SEC football: 10 sophomores who will have an NFL Draft decision to make next year
It’s the time of the year when underclassmen are beginning to make their intentions known as to whether they’ll stick around for their senior seasons or leave early for the NFL. Fortunately for the SEC, and unfortunately for the NFL, you can make the case that some of the absolute best players from the best conference aren’t yet eligible for the draft.
While the SEC’s draft class of ’19 is shaping up to be another terrific group, the super sophomores who will be eligible next year should be an even greater class.
Here are 10 sophomores who, at this time next year, will have serious decisions to make.
10. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Well, it’s hard to argue with the results here. Fromm has been excellent for the Bulldogs from Week 1 of his freshman year, and in the past two seasons he has thrown for 5,152 yards (65.2 percent completion) with 51 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions, averaging a damned fine 9.2 yards per attempt. Oh, and along the way he has led his team to 23-4 record (as a starter), two SEC East titles, an SEC championship, a Rose Bowl victory and nearly a national championship. Not too shabby.
To be frank, I don’t think Fromm has enough pure arm talent to be a high first-round pick in 2020. He reminds me a bit of Matt Barkley in many ways – smart, undersized, great leader, decent accuracy, a winner who takes care of the ball but who can’t drive the ball into tight windows and doesn’t generate a whole lot of velocity on his throws. He may be best served by learning from Barkley’s mistake and coming out early while his stock is high instead of sticking around for a senior season and potentially hurting his draft stock.
9. D’Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
Swift got third-string carries last year behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two of the best backs in program history, and still picked up 618 yards and 3 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. This year, as the Bulldogs’ primary back, Swift saw his per carry average drop to “just” 6.7 but ran for 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also carved out a larger role in the passing game and was fourth on the team in receptions with 27 for 267 yards and another 2 scores.
I’m really high on Swift and honestly think he could be playing in the NFL right now. He has a short, compact but thick frame at 5-9, 215 pounds, and he does a great job of capitalizing on his natural leverage. He shows natural power in his base and is brutally tough to bring down because of his pad level. He’s a patient runner who lets his blocks set up before bursting through the hole and into the secondary. He also has the benefit of playing alongside other talented backs, so by the time he gets to the league, he’ll still have plenty of tread left on the tires.
8. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Moses made waves back in 2012 when he was offered a scholarship by LSU before eighth grade, and he became a legendary recruit and one of the premier prospects in the 2017 recruiting class. After struggling to adapt early in his freshman season last year when injuries forced him into a larger role, he has continued to improve and allow his natural athleticism to take over. This year he really began to shine, leading the Tide in tackles (76) while racking up 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Like his running mate inside, Mack Wilson, Moses is well suited for the modern NFL game that prioritizes spread passing principles. The days of the 6-4, 260-pound inside linebacker have gone by the wayside, and guys like Moses, who are fast and athletic and can play in space and cover, are at a premium. I still worry about his ability to stack and shed blocks against the inside run game, but his range, blitzing ability and sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability will make him a coveted asset in the 2020 NFL Draft.
7. Trey Smith, OT, Tennessee
Smith was a highly sought-after 5-star in the 2017 recruiting class, considered by 247sports to be the fifth-best player in the country, though surprisingly just the third-best OT prospect (showing you how good the OT class could be next year). After enrolling early, Smith wasted little time in making an impact up front for the Vols, and by the end of his freshman season he was the best player on offense for a team that went belly-up in Butch Jones’ final season.
In terms of natural skills, the 6-6, 320-pounder has the tools necessary to become a franchise blindside protector at the next level, showing light feet, raw power, length and athleticism. There’s a huge concern regarding his health, however, as he has battled blood clots in his lungs both in ’17 and ’18. This is an extremely serious issue, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and there’s a chance that football in the long term may not be an option.
6. Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
McKinney saw little time as a true freshman in ’17, which isn’t all that surprising considering both the talent and experience the Tide had in their defensive backfield last year, but there was cautious optimism this year that he’d be able to step into a starting spot and make an impact. He did just that, pairing with Deionte Thompson to become one of the best safety tandems in the country. He made plays all over the field, totaling 62 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 INTs and 2 forced fumbles.
He reminds me a bit of Minkah Fitzpatrick with his versatility to make plays against both the run and the pass, showing physicality in man coverage out of the slot and the strength to shed blocks on the perimeter to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If Thompson leaves after this year for the NFL (as most expect), McKinney very well could be the face of the Alabama secondary next year.
5. Jerry Jeudy/Henry Ruggs/DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
In the effort of not having this list entirely consisting of players from Alabama, I’m going to group the trifecta of super sophomore receivers from Tuscaloosa together, because all three deserve to be on here. Ruggs (6-0, 183) and Smith (6-1, 173) combined for 72 receptions for 1,248 yards and 10 touchdowns this fall. Jeudy (6-1, 192) is obviously the biggest star of the group, catching 59 passes for 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns and winning the Biletnikoff Award as a result.
All three are very similar players, not only in their build but their strengths – ability to stretch the field, make plays after the catch and gain separation with burst and lateral quickness. Considering all three will be playing another season with Tua Tagovailoa, I’d expect them to continue putting up huge numbers. I would be surprised, however, if all three left after next year. I envision at least one sticking around to try to soak up No. 1 WR targets in 2020 and further boost his draft stock.
4. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
With all due respect to Jonah Williams and Greg Little, who will likely be first-round picks this spring, the most talented lineman in the SEC this year was the 6-5, 320-pound Thomas, who was named to numerous All-SEC and All-America teams. He has started all 27 contests he has played in the past two years and has reliably and capably protected Fromm on both the right (in ’17) and left (in ’18) sides.
Thomas moves very well for a man of his size, showing a lot of bend in his hips and good shuffle in his feet. He obviously has great length and uses his long arms well, doing a nice job with punch and hand placement. He’s unique in his ability to play both man and zone blocking schemes at a very high level, as he has the natural power to maul in the ground game but the lateral quickness to get to the second level, and he’s obviously a highly effective pass blocker. Assuming he stays healthy next year and continues to play at a high level, he’s looking at a big payday in the spring of 2020.
3. C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Primarily a RB in high school, Henderson wisely made the decision to switch to CB in Gainesville, and it’s been amazing to see how quickly he’s not only adapted to the position, but become an elite cover corner, all of which speaks volumes to his natural athleticism. As a true freshman in ’17 he tied for with Duke Dawson (who was a 2ndround pick last spring) for the most INT’s on the team, and has continued his developmental arc in his sophomore season, where he’s tallied 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL’s, 2 sacks, 2 INT’s and 2 forced fumbles.
He has ideal length for today’s corners at 6-1, 191, with long arms and a sinewy frame. He’s improved against the run, but obviously his strength is his ability to play press man at a high level. He’s physical jamming receivers but also shows smooth feet and hips in transitions and displays elite recovery speed. Corners with his length, speed and athleticism have arguably never been as coveted as they are today, so I could see him being a very high pick in 2020.
2. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
An awful lot of attention this year went to Greedy Williams and Devin White, who will likely be first-round picks next spring, but neither was even the best player on his own defense. In fact, the best player on the vaunted Tigers defense was Delpit, a 6-3 sophomore safety who was arguably the best defensive player in the country. He was an absolute monster in 2018, tallying 73 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 5 sacks and 5 INTs, leading the team in each of the latter two categories.
Delpit is a freakishly gifted playmaker who can really do it all. He has the speed and range to cover deep. He has the quickness, fluidity and length to play man. He has the reaction skills to click and close playing off. He can explode downhill to make plays behind the line of scrimmage against the run. He’s a ball hawk with natural balance, body control and coordination to make game-changing plays. Truth be told, I think he would be a top-15 pick in this spring’s draft, if he were eligible.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Perhaps no player in the country has been more impressive since the second half of the National Championship Game last season, in which Tagovailoa came in and led the Tide to yet another title for their mantle. As the starter this season, he has been nothing short of spectacular, throwing for 3,353 yards (67.7 percent completion) with 37 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions, averaging an amazing 11.4 yards per attempt. The crazy thing, and something that Heisman voters apparently failed to account for, is that he accumulated those numbers while really playing only three quarters per game due to games being so one-sided.
As a pro prospect, Tagovailoa will very likely contend to be the first player picked in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’d almost certainly be the No. 1 QB prospect if he were eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s a terrific leader with elite intangibles, has very good ball placement and accuracy and can drive the ball downfield with accuracy to all three levels. His timing, touch and anticipation are top-notch. The concern with him, which was highlighted in the SEC Championship Game, is his somewhat elongated delivery. He needs to get the ball out quicker, but that can be worked on and improved over the course of the next year.