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2023 NFL Draft: 5 SEC Players on Radars After Strong Start

We all knew about players like Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. going into the season, but these five SEC players have turned heads in the early going and could see their draft stocks rise.

After the first three weeks of the college football season, the big board rankings for the 2023 NFL Draft are starting to come into focus. Going into the year, everyone expected superstars like Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and EDGE rusher Will Anderson Jr. to show out. And they have. But like every season, this college football campaign has featured a few surprises.

This article analyzes which players in the SEC have put themselves on the 2023 NFL Draft radar despite not getting much hype going into the season. For whatever reason, these players were not the most highly touted in the class going into this year. But now, these players are worth watching as the rest of the year moves along. Be sure to look out for whether these budding superstars can keep up the early momentum.

QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee

Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker

Going into the year, we knew that the SEC was stacked with first-round-caliber quarterback prospects, from Alabama’s Bryce Young and Florida’s Anthony Richardson to Kentucky’s Will Levis. Outside of Knoxville, however, not many people would have put Hooker on that list. But after a terrific start to the season—including great numbers in a big win over ranked opponent Pittsburgh—Hooker merits consideration among the top passers in the 2023 class. He has NFL size, he boasts a rocket for an arm, and he minimizes turnovers. Scouts are taking a second look at Hooker, who could rise amid some uncertainty at quarterback.

WR Ainias Smith, Texas A&M

Ainias Smith texas a&m

Next year’s wide receiver class is absolutely stacked, and many of its known top prospects (including USC wideout Jordan Addison) have played well to start the season. Yet while draft analysts did not talk as much about Smith before the season, they are certainly talking about him now. The Aggie standout has long been known as a lethal ballcarrier who can return punts and make guys miss in the open field. But the question going into 2022 was whether Smith is a good enough pass catcher to succeed in the NFL. Answer: He is. Smith clearly put in some work during the offseason and has demonstrated NFL-caliber traits as a wide receiver this year, from improved route running to terrific body control and catch-in-traffic ability. And he has the stats to show for it. He’ll get picked at least in the middle rounds if he keeps it up.

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IOL LaQuinston Sharp, Mississippi State

LaQuinston Sharp Mississippi State

Sharp may have had the best start to the season for any offensive lineman in the SEC. The conference awarded him Offensive Lineman of the Week honors for both Week 1 and Week 2, recognizing his efforts in keeping Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers upright. Sharp really has excelled as a pass blocker and is one to watch among the interior offensive linemen. He should get drafted.

EDGE Brenton Cox Jr., Florida

Brenton Cox Jr.

Florida has had a shaky start to the season, and the main story thus far from a 2023 NFL Draft perspective has been that quarterback Anthony Richardson may need a bit more seasoning before he is ready to make the jump to the NFL. But Florida does boast some impressive non-quarterback draft prospects, one of which is Cox, who is turning heads early in the season. The one-time Georgia Bulldog has become firmly ensconced in the Gators’ starting lineup and looked dominant in the team’s (nailbiting) win against USF this week. While he is yet to record a sack, he routinely penetrated the backfield and disrupted plays before they got started. His ceiling is in the first round if he keeps it up.

LB Drew Sanders, Arkansas

Drew Sanders Arkansas

After a close game against the Bobby Petrino-coached Missouri State Bears, Arkansas is 3-0 and the consensus No. 10 team in the country. That’s a massive turnaround from where this team was before the arrival of head coach Sam Pittman, and one reason for this shift is the way that Arkansas’s defense has played over the last few seasons. Safety Jalen Catalon and linebacker Bumper Pool are getting a lot of the NFL Draft attention among this group, but Sanders may be the best player on the defense right now. He’s only a junior, so he may return to school after the season, but his early numbers have been gaudy and he has been basically unblockable. Sanders currently leads the SEC with six sacks, while the next closest player has four. If he declares for the draft, he will get some serious looks at linebacker and EDGE.