As an early primer for the 2024 NFL Draft, The Athletic will be taking a look at the prospects you need to know from each of the Power 5 conferences plus a few more names from the Group of 5. Previously: The ACC (plus Notre Dame), the Big Ten and the Big 12.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two full decades since Nick Saban and Alabama shifted the sands in college football’s power structure.
A rising tide did indeed lift all boats, and the results have shown in the draft: Since 2009, the SEC has produced 50 top-10 NFL Draft picks. The next-closest league, the ACC, has produced 21 during that same stretch. The 2023 draft marked the 11th time in 12 years the SEC led the country in first-round selections, and dating back to 2010, the conference now has more than double (135) the first-rounders of its closest competitors (the ACC and Big Ten have 64 each).
The SEC — be it Alabama or Georgia and any program trying to keep up with the two — has run college football for a long time. An early look at the talent pool in 2024 says that’s not going to change much. Here are 10 SEC draft prospects to watch:
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Bowers has been the best offensive prospect at Georgia, on some scouting notepads, since his true freshman season of 2021. He’s also been the tight end — even with all the great players drafted in April at that position — NFL scouts have been drooling over the longest. Bowers walked in the door at Georgia as a teenager who was physically and mentally ready to block and compete for contested catches. At Georgia. In the SEC.
Bowers has 119 catches for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns in his two college seasons, and he won’t be old enough to order a beer until December. He was ready to play in the NFL as a true freshman in college.
He doesn’t have ideal size. Georgia’s roster lists him at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. But Bowers has a generational skill set and could be a top-10 pick, which might set off corners of draft Twitter and data analysts everywhere.
The 6-4, 242-pound junior isn’t Will Anderson Jr., but Turner (like his former teammate) makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. Turner’s length and lateral movement skills, for a man his size, are pretty great. He once was a basketball prospect (his father, Delon, was known as “Baby Barkley” during his Florida A&M days), not as a giant, plodding center either, but as a wing who could run and finish.
Turner’s ability to slip off blocks and cut down angles on backs near the line of scrimmage is Anderson-like. He covers so much ground in the box and when he drops back into coverage. There’s a position-less element to his game that’s hard to ignore. He still needs to continue developing his power and overall rush plan off the corner.
If Turner has the year people at Alabama think he’ll have, though, he could be a top-five pick.
McKinstry was one of four starting SEC cornerbacks last season to hold opposing QBs below a 47 percent completion rate on targeted throws. He’s long with terrific recovery speed, and he’s also a really strong tackler once he gets his mitts on a ball carrier. The Birmingham, Ala., native is not afraid to set an edge and play with physicality, and his frame allows him to be a problem in zone and man.
McKinstry got tested a lot last season at Alabama and answered the bell. For context: Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 pick by Seattle in April) had 17 credited pass breakups last year on 62 targets in conference play, per Pro Football Focus; McKinstry had 16 PBUs on 80 targets in the SEC. He’ll mix it up with anyone and should be in discussion for CB1 this year.
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A mountain of a man. In some ways, Smith reminds me of a slimmer Jordan Davis with how explosive he is and how much ground he covers. The 6-6, 310-pounder had terrific flashes during a nine-game (injury-impacted) freshman run in 2021. However, he tore an ACL while celebrating a teammate’s tackle during the 2022 season opener and missed the rest of the year.
Smith has to stay healthy and prove he’s all the way back. If he can, everything else about him is undeniable. He’s only played in 10 games at LSU but already has four sacks and five tackles for loss.
Smith is arguably the most unique defensive lineman in this class (and LSU’s first player to wear No. 0). He has top-10 traits, if his health cooperates. He also has to show improvement and more consistency for longer stretches, as we still have little film on him.
A two-year starting left tackle at IMG Academy and also a stellar basketball player before focusing solely on football, the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Latham can be a real joy to watch. A terrific pass protector last year on the right side for Alabama, Latham still moves with the agility and explosiveness that his basketball background might suggest. He sinks and bends with ease, too, and has enough flexibility and balance to counter multiple moves from defenders.
Latham does have to show more growth in the run game. He’s too athletic and too talented not to be more dominant in that area — that development, more than anything, will be what scouts are looking for here. However, if Latham does nothing but put together another performance in pass protection like the one we saw last year (no sacks allowed), he’ll be in the first-round discussion.
There are moments when Nabers calls to mind former Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba — only Nabers is faster and more explosive. Which, I mean … that’s potentially pretty great.
The 6-0, 199-pound Nabers (who ran a 4.44-second 40 and vertical jumped 38 inches in high school) can stop on a dime before gearing back up again in no time. He is a very agile player with strong hands and can play with physicality in the air, but he also can track off-line deep throws without losing velocity. That combination can lead to a comedy of errors from the cornerbacks trying to cover him.
If Nabers won a release clean last year, he was gone. He played his best ball late as a freshman, and the same thing happened for him as a sophomore. Nabers cooked Georgia in the SEC title game with a terrific five-catch, 128-yard day before putting up nine grabs for 163 in a dominant showing versus Purdue. He looks ready to explode this season for what should be a fun LSU group.
James wound up with an even better number than McKinstry on completion rate allowed last season (just 40.7, per PFF). Long but quite a bit leaner than McKinstry, James is another outside corner with strong recovery speed and dependable technique. He had a terrific debut year at Auburn last season after transferring from Oregon, where he’d turned in a promising performance in 2021.
We’ve got two years of good-looking tape on James, at two different schools, in two different leagues. He’s played a lot of football and seen a lot of different stuff. So far, he’s only gotten better with age.
Bullard is a very confident, hard-hitting slot corner/safety who had two picks in Georgia’s national title game thrashing of TCU. He has the type of mentality — and the traits — modern defenses want in a versatile defensive back who can add value against the run or pass. Bullard is a fearless tackler in space, and he isn’t afraid to challenge bigger ball carriers (watch him dislodge Anthony Richardson into the sideline during last year’s Florida game).
He had 3 1/2 sacks and seven tackles for loss last season as a rotational defender (10 starts in 14 games). One would think Bullard will have more reps as a starter this season, so his numbers should grow. He’s a prospect on the rise.
The talent rolls on at Georgia, and the Bulldogs should have another loaded group in 2023. Defensive lineman Mykel Williams and DB Malaki Starks are two more awesome players, but they’re only going to be sophomores this season. Lassiter, though, will be a junior — and, thus, eligible for the 2024 draft — after being elevated to a starting outside CB role opposite Kelee Ringo last season.
Lassiter isn’t as big as Ringo, but he brings the lumber just the same. Never afraid to be physical, Lassiter — like every cornerback Georgia has — also is comfortable on an island in man coverage. He has the physical tools to be a starter in the NFL. How much more consistent he becomes with all the little things will determine his draft stock.
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In his first year as Arkansas’ featured back, the 6-2, 232-pound Sanders was the SEC’s second-leading rusher with 1,443 yards (behind Ole Miss freshman star Quinshon Judkins, whom we’ll talk about another day).
Sanders has an interesting background as a player. He also was a receiver in high school and recruited by a few schools as a linebacker, to a point where some believed he’d have a pro future there. He runs with good vision and contact balance at that size, he’s hard to knock over, and his feet are fast enough to give the first wave of tacklers issues. If he takes a jump as a pass catcher this season, look out.
Other prospects to watch: Sedrick Van Pran, OL, Georgia; Amarius Mims, OT, Georgia; Nazir Stackhouse, DL, Georgia; Tony Grimes, CB; Texas A&M; Bryce Foster, OL, Texas A&M; Malachi Moore, S, Alabama; Ja’Corey Brooks, WR, Alabama; Jason Marshall, CB, Florida
(Photo of Brock Bowers: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)