Early Preview of SEC Football's Top 2016 NFL Draft Prospects
For those who have been doubting the Southeastern Conference's prowess of late, all you have to do is look at recent NFL drafts for proof that it remains the most dominant league in college football.
Last year the SEC had 54 selections, the second-most in draft history. It set the record the year before with 63 players picked.
The SEC led the nation's conferences in draft picks for the ninth consecutive year in 2015. The last time the SEC did not top the conference draft list was in 2006, when the ACC had 52, the Big Ten had 41 and the SEC had 37.
Since then the league has averaged 50 players selected per year.
During the last nine NFL drafts, the SEC has had a leading 81 players go in the first round, an average of nine per season. Over the past decade it’s had 40 percent of the top 10 selections.
This year appears to be no different, as the SEC is poised to once again lead college football in helping NFL teams fill their rosters.
Here are 10 SEC players to keep an eye on, not all of whom will be first-round selections.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
One of the reasons why NFL officials like the Senior Bowl so much is that they get to see players go head-to-head, which makes it easier to make comparisons. With that in mind, this is a big week for Prescott.
As a senior, he definitely improved as a passer while compiling 3,793 yards, 29 touchdowns and five interceptions, in addition to recording 588 rushing yards on 160 carries for 10 touchdowns. He completed 66.2 percent of his passes, up from 62 percent the previous season.
Even though they’re on different sides, Prescott and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz are the two quarterbacks who are getting the most attention in Mobile, Alabama. Coming in, Prescott was probably considered a third-round prospect with the potential to move up.
Draft analyst Bucky Brooks wrote on NFL.com: “With a week to show scouts that he can make every throw in the book with timing and precision, Prescott has a chance to shoot up the charts with a strong performance in Mobile.”
Meanwhile, Brandon Allen’s week didn’t get off a very good start when he measured 6'1 ½" tall with 8 ½" hands. The Arkansas quarterback was already fighting the stigma of being too small to succeed in the NFL, and that didn’t help.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
After receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s draft advisory committee, the Heisman Trophy winner has vowed to prove that he’s worthy of a first-round selection.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Henry listed as a second-round prospect and second among running backs behind Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, but McShay is also among those who don’t think NFL teams should use a first-round pick on a running back.
Henry can help his chances by working on his pass catching, but the key for him will likely be his split time while running the 40. Should he show a good burst while running the 40 during the combine or Alabama’s pro day, his draft stock would improve significantly.
During WalterFootball.com’s live mock draft Tuesday afternoon, Henry was the second pick of the second round, No. 33 overall, to Tennessee.
Among other SEC running backs, Alex Collins of Arkansas and Kelvin Taylor Florida are also looking pretty strong, while Alabama’s Kenyan Drake and Arkansas’ Jonathan Williams, who missed his senior season with a foot injury, are hoping to improve their draft stock at the Senior Bowl.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
It’s not considered a strong draft at the wide receiver position, so someone like Ohio State’s Braxton Miller could make a big jump with a good showing this week at the Senior Bowl, but the player at the top of the position list this year is undoubtedly Treadwell.
Coming off his horrific leg injury that some thought could potentially end his career, Treadwell was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. He’s not considered as big of a prospect as Amari Cooper was last year, but he is a heady player who could fit into any offense.
The popular notion among everyone from Alpha Football to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. is that with Chip Kelly as the new coach in San Francisco, Treadwell would be a good fit for the 49ers, especially since he played in a similar scheme with the Rebels.
If so, the thing to watch will be if the 49ers feel he’s worthy of the seventh selection, or if they might trade down and try to take him later in the first round.
Another SEC wide receiver to keep an eye on is South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper, who for now projects to be a third-round pick.
Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas
With everyone looking for the next Rob Gronkowski, the Arkansas product Henry is probably the only tight end who has a chance to be a first-round pick, although it’ll probably have to be a right-place, right-time sort of selection with a team like Pittsburgh.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. is among those who hail Henry as the draft’s best tight end, although Kiper thought another player had the potential to impress scouts even more.
“O.J. Howard is an intriguing guy,” Kiper Jr. said. “You saw what a difference-maker he can be against Clemson. You remember what you saw last, and you saw he has a chance to be a heck of a weapon in the NFL. I would think he could be a second-rounder who could be the No. 2 off the board, if not the first tight end.”
That didn’t happen, of course, as Howard decided to return to Alabama for his season.
Florida’s Jake McGee is looking like a mid-round selection, while South Carolina’s Jerell Adams has a chance to be drafted as well.
Laremy Tunsil, T, Ole Miss
Even though he was suspended by the NCAA for multiple rules violations including accepting improper benefits and missed the first seven games of the 2015 season, Tunsil came back and showed that he’s still an elite talent.
The biggest question with Tunsil is: Will he be the first overall selection of the draft? Many now project that, including Bleacher Report's Daniel Rogers.
Tennessee has the first overall pick and doesn’t need a quarterback after selecting Marcus Mariota last year. It’ll have to weigh protecting that investment, with Tunsil as an attractive option, against having numerous other needs.
Tunsil leads an impressive group of SEC offensive linemen who could be selected on the first two days, including Germain Ifedi of Texas A&M, Jerald Hawkins of LSU and Shon Coleman of Auburn—who are all projected tackles—as well as Alabama center Ryan Kelly.
Coleman (6’6”, 313 lbs) was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, but he came back and started the past two seasons.
A’Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
To give an idea of how strong the defensive tackle position is in this year’s draft, consider that Florida’s Jonathan Bullard, who had 6.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss this past season, is probably looking at being a second-round selection.
It’s something that could really impact Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who many thought had the potential to challenge Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa as the top defensive lineman in the draft, but due to off-field issues and concern about his lack of development, he could be the draft's biggest question mark.
It’s no longer a matter of if his draft stock will fall but how far.
“Boom or bust guy. He'll need a strong locker room and position coach,” an NFL scout told Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com.
The player who might benefit the most is Robinson, who is now being hailed by many as the top defensive tackle prospect in the draft. He's versatile enough to play any spot on a line.
Jarran Reed, DT Alabama
Alabama’s other top defensive line prospect drew immediate praise on the first day of the Senior Bowl.
Rob Rang wrote for CBSSports.com
Versatile defensive lineman Jarran Reed consistently stood up would-be blockers at the line of scrimmage, bottling up the running game. At 6-foot-3, 311 pounds, Reed has the girth and strength to line up virtually anywhere along the defensive line, making him a fit for 3-4 and 4-3 teams, alike, and the projected first round pick arguably the top traditional defensive linemen invited to this year's Senior Bowl.
The last time Alabama had two such prominent defensive linemen in the same draft was 1993, when John Copeland went fifth to Cincinnati and Eric Curry was the next selection by Tampa Bay. Reed and Robinson probably won’t go that high, but the comparison is appropriate.
The better that Reed does at the Senior Bowl, the closer he and A’Shawn Robinson might get to matching the Copeland and Curry.
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Although Ragland started his Crimson Tide career as an outside linebacker and did do some pass rushing this season, he was primarily used as an inside linebacker.
However, despite weighing in at 259 pounds, he’s been taking reps as an outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl.
“I just want to show that I can cover and rush the passer,” Ragland said at his Senior Bowl press conference. “I want to show that I can do multiple things at the next level. I know I can play inside, but I want to be able to show that I can play outside too. If a guy goes down, I want to show I can go out there and play it too and not miss a beat.”
Alex Martin Smith of SEC Country raved about Ragland after the first day of practice at the Senior Bowl. His draft stock is clearly on the rise.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia
Georgia is looking to add to its long history of sending linebackers to the NFL, but if Floyd wants to be selected in the first round, he’ll need to spend a lot time in both the weight room and dining room over the next couple of months.
After flirting with the NFL last year, he led the Bulldogs in sacks with 4.5 to go with 74 tackles and was named a finalist for the Butkus Award.
However, at 6’4”, 231 pounds he needs to get thicker. Consider his evaluation on NFL.com:
Floyd is painfully thin and will struggle to match up with the strength of NFL players, but he is rangy in space, plays with a good motor and has traits as a pass-rusher that would be a mistake to ignore. Floyd’s ability to cover close to five yards in three strides is rare for edge-rushers. Add to that his inside counter and ability to play in space and you have a prospect who will be heavily scrutinized.
A much safer pick will be his former teammate Jordan Jenkins, another potential second-round pick who is trying to improve his draft stock at the Senior Bowl.
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Hargreaves might be the toughest player to project in a mock draft because he’s the kind of cornerback who every team in the league would like to add.
While most draft experts consider him one of the two best defensive backs in this year’s draft, Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey might project to being an even better safety, depending on the team.
Consequently, you’ll see mock drafts place Hargreaves anywhere from the top few picks to the middle of the first round. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller lists him ahead of Ramsey as the sixth overall selection by Baltimore in his latest mock draft.
Hargreaves is more of a pure cover corner and was a first-team All-SEC selection all three of his years at Florida.
Two other SEC defensive backs who probably won’t have to wait long after the draft starts are LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, who could be a low first-round pick, and Florida safety Keanu Neal.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.