Though the NFL draft is still months away, the college football season looms just around the corner. So, with that in mind, Audibles is taking a look at one intriguing draft prospect from each FBS team. Read the previous posts here.
I know non-SEC folks are sick of hearing about how impressive this conference is, but ...
The 2014 draft is going to be a big one for the SEC. Make that another big one for this conference. After all, 12 of the 32 players selected in Round 1 this past April -- almost 40 percent of those picks -- came out of the Southeastern Conference.
The SEC's 2014 draft buzz began to build long ago around South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, the odds-on favorite to be picked No. 1 overall in May. The real debates within the conference, though, will center elsewhere, namely at quarterback. There's Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, two-time national champ A.J. McCarron and at least two or three other draftable products at that position.
Oh, and the SEC may have the top offensive tackle (Jake Matthews) and top outside linebacker (C.J. Mosley) in college football.
In other words, get used to seeing those SEC players flying off the board in Round 1, because it's going to happen again in 2014.
Alabama: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT.
Could Kouandjio push the likes of Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan to be the first tackle picked in 2014, if he leaves Alabama a year early? The upside certainly appears to be there for him to get into the conversation.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio has the size and strength to slide in as a left tackle immediately. If his footwork and technique in 2013 are better than they were in 2012, there will be little to nitpick about his game. He was a rock on the left side of Alabama's sensational line last season, and he should be one of the most dominant linemen in all of college football this year.
Arkansas: Byran Jones, DT.
Any NFL team in need of a run-stopper in the middle of its line could do worse than Jones, whose 6-2, 315-pound frame has been a centerpiece up front for Arkansas. He won't get to the quarterback a whole lot (2.5 sacks in his three-year career), but Jones could be a reliable two-down tackle at the next level. He is difficult to move from his spot, which aids the rest of his linemates.
Auburn: Dee Ford, DE/OLB.
The 6-2, 240-pound Ford was part of Auburn's 1-2 pass-rushing punch last season with Corey Lemonier, a third-round selection of San Francisco. Lemonier has slightly more size than Ford (6-3, 255), but both use their speed to excel.
Ford did that in 2012, collecting six sacks (including two of top QB prospect Tajh Boyd) and 6.5 tackles for loss. It's really difficult to see him playing along the defensive line in the NFL, given his size limitations. Ford likely will be limited to a 3-4 OLB-type role instead.
Florida: Jaylen Watkins, CB/S.
Tough draw for the 6-0, 187-pound Watkins this season, as he'll move to safety from his normal CB spot. Should he succeed, his draft stock would climb quite a bit -- and he probably has the attention of several NFL scouts by this point.
Watkins started 11 games at cornerback last season and finished with three interceptions. He has to win with speed and instincts, because a lot of the receivers he sees have a physical edge on him. Still, Florida's decision to move him back to safety would not have occurred if Watkins wasn't able to step up and tackle.
Georgia: Arthur Lynch, TE.
Lynch's numbers won't blow you away -- 24 catches for 431 yards and three touchdowns last season -- but his size (6-5, 254) and history as a sturdy blocker will get him to the NFL. Lynch could be an even better pro than he is a college player, if he lands with a team willing to take advantage of his receiving abilities.
Kentucky: Raymond Sanders, RB.
A bit of a shot-in-the-dark pick here, Sanders has some Darren Sproles to his game. He's similar in size to the diminutive Sproles (Kentucky lists Sanders at 5-8, 187; Sproles checks in at 5-6, 190), and Sanders can get out of the backfield as a runner or receiver to gobble up yardage. He finished last season with 780 yards from scrimmage, despite a limited number of touches, and also averaged 22.3 yards on 10 kick returns.
If Kentucky's offense is improved at all this season and the coaching staff commits to getting Sanders the ball more frequently, he easily could challenge 1,000 yards of offense. Doing so would help him stick on the NFL radar.
LSU: Zach Mettenberger, QB.
Ask 10 people about Mettenberger and you'll probably get 10 opinions. He is a mystery, even in a conference that features other QB enigmas like Johnny Manziel and A.J. McCarron.
The good: Mettenberger has solid size (6-5, 235 pounds) and the ability to hit any spot on the field with his throws. His numbers perked up as the season went along last season, and he played one of his best games against Alabama (298 yards passing, one TD, no interceptions).
The bad: Mettenberger still looks hesitant at times in the pocket, a problem exacerbated by his inability to escape with his feet. Struggling to get through progressions is nothing new for college QBs heading to the NFL, but it's a skill that must improve for those players to be successful.
Mississippi: Donte Moncrief, WR.
If Moncrief opts to turn pro after his junior season at Ole Miss, he'll have teams lining up for him. The 6-3, 226-pounder caught 66 passes for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, showing no hesitation in going over the middle and also flashing the wheels to turn short passes into home runs. His size makes him a red-zone threat, too -- he's NFL-ready from a physical standpoint.
Mississippi State: Deontae Skinner, OLB.
Skinner has the athleticism and the build (6-2, 250) to be an edge guy in the NFL. So where's the production? While Skinner did finish 2012 with 62 tackles, he has yet to record a sack in his Mississippi State career, despite 14 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs have made it a focus to get after the QB more in 2013, so perhaps they'll give Skinner more of an opportunity to pin his ears back.
Missouri: E.J. Gaines, CB.
Gaines, off a season that saw him knock down 11 passes and pick off one as Missouri's top corner, reportedly received a fourth-round grade prior to the 2013 draft. He opted to return to Missouri rather than go pro, and he could climb into Day 2 in 2014.
Gaines (5-10, 195) has had his work cut out for him over the past two seasons, especially in 2012 on a defense that was routinely overmatched. He has done well in man coverage, showing off a tenacity that ought to serve him well once he reaches the NFL.
South Carolina: Chaz Sutton, DE.
Keep an eye on Sutton this season as he takes over Devin Taylor's spot at DE on the opposite side of the line from Jadeveon Clowney. That's a position in the Gamecocks' defense that ought to afford the 6-5, 265-pound Sutton ample chances to get to the QB. He had five sacks last season as it was, that despite making only one start.
Tennessee: James Stone, C.
Stone (6-3, 291) has experience starting at guard and center for the Vols, so NFL teams may take view him as a movable part along the offensive line. He seems like the type of interior lineman who could improve quite a bit when he's coached up by an NFL staff -- right now, he holds his own in a conference loaded with impressive defensive tackles, but there is definite room for improvement. Stone does his best work in a small window in front of him, anchoring or getting to the second level. The tape is not as kind when he has to move or reset against a rush.
Texas A&M: Mike Evans, WR.
Evans was a top-25 pick in the first 2014 Audibles mock draft, which rolled out in April. He's only a redshirt sophomore, but, off an 82-catch season, has more than enough going for him to justify an early leap to the NFL.
Evans, at 6-5 and 225 pounds, was problematic for defensive backs all last season, his size and sure hands proving a perfect fit for the improvisational QB stylings of one Johnny Manziel. Evans will not smoke many defenders long, but he can find openings, no matter what's in front of him.
Vanderbilt: Wesley Johnson, OT.
NFL teams love linemen they do not have to pigeon-hole into one specific spot, so Johnson's background starting at center, guard and both tackle positions should work in his favor. Also in the positives column: Johnson has never -- never! -- been flagged for holding at Vanderbilt, despite starting 38 games and moving all over the line. He may be maxed out physically, with 295 pounds on his 6-5 frame, and it's fair to ask if there is any additional upside here. If not, Johnson still will appeal to NFL teams as a valuable lineman, capable of helping out wherever there's a need.