Mark Zerof / USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators with NFL Draft decisions: Defense

The Gators have multiple players on the defensive side of the ball that will have decisions to make.

Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley

REASONS TO GO: Brantley would have a great showing at the combine with his athleticism for a 6-2, 314-pounder. He moved into a starting role this season and showed he could be an impact player in the middle of the defensive line. 

REASONS TO STAY: Brantley showed breakout potential this season. He had 5.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks on the season, and while he played well on the year, it seemed like there is still more coming for Brantley, who has been mentored by Jonathan Bullard in recent years. He could leave early and get drafted, or he could return to school and have a monster season to boost his stock more.

Defensive end Bryan Cox, Jr.

REASONS TO GO: A contributor in 2014, Cox made the jump into starter this year and had his best season in Gainesville. The redshirt junior had 10.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. His six quarterback hurries were tied for second on the team. It makes sense for Cox to submit paperwork to the NFL and get the feedback. The argument for him leaving early is that he’s a fourth-year player who could be ready to get paid.

REASONS TO STAY: Even with his improvement this season, Cox still doesn’t seem like a defensive end that would be taken within the first two days of the draft. The Florida defense would benefit from getting him back next season, and Cox could become a feature player on the defensive line for the Gators with Bullard and possibly other gone.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III

REASONS TO GO: Hargreaves said after the SEC Championship Game that he would likely leave early, and there are a lot of reasons that makes sense. The junior is a lock to be a first-round pick. It’s possible that his junior season wasn’t as good as either of his first two in Gainesville because of multiple nagging injuries, but that won’t matter. Hargreaves is a sure-fire first round pick in the spring if he elects to leave early.

REASONS TO STAY: The only reason to stay would be if Hargreaves is comfortable putting off his NFL future for another year to finish out his career at Florida or possibly get his degree. The All-American returning to school seems unlikely at best.

Safety Marcus Maye

REASONS TO GO: The breakout season came as a redshirt junior for Maye. He was fourth on the team with 73 tackles and led the Gators with four forced fumbles. He was as sound as any tackler on the Florida team. As a fourth-year player, Pro Football Focus had Maye as one of the best cover safeties in the country this season. He even served as an emergency linebacker for the Florida defense, making himself more versatile for the NFL.   

REASONS TO STAY: Safety isn’t a premium position that usually fills the early rounds of the NFL Draft, but there’s not much Maye has to improve on as a player. He made big jumps in defending the pass and the run this season. Returning could give him a chance to boost his stock even more after the 2016 season, but his stock is already high because of his strong season that just ended.

Defensive end Alex McCalister

REASONS TO GO: Pass rushers in the NFL are always in high demand. McCalister’s tall, lanky frame has added 40+ pounds since he came to Gainesville barely over 200 pounds, and he’s much better at handling the strength of an SEC offensive tackle. He also has improved his pass rush moves and had 9.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks despite playing in only nine games.

REASONS TO STAY: McCalister’s frame would make him intriguing to NFL teams, but the upside still left is what could benefit him in returning to school. Some extra weight to hold up in the NFL would also benefit him. More than anything, McCalister has seen Bullard and Fowler take off as the standout defensive linemen the past two seasons. If he returns, he’ll be that guy in 2016 for the Gators.

Safety Keanu Neal

REASONS TO GO: Neal was always around the football during his junior year. He was third on the team with 85 tackles despite missing two games. Physically, there isn't a junior on this list better prepared for the NFL.  

REASONS TO STAY: Maye had the better year out of the two safeties, and Neal returning would be an important boost for the Gators, helping avoid breaking in two starting safeties. Neal had a good season in 2015, but he could take the next step by returning to school.

Note: Jarrad Davis was left off this list because he said after the SEC Championship Game that he would return for his senior year.


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