Thanks to top-end recruiting, SEC football suffers an underclassman exodus to the NFL Draft after each season.
Looking through returning SEC rosters, there are several obvious candidates to do the same next year. Even more will reveal themselves as new players get opportunities.
Here are 10 SEC players who could declare early for the 2018 NFL Draft.
DE Byron Cowart, Auburn
Career stats: 12 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble
Cowart is an interesting case. He was the No. 3 overall player in the recruiting class of 2015 and a consensus 5-star prospect. However, he struggled to get on the field during 2 seasons at Auburn. It doesn’t help that true freshman Marlon Davidson beat him out for the starting job alongside Carl Lawson. There’s a decent chance Cowart could try to get NFL teams to bite on his potential instead of trying to compete at Auburn.
DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
Career stats: 111 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 8 INTs, 4 TDs, 18 pass breakups
Fitzpatrick was a shutdown corner, but he showed versatility by transitioning to strong safety after Eddie Jackson broke his leg. NFL teams could look at him for either role. Fitzpatrick could have been a first-round pick if he were eligible for this year’s draft. However, he could break into 2018’s top 10 with another All-American season.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
Career stats: 234 carries for 1,823 yards, 18 rushing TDs
Many expected LSU’s offense to crumble after Leonard Fournette went down with injuries. Guice ensured that didn’t happen. Shockingly, he led the SEC in rushing yards as a part-time starter, and trailed only Nick Fitzgerald in rushing touchdowns. There’s no telling how productive Guice will be as the full-time starter in Matt Canada’s big-play system.
TE Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
Stats: 56 catches for 722 yards, TD
Hurst quietly became one of the better receiving tight ends in the SEC last season. A former player in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Hurst walked on at South Carolina before the 2015 season. Especially considering he’ll be 24 when the season starts, there might be incentive to get an NFL contract soon.
OL Martez Ivey, Florida
Ivey was the No. 2 overall player in the recruiting class of 2015, and he played an interior position because of to returning talent. Now that David Sharpe is heading to the NFL early, Ivey will transition into the premiere left tackle role. If he can help improve the Gators’ line, he might jump early to the NFL.
DE Arden Key, LSU
Stats: 96 tackles, 19.0 TFLs, 16.0 sacks
Many of the SEC’s top defensive players are heading to the 2017 NFL Draft. That leaves Key as arguably the best returning defensive player. Key was second in the conference in sacks, in between leader Derek Barnett and Jonathan Allen. Now, he will be the face of the conference. He should be able to leverage that into being a top draft pick.
WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Stats: 163 catches for 1,937 yards, 16 TDs; 28 punt returns for 623 yards, 5 TDs
Kirk could have declared for the NFL Draft after his freshman year and been a top pick. There are few players that have been so consistent through such uncertainty at quarterback. Whether it was Kyle Allen, Kyler Murray, Trevor Knight or Jake Hubenak getting him the ball, Kirk produced at the highest level. His return ability will make him an attractive prospect.
DL Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
Stats: 49 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, forced fumble
Talented players join Alabama’s roster in waves. Payne became starting nose tackle as a true sophomore and was a difference-maker. His production was average behind star players Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson. With all those players heading to the NFL, Payne will be a featured piece.
WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Stats: 161 catches for 1,814 yards, 14 TDs
Ridley’s production declined in 2016 as true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled to find him downfield. However, his talent has never been in question. With ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard gone to the NFL, Ridley should become the featured receiver once again. Hurts’ passing development will make it easier for him to post bigger numbers.
RB Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Stats: 143 carries for 916 yards, 12 TDs
Some thought Scarbrough might leave enter the draft after a dominant finish to the 2016 season. Over his last four games, Scarbrough had 454 yards and 6 touchdowns on 7.2 yards per carry. More impressively, it was against Auburn, Florida, Washington and Clemson, perhaps the best defenses in the nation. Scarbrough broke his leg in the second half of the national championship game, sinking Bama’s offense. If he can be productive in 2017, Scarbrough might take the guaranteed money in the NFL.