Believe it or not, SEC Media Days opens Monday, marking the unofficial start of the countdown to the 2015 college football season. But in reality, the clock started ticking on the 2016 NFL draft almost as soon as the '15 version wrapped on May 2. As is the case each and every year, the Southeastern Conference has stockpiled players with pro potential.
Our first 2016 draft primer breaks down the top 10 prospects in the SEC, as well as one additional player per team who could find his way to the NFL very soon.
1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: We've seen time and again that there is some danger in overhyping players before they get to the NFL. So apologies for this: Hargreaves could be the best cornerback draft prospect since Patrick Peterson in 2011. Peterson wound up being selected No. 5 overall—highest of any cornerback in the past decade—and Hargreaves is on track to push into the top 10.
The Gators junior already has ample NFL-ready traits in coverage, showing particular savvy when it comes to playing man-to-man. He has the footwork and body control necessary to challenge most passes thrown his direction, with the playmaking abilities to flip the field. In his first two seasons combined, Hargreaves chalked up 24 pass break-ups and six interceptions, despite quarterbacks shying away from him last season.
If there is to be a knock on Hargreaves, expect it to be his height. He's listed at 5'11".
2. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss: "I think that's everybody's goal is to (be the No. 1 pick)," Tunsil told the Clarion Ledger. "That's one of my goals."
Strictly on talent, he's got a shot. Tunsil (6'5", 305 pounds) started nine games at left tackle as a true freshman, then earned second-team All-America honors from that position last season. And this is all playing in the SEC, mind you. The size is there, but what's most impressive watching Tunsil is how quick he is. On runs and screen passes his direction, he often finds his way to the second and even third level to find a block.
A recent arrest clouds the picture a bit—Tunsil was taken in on domestic violence charges following an alleged confrontation with his stepfather, who claimed Tunsil was spending time with “football agents” before the incident. The NFL can overlook a slip-up when it comes to skirting NCAA rules, but this is a developing situation. What if Tunsil winds up ineligible for the 2015 season? What if he gets into more trouble? Scouts will be watching.
3. D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: Williams—“Duke” for short—will be a senior this season, so there is no mystery surrounding his 2015 draft status: He'll be available, barring unforeseen circumstances. A repeat of, or an improvement on, his 2014 performance will have NFL teams all over him. After transferring to Auburn from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Williams caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games, on a run-heavy team.
At 6'2", 224 pounds, Williams has the size to out-muscle defensive backs and he complements that with exceptional ability in the air. Given the NFL's obsession with big targets outside, Williams will be on many teams' radars.
4. Germain Ifedi, OT, Texas A&M: Another year, another Texas A&M tackle prospect. Following in the footsteps of Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel, Ifedi (6'5", 320 pounds) should keep the Aggies' run of draft success going, if he bypasses his senior year to enter the 2016 draft.
As has become the norm with A&M's line talent, Ifedi has experience at multiple spots. He's in the mix to start at left tackle this season. Should he lose out, it only will be because the Aggies have yet another stud up front, this time juco transfer Avery Gennesy. But Ifedi has the length and footwork to handle that position.
6. A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama: Every NFL team with a need up front will be tracking Robinson (6'4", 312 pounds) this season. Defensive linemen that project easily across multiple fronts tend to get a draft boost, and Robinson has shown during his Alabama career that he possesses that trait. He can get to the passer (5.5 sacks in 2013) but also works over interior linemen when the coaching staff slides him in as a nose tackle.
7. Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss: The buzz on Nkemdiche has quieted a tad since he arrived on the scene as a highly regarded true freshman in 2013. There should be ample chatter about him as the 2016 draft approaches, though. Nkemdiche (6'4", 296 pounds) also has multi-position talent—Ole Miss has played him at DE and DT. While his size might push him toward an interior role at the next level, he has the speed and first step to make noise as an end. Three-hundred-pound pass-rushing prospects don't grow on trees.
8. Jalen Mills, CB/S, LSU: The 2015 draft served a reminder that the NFL places a premium on DBs that can line up all over the secondary. Damarious Randall, Eric Rowe and Mills's former teammate Jalen Collins are just a few of the guys who could see time at both corner and safety as rookies.
The key for Mills will be showing some consistency at the latter spot. A move from CB to safety last season, coupled with a domestic violence incident, turned Mills's 2014 into a mediocre showing. He still dabbled with entering the draft; a return to LSU gives him the chance to iron out some kinks in his game, particularly as a tackler. Mills's versatility gives him a leg up.
9. Leonard Floyd, OLB, Georgia: The Bulldogs have a pair of future NFLers coming off the edge in Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Floyd (6'4", 231 pounds) is the lighter, more explosive option. He was Georgia's defensive MVP last season and racked up 12.5 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss combined between 2013 and '14. Can he prove that he is more than sub-package player? Floyd can disrupt the backfield or drop in coverage. The 2015 season offers him a chance to show he can hold up against the run, too.
10. Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: Another rising junior, Jones (6'6", 308 pounds) will be the headliner on a Bulldogs defensive front that suffered several key losses, including that of No. 38 pick Preston Smith. How rapid Jones's development occurs will determine whether we see him in the 2016 or '17 draft, as the Mississippi State coaching staff is very much in the process of harnessing his talent. (Get ready to hear about Jones's background as a basketball player.)
As things stand, Jones is a high-upside talent with experience playing from multiple gaps.
Beyond the conference's top-10 prospects, which SEC players could make the leap to the NFL? Here's a quick look at one player from each team with pro potential:
Alabama—Reggie Ragland, LB: It speaks to the SEC's always-absurd talent levels that Ragland narrowly missed out on the top 10. He is arguably the top ILB prospect in the country, a downhill dynamo coming off a 95-tackle campaign.
Arkansas—Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas: Collins makes up half of Arkansas's two-headed backfield machine—Jonathan Williams, his costar, is an early-round prospect himself. The shifty Collins has averaged 1,063 yards rushing over his first two college seasons, though he has seen minimal work as a pass catcher (three receptions in 2014).
Auburn—Carl Lawson, DE: ESPN's Todd McShay dropped Lawson into round 1 of his early 2016 mock. Let's pump the brakes a bit since Lawson is a redshirt sophomore and sat out all of last season with an ACL injury. But he did have 7.5 tackles for loss in limited playing time as a freshman and was a top-10 recruit back in 2013.
Florida—Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: This is shaping up to be one of those frustrating situations for scouts where it's tough to read a receiver prospect because of shaky quarterback play. Nonetheless, Robinson caught 53 passes last season. The junior brings that field-stretching speed of which NFL teams cannot get enough.
Georgia—Jordan Jenkins, LB: Leonard Floyd's aforementioned counterpart, Jenkins is more of a sturdy anchor off the edge for the Bulldogs than his talented teammate. He's also got 15.0 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss to his credit.
Kentucky—Patrick Towles, QB, Kentucky: Above all, he fits the NFL quarterback prototype (even if said prototype is shifting some thanks to guys like Russell Wilson). Towles stands 6'5", 238 pounds, with a big arm and underrated mobility. Unless he explodes as a redshirt junior, Towles could stick around for 2016.
LSU—Travin Dural, WR: The 6'2", 192-pounder averaged 20.5 yards per catch last season, a staggering number that resulted from his explosive speed. As at rival Florida, quarterback play here could limit the production from the receiving corps.
Mississippi State—Dak Prescott, QB: A clear Heisman candidate, Prescott (6'2", 230 pounds) wisely put off the NFL to return for his senior season. Odds are he will spend the next nine months or so as one of the 2016 draft's most polarizing prospects. He has been a sensational college player, but does he have enough throwing acumen in his dual-threat game to make it as an NFL starter?
Missouri—Evan Boehm, C: Boehm has made 40 consecutive starts for the Tigers, spanning time at both guard and center, and enters 2015 as a legit All-America candidate. The NFL has shown a little draft love to interior linemen of late. Boehm could be next in line.
Ole Miss—Tony Conner, CB/S: The Rebels placed three players in our top 10. Conner could be the fourth to push for first-round consideration. A nickel corner, Conner may make his way to safety at the next level. He absolutely hammers ball carriers when he gets the chance.
South Carolina—Pharoh Cooper, WR: Easily among the SEC's most exciting skill-position weapons, Cooper totaled 1,136 yards receiving, another 200 yards rushing and threw a pair of touchdown passes as a sophomore last season. South Carolina has used him as a punt and kick returner, as well.
Tennessee—Cam Sutton, CB: According to Pro Football Focus's Jack Ferrell, Sutton allowed the lowest QB rating last season (51.6) among SEC cornerbacks with 400-plus snaps. Sutton stands 6'1", 189 pounds and shows a knack for finding the football.
Texas A&M—Mike Matthews, C: The name should be familiar—Matthews is the brother of 2014 No. 6 pick Jake Matthews and the son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews. The Aggies' senior is a bit undersized for an NFL center (6'2", 290 pounds), but he makes up for it with football smarts. He moves well inside, allowing him to win with positioning rather than sheer strength.
Vanderbilt—Caleb Azubike, OLB/DE: Azubike has notched 4.0 sacks in each of his first three seasons. He should roll past that total as a full-time starter in 2015 (he started seven games last year). A 6'4", 260-pounder, Azubike has played end and OLB for the Commodores, likely projecting to more of a stand-up role at the next level.