In 2022, seven of the first 15 players selected in the NFL Draft played college football in the Southeastern Conference. Of the top 60 players selected, 35% played ball in the SEC. Of the 262 players who heard their names called, nearly a quarter (24.8%, to be exact) came from the league where football just matters more.
Maybe not when it comes to parity, but the SEC remains the gold standard for talent, thanks in large part to a West division that produced 23 draft picks by itself this year — and that’s with Auburn producing just one. Georgia led the way with 15. Alabama’s seven draft selections in 2022 tied for the program’s fewest number since 2011, but Nick Saban’s haul figures to be in the double digits again next spring. He’ll hardly be alone.
We took a stroll through the Big Ten earlier this month. Here’s my early look at the most intriguing 2023 prospects from every SEC team.
Alabama: Will Anderson, Edge
No disrespect to Bryce Young or the gaggle of other Alabama prospects, but Anderson is arguably the top prospect in the United States and should be viewed as an early-season Heisman Trophy candidate, if not the front runner. The 6-4, 243-pound Anderson is freakish across the board. He had 34-inch arms in high school — and he’s gotten bigger. His wingspan allows him to get in on nearly every play run to his side of the field and a whole bunch on the other side, too.
THE TERMINATOR 😤
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 31, 2021
Logging 102 tackles as an edge defender is wild. Anderson’s 34.5 TFL last year might be the more eye-popping stat, but the raw tackle number shows just how active he can be. His immediate burst from a dead stop is elite. He can bend and punch underneath tackles and completely lock them out with his length right away. College tight ends have no chance. Speed, power, length, burst and football intelligence — there’s not an unchecked box on the list with Anderson.
His junior year will be about fine-tuning everything. Specifically his pass rush plan and, perhaps, his overall comfort level with coverage drops. But he’s already so good. And at Alabama, he’s hardly alone. Anderson, Young and corner Eli Ricks all have early first-round potential. Receiver Jermaine Burton, who transferred from Georgia, and DBs Malachi Moore and Jordan Battle are among others on the roster with first-round potential. This is a loaded roster. Maybe more loaded than Georgia this year.
Ole Miss: Zach Evans, RB
A transfer from TCU, Evans (5-11, 212) has outstanding vision and a feel for space, especially out in the open. A five-star recruit and the top high school back in Texas in 2020, Evans got 146 carries in two years at TCU and turned them into 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns — outstanding efficiency before a toe injury shortened his 2021. Evans will now, presumably, do all sorts of fun stuff with Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss.
We haven’t seen much from Evans yet as a receiver, as he only had 18 receptions in two years at TCU, but it’s at least fair to suggest that was more TCU’s fault than his. Expect Kiffin to tinker more with this side of Evans’ game. But in the end, just expect Ole Miss to get this guy touches and work to find him room to work. We have not seen his best ball yet.
Honorable mention here is Nick Broeker, a three-year starting left tackle who is now set to try guard. If Broeker (6-5, 314) can stabilize there in 2022, his stock goes up.
Arkansas: Jalen Catalon, S
Everything about Arkansas’ defense changed when Catalon was lost for the year with multiple injuries midway through the 2021 season. A deep safety with great instincts, Catalan has been a tackling machine since getting on the field full-time in 2020. Even with a noteworthy amount of misses, he’s made better than nine tackles per game from his safety spot over his past 16 games and is generally responsible for quite a bit in Arkansas’ coverage scheme.
A versatile back-end player and a leader, Catalon has been a huge factor in Sam Pittman’s early rebuilding process in Fayetteville. He’s passionate about his school and his teammates and isn’t afraid to share that publicly. NFL coaches will likely enjoy their time with Catalon, whenever it comes.
Keep an eye on center Ricky Stromberg, who has consistently improved since Pittman took over. Also: All-SEC LB Bumper Pool, who made 20 tackles in a game last year and has one of the sport’s best names.
Mississippi State: Emmanuel Forbes, CB
Long, lean and capable of covering a lot of ground in man and zone converge. Forbes (6-0, 180) isn’t afraid to tackle, and he knows how to use his length to his advantage vs. the pass at the line of scrimmage and in coverage. He likes to get his hands into a receiver as quickly as possible near the line of scrimmage, as his ability to disrupt timing with his length is a big asset.
Forbes shows good vision in zone coverage and isn’t afraid to attack the ball, as he’s picked off eight balls over the past two seasons (and brought three back for touchdowns).
Forbes was a second-team All-SEC performer a year ago and might not see a ton of balls thrown his way as Mississippi State’s top corner this year, but it’s important for him to continue working on making sure his feet are taken care of before his hands in press. With continued strength gains, Forbes has a lot of potential for versatility on the back end.
Texas A&M: Antonio Johnson, S
Johnson is a big safety (6-3, 200) who can hang in the box and help vs. the run while maintaining a physical presence in coverage. He could flirt with the first round before it’s all over. Safety is always a tough spot to peg, but Johnson is huge and has hybrid traits. He still has work to do in many areas, but he is very young (true junior in 2022). Johnson played immediately as a freshman in 2020 and started every game a year ago, making 79 tackles (8.5 TFLs) with six PBUs and one pick. He’s an active participant in the blitz game, showing great burst and closing speed on tape.
Also watch out for Texas A&M running back Devon Achane, who had 910 yards on just 130 carries as a sophomore backup to Isaiah Spiller in 2021. Achane ran the 100-meter dash in 10.1 seconds at an A&M track meet this spring.
Auburn: Derick Hall, Edge
Hall’s length and general burst off the edge make him a very interesting prospect with a pretty high ceiling. He had 12.5 TFLs and nine sacks at Auburn last season as a 6-3, 256-pound edge defender who wore multiple hats.
As a pass rusher, Hall shows an ability to bend and get to the corner, at times. His length and get-off are also natural problems for offensive tackles in obvious passing situations. Hall’s overall rush plan is still pretty basic and needs more development, but it’s all in there. He plays with a lot of effort and shows a willingness to chase plays down from the back side. Hall can also turn his hips and run with backs and some tight ends while being able to cover a lot of ground in zone with his long wingspan.
Elsewhere at Auburn, junior running back Tank Bigsby has been terrific through two years with the Tigers: 1,933 yards and 15 touchdowns to go along with 32 catches for 268 yards. Keep an eye on him.
LSU: Kayshon Boutte, WR
Boutte’s sharp cuts and change of direction without speed loss help him find his way open on just about any type of underneath route. It almost, at times, looking like he’s toying with corners mid-route. He’s a phenomenal playmaker who can turn ordinary stuff into touchdowns.
Boutte’s body control and ball tracking skills are also top notch, as he showed great ability to adjust to mid-air throws — even poor ones — with multiple defenders near him. He has to show his leg is healthy after an injury cost him half of 2021, but Boutte could really thrive as a centerpiece weapon for Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.
Kelly is hardly walking into an empty cupboard here. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Boutte at No. 14 and LSU edge rusher BJ Ojulari at No. 15 in his early 2023 mock draft. Front seven pieces Ali Gaye and Jaquelin Roy are back, and running back John Emery Jr. is eligible. Lots of talent here again — just like last year, and the year before.
Georgia: Jalen Carter, DL
Carter was an elite defender on the most elite defense in modern college football history a year ago, and he should have little trouble keeping that distinction in 2022. It was impossible to watch any of Georgia’s gaggle of defensive playmakers last year and not think that Carter was at, or above, the level of every Bulldog on the field.
Explosive, powerful and quick as a cat off the ball, Carter (6-3, 310) has the goods to make an impact right away at the next level and will be in the top 10 conversation entering fall. So will cornerback Kelee Ringo, a gigantic 6-2 corner with all sorts of high-end potential. (Brugler had Ringo No. 4 and Carter No. 6 in his early mock.)
Carter is DT1, Ringo is at least in discussion for CB1, and Nolan Smith (6-3, 235) is right there with LSU’s Ojulari in the discussion for top edge prospect behind Alabama’s Anderson. And we haven’t even mentioned Georgia’s loaded tight end room of Arik Gilbert, Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers, who is somehow just a sophomore.
Kentucky: Will Levis, QB
Levis has all the good stuff from a release/quick trigger standpoint that really can’t be taught, and when everything all goes together it can look beautiful. Top 10 in the draft, beautiful. Top 5? Calm down. But maybe?
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) November 7, 2021
Levis’ rushing was a bigger piece of his game when he began his career at Penn State, but that is hardly the case anymore. Levis can run, but he doesn’t need to. He’s too good in the pocket, and Kentucky’s offense will highlight that this year. Kentucky lost offensive coordinator Liam Coen to the Rams, but Mark Stoops wisely hired another coach from the Shanahan tree, recent 49ers QBs coach Rich Scangarello, to continue Levis’ development.
The other part about Levis that’s so attractive, as our Nate Tice points out: Most of his issues are fixable and not of grave concern. He showed an ability to be a progression passer last year. Now, it will be about consistency and eliminating mistakes.
Tennessee: Darnell Wright, OT
Wright (6-6, 335) is a former five-star prospect who finally looked like he got his feet under him during Josh Heupel’s first season with the Vols. Wright might be more of a right tackle or guard in the NFL, but he has a lot of intriguing physical traits beyond his size. If he can stack another year of improvement similar to the one he just had, Wright’s name will be one that’s discussed more in NFL circles this fall.
Fifth-year senior QB Hendon Hooker is the other guy to watch here. Tennessee didn’t give Hooker the job until Week 3 last fall, but the fit with Heupel’s offense was obvious. Mature, smart player — can he take another step?
Missouri: Kris Abrams-Draine, CB
A former receiver who moved to corner in 2021, Abrams-Draine is a 5-11, 178-pound speedster who broke up seven passes and had three interceptions last season. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD. Abrams-Draine plays with good length, has natural mirroring ability as an athlete and can close ground in a hurry.
Abrams-Draine did play defensive back in high school, but he was a do-everything athlete (QB, WR, KR, PR, DB). Only now is he entering the point in his football career when he can settle into one role and work to master it.
He’s still very young, just a junior, so no rush here.
South Carolina: Spencer Rattler, QB
Defensive lineman Zacch Pickens is an early first-rounder on Brugler’s 2023 list and maybe the Gamecocks’ top pro prospect. But intriguing? That would be Rattler. The arm talent and athleticism did not vanish or disappear when he transferred from Oklahoma.
Rattler’s still a 21-year-old QB prospect with a live arm, a quick release and the athletic ability to make a play when there is no play to be made. He has to be more consistent with everything, though. He has to be better with his progressions in the pocket and take better care of the ball. He has to prove he can lead an offense in a new situation, which requires maturity and leadership.
This new challenge and the opportunity to continue to work against high-level competition could be exactly what Rattler needs. But that’s all up to him.
Florida: Anthony Richardson, QB
Richardson is a redshirt sophomore who’s made just 66 pass attempts in his college career. There are moments when it looks like Richardson is a long way off. And then there are electric moments when he looks like a future star (the second half vs. LSU, for example). The 6-4, 237-pounder has undeniable physical traits with his arm and legs.
Everyone at Florida gets a fresh start with Billy Napier. And one of Napier’s first big tasks in Gainesville will be getting everything to click for Richardson. He has to walk before he can run. But if it takes off early for Richardson, watch out.
Other Gator prospects to keep an eye on: Brenton Cox Jr. (Edge), Gervon Dexter (DL), Ventrell Miller (LB) and O’Cyrus Torrence (OL).
Vanderbilt: Anfernee Orji, LB
A former safety turned stack linebacker, Orji has logged 159 tackles (14.5 TFLs) in the past two years. Older brother Alston was a four-star linebacker at Vanderbilt, and younger brother Alex is a QB at Michigan.
Orji plays with explosion and IQ in the box for the Commodores. Is he fast enough to carve out a role somewhere at the next level? If he can show more range and ability in coverage, teams could be interested.
(Top photo of Will Levis: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)