This year, a record 26 players are expected to be in attendance at the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and 12 of those 26 will be from the nation’s most dominant collegiate football conference, the SEC.
Over the last several years, the SEC has earned a reputation as a farm-system to the National Football League, and 2012 isn’t expected to be any different. The conference should once again feature the most first-round selections of any conference in the country, however, the conference also expects to have the most players overall selected once again, and there is surprising depth to be found throughout the conference.
These are five SEC sleepers (defined as players outside CBS Sports Top 100 draft prospects) who will make an impact at the next level:
Malik Jackson, DE (Tennessee)-
With most NFL teams inhabiting the grey areas between a 3-4 set and a 4-3, versatility on the defensive line is at a premium, and Malik Jackson is nothing if not versatile. Jackson was a pass-rush specialist at USC, and when he transferred to Tennessee he was moved inside to the three-technique due to necessity. He has continued to add weight, and he now comfortably holds 290 lbs with surprising athleticism. He has the ability to play as a five-technique or even potentially as a strongside defensive end in the 4-3, and that should get him on the field early in his career.
Quentin Saulsberry, C (Mississippi State)-
Quentin Saulsberry played a little bit of everything in college, starting 49 games at various spots on the offensive line in Starkville, but his size makes him strictly a center at the next level. That has been his largest knock, but he plays with the exact attitude you’d expect from an interior lineman. He is very comfortable making the line calls, and for a team with long-term needs at center, Quentin Saulsberry is going to have incredible value in the late rounds.
Vick Ballard, RB (Mississippi State)-
Vick Ballard isn’t a burner, and that has soured him with some. But, he has an underrated burst, he runs with a truculent disposition, and he routinely powers through contact. The NFL has evolved into a multiple-back system, and teams are always in the market for runners with value in the middle and late rounds. His running style isn’t conducive to a prolonged stretch of success, but you can get valuable carries out of him for the better part of five years, and if you’re only spending a fifth round pick on him, that’s exceptional value.
Joe Adams, WR (Arkansas)-
He failed to run the sub-4.5 40 at the NFL Combine that we all expected him to, but Joe Adams still has valued speed in pads and he’ll find a way to get onto the field at the next level. He is a bit like DeSean Jackson in his ability to make people miss in the open field and crack open a big play. He also returns punts, so even if he doesn’t develop into the type of type of player in the slot teams hope he can be, he’ll still have value in the return game.
Winston Guy, S (Kentucky)-
Winston Guy has been cast as someone who might be a little too big to play safety and too small to play linebacker, but in the right system he has value in the defensive backfield. He steps into the box fearlessly to support the run, and he punishes wide receivers who carelessly cross his face on post routes. However, even if what the scouts say is true and he’s just isn’t quite fast enough to make an impact at safety, Guy could be a world-class special teams player and that will allow him to make an immediate impact in the NFL.