Who will be this upcoming season’s Keanu Neal?
Neal benefited from a strong junior season at Florida and NFL combine performance to become a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Is there a current Gators player who could improve his draft stock enough to become a first-round pick in the 2017 draft?
Cornerback Jalen Tabor and linebacker Jarrad Davis are already projected as possible first-round selections in next year’s draft. Our question is, who are the players who are not currently projected as first-round picks, but have the potential to turn into one?
Here are six candidates:
Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, redshirt junior: If Brantley lives up to his own expectations, he’s going to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. “I think I’m the best D-lineman in the country,” Brantley said during spring practice in March. “I’m coming out to try and prove it.” Brantley started 10 of the 13 games he played last season, earning second team All-America honors from Pro Football Focus and finishing with 29 tackles and three sacks. With Jonathan Bullard now in the NFL, Brantley (6-2, 300) will be looked upon to lead the Gators’ defensive line in 2016. If he excels in that role, the first round might be in Brantley’s future.
Defensive end Bryan Cox, redshirt senior: Cox (6-3, 260) has improved each season during his time at Florida. He totaled five tackles and two sacks as a redshirt freshman, 29 tackles and four sacks as a redshirt sophomore, and 45 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as a redshirt junior. If Cox can get his sack numbers up this upcoming season, he will be an intriguing NFL prospect.
Tight end DeAndre Goolsby, junior: Pass-catching tight ends are becoming more and more popular in today’s NFL. That’s what Goolsby (6-4, 240) brings, as he recorded 17 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown despite backing up starter Jake McGee last season. Goolsby will be a bigger part of the Gators’ offense this season with McGee’s departure. If Goolsby can become a reliable blocker, he’s the total package NFL teams are looking for at the tight end position.
Free safety Marcus Maye, redshirt senior: There is one big similarity between Maye and Neal — both are physical Gators safeties who turned in strong junior seasons. But Maye returned to Florida for his senior year even though he was rated as one of the top safeties by Pro Football Focus in 2015 and was named a first-team All-American by USA Today. Maye finished with a career-high 82 tackles and two interceptions last season. If Maye (6-0, 210) can continue improving and have a strong senior season, he could turn into a first-round pick.
Offensive tackle David Sharpe, junior: At 6-foot-6, 347 pounds, Sharpe has the size to be an NFL offensive tackle. Sharpe is entering his second season as Florida’s starting offensive left tackle. He became one of the most reliable linemen on the team last year. But he will need to keep improving and show he can be dominant at the college level this season to turn into a first-round pick.
Cornerback Quincy Wilson, junior: Wilson could be this upcoming season’s Tabor, who used increased playing time last year to become one of the top young cornerbacks in the country. Wilson impressed when he was on the field as Florida’s third cornerback last season, finishing his sophomore year with 29 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups. But with Vernon Hargreaves’ departure, Wilson is expected to start opposite of Tabor in 2016 and has the potential to turn into one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. At 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, Wilson has the size NFL teams are looking for at corner. A breakout junior season seems to be the only thing separating Wilson from turning into Florida’s next great defensive back.