The 2020 National Football League virtual draft is set to kick off Thursday and to celebrate Loudon County’s football-rich tradition, News-Herald sports writer Nick Davis devised what a mock draft could look like that includes varsity football players from Greenback, Lenoir City and Loudon high schools.

1. Cincinnati Bengals — Braden Carnes, QB, Greenback

The Cincinnati Bengals hold the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and are more than likely moving on from veteran quarterback Andy Dalton. The Bengals’ offense lingered near the bottom of the AFC and could use a spark in the form of a young, powerful arm.

Greenback senior Braden Carnes lit up the stat sheet in his one season as a Cherokee, breaking nearly every passing record in school history en route to leading the Cherokees to the Class 1A state championship. Carnes is a smart quarterback, can make every pass, has great awareness and can make plays with his legs when the play breaks down.

2. Washington Redskins — Derrell Bailey Jr., DE, Greenback

The Washington Redskins have a history of taking big, athletic defensive linemen early in the draft, so I’m picking Greenback’s Derrell Bailey Jr. to go at No. 2. Bailey had a stellar career with the Cherokees and will go down as one of the best defensive players in program history.

Standing at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Bailey has the desired size to be a force in the league and can create mismatches against opposing offensive tackles and guards. He’s showcased good footwork, fast hands and possesses a quick twitch off the line. He could prove a nice complimentary player along the defensive line with former first-round picks Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

3. Detroit Lions — Tyler Whitfield, DE, Loudon

The Lions’ three biggest needs in this draft are cornerback, edge defensive end and defensive tackle after finishing 26th out of 32 in the league in total defense. Head coach Matt Patricia got decent play out of Trey Flowers but is possibly going to lose four of his best defensive linemen this year due to free agency, which is why the Lions should pick Loudon’s own Tyler Whitfield.

The light switched on for Whitfield last season after posting 49 tackles, seven sacks and an interception. Whitfield is a wrecking ball and can break through the backfield on almost every play, something the Lions are in desperate need of to compete in the NFC East against the high-powered offenses of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.

4. New York Giants — Tyler Jeffries, OL, Greenback

The New York Giants spent their last two first-round picks on running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones, but both have struggled to perform at their highest ability due to a lack of consistency along the offensive line, which is where Greenback’s mammoth offensive lineman Tyler Jeffries comes into play.

As a freshman, Jeffries stood at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds and has continued to grow. The sophomore graded out as the best offensive lineman for the Cherokees but was also a force on the defensive line as a defensive tackle, totaling 47.5 tackles, 61 assists, two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. His versatility makes him the perfect fit.

5. Miami Dolphins — Wyatt Rutgerson, APB, Greenback

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores could go with several options for his first pick, but Miami fans are itching to get more out of their rushing attack despite having Jordan Howard, Samaje Perine, Kalen Ballage and Myles Gaskin on the roster.

Greenback’s Wyatt Rutgerson was a dangerous offensive weapon for the Cherokees in 2019, rushing for 873 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was also a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield after totaling 33 receptions for 599 yards and four touchdowns. In addition, he can return kicks, which makes his role similar to that of the late Darren Sproles. The Dolphins have been missing an all-purpose back for several years, and Rutgerson can stir the fanbase in Miami.

6. Los Angeles Chargers — Keaton Harig, QB, Loudon

The Los Angeles Chargers primarily have their focus set on replacing eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, which is why they will draft Loudon sophomore sensation Keaton Harig in the sixth spot.

Harig was forced into action early in his freshman season and continued to develop into one of the best quarterbacks in Region 3-3A, completing 147 passes for 2,080 yards and 35 touchdowns. Harig also showed his athletic ability by rushing 81 times for 272 yards and eight touchdowns.

7. Carolina Panthers — Johnathon Miller, LB, Lenoir City

The Carolina Panthers’ defense took a big hit this offseason when star linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his retirement. The good news is first-year head coach Matt Rhule was able to keep Shaq Thompson, but Rhule is still going to need someone to fill Kuechly’s void.

Lenoir City’s Johnathon Miller may not be the flashiest player in this draft, but he is a proven linebacker at the 5A level after finishing the season with 40 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions and a sack. He can disrupt offensive schemes and has a knack for commanding the field. Miller was also named the Region 4-5A Special Teams Player of the Year, so that gives him a leg up to see playing time early for the Panthers in a variety of roles.

8. Arizona Cardinals — Holden Willis, WR, Greenback

The biggest shock in this year’s draft, Greenback star wide receiver Holden Willis is finally off the board at No. 8 to an offense-starved Arizona Cardinals franchise that selected dynamic gunslinger Kyler Murray No. 1 overall in last year’s draft.

The Cardinals just picked up DeAndre Hopkins and still have Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson, but Murray could use a tall, athletic receiver at his disposal. The 2019 Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award winner possesses elite hands and speed that would compliment Hopkins and Fitzgerald in the vertical passing attack, but his strength and toughness could also benefit the run game.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars — Cody Wilhite, S, Lenoir City

The Jaguars could go a couple of routes with their first pick, but depth at safety is a glaring issue following Cody Davis’ signing with the New England Patriots. Starter Ronnie Harrison missed several games last season due to a concussion and backup Andrew Wingard’s performance was a disappointment.

Lenoir City’s Cody Wilhite might be the best option for the Jaguars early in the draft. Wilhite flashed athletic abilities all through high school and was a key defensive player for the Panthers in 2019, totaling 45 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. He was also utilized on offense and special teams, which could lead to him playing in various roles in Jacksonville.

10. Cleveland Browns — Emerson Tripp, OL, Loudon

It’s no secret the Cleveland Browns’ offense disappeared in games last season after being hyped as one of the top units in the 2019 preseason. The Browns finished 22nd overall in the league in total offense and could really use some upgrades along the offensive line.

Loudon senior Emerson Tripp was a two-way starter along the Redskins’ offensive and defensive lines in 2019 and graded out as one of the best offensive lineman in Region 3-3A. His size and strength as a tackle could provide an immediate impact for the Browns.

11. New York Jets — Kyle Smallen, WR, Loudon

The New York Jets finished dead last in total offense last season and the team is in dire need of playmakers. Jets general manager Joe Douglas last summer reportedly promised quarterback Sam Darnold he would support his young quarterback with a plethora of receivers, so here’s his opportunity.

Kyle Smallen was one of many offensive weapons under LHS head coach Jeff Harig in 2019, totaling 22 receptions for 389 yards and eight touchdowns. Smallen is an aggressive player but also has the speed, hands and physical ability desired to be an impact player on the outside.

12. Las Vegas Raiders — Duke Stinnett, WR, Greenback

The Raiders are desperate to add another wide receiver to the roster to compliment Nelson Agholor, Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller and Tyrell Williams. If quarterback Derek Carr wants to bounce back from his slump, then Greenback speedster Duke Stinnett might be the way to go at No. 11.

Stinnett was a mainstay playmaker for the Cherokees the last three years and could be exactly what’s missing in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense. Stinnett primarily played in the slot and often was a difficult target for opposing defenses to cover. His four-reception, 116-yard performance in the Class 1A state title game proved he can step up in big moments.

13. San Francisco 49ers — Blake Fields, CB, Greenback

Since suffering a bitter defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers immediately turned their attention to the 2020 draft to help fix some glaring issues in the secondary, primarily at cornerback. With veteran Richard Sherman turning 32 and reserves Jermaine Kelly and Tim Harris plagued with injury concerns, the 49ers will be tempted to take a talented corner.

Greenback junior Blake Fields made a strong impact for the Cherokees this season after transferring from William Blount High School, but no one really predicted how big his impact would be on defense. Fields tallied 36 tackles, 24 assists, one tackle for loss and two interceptions. He possesses good size, hands and speed.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Drew Jackson, RB, Loudon

With the addition of 14-time Pro Bowl and six-time Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will look to add a complimentary running back. The Bucs are thin at the position and this pick could easily take over the starting job on day one.

Loudon senior Drew Jackson was hands down one of the best running backs and overall athletes in Class 3A in 2019, which makes him at 14th a surprise pick. The Region 3-3A Most Valuable Player carried the ball 167 times for 1,415 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also adding four more scores out of the backfield. Jackson has elite speed, strength and vision, making him the obvious first choice for head coach Bruce Arians. Jackson will be the steal of the first round.

15. Denver Broncos — Dusty Clevenger, WR, Lenoir City

The Denver Broncos are loaded with 10 picks, and wide receiver is going to be a position of need for young quarterback Drew Lock. Lenoir City’s Dusty Clevenger seems to be the best option here at 15 due to his quickness, hands and ability to get open. He often drew opposing defenses’ best corners and managed to haul in 19 catches for 244 yards en route to being named to the All-Region 4-5A team as an honorable mention selection as a sophomore.

16. Atlanta Falcons — Mark Ridenour, WR, Loudon

The Atlanta Falcons will be looking to add another receiver following the departure of Mohammed Sanu to New England, plus star wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley could use some help on the outside. Loudon’s Mark Ridenour capped off his Redskin career on a high note, becoming one of the best receivers in Region 3-3A. He tallied 29 catches for 419 yards and eight touchdowns and showcased breakaway speed in 2019. Ridenour is also a stellar kicker and could serve as a two-way player.

17. Dallas Cowboys — Jonah Rittenhouse, DL, Lenoir City

The Dallas Cowboys’ defense is hurting after losing star defensive end Robert Quinn to free agency, which is why first-year head coach Mike McCarthy will look to fill the void with Lenoir City big man Jonah Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was a force along the Panthers’ defensive line and possesses raw strength, speed and desirable size to make a difference in the trenches.

18. Miami Dolphins — Tucker Yancey, OL, Lenoir City

The Dolphins snatched up talented running back Wyatt Rutgerson earlier in the first round, so now they will look to bolster the running attack by adding to the interior offensive line. Lenoir City guard Tucker Yancey is the right pick here due to the fact he graded out as the best offensive lineman for the Panthers last season and was named to the All-Region 4-5A team.

19. Las Vegas Raiders — Hazen Carleton, DL, Greenback

The Raiders will look to add to the defensive line for their second pick in the first round and will get a steal with Greenback senior Hazen Carleton. Carleton was a staple in the Cherokees’ defense the last three seasons and turned into an All-Region 2-1A selection in 2019. Carleton is highly versatile and could eventually develop into a hybrid role rushing off the end but also dropping into coverage.

20. Jacksonville Jaguars — Jesse Robinson, OL, Loudon

The Jaguars need help at almost every position on offense and will face a tough decision. In order to provide immediate help for rising quarterback Gardner Minshew, the best option will be to add along the offensive line. Loudon’s Jesse Robinson graded out as the team’s best and most consistent offensive lineman in 2019, so this pick seems like the most logical.

21. Philadelphia Eagles — Alex Belcher, LB, Greenback

The Eagles have not drafted an off-ball linebacker in the first round since 1979, and it’s time they break tradition and go with speedy Greenback linebacker Alex Belcher. Belcher is an experienced player and played a key role in the Cherokees’ defensive machine. The All-Region 2-1A selection totaled 69 tackles, 64 assists, 1.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss as a senior.

22. Minnesota Vikings — Matthew Wright, DL, Lenoir City

The Vikings’ defensive line depth has taken some blows this offseason following the loss of Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly, so they will look to stop the bleeding by drafting Matthew Wright. Wright was consistently getting in the backfield last season and totaled 37 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack.

23. New England Patriots — Aaden Montooth, QB, Loudon

New England fans are buzzing after longtime Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay, and head coach Bill Belichick is itching to find his new quarterback. This pick comes as a surprise, but Belichick will go with a young gunslinger in Loudon freshman Aaden Montooth. Montooth flashed in limited varsity action last year but has a good arm and can make plays with his feet.

24. New Orleans Saints — Devan Nichols, LB, Loudon

The Saints are in desperate need of filling the linebacker depth chart after losing A.J. Klein to free agency. Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso are questionable after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019, which is why Loudon’s Devan Nichols is picked at 24. Nichols started at middle linebacker for the Redskins last season and proved one of the best in Region 3-3A.

25. Minnesota Vikings — Colton Alexander, OL, Greenback

The Vikings will turn to the offensive line after drafting Lenoir City defensive lineman Matthew Wright three picks earlier. Colton Alexander was a road grader at Greenback last season and has played an important role along the offensive line the last three years. He has a unique blend of size, strength and footwork that make him a can’t-miss decision.

26. Miami Dolphins — Isaac Hodge, CB, Lenoir City

The Dolphins will spend their third pick of the first round on Lenoir City defensive back Isaac Hodge to compliment Pro Bowl lockdown corner Xavien Howard. Hodge is rangy and athletic and could prove a valuable addition to a cornerbacks room that lacks luster.

27. Seattle Seahawks — Kaleb McKee, DL, Lenoir City

Seattle’s defensive line could use some more depth, which is why they’ll turn to Lenoir City run-stopper Kaleb McKee. McKee suffered a season-ending injury and missed the majority of his senior season but was a playmaker in the trenches as a defensive tackle. If McKee can stay healthy, look for him to develop into a regular contributor.

28. Baltimore Ravens — Koby Dockins, LB, Loudon

The Baltimore Ravens are coming off a successful 14-2 regular season and don’t necessarily have any glaring issues, but following a disappointing 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC semifinals, head coach John Harbaugh will look to increase defensive firepower with Loudon linebacker Koby Dockins. Dockins led the Redskins with 121 tackles, 52 assists and a pick-six en route to being named to the All-Region 3-3A team.

29. Tennessee Titans — Chase Villanueva, OL, Lenoir City

The Titans are going to make sure they protect veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill at all costs after re-signing him to a four-year, $118 million contract in the offseason. Lenoir City’s Chase Villanueva is a solid pick here after developing into the Panthers’ most consistent offensive lineman in 2019. He possesses good size and strength to block opposing defensive linemen gunning for Tannehill but can also pave the way for running back Derrick Henry.

30. Green Bay Packers — Noah Burnette, TE, Loudon

This year’s draft class isn’t stocked with many tight ends and after parting ways with Pro-Bowler veteran Jimmy Graham, the Packers will pursue another weapon for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Noah Burnette was a dangerous mismatch against most defenses with his incredible size, hands and versatility. His 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame is exactly the mold general managers are looking for in a prototypical tight end.

31. San Francisco 49ers — Josh Mejia, RB, Lenoir City

The 49ers have another chance here to boost an already talented offense, which is why they’ll turn to Lenoir City running back Josh Mejia. Although the 49ers are solid at the position, Mejia can only add to it with his speed, awareness and ability to break tackles. Mejia is projected to be a change-of-pace back in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered offense.

32. Kansas City Chiefs — McKenzie Lunsford, APB, Loudon

It’s difficult to say the Super Bowl LIV champions are missing anything, but head coach Andy Reid always loves to pick up speedy playmakers on offense. Loudon junior McKenzie Lunsford is the perfect fit for Reid’s style due to his blazing quickness and accurate vision. Lunsford carried the ball 107 times for 812 yards and three touchdowns last season for the Redskins but also totaled 390 return yards and two kickoff returns for touchdowns.