The NFL draft kicks off Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), and as always, there will be a number of former SEC players taken in the first round. But what about the league’s top returning players? What about the players who weren’t eligible to go pro or the ones who chose to come back?
Here’s a look at the top 2017 draft prospect for every team in the SEC East.
Florida: CB Jalen Tabor
If Tabor were eligible for this year’s NFL draft, he might get picked before his former teammate and fellow cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. He’s got two inches on Hargreaves, and he led the SEC last year with 18 passes defended. Hargreaves had just eight, though some will say it’s because quarterbacks refused to throw his way. Either way, Tabor looks to be a first-round lock in the 2017 draft, and some early mock drafts show him going as high as the top 10.
Georgia: RB Nick Chubb
Because of the injury, it was tempting to go a different direction and choose guard Greg Pyke or linebacker Lorenzo Carter. But assuming Chubb is back to 100 percent, he’ll be one of the top running backs in the 2017 draft class. He was among the SEC leaders as a true freshman with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he was on pace to shatter those numbers before he went down with the ACL injury in October. Chubb might not be in the same category as LSU’s Leonard Fournette, but he could still be a first-round pick next year.
Kentucky: DE/LB Denzil Ware
Ware might not be the first player who comes to mind – he had just one sack last year – but he has the size and athleticism that NFL scouts are looking for in an edge pass-rusher. And if you don’t think he’ll improve on last season, you must not have watched Kentucky’s spring game. Ware could not be blocked as he finished with a team-high 15 tackles and four sacks. That alone should pique the interest of NFL personnel.
Missouri: DE/LB Charles Harris
It should come as no surprise to see another Missouri defensive lineman as a top draft prospect for 2017. Since 2009, the school has had five D-linemen taken in the first or second round, and barring injury, Harris should make that six this time next year. In his first season as a full-time starter, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive end finished second in the SEC with 18.5 tackles for loss and was among the conference leaders with seven sacks. He might have to stand up more at the next level, but that shouldn’t scare teams away.
South Carolina: LB Skai Moore
Many believed Moore would leave early and hear his name called this weekend. He might not have been a first-round pick, but it would have been surprising if he didn’t go in the second or the third round. As it stands, he’ll have to wait a year – and maybe he can propel himself into the first round with another strong season. Though it will be tough to top last year, when he led South Carolina in tackles (111), tackles for loss (6.5) and interceptions (4).
Tennessee: DE Derek Barnett
Like Tabor, Barnett’s name has been mentioned as a potential top-10 pick in next year’s draft. And the hype is warranted. Barnett has been a force since he arrived at Tennessee. As a freshman, he was top-five in the SEC with 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. This past year, his production dipped a little, but he still finished with 67 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. The Volunteers likely will have a number of players drafted in 2017, but at this point, it’s unlikely that any player goes as high as Barnett.
Vanderbilt: LB Zach Cunningham
If you’re wondering whether Cunningham can play in the NFL, go back and watch the Georgia game from two seasons ago. The freshman linebacker made at least four tackles on Todd Gurley in one-on-one situations, a feat that proved difficult this past year for current players in the NFL. Cunningham was even better as a sophomore, earning first-team All-SEC honors after he finished with 103 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, and if he continues to improve, he might hear his name called in the first two rounds next year.