The 2020 NFL Draft is now officially in the books. And while this year's remote format made for an unconventional departure from past drafts, there was a very familiar theme — SEC dominance. For the 14th consecutive year, the SEC flexed its muscle with more players selected than any other conference in college football. The SEC boasted a total of 63 players selected by NFL teams over the three-day event, led by LSU with 14 selections. That includes 40 SEC players taken in the first three rounds and a record 15 players selected in the first round alone. To put the SEC's dominance into perspective, the remaining Power 5 conferences (Big 10, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12) collectively combined to produce 48 draft selections through the first three rounds.
This year's draft certainly took a bite out of the talent pool in the nation's premier college football conference. However, the SEC-to-NFL pipeline isn't showing signs of slowing down anytime soon. The SEC returns plenty of elite talent to stockpile the 2021 NFL Draft and more is sure to emerge as this coming season unfolds.
While it will be another year before we officially find out which SEC players the NFL covets the most, it's never too soon to look at some of the conference's top prospects. Here now are 25 draft-eligible SEC players that have the most potential to hear their names called in the early rounds next year in Cleveland.
1. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU (Jr., 6-1, 200)
Chase put together a phenomenal sophomore campaign for the national champion Tigers last season, racking up 84 catches and setting SEC single-season records for both receiving yards (1,780) and touchdown catches (20). For his efforts, he garnered consensus All-American honors, along with the prestigious Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top wide receiver in 2019. It will prove difficult for the junior-to-be to match last year's success. However, Chase has already proven that he is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the nation. He has an unmatched talent for getting open and making difficult catches look easy, even against elite competition. That is why he has a really good chance to be the first wide receiver to walk across the stage in the 2021 NFL Draft.
2. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama (Jr., 6-2, 203)
The son of a former NFL All-Pro by the same name, Surtain II is set to embark on his third season as a starter in the Alabama secondary. He looks to build on a strong sophomore season that included 42 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass breakups and three forced fumbles - garnering honorable mention All-American honors from PFF in the process. The former five-star prospect has the coverage and ball skills of an elite cornerback to go along with the size and physicality of a top-flight safety. A strong junior campaign should solidify Surtain II as a first-round pick if he elects to leave school early.
3. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama (Jr., 5-10, 182)
Waddle hauled in 33 passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore while leading the nation in punt return average (24.4 yards per return) to earn first-team All-SEC recognition. No longer in the shadows of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, the former SEC Freshman of the Year appears poised to take a big step forward at wide receiver in his junior season. Waddle is blessed with great hands and is very elusive after the catch. But his calling card is his speed, with the ability to stretch the field and create separation from defenders with ease. As a result, he is projected to land in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
4. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama (Sr., 6-1, 175)
Smith put up monster numbers as a junior in 2019. His 68 catches ranked second on the team behind only Jerry Jeudy, and he led the Crimson Tide in both receiving yards (1,256) and touchdown receptions (14) to earn first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American accolades last season. Smith also enjoyed what is recognized as the greatest performance ever by an Alabama wide receiver – catching 11 passes for a school-record 274 yards and five touchdowns against Ole Miss. Much like fellow wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, speed is his calling card. And much like Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Smith is expected to hear his name called in the first round of next year's NFL Draft.
5. Dylan Moses, ILB, Alabama (R-Jr., 6-3, 235)
He was tabbed as a likely first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft before a torn ACL ultimately cost him his junior season. A Butkus Award finalist as a rising sophomore, Moses led the Crimson Tide defense with 86 tackles. He also had 10 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble to earn second-team All-SEC honors in 2018. The former five-star recruit is a dynamic athlete with a nose for the football. If Moses bounces back with an impressive 2020 season and avoids further injury, he will all but guarantee his status as a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
6. Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama (Sr., 6-6, 310)
Following a dominant sophomore season at right guard for the Crimson Tide, Leatherwood made the transition to left tackle in 2019. He graded out at 89 percent and allowed just two sacks all season. For his efforts, he earned first-team All-American (AFCA) and All-SEC honors. There's still room for improvement, but a standout senior season should propel Leatherwood into the first round.
7. Jabril Cox, LB, LSU (R-Sr., 6-3, 233)
A two-time All-American and three-time national champion at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, Cox will take his talents to the SEC in his final season of eligibility, where he is expected to take on a starring role in a depleted LSU linebacker corps. During his three seasons in Fargo, he racked up an incredible 258 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks, and six interceptions. Cox is already very much on the radar of NFL scouts due to his dynamic range, speed and instincts. With the added exposure of playing his final season in Baton Rouge, it would not come as a surprise if he comes off of the board early in next year's draft.
8. Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia (Sr., 5-11, 190)
LeCounte has developed into a true impact player and leader for an elite Georgia defense, living up to his lofty billing as a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Last season as a junior, he ranked third on the team with 61 tackles, adding an SEC-best three forced fumbles and tied for the second in the conference in interceptions with four. LeCounte was responsible for nearly half (seven) of the 15 turnovers the Georgia defense created last season. Another productive campaign and a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine could catapult the hard-hitting, ball-hawking, safety into the first round of next year's draft.
9. Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee (Sr., 6-6, 335)
A former five-star recruit and Freshman All-American, Smith is truly a man amongst boys when he is on the field. Unfortunately, blood clots in his lungs forced him to miss extensive time as a sophomore and has since limited his participation in practice to non-contact drills only. Despite those limitations, Smith still managed to bounce back with a monster junior campaign, earning first-team All-SEC honors at left guard. His medical condition could give some NFL teams reservations about selecting him in the early rounds of next year's draft. However, another productive season without any setbacks should help alleviate those concerns. There is no doubt that Smith is a first-round talent.
10. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama (Sr., 6-2, 230)
It's no longer commonplace to see running backs taken in the first round in the modern era of the NFL. But occasionally, a talent comes along that is too good to pass up. Harris is one of those. A rare combination of size, speed, strength, vision and pass-catching ability, Harris is indeed the total package. A great senior season on the stat sheet will likely vault him into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
11. Cade Mays, OL, Tennessee (Jr., 6-6, 328)
A former five-star prospect out of Knoxville, Mays started 18 games along a talent-rich Georgia offensive line before opting to transfer home to finish his college career as a Vol. While Mays is still awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility for the upcoming season, early indications are promising that his waiver will be approved. If not, it’s still possible that he could be a Day 1 NFL Draft pick without ever playing a down of football on Rocky Top. He's that talented and his versatility adds to his value at the next level.
12. K.J. Costello, QB, Mississippi State (R-Sr., 6-5, 220)
He completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions during a promising sophomore season at Stanford in 2018. His 2019 season was ultimately derailed by injury, leading to his decision to transfer to Mississippi State in search of a fresh start. Aside from some correctable issues with his mechanics, Costello has all the tools necessary to shine at the next level. If he can remain healthy and put up monster numbers in Mike Leach's pass-happy offense this season, Costello will climb his way up NFL teams' draft boards.
13. Israel Mukuamu, CB, South Carolina (Jr., 6-4, 205)
A second-team All-SEC performer as a sophomore, Makuamu put himself on the map with a standout three-interception performance in South Carolina's upset win over Georgia. He has areas to improve upon, but 6-foot-4 cornerbacks with incredible wingspans, range and athleticism are a rare commodity, even in the NFL. That's exactly why Mukuamu could hear his name called very early in next year’s draft.
14. Seth Williams, WR, Auburn (Jr., 6-3, 225)
He put together an impressive sophomore campaign, leading Auburn in receptions (59), receiving yards (830), and touchdown catches (8) in 2019. As Bo Nix's go-to target, in what will likely be a pass-heavy attack under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Williams should emerge as one of the top offensive threats in the SEC this season. He is a crisp route-runner with sure hands, but it's his unique blend of size and athleticism that will propel him into the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.
15. Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri (Jr., 6-0, 232)
He earned first-team All-SEC honors after a breakout sophomore season in which he led Mizzou with 103 tackles (8.5 for a loss). He also had a sack, two interceptions and seven passes defended in 2019. Bolton is a sure tackler and excels in coverage from his linebacker position. With another banner season in 2020, Bolton is a strong candidate to come off the board early in next year's draft.
16. Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia (Jr., 6-2, 185)
It’s been a baptism by fire of sorts for the former five-star prospect during his first two seasons in Athens. However, there may not be a more gifted cornerback in all of college football. Campbell will need to stay healthy and meet lofty expectations this season to improve his draft stock. But if he can finally put it all together, he has tremendous upside at the next level.
17. LaBryan Ray, DL, Alabama (R-Jr., 6-5, 292)
The former five-star recruit has shown incredible promise when healthy. The problem is that he's struggled to stay on the field during his time in Tuscaloosa. Ray does, however, check all the boxes that NFL scouts are looking for in a top-flight defensive lineman. His potential is off the charts, but he will need a healthy and productive 2020 season to be in the conversation as a possible first-rounder.
18. JaCoby Stevens, S, LSU (Sr. 6-1, 228)
Stevens finished a strong junior season for the national champs with 85 tackles (9 for a loss), five sacks, three interceptions and six passes defended to earn second-team All-SEC accolades. He has the potential to be one of the SEC's top defensive players in 2020. If that comes to fruition, Stevens' draft stock will soar.
19. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida (Jr., 6-6, 246)
Pitts was named first-team All-SEC following a breakout sophomore season that included a team-best 54 receptions for 649 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He is once again expected to flourish in the Gator offense as the top returning target for quarterback Kyle Trask in 2020. Pitts needs to improve his blocking skills to maximize his potential as a tight end at the next level. But his freakish athleticism and elite talent as a pass catcher should be enough to merit an early-round grade in the 2021 NFL Draft.
20. Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia (Jr., 6-1, 185)
Stokes emerged as a surprise star in the Georgia secondary last season to lead the Bulldogs in passes defended with nine. He also graded out as the fourth-best cornerback in the SEC in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Stokes has legit track speed to go along with the size and ball skills that NFL teams covet.
21. Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia (Sr., 6-4, 230)
A gifted passer and runner, Newman threw for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for an additional 574 yards and six touchdowns during a breakout season for Wake Forest in 2019. Newman elected to take his talents to Athens for his final season where he will attempt to jump-start a talent-rich Georgia offense in 2020. If he is up to the challenge, it will pay big dividends on draft day.
22. Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama (Jr., 6-1, 189)
Jobe has already shown elite flashes during limited action in the Alabama secondary. That's probably why he is being tabbed as the next great cornerback for the Crimson Tide. He's a prime candidate for a breakout season, which should have NFL scouts paying more attention.
23. Marco Wilson, CB, Florida (R-Jr., 6-0, 190)
A standout for the Gator defense as a true freshman, a torn ACL cost Wilson most of his sophomore season. He managed to rebound with a solid 2019 campaign that included three interceptions. If he can return to top-flight form in 2020, there is a reasonable possibility that Wilson will follow in big brother Quincy's footsteps as an early-round NFL draft pick.
24. Deonte Brown, OG, Alabama (R-Sr., 6-4, 338)
NFL teams are always looking for big road-grading run blockers who are skilled in pass protection to solidify the interior of their offensive lines. Brown fits that bill. He probably won't be a first-round pick but he should be able to solidify his status as a Day 2 option barring any setbacks during his final season in Tuscaloosa.
25. Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M (Sr., 6-3, 217)
After three seasons as the Aggies' starting quarterback, Mond has one last chance to impress scouts and prove that he can be a franchise signal-caller at the next level. He will need to take a big step forward to make that happen. But Mond is capable and if successful, the dual-threat quarterback could land in the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.
25 more draft-eligible SEC prospects to watch:
Trey Dean III, DB, Florida; Kylin Hill, RB, Miss. St.; Kyle Trask, QB, Florida; Landon Young, OT, Kentucky; Tyler Shelvin, DT, LSU; Bryce Thompson, CB, Tennessee; Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia; Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina; Damone Clark, LB, LSU; Darian Kinnard, OG, Kentucky; Trey Hill, C, Georgia; Dimitri Moore, LB, Vanderbilt; Erroll Thompson, LB, Miss. St.; Tedarrell Slaton, DT, Florida; Quinton Bohanna, DT, Kentucky; Sam Williams, LB, Ole Miss; Aubrey Solomon, DL, Tennessee; Feleipe Franks, QB, Arkansas; Drake Jackson, C, Kentucky; Big Kat Bryant, DE, Auburn; Rakeem Boyd, RB, Arkansas; Carson Green, OT, Texas A&M; Monty Rice, LB, Georgia; Lakia Henry, LB, Ole Miss; Neil Farrell, DL, LSU
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter@Rob_UTVOLS.