Our ongoing series of ranking the league’s depth charts now moves to defense. First up, the big fellows up front. As with the offensive line, there are too many names, and the players shift positions too much to go spot-by-spot. Instead, we list a few contributing players who won’t be back, and one big contributor who will be. Let’s get to it!
14. Mississippi State: Loses — A.J. Jefferson, Johnathan Calvin, Nick James. Nelson Adams, Will Coleman. Returns — Soph DL Jeffery Simmons
State loses a ton of players overall, including five defensive starters. The good news is that the D-Line losses weren’t that great to start with, although Jefferson (30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss) and Calvin (55 tackles, seven sacks) will definitely be missed. Simmons, a 6-4, 310-pound giant, can play inside or outside, and had 40 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman. After him, the team will be as green as the grass at Davis Wade Stadium.
13. Arkansas: Loses — Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwan Johnson. Returns — Soph. DE McTelvin Agim
Arkansas loses a solid group of veteran linemen, including Ledbetter (49 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Wise (49 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Agim was a highly regarded recruit who showed signs of greatness, finishing with 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks. It’ll be Agim and whichever young players step up, which isn’t a great look for the SEC.
12. Kentucky: Loses — Courtney Miggins. Returns — Jr. Adrian Middleton
Kentucky officially plays a 3-4 front, so pass rushers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen are both classified as linebackers, or this group would fare better. Kentucky lost some personnel up front, like Jason Hatcher and intended starter Regie Meant, and has slogged through three years with gigantic but terrible tackle Matt Elam (6-7, 360, nine tackles). Miggins (28 tackles, four tackles for loss) was solid, and the best returning player is Middleton (6-3, 303), who had 35 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Naquez Pringle also had 39 stops, and will help, but Kentucky will be hoping for some young talent to show itself.
11. Missouri: Loses — Charles Harris, Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley. Returns — Sr. DE Marcell Frazier
Mizzou was expected to have one of the best lines in the league last year, but lost possible starters Harold Brantley and Walter Brady before the season. Harris, a consensus second team All-SEC pick was a star (61 tackles, nine sacks), but he left for the NFL. The best guy left is Frazier, a JUCO pickup who had 33 tackles and 7.5 sacks from an end position. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of experienced depth aside from Frazier.
10. Vanderbilt: Loses — Adam Butler. Returns — Sr. NG Nifae Lealao
Butler was a plugger who became a good player after being recruited as an offensive lineman. Vandy has some decent players in its 3-4 alignment, including Lealao, a 6-5, 312-pounder, who had 22 tackles including four tackles for loss. He and returning starter Jonathan Wynn will have to up their production in 2017 to keep Vandy in the bowl picture.
9. Tennessee: Loses — Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen. Returns — Sr. DT Kendal Vickers
Barnett (56 tackles, 13 sacks), a consensus first-team All-SEC pick, went to the NFL and Vereen, who steadily improved (36 tackles, seven sacks), is out of eligibility, so most of UT’s defensive line talent is now inexperienced. One big (6-3, 295) exception is Vickers, who had 38 tackles and six tackles for loss in 2016, and will have to play a bigger role this year. Tennessee has some talented players, like tackle Kahlil McKenzie, but there have been injury issues and a general lack of productivity.
8. Ole Miss: Loses — Fadol Brown, Issac Gross, D.J. Jones. Returns — Sr. DE Marquis Haynes
The Rebels lost some solid, but hardly irreplaceable seniors. Haynes (below), who finished third on the team with 53 tackles and had seven sacks, will be one of the best linemen in the league. There are some young stars in the mix, like sophomore tackle Benito Jones or junior Breeland Speaks. In any other league, this unit could be one of the best.
7. South Carolina: Loses — Marquavius Lewis, Darius English. Returns — Sr. DT Taylor Stallworth
Will Muschamp loses a fine pair of defensive ends in English, a second team All-SEC pick by the AP (60 tackles, nine sacks) and Lewis (48 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss). He does return a fine pair of middle-cloggers in Stallworth (41 tackles, three tackles for loss) and Ulric Jones (42 tackles). Outside players like D.J. Wonnum and Keir Thomas will only improve, and this unit has enough upside to possibly end up as one of the league’s top groups.
6. Texas A&M: Loses — Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall. Returns — Jr. DT Kingsley Keke
Garrett was somewhat underwhelming but still All-SEC and might go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. Hall was an impressive surprise as a senior, but there are plenty of great players left. Keke, a 6-3, 319-pound lane clogger, had 37 tackles and four sacks last year. Senior Jarrett Johnson will get first dibs to replace Garrett, and he had 4.5 sacks in 2016 in a part-time role. A&M won’t replace Garrett, but all is not lost.
5. Florida: Loses — Bryan Cox, Joey Ivie, Caleb Brantley. Returns — Jr. DE Cece Jefferson
Florida’s line was expected to be a team strength in 2016, and some disappointing individual games aside, it was a solid group. Brantley was an all-SEC pick who went to the NFL. Jefferson had a somewhat underwhelming season (30 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss), but it’s just a matter of time until he stars. Jabari Zuniga (below), on the other hand, was lightly recruited, but managed five sacks and 11 QB hurries as a freshman. UF had some losses here, but there’s still a ton of talent.
4. Auburn: Loses — Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson. Returns — Soph. DE Marlon Davidson
Auburn loses two All-SEC players in tackle Adams and end Lawson. The Tigers have stockpiled some talented young players, including future star end Davidson, a 6-3, 284-pound star who can take on linemen or bury quarterbacks. Davidson had 38 tackles, including six tackles for loss, as a true freshman. Other potential stars include junior tackle Dontavius Russell, who is strong enough to play inside, but athletic enough to go outside if need be. He had 29 tackles and six QB hurries in 2016. If the young guns come along well, Auburn could have one of the best lines in America.
3. Georgia: Loses — None. Returns — Jr. DT Trenton Thompson (?)
UGA uses a 3-4, and played a young squad in 2016 that showed plenty of potential. Thompson (6-4, 309), who has left school this semester while dealing with some medical issues, is expected to return in the fall. He is a star in the making, with 56 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss from an inside spot. Julian Rochester played well inside as well (36 tackles) as a true freshman. This unit has size, strength, and now more experience. They could be a subtle key to UGA faring well in the East in 2017.
2. LSU: Loses — Lewis Neal, Davon Godchaux. Returns — Jr DE Arden Key (?)
Neal was a solid starter, who amassed 60 tackles in 2016, and Godchaux went pro early after totaling 62 stops and 6.5 sacks. The cupboard is hardly bare. Redshirt senior DE Christian LaCouture missed the season with an ACL injury, but will be back. Key. A 6-6, 238-pound athlete, was perhaps the best pass rusher in the entire league, piling up 56 tackles, 12 sacks, and 11 QB hurries on his way to All-SEC honors. But he’s on leave from the team, and while he’s expected back, LSU fans will be holding their breath until his situation is resolved.
1. Alabama: Loses — Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson. Returns — Jr. DE Da’Ron Payne
Alabama loses one of the top players in the nation in Allen, a first team All-SEC end, and Tomlinson was a solid starter on the nose. Payne (6-2, 319) is a beast off the edge who had 36 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2016. Senior end Da’Shawn Hand will also likely star. Bama does lose one star, but will likely replace him relatively well.