In case you haven't heard, the SEC if a fun football conference to cover. Outside of Alabama, the parity is very real across the conference, and NFL talent consistently flashes all over the field. After scouting the SEC every Saturday for TDN, here are my top NFL Draft observations from the 2018 regular season.
5 Best Prospects
1. Quinnen Williams, IDL, Alabama
The best player in the SEC is one that was barely even on my radar going into the season. I love the draft.
2. Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
Ballhawk with elite range and closing speed. Everything about him screams top ten pick, especially if he cleans up the tackling a little.
3. D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss
Officially declared for the draft a couple days ago, and if he runs well at the Combine, there's a strong chance he's the first receiver off the board. Brad Kelly is right, he has Josh Gordon potential without any of the character concerns.
4. Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama
Overthink Williams all you want, he's going to be a stud tackle in the NFL if the league keeps him on the outside. Has shut down everyone all year.
5. Jeffery Simmons, IDL, Mississippi State
Simmons has everything - athleticism, a rare build, burst off the snap and powerful hands - and he put it all together consistently in a monster season in 2018. He's ready to contribute on all three downs immediately in the NFL.
5 Most Over-Hyped Prospects
1. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Stidham passes all the baseline requirements for being a pro quarterback prospect and none of the standards to be a desirable NFL starter. His poor progression work, messy pocket presence and shoddy decision-making, especially under pressure, made him look like a late rounder at best most of the season.
2. Greg Little, OT, Ole Miss
Little has the size and athleticism, he just doesn't have the technique or the footwork. He looked alright over the first half of the season, but got exposed as the year went on. I definitely want to look at some All-22 of him before I come down hard however.
3. Elgton Jenkins, C, Mississippi State
He's definitely solid, but a first round center? Nah, I can't see that. Jenkins knows what he is doing and will impress in interviews, but he's physically and athletically average, and doesn't play with a major edge.
4. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
I've talked at length now about my concerns with Brown, who is a good prospect but not the WR1, first round talent he was billed as this summer. His athletic testing will be critical.
5. Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
I get it, Snell runs hard and runs his mouth harder, which I love. But what is desirable about him as a prospect in the top 100? He's not explosive or elusive, his vision is just ok, and his ability to contribute as a receiver is limited. Snell will play in the NFL, I just don't get coveting him as a top back.
5 Most Improved Prospects
1. Josh Allen, EDGE, Kentucky
What a transformation by Allen from junior to senior year. Physically, mentally, technically made massive leaps in his final season at Kentucky. The production matches the tape in this situation. He should be a first round pick this spring.
2. Derrick Brown, IDL, Auburn
Brown always had the tools, and now he's a lot closer to putting it together than he was a year ago. Hand usage has been the biggest area of improvement, both as a pass rusher and a run defender.
3. Jachai Polite, EDGE, Florida
Polite's speed and bend are rare for the position, but we never saw them on display as a pass rusher before this season. Tons of Florida's players improved, but none more than Polite, who has played his way into the first round conversation due to his explosive tools.
4. Deandre Baker, CB, Georgia
Many thought Baker would leap to the NFL after last season, but he instead he returned to Georgia and put together a much-improved, masterful 2018 campaign. He was better vertically than he was the year before, constantly competed at the catch point and processed routes breaking in front of him even quicker.
5. Irv Smith, TE, Alabama
Smith was a non-factor a year ago, but with Alabama opening up their offensive attack, he's become an absolute monster for them at all levels of the field. Few tight ends offer his speed in the vertical passing game or his post-catch toughness and elusiveness. He'll be a top 75 pick if he declares.
Honorable Mention: Montez Sweat, EDGE, Mississippi State, Jordan Ta'amu, QB, Ole Miss, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, DB, Florida, Jawaan Taylor, OT, Florida, Irv Smith, TE, Alabama, Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M, Vosean Joseph, LB, Florida
5 Least Improved Prospects
1. J.R. Reed, S, Georgia
A physical safety who tackles and defends the run well, I thought Reed would take the next step in his coverage ability this season, but instead he was exposed consistently. A severe lack of ball skills and instincts seem to be holding him back, and it's unlikely that improves moving forward.
2. D'Andre Walker, EDGE, Georgia
Early in the season I thought Walker was figuring things out, but then he just looked athletically inferior to his competition throughout much of the season. He just isn't overly explosive, fast or flexible, which is going to hamper the kind of impact he can make off the edge in the NFL.
3. Bryan Edwards, WR, South Carolina
I still like Edwards, and I believe his best football could be ahead of him in the NFL. He just didn't show anything on this year's tape that isn't already out there, putting the onus on his Combine testing to prove there is a ceiling there he hasn't yet reached at South Carolina.
4. Garrett Brumfield, IOL, LSU
Brumfield is one of the more physically and athletically gifted offensive linemen in the class, but I was really hoping to see him take his game to the next level technically. Instead, Brumfield was still too vulnerable in pass protection and got eaten up against the top players he faced.
5. Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri
Moving to a pro style offense, I think the hope from everyone was that Ok would not only be a featured weapon in Missouri's attack, but also a much more refined one. Instead he struggled to separate against man coverage, only breaking out against Memphis due to three blown coverages that left him wide open for 159 yards and three touchdowns. If not for that game, we'd be wondering where Ok was all season.
5 Best Developmental Prospects
1. Johnathan Abram, S, Mississippi State
Big, rangy and extremely physical, Abram looks like a first round safety on the hoof. The problem is his instincts, ball skills and mental processing have all been behind where you'd like to see them this year. Abram is a wild card, a true boom-or-bust type of player, but if he hits, he has the natural tools to do what few safeties can.
2. Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt
Williams is very unrefined in his press technique and must do a better job of finding the football with his back to the quarterback, but his length and size are rare at the corner position. If he declares as expected, his testing will be pivotal in determining how early he comes off the board.
3. Javon Kinlaw, IDL, South Carolina
Big, quick and long, Kinlaw reminds me of a more raw Chris Jones coming out of college. He needs work on his pad level, technique and block recognition, but the raw tools are there to take a chance on him in the mid-rounds.
4. Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia
Nauta probably won't declare, but if he does, I think he could be a mid-round steal for a team. He's athletic, physical and has great hands and contested catch ability. Nauta looks like the full package, but because Georgia hardly ever gets him the ball, he's a well-kept secret.
5. Kingsley Keke, IDL, Texas A&M
The more I watch Keke, the more intrigued I am. He actually isn't that raw mentally, but in terms of knowing how to use his athleticism, I think he's still figuring it out. His length and quickness could become dynamic in the NFL with good coaching. I'm looking forward to really studying up his 2018 tape.
5 Prospects I Still Question
1. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
Williams still gives up too much separation vertically, can be sloppy with his press technique at the line of scrimmage and doesn't find the ball down the field as well as he should. He talks a lot, but doesn't always finish reps with the edge and effort you want to see either.
2. Raekwon Davis, IDL, Alabama
Davis will definitely be at minimum a good starter in the NFL, but to be worthy of the top 5 hype he's received, he needed to make more strides as a pass rusher than I think he did this season. I'm still high on him, but I do think he has room to develop in his first step and overall rush plan on long/late downs.
3. Rashard Lawrence, IDL, LSU
I predicted a breakout season for Lawrence before the year, and I think I was right? He's been a steady presence for LSU, staying healthy and showing the ability to wreak havoc at times, but he can also get stuck on blocks and doesn't execute a plan of attack consistently as a pass rusher.
4. Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
I almost put Lock in the "Least Improved" category, but his strides over the season's final weeks are reason enough to go back to his tape. I'm just not sure he is a quick enough mental processor or good enough under pressure to really maximize his physical gifts, but I'm open to the fact that learning process could occur for him in the NFL.
5. Isaiah Buggs, IDL, Alabama
9.5 sacks in the SEC is nothing to sneeze at, as Buggs used raw power and strong hand work to win 1v1 and consistently flush the pocket. His athleticism is in serious question however, as his first step and flexibility appear to be more limited than you'd like in an early round prospect.
5 Biggest Sleepers
1. Mike Edwards, S, Kentucky
Can play nickel, in the box or on the back end. Underrated ball skills and natural instincts. Doesn't possess elite athleticism or size, but fast enough and plays with the physicality of a bigger defender.
2. Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M
Can you be a sleeper when you are the second-leading tight end in receiving yards in the country? What a year for Sternberger, with 47 catches for 804 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's a good athlete for the position with ideal size and impressive post-catch toughness. He'd be crazy not to declare after the year he has had.
3. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
Will Fulton declare after less than one full year of action? What a year it has been though. He's shown great patience from press man and the ability to contest throwing windows with his length and ball skills. Lot of traits to get excited about.
4. Terry Beckner, IDL, Missouri
Didn't wow statistically this season, but was just a steady presence for Missouri all year long. Leader of their defensive turnaround, can anchor the point-of-attack or win across a lineman's face into the backfield.
5. Jordan Scarlett, RB, Florida
Not super big or athletic, but tough, physical and has surprising burst in the open field. Consistently runs through contact and finishes forward. Scarlett won't get drafted high if he declares, but he'll help a rotation as a mid-round pick.
5 Prospects I'd Pound The Table For
1. Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina
Not the biggest or fastest receiver, but checks the box in both categories, plays fast and is a nightmare after the catch. Fought through drop issues at the beginning of the year to come alive over the final stretch of the season. Inside-outside versatility ups the value.
2. DaMarkus Lodge, WR, Ole Miss
One of the best vertical threats in the class. Outstanding body control and flexibility with legit deep speed. Can he cut down the drops? He did this past year. More dynamic than A.J. Brown.
3. Riley Ridley, WR, Georgia
This kid has everything except an offense that gets him the ball like a true top receiver. Situation reminds me a lot of Michael Thomas' at Ohio State, and I think the skill sets out of college are similar. Ridley could test his way into Round 1.
4. Emanuel Hall, WR, Missouri
Speedster with terrific releases and the ability to engage a second gear to run under the ball down the field. Hands are an issue, but his routes and attention to detail improved in a pro-style offense this year.
5. Dawson Knox, TE, Ole Miss
Never gets thrown the ball, but consistently makes plays when he does. Has the natural hands and overall athleticism to be a high pick if he declares. Contested catch finishing and post-catch creativity are still a work-in-progress.