2015 NFL draft primer: SEC loaded with next-level talent once again
No NFL draft bet has become more of a sure thing than banking on the SEC's dominance.
The SEC produced 49 draft picks in 2014, more than any other conference for the eighth consecutive season. With 14 teams and, on paper, at least two or three national title contenders again, the trend is right on track to continue through the 2015 draft.
Our SEC draft primer, which focuses on one prospect per team, merely hints at all the talent present league-wide.
Alabama: Arie Kouandjio, G
That surname ought to be familiar -- Arie's brother, Cyrus, was one of the top tackle prospects in the 2014 class and landed with Buffalo in Round 2. The younger Kouandjio played next to his brother, holding down a guard spot, though Nick Saban said prior to the 2013 season that Arie was "probably the next-best tackle on our team". He might be headed for a move outside in the NFL. Arie Kouandjio stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, just shy of Cyrus' hulking 6-7, 322 frame. Both linemen are capable of overpowering opponents at the point of attack.
The problem for Arie's draft stock will be the same as what Cyrus faced: injury questions. He dealt with lingering knee problems early in his Alabama career, the same issue that led to his brother's minor tumble at the draft. Even now, Cyrus Kouandjio may not be 100 percent -- he certainly did not look it during a rough preseason debut on Sunday. Arie will have to differentiate himself from his brother health-wise while continuing to resemble him as a blocker.
Arkansas: Trey Flowers, DE
A 6-foot-4, 268-pound edge defender, Flowers received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board after the 2013 season, which pushed him back to Fayetteville for his senior year. A climb from that evaluation is possible, though Flowers' former pass-rushing partner Chris Smith stayed on the board until Round 5 this past season.
Smith was more prolific at getting to the quarterback, with 18 combined sacks to Flowers' 11 over the past two seasons. Flowers plays with more strength and thus could have a better shot at standing up against the run in the NFL. Should he convert his impressive flashes on passing downs into a more consistent performance, Round 3 or higher is not out of the question.
Auburn: Gabe Wright, DT
Because of the position/school links, a few comparisons to Nick Fairley may be inevitable. And Wright (6-3, 284) does at times show that Fairley-like ability to bull rush his way through the line to get into the backfield. He took over as a full-time starter midway through 2012, then produced career-high numbers last season (8.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks). The Tigers reportedly are considering shifting Wright away from his usual tackle spot for a few snaps at defensive end, an interesting idea that could further boost Wright's stock.
Florida: Max Garcia, C
After starting seven games at left tackle and five others at guard last season, Garcia is now penciled in as the starting center for the Gators. This has been a recurring theme throughout these draft primers, but NFL teams love to see that sort of versatility from their offensive linemen -- having a couple guys who can slot in at any spot allows those teams to carry fewer linemen on the active roster. Garcia (6-4, 307) actually started his college career as the left tackle at Maryland, then transferred to Florida for his junior year. He moves well, as his multi-position experience might imply, and he has worked to get stronger during his career.
Georgia: Todd Gurley, RB
Perhaps the crown jewel of what shapes up as a loaded 2015 running back class, Gurley (6-1, 226) is listed among the Heisman favorites by Bovada, sitting at 12/1 odds. The Bulldogs back absolutely deserves to be among the frontrunners heading into his junior season given what he has done through two seasons. Gurley is just 68 yards from scrimmage away from the 3,000 mark for his career, and he has scored 34 total touchdowns. Gurley is a three-down back with elite explosiveness that shows itself in his ability to lower the shoulder and separate in the open field.
Can he stay healthy for all of 2014? Gurley was out of the lineup for three games last season due to ankle and hip injuries. Considering how quickly we have seen NFL running backs break down, Gurley has to show he's not an injury risk.
Kentucky: Darrian Miller, OT
A two-year starter at left tackle for the Wildcats, Miller is not likely to be among the first tackles off the board, but he has displayed enough upside thus far to warrant draft attention. Miller (6-5, 292) could use a strong 2014 -- he actually looked like a better prospect for much of 2012 than he did at times in '13. The quickness and recovery speed is there for Miller to offer some protection in the NFL. If he better utilizes his strength as a senior, he should have no problem finding a job rounding out an OL depth chart.
LSU: La'el Collins, OT
In a minor upset, Collins opted to skip the 2014 draft for one last season with LSU. He may ultimately hear his name called in Round 1 because of that decision. The 6-5, 315-pounder has extensive starting experience at both left tackle and guard. He is ticketed for the former spot again in 2014, but NFL teams could project him at either spot. Collins mashes defenders in the ground game in the mold of recent SEC standout and 2014 No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson. Playing outside, Collins can throw himself off-kilter when pass protecting. Improvement there could push him into the top 20.
Mississippi: Serderius Bryant, LB
A February arrest for public drunkenness and disturbing the peace (plus an in-house suspension) threatened to derail Bryant's emerging stardom. Bryant was reinstated in the spring, though, and now is expected to help lead the Ole Miss defense again in 2014. He helped do so in '13, rather unexpectedly, after an injury to Denzel Nkemdiche. Pressed into a starting job, Bryant recorded 78 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss, showing marked improvement as the year progressed. Standing just 5-9 and 220, Bryant may need to consider a move to safety at the next level.
Mississippi State: Benardrick McKinney, LB
Whereas Bryant's size could be problematic for his future at linebacker, McKinney is all set. The 6-5, 249-pound junior fits the bill. He is more than just a big body in Mississippi State's defense, too, with an all-around athleticism to match his size. McKinney actually played quarterback in high school and reportedly has posted a 4.5 40 time in the past.
As a freshman in 2011, McKinney chalked up 102 tackles; last season, that number dipped to 70 but he upped his tackles for loss (7.0) and sacks (3.5). That's important because the Bulldogs' middle linebacker could wind up playing on the outside in the NFL, meaning more opportunities to chase the quarterback. Either way, McKinney has clear Round 1 potential.
Missouri: Mitch Morse, OT
Once the Tigers' starting center (and perhaps destined to return to that position in the NFL), Morse started at right tackle last season and now will replace second-round draft pick Justin Britt at left tackle in 2014. Probably more of a mid- to late-round prospect than Britt, Morse should benefit from a more central role in the spotlight. He has more than held his own as a starter over the past two years, showing enough quickness in combination with his length (6-6, 305) to entice some NFL team needing a swing tackle.
South Carolina: Brison Williams, S
Williams (5-11, 208) started at safety in 2012 and '13, but the South Carolina coaching staff is toying with the idea of shifting him into a cornerback role this season. He has been at least adequate at his normal spot, making 53 tackles with four pass break-ups and a pair of picks last season. No one will confuse him with the hard-hitting D.J. Swearinger, whose shoes Williams filled once Swearinger headed to the NFL, but Williams does display a well-rounded game, even if it is lacking in star qualities. Adding some time at corner would help him heading into the draft.
Tennessee: A.J. Johnson, LB
The expectations are high for Johnson (6-2, 245) following All-SEC honors last season and several preseason All-America nods this summer. His stats tell a lot of the story: an average of 122 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. A high-end projection for Johnson might be Brandon Spikes -- a two-down thumper who might have trouble staying on the field in sub packages. Such an outlook may keep Johnson's draft ceiling in check, though his production alone will get him a shot.
Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT
The No. 1 pick in our entirely-too-early 2015 mock draft, Ogbuehi is the latest star Texas A&M tackle following in the footsteps of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. It's possible that Ogbuehi will be the best of the bunch, as he takes over the left tackle spot held in previous years by those top-10 draft picks. Ogbuehi has plenty of size at 6-5, 300, and still shows terrific footwork. A full year starting at left tackle, on top of his work at right tackle, could lock Ogbuehi in as one of the best linemen in the upcoming draft.
Vanderbilt: Dillon van der Wal, TE
Jumping on the bandwagon a little early here -- van der Wal has all of one catch to his credit thus far in his Vanderbilt career. But he has dropped some weight, from 260 pounds to 252, and could take on a much larger role in a Jordan Matthews-less offense this season. The 6-6 van der Wal will never be confused with the Jimmy Grahams or Jordan Camerons of the world, but there is some untapped athleticism under the surface. Given a few chances in the Vanderbilt offense, van der Wal could emerge as the type of in-line tight end that NFL teams love to have on the depth chart behind their go-to weapons.