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Recruiting titles beget national championships, which beget NFL Draft dominance.
Such is the Southeastern Conference, which has had more players drafted than any other conference each year since 2007 for a grand total of 757.
The 2022 draft begins on Thursday (8 p.m. eastern, ESPN, NFL Network, ABC) from Caesars Forum in Las Vegas, Nevada, and continues through Saturday. An NFL record from one conference came from the SEC last year with 65 overall picks.
Meanwhile, an SEC team has finished No. 1 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings 15 times since 2003 when LSU won it, followed by Florida in 2007, Alabama eight times from 2008-17, Georgia three straight from 2018-20, Alabama in 2021, and Texas A&M this year.
The league won national titles in 2006 (Florida), 2007 (LSU), 2008 (Florida), 2009 (Alabama), 2010 (Auburn), 2011 (Alabama), 2012 (Alabama), 2015 (Alabama), 2017 (Alabama), 2019 (LSU), 2020 (Alabama) and 2021 (Georgia). And the league is expected to have the most players drafted this year too, with a total in the 50s or 60s for the eighth straight time.
There will likely be nine to 11 SEC players taken in the first round after 12 last year, which followed the NFL record for a conference with 15 in 2020.
A hot bet to be the No. 1 overall pick by Jacksonville is late rising Georgia defensive end Travon Walker (6-foo-5, 275 pounds), who was the No. 4 strong side defensive end by Rivals.com out of Upson-Lee High in Thomaston, Georgia in 2019.
“He’s a freak,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said at his team’s Pro Day last month. “He’s got great length. He’s an incredible athlete.”
Walker had only 3.5 sacks in his career before getting six last season for the national champions. But he also played tackle for Georgia and rarely just lined up and bullrushed the quarterback from the edge.
“We asked him to do a lot of different things,” Smart said. “There have been several NFL scouts that say, ‘Hey, just line him up at outside backer, let him set an edge.’ He’s going to be tremendous at that. He’s really strong. He’s really fast.”
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds at the NFL Combine in February, and that was faster than a dozen wide receivers there.
Alabama left tackle Evan Neal (6-7, 345) can also move his considerable size surprisingly fast and has an outside chance to be the top pick, but it is more likely he will land in the top five or 10.
“He’s got a lot of God-given ability, but he’s also a great person, a hard worker and plays with a lot of discipline,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his team’s Pro Day. “Whoever gets him is going to get a really good player, but they’re also going to get somebody who’s going to represent your program really well.”
Another SEC offensive tackle expected to go as high as the top five is Charles Cross of Mississippi State.
The fourth SEC player to be selected Thursday night will likely be LSU cornerback Derek Stingley, but he could fall out of the top 10. The first cornerback expected to go is Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner in the top five, where Stingley was thought to be headed two years ago.
After a spectacular freshman season in 2019 in which he led the SEC in interceptions with six and was a consensus first team All-American, Stingley suffered through health and injury problems for the next two years.
After 15 games in the national title season of ’19, he played in just 10 games since and never intercepted another pass. His toughness, durability and tackling prowess have been questioned. And even when he was at his best in 2019, he kept Alabama in the game by allowing 64- and 85-yard touchdown catches to DeVonta Smith, who finished with seven catches for 213 yards in a 46-41 loss.
Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams should go toward the middle of the first round, and Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks should be selected toward the end of the round.
Among the other projected late first round picks from the SEC are Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who will likely go early in the second round if he does not get the call at the end of the first round.
Georgia finally overtook Alabama for the recruiting title in 2018, ’19 and ’20, then beat the Tide for the national title last season. It could do the same in the draft this weekend.
Four Bulldogs could go in the first round, which would break the school record of three set in 2018. After Walker, defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt and linebacker Nakobe Dean are slated for the first round. Alabama is expected to have just Neal and Williams go in the first round.
Three others Georgia players are expected to go early in the second round – wide receiver George Pickens, safety Lewis Cine and outside linebacker Quay Walker. In all, Georgia could have as many as 15 players drafted, which would break its record of nine set last year.
“I wish I had some coming back,” Smart said. “I think it’s very unique to have this kind of collection of talent. You don’t have that every year. It’s not every year that you’re going to have 14 guys at the Combine.”
Other Georgia players expected to be selected as the weekend goes on are cornerback Derion Kendrick, offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer, running back James Cook, linebacker Channing Tindall, offensive lineman Justin Shaffer, running back Zamir White, tight end John FitzPatrick and possibly punter Jake Camarda.
“The biggest thing that sticks out is the way they play on tape,” Smart said. “They pop on tape.”
The SEC has been doing that more than any other league since 2007.