Georgia Bulldogs: Adrian Hubbard
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
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The Bulldogs’ veteran defense thoroughly dominated a line that had to replace three NFL draftees at first before offensive line coach Will Friend’s group finally began to make progress. And that process has continued during the regular season, with the line exceeding its coaches' modest expectations as the new lineup continued to grow more comfortable as a group.
“They’ve improved each week and we’ve got to keep going that way,” said Friend, whose players are among the biggest factors in Saturday’s SEC championship matchup with Alabama according to many analysts. “The season’s a long way from over and there’s still another month left, I guess, to keep improving and keep going. So they’ve gotten better, but at the same time we’ve got to be more consistent.”
The low point of the season was certainly Georgia’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina, when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, in particular, helped whip the Bulldogs up front. That was a painful experience for the line, but it was also a valuable lesson for the group.
“It wasn’t that hard for them to realize what we had to work on and we needed to play better,” Friend said. “We try to be pretty honest with how we think guys played and I feel like they kind of respond better when you tell them the truth and tell them how you feel. So they knew.
“And of course, if you’ve got a good group, they know anyway, so they could tell and they saw what they needed to work on and it was just go back to work. It would have been no different if we would have played better.”
Alabama’s dominant defense is not particularly similar to South Carolina’s in structure, but it is even more effective when it comes to results. The Crimson Tide rank among the national leaders in every major defensive category and represents perhaps the biggest matchup challenge that Friend’s line will have faced this season.
“They’ve got a great defense,” Friend said. “Obviously the stats speak for themselves. When you put the tape on, you see how well they play the techniques and how hard they play and how physical they are. They’re well coached, they’re focused on what they’re doing, they play it just like their coaches want them to play it and they’re very impressive, so it’s a big challenge.”
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.