Which SEC Juniors Are Likely to Enter the NFL Draft?
It's no coincidence that during the SEC's run of six straight national titles, the conference has also led all conferences in NFL draft picks.
According to ESPN.com's Todd McShay (subscription required), 15 of the 32 projected first-round draft picks in 2013 hail from SEC schools. So that streak doesn't look like it will be in too much jeopardy when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes the stage in New York in April 2013.
Tennessee's Justin Hunter, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas' Knile Davis are among the juniors who have already declared. But with nine of the SEC's 14 teams playing in bowl games, there are several other SEC juniors that could decide to test the NFL waters following bowl season.
So which SEC juniors will declare for the NFL draft? Our predictions are in this slideshow.
* No juniors from Kentucky or Ole Miss are projected to declare for the NFL draft.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Projected Junior Departures: RB Eddie Lacy, OT D.J. Fluker, CB Dee Milliner
Tony Pauline of SI.com reported last week that Lacy and Fluker will declare for the NFL draft following the BCS National Championship Game. After the season that Dee Milliner had for the Crimson Tide, he should follow suit.
Lacy's decision is easy. He rushed for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as the feature back at Alabama. Considering the short shelf life of running backs in the NFL, it would be wise of Lacy to move on and start collecting that check while taking a pounding in the NFL rather than take hits in college one more season.
If the reports of Fluker making the jump are true, it's hard to argue learning on the NFL's dime. But Fluker has plenty of work to do before becoming a legitimate NFL weapon. He struggled a bit pass-blocking against speed-rushers, and the last time I checked, the NFL is rapidly becoming a pass-happy league. But again, learning as a professional isn't the worst proposition in the world.
Milliner hasn't indicated what he's thinking about his future, but the finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award is projected to be the seventh overall pick by McShay (subscription required). That should make Milliner's decision rather easy.
Projected Junior Departures: RB Knile Davis, OG Alvin Bailey
Since Arkansas didn't qualify for a bowl game, its players are free to officially declare and start training for the NFL combine.
That's exactly what running back Knile Davis has done, signing with agent Mike Conley and moving on to a career in the NFL following a disappointing junior campaign that saw him rush for only 377 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior offensive guard Alvin Bailey hasn't officially announced his plans, but the 6'5", 315-pounder is likely to jump to the next level as well. He's rated as a potential third- or fourth-round draft pick by CBSSports.com and was the lone bright spot along an Arkansas offensive line that was mediocre at best in 2012.
Projected Junior Departures: DE Corey Lemonier
Auburn's season was nothing short of a gross disappointment, even for defensive end Corey Lemonier, who probably expected more than just 5.5 sacks during his junior campaign.
As is the case with Arkansas' players, Auburn's underclassmen can jump at any time. McShay has Lemonier going in the first round with the 26th pick to the Baltimore Ravens. He's still weighing his options, but it'll be hard to turn down potential first-round money to stick around the Plains for one more season.
If he passes on the draft, Auburn will be getting a talented and motivated defensive end back.
Projected Junior Departures: DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, DE Dominique Easley, TE Jordan Reed
Floyd is projected to be a sure-fire first-round pick by most services, which makes his decision rather easy. The 6'3", 295-pounder was named a first-team All-SEC performer in 2012 after recording 41 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and one sack.
Elam's decision isn't complicated either. CBSSports.com projects that he'd either be a first- or a second-round draft pick. Sure, he could come back and chase a title. But personally, there's nothing more for Elam to do at the college level. He's already proven to be one of the best safeties in the game, and that won't change.
Easley came off an ACL injury suffered last season and played well—especially down the stretch. At 6'2", 280 pounds, Easley is ready to come back but isn't as much of a lock as his linemate Floyd.
Reed is a physical freak that needs to take advantage of the growing trend of ultra-athletic tight ends becoming weapons in the NFL. He could use another year of seasoning in Gainesville, but he shouldn't take that risk.
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins and defensive end Ronald Powell could also jump, but Powell missed this season, and Jenkins has been banged up and could use another year.
Projected Junior Departures: LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree
It pretty much goes without saying that Jarvis Jones will be gone after this season.
The junior was forced to sit out a year after transferring from USC prior to the 2011 season, so he's likely had enough with college. Besides, being projected to be the top linebacker in the draft and the No. 3 player overall by CBSSports.com isn't a bad way to start a career.
Jones needs to play better against the run, but nobody took over games on the defensive side of the ball like Jones did this year. Not even Manti Te'o.
Ogletree should follow his teammate. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in 2012 with 98 despite missing the first four games of the season. He's fast, has great football instincts and is projected by McShay to be a first-round pick.
Quarterback Aaron Murray is still deciding on his NFL future, but my gut feeling says he'll stick around. He was a bit inconsistent up until the final month of the season and may be motivated by the end of the SEC championship game to come back and chase that elusive title.
Projected Junior Departures: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, LB Kevin Minter, S Eric Reid
This is a no-brainer for defensive ends Mingo and Montgomery. Both players are projected to be drafted in the top 15, according to Todd McShay.
At 6'4", 240 pounds, Mingo looked like he lost weight throughout the 2012 season for the Tigers. But getting in NFL shape as a first-round draft pick isn't a bad way to learn on the job.
Montgomery had 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks this season, and while he isn't a lock to be a first-round pick, taking that chance is certainly worth the gamble.
Minter wasn't as much of a known commodity as Montgomery and Mingo were coming in, but he made his presence felt early and often in 2012. He finished the season with 111 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks en route to Associated Press second-team All-American honors. Strike while the iron is hot, young man.
Eric Reid is a fringe first- or second-round pick, according to most services. He didn't receive the hype of some of his teammates on the defensive side of the ball but still managed to be named a consensus All-American. He's so good that great seasons are expected, and he delivered one in 2012.
Running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, safety Craig Loston and defensive tackle Bennie Logan could look but shouldn't make the jump. Former LSU Tiger Tyrann Mathieu has already declared for the draft.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Projected Junior Departures: OG Gabe Jackson
According to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, offensive guard Gabe Jackson, running back LaDarius Perkins and safety Nickoe Whitley have submitted their names for evaluation by the NFL. Of those three, only Jackson should jump.
He was a big part of the success of Perkins during the 2012 season, earning first-team Associated Press All-SEC honors in the process. He is projected as a third-rounder by CBSSports.com, which presents a very interesting decision for him.
He could risk injury to improve his stock, but third-round money isn't exactly "roughing it."
Projected Junior Departures: DT Sheldon Richardson
Without a bowl game to play this holiday season, Missouri players are free to declare and start training for the NFL scouting combine.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson took advantage of the opportunity by announcing that he will play grown-man football on Sundays in the near future.
After being projected as a first-round draft pick by McShay, can you blame him?
Richardson finished the season with 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, seven quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery.
No wonder the NFL scouts are so high on him.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Projected Junior Departures: RB Marcus Lattimore
After suffering a devastating injury in late October against Tennessee—his second major knee injury in two seasons—Lattimore decided to forgo his remaining eligibility and declare for the NFL draft even though he won't be healthy enough to participate in the draft evaluation process.
It's the right move for Lattimore. The risk of returning to the collegiate ranks to have another go at it is too much, especially when the shelf life for running backs in the NFL isn't exactly long.
No other underclassmen from the senior-laden Gamecock defense will make the jump, although if rising true junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney were eligible, ESPN's Mel Kiper said that he'd be the No. 1 overall selection.
Projected Junior Departures: WR Justin Hunter, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, QB Tyler Bray
Justin Hunter made it official on Tuesday when the junior wide receiver announced that he will enter the NFL draft via his Twitter account.
It isn't a shock. Hunter caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, picking up right where he left off before an injury derailed his sophomore season in 2011.
Do-everything wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is likely to follow his teammate to the pros after catching 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, carrying the ball 25 times for 308 yards and three touchdowns and making a major impact as both a punt and kick returner. Patterson hasn't officially made a decision, but CBSSports.com projects him as a potential second-round pick.
Quarterback Tyler Bray probably should come back for his senior season because he was inconsistent at times as a junior, but if his two star wide receivers go, there's really no point for Bray to come back. He'd already be going through a system change and would be doing so without his top three wide receivers from a year ago. CBSSports.com ranks him as the No. 7 quarterback in the draft.
Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers is also weighing his options, but the 6'6", 377-pounder should come back to see if he can raise his stock next season.
Texas A&M Aggies
Projected Junior Departures: DE Damontre Moore, OT Luke Joeckel, OT Jake Matthews
Quarterback Johnny Manziel was in the spotlight this season, but the player that benefited most from the coaching switch to Kevin Sumlin was defensive end Damontre Moore, who dropped down to defensive end in first-year defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's system.
Joeckel took home the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman, and while chasing a title in College Station is certainly enticing, being a top-five pick and a sure-fire star at the game's highest level is more than enough to send Joeckel on to the pros.
Matthews was another unsung hero of the Aggies this season. The presence of Matthews and Joeckel allowed the Aggies to play smash-mouth football out of the spread formation, which was a huge reason they were so successful in 2012. Matthews is a 6'5", 305-pounder who is also likely to go in the first round.
Projected Junior Departures: WR Jordan Matthews
Matthews shined as a junior in 2012, catching 87 passes for 1,262 yards and seven touchdowns as the Commodores won eight games and clinched a bowl berth for the second straight season—the first time they've been in back-to-back bowl games in program history.
CBSSports.com projects Matthews as a third- or fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft should he jump early, which presents an interesting decision for Matthews. Learning on the job in the NFL isn't a bad idea, but he could come back and increase his value in 2013.
He will be without quarterback Jordan Rodgers next season, which could be a big factor in his decision-making.