, as well as underclassmen who might consider declaring early for the draft. We’ll analyze the seniors first:

The Seniors

Matt Womack, G/T
Womack is one of the more popular players on the team and a favorite of coaches, and his ability to flex between guard and tackle makes him a valuable commodity. Womack apparently will go into fall the favorite at right guard, and is probably the top backup tackle as well due to Alabama’s depth situation at guard and center being substantially better than at tackle. Womack is a huge body (6-7, 330) and the fact he made an impact early in his Alabama career bodes well for his pro future. Where he goes exactly is another issue, with the absolute floor looking like a 6th/7th round selection much the same as it was for Bradley Bozeman. Womack is a better tackle prospect than Bozeman was, but Bozeman offered the ability to play center, a position that is suddenly getting stronger looks from many teams. Whatever happens, it’s hard to imagine a three-year contributor and two-year starter with Womack’s measurables not getting drafted. Projected round: 5th

Raekwon Davis, DT/E
Had Davis been draft-eligible after his sophomore season, he would probably have been taken in the first round based on potential alone. Tackle-end combo players who measure out at 6-7, 320 and can run are rare in football, either in the pros or at the college level. The 2018 season, however, was not kind to Davis. He suffered from inconsistency for much of the year and was one of the players most affected by issues with his position coach, who was not retained. Davis looked a lot better in the spring, and those measurables didn’t go away, so expect him to go shooting back up draft boards heading into next April. He needs to rediscover his consistency and keep the attitude on the positive side. If he does, teams are probably well aware of the steal Da’Shawn Hand turned out to be as a 4th-rounder. That would seem to be Davis’ floor, and if he dominates in 2019, the sky’s the limit. Projected round: 2nd

Anfernee Jennings, LB/DE
Jennings is hamstrung a bit by issues of fit. In a 4-3, he would have to play defensive end, and there are probably better options for teams with that philosophy. But he’s the ideal flex OLB in a 3-4 pro defense, and there are plenty of teams that would love his combination of edge-setting run defense coupled with the ability to affect the quarterback. Jennings’ other roadblock will be in addressing his injury history, as his durability has been average at best. Still, he’s a gamer and a try-hard guy who combines that kind of effort with real talent. There was a time when Bama fans were hoping Jennings could be another Denzel Devall, but he has turned out to be more than that. The “fit” issue is going to take him off some draft boards altogether but if he can amp up his pass-rush skills a bit, he could move up out of the middle rounds and make a team searching for an edge presence go up and get him. Projected round: 3rd

Terrell Lewis, LB/DE
Lewis briefly explored coming out for the 2019 draft and if he had, it would have resulted in one of the biggest cases of “what-might-have-been” for an Alabama player in school history. Lewis’s career has been curtailed by injuries twice, once costing him a whole year and the other time, practically all of a season. When he’s healthy, though, he’s a terror – a premier pass-rush prospect with size, which are the kind of things NFL scouts beg Santa Claus for every December. If the biggest question surrounding Lewis is his health, the second-biggest is … where is he going to play? He’ll either compete with Anfernee Jennings at the Jack linebacker spot, or youngster Eyabi Anoma at the strongside linebacker position, and both Jennings and Anoma seemed determined to nail their respective slots down in the spring, while Lewis sat out as a precautionary measure. He seems like a lock to play end when Alabama moves their OLBs down, as he has the kind of size Anoma lacks at the moment. If he ends up being an every-down staple, he’s probably a first-rounder. Projected round: 2nd

Joshua McMillon, LB
This is a hard one to talk about since we’re not even sure he’s going to be a starter yet beyond the first third of the 2019 season. McMillon has been a spot contributor for three years after redshirting as a true freshman, making him that rare fifth-year senior on a Nick Saban team. Had McMillon not had the solid spring he managed to have, capped off by a solid performance at A-Day, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Now, though, one has to address the possibility of what it means for McMillon if he’s able to hold off Shane Lee and other younger players in fall camp. The body is there – 6-3, 240 – and he’s an intelligent player on the field. Guys like him from good teams sometimes tend to get 7th-round calls just because. Check back in mid-October when Bama’s depth chart has sorted itself out. Projected round: UDFA

Shyheim Carter, S/CB
Carter, like McMillon, isn’t even guaranteed a starting job at the moment, thanks to the rise of Josh Jobe, Jared Mayden and others this spring. It would be a shame if Carter is sidelined, because he was a key component of several wins last year, not the least of which was the win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Carter is a thick 6’0”, 200-pounder, making him a tweener of sorts. He doesn’t appear to have NFL-level outside cornerback chops, so how much you like him depends on how much you value his skills either at safety or as a slot defender. Special teams will be huge for Carter, but first he has to get on the field on defense. If he has just a fringe role – as things appeared to he headed this spring – he’s going to have a hard time getting noticed. If he’s in the top five group, though, he could easily play himself into an early draft position. Projected round: 4th

Jared Mayden, S
Mayden has never been more than a player in dime for Alabama, and only at safety, yet he has speed and more importantly, ball skills and hitting ability. Pro scouts know the Crimson Tide is stacked to the rafters with talent, so Mayden’s primary goal this fall should be to hold on to what he already has, and continue to develop it. As injuries hit a couple of the other DBs this spring, Mayden got a chance to move up to a regular safety position, and seemed to do well with it. It’s going to be difficult for him to be a full-timer in the fall but his work late in the Georgia game showed what he could do when he had opportunities. Like Carter, someone might be tempted to take a chance on him late, but it’s going to be an uphill fight. Projected round: 6th

Trevon Diggs, CB/S
Between the bloodlines, the abilities as a kick and punt returner and the way Diggs stepped up in 2018 before a foot injury ended his season, the NFL is going to be all over him in 2019-2020. As long as Diggs’ health holds up – a legitimate concern given past issues – he could be Alabama’s top defensive player off the board. Diggs showed out this spring, to the extent that he could end up being Alabama’s best cornerback and its best safety at the same time. He’ll play multiple DB positions this fall, but it remains to be seen if Saban chooses to expose him to contact as a kick returner. We’re grading him as if he manages to keep all the parts in working order. Projected round: 1st

The Underclassmen

Tua Tagovailoa, QB (Jr.)
We’re not just talking about first round, we’re probably talking about first overall pick here, as Tagovailoa has a clear edge over the other QBs in the 2020 class. Of course it will depend on which team is doing the picking, but if Tagovailoa stays healthy and does nothing else besides repeat his 2018 season, or even come close to it, Alabama could have the first overall pick in the NFL Draft for the first time since Harry Gilmer in 1948 (or Joe Namath in the AFL Draft of 1965, if you count that). Tagovailoa’s struggles against Clemson will be over-analyzed by many even if his 2019 season goes by without incident, because that’s what scouts and pundits do, but given that several fan bases are already encouraging their NFL teams to “tank for Tua,” that should let you know what’s up here.

Najee Harris, RB (Jr.)
Harris is entering his third year of threatening to take over the running back position. Given his size – he’s listed at 6’2”, 230 but looks bigger and especially taller than that – it’s not hard to see why scouts straighten up in their seats every time Harris gets a handoff. What hasn’t been there so far has been consistency, either in games or apparently in practices, as Harris has moved in and out of the primary rotation. This year, though, he’s the clear leader for the position, although he’s going to split time with Brian Robinson and maybe a couple of other backs as well. If Harris can stay focused – and especially if he continues to develop as a receiver – then this could easily be his last year on the Bama sideline. A breakout year, and he could be the first running back taken overall.

Brian Robinson Jr., RB (Jr.)
Going off the last two years, Robinson – a reserve running back and Alabama’s choice at fullback in limited packages – wouldn’t figure to be in this discussion. Then you watch him run, or sidle up to a measuring tape, and you understand why. Some see Robinson as Harris’ equal, but they’re two different backs. Harris, despite his size, is a make-you-miss runner who glides more than he overpowers. Robinson has got a bit more oomph in his approach, preferring more of a head-on style although he can, and does, make defenders miss. Robinson’s fate next April will be determined by what percentage of the workload he manages to win this year; otherwise, he would be much better off to come back for a fourth season in 2020.

Alex Leatherwood, OL (Jr.)
Watching Leatherwood struggle at guard in the first few games of 2018 made everyone want to see him back outside, where his last play as a true freshman was at left tackle, stoning a Georgia rush end while Tua Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith in full stride to beat Georgia for a national championship. Well, you got your wish, fans. Leatherwood was moved to left tackle early in spring camp and stuck there, never being really challenged. Given the success of Alabama offensive linemen in the Nick Saban era at the NFL level, it’s not a matter of whether Leatherwood is draft-worthy for 2020, but rather how high he’ll go. If Leatherwood puts together the kind of season his talent suggests he’s capable of having, he could go in the first round, and perhaps very highly in it.

Landon Dickerson, OL (Jr.)
If this name looks unfamiliar, you’re excused. Alabama landed a graduate transfer from Florida State this week, and he’s a former five-star whose career has been derailed up to this point by injury. It’s not clear where Dickerson is going to end up; it’s not even clear he’s going to start yet. Most expect him to enter the fray at left guard, where Deonte Brown and freshman Emil Ekiyor were battling during the spring; at center, where Chris Owens has little experience; or at right guard, where Matt Womack currently is (although this option would seem to be the least likely of the three). Dickerson can play tackle, too, so if he is brought along slowly in 2019, he could theoretically go into 2020 battling Scott Lashley for a left tackle slot opened up by Alex Leatherwood leaving early. Does any other college football team have these issues of continuity? Probably not.

Jedrick Wills (Jr.)
Wills was good enough at tackle last year to force Leatherwood to change positions to guard, so the talent is there. But Wills’ 2018 season ended with some misfires, and probably no lineman will be watched more closely than he will be, especially with Womack around. If he plays up to standard, he’s as good as anyone, and could be an early-round pick. If he backs up 2018’s performance with a similar performance in 2019, he’d be well-advised to play a fourth year in Tuscaloosa.

The WR Trio: Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith (all Jr.)
It’s easier to talk about all three of them as a group, because few people expect any of them to remain on the team in 2020, barring injury. Of the three, Jerry Jeudy is by far the most highly-rated pro prospect at this point, probably due to a slight height advantage and his route-running. Some are projecting him as a top five pick in 2020, and more than one analyst has him going No. 2 overall directly behind his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. As for Ruggs and Smith, both have the potential to get into the bottom of the first round. Ruggs has kick-return ability to go with blazing speed and good hands, while Smith’s ability to separate from defensive backs is already legendary. There are durability concerns, however, with both Ruggs and Smith, and those will have to be answered before either can lock themselves in as a high pick.

LaBryan Ray, DE (Jr.)
Ray was ticketed for a redshirt as a freshmen, then was pressed into service out of necessity, and as a sophomore, had an up-and-down season where he alternated between flashing immense ability and falling victim to some of the same issues that plagued Raekwon Davis. Ray’s spring looked solid, though, and he’s expected to be a mainstay at one of the defensive end slots, probably the T/E combo position. Ray’s ability to pressure the passer – he was briefly tried at outside linebacker as a true freshman – will certainly help him, but what he needs to do most is show consistency. If he does, there are several analysts that see some Jonathan Allen in his game, which would translate very well at the next level.

Dylan Moses, LB (Jr.)
In terms of raw measurables, Dylan Moses figures to test off the scale for Alabama, probably the best since C.J. Mosley at least. Moses is a raw combination of size, power and speed, but it has taken him two years to get comfortable with the mental side of linebacker and it’s not clear whether he’s there yet or not. He’ll get his chance in 2019, because Alabama can’t count on having Josh McMillon at the other inside linebacker spot for the entire season, as he’s being pushed by true freshman Shane Lee and others right now. If Moses can get more comfortable making defensive calls, it will benefit both him (as a prospect) and Alabama (as a team). Moses could rise into a very early round as a result.

Xavier McKinney, S (Jr.)
By the end of 2019, McKinney was probably playing better football on a snap-by-snap basis than was Deionte Thompson, who slid to the fifth round in the 2019 Draft. Now it’s McKinney’s time to take over. The rest of the safety group for Alabama is talented, but is made up of former part-timers and McKinney is the only proven leader in the bunch. McKinney brings a different game than did Thompson, who was a cover safety primarily with a little hitting ability mixed in. McKinney is more of a Landon Collins type, a run-support safety who is just adequate in coverage. If he can continue to improve his coverage skills, many NFL teams probably remember how undervalued Collins was coming out of Alabama, and are likely to plan accordingly.

Others who aren’t ready yet:

Chris Owens (C, Jr.), Miller Forristall (TE, Jr.), Kedrick James (TE, Jr.), Major Tennison (TE, Jr.), Deonte Brown (G, Jr.), Phidarian Mathis (DT, RS So.), Chris Allen (LB, RS So.), Daniel Wright (S, Jr.)
The best chances of anyone to emerge from this group are probably the redshirt sophomores, DT Phidarian Mathis and LB Chris Allen. Mathis is still fighting with a true freshman, D.J. Dale, for the starting nosetackle job, while Allen is part of that gaggle of talented outside linebackers all trying to divide snaps. Of the rest, Chris Owens still has the inside track at center despite the addition of Landon Dickerson, and Owens had a good spring. Miller Forristall and Kedrick James figure to fight all year for the primary tight end job, although James will begin the year on the suspended list, which will allow Major Tennison a chance to make a statement. Daniel Wright is part of that oversized group at safety. As for Deonte Brown, he could very well go from starter to third-team over one offseason … or he could be a dominant left guard; it’s too early to say.

In summary, what this list should show you is just how much talent there is on this Alabama roster. There are 28 names on this list, almost three times as many as Alabama had drafted in April. Is there any scenario under which Alabama puts 28 guys in the NFL in a single year? No. But seeing 10-15 players drafted would be no surprise. It’s just another feather in Nick Saban’s cap at this point to see the team’s total talent level rise to the heights it has enjoyed over the past decade.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

 

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