2017 NFL Combine: 10 Players to watch from SEC

The Southeastern Conference heads into the NFL Combine with a plethora of defensive talent. Here’s a look at 10 players to watch from the SEC as the Combine approaches.

The SEC enters the 2017 NFL Combine with a lot of talent on the board in this year’s draft. The Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers are teams that could see a lot of their players come off the board early.

Each team had 10 players invited to Indianapolis this weekend, tying for a conference-high. The Auburn Tigers’ only three players who were invited are on defense.

In total, the SEC had 66 participants invited to the combine, the most by any conference. 35 out of the 66 conference invites play on defense. The South Carolina Gamecocks were the lone team from the SEC to have a player not invited to the NFL Combine.

Despite not winning a National Championship, the Crimson Tide still have a lot to show for their success at this year’s NFL Combine. Seven out of the 10 invites from Alabama are on the defensive side of the ball.

However, the Texas A&M Aggies are right behind Alabama and LSU. The Aggies had nine players invited to the NFL Combine. A majority of them are from their high-powered offense of a season ago, but defensive end Myles Garrett could be this year’s top pick.

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) pulls away from Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Carl Lawson (55) in the first quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

10. DE Carl Lawson, Auburn

Defensive end Carl Lawson is one of three Auburn Tigers’ defensive players invited to this year’s NFL Combine. Lawson really picked things up this past season after battling injury most of 2015. He was a leader for the Tigers defense in 2016.

Last season, Lawson recorded 30 total tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He led the team in tackles for loss and sacks. In the SEC, he ranked fourth in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss. He was a first-team All-SEC selection.

Lawson is a 6-foot-2, 253-pound prospect with both pass-rushing and run-stopping ability. He recorded two tackles for loss and two sacks in the team’s 18-13 upset victory over 18th-ranked LSU.

In the NFL Combine, Lawson will need to show better effort and quickness. There’s also the torn ACL injury he battled back from in 2014 and the hip injury in 2015. But if 2016 showed anything, it showed Lawson is healthy. His performance at the combine could boost his stock come April.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Cam Robinson (74) against Clemson Tigers defensive end Austin Bryant (91) in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

9. OT Cam Robinson, Alabama

The decision to enter the NFL Draft early was pretty easy for offensive tackle Cam Robinson after this season. After starting in 43 games in three seasons, Robinson was an All-American in 2016 and the Outland Trophy Award winner. He is one of just three offensive players from the Alabama Crimson Tide invited to the NFL Combine.

The Crimson Tide went 8-0 in SEC play this season, ranking first in scoring offense (38.8 points per game) and second in rushing yards per game (245.0). Robinson, who has been a starter since he was a true freshman, is a 6-foot-6, 322-pound prospect with a lot of strength. As this year’s second overall ranked offensive tackle in the NFL Draft, he has chance to prove he has what it takes to anchor an offensive line at the next level.

The NFL Draft isn’t particularly deep this season at the offensive line so Robinson could be coveted by a lot of teams in the early rounds. His offseason issues are hopefully behind him as well. In the summer, Robinson was arrested for marijuana possession and illegal possession of a firearm.  The charges have since been dropped. Since then, the offensive tackle has remained out of trouble off the field.

Nov 21, 2015; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators defensive back Jalen Tabor (31) during the second quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

8. DB Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Florida

Cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor is a defensive player out of Florida with a lot of ability in coverage. He was part of a secondary last season that allowed just 148.5 passing yards per game on defense, first in the SEC. He’ll be a player to watch as the NFL Combine approaches.

Tabor was part of stingy Florida defense in 2016. Opponents passed just 45.0 percent against the Gators. He recorded 33 tackles, six pass breakups, three interceptions, two tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and an interception return for a touchdown last season. In 2015, he led the SEC in pass breakups with 14.

Tabor is a cornerback who makes team pay when they throw the ball his way. He was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2015 and 2016, racking up 20 pass breakups, seven interceptions and three interception returns for touchdowns. Some scouts question his speed but with the 40-yard dash looming, he has an opportunity to show he has the speed to keep up with bigger receivers in coverage.

Oct 24, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker (14) rolls out to pass on a two point conversion against Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) during the fourth quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

7.  DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee

The Tennessee Volunteers had a rather interesting 2016 season, but defensive end Derek Barnett was one of the bright spots. Barnett recorded 56 tackles, a team-high 19.0 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles last season. He enters the NFL Combine as one of the more underrated defenders from the SEC.

The Volunteers started the season 5-0 before dropping three games in a row. However, they still finished the year 9-4.

Barnett still finished the season 19 tackles, four sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss as the team finished 3-1, including a bowl victory 38-24 over Nebraska. At 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, Barnett is another speedy but strong pass rusher off the edge. He led the conference in tackles for loss and sacks this season to earn first team All-SEC honors. He had 73 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in his freshman season with the Volunteers.

Barnett will need to show scouts he has a quicker motor and better decision-making in the NFL Combine. He has good hand skills but tends to be “undisciplined with guessing snap counts and taking penalties.” At the combine, he’ll have a chance to show he’s improved on his weaknesses.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson (22) scores a touchdown during the second quarter of the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

6. OLB Ryan Anderson Alabama

Outside linebacker Reuben Foster is one of seven Alabama Crimson Tide defenders in the NFL Combine. He was a key piece on the Crimson Tide fearsome defense in 2016. After taking on a feature-role the past two seasons, he stepped up in a big way after becoming the starter this past season.

Anderson led the team in tackles for loss last season with 18.5 along with 61 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, three pass breakups, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception and an interception return for a touchdown. He was one of the more active players on the vaunted Crimson Tide defense last season.

The senior linebacker was first in the SEC in fumbles forced and second in tackles for loss. He was the only linebacker on Alabama with an interception last season. His biggest weakness currently is his coverage in space. He enters the NFL Combine with an opportunity to show scouts that he has the speed and ability to keep up with the big boys in coverage.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard (88) scores a touchdown during the third quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

5. TE O.J. Howard, Alabama

Tight end O.J. Howard is another Alabama Crimson Tide player to watch in the NFL Combine. He had a rather quiet 2016 season with just 595 receiving yards but he had a career-high 45 receptions in his final season at Alabama.

Howard is a 6-foot-6, 249-pound tight end took the College Football scene by storm in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship. He caught five passes for 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He earned Offensive MVP in the game for performance. In this past season’s National Championship game, Howard caught four passes for 106 receiving yards and a touchdown, but Clemson won this go around.

The senior tight end enters NFL Combine with an opportunity to show off his athletic ability. Teams may very well draft him to play wide receiver as well. Early NFL comparisons show Howard has ability like Julius Thomas. He’ll also need need to prove he has blocking ability in the run game. As one of the best available tight ends in the NFL Draft, look for Howard to have a good day at the combine.

Oct 15, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers safety Jamal Adams (33) celebrates after picking up a fumble during the third quarter of a game against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

4. S Jamal Adams, LSU

Safety Jamal Adams is an early draft entrant with a lot of skills. The third-year safety played superb football last season for the LSU Tigers. He was third on the team in tackles (76), fourth in tackles for loss (7.5) with four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He anchored a secondary with a defense that allowed just 15.8 points per game.

Adams played a key piece in the LSU secondary last season and enters this year’s NFL Draft class as one of the best safety prospects. He had six tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup in the team’s 29-9 drubbing of the Louisville Cardinals. The Tigers held the Cardinals’ and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to just 153 passing yards and no touchdowns.  He was a second team All-SEC selection last season for his performance.

In 2015, Adams had 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He could be one of the early picks out of the SEC at 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds.  He’s got the size and strength for an NFL safety, he’ll just need to show scouts he can make plays on the ball.

Nov 12, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) runs during the first quarter of the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

3. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU

Running back Leonard Fournette took a lot of flack for sitting out the LSU Tigers’ game against the Louisville Cardinals. But after a 29-9 LSU victory, I wouldn’t blame him. After all, the team looks to be in good hands behind running back Derrius Guice.

Fournette ran for 843 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in just seven games for the LSU Tigers last season. After finishing fifth in Heisman voting in 2015, he missed five games battling an ankle injury all season long. His showing at the NFL Combine will be key in showing teams he’s healthy now.

The junior running back ran for 1,953 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015. But his production was noticeably down in 2016 as was his workload. His successor, Derrius Guice, ran for 1,387 rushing yards so the Tigers run game looks to be in good hands. At the combine, Fournette will just need to show sitting out paid off in the end. He still ran for 120.4 rushing yards and 6.5 rushing yards per game in 2016.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (93) in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2. DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama

Defensive end Jonathan Allen had a successful senior campaign at Alabama this past season, culminating in finishing seventh in Heisman voting in 2016. He scored the Crimson Tide’s 12th non-offensive touchdown of the season on a 30-yard fumble return against Ole Miss.

Allen recorded 69 tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two pass breakups last season for Alabama. His performance earned him the 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award as well as the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Award. He led the SEC in sacks in 2015 with 12 and this past season, he was third in the conference. Allen led the Crimson Tide defense in sacks, however.

The first team All-SEC selection will need to show he has the hand strength to battle with NFL offensive lineman, but that’s what the NFL Combine is for.  He’s a great athlete at 6-foot-3 and 291 pounds. While some question his height, he’s got the chance to show he’s an NFL-level defensive end.

Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies defensive lineman Myles Garrett (15) tackles Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) during the first quarter at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

1. DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

Defensive end Myles Garrett may not have played for the best defense in the SEC, but he may be the best player in the conference. Some could call Garrett’s 2015 performance subpar, but he played hurt for most it.

The Texas A&M Aggies star defensive end still managed to play in 10 games, racking up 33 tackles, 15.0 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. It still doesn’t writeoff his 2015 season either. Garrett led the SEC in tackles for loss (20), was second in sacks (12) and first in fumbles forced (5).

Instead of sitting out games, Garrett chose to endure through the pain. At the NFL Combine, he’ll have a chance to show scouts he’s healthy and ready to make the jump to the next level. He’s still learning how to become a complete defensive end, playing for a pro team will certainly improve that.

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