NFL mock draft 2020: Two Penn State Nittany Lions landing in first round?

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The NFL playoffs own the spotlight in January, but more than half of the league’s teams — and corresponding fans — are already thinking about the offseason.

And while the draft is still nearly four months away, pieces are beginning to fall into place for the first round and beyond.

Any assessments of where teams or prospects stand at this point are incomplete, as the full order has yet to be set beyond the 20 non-playoff teams, and underclassmen players have until Jan. 17 to declare their eligibility. Much can change during the pre-draft process; at this point last year, Kyler Murray was still bound for a career in baseball.

With that in mind, here’s USA TODAY Sports’ initial projection for the first round of the 2020 NFL draft:  

1. Bengals — Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: The thought of Burrow being the No. 1 overall pick would have been unfathomable four months ago. Now, however, the Heisman Trophy winner is the clear front-runner for the spot after making a leap unparalleled by other quarterback prospects in the last decade. With outstanding footwork, touch and timing, even in the face of pressure, Burrow comfortably attacks defenses downfield despite lacking top-tier arm strength. The Athens, Ohio, native should help Zac Taylor launch his offense in earnest after what amounted to a lost inaugural year in Cincinnati.

2. Redskins — Chase Young, DE, Ohio State: This is perhaps even more of a no-brainer than the No. 1 pick. Young terrorized opposing backfields throughout the year, racking up 16 1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. More than just a speed rusher, he’s not afraid to work inside or jolt blockers before slipping past them. As much as Washington needs a blindside protector for quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Young’s value over the rest of the field is too immense to pass up.

3. Lions — Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State: This might be where the intrigue truly begins. Coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn are back for another year, and they’ll have a wealth of options for upgrading a defense that ranked as the NFL’s worst against the pass. Continuing Ohio State’s pipeline of first-round cornerbacks, Okudah has been able to stick with almost every receiver he’s faced. He’d be a particularly valuable addition if Detroit opts to trade Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, 

4. Giants — Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia: No matter whom Big Blue settles on as its third coach in four years, it’s clear the future of the franchise is inextricably linked to the development of quarterback Daniel Jones. The No. 6 pick of this year’s draft enjoyed promising stretches, but his internal clock too often was a tick behind, as evidenced by his league-worst 18 fumbles (11 lost). General manager Dave Gettleman has frequently spoken of his affinity for “hog mollies,” and Thomas fits the profile with a combination of overwhelming power and surprising flexibility.

5. Dolphins — Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Maybe Miami didn’t need to “tank for Tua” after all. The preseason favorite for the first overall pick hasn’t even announced whether he will enter the draft after dislocating his hip in November, and it will be impossible to pin down where his stock stands until more information about his prognosis is available. So long as Miami doesn’t have substantial reason to worry about his long-term outlook, however, the team shouldn’t balk at pouncing on Tagovailoa. With remarkable accuracy and composure under pressure, he still sizes up as a franchise cornerstone.

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6. Chargers — Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon: Regardless of whether the Bolts opt to say farewell to Philip Rivers as the 16-year veteran faces free agency, it seems like a near necessity for the franchise to look to the future at quarterback at some point early in the draft. Enter Herbert, who checks off several boxes with his 6-6, 237-pound frame and knack for fitting the ball into tight spots. Inconsistency issues and spotty decision-making are cause for concern, but NFL teams in need of a young passer have a hard time passing up players with Herbert’s tool kit.

7. Panthers — Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Alabama: Even on an offense loaded with first-round talent, Wills set himself apart with his performances this season. The 6-5, 320-pound right tackle routinely plowed defensive linemen out of the way, and he demonstrated rare movement ability for a player of his size. Wills would still be a stabilizing presence on a line that gave up 58 sacks, tied for the most in the NFL. 

8. Cardinals — A.J. Epenesa, DE, Iowa: Save for sack master Chandler Jones, Arizona has a serious dearth of front-seven playmakers on a unit that gave up a league-worst 402 yards per game. Able to hold his ground against the run and slip blockers to reach the quarterback, Epenesa would be a promising addition to a front that needs to stand firm against its NFC West foes.

9. Jaguars — Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn: A potential first-round pick last year, Brown elevated his game as a senior and became Auburn’s first unanimous All-American. Jacksonville’s run defense was ravaged after defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was placed on injured reserve in late October, and the nine-year veteran seems like a near lock to be a cap casualty this offseason.

10. Browns — Isaiah Simmons, LB/S, Clemson: The biggest challenge for an NFL team in assessing Simmons might be merely figuring out how to maximize his singular skill set, as 6-4, 230-pound defenders who thrive in coverage don’t come along often. The Butkus Award winner could clean up Cleveland’s tackling lapses, and his versatility could have a ripple effect on the rest of the defense.

11. Jets — Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa: Time for an exorcism to ensure Sam Darnold won’t have to worry about “seeing ghosts” anymore. Gang Green likely won’t be able to corral all the offensive line help it needs in one offseason, but scooping up Wirfs would be a good start.

12. Raiders — Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama: Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock will have hit the jackpot if their first draft in Las Vegas unfolds this way. A master craftsman who always seems to be one step ahead of his defender, Jeudy can be the kind of fixture in the passing game the Raiders have needed since sending off Amari Cooper and cutting their losses on Antonio Brown.

13. Colts — CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma: While Indianapolis might seem like a wild card to take a quarterback, it would be a decidedly uncharacteristic move for steady-handed general manager Chris Ballard to reverse course on Jacoby Brissett after giving him a contract extension in September. Instead, Ballard’s best move to aid Brissett would be nabbing Lamb, whose aggressive approach would make him a fitting No. 2 next to T.Y. Hilton.

14. Buccaneers — Austin Jackson, OT, USC: Tampa Bay’s fortune could tilt greatly if the team moves on from Jameis Winston or doesn’t retain breakout pass rusher Shaquil Barrett. For now, one of the top priorities should be fortifying the offensive front. Jackson is still learning the finer points of his position, but at 6-6 and 310 pounds with the agility to become an adept pass protector, he could be in high demand come April.

15. Broncos — Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: Drew Lock’s late-season emergence gives John Elway an excuse to take a break from his pledge to “keep swinging” for a quarterback. The focus should now turn to build up the supporting cast around the passer as he enters his second year. Though a ramshackle offensive line could stand to receive some reinforcements, the 6-4, 216-pound Higgins would pair well with rising star Courtland Sutton to give Lock two supersized receivers who can make life easier for their quarterback with a penchant for making acrobatic catches.

16. Falcons — Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina: In mounting a second-half surge that likely saved coach Dan Quinn’s job, Atlanta’s defense allowed just 18.6 points per game in its final eight contests. Still, the Falcons need to create more havoc, and the disruptive Kinlaw could form a fearsome interior duo with Grady Jarrett.

17. Cowboys — Grant Delpit, S, LSU: Subpar play at safety was too often a significant part of Dallas’ defensive undoing this season. Though Delpit exhibited some tackling troubles this season, his quick-twitch coverage skills would be put to use quickly on a unit that generated just seven interceptions in 2019.

18. Dolphins (from Steelers) — Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama: Subjecting a young quarterback to Miami’s current offensive line, which allowed an NFL-worst 146 quarterback hits, would amount to football malpractice. Leatherwood is more of a long-term investment at left tackle than a plug-and-play starter, but the smooth-moving blocker showed a tremendous aptitude for the position in 2019 after previously playing guard. 

19. Raiders (from Bears) — Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama: When the Raiders’ secondary was left in coverage for any extended period, it typically signaled significant trouble, as no team averaged more yards allowed per attempt (8.3) or gave up more completions of 40-plus yards (16). Diggs, the younger brother of Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, is adept not only at sticking with receivers but also at making plays on the ball.

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20. Jaguars (from Rams) — Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU: Jacksonville ought to address the void left by Jalen Ramsey’s exit at some point in the draft, and it makes sense to do so with one of the two first-round selections they received in the deal for their erstwhile lockdown defender. Fulton has the fluidity and savvy to be an immediate contributor for the Jaguars, especially if the team also parts ways with cornerback A.J. Bouye in a cost-cutting move. 

21. Eagles — Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama: Should this pick pan out, it might be the greatest pairing of team need and player skill set in the draft. The lack of a vertical threat in Philadelphia’s receiving corps severely inhibited Carson Wentz and the rest of the offense for much of the year. Ruggs III is perhaps this class’ speediest player and a big-play threat not only down the field, but on nearly any instance when he’s afforded room to run.

22. Titans — Terrell Lewis, OLB, Alabama: Despite Harold Landry’s nine sacks in his first season as a starter, Tennessee’s pass rush hasn’t broken out of the middle of the pack. Lewis looks to be steadily on the rise after showing how he easily he can deploy his length and explosiveness to throw off plays in the backfield.

23. Bills — Laviska Shenault, WR, Colorado: Josh Allen took a step forward in his sophomore campaign, thanks in large part to the arrivals of receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley and tight end Dawson Knox. Adding Shenault, a big-bodied, do-everything weapon who overpowers defenders at the catch point and in the open field, could be the final piece in the reconfiguration of the receiving corps.

24. Vikings — Josh Jones, OT, Houston: Minnesota’s offense continues to be waylaid by issues up front, and it might be time to move left tackle Riley Reiff inside.

25. Dolphins (from Texans) — Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, Penn State: Ratcheting up the pass rush figures to be high on the Dolphins’ to-do list in the draft, as their 23 sacks were five fewer than the next closest team. 

26. Seahawks — Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State: If not for Shaquill Griffin’s strong season, Seattle’s secondary might have doomed the team’s run to the playoffs. Wade utilizes a physical approach despite playing in the slot, and he has the size to hold up on the outside as well.

27. Patriots — K’Lavon Chaisson, DE/OLB, LSU: Might this be the year that New England looks to a first-round passer if the Tom Brady split actually materializes? A tight end also figures to be a potential priority, though there might not be one worth taking this early. Yet Chaisson is no consolation prize, as the bendy edge rusher is only beginning to tap into his immense potential. 

28. Packers — KJ Hamler, WR, Penn State: Hard to ignore the troubles Aaron Rodgers had in his final four regular-season games, in which he completed just 55.8% of his passes and averaged just 6.01 yards per attempt. It’s not difficult, however, to envision the difference the speedy Hamler might make operating from the slot in Green Bay’s offense. 

29. Chiefs — Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma: Kansas City has long needed an injection of athleticism in the middle of its defense, and Murray’s range could further boost a unit blossoming both up front and on the back end.

30. Saints — Jordan Love, QB, Utah State: Maybe this seems like a ridiculous proposition for a team that currently has perhaps the most enviable quarterback depth chart in the NFL. Remember, however, that Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill are all unsigned beyond this season. Sean Payton said the Saints would have taken Patrick Mahomes had he not been picked by the Chiefs one selection earlier in 2017, and the coach might find himself similarly drawn to Love, a dynamic (albeit inconsistent) passer with tantalizing tools. A redshirt year might be necessary given Love’s questionable decision-making (17 interceptions in 2019), but learning behind Brees for a bit might result in a favorable succession plan.

31. 49ers — Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama: For a well-rounded roster, McKinney would be a solid-if-unspectacular option to bolster a San Francisco secondary that could lose safety Jimmie Ward in free agency.

32. Ravens — Julian Okwara, DE/OLB, Notre Dame: Baltimore’s lackluster pass rush will become an even more pressing need if Matt Judon departs in free agency. Okwara consistently pressures the quarterback off the edge and will be an even more imposing matchup if he learns to finish more consistently.  

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.