Often overshadowed by the many powerhouse conferences in college football, the Sun Belt Conference continues to produce its fair share of NFL talent — and the 2020 NFL Draft is no exception. With talent ranging from explosive playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, to dominant defensive players, this year’s crop of Sun Belt NFL Draft prospects has it all. This piece highlights some of those players that have a chance to hear their names called on draft weekend.
QB Kaleb Barker, Troy
Though he appeared in 31 career games for the Trojans over his four-year career, Barker hadn’t experienced a full season as the starting signal-caller until this season. Finishing first in the Sun Belt in passing yards (3,611) and touchdowns (30), Barker offers upside as a late-round developmental backup at the next level.
At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, Barker isn’t going to entice many teams with his size. What will appeal to NFL evaluators, however, is the fact that he has steadily improved each season, and is far from a finished product. As a senior, Barker vastly improved his pocket presence and footwork, and his accuracy improved by leaps and bounds. He also boasts remarkable athleticism, and when you see what the New Orleans Saints have done with Taysom Hill, a player like Barker has the skill set to entice a team on draft weekend.
RB Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
Since taking over for an injured Jalin Moore last season, Evans hasn’t looked back.
On the heels of a 1,187-yard sophomore campaign, Evans finished third in the Sun Belt Conference in rushing yards (1,250) and first in rushing touchdowns (16) in 2019.
Though under-utilized as a pass-catcher — just 28 receptions over the past two seasons — the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder can be an effective dual-threat at the next level. Evans demonstrates exceptional vision at the line of scrimmage and lateral agility to stretch the perimeter, and his contact balance is admirable, despite his slight build. A dynamic speed rusher that can run to daylight with the slightest crease, Evans has the explosive traits to become an instant impact player on offense, should he elect to enter the 2020 NFL Draft.
RB Tra Barnett, Georgia State
Barnett gave the Sun Belt Conference a sample of what he was capable of in 2018 — and took the college football world by storm in 2019. The conference’s leading rusher, Barnett enjoyed a career-best 1,389-yard, 12-touchdown senior season.
Like Evans, Barnett was criminally under-utilized in Georgia State’s passing attack (only 14 catches in 2019), but he is well adept in that area of his game. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Barnett will likely stick as a rotational running back at the next level. Electric with the ball in his hands, NFL evaluators will be enamored with the dynamic runner’s diverse skill set. He will need to add some size between now and Georgia State’s pro day, but he should garner consideration in the later rounds or as a priority free agent. He could also offer upside as a return specialist.
WR Omar Bayless, Arkansas State
If you ask me, I think Arkansas State boasts the top receiving tandem in the country (more on the other half in a moment).
To put it mildly, Bayless has been virtually uncoverable this season.
A Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, Bayless leads the entire nation in receiving yards (1,481), narrowly edging out LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. His 16 receiving touchdowns are bested only by Chase (17).
For the first three years of his career, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound wideout failed to separate himself from the competition, averaging a rather pedestrian 28 receptions for 374 yards. In 2019, however, Bayless worked hard over the offseason and absolutely dominated his competition.
Though many may question his ability to adjust to a superior level of competition, Bayless has proven he can win his one-on-one matchups lined up on the perimeter or in the slot. His technical release off the line and physicality at the catch point are critical traits that translate to the next level. Additionally, he is proficient at tracking the ball on deep passes and well adept at picking up yards after the catch.
Whichever team is fortunate enough to land Bayless is getting a stud.
WR Kirk Merritt, Arkansas State
If you happened to watch any Arkansas State film, it’s likely you already know about the other half of Arkansas State’s talented receiving tandem.
A former four-star recruit, Merritt spent his freshman season at Oregon, transferred to Texas A&M, then onto East Mississippi Community College, and eventually found his way to Arkansas State with two years of eligibility remaining. In his first season for the Red Wolves, Merritt amassed 1,005 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 83 receptions. In 2019, Merritt recorded 64 receptions for 763 yards and 11 touchdowns — playing across from the most productive receiver in college football, Omar Bayless. He also impacted field position as a return specialist, returning 12 kicks for 354 yards, including a 94-yard touchdown against Georgia Southern.
Though he didn’t take the traditional route to college football relevance, Merritt has worked his way onto NFL radars. At six-foot, 212 pounds, the compactly-built receiver possesses elite-level elusiveness in the open field and is tough to bring down after contact. He has the speed to take the top off of defenses, and players like that always come at a premium.
DE Tarron Jackson, Coastal Carolina
The premier pass rusher in the Sun Belt Conference in 2019, Jackson’s gradual ascension started a season ago. An All-Sun Belt third-team selection, Jackson played in all 12 games for the Chanticleers in 2018, notching 58 tackles and three sacks — while battling through a season-long leg injury.
The 6-foot-2, 270-pound edge rusher burst onto the scene in 2019, to the tune of 60 tackles, 10.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 10 quarterback hits. Armed with a vast array of pass rush moves in his repertoire, Jackson brings a quick first-step off the ball and violent hand usage to fight through would-be blockers. He also has the required strength needed to anchor against the run.
If the Sun Belt prospect chooses to enter the NFL Draft a year early, he should generate interest as a late-round pick with immense upside.
DT Marcus Webb, Troy
After spending his first two seasons as a defensive end for the Trojans, accumulating four sacks, Webb kicked inside to defensive tackle for the remaining two. Though he experienced a fairly quiet junior season, registering just 1.5 sacks through 10 games, the 6-foot-3, 279-pounder posted 7.0 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss in 2019.
While some teams will see his 279-pound weight as less than ideal, and cite concerns about his ability to hold up against NFL offensive lineman, there are sure to be a handful blown away by his athleticism, and burst off the ball. A raw, albeit intriguing player, Webb will be afforded the opportunity to showcase his ability at Troy’s pro day.
LB Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
Simply stated, Davis-Gaither is one of my top Sun Belt sleeper prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.
A prominent figure in the Mountaineers’ success against Power 5 programs in 2019, Davis-Gaither is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound sideline-to-sideline coverage linebacker with outstanding football intelligence. As more and more teams look to implement 12-personnel to create mismatches and spread teams out, unique hybrid players like Davis-Gaither have never been more valuable. Players of his mold give defenses the best chance at limiting the success of the NFL’s latest trend.
With innate instincts to diagnose plays and a relentless pursuit to the football, Davis-Gaither provides an instant upgrade to any defense.
CB Kindle Vildor, Georgia Southern
After starting the final five games of his sophomore season, Vildor would never relinquish his spot in the starting lineup.
Vildor started all 13 games the following season, racking up numerous accolades in the process. Recognized as the Sun Belt Player of the Year by Pro Football Focus and a second-team All-American, Vildor amassed 42 tackles (4.5 for loss), 11 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions on the season.
This season, teams avoided throwing in Vildor’s direction. In 10 games, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback compiled 25 tackles (3 for loss), 4 pass breakups, and one interception.
All told, Vildor played in 38 career games for the Eagles, totaling 92 tackles (9 for loss), one sack, 23 pass breakups, one forced fumble, and 8 interceptions. An instinctual defender with tremendous ball skills, Vildor best projects as a slot defender at the next level. There is little wasted movement when transitioning in and out of his back pedal, and he has the tendency to closely mirror his opponent, often running the route for the wide receiver.
Coming off a rather tame senior campaign when compared to his junior breakout, Vildor is flying under the radar heading into the pre-draft process. Whether he hears his name called on Day 3 or draws interest in the hours that follow as a priority free agent, Vildor has the talent to play on Sundays.
Keep an eye on:
CB Shaun Jolly, Appalachian State
Although he won’t be entering the 2020 NFL Draft, Jolly is someone to keep an eye on for 2021.
Built similarly to Carolina Panthers’ cornerback Donte Jackson, Jolly is a pesky, hard-nosed defender with a penchant for coming up with the football. In his first season as a starter, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound cornerback has accounted for 35 tackles, five interceptions, seven pass breakups, and one blocked kick.