2023 NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: Will the SEC dominate the draft again?

Pro Football Network's 2023 NFL Draft Scouting Notebook continues with a detailed look at just how stacked the SEC may be this year.

It’s mid-June and we’re heavy in the process of detailing and profiling all the top 2023 NFL Draft prospects. As our notebooks begin to fill, some interesting takeaways are forming. With a bigger knowledge base into the potential 2023 NFL Draft class, PFN’s lead draft analysts — Ian Cummings and Oliver Hodgkinson — offer up some thoughts after the past week of watching film and tape study.

When it comes to the 2023 NFL Draft, the SEC really does mean more

Hodgkinson: The Southeastern Conference prides itself on the motto of “it just means more.” As we prepare for the 2022 college football season and the ultimate destination of the 2023 NFL Draft, it’s glaringly apparent that “it just means more” will likely mean more draft prospects than every other conference. The SEC has come to set the standard of excellence in recent years, and early indications suggest that a continuation of its dominance can be expected.

From the 1990s onwards, the SEC has seen an ever-increasing margin of draftees over other college football conferences. Prior to that, in the 70s and 80s, the Big Ten and even the Pac-12 were more successful suppliers of NFL draft talent. But by the end of the 2010s, the SEC averaged around 15 more drafted players than any other conference. In 2021, the SEC had 21 more players drafted than the closest competitor. Last year, the conference provided 17 players more than any other.

You might be wondering, what on earth has this history lesson got to do with scouting? Well, I’ve spent the last two weeks incessantly watching SEC teams to produce in-depth 2023 NFL Draft prospect watchlists for each team in the conference.

From Alabama to Vanderbilt, I’ve tried to unearth every player from each program that has a shot, long or otherwise, of hearing their name called by Roger Goodell — or an Indianapolis Orangutan — next April. The results were as you’d expect but also surprising.

Georgia and Alabama still stand tall

Georgia led the way with a record 15 draft picks last fall, and while they probably won’t replicate that historic class, there are reasons to believe that they could send a substantial amount of players to the NFL next April.

With the explosive and dangerous Jalen Carter and the physical ball hawk Kelee Ringo, they have two prospects already earning top-10 recognition. There’s a whole raft of players who already have a reputation of excellence, including players like center Sedrick Van Pran who is primed for stardom as one of the best interior offensive linemen in the class.

It wouldn’t be a conversation about the SEC, or the NFL draft, without Alabama. Will Anderson Jr. was arguably the best player in college football last fall, regardless of what Heisman Trophy voters might tell you. He enters the 2023 NFL Draft cycle as one of, if not the, best player in the class. Teammate Bryce Young has earned early recognition as a top-10 prospect and genuine competitor for the QB1 crown come April. The Crimson Tide have 18 legitimate prospects with multiple early-round possibilities.

The 2023 NFL Draft class is STACKED across the board

Georgia and Alabama are obvious. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. However, behind them are multiple teams with surprising team potential 2023 NFL Draft classes.

Having substantially bolstered the SEC’s numbers in 2020, the LSU Tigers have the potential to have a hyper-successful class. Kayshon Boutte is on a collision course with the WR1 slot. Meanwhile, BJ Ojulari has Round 1 potential, and several transfers in the secondary will look to elevate their stock upon arrival in Baton Rouge. Like Alabama, I counted 18 players with NFL potential.

We talked about this on a recent episode of the PFN Premier NFL Draft Podcast, but don’t sleep on South Carolina in the SEC this fall. Spencer Rattler still possesses the talent to succeed if a new home can rejuvenate his draft stock. Cornerback Cam Smith boasts the length, size, and swagger to challenge for Round 1 consideration. And tight end Jaheim Bell is a genuine pass-catching threat. There are ludicrous amounts of talent on both sides of the ball for the Gamecocks this fall. It could be one of the best classes in recent program history.

Every single SEC team had a prospect that caught my eye. Missouri safety Jaylon Carlies won’t attract the same attention as teammate Kris Abrams-Draine, but he boasts great speed, football instincts, and is impactful against the run. Tennessee has another explosive defensive tackle in Omari Thomas. Will Levis is an early QB favorite, but watch out for his new guard, Tashawn Manning. Even Vanderbilt, in the form of WR Will Sheppard and CB Jeremy Lucien, have under-the-radar prospects.

The SEC holds the record for total draft picks in one year with 65, a number it hit last year. We might be over 10 months away from the 2023 NFL Draft, but there’s a very good chance that the conference outperforms even its own high standards next April. It just means more.

Kentucky’s Will Levis runs for a touchdown against Louisville.
Nov. 27, 2021
Louisvillekentucky 21

Preliminary grades in summer scouting only for select players

Cummings: It’s easy to get caught up in the rush to grade players during the summer scouting process. So far this cycle, I’ve now graded well over 25 prospects. But it’s important to understand that grades compiled in the summer are merely preliminary grades. It’s also important to be aware of the potential drawbacks of early grading.

Preliminary grades only serve a definitive purpose for prospects who are already well-established on the 2023 NFL Draft stage. Players like Anderson, Carter, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba headline the list, but there are dozens more. Prospects that qualify for preliminary grading have enough tape to attain an accurate accounting of their strengths and weaknesses in each trait category for their position.

To provide an example, let’s look at another prospect who’s already been preliminarily graded: Florida DT Gervon Dexter. There’s enough tape to know that Dexter’s biggest strengths are his size, explosiveness, power capacity, and play strength. There’s also enough tape to know that his hand usage and leverage management can still improve, even though he’s shown he can acquire proper leverage with knee bend and lean.

Dexter is a young prospect, but there’s still enough tape on him to get a full, comprehensive view of his strengths and weaknesses by trait. Whereas if you look at his teammate on the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Anthony Richardson, there may not be enough tape to compile a preliminary grade — at least one that presents a full accounting of his qualities.

Richardson only has 66 career attempts to this point, and the circumstances of his 2021 campaign also bear noting. He was largely being rotated into game play sporadically. He rarely received a chance to get into a rhythm or compound growth as a thrower.

There’s enough to know that Richardson is a high-end talent at QB with early-round potential. But at this point in time, the sample size is too small to get an accurate NFL projection. Unfortunately, the only thing that can fix that is another year of play. So in Richardson’s case, it might be smart to hold off on the preliminary grade and wait until he’s had a year to develop and increase his sample size.

Preliminary NFL draft grades do not share the same purpose as final grades

Compiling preliminary grades is a useful exercise for prospects who qualify, but there is some danger involved. There has to be a level of accountability and diligence present for the evaluator, to avoid relying too much on initial grades when it comes time to finalize in April.

The preliminary grade isn’t meant to stand any longer than the end of the season. Its purpose is not the same as the final grade. The preliminary grade is meant for acquiring an understanding of where a player succeeds and fails, and how he can improve heading into the coming year. It’s more of a landmark that you can then reference in the future to see how much development prospects underwent.

So don’t hesitate to keep compiling preliminary grades. I’ll be doing the same. But also make a point to be flexible when the time comes to re-grade and re-evaluate.

Preliminary grades sometimes, to a fault, act as values that the human mind can anchor to and cling to. But it requires a level of discipline and awareness to avoid doing that and be comfortable changing valuations in the face of new tape to view. Understand the limitations of the summer scouting sample and the potential pitfalls of the human mind, and you can navigate through the draft process with a clear perspective.

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