The SEC is used to having to replace a high percentage of its best players who make the move to the next level. However, this offseason could see the conference facing its biggest test yet in terms of replacing departed stars.
Only four of the 27 players who made the 2013 ESPN.com All-SEC team are returning to their collegiate programs in 2014. Nine left due to declaring early for the NFL draft and 14 became eligible for the draft due to finishing their senior season.
This tremendous amount of personnel departures means there will be a lot of room for players to move from "undercard" status to SEC "main event" status in 2014. The good news for the conference is there is a slew of candidates who the metrics and game tape indicate are more than capable of making the jump from part-time players to All-SEC team contributors.
Here are 10 of the leading contenders to be future SEC stars.
Corey Grant, RB, Auburn Tigers
2013 highlight play: 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus Tennessee
Grant's open-field abilities were quite evident on the touchdown kickoff return against the Volunteers, and they led to his racking up a ridiculously high 12.5-yard mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric. This statistic gauges how productive a ball carrier is when given good blocking (which is very roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to disrupt a rushing attempt) and the typical bar for top-flight production is in the 9- to 10-yard range.
Grant may end up splitting time with Cameron Artis-Payne and possibly Racean Thomas (the 28th-ranked player on the ESPN 300 list), but Gus Malzahn's extraordinarily creative play calling should assure he can make the most of his elite talent, no matter what the workload distribution is.
2013 highlight play: 50-yard touchdown run versus Ole Miss
Drake's explosive burst helped him to rank second in the conference in yards per rush last season (7.54) and finish first among running backs in percentage of rush plays that gained 5 or more yards (56.5 percent). These skills were especially evident in the highlight play against Ole Miss when he made a jump cut to make a linebacker miss, sped right past the box safety closing in for a tackle at the second level and then destroyed the free safety's angle of pursuit downfield.