In recent years, we've seen players like Marshon Lattimore, Leighton Vander Esch, and Quinnen Williams all skyrocket up boards with breakout seasons before entering their respective draft classes. At least one prospect will have the same kind of meteoric rise in the 2020 NFL Draft. Through one quarter of the college football season, here are the players I picked at each position that could be this year's breakout draft prospect.
You could argue that Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts deserves to be in this spot, but I don’t think anybody expected Joe Burrow to make LSU a legitimate national championship contender. He has made incredible strides in the pocket — both with his ball placement and overall poise. In just four games, Burrow has completed 80% of his passes for 1,520 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. For years, the question has always been — what if LSU had a quarterback? Burrow is that guy, and he has asserted himself as the best senior quarterback in the 2020 class behind Justin Herbert.
The Oklahoma State redshirt sophomore is a legitimate Heisman contender. Through just five games, he’s rushed for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. As our Carter Donnick wrote last week in a feature article on Hubbard, he might be one of the fastest players in college football — running a 10.55 in the 100-meter dash, which beats Henry Ruggs’ time of 10.58. At 6’1, 207, Hubbard has the size, speed, and power to be a top draft pick.
Just as Chuba Hubbard played behind Justice Hill last year, N’Keal Harry’s presence overshadowed Brandon Aiyuk in the same way. But so far this season, Aiyuk has been nothing short of phenomenal. In his last nine games, Aiyuk has caught 46 passes for 751 yards. He has proven to make any given play a house call with his speed and physicality after the catch. This year, he has also improved at both the LOS and as a route runner. His current momentum, dating back to the end of last season, is what has him in my top 10 receivers, through one quarter of the CFB season.
Breeland has been a starter for the Ducks since his sophomore year, but this season has clearly been his best as a pass catcher. Through just four games, Breeland has matched his highest touchdown total in a single season with five scores — he is also close to doing the same for both receptions and yards. While the spotlight is mostly on his quarterback Justin Herbert, Breeland’s progress as a receiver and vertical threat has made him the biggest riser in the 2020 tight end class. In my latest TE rankings, Breeland is now fifth.
A natural left tackle, Leatherwood started at right guard last year because of Jonah Williams. But in 2019, Leatherwood is back playing at his natural position as a junior. Andrew Thomas and Tristan Wirfs have been awesome this season, but I think Leatherwood has been just as good. At 6’6, 310, he has excellent length to go along with his impressive foot quickness and pass sets. Alabama had last year’s biggest riser in Quinnen Williams. The Crimson Tide might go back to back with Leatherwood.
Cushenberry is in his second season as the starting center for the Tigers, and he has developed from a consistent option in 2018 to one of the best interior OL prospects in the nation this year. His combination of technique, power, and foot quickness makes him scheme-flexible to play Power or Zone. He also has experience at guard, so having that versatility to play each of the interior will prove to be valuable in his draft evaluation. Before the season, he was an afterthought as a draft prospect. But with his play in 2019 so far, he could be one of the first IOL prospects selected next April.
I was intrigued by Marvin Wilson’s 2018 tape, but I didn’t expect him to look like a legitimate first round prospect this year. Quite simply, no one has been able to block him. He’s already matched his sack total last year with three, and according to Pro Football Focus, he ranks third of all FBS interior defensive linemen with 20 QB pressures. When I watched Wilson in 2018, I saw a stout run defender who was inconsistent with his pass rush plan. Now, he’s playing at a whole new level. I ranked him as IDL2, behind Derrick Brown, in my latest positional rankings.
Coming into his senior season, Alex Highsmith had six career sacks. Through five games in 2019, Highsmith has already matched that number. He got one of those in an eye-opening performance against Clemson, as the Tigers’ left tackle Jackson Carman called Highsmith the fastest pass rusher off the ball that he’s ever faced. At 6’4, 242, Highsmith is a twitched-up edge defender with a deadly combination of speed and power. He’s starting to channel his traits and translate his talent into consistent production. If Highsmith keeps this momentum going, he’ll be a Day 2 lock.
One of the most talented linebackers in the country coming out of high school, Baron Browning has always had promise.but Ohio State fans grew frustrated with his inability to stay on the field in his first two seasons. I mean, he ran a 4.56 at 6’3, 235 lbs in high school. But Ohio State fans grew frustrated with his inability to stay consistent in his first two seasons. Now as a junior, under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Browning has found his footing. He’s been on an absolute tear this year, and most impressively, he looks like a completely different player in terms of his processing and mental trigger. He’s finally playing faster and more confident, matching his timed speed by reading and reacting much quicker. With his natural talent, this kind of breakout season could elevate Browning to be the next LB after Isaiah Simmons and Dylan Moses.
Jeffrey Okudah has stolen the show this year. He leads the FBS in interceptions after failing to tally a single pick last season. I ranked Okudah as my CB2 heading into 2019 because even though he didn’t see much game action as a sophomore, he showed all the tools you look for — length, foot quickness, physicality, route recognition, etc. But even ranking him as high as CB2 was a risk because he was still a relative unknown, compared to guys like Kristian Fulton and Bryce Hall. Now? He has cemented his status as the top cornerback in this class, in my opinion. Okudah is a 4.3 athlete who shares the strengths of two former Buckeye cornerbacks in Denzel Ward and Marshon Lattimore. I’m all in.
Levonta Taylor’s career path at Florida State is incredibly fascinating to break down. As one of the top cornerback recruits, who ran a 4.3 and jumped 42” coming out of high school, Taylor looked destined to be FSU’s next star on the boundary. He started every game in 2017 and looked just like that — a shutdown cornerback. But in 2018, his tape looked much different, mostly because of reportedly playing through a stress fracture in his back.
Now, as a senior, Taylor plays a new position — a safety/nickel hybrid, a role that LaMarcus Joyner and Minkah Fitzpatrick played coming out of college. This change has been promising for Taylor’s draft projection, as he has excelled so far in this spot. He’s showcasing a level of physicality that we didn’t see in his early career at cornerback. Taylor is also starting to channel the coverage skills he showed in 2017. If he keeps this up, teams will view him as a top nickel defender.