Georgia Bulldogs expect to flex again in NFL draft

Georgia's defensive lineman Jalen Carter (left) and linebacker Nolan Smith run drills during Georgia’s Pro Day in the Payne Indoor Athletic Facility, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Athens, GA. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia's defensive lineman Jalen Carter (left) and linebacker Nolan Smith run drills during Georgia’s Pro Day in the Payne Indoor Athletic Facility, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Athens, GA. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

ATHENS — Remember when Georgia had just one player selected in the NFL draft?

It wasn’t that long ago really. It was 2017 when wide receiver/kick returner Isaiah McKenzie was picked in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos. No other Bulldogs were selected that year.

In fact, from 2014-17, UGA had only 15 players taken across four drafts. Georgia had that many players taken in 2022 alone. That now stands as an NFL seven-round record.

So, yes, if winning the past two national championships was not enough evidence that Georgia’s talent pool has increased considerably under coach Kirby Smart, then the draft should serve as a strobing beacon of proof.

“Basically, it speaks to Kirby and that coaching staff,” ESPN’s ever-present NFL draft expert Mel Kiper told the AJC. “The job they do recruiting, the job they do developing players, coaching them, motivating them, it’s pretty amazing.”

The trend figures to continue as the 2023 draft commences this week in Kansas City. Once again, the Bulldogs are in position to reach double figures in number of draftees. Georgia has 14 players who have officially entered, and several of those prospects shouldn’t have to wait long to hear their names called.

Despite all the off-season controversy surrounding Jalen Carter, the junior defensive lineman is expected to be the first Bulldog off the board. Projecting as a top-10 selection, he’s the only Georgia player attending the draft proceedings in Kansas City in person. Kiper still rates him as the top overall prospect, unrelated to potential pick.

Outside linebacker Nolan Smith is expected to be next to go, with most mock-drafts slotting him between 13th and 18th. Offensive tackle Broderick Jones also is not expected to last past the first round.

Meanwhile, tight end Darnell Washington and cornerback Kelee Ringo have gotten some first-round mention. They may have to wait until Day 2 on Friday to get their calls, however, based on 11th-hour prognostications. Several other Bulldogs will follow, some lasting into Saturday’s late rounds.

Smart makes no bones about it: Getting players “to the league” is a big part of what the Bulldogs are selling in recruiting.

“The pitch comes on draft day when we actually see what happens,” Smart said after UGA’s Pro Day in March.

NFL teams have taken notice. The Bulldogs have sent 47 players to the NFL combine over the last three years, more than any other team in the country.

The ultimate wild card this year is Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. NFL teams seem unsure what to do with the 25-year-old, sixth-year senior. Obviously, he played a major role in leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back titles, earning offensive MVP honors in his four College Football Playoff appearances. But between his age, smallish stature, a January arrest for public drunkenness and reported bravado in pre-draft meetings with teams, he’s been one of Georgia’s most difficult draft prospects ever to handicap.

Kiper, for one, expects Bennett to hear his name called.

“I do,” the 40-year veteran said. “The sixth, seventh and eighth quarterbacks all have the same grade and he’s right in there with them. You could argue he’s the sixth best quarterback in this draft. Probably Day 3, though.”

It’s unlikely – if not numerically impossible – for Georgia to have the sort of presence it did in last year’s draft in Las Vegas. NFL records fell for overall selections from one team (15), number of defensive players picked in a first round (5) and defensive players drafted overall (8). Three linemen went in the opening round, starting with defensive end Travon Walker (No. 1 to Jaguars), then nose guard Jordan Davis (13 to Eagles) and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt (28 to Packers). Linebacker Quay Walker (22 to Packers) and safety Lewis Cine (32 to Vikings) rounded out Georgia’s first-round run.

Having double-figure players drafted is exceedingly rare. Georgia’s one of only nine teams to have done it in the current draft format, with USC, FSU and Ohio State all having done it twice.

That period from 2014-17 aside, the Bulldogs traditionally have had a significant presence in drafts. UGA is 11th all-time in number of players drafted (361) in the history of the NFL, according to Sports Illustrated. The schools also has had had five No. 1 overall picks, including two in the 21st century (Walker and Matthew Stafford in 2009).

It would be an achievement in itself to match what the Bulldogs did in 2021. Georgia had nine players selected that year, which was the school record to date. UGA has averaged 9.5 players chosen over the past four drafts.

“There’s no question about what Kirby’s done down there,” Kiper said. “He’s got talent, and he’s winning with talent.”

UGA DRAFT HOPEFULS

Robert Beal, OLB

Stetson Bennett, QB

Jalen Carter, DL

Warren Ericson, OL

Kearis Jackson, WR

Broderick Jones, OL

Warren McClendon OL

Kenny McIntosh, RB

Jack Podlesny, PK

William Poole, DB

Kelee Ringo, DB

Christopher Smith, DB

Nolan Smith, OLB

Darnell Washington, TE

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