The jump from college to the NFL is always tough, but the 2020 rookie class will face unprecedented challenges because of the shortened offseason due to the pandemic. The league’s new crop of players will need to learn new playbooks, new techniques, or, in some cases, brand-new positions without the benefit of a typical slate of OTAs and training camp practices. A few lucky prospects landed with near-ideal teams, though, and matched up with schemes or philosophies that mesh with their respective skill sets. Those players should have a better chance of hitting the ground running whenever the 2020 season kicks off―and their paths to major snaps is a little clearer. Here are eight of my favorite team-and-player fits from the early rounds of the 2020 NFL draft.
CB Jeff Okudah, Lions (first round, third pick)
Most, if not all, of the superstar athletes taken in the top 10 can easily fit within the schemes of their new teams, but no pairing seems quite as perfect as Okudah and the Lions. The former Buckeyes corner should quickly assume the role of the team’s eraser in coverage. He’s a wizard at sticking to opponents like glue thanks to a rare combination of size, length, quick feet, and elite speed. That skill set should allow him to match up with just about any type of receiver across from him―particularly in straight-up man-to-man looks, which he excelled at in college and is a big requirement in Matt Patricia’s man-coverage-heavy scheme.
Okudah did split his time between those crucial man-coverage looks and some Cover 3 zone at Ohio State, but absolutely locked down opponents in just about every coverage he played. Per Pro Football Focus, he never surrendered more than 50 yards in coverage in his 27 games in the past two seasons, and he was the only Power 5 corner with 15-plus games to accomplish that feat. He was particularly effective playing press, where he gave up just 3.1 yards per target in coverage, per PFF, more than 3.5 yards better than the FBS average. Whether he’s asked to line up across from a big-bodied opponent like Julio Jones or a smaller, shiftier pass catcher like Odell Beckham Jr., Okudah has the tools to be Detroit’s neutralizer on defense. He should have no trouble acclimating to Patricia’s scheme because it’s likely to simply ask him to do what he does best: blanket opposing receivers in man-to-man coverage.
WR Jerry Jeudy, Broncos (first round, 15th pick)
Jeudy will encounter the same challenges that every other rookie receiver will face in the next few months, but the former Crimson Tide star has a leg up over his classmates thanks to his combination of top-tier route-running skills, lightning-quick footwork, and rare suddenness in the short area. Jeudy’s understanding of the full route tree and his ability to separate from tight coverage should allow him to be an early contributor in Pat Shurmur’s offense.
With Courtland Sutton playing the role of defense-tilting outside threat and fellow rookie KJ Hamler running out of the slot, Jeudy projects as a day-one starter as the team’s Z receiver―a role that will give him the chance to line up both on the outside (where he can use his quickness to get off the line and get open downfield) and motion inside into the slot to run routes over the middle (where he’s extremely dangerous as a run-after-the-catch magician). Jeudy’s ability as a playmaker at all three levels of the field gives him an easy path toward production as a rookie. Denver is looking to surround sophomore passer Drew Lock with the talent that allows him to take the next step, and Jeudy is the perfect pick.
WR Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers (first round, 25th pick)
I love it when teams really lean into an identity, doubling or tripling down on players who perfectly fit their style―and the 49ers did just that with this pick. San Francisco led the NFL in yards after the catch per reception last year (5.9) by a large margin, and showed a clear goal of doing that again in 2020 by trading up in the first round to select Aiyuk. The former Sun Devils star is one of the most explosive and elusive yards-after-the-catch creators in this draft, a prospect who finished first in the class in YAC per reception (10.9) last year and showed that he’s capable of taking a slant or screen pass and turning it into a big gain.
Aiyuk joins an offense that already features tight end George Kittle (who leads all players in total YAC per reception in the past two seasons) and receiver Deebo Samuel (who led all receivers in YAC per reception in 2019) and should give head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan another home run hitter from everywhere in the formation. Shanahan is one of the best at drawing up schemes that get his skill-position players in space, and Aiyuk’s dynamic skill set in the open field makes him the perfect match.
RT Isaiah Wilson, Titans (first round, 29th pick)
Wilson will have to battle it out with incumbent right tackle Dennis Kelly, but the hulking former Georgia star has the size and functional movement skills to grab the starting job for the Titans early in his career. Thematically, Wilson fits Tennessee’s run-heavy, grind-opponents-to-dust personality to a tee, bringing rare size (he’s 6-foot-6, 350 pounds) and people-moving power to clear lanes for a fellow larger-than-life human, Derrick Henry. Schematically, Wilson should have no trouble acclimating to the Titans’ wide-zone scheme after playing in Georgia’s zone-heavy system. His combination of athleticism, length, and sheer strength should create problems―and probably more than a few “business decisions”―for opposing defenders at the point of attack. For a team with an unofficial slogan that’s probably something along the lines of “mass moves ass,” Wilson fits right in.
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs (first round, 32nd pick)
This was a bit of a luxury pick for the Chiefs’ already explosive offense, but it’s also one of the most logical player-team fits in the entire draft. Edwards-Helaire gives the team a talented playmaker out of the backfield, combining shifty tackle-eluding talent with natural pass-catching chops. In an Andy Reid scheme that stretches defenses thin and exploits opposing defenses’ weakest links, CEH should be yet another big-play weapon at Patrick Mahomes’s disposal.
Edwards-Helaire is particularly well-suited for the passing attack. The former Tigers star is one of the best receiving backs in this class, an effective route runner who can separate underneath and catch the ball reliably. He’ll have plenty of opportunities for one-on-one coverage as defenses focus on Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman, and, as Reid said after the draft, CEH can be a mismatch creator. “As many times as you get single coverage with linebackers on that backside … it gives you some nice matchups potentially,” Reid said. Edwards-Helaire thrives in space because he has the ability to cut on a dime and accelerate away from defenders. “Once you get him out in the screen game and one-on-one with a linebacker, it’s going to be tough to tackle this kid in space,” said Willie Davis, a Chiefs area scout.
Per FantasyPoints.com’s Graham Barfield, Edwards-Helaire was one of just six college running backs in the past five seasons to split out wide as a receiver on more than 20 percent of their routes (joining Marlon Mack, Christian McCaffrey, Josh Jacobs, C.J. Prosise, and Alvin Kamara). Look for the Chiefs to deploy their new running back all over the formation.
DE Darrell Taylor, Seahawks (second round, 48th pick)
With Jadeveon Clowney still out looking for a new home in free agency, the Seahawks have some major question marks in their edge-rush group in 2020. But the team did grab a high-upside pass rusher in the second round who fits the mold for what Seattle’s looking for on the edge. In Pete Carroll’s words, the former Vols star was “an absolute in-the-pocket guy for us.” In addition to bringing size and speed, Taylor’s “aggressiveness is there, his flexibility is savvy for turning the corner and doing the things that that position calls for,” Carroll said. “He’s got speed-to-power moves; there’s enough ability there for him to do some dropping the few times that we do that when we mix our looks and all.” In short, he should have the skill set to do whatever defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. dials up.
Taylor combines explosiveness, power, and agility with some chops as a run defender, which will always be paramount for a Carroll-coached team. He should also be a nice addition from an intensity standpoint as the Seahawks look to get back to their intimidating Legion of Boom roots:
Never forget this legendary quote by Darrell Taylor pic.twitter.com/wxJc9I50TH— (@VolBlood) April 25, 2020
RB J.K. Dobbins, Ravens (second round, 55th pick)
Dobbins is an electric playmaker―he has the speed and agility to bounce a run to the outside and beat defenders to the edge for a big gain―but he was at his absolute best at Ohio State when running downhill. That’s just who he is: He’s a slasher who picks his lane, shoots through it with turbo-boosted acceleration, and then makes guys miss at the second level. He checked in a bit lighter than expected at the combine at just 209 pounds (well below his listed weight of 217), and it created a few questions about his projection to the NFL: Is the former Buckeyes star big enough to be a between-the-tackles banger in a pro-style scheme? Does he possess the power to push a pile and break tackles running right up the gut?
Well, Dobbins may never have to answer those questions, because he landed in a scheme that should perfectly accentuate his unique skill set. Dobbins should have the ability to hit the ground running in the Ravens’ shotgun-heavy, option- and RPO-based offense, which constantly puts defenders in conflict because of the threat of Lamar Jackson. That scheme, which holds backside defenders and helps create run lanes right up the middle of the field, is similar in that way to what Dobbins played in at Ohio State, so he has the chance to produce at a rate similar to his past three years. Among running backs in this class, Dobbins finished second only to Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor in yards created per attempt (4.48) on runs between the tackles, per FantasyPoints.com’s Barfield, and it won’t be long before he’s ripping off big gains right up the middle for Baltimore.
OLB Josh Uche, Patriots (second round, 60th pick)
New England is one of the best teams in the league at manufacturing pass-rushing production from its off-ball linebackers. From Dont’a Hightower to Jamie Collins to Kyle Van Noy, Bill Belichick and Co. seem uniquely equipped to deploy versatile defenders in a variety of ways. Uche might be the next man up in that long line of do-it-all playmakers, a linebacker/edge rusher hybrid who brings a scintillating skill set to the table. The former Wolverines star logged 170 snaps off the ball and another 299 on the edge for Michigan last year, per Pro Football Focus, by alternating between dropping back into coverage, blitzing from all over the formation, slicing inside on a stunt, or rushing upfield off the edge.
Uche is a bit undersized to play a full-time edge rusher role for New England at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, but has racked up a 22.5 percent pressure rate in the past two seasons, tops among all FBS edge rushers. Whether he’s lined up as a stand-up end, as an off-ball ’backer, or anywhere in between, Uche has the athleticism and power to make an impact for New England’s pass-rush group.