SEC showing off most promising crop of 1st-round NFL talent
GAINESVILLE, Fl. — The Southeastern Conference produces more NFL talent than any other league. It’s not even close.
The football powerhouse had a record 64 players drafted in 2019, and dozens more made rosters and practice squads as undrafted rookies.
The SEC currently has about 350 players in the NFL, roughly 100 more than any other league. There could be another record-setting haul on the way.
Scouts and draft pundits believe the heavyweight conference has its most promising crop to date, a deep and distinguished group that includes two Heisman Trophy front-runners and next-level stars at nearly every position.
Even though the draft is still six months away, the league already is expected to challenge — maybe even shatter — its record of 12 first-round draft picks set in 2013 and matched four years later.
“It’s always been defense-heavy in the SEC, at least in the last decade or so. There’s still a lot of defensive talent, but it feels like there’s a lot more offense — and much higher up,” said ESPN analyst Todd McShay, whose latest 2020 mock draft had 15 SEC players going in the first round. “It’s made the whole conference better.”
Here’s a look (in alphabetical order) at the best of the bunch, 25 guys considered to have at least realistic shots at becoming opening-night selections:
—Derrick Brown, defensive tackle, Auburn. The 6-foot-5, 318-pound senior was the best player on the field in a loss at Florida.
“He’s an impact player in big games,” coach Gus Malzahn said.
—Joe Burrow, quarterback, LSU. The former Ohio State backup has made LSU a passing team and put himself in contention for the Heisman.
“It’s almost like watching a completely different player than the guy we saw last year,” McShay said. “The confidence he’s playing with, the way he’s extending plays, throwing into tight windows. It’s pretty remarkable. … It’s been a lot of fun to watch the improvement. You don’t often see guys make that sort of leap. It’s pretty rare.”
—K’Lavon Chaisson, linebacker, LSU. Missed most of last season because of a torn ligament in his left knee and sat out two games this season with an ankle injury. When healthy, he’s special.
—Marlon Davidson, defensive end, Auburn. Has been named the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week three times this season.
—Raekwon Davis, defensive end, Alabama. Returned for senior year following a disappointing 2018. At 6-7 and 312 pounds, he commands double teams.
—Grant Delpit, safety, LSU. Admittedly missed too many tackles early while dealing with shoulder pain. Starting to look like the player coach Ed Orgeron called “the best returning defensive player in the country” this summer.
—Trevon Diggs, cornerback, Alabama. Has four pass breakups in the last three games to go along with two interceptions.
—Jake Fromm, quarterback, Georgia. His TD passes and rating are down, but his completion percentage and yards are up.
“He doesn’t have elite mobility or an elite arm, but he’s a smart dude,” McShay said. “It’s easy to point out that he’s lost to Alabama twice and lost in some big games. But go and watch every throw he’s made in those games. It’s drops and receivers not breaking the right way. He’s playing at a much higher level than the statistics indicate.”
—Kristian Fulton, cornerback, LSU. Has at least one pass breakup in six of seven games this season. Considered a better pro prospect than former LSU teammate and 2018 second-round pick Greedy Williams.
—CJ Henderson, cornerback, Florida. Speedy junior has been beaten for gains of 46, 54 and 41 yards the last three games while still dealing with an ankle injury.
—Anfernee Jennings, linebacker, Alabama. Second on loaded team with 44 tackles, including 7½ for loss.
—Jerry Jeudy, receiver, Alabama. Considered one of the best in the country. Has 45 receptions for 579 yards and six TDs.
—Javon Kinlaw, defensive tackle, South Carolina. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, he’s a force inside and has stood out against Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“His mechanics are undeveloped, but the talent is there to be an NFL homewrecker,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic.
—Alex Leatherwood, offensive tackle, Alabama. Anchors a line that’s helping the Tide average 166 yards rushing a game.
—Terrell Lewis, pass-rusher, Alabama. Looks NFL-ready despite missing most of two seasons because of knee and elbow injuries. Has nine tackles for loss, including six sacks, and six more quarterback hurries.
—Dylan Moses, linebacker, Alabama. Tore a knee ligament four days before the season opener , making it unlikely anyone would use a first-round pick on him.
—Albert Okwuegbunam, tight end, Missouri. Has 18 catches for 250 yards and six scores. Has the potential to be a big-time player at the next level.
—Jared Pinkney, tight end, Vanderbilt. Lack of production this season — 15 receptions for 157 yards and no TDs — could make it tough to justify drafting him early.
—Henry Ruggs, receiver, Alabama. Sprinter’s speed was on display last week when he tracked down Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior following an interception.
“It was just me making a play, doing what I got to do,” said Ruggs, who reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds earlier this year.
—Trey Smith, guard, Tennessee. Dominating blocker whose health history could cause NFL teams to pass. Has twice been diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs.
—D’Andre Swift, running back, Georgia. Averages 6.84 yards a carry, which ranks 12th nationally, and has breakaway speed .
—Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Alabama. High-ankle sprain will cost him a start , but won’t affect his spot atop most mock drafts.
—Darrell Taylor, linebacker, Tennessee. Has 27 tackles, including a team-leading three sacks, but has work to do to crack the first round.
—Andrew Thomas, offensive tackle, Georgia. Considered the best pro prospect on the team’s “Great Wall” up front.
—Prince Tega Wanogho, offensive tackle, Auburn. Left Nigeria in 2014 with hopes of playing hoops in the United States and could end up being a football star.
“It’s insane,” McShay said. “In recent years, there would be three or four offensive guys going in the first round and seven or eight defensive guys. But this year that’s the difference. We’re just seeing more offensive guys added to the mix.”