More now than ever, juniors are shaping the NFL draft.
There were a record 98 early entrants in the 2014 draft. There were 73 in the 2013 draft, 65 in 2012, 56 in 2011, 53 in 2010 and 46 in 2009 — an increase of underclassmen for six consecutive years.
Last year, 74 players declared early, a number much more reasonable than the previous 98. But, we can’t ignore the trend that the NFL is willing to get its hands on some of these players earlier, and we also can’t ignore that some players declare when they should stay in school.
We’re about midway through the college football schedule. It’s time to form a list of potential candidates who might toss their hats into the ring for early entry in the 2016 draft.
Here’s a look at a few SEC East underclassmen. Some will go pro, some should stay in school:
Vernon Hargreaves III, Cornerback: Hargreaves is widely considered the best corner in this class, even as just a junior. He’s also considered a top-10 pick. Any player who’s predicted to go that high should normally take the dive; Hargreaves will.
Keanu Neal, Safety: There aren’t a lot of members of the NFL draft community talking about Neal right now, but he deserves more attention. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Neal has ideal size for the position. Though I like his talent, he could use another year, and should avoid being lumped into a deep safety class in 2016.
Harold Brantley, Defensive Tackle: Brantley was set to be a star piece in Missouri’s defense before a June car accident left him with multiple injuries. Tigers coach Gary Pinkel commented that Brantley was, “lucky to be alive.” That’s some scary stuff. He suffered a broken leg and ligament damage to one knee. Brantley’s case isn’t one we’ve sometimes seen where injured players declare for the draft and just start their NFL training. He needs to return to school, even if it was looking like he’d be a top-50 pick pre-injury.
Patrick Towles, Quarterback: This Kentucky signal-caller is a big-armed quarterback with potential to grow. Towles’ competition percentage is lower than 62 percent on the season, and he’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns on third down this year. The draft rule is: The bigger the arm, the more accurate you need to be. Towles isn’t there yet.
Cam Sutton, Cornerback: Sutton is a lockdown corner who isn’t afraid of any matchup. He hasn’t made the kind of jump I hoped he would in terms of coverage and ability, but don’t take that as me saying he’s regressed to a lower draft status. I still love his talent and tenacity when lining up against some of the best receivers in the class. If he gets a first-round grade from the NFL, he should go.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Outside Linebacker: Reeves-Maybin is another player I think more draft fans should follow. He’s an aggressive playmaker who has the speed to keep up with tight ends and running backs in coverage. He’s a strong tackler who leads the Vols in total tackles (56), tackles for loss (8) and sacks (3). Sometimes he’s a bit too aggressive and has a tendency to overpursue, but the athletic instincts are there.
Leonard Floyd, Defensive End: Floyd has the length and the talent to be a late first-round selection. He’s shown flashes of brilliance this year, but hasn’t been as consistent as he has the ability to be. UGA has used him in a variety of ways, and that sometimes takes him away from his edge rushing role. Still, he leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks. At this point, he’s a guy I think could take off early and it pay off for him.
Quincy Mauger, Safety: Mauger plays each down like he’s shot out of a cannon. He’s another aggressive player on the Bulldogs defense who is asked to do a multitude of things. My main concern with Mauger is consistency. He’s a player I’d definitely advise to stay for his final year and improve his reliability. If he can match that with his athleticism, then we’re talking about a solid prospect.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Pharoh Cooper, Wide Receiver: I mean, the kid’s name is Pharoh. Wouldn’t you draft him? Cooper’s 40 catches are first on the team (second most catches is 15). He’s a player who will be utilized by stretching the field at the next level, and that is evident by a few long receptions, including a 78-yard score. If the quarterback and coaching situation were more stable, I might advise him to stay, knowing the upcoming receiver class is deep. However, I think this may be his last year as a Gamecock.
Skai Moore, Linebacker: Moore leads the team in both tackles and interceptions. He’s smaller than I’m sure some NFL scouts would prefer at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, but you can’t deny the production on the field. Is a transition to safety coming for Moore? Perhaps. But in the meantime, his production suggests he’s coming out this year. But, again, the coaching staff and outlook on the 2016 season will go a long way in his decision.