GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With the official deadline to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft arriving Monday, there remains no suspense with Florida’s eligible juniors.
All have announced their intentions to go or stay and now will try to maximize those respective decisions, either over the next few months leading up to the draft April 27-29, or over the next year while returning for a final season with the Gators, hoping to boost their national profile.
SEC Country will continue to track the mock drafts and projections leading up to draft day, but once more we will look back on all the Gators who made big decisions on their futures and where they go from here.
Three Gators formally announced they would be returning for their senior seasons. None came as any surprise, but each surely came with a sigh of relief for the Florida coaching staff and fan base.
Duke Dawson, nickel/corner
Dawson made the right decision. He was especially impressive over the second half of the season, but there’s no doubt he can boost his stock with a solid senior campaign. Especially if, as expected, he takes over as a starting cornerback for the Gators.
Dawson was plenty valuable at nickel — with 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception return for touchdown, a team-high 7 pass breakups and a forced fumble — but proving himself as a full-time corner will give NFL talent evaluators a better gauge of his potential.
And for the Gators, Dawson’s return is a key piece to assembling their 2017 defensive puzzle.
With the bulk of Florida’s productive defense departing, including cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, Dawson is a valuable veteran at the team’s greatest area of need.
Johnny Townsend, punter
It might have been a surprise to see a punter leave early for the NFL, but Townsend’s pro potential is legitimate. And his value to the Gators as he returns for his final season can’t be overstated.
For a team that has struggled so much on offense for so long now, having a punter who can consistently swing field position is a high-value asset.
Also, Townsend has some unfinished business.
He was snubbed from the list of finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which honors the top collegiate punter each season. He finished first nationally in averaging 47.9 yards per punt — ahead of those three finalists — and will look to make another run at the prestigious award next fall.
Marcell Harris, safety
Harris never really was included in the conversation of players who might jump early to the draft, but he announced nonetheless that he is indeed returning for his fifth year at Florida.
Like Dawson, he too will be a valuable veteran presence in the secondary. Harris showed a lot down the stretch of the 2016 season, emerging as a redshirt junior and ultimately finishing as the Gators’ leading tackler with 73 total stops along with 4 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble.
He and fellow fifth-year senior Nick Washington should anchor the safety spots next fall.
Jalen “Teez” Tabor, cornerback
This was almost predestined a year ago. Everybody expected Tabor to have a terrific junior season and then move on to the NFL. And that’s exactly what happened.
He finished with 4 interceptions, a touchdown return, 6 pass breakups and 33 total tackles, and will take his elite playmaking skills to the next level.
The only question is, how early does he come off the draft board — and does he go before Quincy Wilson, his teammate and close friend?
Projections: No. 12 (Rob Rang, CBS Sports/The Sports Xchange mock draft), No. 12 (CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler, mock draft), No. 17 (ESPN’s Mel Kiper, ranking of best prospects), No. 19 (ESPN’s Todd McShay, ranking of best prospects), No. 19 (DraftAnalyst.com, ranking of best prospects), No. 26 (Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, mock draft)
Quincy Wilson, cornerback
Just as these two carried on a friendly competition for interceptions and the like during the season, they’ll now jostle for draft position while each hoping to be selected in the first round.
Wilson raised his national profile as a senior while finishing with 3 interceptions, 1 touchdown return, 6 pass breakups, 3.5 tackles for loss and 33 total tackles. Beyond the traditional stats, he was simply terrific in coverage overall. Entering the bowl game, Pro Football Focus had credited him with a 34.8 completion percentage on passes in his direction (16 catches on 46 targets) that ranked first in the SEC and fifth nationally through the end of the regular season.
Projections: No. 12 (Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, mock draft), No. 23 (ESPN’s Mel Kiper, ranking of best prospects), No. 26 (ESPN’s Todd McShay, ranking of best prospects), No. 30 (CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler, mock draft), No. 44 (DraftAnalyst.com, ranking of best prospects)
Jarrad Davis, linebacker
Davis is the example Florida coach Jim McElwain surely will use in the future for how a player can improve his draft stock by returning for his senior season.
It’s a shame that final season was undermined by a significant ankle injury, but he was exceptional when healthy while racking up 60 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 pass breakups and 5 quarterback hurries in 9 games played.
Davis is deservedly being touted a likely first-round draft pick and has the instincts and physical ability to make an impact in the NFL.
Projections: No. 16 (ESPN’s Todd McShay, ranking of best prospects), No. 19 (ESPN’s Mel Kiper, ranking of best prospects), No. 22 (Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, mock draft), No. 73 (DraftAnalyst.com, ranking of best prospects)
Caleb Brantley, defensive tackle
Brantley is yet another potential first-round draft pick off this Gators defense. He was a wrecking ball all fall and his stats — 31 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble — don’t even convey the disruptive force he was up front.
Brantley penned a touching letter explaining his decision to leave for the NFL and how much he has grown during his time in Gainesville. He had nothing more to prove at the collegiate level and will get a prime opportunity to test himself at the highest level now.
Projections: No. 17 (ESPN’s Todd McShay, ranking of best prospects), No. 57 (DraftAnalyst.com, ranking of top prospects)
Alex Anzalone, linebacker
Anzalone had one of the tougher decisions to make. He certainly has the talent and ability to play on Sundays, but he’s been undermined by injuries throughout his collegiate career (including a broken arm this season) and had to decide whether he was better off taking what he could get now or coming back and trying to put together a full season for the scouts.
He opted to leave and now will await his draft fate.
Like Davis, Anzalone boasts strong instincts, lateral movement and playmaking abilities. He finished with 53 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and 6 quarterback hurries in 8 games played, and now NFL teams will have to make a decision on his potential vs. injury risk in assessing his value.
Projections: ?? … The early mock drafts don’t go deep enough at this point, so it’s purely guesswork as to where Anzalone might be taken. Like his Florida teammates, he received a draft grade from the NFL before making his decision, and it was clearly encouraging enough for him to take his chances.
David Sharpe, left tackle
Sharpe is another guy that could have potentially benefitted from an extra season in college. He has the size of an NFL tackle, listed at 6-foot-6, 357 pounds, but he was inconsistent as a junior while playing on a much-maligned offensive line.
Again, like all of the draft-eligible Gators, he received feedback from the NFL on his potential draft grade before making his decision, so he knows better than anyone what his likely outcome will be in April. As the saying goes, coaches can’t teach size, and Sharpe has that going for him. It’s very possible that will be enough for an NFL team to take an early-round gamble on his potential.
*This story is looking only at Florida’s draft-eligible juniors, not seniors like safety Marcus Maye or Joey Ivie, who will be covered in later updates.