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How Will the 2020 MWC Draftees Fare in Year One?

From Jordan Love to Cole McDonald, we discuss this years Mountain West rookies and the situations they were drafted into.

2020 Senior Bowl - North v South Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

There were 10 players out of the Mountain West Conference selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, coming from just six schools: Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, San Diego State, Utah State, and Wyoming. Not all of them will start or even see the field this upcoming season, but we will discuss what roles they might play for their new teams and how their chances of playing football on Sundays currently stands.

QB Jordan Love, Utah State: Round 1, Pick 26 to the Green Bay Packers

All media pundits and NFL fans alike have pointed out just how similar Jordan Love’s position is to that of Aaron Rodgers’ when he was drafted in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Rodgers was brought in to be Brett Favre’s replacement and he is now experiencing how that feels with the Packers bringing Love in to be the next face of the franchise. Now, pardon the pun, but it is safe to assume Rodgers does not “Love” the pick. Prior to the selection he had been on a Pat McAfee’s podcast stating, “We haven’t drafted a skilled position player in the first round since 2014, so that would be nice.” Instead of being rewarded with weapons on the offense, or even playmakers on the defense, Green Bay went ahead and traded up for their QB of the future. Although the situation is not the best for Rodgers, it may be the best for the former Aggie. Jordan Love is raw and only flashed his potential at the college level, never truly dominating in MWC play. He regressed mightily in 2019 after a strong 2018 campaign, which can be attributed to him feeling the need to make plays after losing several offensive starters. Love is prone to throwing passes solely on his arm, resulting in under throws and missed deep opportunities. On the positive side, he is slippery in the pocket, has an NFL-caliber arm, and can make the tight throws over the middle of the field and on out rights. He will have the opportunity to sit behind the 36-year old veteran and learn what it takes to be a franchise quarterback, both on and off the gridiron. We may not see his jersey on the field outside of the preseason anytime soon as Rodgers still has four years left on his contract. But when we do, Love will be ready to take over the reins of the offense and create his own legacy in Green Bay.

OT Ezra Cleveland, Boise State: 2nd Round, Pick 58 to the Minnesota Vikings

The Boise State product has athleticism that is rare for an offensive lineman which helped him get drafted with the 26th pick in the second round. The Vikings tackle position has been weak for years now and with Brian O’Neill at right tackle and Cleveland slotted in at left tackle, it should be a position of strength for the foreseeable future. Minnesota currently has Riley Reiff on the left side of the offensive line and he is under contract until 2021. This means Cleveland could have the luxury of spending at least one season building muscle on his frame and catching up to NFL game speed. If Minnesota went ahead and started him in year one, he could struggle in pass protection as he needs to work on his play strength and has a habit of flipping his hips too quickly, allowing pass-rushers to use inside moves to blow by him. Outside of these issues, Cleveland is technically sound and has a smoothness to his game that many veteran NFL tackles don’t. He projects as a solid run-blocker out the gate due to his ability to get into space and hit the second level quickly, which bodes well for Dalvin Cook. Whether he starts as a rookie or not, Cleveland should have a stellar career for the Vikings and lockdown Kirk Cousins’ blind side for years to come.

LB Logan Wilson, Wyoming: 3rd Round, Pick 65 to the Cincinnati Bengals

Wilson was just a two-star recruit coming out of high school and accepted his only scholarship offer from Wyoming. Despite his humble beginnings, Wilson went on to have one of the most productive careers in MWC history. He improved in each of his four years as a starter for the Cowboys, finishing with impressive numbers across the board. Wilson is a decent tackler, great as a blitzer, solid run-defender, and can hold his own in coverage. The only thing that held him back from being a first-round selection is his athleticism. He possesses average speed, agility, and fluidity, which likely dropped him down some draft boards. All it takes is one team though and the Bengals went ahead and picked Wilson in the third round. He is the first of three linebackers they chose in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they hope he can be the leader of the group. According to PFF, the Bengals had nothing but below average play from the position in 2019, with all their LBs earning an overall grade below 54.5. Wilson’s physicals are concerning with the speed of today’s NFL but he has enough to be a very productive player for Cincinnati. Expect him to start in his rookie season and never look back.

LB Mykal Walker, Fresno State: 4th Round, Pick 119 to the Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are in desperate need of a linebacker to pair with star Deion Jones. The only other LBs to receive snaps in 2019 were De’Vondre Campbell who signed with the Arizona Cardinals and 2018’s 6th round pick Foyesade Oluokun who has not produced at a high level. This allows Walker to step in and possibly start opposite of Jones, creating an explosive linebacker unit. The former Bulldog played a hybrid role at Fresno State, lining up at both off-ball linebacker and on the edge. Wherever he was, Walker proved to be a sure tackler, missing just nine tackles in two years as a starter. A major concern is that he was not asked to defend the pass too often, as he played just 384 of his 1,675 snaps in coverage (Per PFF). When he did drop into coverage, he was caught staring down opposing QBs and did not mirror receivers. He will likely stick at an off-ball position for the Falcons with blitz potential as he doesn’t have the size or power to be an edge rusher at the NFL level. Though his switch to full-time off-ball linebacker is worrisome, the Falcons saw enough to take him in the fourth round while some sites had Walker falling to late Day 3 or even undrafted. He will presumably receive significant playing time in his first year in the NFL but expect some growing pains as he adapts to his new position, team, and scheme.

OL Keith Ismael, San Diego State: 5th round, Pick 156 to the Washington Redskins

Ismael was a three-year starter for the Aztecs, playing all over the interior of the offensive line. He needs to put on some muscle in order to last in the NFL as his current play strength was just enough for Group-of-5 competition. He is better-suited for a zone-blocking scheme, which is exactly what the Redskins run. He isn’t the biggest or strongest lineman and he won’t be a mauler in the run game, but he possesses great footwork and knows how to stave defenders off using leverage and his hands. In pass protection, the former Aztec allowed just 29 QB pressures on 756 pass-blocking snaps (Via PFF). He improved each season as a starter, establishing himself as one of San Diego State’s most valuable players. Although Washington has holes on the interior of their offensive line, he probably won’t see too much playing time his rookie season as he just does not have enough power to hold up against NFL talent. Ismael has the potential to be a starter if he can put on weight while keeping both his technique and athleticism.

DE Curtis Weaver, Boise State: 5th Round, Pick 164 to the Miami Dolphins

Weaver was an interesting prospect entering the 2020 NFL Draft. His size and lack of athleticism raised red flags which is most likely the reason Miami was able to steal him in the fifth round. If the Boise State product had a larger frame with more burst, there is no chance he lasts till Day 3 in the draft as his production in the MWC was to a degree we have never seen before. According to Pro Football Focus, Weaver had a pass-rush win rate of 26.4%, nearly four percent higher than that of this year’s second overall pick Chase Young of Ohio State. Sacks are not a great indicator of how dominant of a pass-rusher is, but in his three years at Boise, Idaho, he was able to rack up 38 sacks, four more than any other defender in college football over that span. The Dolphins have holes all over their rebuilding roster but edge rusher may be the biggest need of them all. The pass-rush unit struggled to generate pressure, allowing quarterbacks time in the pocket to drop back and read the defense. Weaver will have the opportunity to start right away in Miami and hopefully his commanding play is able to translate when going up against the best tackles in the sport.

WR John Hightower, Boise State: 5th Round, Pick 168 to the Philadelphia Eagles

The third and final Bronco to get drafted in 2020, Hightower brings much-needed speed to the Eagles’ receiver room. It was widely expected that Philadelphia would address their receiver position this offseason and they did with full force. They traded for the 49ers’ speedster Marquise Goodwin and then proceeded to draft three more deep threat receivers in the draft, TCU’s Jalen Reagor in the first round, John Hightower in the fifth, and Southern Missouri’s Quez Watkins in the sixth. On top of their four acquisitions, the roster already had Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Despite the crowded WR room, Hightower should be able to find his way onto the rotation in year one. He will need to put on weight and muscle as he has a very thin frame that is may not be able to stand up to NFL hits. Press coverage may prove to be too difficult for him to break out of but given space at the line, he will be able to run right past most corners at the next level. Hightower has great ball tracking skills and the ability to turn up on screen passes quickly, demonstrated by his 18.5 yards per reception in 2019. Even he is buried on the depth chart in his first season, expect Hightower to be a solid third or fourth receiver for years to come.

OL Netane Muti, Fresno State: 6th Round, Pick 181 to the Denver Broncos

Muti was one of the biggest steals in the entire NFL draft with some analysts putting a first to third-round grade on him. What may have caused his steep drop was his injury history, as he has had back-to-back season-ending injuries (torn achilles and torn shoulder). Outside of concerns that his body might not hold up, Muti could have gone in the first three rounds and no one would have complained. Much like Quenton Nelson, Muti made watching offensive line film fun and exciting. He is a highlight reel waiting to happen in the run game and has a toughness to his game that coaches fall in love with. His hands and leverage are already NFL-caliber and should transition smoothly. Due to Muti’s athleticism, or lack thereof, he would excel in a gap scheme instead of zone, which is what the Broncos run in their offense. Even though his talent could start as a rookie, he won’t have to as Denver has Dalton Risner at right guard and newly signed Graham Glasgow on the left. However, Denver could opt to start Risner at center instead of LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry (who they drafted in the third round this year) which would seemingly thrust Muti into the starting guard spot.

LB Cassh Maluia, Wyoming: 6th Round, Pick 204 to the New England Patriots

Both starting linebackers from Wyoming are now off the board, with Maluia heading to Foxborough. The Patriots needed depth at the LB position, with Jamie Collins (Lions), Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins), and Elandon Roberts (Dolphins) leaving in free agency. They double dipped in the 2020 NFL Draft, grabbing Michigan’s Josh Uche in the third round and then Maluia in the sixth. The former Bronco will be behind veteran Dont’a Hightower and last year’s fifth-round pick Ja’Whaun Bentley at the middle linebacker spot in New England’s variations of the 3-4 defense. Maluia struggles in coverage, often over pursuing backs out of the backfield, allowing them to make easy cuts upfield. He also had trouble separating from blockers, often getting bullied out of the picture. Tackling has also been an issue, as he has missed 46 tackles on 244 attempts in his career (Per PFF). On the bright side, he was a three-year starter, easily diagnosed run plays, and clocked a 4.53 at his pro day. As a rookie, Maluia should see work as a four-phase special teamer and find a spot in the linebacker rotation.

QB Cole McDonald, Hawaii: 7th Round, Pick 224 to the Tennessee Titans

The Hawaii signal-caller was a valuable late-round addition for the Titans that could benefit them greatly in the future. Ryan Tannehill just signed a lucrative four-year contract this offseason which quite possibly is the best situation for McDonald. You may wonder, “Why is riding the bench for multiple seasons the best situation?” Well, McDonald is a raw prospect. He has a solid 6’4” 220-pound frame with top-tier arm talent, but Hawaii ran an offense that is far from “pro-style”. The Warriors trotted out four to five receivers every single play, with nearly every snap coming from shotgun. Though the offense is not necessarily translatable, it offered McDonald the chance to receive more reps than any other QB in the nation. Over the past two seasons, he was asked to throw the ball 998 times, 90 more than any other quarterback at the college level. During his time at Hawaii, he flashed NFL-ready accuracy and athleticism that is uncommon for the position. The former Warrior owns one of the most enjoyable highlight reels you will see from this season, yes, when even compared to the likes of Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Barring injury, Tannehill will likely play every snap under center for Tennessee until his contract is up, or they part ways, which gives McDonald time to receive NFL coaching and understand how to run an offense in the pros. If he continues to improve, he will have the opportunity and ability to start down the road, which is rare for a seventh-round QB.

The Mountain West Conference produced impressive draftees this season, with a few that will have the chance to fight for a starting spot in 2020. It will be exciting to see these athletes grow from some of our favorite players on our college teams, to battling it out in the NFL. Outside of these 10, the conference also has another 21 players that have signed as undrafted free agents. Be on the lookout for an article coming soon, detailing all of their situations and the likelihood that they earn a spot on the final 53-man roster.