Looking ahead to Gators in the 2022 NFL Draft

With the 2021 NFL Draft ending more than a week ago, now seems like a great time to analyze the next group of Gators that might hear their names called by Roger Goodell.

The 2021 Gators are in a bit of a weird spot. With a boatload of top players departing from the 2020 team, UF has about 20 draft-eligible players on its roster that are talented enough to potentially get drafted. However, of those 20 or so players, only a handful of them – maybe even fewer than that – have proven enough at the college level to be considered shoo-ins to get drafted.

Below you will find the draft eligible Gators sorted into four categories: sure-fire first-rounder, second day selection, third day selections and wildcards. Players who fall under the “wildcards” category are so unproven that they could go early in the draft, late or not at all depending on how their 2021 season pans out. If a draft-eligible player is missing from the list, it’s because there’s currently no expectation for them to become a draftable player.

Sure-fire First-rounder

Cornerback Kaiir Elam

Elam is consistently showing up in the top-15 of the various “Way Too Early Mock Drafts” being floated out there by the various analysts.

And for good reason. Elam is the prototypical press man corner that NFL defenses covet. He’s long, physical, fast and has good ball instincts. He’s the type of player that you line up against the other team’s top receiver to take him out of the game.

He enters his junior campaign with five career interceptions and 20 passes defensed. If he increases the number of big plays he makes this season, he could become the second UF defensive back taken in the top-10 in the last three years.

Second Day Selection

Defensive End Zachary Carter

Carter has a chance to make himself some serious money this season. He has the body of an NFL veteran, and he shed about 15 pounds over the winter to improve his quickness and agility.

While strongside end is his strongest position, he has the ability to slide inside on passing downs, a skill that will certainly make him appealing to NFL coaches.

His production has increased every year at Florida, and he has the feeling of a man on a mission. If he’s able to create a little more havoc as a pass-rusher, he could slide into the end of the first round. If not, day two seems like a pretty safe bet.

Third Day Selections

Safety Trey Dean

The biggest thing Dean will bring to an NFL team is versatility. He can play cornerback, nickelback, safety and special teams.

Dean’s most natural position is safety, and he’ll enter the fall playing the same position in back-to-back years for the first time in his career. In his limited snaps last year, he looked like their best all-around safety. He finished the season with 34 tackles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Dean is the unquestioned leader of the secondary this time around and should start every game. He’ll get taken early on day three.

Left Tackle Richard Gouraige

Gouraige was one of the most consistent performers on a couple of bad offensive lines the past two seasons.

Now, he slides over to left tackle this season, a position that should better maximize his athleticism while masking some of his deficiencies as a run blocker. We just saw Stone Forsythe get drafted in the sixth round after receiving some third-round hype. Gouraige is more athletic than Forsythe and has a higher ceiling. If he makes the transition to tackle well, he should get drafted on day three.

Linebacker Ventrell Miller

As the man in the middle, Miller is one of the leaders of UF’s defense. He led the Gators with 88 tackles last season after finishing second with 55 in 2019. He serves as a field general and embraces contact in short-yardage situations. That makes him a very good college football player.

Unfortunately, Miller’s lack of elite speed makes him a liability at times in coverage, which will diminish his draft stock. NFL teams simply don’t want two-down linebackers anymore. If Miller turns in another solid year, somebody might take a chance on him in the later rounds.

BUCK Jeremiah Moon

Moon has never quite lived up to the large expectations that came with him to UF. He has just 5.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss to his credit in five years. He’s suffered three season-ending injuries, including each of the last two seasons.

When healthy, Moon has been a solid defender against the run. If he can become a little bit more of a threat as a pass-rusher and stay healthy for once, he could get drafted.

Running Back Dameon Pierce

In an era of blazing speed and breathtaking juke moves, Pierce is a throwback. He prefers to flat-out run over people like a human bowling ball.

He’s rushed for more than 1,200 yards in his career and figures open the season as the No. 1 running back once again.

However, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony, as he’s not much of a threat in the passing game and his pass-protection is merely OK. Those limitations, combined with Dan Mullen’s preference for rotating multiple backs rather interchangeably, should set the fourth round as Pierce’s ceiling.

Offensive Lineman Stewart Reese

It’s hard to know what to make of Reese. During his time at Mississippi State, he was regarded as one of the SEC’s top run-blocking guards. He played well in the first five games last season before an injury he suffered against Georgia appeared to affect his play the rest of the way.

His size – 6-foot-6, 354 pounds – will certainly catch scouts’ attention. His versatility should also play in his favor. He played right tackle and right guard in three years at Mississippi State and right guard at Florida last year. He received reps at center in the spring and could be the starter there in the fall.

Despite Florida’s offensive line woes, there’s a decent chance the Gators could have two linemen drafted next year.

Defensive Tackle Antonio Shelton

Though he’s yet to play a game in a Gator uniform, Shelton just feels like Kyree Campbell 2.0. He’s not the most physically gifted or flashiest interior lineman, but he’ll do his job at an extremely high level and make a huge impact on the defense.

Shelton broke out as a pass-rusher at Penn State in 2020, finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks. If he’s able to translate that level of production to the more difficult SEC schedule, somebody will take him late in the draft.

Tight End Keon Zipperer

Even with Kyle Pitts now in Atlanta, the show must go on for Florida at the tight end position. Expect Mullen to continue utilizing the position extensively and for tight ends coach Tim Brewster to get his guys ready.

Zipperer figures to be the top option, at least when it comes to pass catching. He’s a solid athlete with good hands, and he and Emory Jones should have a good rapport with each other from their time running the second team together. If he can improve as a blocker and become more consistent in the passing game, he’ll get the opportunity to play in the NFL.

Wildcards

BUCK Khris Bogle

You get the feeling that Bogle is about to become one of the breakout stars on this team. He’s got his weight up to a much more serviceable 234 pounds. His length and quickness around the edge give him the potential to be a dominant pass-rusher.

Bogle showed some flashes of his potential down the stretch of last season. He recorded sacks in three of the final six games and forced a fumble against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

If he continues to progress at that rate as a pass-rusher and becomes a bit sturdier against the run, he could be a day two pick.

Wide Receiver Jacob Copeland

Two years ago, Van Jefferson somewhat surprisingly emerged as a second-round draft pick. Last year, Kadarius Toney progressed from a guy that would’ve made the “Wildcards” section to the No. 20 overall pick. Copeland is the most likely candidate to become coach Billy Gonzales’ third breakout star in as many years.

Athletically, Copeland has everything you could possibly want. He’s fast, both in the straight-line sense and in his ability to make defenders miss in space. He’s stronger than his 6-foot, 204-pound frame would suggest.

Still, Copeland has been one of the biggest teases the last three years. He’s caught just 45 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns in his career.

Route-running and catching have been the primary culprits, similar to Toney at this point last year. Copeland looked much improved in those areas in the spring. If that carries over to the fall, he’ll go off the board quickly.

BUCK Brenton Cox

The former five-star recruit will perform extremely well at the NFL Combine and Pro Day. He’s big, strong and extremely athletic.

The key for him is to get his film to match that athletic upside. He had some nice moments as a pass-rusher last season, leading the team with 18 quarterback hurries and recording four sacks. He also tied for first on the team with 9.5 tackles-for-loss.

However, his play against the run left a lot to be desired. He often seemed so determined to make the big play in the backfield that he failed to set the edge and compromised the defense, which led to big plays. He also disappeared for large stretches of games as a pass-rusher.

If he tightens up his rushing defense and wins his one-on-one matchups in the passing game a little more consistently, he could go in the first round. If he doesn’t, he might be back at Florida next season.

Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate

He has all of the physical attributes you look for in a linebacker; now he just needs to learn how to play the position better.

Diabate spent his freshman season at BUCK as a pass-rushing specialist. The coaches opted to move him to the more traditional “Money” linebacker spot last season. He finished second on the team with 69 tackles and started six games, but he was very inconsistent. He looked lost over the first half of the season as he adjusted to his new position but turned things on down the stretch. He made 11 stops versus LSU and 10 versus Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

If he can improve in coverage in 2021, he could go as high as day two.

Linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper

A former high school cornerback, Hopper has the coverage skills to be a first-rounder someday. The questions with him have always been his size and ability to be equally stout against the run. He’s up to 221 pounds now, which is a much better weight for him.

Hopper played sparingly last season but generated some buzz among his teammates in the spring. If the hype proves true, he’ll go early in the draft. If not, then maybe next year will bring his long-awaited breakthrough.

Quarterback Emory Jones

This one is obvious. When you’re the quarterback at UF, you’re never more than one good season away from going in the first two rounds.

Jones, a redshirt junior, will impress front offices with his elite athleticism and running ability. He led the Gators with 6.8 yards per carry in 2020.

That ability to make something special with his legs on every play alone gives him a first-round ceiling. In fact, Pro Football Focus had him going in the top-10 in a mock draft last week.

Jones’ success at Florida will hinge on his development as a passer, particularly his accuracy and decision-making. He struggled at times with his accuracy on intermediate throws in the spring, and he has a tendency to lock in on a specific target instead of going through his reads. If he improves in those areas and turns in a solid statistical year, he could go in the first round. Otherwise, the Anthony Richardson era might not be too far away.

Wide Receiver Justin Shorter

Shorter finds himself in almost the exact same situation as Trevon Grimes a year ago. They both were highly recruited, big-bodied receivers that transferred into the program from Big Ten schools. Like Grimes at this point last year, Shorter’s contributions at UF have been fairly minimal.

Shorter caught 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns in his first season as a Gator. Most of his catches came on short throws designed to get the ball in his hands, with the one notable exception being his incredible touchdown grab in traffic against Arkansas.

That was perfectly fine for him last year. The Gators didn’t need him to be a major contributor right away. This year, however, they really need him to take the next step and become a more consistent playmaker. To do that, he needs to learn to use his 6-foot-5 frame to box out defenders on intermediate routes like slants and posts rather than just deep balls.

If he does that, he could work his way into the second or third round. If not, he’ll have to decide between returning to UF for another year or suffering the same fate as Grimes by going undrafted.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.