Now that we've looked at draft guru expert Mel Kiper Jr.'s early list of the top wide receivers and defensive ends for the 2014 NFL draft, it's time to check out two more positions.
Today, we're on to running backs and safeties. The interesting thing about the SEC is it's extremely deep at running back, but most of the top returning backs aren't draft eligible. No SEC backs made Kiper's top five, but Auburn rising junior Tre Mason made his "Next up" list.
Mason was Auburn's best overall player last year, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He also averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Mason should have even more room to move around in Gus Malzahn's spread offense. He has a pounding nature about him, but has the ability to break the big one and has the agility to make defenders miss at times.
Other draft-eligible running backs I'd keep an eye on in the SEC this fall:
Jeremy Hill, LSU: Now, this one is interesting because he's dealing with legal trouble. If he makes it back to the playing field, he'll be one of the best running backs in the league with his strength, size and speed. He's a sophomore, but is three years removed from his graduating high school class.
Henry Josey, Missouri: The redshirt sophomore back from that devastating knee injury he suffered halfway through the 2011 season. Josey says he's finally back to 100 percent, which is scary because he was one of the top backs in the country before his injury.
Ben Malena, Texas A&M: He surprised some when he shot to the top of A&M's depth chart, but he's an extremely hard worker and can be a bear to take down. He'll be challenged by younger players, but he proved last year that he isn't intimidated by competition.
LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State: He can be a solid downhill runner or a weapon in the passing game. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark last year and returns as Mississippi State's top offensive player.
Jeff Scott, Ole Miss: He isn't the biggest back in the league, but he has great speed and his very shifty. He won't be a viewed as an every-down back, but he's solid in open space and in the return game.
When it comes to safeties, there are a few more SEC faces on Kiper's list. Headlining his top five is Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He's such a rangy player and covers so much ground with his speed. He's also very good in coverage, which NFL scouts will surely drool over this season. Clinton-Dix also showed last year that he isn't afraid of contact and can play up in the box if needed. He's probably the league's most versatile ballhawk.
Coming in on Kiper's "Next up" list are LSU's Craig Loston and Ronald Martin, and Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley. Loston is someone people are really starting to rave about. He's always had the potential, but his work ethic has been called into question. However, with more responsibility thrown his way last year, he really started to make strides with his game. He's also a hard-hitter who will basically be the captain of the defensive backfield this fall.
As for Martin, he was Eric Reid's backup last year and played in 13 games with one start. He really is an athlete and showed off some of his breakaway speed and instincts when he intercepted a tipped pass in the Idaho game and took it 45 yards for a touchdown. He doesn't have a ton of experience, but he'll make up for that this season.
Whitley has been a solid weapon for Mississippi State's secondary for the past few years. He has 10 career interceptions and was third on the team with 88 tackles last season. Whitley is a big-play safety and covers a lot of ground in the back of the Bulldogs' defense.
Other draft-eligiblle safeties I'd keep an eye on this fall:
Eric Bennett, Arkansas: He's been around for a while now and has had some up-and-down moments, but he has a ton of skill. He has smooth movements and can be a very physical player.
Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt: The rising senior wasn't afraid to mix it up all over the field last year. He can play closer to the line if needed and certainly isn't afraid of delivering a good amount of contact.
Floyd Raven, Texas A&M: He was a backup corner last year, but moved to safety this spring and it proved to be the right decision by coach Kevin Sumlin. He's fast, rangy and extremely athletic. He has all the tools to be a stud, but just has to keep learning the position.
Jaylen Watkins, Florida: He started his Florida career off as a cornerback, but moved to safety this spring. He's a very physical defensive back, has experience at safety and is a very smart player on the field.