In recent years, the friendship between the Sun Belt and the NFL Draft has suffered. Between 2011 and 2013, the Sun Belt drafted 15 players into the NFL. The following three years, that number shrunk to 10, with only three selected for the second straight year. Dear lord, the Mid-American graduated twice as many!
But there’s reason to believe that the 2017 NFL Draft will be a step up (or, at least, not a step back) for the Sun Belt. I’ll just go ahead and give you some reasons for optimism:
The Sun Belt went 4-2 in bowl games this year
LOL, no Group of Five conference enjoyed a better post season (winning percentage-wise) than the Sun Belt, who delivered made-for-TV wins all December long. Even NFL executives watch the Cure Bowl and the Dollar General Bowl, taking note of the Sun Belt’s best laying the wood and making a good last-impression.
Five Sun Belt players were invited to the NFL Combine
Last year, the NFL Combine invited exactly one Sun Belt talent – Appalachian State’s Ronald Blair (drafted in the 5th round by San Francisco). This year, we’ve quintupled that number!
- Robert Davis, WR, Georgia State
- Gerald Everett, TE, South Alabama
- Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy
- Elijah McGuire, RB, Louisiana
- Austin Rehkow, K, Idaho
An invitation to The Combine doesn’t necessarily mean a contract on Draft Day, but it certainly improves the odds. All five of these prospects have legitimate bona fides.
At least four Sun Belt players rank in the Top 10 in their positions
Several players from the Sun Belt are highly regarded by cbssports.com’s prospect rankings this year, including four who are mentioned in the same breath with the nation’s best.
- Austin Rehkow, Idaho (1st, Punter)
- Gerald Everett, S. Alabama (5th, Tight End)
- Antonio Garcia, Troy (6th, Offensive Tackle)
- YoungHoe Koo, Georgia Southern (7th, Kicker)
Three Sun Belt Players Who Will Most Likely Hear Their Names on Draft Day(s)
- Antonio Garcia (Predicted Round: 2). Garcia recorded the second best vertical leap among offensive linemen at the NFL Combine this year (31 inches). His biggest Combine knock is that while he’s listed at 302lbs, he generally plays at 280lbs.
- Gerald Everett (Predicted Round: 5) Highly recruited by the SEC and a former high school hoops star, Everett is a big play tight end who specialized in big yardage gains during his two excellent seasons with South Alabama. Biggest drawback? Scouts think his hands are small.
- Austin Rehkow (Predicted Round: 6) For four years, Paul Petrino’s most reliable offensive weapon was Rehkow, one of the most prolific punters and kickers in Sun Belt history. While his punting is without question, some scouts believe Rehkow doesn’t have a field goal kicker’s leg.
In addition, Louisiana wrecking ball Elijah McGuire is in good shape, too, whose consistency (3 straight 1,000 yard seasons) and pass-catching ability (1,394 career yards, 10 TDs) ranks him the 20th best back in the draft and projected 6th round pick. Also promising, Georgia State WR Robert Davis, the Panther’s all-time leading receiver whose size (6’3″, 220) and ability is comparable to Julio Jones’.
Here are 10 Under-the-Radar Guys to Watch
Last year, ULM’s Trey Caldwell came out of nowhere to land a 5th round selection from the Cleveland Browns. How beneath-the-radar was Caldwell? He wasn’t even on my list of deep sleepers. So who’s surprising the world in 2017?
Chris Odom, Arkansas State (41 DE, 504overall)
Sun Belt’s leader in sacks (12.5) in 2017
Matt Breida, Georgia Southern (34 RB, 448th overall)
3,379 career rushing yards, including 1,600 rushing yards in 2015
Kennan Gilchrist, Appalachian State (37 OLB, 457 overall)
2016 Sun Belt 2nd Team Defense, 2015 Sun Belt 2nd Team Defense, 194 total tackles
Jemar Clark, Arkansas State (39 OT, 530 overall)
2016 Sun Belt 1st Team Offense, 2015 Sun Belt First Team Offense
Anthony McMeans, New Mexico State (20 C, 600 overall)
6’2″, 314 pounds of beef in the middle
YoungHoe Koo, Georgia Southern (7 K, 566 overall)
2016 Sun Belt 1st Team Special Teams, 19/20 field goals
Marcus Cox, Appalachian State (39 RB, 521 overall)
Three straight 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,015 rushing yards in 2016, 4th best in the Sun Belt
Keith Rucker, Georgia State (17 FB, 547 overall)
Totaled 884 yards and 8 TDs his last two seasons at tight end; repositioned at fullback
Money Hunter, Arkansas State (30 SS, 589 overall)
222 total career tackles, six INTs, 2016 Sun Belt 1st Team Defense
Trent Cowen, Idaho (16 FB, 582 overall)
Another Sun Belt tight end converted to fullback, Cowen (6’3″, 220lbs) logged 1,191 yards and 10 TDs in two productive seasons.
The Deeeeeeeeeeep Sleepers (UDFA signees)
Parker Collins, OG, Appalachian State
John Law, ILB, Appalachian State
Kendall Sanders, WR, Arkansas State
Xavier Woodson-Luster, LB, Arkansas State
Colton Jackson, OG, Arkansas State
Ironhead Gallon, SS, Georgia Southern
Otha Peters, OLB, Louisiana
Tyler Jones, QB, Texas State
Bonus Pick: De’Angelo Henderson, RB, Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers didn’t play in the Sun Belt in 2016, but so what? They belong to The Heat now. Henderson, who is Coastal Carolina’s all-time record-holder in career rushing yardage (4,635), rushing touchdowns (58), and average yards per attempt (6.43) is projected to go on Day 3 of the draft.