SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidates
The SEC has been even-handed with its Defensive Player of the Year Award since its creation, vacillating between pass rushers, linebackers, and even corners and safeties.
Still, all else being equal, it’s easier for a dominant pass rusher to stand out to voters. Since 2012, three players with double-digit sacks have won or shared the award, along with two Alabama linebackers.
So while there are good candidates at the second and third levels, we anticipate that in all likelihood the 2016 award again will go to one of the league’s premier pass rushers. Here are the five candidates we think are most likely to win this fall, as well as a smattering of others we also considered.
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett
2015 stats: 12.5 sacks, 19.5 TFL, 59 tackles
Garrett arrived in College Station in 2014 as an instant-impact pass rusher after being rated as a five-star prep prospect. But he did not start the season opener. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, larger offensive tackles sometimes bedeviled him, especially when teams ran right at him.
He still managed to break Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC record for sacks by a freshman, mostly feasting on weaker opponents. But his all-around game needed some work.
Garrett remains shredded, but now he’s listed at 262 pounds. Still quick enough to beat offensive tackles off the edge, he also is strong enough to push them backward during a power run. He’s especially adept at running down plays to the other side of the field.
Larry Jackson on Myles Garrett: "When he takes his shirt off, it looks like I'm doing my job."
— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) March 3, 2016
As a result, Garrett enters 2016 with huge expectations. Not since Clowney’s ’13 preseason hype has there been such a highly-anticipated season for an SEC pass rusher. Garrett could be the top player selected in the 2017 NFL draft. He’s that talented.
If he stays healthy all season, the Aggies defensive end has to be considered the favorite to win the award. But he’ll face some worthy competition.
Alabama DE Jonathan Allen
2015 stats: 12.0 sacks, 14.5 TFL, 36 tackles
Whereas Garrett has had to develop as a run stopper, Allen came to Tuscaloosa as a big-bodied end tasked with sealing the edge against the run within the team’s base 3-4 alignment. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds, Allen emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the SEC last season, finishing just a half-sack short of Garrett’s total.
His starting mates A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed are hoping to become first-round picks in next month’s NFL draft. But Allen returns as the alpha player on the Crimson Tide’s still-impressive defensive line — arguably the best element of the team’s 2015 national championship team.
Along with teammates Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, Allen could be a part of one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the country again in ’16. To best Garrett, he’ll have to do something spectacular, like return a few strip sacks for touchdowns or pick off a few tipped passes. But as a returning member of last year’s first-team All-SEC defense, he’ll get every opportunity to work himself into first-round draft status this fall.
Florida CB Jalen Tabor
2015 stats: 4 INTs, 5 TFL, 2 TDs, 18 passes defended
Entering last season, Vernon Hargreaves III was the All-American and the unquestioned leader of the Florida secondary. Tabor had started five games in 2014 and had to battle to earn a starting role.
Hargreaves played well as expected and should be a first-round pick in April. But by most measures, Tabor put together a better season in Florida’s secondary, perhaps outshining the superstar on his own team.
Tabor is one of those “chess pieces” in that he’s capable of making plays in the backfield and even rushing the opposing quarterback. But especially this year, with Florida’s secondary losing a few NFL hopefuls, expect the Gators to use him to lock up as many top SEC receivers as possible.
It may be difficult for Tabor to win the award, as opposing quarterbacks are likely to avoid his side of the field. But if he can repeat last year’s performance he’ll be one of the best cornerbacks in the country, and would merit strong consideration.
Missouri DE Charles Harris
2015 stats: 18.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 56 tackles
Missouri is going through an incredible run at defensive end, and that run is continuing with Harris. His ’15 season probably did not get appreciated as much, since the team went from back-to-back East Division titles to 5-7. But his 18.5 tackles for loss put him just behind Garrett for the conference lead last fall.
Harris could get even more help in 2016 with the development of Terry Beckner Jr. and Walter Brady and a potential return by Harold Brantley. Opponents didn’t spend a ton of time passing in the second half against difficult down-and-distance situations. If Mizzou can put together a better season, Harris will have more opportunities to tee off as a pass rusher.
It will be intriguing to watch how the coaching changes could affect the development of this unit. Gone is long-time position coach Craig Kuligowski, touted as a sort of secret sauce the last several years. And new head coach Barry Odom may try to play more 3-4 defense in 2016.
Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
2015 stats: 10.0 sacks, 69 tackles
Barnett arrived in Knoxville as a member of the ’14 class with significantly less hype than Garrett. Yet he notched a terrific 20.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman, and all 10 of his sacks that season came against SEC competition.
An injury to Curt Maggitt and some bumps of his own seemed to slow Barnett during the first half of the ’15 season. But he rallied with 6 sacks in a five-game stretch spanning October and November. Whereas Garrett started getting double-teamed early in ’14, the extra attention came later for Barnett as well.
The comparisons will continue for at least one more year. But Barnett is a very different player. A good pass rusher, he relies more on a bull rush that knocks offensive linemen on their heels. He’s also stout against the run, and if he can put together a healthy ’16 season, he should again challenge for the conference lead in tackles for loss.
Also Considered: Georgia S Dominick Sanders, Alabama S Eddie Jackson, Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham, Ole Miss DE Marquis Haynes, South Carolina LB Skai Moore, Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LSU CB Tre’Davious White, LSU S Jamal Adams, Alabama LB Tim Williams, Mississippi State DL A.J. Jefferson, Arkansas LB Brooks Ellis, Texas A&M S Armani Watts, Auburn S Rudy Ford.