The SEC was well-represented in the 2017 NFL Draft, once again finishing as college football’s top conference in terms of talent sent to the next level. The SEC had 53 total draft picks and easily outpaced the ACC, which was second with 43.
Now we turn our attention to the SEC’s top prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft because it’s never too early, right? Per usual, the conference is loaded with elite players, particularly on defense.
Here is an early look at the SEC’s 25 best draft prospects for 2018 (in alphabetical order).
Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama (Sr., 6-0, 185)
Averett is known as a hard hitter. He had 48 tackles in 2016, with 39 of those being solo stops. Averett led the team with eight pass breakups and also forced two fumbles. He finished the season as a starter and looks to be ready to be another key member of the Crimson Tide’s secondary. If Averett has another productive season, there’s no reason to think he won’t get some NFL attention.
Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida (Jr., 5-11, 197)
After a stellar freshman season which ended with him being named a first-team All-American as a return man, Callaway came back in 2016 and balled out once again. Showing off his versatility, Callaway became the first player in school history to score a rushing, receiving, passing, punt return and kickoff return touchdown in a career – and he only needed to seasons to accomplish this. Callaway soon could be a major asset to an NFL team.
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (Sr., 5-10, 228)
Injuries have been an issue, but there aren’t many running backs in college football as naturally talented as Chubb. He was able to complete a full season in 2016 and decided to stay with the Bulldogs for one more round. If Chubb reaches the 1,000-yard mark again this fall, he should be one of the first running backs taken in next year’s draft.
Duke Dawson, DB, Florida (Sr., 5-10, 208)
Three former Gator defensive backs were taken in the second round of this year’s NFL draft and Dawson will likely be the next. He operated as Florida’s nickel cornerback throughout last season, playing in 12 games and getting seven starts. He led the team with seven pass breakups and should thrive in a larger role this fall.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama (Jr., 6-1, 201)
While teammate Anthony Averett should hear his name in the 2018 NFL Draft, Fitzpatrick is without question Alabama’s top corner. A first-team All-American by several outlets, including the Associated Press, Fitzpatrick also was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as a sophomore last season. A true ball hawk, he already is Alabama’s all-time leader in pick-sixes with four. He led the SEC and tied for seventh nationally with six interceptions in 2016.
Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (Jr., 5-11, 212)
Forget Leonard Fournette. Guice carried the load for LSU last season, amassing an SEC-leading 1,387 rushing yards to go along with 15 touchdowns on the ground. He also paced the conference with a stunning 7.6 yards per carry average. Guice was the Citrus Bowl MVP and even was named a first team All-American by some services. Another big season and Guice could follow in Fournette’s footsteps as a potential first-round pick in 2018.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama (Sr., 6-0, 233)
Hamilton is just the next guy in line when it comes to NFL-caliber linebackers from Alabama. He took over at middle linebacker last season playing alongside Reuben Foster and managed to finish third on the team in tackles before suffering a knee injury against Florida. Hamilton is a ferocious run stopper and is one of the SEC’s very best at finding and bringing down the ball carrier. He should be highly sought-after next April.
Da’Shawn Hand, DE, Alabama (Sr., 6-4, 282)
Over the course of his career Hand has paid his dues on the defensive line and helped provide the Crimson Tide with the depth the team is known for. This season should be Hand’s time to shine up front. He has shown prowess in not only being able to stop the run from the defensive end position, but also can get to the quarterback. Hand has the physical tools to compete at the next level.
Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama (Jr., 6-3, 214)
Harrison was the Crimson Tide’s No. 2 tackler in 2016, totaling 86 stops. He also recorded two interceptions, a pair of fumble recoveries and seven pass breakups (not to mention a blocked field goal). Harrison is an all-around player who provides reliability in the Alabama secondary. He performed particularly well in big games against rival Tennessee and Washington in the College Football Playoff last season.
Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss (Sr., 6-3, 225)
Haynes enters his senior season with 24.5 career sacks and 36.5 tackles for a loss. He was an All-SEC-caliber player last year, leading the Rebels in both categories. Additionally, he forced three fumbles. Haynes started every game at defensive end. He has the perfect frame to transition to a hybrid end-outside linebacker role in the NFL.
Martez Ivey, OG, Florida (Jr., 6-5, 305)
Prior to last season’s SEC Championship Game against Alabama, Ivey had recorded 19 consecutive starts at left guard in his first two seasons. He earned SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors twice last season and was named second-team All-SEC by both the coaches and AP. His pulling ability makes him a hot commodity among NFL-ready guards.
Donte Jackson, CB, LSU (Jr., 5-11, 173)
Jackson could be the next elite defensive back to come out of Baton Rouge. He’s quite versatile, having lined up at corner, nickel, wide receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner throughout his career at LSU. Also starring on the track team, Jackson has incredible speed. He should fit well in the nickel position this fall, but it likely will be his return ability that NFL teams are most intrigued by.
CeCe Jefferson, DE, Florida (Jr., 6-1, 261)
A U.S. Army All-American coming out of high school, Jefferson took the field in Gainesville and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team by the coaches. He followed that up with 30 tackles in 2016, but was sidelined for part of the season with an injury. Jefferson looks to be a full-time starter at end in his junior season. If it goes well, he may only be at Florida one more year.
Arden Key, DE, LSU (Jr., 6-6, 238)
Talent-wise, Key has all the tools to become a star in the NFL. He made a few off-the-field headlines after stepping away from the football program for personal reasons in February. However, Key says he’s not sitting out his junior year. That’s good news for LSU fans. Key had a school-record 12 sacks last season, truly becoming one of the SEC’s most dangerous pass rushers.
Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (Jr., 5-11, 200)
Two years ago, Kirk was the SEC Freshman of the Year after racking up nearly 1,800 all-purpose yards. He got close to 1,000 receiving yards as a sophomore and also scored nine touchdowns. By many accounts, Kirk is already being projected as a first-rounder in the 2018 NFL Draft. His speed, quickness and versatility will make him one of the most sought-after prospects in college football.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina (Sr., 6-2, 221)
Moore made this list last season. Unfortunately, he was sidelined in 2016 while rehabbing a herniated disk. He returns to the field as a redshirt senior and unquestioned leader of the South Carolina defense after leading the Gamecocks with 111 tackles in 2015. Hopefully Moore is at full strength this fall, because he is certainly capable of playing on Sundays. It won’t hurt having Will Muschamp there to coach him up.
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama (Jr., 6-2, 308)
Payne is Alabama’s rising star in what is already a loaded defensive line. He was a monster for opposing teams to contain up front last year. Payne racked up 36 tackles, but more importantly did what defensive tackles are paid to do – create a mess. Payne has no trouble clogging gaps and making way for linebackers, because he can hold his own against just about any offensive lineman in the SEC.
Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas (Sr., 6-5, 319)
Ragnow was an All-SEC lineman last season. He’s the perfect run blocker in the Razorbacks’ offense. While he started 12 games at center last season, Ragnow can easily move over and play guard. Ragnow has built a reputation as one of the nation’s top run blockers, but besides that, he hasn’t allowed a sack in the past two seasons either.
Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State (Sr., 6-5, 305)
Rankin will be the anchor of the Bulldogs’ offensive line. He can play either tackle position, but likely will be most valuable on the blind side. He’s another guy who has all the tools – the strength and power to run block, the quick feet and long arms to pass block, and maybe most importantly, the mean streak. Rankin is being projected as a potential first-rounder next April.
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (Jr., 6-1, 190)
Ridley was named a Freshman All-American after a stellar debut which saw him haul in 89 catches for more than 1,000 yards. His numbers weren’t quite as impressive last season but he still neared the 800-yard mark and displayed his big-play ability on multiple occasions. Now a junior, Ridley looks poised for one final breakout season before heading to the NFL.
Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama (Jr., 6-2, 232)
Scarbrough finished the season with more 812 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground while splitting time. Perhaps his most impressive feat was the way he finished the season, playing well in the College Football Playoff. He earned Offensive MVP honors for Alabama after running for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries in the semifinal win against Washington.
Braden Smith, OG, Auburn (Sr., 6-6, 303)
Smith has become a mainstay for the Tigers’ offensive line with 27 consecutive starts since 2014. Smith was an All-American last season, according to multiple outlets, and also was first team All-SEC. His run-blocking ability has been evident since he stepped foot on campus and should be his key attribute when it comes time to make the transition to the next level.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn (So., 6-4, 214)
The top-rated dual-threat quarterback prospect out of high school, Stidham started his college career at Baylor, throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 games (three starts) as a true freshman in 2015. After former head coach Art Briles was fired, Stidham decided to transfer and didn’t play at all last season. Already named the starter by Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn, Stidham could establish himself as a one of the top quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class with a strong season.
Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia (Jr., 6-4, 295)
One of the top prospects in the nation coming out of high school in 2014, Thompson took a considerable step forward as a sophomore. Not only did he lead the Bulldogs’ interior linemen in tackles with 56, he also saved his best for last. Thompson was named MVP in Georgia’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over TCU, registering three sacks among his eight total tackles.
Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M (Sr., 5-11, 205)
It’s a long way out, but Watts could be the steal of the 2018 NFL Draft. He led the Aggies with 126 tackles as a sophomore in 2015 and proved his worth as a big-time hitter at safety. While his production slid off a bit last season, he was still one of the SEC’s most respected safeties. Watts is the type of safety who can instill fear into opposing wide receivers. That should help him when NFL scouts take a closer look.
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.