ATHENS — The SEC produced the most first-round NFL draft picks for a sixth straight year, Alabama leading the way with six of the league’s 12 selections.
Georgia, meanwhile, produced just one this year in the form of Eric Stokes, who went 29th overall to the Green Bay Packers.
Quick interpretations of those numbers have led to hasty and faulty conclusions that perhaps the Bulldogs aren’t as talented or developing talent in adequate fashion.
But a closer look and deeper dive reveals that coach Kirby Smart has his program on the verge of a dynamic season and record-breaking 2022 NFL Draft class.
Here are three 3 takeaways on the Bulldogs’ and the NFL draft, the first of which explains why the 2021 NFL Draft hasn’t been as fruitful as once anticipated:
1. UGA’s 2021 NFL Draft class banged up
Azeez Ojulari fell out of the first-round projections because there’s a concern with his knee, per a source with direct knowledge into the NFL scouting ranks. Pro Football Network insider Tony Pauline was the first to publish the speculation.
Five Edge rushers have been taken ahead of Ojulari, who was the SEC’s sacks leader and is one of the highest character players of Smart’s tenure.
The knee injury in question occurred Ojulari’s senior season of high school. Some felt Ojulari put any questions about his knee to rest after redshirting the 2018 season by not missing any games in 2019 or 2020.
The New York Jets are reportedly leaning toward selecting Ojulari with the second pick of the second round (34th overall). There’s speculation Ojulari would be a slam dunk for Atlanta should he fall to No. 35 overall.
Georgia safety Richard LeCounte might hear his name called on Friday, or he might not hear his name called at all, according to some NFL mock drafts.
But LeCounte’s situation is not a mystery.
LeCounte was considered the top safety in the NFL draft by some before sustaining multiple injuries in his well-documented Halloween Night motorcycle crash. LeCounte was apparently not healthy enough to take part in the Senior Bowl. His absence there raised red flags when he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to meet with NFL personnel managers in person. LeCounte enjoyed modest success at Pro Day, but he didn’t look as fast or athletic as before his accident.
Some wonder why LeCounte didn’t return for another year at Georgia to solidify his health and NFL draft stock. But LeCounte is not the only player who would have benefitted from the free year of eligibility the NCAA has granted across the board on account of the COVID pandemic.
Cornerback D.J. Daniel didn’t see much work in the 2020 season after a high ankle sprain slowed him down in fall camp. Daniel had a strong enough 2019 campaign to earn a Senior Bowl invite where he fared well, but another year of SEC film could have elevated his stock.
Defensive lineman Malik Herring is a hard-luck injury story. His ACL injury occurred during the week of Senior Bowl practices. Such injuries don’t occur often in Mobile, and the silver lining in Herring’s case was he performed extremely well in the drill work and show the sort of versatility NFL teams take note of
UGA center Trey Hill had his final season in Athens cut short after undergoing arthroscopic surgeries on both of his knees after playing in eight games. Hill proclaimed himself “100 percent” at Georgia’s Pro Day, but how NFL team doctors evaluate Hill and his past injuries is obviously more important.
Georgia middle linebacker Monty Rice battled a foot injury that came up the week of preparation leading into the Alabama game. Rice soldiered through the injury, getting daily treatment and playing as many snaps as possible the remainder of the season. Rice didn’t play in the bowl game or the Senior Bowl, but he was able to run a sub-4.6 time in the 40-yard dash at Pro Day.
WATCH: Monty Rice shows leadership traits, explains how Kirby Smart prepares team
Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland sprained his ankle at the Senior Bowl and missed some practice time and the game. Before that, Smart mentioned Cleveland had opted out of the bowl game on account of some injuries. Cleveland ran a blazing 4.85-second 40-yard dash at Pro Day, which likely alleviated concerns.
RELATED: ‘Big Ben’ Cleveland is bigger and faster than most anyone imagined
NFL teams do their homework and are also aware tight end Tre’ McKitty underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last fall and missed the first two games of the season, and Mark Webb was wearing a protective boot at the bowl game after opting out.
McKitty and Webb, however, both practiced and performed well at the Senior Bowl in January.
2. Alabama is king of retainment
Here come the comparisons: Alabama with 6 first-round picks and Georgia with only 1. It might make it seem all the more amazing the Bulldogs led the Tide 24-20 at halftime in Tuscaloosa if the talent discrepancy was indeed so great (it wasn’t, more on that later).
A closer look inside the numbers reveals five of the six Crimson Tide players selected in the first round were seniors. This is where Alabama has served itself and its players arguably better than any other schools, and that’s recruiting key players to return on the back end of their careers.
WATCH: Recruiting video how Nick Saban sells Alabama to recruits
It’s a business decision, and the Tide players were wise enough to invest in themselves for another year of development at school so they might earn full NFL draft value. This, instead of turning pro earlier and being selected as a lower-round, lower-paid NFL draft pick.
It’s easy to look back and see several Georgia players who could have raised their NFL draft stock with another year in school.
D’Andre Swift was a second-round steal for the Detroit Lions last year. Swift, many recall, suffered a shoulder injury against Georgia Tech and was limited against LSU and Baylor his final season. Had the dynamic Swift returned for his senior season, it’s not a stretch to suggest he could have been a first-round pick with his game-breaking speed and ability to catch the football.
What about quarterback Jake Fromm (fifth round)? If former walk-on Stetson Bennett was good enough to beat the Tide for a half last season, might Fromm — a one-time Bama commitment — have been good enough to beat them? Anyone who watched Fromm put up points against the Tide in 2017 and 2018 already knows the answer. A Georgia win over Alabama in 2020 changes a lot of discussions.
Fromm has many of the same characteristics as current UGA quarterback JT Daniels. There’s no doubt Fromm would have thrived with the Air Raid principles built into Todd Monken’s Pro-Style offense and put up the same sort of eye-popping numbers Daniels has made look routine.
It’s hard to second-guess underclassmen Andrew Thomas or Isaiah Wilson leaving early to become first-round picks, but Solomon Kindley was a fourth-round bargain for the Miami Dolphins last season.
Finally, Georgia fans can only imagine what might have happened if receivers Mecole Hardman (second round) and Riley Ridley (fourth round), or tight end Isaac Nauta (seventh round), had returned for another season after 2018. The 2019 Georgia team had a dominant defense, but the receiving corps was inexperienced and injured, leaving the team lacking the sort of pass game needed to win a championship.
3. Georgia will shine in 2022 NFL Draft
So what about now?
First things first, Georgia’s 2021 NFL Draft class still has a chance to set surpass the record (8) for most players selected in one draft.
But if not this year, most certainly next year. Georgia is loaded.
Part of the reason why UGA has so much potential first-round talent in 2022 is the decisions of key players to return for their senior seasons.
Defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt have both given themselves a chance to be first-round NFL picks by returning for the 2021 season.
Daniels would have been selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he’s wise enough to know a year of good film against SEC competition on his surgically repaired knee gives him a chance to be a first-round pick.
It’s hard to know exactly who will do what in 2021, beyond the obvious stars.
But Georgia has plenty of NFL draft-eligible players that the NFL will be keeping an eye on:
QB JT Daniels
WR George Pickens
DT Jordan Davis
DT Devonte Wyatt
LB Nakobe Dean
OG Jamaree Salyer
SS Lewis Cine
DL Travon Walker
DE Nolan Smith
RB James Cook
OLB Adam Anderson
LB Quay Walker
OG Justin Shaffer
LB Channing Tindall
LB Robert Beal
FS Christopher Smith
WR Demetris Robertson
DL Julian Rochester
CB Ameer Speed
P Jake Camarda
RB Zamir White
RB Kenny McIntosh
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