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The SEC players you need to know for the 2018 NFL draft

We're less than 48 hours away from the first round of the NFL draft and a handful of SEC players will hear their name called.

So is it too early to look ahead to next year's NFL draft? Never. Not to take away from those who will be selected over the next three days, but here's an overview of the SEC players we will be talking about this time next year.

The battle for the top spot

There's a lot of time between now and next year's draft, but the early buzz for next year's No. 1 pick has been centered on Pac-12 quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. That doesn't mean an SEC player can't enter into the conversation, but assuming Myles Garrett goes No. 1 overall Thursday, the league might be hard-pressed to do it two years in a row.

So who will be the SEC's top pick be in next year's draft? There's no easy answer to that question, but you can begin the discussion with four players.

The player most similar to Garrett and the player most likely to go No. 1 because of his position is LSU pass-rusher Arden Key. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound junior finished second in the SEC last season with 12 sacks and was also among the league leaders in tackles for loss (14.5). He missed the entire spring due to personal reasons, but he'll continue to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, assuming he's back for the season.

Next up are a pair of wide receivers. The SEC is in danger of not having a receiver taken in the first round for the first time since 2012, but even if the streak comes to an end, it will pick right back up next year when Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk become draft eligible.

Ridley has drawn comparisons to Amari Cooper in his first two years at Alabama, and Kirk has proven he can do just about everything for Texas A&M.

The SEC’s other "elite" player in next year's draft class is Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Alabama defensive back who led the conference with six interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. One of Fitzpatrick's best assets is his versatility. He can play cornerback, safety, nickel -- basically any spot in the secondary.

The four players mentioned above will be juniors next fall, but barring injury, the early consensus is that all four will declare early for the draft.

The best of the rest

We've only scratched the surface on next year's SEC draft class. Sure, the four players above are likely first-round picks, but they won't be alone.

Players like Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Marquis Haynes, Braden Smith and Armani Watts all flirted with leaving early after this past season. However, they returned to school with the hope of improving their draft stock and possibly going in the first round in 2018. Carter and Bellamy, the two Georgia pass-rushers, might have the most upside of that group.

Alabama churns out first- and second-round picks every year, and next year will be no different. In addition to Ridley and Fitzpatrick, you could see Da'Ron Payne, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Ronnie Harrison and maybe even Da'Shawn Hand taken early in the draft. Offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman and Ross Pierschbacher will also be solid picks whenever they go off the board.

Take this to the bank if you want -- there's going to be an LSU defensive back taken high. It happens every year. The best bets next year, if they leave early, are junior cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver II.

You're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned a running back yet. Well, here you go. There's not a once-in-a-generation talent like Leonard Fournette in the SEC anymore, but you could see Georgia's Nick Chubb or LSU's Derrius Guice get taken in the first round and maybe even become part of that conversation above. Alabama junior Bo Scarbrough also has first-round talent but has to find a way to stay healthy.

There are a handful of other backs -- Damien Harris, Kamryn Pettway, Sony Michel, Rawleigh Williams III and Ralph Webb -- that should also get drafted at some point.

Other players to keep an eye on from the SEC include Antonio Callaway, Martez Ivey, Martinas Rankin, Frank Ragnow, Trenton Thompson, Cece Jefferson, Jordan Jones, Duke Dawson, Dominick Sanders and yes, Daniel Carlson. He's the nation's best kicker. Somebody is going to take him.