The Sun Belt Conference has become a breeding ground for next-level talent, and the prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft will prove to be no exception. This year’s crop of candidates features a multitude of tantalizing players, varying from Day 1 starters to prominent role players. I’ve highlighted, slotted, and made a case for seven conference stars poised to make an impact as rookies.

Third round: Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State

Akeem Davis-Gaither went from preseason sleeper to household name in less than five months. The uber-athletic defender racked up 101 tackles (14.5 for loss), five sacks, an interception, and eight passes defended over 14 games last season, earning himself All-American and Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors as a result. Davis-Gaither preceded to turn heads at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, using the celebrated platform as a launching pad into early-round consideration.

Davis-Gaither is the new age NFL defender. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, the rangy linebacker is tremendously fluid in coverage, yet instinctive and physical enough to hold up against the run. As more and more teams transition to spread offenses and 12 personnel, players with Davis-Gaither’s skill set will come at a premium. The athletic linebacker offers the flexibility to move all over defensive formations, and his coverage prowess and ball skills make him an ideal solution to slowing the ever-growing surplus of dynamic tight ends and running backs in the passing game.

Davis-Gaither is a top-90 player on my board, and one of the best Sun Belt prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he has a chance to boost his draft stock even further with a standout performance at the NFL Scouting Combine later this month.

Third round: Robert Hunt, OT, Louisiana-Lafayette

The more highly-heralded of the two Ragin’ Cajun offensive linemen, Robert Hunt is coming off a 2019 season in which he earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors and an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl. The redshirt senior was unable to participate in the Lending Tree Bowl and Senior Bowl due to injuries.

The 6-foot-5, 322-pound Hunt began his career at left guard, starting all 13 games as a freshman before becoming the stalwart right tackle that ultimately placed him on NFL radars. Hunt is sure to entice NFL personnel and evaluators alike with his versatility, and I could foresee a team selecting him with the intention of playing him at guard initially. Hunt’s notorious mean streak, coupled with his superhuman strength, should make him an instant starter as a rookie, provided the injury woes are behind him.

Fourth round: Kevin Dotson, OG, Louisiana-Lafayette

I’m admittedly bullish on Kevin Dotson, who I strongly feel was the most egregious omission from the NFL Scouting Combine invite list.

The 2019 Associated Press first-team All-American played in all 14 games and was a catalyst in spear-heading a formidable Ragin’ Cajuns’ rushing attack that ranked fifth in the nation in rushing yards (3,449) and eighth in sacks allowed (1.15 per game). The 6-foot-4, 321-pound lineman was widely regarded as one of the top interior protectors in college football in 2019.

Dotson managed to parlay his decorated collegiate career into an invite to the prestigious East-West Shrine Bowl last month. The interior mauler utilized his 81-inch arms, 10-inch hands, and brute strength to his advantage, imposing his will against some of the top defensive linemen in the country. Dotson was dominant throughout the week and should have been awarded the opportunity to play in the Senior Bowl.

Dotson is at his best when operating as a road-grading run blocker, but he is as complete as any guard in the 2020 NFL Draft class. A technician on the inside, Dotson has the footwork, power, hand placement, and understanding of leverage to be a Day 1 starter in the NFL. The fourth round is later than he should go; I believe he deserves to be selected a round higher, but given the way things have been trending, he will outproduce his draft slot.

Fifth round: Kindle Vildor, CB, Georgia Southern

Kindle Vildor is gifted enough to be in the Day 2 conversation, but his slight frame and small school stigma will likely cause the talented defender to tumble further down draft boards than he should.

Vildor, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound defensive back that has never been one to back down from a challenge, is most comfortable coming up and challenging receivers in man coverage. A remarkably quick-twitched defender, Vildor has a penchant for running the route for the wide receiver, staying in his hip pocket throughout the entirety of the pattern and using his noted instincts to make a play on the ball. Vildor’s size and skill set will almost assuredly land him a prominent nickel role at the next level. Think Kenny Moore.

Vildor has the desired moxie that teams look for in defensive backs. He has the discipline and ball skills to back it up. He will come off the board later than he should, however, providing outstanding value for whichever team is fortunate enough to nab the Georgia Southern cornerback.

Fifth round: Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State

As tremendously talented as Darrynton Evans is, he, unfortunately, plays a position that teams are becoming less inclined to invest significant draft capital in, due in large part to their increasingly short shelf life.

Since taking over for an injured Jalin Moore in 2018, Evans has quietly been one of the more consistent running backs in college football. Over 14 games, Evans finished third in the Sun Belt Conference in rushing yards (1,480) and first in rushing touchdowns (18) in 2019.

Evans has the intangibles to become a feature back in the NFL. His lateral agility to stretch the perimeter is superb and his vision when sifting through traffic at the line of scrimmage is something to behold. Evans possesses home-run ability every time he touches the football and boasts the elusiveness and contact balance to make defenses pay if they don’t wrap up. Perhaps the only things working against the Sun Belt phenom are his mileage (434 carries in two years) and limited usage in the passing game (39 receptions in three years).

While the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Evans will likely need to gain an additional five to ten pounds to become a true, three-down workhorse, he will provide excellent mid-round value and instantly add juice to an NFL backfield. He’s one of the most exciting Sun Belt prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Seventh round: Omar Bayless, WR, Arkansas State

It’s not often that you will find a pass catcher that finished second in the nation in receiving yards (1,653), third in receiving touchdowns (17), and ninth in receptions (93) available in the seventh round, but alas, here we are.

Bayless managed to turn a relatively modest first three seasons (83-1,111-9) into one of the most productive seasons by a wide receiver in 2019. While some evaluators will undoubtedly be skeptical of the sudden spike in production, wondering if his breakout senior campaign was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come, I credit Bayless’s work ethic for making himself NFL relevant.

At 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, Bayless offers inside-outside versatility, efficiency with his releases at the line of scrimmage, and flashes of exceptional high-point skills when attacking the football in traffic. Bayless will need a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine in order to enhance his outlook. There will always be questions of whether or not he has the long speed to consistency separate from defenders at the next level, but he should find a niche as a reliable possession receiver for years to come.

Seventh round: Raymond Calais, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette

In many cases, teams will take fliers on potential impact players late into the seventh round, rather than risk losing them as priority free agents. Former Ragin’ Cajun running back Raymond Calais is one of those players.

Though he was part of a three-man timeshare at Louisiana-Lafayette, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Calais made the most of his touches, carrying 198 times for 1,640 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground over the past two seasons. He also served as the Ragin’ Cajuns primary kick returner for the majority of his career, returning 99 kicks for 2,493 yards and two touchdowns.

Specialty players that can fill multiple roles and create mismatches on offense like Calais are typically ones that hear their names called late on Day 3. The diminutive runner is electric with the ball in his hands and showed glimpses of what he’s capable of with a larger workload. He will likely stick as a complementary piece in a rotation, but special teams will ultimately be what gets his foot in the door as a rookie. When I watch Calais play, I see shades of Raheem Mostert.