Every year, a slew of SEC underclassmen leave school early to enter the NFL draft, and several conference stars kept that trend going after enjoying strong 2016 seasons.
Whether they choose to get a head start on their pro careers or return to campus for another year, eligible players have until Monday to declare their intentions. Most underclassmen already have made their decisions public, but a few guys of note are still up in the air.
So which guys are sticking around? Which ones are NFL-bound? And who needs to stick around for one more season? SEC Country has a comprehensive roundup of the decisions affecting every SEC school for you to digest.
Who’s leaving: OT Cam Robinson, WR ArDarius Stewart, CB Marlon Humphrey
Who’s staying: RB Bo Scarbrough, OG Ross Pierschbacher, C Bradley Bozeman, LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, CB Anthony Averett, CB Tony Brown, P JK Scott
Analysis: The Crimson Tide lose a few star juniors every year. That’s simply the nature of the beast when a program cycles through as much talent as Nick Saban’s does. Robinson declaring was a foregone conclusion, as he’s expected to be a top-10 pick. Humphrey, a redshirt sophomore, is considered among the best corners available in this year’s draft class. But Alabama will return deep in the secondary next year, and another top tackle should be ready to replace Robinson.
The departure of Stewart, Alabama’s leading receiver in 2016, might hurt. Junior wideout Robert Foster is apparently looking at transfer options, and grad transfer Gehrig Dieter is obviously out the door as well. That means Jerry Jeudy, a 5-star receiver who enrolled this month, could be a candidate for early playing time alongside Calvin Ridley.
The good news: Seven prominent underclassmen are returning. They include Scarbrough — who in fact could have declared early, as unlikely as it would have been — All-American punter JK Scott and five other multi-game starters. That and, of course, a 2017 signing class that should rank No. 1 nationally once again.
Who’s leaving: DE Carl Lawson
Who’s staying: SS Tray Matthews, RB Kamryn Pettway, OG Braden Smith, C Austin Golson, K Daniel Carlson
Analysis: While Alabama will experience heavy turnover this offseason, Auburn — with the exception of Rhett Lashlee’s surprise jump to UConn — remains much the same in 2017 and looks poised to get even better. Lawson, a projected Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick, emerged as a bone-fide star during his junior season (9 sacks, 13.5 TFLs, 24 QB hurries). Luckily for the Tigers, they have a handful of blue-chip defensive linemen to fill the big shoes of Lawson and Montravius Adams next fall.
Pettway coming back cannot be overstated; the workhorse tailback will begin the year as a Heisman Trophy candidate after leading the SEC with 122.4 yards per game. Carlson gives Auburn tremendous security in the kicking game, while Matthews, Smith and Golson were all above-average starters. A pretty good turnout for Gus Malzahn, all in all.
Who’s leaving: OL David Sharpe, DT Caleb Brantley, LB Alex Anzalone, CB Jalen “Teez” Tabor, CB Quincy Wilson
Who’s staying: WR Brandon Powell, S Marcell Harris, DB Duke Dawson, P Johnny Townsend
Analysis: Like Alabama, the Gators always lose a handful of juniors to the NFL. This year, however, will be harder on Jim McElwain’s staff than others. UF will say goodbye to more than half of its defensive starters from 2016, including the star cornerback duo of Tabor and Wilson, while also losing a standout pass-blocking tackle in Sharpe. Dawson’s decision to stick around, then, becomes a huge one.
The silver lining here: Powell, who caught 45 passes for 387 yards, should become the 10th offensive starter returning for Florida next season. And the Gators have nowhere to go but up on that side of the ball, right?
Who’s leaving: WR Isaiah McKenzie
Who’s staying: RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, LB Lorenzo Carter, LB Davin Bellamy, S Dominick Sanders
Analysis: The Bulldogs fall squarely into the “winners” category with Auburn here, bringing back not one but two elite tailbacks as seniors — a rarity in modern college football. Chubb and Michel are joined by the team’s top two sack artists Bellamy and Carter, plus an experienced, ball-hawking safety in Sanders (12 career interceptions).
McKenzie going pro certainly will hurt, as the “Human Joystick” led Georgia in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a substantial margin in 2016. The school’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns should see the NFL field quickly on special teams. But make no mistake: If the Bulldogs can sort themselves out on the offense line, they’re poised to do much more damage in Year 2 of the Kirby Smart regime.
Who’s leaving: RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre, DL Davon Godchaux, S Jamal Adams
Who’s staying: WR D.J. Chark, OL K.J. Malone, OL William Clapp, DL Christian LaCouture
Analysis: Last year proved to be the exception to the LSU junior rule, with several prominent underclassmen returning with the goal of a winning a national title. This year, the Tigers are back to the norm. Fournette declaring was less shocking than, well, the offense’s continued search for a viable starting quarterback. Adams, Godchaux and Dupre should all be off the board by the end of Day 2 at the latest, too. You can’t really fault any of these players for wanting to try their hands at the NFL a year early.
The big returnees here are LaCouture, who lost all of 2016 to a knee injury, and Chark, who has a chance to thrive under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Who’s leaving: DE Derek Barnett, RB Alvin Kamara, WR Josh Malone
Expected to stay: OG Jashon Robertson, TE Ethan Wolf, DB Todd Kelly, DB Evan Berry
Analysis: No real surprises here. Barnett was the team’s best defensive player while Malone emerged as a big-time receiving threat for the Vols, snagging 50 passes for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns. Kamara, despite his inconsistent involvement on offense, should excel in the NFL given his versatile skill set and receiving abilities.
The rest of Tennessee’s underclassmen didn’t really have the kind of standout seasons needed to generate much NFL interest. With the arrival of a new offensive coordinator and a quarterback battle looming this spring, 2017 could be a rocky year of transition for Butch Jones & Co.
Who’s leaving: DE Myles Garrett, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Speedy Noil
Who’s staying: RB Keith Ford, DT Zaycoven Henderson, CB Priest Willis, S Armani Watts, DB Donovan Wilson
Analysis: Depending on what the Cleveland Browns decide to do, Garrett might be first man to hear his name called in April on account of his studly pass-rushing skills. The Aggies’ receiving corps also will take a few hits, as Seals-Jones and Noil head for the NFL along with 1,000-yard senior Josh Reynolds. Kevin Sumlin won’t have it especially easy in 2017 because of that. Several key defensive contributors, however, will be back for another year with coordinator John Chavis, including an underrated presence up front in Henderson.
Who’s leaving: RB Stanley “Boom” Williams, WR Jeff Badet (transfer)
Who’s staying: WR Garrett Johnson, WR Dorian Baker, DE Denzil Ware, LB Courtney Love
Analysis: Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s ground attack was by far Kentucky’s strength last season, but you can’t blame a running back for leaving college early given the shelf life for players at that position. Williams, a home-run threat who averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry in his Wildcats career, won’t be easily replaced. Neither will Badet, UK’s leading receiver who picked up 21.6 yards per catch as a junior.
Kentucky will need to quickly find a tailback complement for bruiser Benny Snell and a new go-to in the passing game; 4-star commit Lynn Bowden, who committed to the ‘Cats on Saturday, might be an early candidate at receiver because of that. On the bright side, coach Mark Stoops welcomes back most of his starting lineup on defense, including Love and Ware, the team’s No. 2 sack-getter.
Who’s leaving: None
Who’s staying: TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, LB Skai Moore
Analysis: Moore is sticking around after losing his entire 2016 season to a spring neck injury that required surgery. Hurst, though he was one of the nation’s top receiving tight ends as a 23-year-old sophomore, returns to improve as a blocker and further refine his overall game. He and Samuel, the team’s top two receivers, will join Moore and fellow standout linebacker Allen-Williams on a South Carolina team poised to continue rebuilding under coach Will Muschamp.
Who’s leaving: None
Who’s staying: C Frank Ragnow, WR Jared Cornelius, QB Austin Allen, S Josh Liddell, DB Santos Ramirez
Analysis: Ragnow might be the best overall player on the Razorbacks roster (Pro Football Focus recognized him as the nation’s best center), and Cornelius’ comeback is huge considering four of the team’s top five receivers in 2016 were seniors. That, plus Allen returning as the SEC’s top passer, should soften the blow of 10 senior starters leaving the program.
Who’s leaving: WR Damore’ea Stringfellow
Who’s staying: DE Marquis Haynes, LB DeMarquis Gates, K Gary Wunderlich
Analysis: The Rebels have some serious talent to replace on their high-octane passing attack, as Stringfellow’s departure leaves Hugh Freeze without three of last year’s four leading receivers. Other than that, however, Ole Miss stays mostly intact after its most disappointing season of the Freeze era. Haynes and Gates, who combined for 11 sacks in 2016, highlight the underclassmen set to return.
Who’s leaving: LB Zach Cunningham
Who’s staying: RB Ralph Webb
Analysis: Vanderbilt got a pleasant surprise when Webb announced that he’d be back for one more year with the Commodores — despite leading the conference in carries (250) and finishing with 1,283 yards as a junior. Cunningham, perhaps the program’s best player in 2016, will try his hand at the pros even though at least one NFL scout expressed doubt about his strength and tackling consistency. Our opinion: That might’ve been a clever smoke screen laid by a team that hopes to land him. Cunningham was a bona-fide star at linebacker.
Who’s leaving: DE Charles Harris
Expected to stay: WR J’Mon Moore
Analysis: Even before the season, we more or less viewed Harris as by far the best player on a team that lacked talent at several spots. His sack total only improved slightly, from 7 in 2015 up to 8 last year, but Missouri’s defensive scheme shift might have affected his production more than anything. Harris stood to gain little from playing another year on a Tigers defense that was otherwise awful under first-year coordinator DeMontie Cross.
Who’s leaving: None
Who’s staying: QB Nick Fitzgerald
Expected to stay: FS Brandon Bryant, WR Donald Gray
Analysis: The Bulldogs have a couple guys who seem to still be up in the air. Bryant almost certainly should return, and Gray — though he did catch 41 passes for 709 yards as a junior — also would benefit from another year on campus. Fitzgerald, a redshirt sophomore, showed some major promise as a first-time starter in 2016 but needs to improve as a passer in order to generate any significant NFL consideration.