NFL Draft: Top 10 Prospects from the SEC East
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Year in, year out the Southeastern Conference has proven to be the best in all of college football. After all, each of the five most recent BCS national champions came from the SEC (three from the West, two from the East).
And with title-winning teams comes talent.
Three of the top eight selections in the 2010 NFL Draft came from the SEC (all from different schools), and there were seven first-rounders in all from the conference that claims Emmitt Smith, Peyton Manning, Champ Bailey and Patrick Willis among its many alumni.
With apologies to South Carolina defensive back Chris Culliver and wide receiver Tori Gurley, both of whom should be drafted in the middle rounds, here is an alphabetical look at 10 of the best NFL prospects coming out of the SEC East.
Ahmad Black (Florida)
One of former coach Urban Meyer's all-time favorite players, Ahmad Black was a playmaker for Florida.
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A strong safety prospect, Black is a 5'10" (in cleats), 184-pound ballhawk who makes up for his lack of size with exceptional instincts.
When he arrived in Gainesville as one of seven signees from Lakeland (Fla.) High School, Black was a cornerback. When it became apparent somewhat quickly that he was a little too slow to be a Southeastern Conference-caliber cover corner, Black was moved to safety, where he thrived.
A second-team All-American selection as a senior, Black led all SEC defensive backs with 108 tackles in 2010. He also was voted MVP of the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 after recording six tackles and two interceptions, one of which went for a touchdown in UF's 37-24 victory against Penn State.
After the game, then-Gator coach Urban Meyer called the amicable Black "one of the best safeties in school history", before adding "now, I can call him a friend."
Seemingly always in the right spot on the field, Black has been clocked consistently in the 4.7s in the 40-yard dash, has a 35.5 inch vertical leap and did 18 repetitions of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine. He is expected to be taken anywhere between the second and fourth rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Clint Boling (Georgia)
Georgia's Clint Boling is one of the top interior line prospects available in the 2011 NFL Draft.
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At 6'5", 308 pounds, Boling could get looks from NFL teams at center or either guard spot. He also played tackle while with the Bulldogs, adding to his potential value.
A decent, but not great, athlete, Boling has been clocked at 5.3 in the 40-yard dash, has done 28 repetitions of 225 pounds and registered a vertical leap of 31 inches.
Boling had a DUI arrest in late May of 2008, but also has a reputation as a devout tape studier. On the field, he performed better against speed rushers than power rushers while at Georgia and also showed a nasty streak on occasion.
He is expected to go in the middle rounds and could be one of the first five interior linemen selected in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Randall Cobb (Kentucky)
Versatile Randall Cobb got by many defenders while playing for Kentucky.
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Arguably the most versatile talent in the 2011 NFL Draft, former Kentucky standout Randall Cobb played receiver, running back, quarterback, punt returner and kick returner while with the Wildcats.
At 5'10", 191 pounds, Cobb was clocked at 4.46 in the 40-yard dash, vertical leaped 33.5 inches and did 16 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine.
But those numbers only make it look like Cobb is a mid-level athlete and not the tremendous football player he is.
While at UK, Cobb had 144 receptions for 1,661 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career. Much of that came in 2010, where he caught 84 balls for 1,017 yards and seven scores.
However, it only starts there.
For his career, Cobb rushed 228 times for 1,313 yards (5.8 ypc) and 22 touchdowns. He also completed 62-of-122 passes for 689 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
A special teams dynamo, Cobb returned 92 punts for 619 yards (6.7 avg) with a pair of touchdowns. Additionally, he averaged 24.6 yards on 44 kickoff returns.
Cobb has been projected to be taken as early as the latter part of the first round, however, he most likely will be taken in the second, third or fourth round.
A.J. Green (Georgia)
Georgia's A.J. Green has soared above all other receiver prospects this year.
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If one were to make an arguement that former Georgia receiver A.J. Green isn't just the top wide receiver prospect, but the top overall player available in the 2011 NFL Draft, it may not be far-fetched.
At 6'4", 211 pounds with a 34 3/8-inch arm length, Green brings speed (a sub 4.5 40-yard dash) and an NBA shooting guard's 34.5-inch vertical leap.
For his college career, the early-entry junior had 166 receptions for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was consistent all three of his years at Georgia, catching between 53 and 57 passes each season (including 57 catches for 848 yards and nine touchdowns in a 2010 campaign shortened four games by a suspension).
And Green, who averaged 18.2 yards-a-catch last year against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25, performed well against some of the nation's best defensive backs.
With potential first-round corner Jimmy Smith on him most of the night, Green caught seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in a 29-27 loss at Colorado on Oct. 2, 2010. A year earlier, in a 20-13 loss to Louisiana State, Green hauled in five balls for 99 yards and a touchdown against projected 2011 top-10 pick Patrick Peterson.
Green is expected to be selected in the first 10 picks of the NFL Draft, and most likely will be the first receiver off the board.
Justin Houston (Georgia)
Former Georgia standout Justin Houston will be flexing on Sundays now.
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If Justin Houston's productivity can come anywhere close to matching his measurables, someone is going to get a quality outside linebacker/defensive end.
The 6'3", 270-pound Georgia product has been clocked at 4.68 in the 40-yard dash, has put up 30 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press and vertical leaped 36.5 inches—two inches higher than former Bulldogs teammate A.J. Green, the No. 1 wide receiver prospect available.
That said, sometimes his performances on the field match his remarkable athleticism, while other times they don't.
For example, in an early-season 17-6 loss to eventual SEC East champion South Carolina, Houston recorded nine tackles and had a pair of sacks. He also had six tackles and a sack in a 49-31 loss to eventual BCS national champion Auburn late in the year, as well as five tackles and two sacks against bowl-bound Kentucky just past midseason.
However, he had a combined seven tackles and no sacks in back-to-back weeks against Arkansas and Mississippi State, two teams that would earn bowl bids.
Houston could go as early as the late first round. He is projected as a 3-4 OLB or a 4-3 DE. His biggest strength is rushing the passer, and to be a three-down linebacker at the next level he must improve in man-to-man pass coverage.
Derrick Locke (Kentucky)
Even standouts like Florida safety Ahmad Black had trouble bringing down Kentucky's Derrick Locke.
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At 5'8", 188 pounds, Derrick Locke isn't the biggest running back available in the 2011 NFL Draft. But with a clocking of 4.37 in the 40-yard dash, he is one of the fastest.
A native of Hugo, Okla., Locke carried the ball 518 times for 2,618 yards (5.1 ypc) and 22 touchdowns in his four-year career at Kentucky. Additionally, he caught 95 passes for 883 yards (9.3 ypc) and three touchdowns.
Also a quality return man, Locke averaged 26.9 yards on 54 career kickoff returns.
It would behoove Locke to improve his strength (he did 16 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine), though his 37.5-inch vertical leap was among the highest at his position. He also set UK's record in the long jump with a leap of 25 feet, 3.25 inches in 2008.
If there has been one trouble spot for Locke, it has been injuries. While at Kentucky, he missed time with a cracked rib, a torn left ACL and MCL, a broken left forearm and a left shoulder stinger.
A prospect similar to 2010 Kansas City Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster, Locke is projected to be selected anywhere between the fourth and seventh rounds.
Cliff Matthews (South Carolina)
Former Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead was among those who got up close and personal with South Carolina's Cliff Matthews.
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At 6'4", 257 pounds with a 40-yard dash clocking in the 4.7s, former South Carolina defensive end Cliff Matthews looks the part of an NFL prospect.
He also has performed well on the field, though he hasn't dominated.
Matthews finished his college career with 142 tackles and 16 sacks. However, he forced only one fumble and recovered none in his four years with the Gamecocks, meaning playmaking is a question.
A two-time second-team All SEC selection, Matthews probably isn't strong enough to compete full-time in the NFL right now. He only was able to put up 16 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press at the NFL Combine.
That said, he is South Carolina's record-holder for career games started with 47 and has proven to be very durable.
Matthews is projected to be drafted between the fifth and seventh rounds.
Mike Pouncey (Florida)
Mike Pouncey protected and at times gave Tim Tebow bearhugs at Florida.
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One year later, the top center prospect in the NFL Draft looks almost exactly the same as he did in 2010.
That's because a season after the Pittsburgh Steelers made Florida's Maurkice Pouncey their first-round pick, a team is expected to do the same with his 6'5", 303-pound twin brother, Mike, this April.
Maurkice left a year early because NFL scouts and his Gator coaches told him he was ready. Mike was given a good grade by scouts, but not one in the first round, so he elected to return and play his first season ever without his brother.
There, he moved from guard to center, and after a few shaky shotgun snaps early in the season, he settled into his new role and became an All American.
Pouncey struggles every so often with gigantic nose tackles, but he has a quick first step and can block interior defensive linemen right in front of him, ends and corners on pulls and linebackers at the second level.
He is expected to be taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft and recently tweeted he thinks his landing place will be Dallas at No. 9 overall.
Weslye Saunders (South Carolina)
South Carolina's Weslye Saunders could be a draft steal.
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The son of a sportswriter, Weslye Saunders no doubt probably wishes he could have authored a better 2010 than he did.
A 6'5", 267-pound tight end, the South Carolina product is a tough blocker and faster than most his size, having been clocked at 4.85 in the 40-yard dash. He never averaged less than 11 yards-a-catch while with the Gamecocks.
However, Saunders was suspended for the entire 2010 season after accepting improper benefits from an agent, giving NFL teams questions to ask.
Saunders only scored six touchdowns in his three-year college career, but part of that could be because coach Steve Spurrier has never used the tight end much. Size could make Saunders, who bench pressed 225 pounds 19 times at the NFL Combine and at his pro day, a weapon near the goal line.
Depending on how he interviewed with teams and whether he showed improved route-running in workouts, Saunders could be selected anywhere between the fourth and seventh rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Luke Stocker (Tennessee)
Luke Stocker hopes to end up the No. 1 tight end of the 2011 NFL Draft class.
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In the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Witten, the University of Tennessee has produced one of the NFL's top tight ends of the last decade.
Now, the Volunteers hope to add another Pro Bowler to their alumni ranks.
At 6'5", 258 pounds, Luke Stocker is among the best blocking tight ends available to be selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, and his 27 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine was his position's best.
Stocker finished his college career with 85 receptions for 956 yards and eight touchdowns.
He wasn't used much last year in the passing game when Tennessee played big games against eventual national runner-up Oregon (one catch for two yards), at LSU (two receptions for 16 yards) and at SEC East champion South Carolina (two catches for 16 yards and a touchdown). However, he was productive catching the ball against Florida (five receptions for 41 yards), Mississippi (four catches for 40 yards), Kentucky (five receptions for 55 yards) and in the 30-27 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina (five catches for 58 yards and a score).
Stocker is expected to be taken anywhere between the second and fourth rounds. Most likely, he will be the second tight end selected, after Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph.