One of the only marquee sports events scheduled for the spring not to be canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic gets underway Thursday night in the NFL Draft.
The in-person ceremonies scheduled to take place on the Las Vegas Strip have been changed to a virtual draft, with league commissioner Roger Goodell announcing selections from his home in New York.
Thursday night features the first 32 picks, with rounds two and three slated for Friday night. The final four rounds are set for Saturday.
Several Missouri football alumni have the chance to be selected, with defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam the most likely to be drafted.
“Elliott is probably the guy that's going to go the highest,” said Nate Davis, NFL reporter for USA TODAY, of the Missouri prospects. “I would assume sometime on Friday, maybe (mid-second round, early third round). He’s not the flashiest guy, maybe not the most productive guy on a box score, but a lot of these teams run a 3-4 defense.
“He's the type of guy that can tie up blocks for you and maybe clean up a quarterback on sacks when the pressure gets there. I'm not sure he can be a main guy to do that. I think he can be a solid starter in the league. ... He’s one of those dirty work kind of guys.”
Elliott played in all 12 of Missouri’s games in 2019 and posted 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder draws comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman and former Notre Dame standout Stephon Tuitt.
According to Davis, Elliott is a more-known commodity than Okwuegbunam in terms of NFL potential.
“He’s a real boom or bust guy,” Davis said of Okwuegbunam. “... I’ve heard some people that really like his potential a lot. I know a lot of other people don’t really think he's much of a prospect.
“He’s really good at beating up on Memphis and Vanderbilt, but you don't see him show up in a lot of other games. I know he's kind of raw, too. It only takes one team to fall in love with him. I can't imagine he's going to go before Saturday, but I'm sure somebody is going to take a flyer on him somewhere in there.”
Concerns over Okwuegbunam also come from his abilities in fundamentals such as blocking, Davis said.
That’s compared to receiving and running, where Okwuegbunam is among the elite in this draft class. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time of any tight end at the 2020 NFL Combine in 4.49 seconds. In 2017, his last season without injury for MU, he caught 11 touchdown passes.
In 2019, Okwuegbunam played in 11 games but started only nine. He did lead the Tigers with six touchdown receptions.
Davis believes Okwuegbunam would best fit on a team such as the Baltimore Ravens because of how their offense has traditionally used tight ends.
With reigning MVP Lamar Jackson behind center and Joe Flacco before him, Baltimore has used multiple tight-end sets, allowing for one-on-one coverage and time for tight ends such as Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle to develop.
Davis’ comparison for Okwuegbunam is Washington Redskins tight end Richard Rodgers, who also recently played for the Green Bay Packers.
The identity of the third MU player drafted this weekend, or whether the Tigers get more than Elliott and Okwuegbunam, isn’t clear.
Davis’ choice is cornerback DeMarkus Acy because of the number of teams that have a need in the secondary. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Acy has the preferred size for an NFL cornerback, Davis said.
Acy missed the final two games of the 2019 season because of a hamstring injury.
Former MU quarterback Kelly Bryant told the Tribune last month that no teams asked him about switching positions during the NFL Combine. Davis believes Bryant most likely will go undrafted but is nearly a lock for a team to bring him into training camp to compete for a roster spot.
Of Missouri’s three offensive linemen taking part in the NFL Draft process, Davis said Trystan Colon-Castillo is the most relevant name among NFL teams, despite an 11-rep showing on the bench press at the NFL Combine.
Colon-Castillo, Missouri’s previous starter at center, was injured while training for the event but played in every game last season for the Tigers before deciding to forgo his final year of college eligibility for the draft.
Fellow offensive linemen Yasir Durant and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms also hope to hear their names called this weekend. Durant was invited to the NFL Combine, while Wallace-Simms was not.
Another possible late-round draft pick would be former Missouri linebacker Cale Garrett, who was having an All-American-type season before tearing his pectoral muscle against Troy last October, ending his MU career.
In five games, Garrett recorded 43 tackles, five tackles for loss, three interceptions, two sacks and three defensive touchdowns.
Davis said the fact that many NFL teams are moving to a two-linebacker system hurts Garrett’s chances to stay on the field, as his combine 40-yard dash time (4.92 seconds) was the slowest among linebackers timed.
However, Garrett’s speed never appeared to be an issue for making plays all over the field for Missouri. Garrett should at least get a training camp invite.
Former Missouri wide receiver Johnathon Johnson and kicker Tucker McCann also didn’t partake in the combine but have been training on their own for a chance at a professional career.