The speculating may continue, but the selections are certain to begin shortly after 8 tonight when the 2014 NFL Draft opens in New York City.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is expected to lead another parade of Southeastern Conference talent, with ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay expecting the 6-foot-6, 266-pounder to be the first player taken. Clowney likely would have been the top pick in last year's draft and was under the microscope this past season, when his productivity dropped and his work ethic was questioned.
"There is nobody who can pass rush like him coming out of college ball, that's for sure, and he might be the best in a long time," South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier said last week. "Statistically, he did not have the year this past year, but he had a couple of guys waiting on him most every pass play. He had a couple of nagging injuries, and it was a hard situation for him.
"Being the projected No. 1 pick, he had nowhere to go but down. He didn't have to play this past year. He could have sat out and still probably been the No. 1 pick, so it was sort of a delicate situation that we had to handle around here."
Kiper and McShay each project Clowney to Houston, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson to St. Louis, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins to Jacksonville, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel to Cleveland and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack to Oakland. McShay has Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews going sixth to Atlanta and Aggies receiver Mike Evans going seventh to Tampa Bay, giving the SEC five of his top seven projected players.
The two analysts have 10 SEC players players going in the first round, including the Alabama tandem of safety HaHa Clinton-Dix and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Alabama has produced at least three first-round selections in the past three drafts, but for that to continue, tackle Cyrus Kouandjio or quarterback AJ McCarron would have to get picked.
"I can see McCarron going in the first round," former Oakland and Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "McCarron's production speaks volumes -- 36 wins, four losses and the all-time record-holder at Alabama in a lot of different categories. He doesn't have the flashy statistics that some of the other quarterbacks do because of the system he comes out of. Alabama comes out of a huddle, and they only throw the ball 26 plays a game, which is about 100th in college football.
"He takes care of the ball and has a big-picture understanding of the game. He's been well-schooled. He's disciplined. He's durable. I don't think he has tremendous athletic ability. His arm is not off the charts, but he can play quarterback and manage an NFL system. I think he'll be a good acquisition for someone that has a long-term plan."
The Tennessee Volunteers have produced eight first-round selections since the 2006 draft, with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson continuing the successful stretch last year. The best chance for a first-round Vol tonight is tackle Tiny Richardson, who most analysts have going in Friday's second round.
Vanderbilt has not had a first-round pick since tackle Chris Williams went 14th overall to Chicago in 2008, but SEC all-time leading receiver Jordan Matthews is projected by Kiper to go 30th overall tonight to San Francisco. McShay does not have Matthews going in the first round.
Georgia tied a program-record last year by producing eight NFL picks, but the Bulldogs could have as few as two this time around. Quarterback Aaron Murray and tight end Arthur Lynch were Georgia's only players invited to February's combine, but Murray has been praised repeatedly throughout this draft process and could go as high as Friday's third round.
"When I watched Georgia play, I saw production at the quarterback position," Gruden said. "I don't think many kids have thrown for 3,000 yards four straight seasons in that conference. I just like what he is off the field. He's an SEC scholar of the year. He has his degree.
"He goes to the Senior Bowl on his own just to be in the meetings. He's a football junkie, and he just has a charisma about him."
The NFL draft as recently as 2007 started at noon on a Saturday and went through the first three rounds, with Sunday containing rounds four through seven. Saturday held the first two rounds and Sunday the final five in 2008 and '09 before the NFL in 2010 turned its biggest offseason spectacle into a three-day event beginning on a Thursday night.
League commissioner Roger Goodell has mentioned extending the seven rounds over four days and added that Chicago and Los Angeles could be potential future sites.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.