Another college football season, another year the SEC is loaded with NFL talent from top to bottom. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of players who have underwhelmed in their careers thus far, either on tape or in the box score, that can really elevate their draft stock with strong final seasons in the conference.
Some big name SEC players have huge opportunities in front of them this season, as they try to put consistent film and production in front of NFL scouts for the first time. Here are the five players I believe have the most to prove to NFL talent evaluators this season.
1. Derrick Brown, IDL, Auburn
One of the most over-hyped players in college football right now, Brown has all the tools to elevate his stock, it just hasn't come together for him yet. His pad level is poor, his hand usage is non-existent or ineffective too often and his block recognition is far too slow. Brown has to process and control blocks better this season, or he'll get beat up as often as he did last year.
There are flashes of ability with Brown, but right now he is not an effective player snap-to-snap, and his issues will only be exacerbated in the NFL. This is a huge season for the junior defensive tackle, as he could easily get buried in a deep defensive line class if he fails to stand out in 2018.
2. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
Many analysts have Brown in their top 10 players in the class, and he seems to be most frequently regarded as the top receiver in college football. I'm lower on him than most, but I do think there is talent here. How much talent is the question, as well as whether Brown can polish up his game this season.
Right now his routes are raw and his releases are untested, as he rarely sees press coverage and operates almost exclusively from the slot. Will Brown get opportunities on the outside this season, to run more vertical routes and get off press coverage? Can he excel with more contested catch opportunities? He might have more to prove than any receiver in college football this season.
3. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
People rave about Stidham's physical tools, but I think they are falling for the look of a big quarterback rather than what he actually shows on the field. Stidham's tools are good, not great, but it was his play under pressure last season that was really troubling.
The Auburn quarterback melted down late in games against Georgia and LSU, failing to rise to the occasion with the offense facing a deficit and needing a scoring drive. The Tigers offense was built for Stidham to be the last person they needed to play great and still win, a philosophy that has to change in 2018 if his stock is going to rise.
If Auburn builds their system around the passing game and Stidham's arm this season, a prospect which makes sense considering their unproven backfield, the redshirt junior quarterback has a chance to show scouts he can be the guy to build an offense around. If not, he'll just be another game manager with tools.
4. Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
Thompson started just two games for Alabama last season, both coming in the College Football Playoff. His performance against Clemson and Georgia was excellent, inspiring a lot of hope for the future as he takes over for the Crimson Tide's host of departing NFL talent.
The biggest concerns for Thompson are simply his mental processing and the continual development of his football IQ and ball skills. His tackling can be over-aggressive at times. so continuing to deploy proper technique is important. Thompson can be the first safety off the board next spring, but right now everyone is just waiting to see how consistent he can be in his first season as a starter.
5. Rashard Lawrence, IDL, LSU
A former five-star recruit, Lawrence's peak plays make him look like a first rounder, but there are too many times where he can't get off blocks and seems to run out of energy. It's not an effort issue, as his coaches herald him as one of the toughest players in the program. Rather, Lawrence has struggled to stay healthy during his time at LSU, often playing through injury to contribute.
In 14 games, Lawrence has just 3.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. He hasn't yet put everything together to be an effective player snap-to-snap, but I'm predicting that changes in 2018. Lawrence's flashes of power, quickness and pass rush ability could make him a top 60 pick next season, but only if he stays healthy and proves his game is pro-ready.