Alabama had five players declare early for the 2018 NFL draft, and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban expressed understanding in all five situations.
"From a business standpoint, this is a good decision for them," Saban said last week in a news conference.
The Southeastern Conference had 27 players elect to bypass their remaining eligibility for this year's draft, with Monday marking the deadline for players to decide. LSU led the league with six early departures, followed by the five from Alabama and four each from Auburn and Florida.
Five league programs — Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt — did not lose a player early to the draft, with Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock joining Alabama running back Damien Harris and Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham as some of the league's top performers who chose to remain in college.
The 27 players from the SEC who elected to forgo their remaining eligibility to enter the 2018 NFL draft:
› Alabama — S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison, DT Da’Ron Payne, WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough.
› Auburn — CB Carlton Davis, OLB Jeff Holland, RB Kerryon Johnson, RB Kamryn Pettway.
› Florida — DT Taven Bryan, WR Antonio Callaway, S Marcell Harris, PK Eddy Pineiro.
› Georgia — LB Roquan Smith, DT Trenton Thompson.
› LSU — C/G Will Clapp, RB Derrius Guice, CB Donte Jackson, DE Arden Key, CB Kevin Toliver II, OT Toby Weathersby.
› Ole Miss — DE Breeland Speaks.
› South Carolina — TE Hayden Hurst.
› Tennessee — CB Rashaan Gaulden, RB John Kelly, DT Kahlil McKenzie.
› Texas A&M — WR Christian Kirk.
Lock and Stidham staying means the SEC retains its top five passers from this past season in terms of yardage — Lock (3,964), Stidham (3,158), Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur (2,823), South Carolina's Jake Bentley (2,794) and Georgia's Jake Fromm (2,615).
Three SEC players who chose to leave early are ranked No. 1 at their positions by longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper. Georgia's Roquan Smith is Kiper's top inside linebacker prospect for the April draft, while Alabama teammates Calvin Ridley and Minkah Fitzpatrick are his top receiver and safety, respectively.
Fitzpatrick, Smith and LSU defensive end Arden Key have been projected in multiple mock drafts to get selected in the top half of the first round, and there are a dozen or so league underclassmen who will hope to hear their names by the end of the opening round. Among those candidates are Ridley, Alabama defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne and safety Ronnie Harrison, Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis, Florida defensive tackle Taven Bryan, Georgia defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, LSU cornerback Donte Jackson and running back Derrius Guice, Texas A&M receiver and return specialist Christian Kirk, and South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst.
There is one draft website, WalterFootball.com, that has been quick to rate the decisions of the SEC underclassmen and questioned choices made by Tennessee defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie and cornerback Rashaan Gaulden.
"Kahlil McKenzie is just a late-round prospect," the website stated. "There's a coaching change at Tennessee, but it sounded like McKenzie was set to earn more playing time in 2018, which would've helped his draft stock. Plus, McKenzie didn't need the money. He's the son of Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders' general manager."
WalterFootball projects Gaulden as a late-round selection who could have benefited from another year in Knoxville and pegs running back John Kelly as a late-round pick as well. The website was more understanding of running backs such as Kelly, Alabama's Bo Scarbrough and Auburn's Kerryon Johnson choosing to leave early, but it wasn't as cordial in its reaction to Auburn's Kamryn Pettway bypassing his senior season.
"I'm usually in favor of running backs declaring early for the NFL draft, but there are exceptions, and this is certainly one," the website stated. "With injury and off-the-field issues, Kamryn Pettway stands a good chance of going undrafted. With Johnson heading for the NFL, Pettway could've seized the starting job next year and proven to everyone that he can be a reliable player.
"Perhaps he could've worked his way into round 3-4 consideration. For now, however, he'll have to fight an uphill battle to make a final roster."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.