College Stars for Saints Fans to Watch at This Weekend’s 2020 NFL Scouting Combine

Tammy Anthony Baker, Photographer@tabinla @tmabaker (via

Every single NFL off-season approximately 2 months before that year’s scheduled college draft late in April, scouts and front office personnel from the League’s 32 teams gather together in Indianapolis ⁠— to observe some of the most talented college star players get measured, weighed, carry out a series of physical drills and then interviewed one-on-one ⁠— that one day will relate to their specific position on the field as professionals.


View this post on Instagram


2001 Combine…19 years ago…lookin swole! Ha

A post shared by Drew Brees (@drewbrees) on

This weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana (actually starting tomorrow at 3 p.m. Central standard time), passionately-devoted fans of the New Orleans Saints will be among those who will be tuning in to sports channels NFL Network and ESPN along with national network ABC; to watch a handful of different players ⁠— any one of them that could eventually end up wearing the Black and Gold ⁠— participate in the annual event that ultimately will lead up to the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas.

With that in mind, this morning Big Easy Magazine is highlighting just a few of those players for Who Dats to pay close attention to and watch, over the course of the next few days.

Starting first with….

TOMORROW (THURSDAY, February 27th) ⁠— Wide Receiver, Tight End

Justin Jefferson, Wide Receiver, LSU

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

‘Who Dat Nation’ / Saints fan-base legend (especially among the locals living in throughout the state of Louisiana) has it that the Black and Gold rarely if EVER, drafts players from nearby (Baton Rouge) major college powerhouse and now current defending 2019 National Champion LSU — particularly in the early rounds of the NFL Draft each off-season.

But that notion could potentially change in two more months from now in late April, thanks to former and Destrehan High School star and pass-catching extraordinaire Justin Jefferson; who came on strong in the middle of the season and gave the Tigers offense another weapon in their#1-ranked offense and high-powered vertical passing attack.

The 6-foot-3, 192 pound Jefferson had a break-out performance in the Peach Bowl / College Football Playoff Semi-Final with a 4 touchdown, 14-catch, and 227 receiving yards performance against Oklahoma that has now put his name among the conversation of some of the nation’s best WR’s.

Tomorrow in Indianapolis, the 21-year old St. Rose, Louisiana native can prove to scouts and observers that he is indeed worthy of being a late 1st Round pick; as well as  a “big slot” WR with quickness who can also stretch the field vertically if called upon. Draft Expert Daniel Jeremiah says that Jefferson doesn’t have “elite”-caliber speed to blow past opposing defensive backs, but he’s still “fast enough; and a player that will also fight for extra yards after making a catch.

Overall, he adds that Jefferson is a polished receiver and should make an immediate impact at the next level — which is exactly why he could be on the Saints’ radar once they get on the clock with the 24th overall selection in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft at Las Vegas.

Laviska Shenault, Colorado

Besides Jefferson of LSU, the other WR  who’s been prominently mentioned the most as a potential top pick for New Orleans at #24 overall, is one of major college football’s top-rated pass catchers in this year’s draft: University of Colorado superstar Laviska Shanault, Jr.

Although the 6-foot-2, 220 pound Shenault had a ‘down’ season as a junior in 2019 (56 receptions, 764 yards, 4 TD’s), the 21-year old DeSoto, Texas native suffered greatly from having a less-than-talented cast of fellow players surrounding him, and was essentially forced to single-handedly utilize his almost jaw-dropping capability to make “big plays” by throwing the ball to him the ball as much as possible.

As a direct result, Shenault unfortunately took a lot of hits from opposing defensive secondaries and eventually was hampered even further; by a series of nagging injuries that have affected him for the majority of his college career. Nevertheless. Shenault is still considered an elite-caliber wide receiver when he’s healthy — and if he is able to live up to the expectations that most analysts and observers believe that he will at the next level, could became an absolute nightmare for opposing NFL teams to deal with for the next decade plus.

That said: Shenault’s workout tomorrow will be watched by many more folks besides just interested Saints fans; most of them who will be wanting to see if Shenault made a wise decision (or not) by choosing to put off having surgery for a partially-torn groin injury so he could participate in the Combine.

The Draft Network lead / senior analyst Joe Marino says that Shenault’s skill set can immediately take an NFL offense to another level and add difficult to defend dimensions to it. And that observation —  along with the thought of a healthy Shenault on the opposite side of Saints #1 WR and All-Pro Michael Thomas —  would be the football equivalent of a horror movie for NFL defensive backs,

Adam Trautman, Tight End, University of Dayton (Ohio)

Current Saints starting TE and 10th year veteran Jared Cook will be a free agent after this coming season (as well as approaching his mid-30’s age-wise) and even though he’s still playing at a high level, is not guaranteed to remain in NOLA beyond 2020. Meanwhile, back-up Saints #2 TE Josh Hill is a great blocker, but not nearly as much of a “weapon”  in the team’s offense as a pure pass-catcher.

That’s where the 2020 NFL Draft could be a benefit to the Saints, likely beginning in Round 3; with a player that has ROCKETED UP NFL Draft Boards in the several weeks since the Senior Bowl college all-star game back in late January and is now being compared heavily to San Francisco 49ers All-Pro TE George Kittle; 6-foot-6, 250 pound phenom and former University of Dayton star Adam Trautman.

Originally a former stand-out QB back during high school in his home state of Michigan, the 22-year old Trautman switched over to the TE position as a freshman in 2016; and has slowly blossomed into a top-notch talent as a receiver. However, Trautman was too late a bloomer for most D-1 / major college football programs to become aware of his suddenly-burgeoning skill-set; and he eventually committed to play for Division 2  / small school Dayton.

Over the course of the next 4 seasons, Trautman evolved into a two-time 1st Team All-Conference TE and was named the Pioneer Football League’s Conference Player of the Year at the FCS (college football championship subdivision) football level. Trautman finished his senior year in 2019 with 70 catches for 916 yards and a whopping 14 touchdown receptions to earn football championship subdivision (FCS ) All-American honors.

He then followed that up just a few short weeks later at Mobile. Alabama, with an impressive performance playing for the North team offense during the 2020 Senior Bowl late last month. That performance has since raised his draft stock exponentially, and now teams (including the Saints) that potentially are looking for a tight end for their franchise’s future, are standing up and quickly beginning to taking notice.

Not only is Trautman a good blocker (which undoubtedly would make him a favorite of Saints head coach Sean Payton), but additionally Bleacher Report NFL Draft Expert / Analyst Matt Miller says that Trautman has the obvious ability to stretch the field vertically and can beat defenders from multiple alignments, and his “sticky hands” allow him to make catches no matter how well he’s covered.

Tomorrow afternoon in Indianapolis, Saints fans will get their turn to see if Trautman’s continuing emergence. could possibly end up with him wearing the Black and Gold as a rookie starting next September.

FRIDAY (February 28th) ⁠— Offensive Line (Guard)

Jonah Jackson, Offensive Guard, Ohio State University

While it might seem unlikely at the moment that the Saints would go against the current ‘conventional wisdom’ and draft a player at another position with their top pick besides a wide receiver to put with Michael Thomas; it still remains a very distinct possibility.

And given that likelihood, if team management decides not to re-sign / bring back current starting offensive left guard and 5th year veteran Andrus Peat — who is now an unrestricted free agent and has notably struggled at times with pass protection as well as being somewhat injury-prone over the course of the past few seasons; than taking a guard to replace him long-term is more than feasible. That’s where an extremely talented and young up-and-coming lineman such as Ohio State University guard Jonah Jackson could come into play for New Orleans.

Jackson joined Ohio State last year during the early summer as a graduate transfer following a four-year career at Rutgers University; but the 6-foot-4, 310 pounder will be representing the storied Buckeyes football program among the handful of O-Linemen that most NFL scouts and front office personnel (including the Saints) will be observing very closely in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon.

Throughout his college career, the versatile Jackson has also started at the center position and can also play anywhere (including either left or right guard) along the interior of the O-Line; and besides being an adequate blocker in the running game, can  “fit right in “ as a fast-moving pass-protector for teams that like throwing the football often.

The biggest question with Jackson this weekend in Indianapolis at the Combine for many NFL scouts, is if whether or not he can demonstrate a better knack for exhibiting more strength and power at the point of attack against similarly-built interior D-Linemen. Pro Football Focus Draft Analyst Michael Renner says that the 22-year old Jackson is as advanced in pass protection, as any interior lineman in this year’s 2020 NFL Draft class; and remarkably has only allowed only one lone sack or hit on 1,020 pass-blocking snaps.

Renner adds that Jackson’s greatest trait is that he doesn’t lose a one-on-one match-up against defensive linemen without putting up a fight — and it’s that aggressiveness of his that could make the decision in two months from now for New Orleans with the #24 overall pick, all the more harder to make.

Calvin Thockmorton, Offensive Guard / Tackle, Oregon

Another name on Friday afternoon for Saints fans to keep in mind while watching the O-Linemen, is that of University of Oregon offensive guard Calvin Thockmorton, the player with the rather funny-sounding name but who plays with a very serious and purposeful demeanor.

Although he isn’t nearly as talented as the previously-mentioned Jonah Jackson, nevertheless the Saints are well-known for putting an emphasis on O-Linemen that are versatile enough to play multiple positions — and no one in this year’s draft class might be more qualified in that department than the 6-foot-5, 310 pound Bellvue, Washington native.

The 22-year old Thockmorton could very well end up being a mid-to-late round pick for the Black and Gold; and despite starting mostly at the right guard position throughout the the course of his college career up in the Pacific Northwest, the 4-year starter played EVERY O-Line spot at one time or another during his time with the Ducks football program. As a junior in 2018, Throckmorton was the only FBS / D-1 offensive lineman to start at four different positions: right tackle, center, right guard, and left tackle.

As a result, PFF ranked him as their top-rated offensive lineman in the Pac-12 Conference in 2018; and he didn’t commit a penalty in his first 1,133 college snaps. Unfortunately for Thockmorton despite his versatility and the notable high grades that he got courtesy of the good folks over at Pro Football Focus, his draft stock took somewhat of a hit at the Senior Bowl last month; after he got beaten a few times during the game itself by University of Utah edge pass rusher Bradlee Anae.

However, Thockmorton still projects among many scouts and analysts to still become a more-than-capable interior lineman (at either guard spot) at the next level; and some believe he will eventually become a starting-caliber player as a professional, though he will be heavily scrutinized based on his performance in Indianapolis this Friday.

SATURDAY (February 29th) ⁠— Linebacker, Interior Defensive Tackle

Kenneth Murray, Inside / Outside Linebacker, Oklahoma

With two of their three starting linebackers (young veterans Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso) both coming off season-ending injuries and veteran A.J. Klein now an unrestricted free agent, the Saints most definitely could be looking to add depth at the linebacker position — most likely through the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft in two more months from now — and the one name that continually has been linked to the Saints is that of one the draft’s very best at all aspects of the position: University of Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray.

The 6-foot-2, 243 pound Murray is considered by just about every prominent NFL Draft analyst as an elite-caliber player at the LB position with phenomenal sideline-to-sideline speed, a sound tackler in both pass coverage and out in the open field, and even lined up out wide as an effective edge rusher. Murray would provide an immediate upgrade to the New Orleans defense and for brand new (and recently promoted) Saints linebacker coach Michael Hodges, and simply is one of the very best overall prospects in the draft period.

The 21-year old  Missouri City, Texas native started all 42 of his career games and finished his 3-year college career with 335 tackles and 37 tackles for loss. He also was recognized as a 2nd-team All-American and 1st-team All-Big 12 Conference selection; as well as having the notoriety of being named as a semifinalist for the Bednarik and Butkus Awards for the nation’s best linebacker and overall defensive player. As a junior in 2019, Murray started all 14 games and led the Sooners defense with 102 tackles and 17 tackles for loss.

The Draft Network analyst Kyle Crabbs says that Murray projects as a potential “Mike” / middle linebacker at the NFL level, and possesses the God-given natural talent to eventually become a complete player and 3-down defender who can slash into gaps as a blitzer; or smash into ball-carriers from sideline-to-sideline. Crabbs notes that Murray’s length, range and explosiveness will lead to pair a lot of impact plays for the team that he ends up with — and adds that if he can play on the “Will” / weakside with effectiveness, can get even better over the course of the time.

With Demario Davis now entering into the final year of his current contract and about to turn 31 years old soon, the thought or idea that the Saints might actually take a linebacker in this year’s draft (especially if Murray is still on the draft board by some chance once New Orleans gets “on the clock” at #24) isn’t nearly as far-fetched as some ‘Who Dat’ fans might think. Come this Saturday afternoon, many interested Saints fans will be watching the athletic and explosive Murray with that very possibility in mind.

Akeem Davis-Gaither, Inside Linebacker, Appalachian State (North Carolina)

Although not nearly highly rated as Kenneth Murray is, Appalachian State University inside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither might easily be THE most underrated linebacker in this year’s 2020 NFL Draft class; and is a player who despite his “small school” pedigree, is one that New Orleans could target at that very same position in the middle rounds.

However, the 6-foot-2, 215 pound Davis-Gaither likely would have to be snapped up by the Saints no later than the end of the 3rd Round if he still happens to be available, keeping in mind that numbers-wise, the 22-year old was one of the most productive linebackers in all of college football last season in 2019 (along with the fact that the Saints don’t have a 2nd Round pick this year).

This past season, Davis-Gaither accumulated an impressive stat-line of 101 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, an interception, and 8 pass deflections in 14 total games; for the eventual Sun Belt Conference champions (who went on to beat the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns in the New Orleans Bowl).

He was eventually named the 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and helped lead the small-school powerhouse and now rapidly-rising Mountaineers football program to its one of its most successful eras of all-time (Appalachian State went (4-0) in the bowl games during his tenure at the position).

The Thomasville, North Carolina native possesses seemingly natural instincts for a player at the linebacker position considering that he originally began his career as a safety; and he clearly has shown that he has the skill-set to eventually become a complete every-down starter one day at the NFL level.

He very likely would fill either one of the primary LB spots (the Mike or the Will) employed in recent seasons by New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen; and undoubtedly would become a quick favorite for the previously-mentioned brand new Saints LB coach Michael Hodges.

The Draft Network analyst and lead writer Jordan Reid says that Davis-Gaither is a fantastic blend of height, weight, speed and explosiveness; and with his comfort in pass coverage coupled with his ability as a blitzer off of the outside edge, may sit atop many linebacker rankings on draft boards. If by chance he is somehow still available near the end of Round 3, Saints fans shouldn’t be surprised if and when New Orleans decides to “pull the trigger”.

Leki Fotu, Interior Defensive Tackle, Utah

With the on-going recovery from the torn Achilles tendon injury that was originally suffered by Saints starting 3-technique interior defensive tackle (and top 2016 Saints draft pick) Sheldon Rankins during the 2018 NFL Playoffs that ultimately ended up having an effect upon his season last year, the Black and Gold might also decide to target that particular position in the draft’s mid to later rounds for depth purposes.

That’s exactly where an interior D-Lineman such as University of Utah DT Leki Fotu could be a player for both team scouts as well as Saints fans to keep an eye on, this Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis. The 6-foot-5, 340 pound behemoth has the indisputable raw power to dominate opposing offensive linemen at the point of attack and the strength to absorb double teams, that made him one of the Pac-12’s most underrated D-Linemen over the course of his 4-year college career for the consistently successful Utes football program.

After his sophomore season in 2017, Fotu ended up switching positions (from defensive end to defensive tackle), and ultimately by the the end of his junior season in 2018 was named 1st team All-Pac-12 Conference. Then last season in his senior season of 2019, the native of the Pacific island of Tonga was also named a preseason All-American by several prominent college football publications as well as the folks over at sports network ESPN.

The 22-year old is considered by many as an elite-caliber run defender, and he has a series of powerful “bull rush” moves that make him a potential match-up nightmare for opposing O-Linemen as well as RB’s that are in his proverbial crosshairs. He isn’t nearly as effective as a pass rusher however, although he is more than capable at pushing the pocket in the middle, and especially if he’s matched up one-on-one against a less powerful guard or center.

CBS Draft Analyst Chris Trapasso says that Fotu might be the strongest player (physical-wise) in this entire draft, regardless of the position. Trapasso notes that he flashed as a pass rusher last season in his senior season, mostly due to an impressive burst off the snap of the ball that allowed him to utilize a “swim move” and maneuver more efficiently for his size.

But Trapasso cautions that the team that drafts Fotu needs to have a specific plan in mind for his future; and if New Orleans actually does draft him, then Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen should be more than up to meeting that task.

SUNDAY ⁠(March 1st) — Safety, Cornerback

Xavier McKinney, Safety, Alabama

While the safety position might not seem to be an off-season priority for the Black and Gold, the reality is that 4th year veteran Vonn Bell — who most analysts still believe will ultimately return (and re-sign) with New Orleans — is still an unrestricted free agent and could possibly sign elsewhere if he wants to.

Additionally, now 3rd year safety Marcus Williams will be entering a contract year in 2020; and if he isn’t brought back or is re-signed next off-season, it potentially leaves New Orleans in a bind at safety; with last year’s rookie Chauncey-Gardner Johnson as the only leftover player at the position with experience.

While that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Black and Gold would actually target the safety position with their top pick at #24 overall. it shouldn’t be ruled out either; and one name that’s been mentioned as a possibility (although unlikely because he could be already taken by that point) for the Saints to consider is that of University of Alabama All-American Xavier McKinney.

Viewed by a large portion of analysts and observers arguably as college football’s top safety prospect this off-season (ranked just slightly above LSU All-American safety Grant Delpit), the 6-foot-1, 200 pound McKinney was an All-SEC selection last season for the Crimson Tide; as he tallied 95 combined tackles (5.5 for loss), 5 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, and a “Pick 6” defensive touchdown in 13 games as a junior in 2019.

In all, the 21-year old McKinney amassed 108 solo tackles, 15 pass break-ups, 6 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 5 interceptions, and 2 defensive TD’s in his 3-year college career in Tuscaloosa. analyst Lance Zierlein compares McKinney to Gardner-Johnson, who the Saints took in the 4th Round in last year’s 2019 NFL Draft out of the University of Florida.

McKinney appears to have that very same type of undeniable talent — the type of talent which clearly makes him a worthy of a 1st Round pick — and most experts agree that he will quickly become a quality NFL starting safety from Day 1. The Saints will be keeping a keen eye on McKinney this coming Sunday afternoon regardless, and if he does manage to fall down into the mid 20’s range of Round 1, he will certainly be in play for New Orleans with the #24 overall selection.

Kindle Vildor, Cornerback, Georgia Southern

The Saints also might short-handed at the CB position depending on whether or not they retain the services of a handful of players at that spot; which now currently includes unrestricted free agents Eli Apple. P.J. Williams, and Patrick Robinson; all of whom potentially might not return to New Orleans for the 2020 NFL Season.

Also, presumed #2 starting / outside boundary CB Janoris Jenkins is slated to earn $11.2 million in the final year of his contract, which could persuade Saints front office brass to either negotiate a new (and cost-friendlier) deal or simply just release him to save money for other players that are due to be free agents next year in 2021.

That basically means that New Orleans might need to add another CB or possibly even two this off-season; and if they don’t sign one next month during 2020 NFL Free Agency; then chances are they could seek to add one in the draft’s mid-to-late rounds; and particularly one with the versatility to play either the nickel / “slot” position or on the outside boundary on the opposite side of #1 CB Marshon Lattimore.

One player at CB that Saints fans might want to watch this Sunday given that very possibility, is  ‘small school’ defensive superstar Kindle Vildor of Georgia Southern University. The 6-foot, 195 pound Vildor firmly put himself “on the radar” of NFL scouts league-wide originally as a junior in 2018, after his break-out performance against then-#1 ranked Clemson; where he essentially shut down superstar wide receiver (and now fellow Combine participant) Tee Higgins and even made an interception.

As a junior in 2018, the 22-year old Vildor earned 2nd team All-American honors and was named the 2018 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus. Then last season as a senior, Vildor’s stock rose even further as he earned 1st-team All-Sun Belt Conference recognition (thanks in part to his phenomenal performance covering Higgins the year before) and was able to match up exceptionally well against much bigger and taller receivers. 

But because of his smaller size, the team that eventually drafts him might eventually decide to relegate Vildor to playing the “slot” position only, where the DeKalb, Georgia native could put both his speed and elite-caliber ball skills to good use. But despite his lack of ideal height and length, he’s still clearly shown and demonstrated the fearlessness (but self-confidence) that it takes to play CB at the NFL level, whether it be either on the inside or even on the outside boundary, as well.

The Draft Network analyst and writer Justin Reid says that Vildor is excellent when it comes to identifying where the ball is at in the air, and then anticipating which part of the field is about to be targeted. But he notes that Vildor’s play-making instincts actually can hurt him at times; and he’ll need to adjust accordingly while playing in pass coverage once he enters into the NFL

But first he’ll have to impress every one that will be watching him on Sunday afternoon — which will include the New Orleans Saints college scouts, front office personnel, and of course the team’s loyally devoted Who Dat Nation fan-base — once the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine gets underway starting tomorrow afternoon…..

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

Help Keep Big Easy Magazine Alive

Hey guys!

Covid-19 is challenging the way we conduct business. As small businesses suffer economic losses, they aren’t able to spend money advertising.

Please donate today to help us sustain local independent journalism and allow us to continue to offer subscription-free coverage of progressive issues.

Thank you,
Scott Ploof
Big Easy Magazine

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *