The NFL draft is in May, but the SEC Championship Game will give us a great preview of a number of interesting pro prospects next Saturday.
The Missouri Tigers enter with an impressive 11-1 record after winning a close game against the Texas A&M Aggies, but that doesn't even come close to what the Auburn Tigers have done. They went just 3-9 last season, but now, they're 11-1 after pulling off the incredible win over the Alabama Crimson Tide.
While the game itself is bound to be a great one, there are also a number of NFL prospects to watch for in the conference championship. Let's take a look at just a few of these players, breaking them down and projecting where they could land in May.
E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
The defense for Missouri has been a huge reason for their success this season as they're allowing 19.4 points per game. One of the key contributors to that defense has been E.J. Gaines, who has done a terrific job in the secondary for the past couple of seasons.
Gaines was named to the All-Big 12 team as a true sophomore, and he caught the eye of a number of NFL scouts. While he didn't play as well in 2012, he has turned it around once again this year, grabbing four interceptions.
While not a big receiver, Gaines has a nice frame with some very long arms and is a gifted athlete, helping him match up on most receivers. He turns his helps well and can read the quarterback's eyes to make jumps on passes.
After helping shut Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans down last week, Gaines really helped his draft stock. There are other more pro-ready corners, but I think Gaines could be a solid third-round selection.
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
It's hard to deny what Tre Mason has done with Auburn so far. While he wasn't a big-time prospect at the beginning of the season, he's certainly starting to make a name for himself in the SEC.
Mason has run for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that he ran for 164 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries against Alabama, a team that has allowed just 108.3 rushing yards and 11.3 points per game.
For a 5'10'' running back, Mason is a very aggressive and powerful downhill runner. His vision is impressive, and he's capable of exploding through a hole, which is an extremely undervalued trait for running backs.
He's not going to be one of the first running backs taken, but Mason continues to help himself as he keeps climbing draft boards. For now, he's still probably a sixth- or seventh-round pick, but that could change quickly with a couple more big games.
Michael Sam, DE/OLB, Missouri
Few players have been as impressive defensively this season as Michael Sam, especially considering the competition he's been playing against in the SEC.
Sam continues to have a great year with the Tigers, and he made some big plays this past week against the Aggies. This year, he's racked up 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, making him one intimidating player to go against.
What makes Sam a great prospect is his pass-rushing ability. There are a number of exciting prospects who can get to the passer, and Sam is one of the best. He could certainly add some weight to his frame, but he has a great burst off of the line, and he can do a great job making opposing offensive linemen miss.
A 4-3 defensive scheme is where Sam would fit best, and I couldn't imagine a more perfect fit than the Denver Broncos. A team like Denver could certainly take him in the first round, and I expect him to be taken no later than the second round.