News & Analysis

2020 NFL Draft: Identifying five low-risk, high-reward draft prospects

Not every bet receives the same payout. Obviously, a first-round draft pick comes with high expectations but the rest of the draft is a fantastic study in which teams are looking to play it safe versus those trying to hit home runs.

The best teams are likely to “diversify their portfolios,” so to speak, balancing the selection of good football players with “high upside” options. So, with the 2020 NFL Draft just days away, I want to identify some of the “upside” options in this draft. For various reasons, there are players to be had beyond the first round who could pay off immensely. 

The current NFL equivalent is the Philadelphia Eagles signing rugby star Jordan Mailata and potentially finding a future starting offensive tackle, which is incredibly difficult to find. The Oakland Raiders found Darren Waller, who became one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league after failing to make it as a wide receiver. The San Francisco 49ers have also turned former San Diego State tight end/offensive tackle Daniel Brunskill into a useful piece of last year’s NFC Championship team. 

Finding low-risk, high-payout options in the draft can have a massive impact on an NFL team’s fortunes, so here’s a look at some of those potential plays in the 2020 draft.

[Editor’s note: Check out PFF’s 2020 Mock Draft Hub, NFL Draft Big Board and NFL Mock Draft Simulator. PFF Elite subscribers can also download the 1,100-page 2020 NFL Draft Guide.]

Louisiana Tech safety L’Jarius Sneed — safety-to-cornerback conversion

Sneed is a former cornerback turned safety, but teams snagging him in the middle rounds could try a return to cornerback in order to maximize his value.

He dominated the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.37 40-yard dash and a 1.51 10-yard split to go with vertical and broad jumps in the 96th percentile among safeties. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, Sneed has the frame and athleticism to win on the outside at cornerback, and that is a bet worth making in the middle rounds as the payout would be incredible.

At worst, Sneed has free safety ball skills, and most of his struggles actually came in the slot where he was grabbing and overmatched against shiftier players. Every NFL team needs to roll four to five deep at cornerback, and finding creative ways to find a playmaker in coverage is one way to steal value in the draft.

Ball State guard Danny Pinter — future starting guard in a zone scheme

There’s little value in today’s NFL for blocking tight ends, but the blocking-tight-end-turned-starting-offensive-lineman types are a steal.

The previously mentioned Brunskill is a prime example of a successful conversion, and Pinter is on his way to being the next. He’s certainly not new to the offensive line — he played tackle over the last two seasons — but his youth at the position leaves room to grow after he graded at 91.2 in 2019.

Pinter posted the fifth-lowest percentage of negatively graded plays in the run game among draft class tackles, a number that is on the stable side when projecting to the next level. Scheme fit is crucial for Pinter, who projects best as a zone run-blocker who still has some work to do to show that he can improve his strength in the coming years. 

Utah defensive tackle John Penisini — early-down run-stuffer

This value play has more to do with what a team can do with their early picks rather than what Penisini brings to the table.

An early-down run-stuffer is becoming less valuable by the year, but strong run defenders still have a place in the NFL. The key is not to spend big money or high draft capital to find them, and Penisini is a perfect Day 3 option to fill a very specific run-stuffing role.

Penisini has a nose-tackle build and is tough to move at the point of attack, all of which led to a 90.6 grade against the run over the last two seasons. There are plenty of examples of quality run-stoppers who were taken in the middle to late rounds over the last few seasons, including Poona Ford, Greg Gaines and Michael Pierce. So, waiting on a player like Penisini will keep a team from drafting a one-dimensional interior defensive lineman in the early rounds, allowing them to focus on more valuable, pass-game affecting positions. Now that’s value.

UConn offensive tackle Matt Peart — developmental offensive tackle

Good offensive tackles are difficult to find. They’re also difficult investments, as many take time to develop from college to the NFL. Peart has the size and skill set to develop nicely at the next level, and he’s even more intriguing because he played well in college. He had the No. 4 pass-blocking grade on the all-important “true pass sets” last season, and he graded at an impressive 90.1 in the run game.

While Peart played plenty of football at UConn, he only started playing the game in high school. He also has a long frame that has room to add even more strength. The NFL may ruin this value play — Peart could be a Day 2 selection —  but if he’s drafted in Day 3 or later, he could be one of the steals of the draft as a future starter at tackle.

Utah safety Terrell Burgess — multiple-position versatility for a creative defensive scheme

Finding coverage players is crucial, but it’s a difficult skill set to project due to its volatility from year to year. However, projecting players into similar roles produces better results, and Burgess had the No. 2 coverage grade when covering the slot last season and the No. 4 mark when playing in the box.

Slot cornerback is a starting role in today’s NFL, and Burgess has the man-coverage quicks and incredible technique and patience to contribute. However, if the slot doesn’t pan out, Burgess has the skills to play either safety position, providing an incredibly valuable fallback option or perhaps a movable defensive chess piece who can contribute in multiple roles.

The NFL should pay closer attention to the players who play well in the slot in college, much like Mike Hilton of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hilton had the No. 2 coverage grade in the slot at Ole Miss in 2015 before going undrafted in 2016 and finally latching on with the Steelers where he’s been the No. 2-graded slot cornerback in the NFL since that time.

Don’t let the glitz and glamour of outside cornerbacks fool you: Covering the slot is one of the most valuable things a player can do, and finding a player like Burgess could pay off in the end.

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