SEC preseason superlatives for 2024 NFL Draft: Brock Bowers is top dog but Joe Milton has top
The defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, who open their season Sept. 2 against Tennessee-Martin, are once again chock full of future NFL talent along with the rest of the SEC.
Rather than outright ranking the conference's best preseason NFL Draft prospects this year, we've decided to try something different. Here are some draft-related superlatives for the conference entering the 2023 campaign.
LSU's Jayden Daniels may offer more upside. As fans have seen over the past year, there is value in playing experience. Brock Purdy played 789 snaps during his career at Iowa State before going on to find success with the 49ers. Preseason darlings Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Aidan O'Connell played 827 snaps at UCLA and 855 snaps at Purdue, respectively. Daniels has played 826 snaps of college football entering his final season with the Tigers.
However, Leary offers a higher floor. The Kentucky coaches have been encouraged by how quickly the quarterback has taken control of the offense and endeared himself to his teammates since arriving from NC State. In 2021, completed 65.7% of his passes for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns and five interceptions. Leary does not have Daniels' speed but he throws a tighter spiral. The New Jersey native throws with touch and has good pocket awareness.
South Carolina's Spencer Rattler and Arkansas' K.J. Jefferson are a few others to follow. There may not be a top-100 selection from this group. Two others who could bypass each of them are potential breakout candidates.
The SEC has several prospects more highly rated than its top quarterback prospect. Bowers is a top-10 prospect overall, just ahead of Alabama offensive tackle JC Latham. Bowers has been effective for the defending national champions since stepping foot on campus.
Through two seasons, the California native has caught 119 passes for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns. Some of the other top prospects in the conference include LSU defensive tackle Maason Smith, Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner, Georgia linebackers Smael Mondon and Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Alabama cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry.
There is not a top-50 eligible running back prospect in the nation but Sanders offers the biggest upside as a feature back. He is not the most explosive running back but he offers third-down ability as a respectable pass blocker and pass catcher. At 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, the Florida native avoided 29% of tackle attempts last season, according to TruMedia.
Alabama's Jase McClellan will step into a larger role in the absence of first-round draft pick Jahmyr Gibbs. He is a patient runner with the size to handle primary responsibilities.
Bowers had a 3.7% drop rate last season. He converted 68.3% of his targets into either a first down or a touchdown. While Bowers is the best tight end prospect in the SEC, LSU's Malik Nabers is the best wide receiver. Nabers has good size and speed. His body control down the field is among the best in the class.
Other top pass catchers in the SEC include Texas A&M wide receiver Moose Muhammad III, South Carolina wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. and Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy. McCoy is a part of a talented Tennessee wide receiver room that also features Squirrel White, Ramel Keyton and Dont'e Thornton.
Most of these categories have a clear and obvious winner. "Best offensive lineman" is not one. Latham is the choice because he has more playing experience than the contender: Georgia offensive tackle Amarius Mims. Latham appeared in 14 games as a true freshman before earning a starting role at right tackle last season.
Mims has more limited experience. After exploring the transfer portal early this year, the Georgia native returned to Athens and saw action at right tackle. Mims looked dominant on the field at times. If he is able to carry that success over to the upcoming season, there is a good chance he is able to overtake Latham and challenge Penn State's Oli Olu Fashanu as the draft's top eligible offensive tackle.
Alabama center Seth McLaughlin, Kentucky offensive tackle Marques Cox, Missouri offensive tackle Javon Foster, Georgia offensive guard Tate Ratledge and LSU offensive guard Miles Frazier are among the other linemen to note.
There is not a Tier 1 pass rusher in this draft class right now. Turner is often mentioned as the SEC's top pass rusher but he is not Myles Garrett or even Will Anderson Jr. yet. Turner is still a relatively young prospect who needs to add mass and play strength to round into his most dynamic form. Last season, the Fort Lauderdale native recorded four sacks. He accounted for 37 pressures, 21 hurries and a 12.8% pressure rate, according to TruMedia. Turner's pressure rate ranked No. 85 among pass rushers with at least 200 pass-rush snaps.
Florida's Princely Umanmielen and Turner's teammate, Chris Braswell, are a few of the conferences best pass rushers. The interior defensive line group is more appealing. Texas A&M's McKinnley Jackson, LSU's Maason Smith and Georgia's Nazir Stackhouse are all in the top-50 range.
McKinstry allowed 352 yards and one touchdown last season. Pass attempts were completed 44.0% of the time when he was in primary coverage, according to TruMedia. McKinstry's 20% pass breakup rate was 23rd-best in the country among defenders with at least 200 pass-coverage snaps. The Alabama native stepped into a contributing role with the Crimson Tide as a true freshman and now emerges as arguably the best cornerback prospect in the nation.
The SEC has a rich history of producing NFL defensive back talent and that is no different this year: Alabama's Terrion Arnold and Malachi Moore, Auburn's Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James, Georgia's Kamari Lassiter and Javon Bullard, Florida's Jason Marshall and Mississippi State's Decamerion Richardson.
With a strong season under the direction of new Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen, Leary has a good chance of asserting himself as a top-100 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Georgia wide receiver Dominic Lovett would have been the choice had he been transferring into the conference. However, he transferred in-conference from Missouri. The market for smaller, explosive pass catchers has bloomed in the NFL over the past few years. Lovett, who averaged 15.1 yards per reception, fits the description.
Incoming Oregon wide receiver transfer Dont'e Thornton has an opportunity to shoulder the production lost from Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman at Tennessee. Kentucky offensive tackle Marques Cox is a technically sound lineman with good size who should generate some buzz as well.
Jackson is a high-motor prospect with good first step quickness and fast hands getting into gaps. He showcases some stack and shed ability and plays to the whistle. He is a part of what is expected to be a strong interior defensive line class that also includes Georgia senior Nazir Stackhouse.
There are several potential top-100 picks among the conference's seniors. Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore has been trusted in Nick Saban's defense since he was a true freshman. Arkansas' Beaux Limmer, Georgia's Sedrick Van Pran and Florida's Kingsley Eguakun are great options for NFL teams in search of interior offensive line help. Missouri linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper is a fun prospect to watch.
Milton has been hyped up similarly to Anthony Richardson a year ago. There is no denying that he has the talent to be effective and he is in an offense that should accentuate his strengths. The Michigan transfer just has to produce this fall. In two seasons with the Volunteers, he has attempted 144 passes, which is nearly equivalent to his 152 pass attempts in three years with the Wolverines. Milton was blitzed on 38.5% of his dropbacks last season so the opposition was forcing him to make reads quickly.
Georgia quarterback Carson Beck was named the team's starter entering the season. Beck was a 4-star prospect out of high school and the Bulldogs have done a good job sending its signal-callers to the next level. He is another candidate to take that leap.