The SEC players getting too much love and not enough love in early 2023 NFL Draft projections
There are very few pieces of content I look forward to more than way-too-early mock drafts.
It’s pure entertainment. Mocking the mocks is something that I do a bit tongue in cheek. I don’t fault the NFL Draft analysts who are forced into cranking out these way-too-early projections of how college kids will be valued by NFL front offices a year from now. They write these stories because there are suckers like me who love how entertaining they are.
The best is when you can tell when an analyst has only watched maybe a game or 2 of a specific player. Like, Mitch Leidner being mocked as a future first-rounder a year away from the 2017 NFL Draft. Who is Leidner, you ask? Exactly.
Todd McShay admitted he liked what he saw from the former Minnesota quarterback during his 2015 showing against Ohio State, and he had heard good things about his work ethic. Once he had time to do a more in-depth breakdown, McShay actually sat down and watched him … and Leidner got a 5th-round grade. Leidner ultimately went undrafted after he posted an 8-12 TD-INT ratio. He spent 2 weeks at the local Minnesota Vikings’ training camp and never got another NFL opportunity.
That’s a long-winded way of saying, yes, way-too-early mocks are all over the place. Only a fool would actually get upset by them.
Well, I am that fool.
I decided to use 4 way-too-early mock drafts and find the 3 SEC players getting too much love and the 3 SEC players not getting enough love. I did the same exercise last year. I actually think I fared pretty well. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
And hey, you can be the judge of my evaluation of other publications’ projections for 2023 (Pro Football Focus, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News):
Too much way-too-early love
1. Henry To’o To’o, Alabama LB
Where the mocks have him — No. 18 (Sports Illustrated), No. 25 (Sporting News)
There’s already way too much bad tape on To’o To’o for him to be a first-rounder. I’m sorry. But we’ve had 3 years of watching him against SEC competition, and I can’t imagine him getting through that part of the evaluation process. PFF graded him No. 147 out of 195 qualified Power 5 inside linebackers in 2021, and his PFF coverage grade ranked 170 of 195 qualified inside linebackers. Even if he tests extremely well and puts together his best season to date, that’s still not a first-round prospect.
Let’s not forget that we just watched Nakobe Dean, another inside linebacker who did everything humanly possible in 2021, fall all the way to Round 3. I have no problem saying that To’o To’o won’t sniff a first-round projection.
2. Kayshon Boutte, LSU WR
Where the mocks have him — No. 9 (PFF), No. 12 (Sports Illustrated), No. 15 (CBS Sports), No. 19 (Sporting News)
A couple of things: Boutte is an incredibly talented player who has been electric when he’s been healthy. There’s no denying that he has next-level traits. He has a path to being the SEC’s best receiver and perhaps the best in all of college football. So what’s the pushback?
I have too many questions. He had 2 separate ankle surgeries since he last played in a real game. That’s not normal. We need to see him get through a full season on that ankle before we can rule out any possibility that he’s always going to have an issue with it. We also heard Brian Kelly admit that Boutte was just “re-engaging” with the team at the start of spring after an offseason with him being rumored to enter the transfer portal. We’ve only seen Boutte operate in an offense in which he was force-fed targets by Max Johnson, who is off to Texas A&M. Can Boutte coexist with LSU’s new starting quarterback in what’s a loaded receivers room?
There are a variety of ways in which Boutte’s 2022 season gets blown up. For a guy being mocked in the front half of Round 1, that seems like it’s being overlooked.
3. Will Levis, Kentucky QB
Where the mocks have him — No. 5 (CBS Sports), No. 8 (PFF), No. 14 (Sports Illustrated)
Kentucky fans, hear me out. I actually banged the drum that Levis could become a top-10 quarterback in America by season’s end. There’s a lot to like. He has that quick release, the size, he now operates in a pro-style system and he’s 100% fearless as a runner. Levis checks a lot of those next-level boxes, which is why he’s getting that love as one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the early projections.
But is he really about to be picked in the front half of the first round? That seems lofty for someone who struggled with his downfield accuracy and turnovers. Yes, I know. Those turnovers weren’t all on him. But Levis still needs to improve reading defenses to be considered a franchise quarterback. If you’re drafted in the first half of Round 1, that’s the expectation. Early in the evaluation process, a lot of Levis’ weaknesses aren’t really being picked apart. I’d be more comfortable considering him a Day 2 guy who could perhaps have that late-Round 1 upside.
Not enough way-too-early love
1. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama RB
Where the mocks have him — Nowhere
Wait, but he’s a running back! Why would I ever say a running back needs more first-round love?!? Well, Nick Saban did have 4 first-round running backs. That doesn’t even include Derrick Henry, TJ Yeldon or Eddie Lacy, all of whom were Round 2 picks. Gibbs is different from all of them because he came to Alabama by way of Georgia Tech, where he established himself as a dangerous, versatile back.
If you’re going to take a running back in Round 1, he had better be a force in the passing game. Gibbs had PFF’s highest receiving grade among running backs last year. At Alabama, he has a path to getting true feature back work like Brian Robinson did in Year 1 of Bill O’Brien’s offense. Gibbs has home-run play ability, he’s excellent inside and outside the tackles and he’s already got NFL skills as a pass-catcher.
His next-level potential is through the roof, and draft analysts will see that now that he isn’t playing for a 3-win Georgia Tech team.
2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M DB
Where the mocks have him — No. 10 (PFF)
Like PFF, I love me some Antonio Johnson. His instincts are off the charts, and he makes plays no matter where you line him up. He’s a lot like Jalen Pitre, who just earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors en route to his No. 37 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Johnson has more length (he’s 6-3) and packs more of a punch:
That’s a heckuva hit by a DB. A&M’s Antonio Johnson. pic.twitter.com/cBy3YZR2Kj
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) November 20, 2021
Yeah, he’s that dude. As a true sophomore, he had a better PFF coverage grade than Sauce Gardner, and PFF had Johnson ranked in the Power Five in both slot passing stops (14) and yards per slot coverage snap (0.58). South Carolina’s Cam Smith, who is getting the right amount of love as a first-rounder in early mocks, is the only returning Power 5 corner who graded out better than Johnson in 2021. Johnson was 1 of 5 Power 5 corners with PFF grades of 71.0 as a run defender, as a pass rusher and in coverage.
While there are questions about Johnson’s impact with a new-look defensive line in front of him with a new defensive coordinator, he does too many things well not to be valued as a potential Round 1 guy.
3. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee QB
Where the mocks have him — Nowhere
Hooker should be a preseason All-SEC guy, which is no small feat this year. He deserves to be on the short list of any list of the top quarterbacks in America heading into 2022. He progressed extremely well in Josh Heupel’s high-octane, up-tempo offense and he’s one of the best running quarterbacks in the country. There’s no doubt that he has a next-level arm and frame to accompany those inevitable monster numbers.
One of the reasons we might not have seen Hooker in the way-too-early mocks was the system. Heupel’s only real NFL quarterback is Drew Lock. It’s fair to question how much that system, which operates at warp speed, sets up quarterbacks for NFL success. It isn’t a ton of reads and progressions the way that others are. Hooker needs to improve with taking fewer sacks, and even though he treated Tennessee fans to far more explosive plays than they were used to, there’s room to grow with the downfield accuracy.
At the same time, there’s a ton to like with Hooker. He has excellent touch, he doesn’t put the ball in harm’s way, he excels as a runner and he has plenty of experience. Hooker is going to be 25 years old going through the pre-draft process next year. He’s 5 months older than Kenny Pickett, who had some evaluators skeptical because of his late rise. Hooker can follow a Pickett-like path to Round 1 if he cleans up those 2 areas.