As the NFL draft kicks off tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), there will once again be serious SEC representation. From early first-round candidates like Amari Cooper and Todd Gurley to a handful of late-round sleepers, these three days in Chicago will have a heavy SEC feel.
Who are the best bets from the conference to make a quick impact at the next level? Let's break it down:
Instant-impact offensive player
Edward Aschoff: Amari Cooper, Alabama
Cooper is the best offensive player in the draft, in my opinion. Georgia running back Todd Gurley would be my No. 1, but he likely won’t make an immediate impact because of his knee. Cooper, on the other hand, was ready to play and start in the NFL before the 2014 season even began. He shattered records at Alabama and led the country with 124 receptions last season. He was also second with 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. Everyone knew Cooper was going to get the ball last year and it didn’t matter. He caught at least eight passes in 12 of 14 games and had seven 100-yard outings. He has great top-end speed, can make every catch and is precise with his route running.
Greg Ostendorf: Todd Gurley, Georgia
My colleagues went with the easy choice, Amari Cooper. I can’t blame them. He’s a can’t-miss prospect. But when healthy, so is Gurley. Imagine if Gurley hadn’t torn his ACL. He’d easily be a top-10 pick right now. And based on the recent video I saw of him running on the treadmill, he looks well on his way to becoming the player he was before the injury. Depending on where he goes, he might not be the starter right away. That’s OK. More and more NFL teams are rotating their running backs, and that means Gurley is going to get his fair share of carries as a rookie.
Alex Scarborough: Amari Cooper, Alabama
This one's easy. It's Amari Cooper, by a mile. If not for draft eligibility rules, he could have gone pro after his freshman year. He's that complete a football player. Think of a young Reggie Wayne. Cooper has adequate size, above-average quickness and great hands. But it's the intricacies of the game that make him special. The way he gets off the line of scrimmage is uncanny. He runs routes like a 10-year pro. As future pro Landon Collins told me, "If you look at his feet and try to stick him at the line, you’ll get lost."
Instant-impact defensive player
Aschoff: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
The scary thing about Fowler is he hasn’t even scratched the surface with his potential. He’s still a little raw when it comes to being a true pass-rusher, but he has elite talent and athleticism. Get him a coach who can really develop his skill and watch out. Fowler led the Gators with 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last year. He can play on the edge with his hand in the ground or standing up. He’s also fast enough to drop back in coverage and is great against the run. Fowler also moved around a lot on college, making him an even more versatile option in the NFL.
Ostendorf: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
For what it’s worth, I think Bud Dupree and Shane Ray (yes, Shane Ray) will make an immediate contribution in the NFL. But how can you go against Fowler? He’s arguably the best defensive prospect in this draft. He’s versatile enough to play defensive end, outside linebacker and even defensive tackle. He can fit into any scheme. And if anybody questions his passion or motivation, just go back and watch this year’s Birmingham Bowl, a game he didn’t even have to play in. Some team will be very happy to get Mr. Fowler.
Scarborough: Landon Collins, Alabama
I'm not as sold on Shane Ray as everyone else, and it has nothing to do with a bad foot or questionable decision-making off the field. For me, he's a little undersized and I worry he's too much of a one-trick pony rushing the passer. Along the same lines, I wonder how Dante Fowler Jr. will translate to the NFL. So give me Landon Collins. How he's slipping down draft boards is beyond me. For a league that's so pass-heavy, he's a perfect fit. He's as good in coverage as he is playing in the box against the run. A heavy hitter, he'll make his presence felt on any defense.
Potential Day 3 steal
Aschoff: Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
There are plenty of sleepers from the SEC this year, but I think Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson has a chance to be a solid player in the NFL. He’s a monster athlete with great speed and showed some great instincts when it came to finding the ball last year, leading the SEC with 10 interceptions and 18 passes defended. It took Golson a few years to become an All-American, but he became a true student of the game in 2014 proved to be more than just an athlete. Golson is a tremendously smart player on the field and a little more development could do wonders.
Ostendorf: Darius Philon, Arkansas
It was a little surprising to see Philon declare early considering he probably won’t hear his name called until Saturday as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be successful. He has a quick burst and routinely makes plays in the backfield. He was second on the Razorbacks last year with 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. And he did all that in just his second season playing college football. Once Philon makes an NFL roster, he has plenty of room to grow and develop.
Scarborough: Markus Golden, Missouri
Not to harp on Shane Ray, but what about his teammate and fellow defensive end at Missouri last year? For the life of me I can't understand why mock drafts are so down on Markus Golden. He's 15 pounds heavier than Ray and his 40-yard dash is only 0.9 seconds slower. In terms of production, Ray had 4.5 sacks more than Golden, but Golden had 12 QB hurries to Ray's five. With such a minute difference between the two, why not take a flier on Golden? If he's available in the fourth round, he's a bargain you can't pass up.
Team that will take a hit this weekend
If not for a complete folding job by the Crimson Tide in the second half against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama would have played in the national championship against Oregon. Now, Alabama had to say goodbye to a handful of starters to the NFL draft, including junior standouts Amari Cooper, Landon Collins and T.J. Yeldon. Quarterback Blake Sims, who set an Alabama record with 3,487 passing yards last season, sack leader Xzavier Dickson (nine), and the exception Trey DePriest, who racked up 88 tackles last year, are also gone. Alabama has to rebuild at key positions and find some new, valuable leadership on a team that would have certainly been yet another championship favorite in 2015 if it hadn’t have been for the draft.
First-year coach Jim McElwain has been quick to point out the lack of depth on the roster he inherited at Florida, and maybe that's because of all the NFL talent that is no longer on campus. Fowler is the headliner of the group. Players of that caliber simply don’t come around very often, and he’ll be sorely missed. But what’s crazy is that four of Florida’s five starting offensive linemen will also likely get drafted this week, beginning with offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, a potential first-round pick. How was Florida not better on offense with that much talent up front?
This happens this time every year, so it's no surprise. And given the way they recruit, no one is weeping for them. That's right, we're talking about Alabama. The Crimson Tide, once again, will be hit hard by the draft. The heart of the offense is gone with Amari Cooper, Blake Sims and T.J. Yeldon all waiting to hear their names called. But they'll also miss starting wideouts Christion Jones and DeAndrew White, starting left guard Arie Kouandjio, starting middle linebacker Trey DePriest and both starting safeties, Landon Collins and Nick Perry. Jarrick Williams, who started five games as a defensive back, has moved on as well.