ESPN analyst Mel Kiper has 6 former SEC players in his top 10 projected picks for the 2014 NFL draft:
1. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney (Houston)
2. Auburn OT Greg Robinson (St. Louis)
3. Clemson WR Sammy Watkins (Jacksonville)
4. Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (Cleveland)
5. Buffalo LB Khalil Mack (Oakland)
6. Michigan OT Taylor Lewan (Atlanta)
7. Texas A&M WR Mike Evans (Tampa Bay)
8. Central Florida QB Blake Bortles (Minnesota)
9. Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews (Buffalo)
10. Alabama S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Detroit)
The Southeastern Conference's stranglehold on the NFL draft is expected to continue two weeks from tonight.
A year after the SEC produced a record 63 selections, including 12 who were taken in the first round, the league is poised for more of the same according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. Former SEC players comprise six of Kiper's top 10 projected selections, with his list headed by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
"He's the No. 1 pick whether it's the Houston Texans or somebody else," Kiper said Wednesday afternoon on a teleconference. "I'm not taking anybody over Clowney. I don't see any defensive end out there in the last 20 years that's been blocked by three guys on a regular basis.
"He's a great player. The stats don't make a difference. It's how you perform and whether you are impactful, and he was impactful in all the games I watched."
Should Clowney go first overall, he would be the first SEC player other than a quarterback to accomplish that feat since former Auburn outside linebacker Aundray Bruce went to Atlanta in the 1988 draft. The SEC has produced six top-pick quarterbacks since with Tennessee's Peyton Manning (1998), Kentucky's Tim Couch (1999), Ole Miss' Eli Manning (2004), LSU's JaMarcus Russell (2007), Georgia's Matthew Stafford (2009) and Auburn's Cam Newton (2011).
The 2014 NFL draft will be held May 8-10 in New York City.
Clowney, a 6-foot-6, 266-pound menace, had 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks as a sophomore in 2012. He capped that season with a jarring hit of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl, but his junior year yielded just 11.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Criticism of Clowney's conditioning and work ethic began with last season's opener against North Carolina and never let up, but Kiper is not among those critics.
"I didn't see the lack of hustle, and I didn't see the lack of effort," he said. "I saw a guy who played hard 90 percent of the time, and the 10 percent he didn't is when nobody would because you don't chase a play to the other side of the field when you've got to play four quarters and with the way teams are throwing the ball as much as they are in college football these days."
Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson is Kiper's second overall pick going to St. Louis, while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is being pegged fourth to Cleveland. The Aggies have three of Kiper's top-10 projections, with receiver Mike Evans going seventh to Tampa Bay and offensive tackle Jake Matthews going ninth to Buffalo.
"Manziel could be anywhere from the highest-rated quarterback to the third or fourth highest-rated quarterback depending on the team you talk to," Kiper said.
The SEC essentially had one out of every four of the 254 players selected in last year's draft. The SEC East had 32 players picked and the SEC West 31, with the Atlantic Coast Conference also having 31 and the Pac-12 next with 28.
Kiper has nine SEC players projected in the first round and eight more in the second, with those numbers having the potential to be higher had Florida not had so many setbacks this past season. The Gators produced two first-round picks a year ago with defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam.
"[Defensive lineman] Dominique Easley could have been a second-round pick or maybe even a late first had it not been for the injuries he had at Florida," Kiper said. "A number of players got hurt there who could have been early-round picks. I would say it's now the third- or fourth-round area for Easley.
"[Cornerbacks Marcus] Roberson and [Loucheiz] Purifoy looked like first- or second-rounders at one point, but then they ran those slow 40s and didn't test out well. I would say Roberson goes in the third round and Purifoy in the third or fourth."
Although Alabama has been an NFL factory under Nick Saban, producing 13 first-round picks in the past four drafts, there have been numerous defensive players who have failed to make an impact.
"Is it one or two? No, it's more than that," Kiper said. "You can go back to Kareem Jackson and Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick and the situation with Rolando McClain. You can look at Terrence Cody, and the list goes on and on. There is a concern about that, and it's probably because they are coached up so well and are in a great system, and they all complement each other.
"They come into the league thinking they are as coached up as they can be, and they've hit the ceiling. They are as good as they're going to get."
After making headlines before February's NFL combine by announcing he is openly gay, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam continues to be projected as a late-round pick.
"For a designated pass-rusher, he's got some value, and there is no question about that," Kiper said. "In this league, if you can rush the passer, you're going to get pushed up a little bit. His teammate, Kony Ealy, is going to go anywhere between the 24th pick with Cincinnati and somewhere in the second round.
"Sam, I think, will go somewhere off the board in day three, probably in the middle or late in the day."
Odds and ends
Kiper said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is "underrated in that fourth-round area" and believes former Bulldogs tailback Isaiah Crowell will be a late-round pick or a free agent and will make an NFL team. ... Of Kiper's top 10 projected receivers, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews is the only senior. ... Former Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood, who was reliable but never had 40 catches or 600 yards in a single season, is a "third-round possibility." ... Kiper has former Auburn tailback Tre Mason pegged for the third round and has former Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, the hero of last year's Iron Bowl, as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. ... Kiper projects former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw as a fifth- to seventh-round selection.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.