The coronavirus outbreak has left sports fans devoid of competitions or games to spectate, discuss and enjoy. Like wanderers lost in the desert, those fans tuned in to the 2020 NFL draft Thursday, desperate for the oasis of sports in a world defined by shelter in place.
This NFL draft is unique. Gone are the oft-recalled moments of players walking up to the stage, shaking Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand and holding their new teams’ jerseys. The challenges posed by COVID-19 resulted in an unprecedented virtual draft, which, one round in, survived the potential pitfalls of long distance to deliver its classic one-two punch of surprise and excitement.
Top picks stay on script
No one batted an eye when the Cincinnati Bengals selected LSU’s Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, with the No. 1 overall pick, but fans looked on in anticipation as the other top picks were called out. Would a quarterback-needy team trade up for a top prospect? Would one of this year’s highly touted receivers climb into the top 10?
Instead, the Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and subsequent teams at the top of the draft played their parts. Defensive end Chase Young, arguably the most talented player in the draft, was taken at No. 2 by Washington. The Lions followed that by selecting cornerback Jeff Okudah, and the New York Giants picked an offensive tackle in Andrew Thomas at No. 4.
The drama could have kicked into high gear at No. 5, when the Miami Dolphins had the first of their three picks of the evening, but rather than court surprise, they and the Los Angeles Chargers picked their quarterbacks of the future in Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, respectively.
Many had pegged this season’s wide receiver class as one of the best in years, and the NFL’s brain trusts did not disappoint. Five wide receivers were taken in the first round, the most since 2015, but the order in which they were selected and the teams they wound up on raised quite a few eyebrows.
Entering the draft, debates raged on about who, exactly, had earned the title of best receiver in this draft class. Who would be picked first, Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb?
The answer was neither. The Las Vegas Raiders, ever the wild card, took Henry Ruggs III, the Alabama speedster, at No. 12 overall. Jeudy would go to the Denver Broncos at No. 15, and Lamb would fall to the Dallas Cowboys at No. 17.
But jaws dropped even lower as the night wore on. The Philadelphia Eagles, who were rumored to be eyeing a receiver, bucked all expectations by taking TCU’s Jalen Reagor at No. 21, passing on talented wideouts such as LSU’s Justin Jefferson and ASU’s Brandon Aiyuk, whose names would be called by the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
Needs for cornerbacks dictate draft
Plenty of teams entered this draft with needs in the secondary — the Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons were particular examples — but no one expected those teams to reach up in the draft the way they did Thursday night.
After Okudah came off the board, a stunning slew of surprising cornerback choices turned heads. Florida’s C.J. Henderson, previously thought to be a mid-first rounder, became a top-10 pick, as the Jaguars opted to fill an immediate need.
The reaching didn’t stop there. Atlanta took Clemson’s A.J. Terrell at No. 16 and bolstered a maligned secondary, despite the fact that many had projected Terrell to come off the board later in the evening or early Friday. Las Vegas would also blow expectations to the wind with its choice of Ohio State’s Damon Arnette at No. 19.
Arnette was the third of five cornerbacks who would be drafted, as Miami took Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene at No. 30, and Minnesota took TCU’s Jeff Gladney at No. 31. Either player could have easily been a second-round selection, but as sports fans learned these past months, one drinks what one can get when suffering from thirst. Multiple teams were dying to get cornerbacks, and they satiated that appetite as the NFL welcomed a series of rangy, athletic defenders.
Cal spotlight: Safeties stay on the board
Former Cal safety Ashtyn Davis will likely be the first Bear to be selected in the coming days of the draft. While an injury had prevented any consensus predictions, there remained a possibility of his selection in the second, or even first, round. Those possibilities are rapidly vanishing after the Kansas City Chiefs welcomed running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire with pick No. 32.
For the second consecutive draft, no safeties were selected on Day One. While such a trend was not entirely out of the realm of possibility entering Thursday, it is, nonetheless, astonishing. Alabama’s Xavier McKinney and LSU’s Grant Delpit were both considered late first-round prospects, and both will have to wait until at least Friday to hear their names called.
This means Davis may not be drafted until the third round, as teams that need safeties will likely look to McKinney and Delpit at the beginning of the second round. Davis remains a lock to be drafted and the possibility remains that an NFL team has become enamored with the former Cal standout, but he may have to wait just a little bit longer for his professional career to officially begin.