Individual Position Rankings

Ranked in terms of talent and potential impact, here’s how the SEC’s top defensive ends stack up this season:

Just outside the Top 5: Shane Ray, Mizzou; C.J. Johnson, Ole Miss; Za’Darius Smith, Kentucky; Myles Garrett, Texas A&M; Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama

5a. Ray Drew, Georgia: Once a five-star prospect, Drew has one final season in Athens to live up to the expectations he had coming out of Thomasville, Ga., as the next great player to don the G. He made tremendous strides between his sophomore and junior campaigns, more than doubling his career output last fall in tackles (24), sacks (6) and tackles for loss (8). If that progress continues, Drew will be one of the Bulldogs’ elite playmakers in a star-studded front seven.

5b. Bud Dupree, Kentucky: No defensive player in the SEC comes into this season more confident in his own ability than Dupree, one of the Eastern Division’s top players off the edge. “I definitely think I will blow the (NFL) combine up,” Dupree said at SEC Media Days “In the 40-yard dash, I probably can run a high 4.4 or a low 4.5. In the vertical jump, I can get a 41 or a 42, and in the broad jump, I know I can get 11 feet. I just have to keep working hard to match those numbers.” If he reaches those lofty numbers next spring, Dupree’s a first-day lock and we’re projecting him to lead SEC defensive linemen in total tackles this fall.

4. Danielle Hunter, LSU: Perhaps the SEC West’s top defensive lineman with the biggest upside, Hunter’s junior season will likely be his last at the collegiate level. We’ve already seen how the 6-foot-6 quarterback destroyer looks at fall camp, but will his numbers reflect his talent? Hunter’s sack total will double this season and he’ll lead the Tigers in stops behind the line of scrimmage.

3. Trey Flowers, Arkansas: This senior pass rusher skipped a chance at the NFL during the spring when he decided a third-round grade wasn’t good enough following last season’s 13.5 tackles-for-loss, five-sack campaign. As the best player on the Razorbacks’ defense, Flowers’ return gives Arkansas hope it can improve on a 3-9 season. He’s going to have to fight his way through frustrating double teams this fall, especially on third down.

2. Dante Fowler, Florida: Will Muschamp’s anchor along the defensive line doesn’t have the personality you’d expect from a snarling beast who routinely flattens running backs with his power and size. The quiet, soft-spoken rusher led the Gators with 10.5 tackles for loss and finished second with 3.5 sacks last season, but his stellar play was buried behind an inept offense. One of Mel Kiper’s highest-rated juniors in college football, Gator fans may be forced to wish him well after what we project as a monster year.

1. Markus Golden, Mizzou: The new face of the Tigers’ defense following Michael Sam and Kony Ealy’s departure, Golden has the skill set to perform just as well — if not better — than the nasty pass rushers before him. Playing behind the notable pair as a junior, Golden managed 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks despite being on the field for 40 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. He was arguably Mizzou’s most productive defender even though Sam and Ealy were the All-SEC first team selections. I’ve watched eight full games on Golden this summer and not once did I see him take a play off or loaf in pursuit. That’s an impressive feat.

Editor’s note: One of the SEC’s biggest freaks, Ole Miss sophomore pass-rusher Robert Nkemdiche, will play primarily at defensive tackle this season. He’ll be listed with tomorrow’s top interior linemen.