SEC players have dominated the NFL draft for the past 17 years. There may be a dip this time around

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart hugged Xavier Truss at the Bulldogs' final home game last season, unsure if the offensive lineman would return for another year.

Truss came back for another season, so Saturday night's home finale against No. 10 Mississippi might not be a clear sign of who won't be back in 2024.

“This class has been great,” Smart said. "This group of leaders has been very impactful. I think it speaks for itself what they’ve been able to accomplish thus far, and they still have goals ahead they want to achieve.”

The latest round of mock drafts indicate Smart might have more time to reload after having 34 Bulldogs chosen over the last three NFL drafts. The same goes for the rest of his fellow Southeastern Conference coaches.

One mock draft projects the SEC could have just five players taken in the first round next April. That would be the fewest first-rounders in 15 years for a league that has either led or tied for the most first-round draft picks 12 of the last 13 years. Five would match the SEC teams with at least one player drafted in the first round last April alone.

Josh Heupel, coach of the 14th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, dismissed mock draft projections with so much football left and the actual NFL draft months away. He expects the SEC will wind up with lots of players selected, just like the last 17 where the league led all conferences.

In April, the SEC had 62 players drafted, three short of the record the league set in 2022. Of the SEC’s 14 members, 13 had at least one player picked.

Why is Heupel so confident in just his third SEC season? Tape he watches every week.

“This league is littered with talent,” Heupel said.

The SEC could wind up with nine or fewer players taken in the first round, which would be the seventh time in 15 drafts. Speculation about the SEC's top pick ranges from Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner, Georgia right tackle Amarius Mims or offensive tackle JC Latham of Alabama.

Another mock draft has Alabama cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry as the SEC's first pick overall at No. 9. That's a big drop from No. 1 overall where Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was selected in April by Carolina as the third top pick overall from the SEC in the last four drafts alone.

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, the 2022 John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end, is projected possibly as high as No. 8. He also could return for his senior season. He is recovering from ankle surgery that has cost him two games and working hard to return as fast as possible.

Yet Bowers, who still leads Georgia with 41 catches for 567 yards and four touchdowns, might see the NFL payoff as the easiest move with two national championship rings already in hand.

Mims has been out since surgery for the left ankle he sprained Sept. 16 in a win over South Carolina. The right tackle has been practicing for his own return.

"He’s much closer to being able to play like he wants to be able to play and go out there and compete,” Smart said.

Other SEC players projected as first-round selections range from edge rusher Princely Umanmielen of Florida, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels and one of his receivers, Malik Nabers, to linebacker Edgerrin Cooper of Texas A&M and cornerback Kamari Lassiter, another player from Georgia.

The reigning back-to-back national champion Bulldogs tied Alabama with 10 players apiece drafted in April. That was the fifth time in six years that either Georgia or Alabama led the country for most draft picks.

McCallan Castles, a 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight end, wanted one final college season to improve his own NFL draft stock. He chose Tennessee, transferring after three seasons at UC Davis.

That decision looks like a likely payoff next April with Castles having his best game last week. He had a team-high four catches for 56 yards and scored his third touchdown this season. Castles said he has improved greatly thanks to Tennessee's support staff, strength coaches and his position coach.

“I took a leap of faith coming here,” Castles said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get to play or not, so to come in and just be a part of the offense the way I am is amazing."

In a few months, he'll find out just how much playing in the SEC pays off.

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AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Charles Odum, Mark Long, Pete Iacobelli, Gary Graves and Brett Martel contributed to this report. ___

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football