Value picks: 7 SEC players who will outperform their late-round NFL Draft grade
The term “sleeper” is probably a bit overused in the NFL Draft world.
Everyone who doesn’t see their name show up in a mock draft thinks that they deserve sleeper status. The irony is that some prospects believe they deserve sleeper status when we’ve had 3 years to watch them start for a powerhouse program. A “sleeper” should probably be reserved for those Division II tight ends who never even cracked ESPN3.
Instead of calling the following guys “sleepers,” let’s instead go with something much wordier. How about “prospects who will turn their mid- or late-round Draft statuses into a long NFL career.” Am I predicting Pro Bowls and immediate stardom for these guys? Not necessarily. But could they play a key role on a championship team? Could they still be making plays in the league a decade from now? Can they make their franchise say, “wow, what a value we got from that guy.”
If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, they’re worthy of making this list. And to be clear, a “mid-round” guy is someone who is expected to be perhaps Round 3 or later. Guys like Najee Harris and Terrace Marshall are probably a bit too good of prospects to be considered “mid-round.”
These are the 7 SEC prospects who fall into my way-too-wordy category:
Eric Stokes, Georgia CB
In a year in which the cornerback free agency market is slim, someone would be wise to snag Stokes. Think about this: I’d argue that this was the best crop of SEC pass-catchers that we’ve ever seen. We could easily see 6 SEC pass-catchers come off the board in Round 1.
And what did Stokes do? Well, this:
Eric Stokes when lined up at outside corner this season:
🔒 0 TDs allowed
🔒 4 INTs
🔒 37.1 passer rating pic.twitter.com/bLfRX3jEze
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 26, 2021
Stokes isn’t a slot corner like Shaun Wade, who looks lost on the outside. The Georgia junior was incredibly valuable when healthy, playing 439 snaps on the outside. And for any questions about his ball skills after he entered 2020 as one of the league’s top corners but without a college interception, Stokes picked off 4 passes in just 9 games (he returned 2 for touchdowns).
The knock on him is that he doesn’t have the frame or tackling skills of a Patrick Surtain. That’s why Stokes, who is listed at 6-1, 185, will likely go several rounds after the expected CB1 comes off the board. But Stokes is capable of lining up in single coverage tomorrow.
A smart franchise could turn Stokes into a late Round 2 guy instead of letting him slip into the mid-rounds.
Shi Smith, South Carolina WR
I have a comp that fans in the Carolinas should be familiar with; Shi Smith has some D.J. Moore in him. Both never were blessed by quality quarterback play in college (Moore is still waiting on that in the NFL), and yet both found a way to clearly establish themselves as prolific, versatile go-to targets in otherwise dreadful offenses. They’re similar in frame (Moore is a little bit thicker than the 5-10, 190-pound Smith), but Smith didn’t have that 1,000-yard season like Moore did. Had he played 13 games instead of 9, that could’ve been a different story for Smith.
But like Moore, the degree of difficulty on Smith’s catches is incredible for someone under 6 feet.
Double coverage? Doesn’t matter.
Ryan Hilinski with a DIME to Shi Smith for the touchdown. pic.twitter.com/xvko3Nx0vp
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 14, 2019
Smith showed off that ability at the Senior Bowl, where he dusted dudes all week and then had a team-high 52 receiving yards in the game. Everyone knew he was getting the ball in 2020 because South Carolina’s decimated group of pass-catchers, and he still managed over 6 catches per game (he actually played about 8-plus games because he was injured on the opening drive against Mizzou).
Durability might be a factor, but Smith has the makings of a guy who will be extremely productive for a team that needs some help in the slot. If Smith had played at a bigger program, he’d be a Day 2 lock. Instead, he’s likely in the category of Day 3 steal.
Drake Jackson, Kentucky C
There’s a pretty obvious reason Kentucky has been so reliant on its between-the-tackles ground game for the last few years. It’s because they had guys like Jackson who cleared space for a bevy of backs. Jackson didn’t get the notoriety of Landon Dickerson, but he could easily match his NFL production. Among FBS centers, Jackson was 1 of 3 who PFF graded in the top 15 in run blocking and pass blocking. That’s why he was No. 2 among PFF’s most valuable centers in 2020.
Jackson helped himself at the Senior Bowl with some quality reps on Day 2 defensive tackle prospect Marvin Wilson. Well, not that he should’ve had any questions about his ability to hold up against elite interior defensive linemen. Jackson only allowed 1 sack in 1,189 pass block snaps in his career. That should’ve quieted any notion that Jackson was 1-dimensional because of the run-heavy offense he played in.
So why won’t he be picked in the first few rounds? It’s partially a position thing. Last year, Cesar Ruiz was the only center drafted in the first 2 rounds. In 2019, there were only 3 centers drafted in the first 5 rounds.
Surprisingly, Mel Kiper Jr. only has Jackson as his No. 8 center. Apparently, the jury is still out on the guy who started 44 consecutive games in the SEC en route to All-America honors. Consider that all the more reason a motivated Jackson will take care of a team’s center needs for the next 10 years.
Bobby Brown, Texas A&M DL
The Aggies have had 3 defensive linemen drafted in the last 2 years, and for good reason. Mike Elko’s system has been fantastic at developing the position. The latest benefactor is Brown, who quietly established himself as one of the country’s more versatile interior linemen. PFF graded him No. 26 against the run among Power 5 interior defenders. In just 9 games, he had a sack in 6 of them … including 1 that may or may not have (but definitely did) result in a celebration injury:
Texas A&M’s Bobby Brown with the Bill Gramatica-style celebration injury… 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/MpP7hPJS57
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) October 10, 2020
Hey, it happens. So what if he missed a game for that. He bounced back and was a huge part of A&M’s No. 2 run defense.
As for Brown’s next-level potential, it’s there. Yes, the motor is a question. Brown has some reps where he looks like he’s taking plays off, which he could get away with playing around such a talented group up front. Doesn’t it seem like that’s the case for most interior defensive linemen, though?
In a draft that’s seemingly void of top-end defensive line talent, teams could wait on addressing that need. It’s surprising that neither Kiper nor Todd McShay have Brown among their top 10 defensive tackles. Brown might not be as elite of a pass-rusher as a Christian Barmore, but he’s got the skillset to become an every-down player at the next level.
K.J. Britt, Auburn LB
It’s a bummer that Britt didn’t really get much of a season in 2020. He entered the season as one of the top linebackers in America after passing on the NFL Draft. Nobody will deny his run-stuffing abilities. Coming into 2020, no SEC player had a better grade against the run than Britt, and only Nick Bolton had a better overall grade.
But then the thumb injury happened and his pre-draft season was derailed. Britt only played in 2 games, which essentially meant that he only got 1 season as a full-time starter. That’s the knock for Britt, who would’ve benefitted greatly from getting another full season of reps in Kevin Steele’s defense.
The good news is that he impressed at the Senior Bowl. PFF had Britt graded as the second-best defender in coverage, and as he often does, he made a big-time play in the run game:
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) January 30, 2021
For someone who really only has that 1 season as a full-time starter, Britt’s instincts are absolutely next-level. Perhaps Devin White’s 2020 dominance will give shorter interior linebackers like Britt a better market in the NFL Draft. Most likely is Britt will come off the board in the middle rounds, and then proceed to crank out 120-tackle seasons for the same franchise who makes the playoffs every year.
Larry Borom, Mizzou OL
I think 2 things are why Borom didn’t show up on ESPN’s top 237 NFL Draft prospects. One is that in his pre-draft season, he played right tackle, and not left. The other is that he did so at Mizzou, and not at Georgia or Alabama.
Well, let’s squash both hurdles.
At right tackle in 2020, Borom finished as the SEC’s No. 2 graded tackle, and it’s not hard to see why. Besides helping pave the way for Larry Rountree, who finished No. 11 in rushing and No. 6 in rushing touchdowns (among Power 5 backs), Borom only allowed 4 pressures on 324 pass blocking snaps (PFF). There’s also the fact that Borom played left tackle and left guard during a 2019 season in which he essentially became Mizzou’s Swiss army knife on the line.
And as for Borom not playing at a powerhouse program, he just had what was easily his best season against a loaded all-SEC schedule. Rountree struggled with Borom out against South Carolina, and then when he returned, the Mizzou senior scampered for 435 yards and 6 touchdowns in the next 2 games. That’s not a coincidence. Borom is a space creator and a darn good one.
Eli Drinkwitz was fired up that Borom declared early for the NFL Draft because it was clear he was ready for the next level. Even if he has to kick inside and play guard as some speculated for the 330-pound prospect, drafting Borom means landing a franchise offensive lineman.
Trevon Grimes, Florida WR
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. In an offense that passed for more yards than anyone in America, Grimes only had 589 receiving yards. He was the No. 3 option during his best year of college, and he could’ve upped that production had drops not been an issue. In a draft loaded with talented pass-catcher options, Grimes isn’t likely to sniff early-round consideration without that top-end speed.
But man, there’s a lot of good, too. While Grimes might’ve been in a different tier in the target department compared to Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney — both of whom are expected to be first-round picks — the 6-4 wideout put together some remarkable next-level plays. Whoever drafts Grimes will cite his ability to high-point the football and win 1-on-1 battles on the outside. None were more noteworthy than when he did this against the top cornerback in the class, Patrick Surtain:
— OnlyGators.com 🐊 Florida Gators news (@onlygators) December 20, 2020
Grimes also high-pointed a touchdown grab against another likely Round 1 cornerback, Tyson Campbell, and in the Senior Bowl, he hauled in a back-shoulder score against Washington cornerback Keith Taylor.
There’s a good chance that Grimes doesn’t hear his name called until Day 3. That’s to be expected. Grimes has made strides to become more than just a deep threat. His route-running has helped him overcome the lack of breakaway speed, and there’s no doubt that he can make plays even against the most physical NFL corners. Some view him as boom or bust, but I see him as more of a Tyrell Williams. He might not have Pro Bowl upside, but he’s plenty capable of being a legitimate downfield target for a long time.
Grimes is worth the mid or late-round flier, and if he becomes more productive in the NFL, don’t be surprised.