Ranking the SEC's best defensive ends after spring ball
So long, Dante Fowler Jr., Bud Dupree, Shane Ray, Preston Smith, Markus Golden and Danielle Hunter. NFL teams selected all those SEC defensive ends in the first three rounds.
Goodbye, Trey Flowers and Za’Darius Smith.
That’s a wealth of single-position talent vacating the conference — millions of dollars worth. How well will the conference compensate? Will a constant influx of four- and five-star defensive line talent be enough to hold the level of play steady? Or will SEC quarterbacks make a leap forward this season without as much harassment?
The trio at the top of our 10 best post-spring defensive ends — listed below — ranked fifth, not at all and 10th after the 2014 season.
Most players on this list have college eligibility beyond 2015, so depending on who leaves early for the NFL, this group could look even more intimidating entering the ’16 season.
Others Considered: Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt; Jason Hatcher, Kentucky; Marcus Loud, Missouri; Bryan Cox Jr., Florida; Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama; CeCe Jefferson, Florida; JaMichael Winston, Arkansas; Deatrich Wise, Arkansas
10. Charles Harris, Missouri: The 6-foot-3, 255-pound redshirt sophomore, a multi-sport prep athlete who excelled at hoops, fits the athletic profile that the Tigers look for in a pass-rushing end. Harris has a chance to be Mizzou’s next exhibit for talent development, yet another pelt on the wall of coach Gary Pinkel and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. But first he has to get to the quarterback before players like Loud, Harold Brantley and Rickey Hatley. How soon will Harris reach maturity on the field?
9. Marquavius Lewis, South Carolina: Perhaps the most important newcomer for the Gamecocks, the 6-foot-3, 266-pound JUCO transfer gives new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke a much-needed upgrade at the position. Lewis made 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.0 sacks in 12 games at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College last year. He’s already proven during spring practice that he can be an effective, disruptive player in the SEC.
8. Alex McCallister, Florida: A strong candidate for SEC East breakout player of the year, McCalister has grown from 210 pounds as a high school senior to in the 240s ahead of his redshirt junior year in Gainesville, Fla. The once-lanky defensive end managed six sacks as a backup last season. New coordinator Geoff Collins plans to use him as a pass rusher both with his hand in the ground and standing up, much like Dante Fowler Jr. for the Gators last season. Don’t be shocked if he’s one of the five best SEC pass rushers this season.
7. Jarran Reed, Alabama: His 55 tackles in ’14 represent the highest total by a Tide defensive lineman since Wallace Gilberry in 2007. That’s impressive for a 6-foot-4, 313-pound junior college transfer considered the least-gifted of the team’s three starters at the position. Reed’s decision to avoid entering the NFL draft early gives Bama jealousy-inducing continuity along the defensive line (and stout run defense that could leave a few offensive linemen beat up this fall).
6. Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss: At just 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Haynes is the smallest player on the list. If you haven’t watched him play, you should be able to guess his strength based on that sentence. Only Shane Ray recorded more sack yards in ’14 than Haynes, who managed 72 (on 7.5 sacks). Now that he projects as a full-time starter — one who stands to benefit from playing alongside Robert Nkemdiche and Issac Gross — Haynes should hover near double-digit sacks this fall.
5. Curt Maggitt, Tennessee: One of three returning SEC players with double-digit sacks last season, Maggitt is part linebacker, part defensive end. However you label him, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound redshirt senior can get after opposing quarterbacks. He’s played through the Derek Dooley days and forged ahead during the Butch Jones put-Humpty-Dumpty-back-together years. Now Maggitt gets a chance to be a defensive leader for a Vols team that’s becoming legitimate again.
4. Carl Lawson, Auburn: Lawson is natural for the “Buck” position in Will Muschamp’s defense held last year by No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Dante Fowler Jr. Ironically, Fowler Jr. just tore his ACL, while Lawson finally is getting close to 100 percent after a knee injury of his own wiped out his ’14 season. The Tigers hope to see more of the player who earned freshman All-American status in 2013, as Auburn’s lack of pass rush buried it as a true contender last fall.
3. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: The SEC’s all-time freshman sack master, Garrett seems like an even better asset for the Aggies within defensive coordinator John Chavis’ simplified, attacking system. His quick-twitch muscles carried him to 11.5 sacks in ’14. If he can add about 10 pounds to his listed 255 last year, become less of a liability when teams run at him and learn some more nuanced pass-rush moves, we could see Garrett mature to the level of an All-American by the end of the season.
2. Jonathan Allen, Alabama: A’Shawn Robinson is the sexy player on the Crimson Tide defensive line in ’15, and could emerge as a first-round NFL pick. Allen’s skill set and ceiling may not be as captivating, but he’s already arrived. A quiet All-SEC selection as a sophomore in ’14, he’s a good, not great pass rusher (5.5 sacks last year). But his 6-foot-3, 272-pound body is ideal for anchoring against the run within Alabama’s 3-4 scheme. He won’t lead the SEC in highlights, but football insiders will love him.
1. Derek Barnett, Tennessee: Touted SEC freshmen defensive linemen are going to be compared to Barnett and Garrett for years to come. Barnett could be an all-time great for the Vols just by duplicating his ’14 season twice more. He ranks ahead of Garrett and Lawson because even at 268 pounds, he gets into the backfield and disrupts the run (20.5 TFL). He ranks ahead of Allen because he’s a better pass rusher (10 sacks). Offenses will have to throw extra bodies to his side in the form of a tight end/running back or chipping him with a guard off the snap. That’s good news for the Vols’ deep collection of pass rushers.