Five Toughest Players To Place In 2020 NFL Draft

Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 NFL Draft is just three weeks away and scouts’ boards, including mine, are close to final.

Most of the top prospects are cemented in their rankings but that doesn't mean I like where I've ranked them. I use formulaic grading to try and take some biases out of evaluations and rankings; I go trait-based and let my own weighted scales do the ranking for me.

But one final graded number and subsequently one rank on an ordinal list does not make a draft strategy. It’s a combination of horizontal big boards, red flags, floor/ceiling outcomes and coaching considerations. Drafting is a finicky art, and it isn't as easy picking the top player on the board. 

While we produce big boards — a ranking that helps create tiers and measure the relative strengths of different positional groups — to help create a framework of the class, it only opens the conversation. It doesn't finish it.

The conversation I'd like to dive into is who on my board has the widest range of outcomes? There are a lot of players ranked higher than most because of their ceiling outcomes and one on this list ranked lower, despite his ceiling outcome. How did they get to that ceiling? What's holding them back? And what are our limits when evaluating those ancillary conditions? 

Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado: No. 13

You won't find anybody higher on Laviska Shenault Jr. than I am. There tends to be a wide receiver in every draft I'm much higher on than most. Chris Godwin, out of the 2017 class, has been good. James Washington, drafted in 2018, looks promising. While the jury is still out on 2019 second-round pick J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.

Let's address the medical red flag in the room: Shenault played through pelvic bone inflammation the entire 2019 season and missed multiple games for the second consecutive year. The nagging injury affected his pre-draft process, and he eventually decided to get core muscle surgery following the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. It put him on a good recovery timeline for minicamps but prevented him for participating in Colorado’s pro day. Shenault tried to gut it out at the combine and failed, pulling up after one hampered 40-yard dash.

No one has seen a fully healthy Shenault since 2018. While the 2019 film is still really good, the 2018 film is the real story. He was a dominant three-level player who broke more tackles than a running back, offered a deep threat rare for players over 215 pounds and ran enough of a route tree to separate and win with timing.

Like many who play several different roles for their offense, Shenault needs time, experience and polish. He needs to learn the receiver position to its fullest and take regular reps there to hone his instincts and blossom into an X-receiver. The potential is there, and if Shenault is healthy enough, I'm willing to take the gamble.

Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota: No. 38

I watched Tyler Johnson's film and gave him a second-round grade. I think he has strong hands and great athleticism for the slot. He has flashes of quality route-running that just need to be pruned from the weeds of some ill-advised, multi-step releases and stems that take too much time and offer too little separation. He is a WR2 or WR3 in the mold of Mohamed Sanu or Robert Woods.

But it is impossible to ignore how Johnson has handled the pre-draft process. He did not make the Senior Bowl, elected to pass over the Shrine Bowl and delayed his testing at the combine and his pro day was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is nothing to stand on beside his tape.

Even for a player with a second-round grade, no other background information scares me. His character concerns are essentially media leaks from area scouts. The simple reality is that of Kelvin Harmon last year: I may like him a lot but if a team doesn't draft him until Day 3, it's an uphill battle to even get the snaps necessary to show off the traits I believe he has. Harmon played well last year but is still a depth option for the Washington Redskins as he earns the trust and targets of a second- or third-round pick. The future will likely be much the same for Johnson.

Ashtyn Davis, S, Cal: No. 57

Ashtyn Davis' film against Oregon in 2019 is the best thing I've ever seen. While his film against Washington doesn't make any sense. And that's true for a lot of safeties, which is an inherently rocky position to evaluate, but Davis is the most severe of the lot.

When I first watched Davis in 2018, I thought he was a high-quality athlete with admirable hitting power and questionable football IQ and man cover technique. That was more excusable then when he was a future prospect who had time to grow. By the end of the 2019 season, Davis's scouting report reads about the same for me — I'm just more concerned because I haven't seen the development I've been hoping for.

However, that evaluation is unfair to Davis. Just because I was scouting Cal in 2018 and noticed him as a future NFL player doesn't mean he should get punished for failing to develop when I've only scouted one season of other up-and-down safety prospects including Jeremy Chinn, Jalen Elliott and Brandon Jones. That's a framing bias: I only feel Davis is less likely to develop in the NFL because I haven’t seen him develop for as long.

Davis still needs work, but his tools are great and a future starter is clearly well within his range of outcomes. It's just going to take good coaching and a player buy-in for him to get there.

Saahdiq Charles, OT, LSU: No. 69

On the field, Saahdiq Charles is a tricky evaluation. Take his 10 best plays from every game, it’ll look like Lane Johnson’s film. Take his 10 worst plays and I don't even think he's draftable. I'm not sure there's a more up-and-down player in this class with a wider range of outcomes.

Off the field, Charles is a tricky evaluation. He was suspended for six games in the 2019 championship LSU season for what he called a "selfish and stupid mistake" at the combine, but the exact character of that mistake has been chalked up to a “violation of team rules.” Charles said that his off-field concerns are the first thing that teams which means they are a big deal because there are a lot of questions to ask about his on-field performance as well.

I have Charles as a top-70 player because he not only has starting potential but has high-caliber starting potential. I'm willing to gamble on that range of outcomes, but perhaps I'm only willing to gamble on it because of what I don't know about Charles' background. Meanwhile, players with higher ceilings but worse film (like Boise State's Ezra Cleveland) and lower ceilings but more steady film (like Auburn’s Jack Driscoll) are both ranked below Charles. However, you can't skew for what you don't know. With the limited range of information I have on Charles' projection, he's one of my favorite Round 3 targets.

Adam Trautman, TE, Dayton: No. 107

Adam Trautman's film is dominant to some and I don't get it. He does dominate, but he is also an NFL-caliber player at the FCS level, so his film has to be dominant to even get on an NFL radar. Trautman — like Chinn, Kyle Dugger, James Robinson, Aaron Parker and Isaiah Coulter — dominated at his level of competition and made it on an NFL radar.

But Trautman isn’t as a prospect at the caliber of Chinn or Dugger, both of whom were better at the Senior Bowl and more impressive at the combine. Trautman was fine in each, but it takes more than a quick 3-cone drill to win at the NFL level. 

Trautman's film is that of a pro-ready route runner with decent vertical athleticism and a decent blocker. When I think about small school tight ends from past drafts, I see a prospect closer to Adam Shaheen than Dallas Goedert.

The difficult thing is Trautman's evaluation requires significant projection because of his level of competition. With his wide range of outcomes, why not take the flier on him over Brycen Hopkins or Hunter Bryant? Both have less variance built into their evaluations after multiple years of starting at the Power-5 level. Teams might wait until Trautman circles into range and spend a later pick on a higher-ceiling player.