Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Top 25 week continues with the ranking of the best defensive players in the SEC.

If there’s a trend in the SEC in a year like this one, it’s that the linebacker position is absolutely loaded. I cannot emphasize that enough. If you’re an SEC linebacker and you earn first-team all-conference honors at season’s end, take a bow.

That’s the theme, but that’s not to say the other positions are lacking. Shoot, you could make a case that the best defensive player in the country is from the SEC and he’s not a linebacker. On second thought, that’s the only case (I don’t care if that’s a spoiler).

On the defensive line, there’s some projecting, sure. The SEC lost a ton of defensive line talent to the NFL. That’s no secret. Auburn alone lost 2 generational talents up front.

But for the most part, I base these rankings on who I’d most want to have on my team if they had to play a game tomorrow. That might not always catch all of the breakout candidates. I admit that.

I also don’t list grad transfers like Jabril Cox because if we’re going to say someone is an elite SEC player, I’d rather make that judgment based on what I’ve seen them do against SEC competition. Fair enough?

These are the SEC’s top 25 defensive players heading into 2020:

25. Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State LB

I know. I have no idea how Thompson still has eligibility left, either. It feels like he’s been making plays in the middle of the MSU defense since Dak Prescott was there. Thompson was asked to do a lot in Bob Shoop’s defense. The guy has 217 career tackles and 18 tackles for loss. His cover skills were underrated with so much NFL Draft talent around him (people forget that MSU had 7 defensive players drafted in the last 2 years. That’s wild. Thompson could’ve been No. 8 had he left school early, but he returned to take over Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense.

24. Tyree Gillespie, Mizzou S

Despite the fact that I have plenty of questions about the Tigers’ defense in the post-Barry Odom era, the casual fan might be surprised that there are 3 Mizzou players on this list. Gillespie is the first after a year in which he posted 50 tackles, 4 of which were for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble. He also defended 7 passes last year, which was a big reason why he was graded as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 returning safety in the conference behind only Richard LeCounte. The senior defensive back was huge for a Mizzou defense that quietly finished No. 16 in scoring in 2019. If that defense is going to avoid a step back without Odom, it’ll be because guys like Gillespie turn into first-team All-SEC players.

23. Shawn Davis, Florida S

Without question, Florida’s secondary has produced some studs during the Playoff era. There are actually multiple Florida defensive backs on this list. But I’m not sure how many of them could make this look so easy like Davis did:

He was huge in that Kentucky win with multiple interceptions, and his 51 tackles last season was a solid mark as well. But Davis’ presence isn’t simply about filling up a stat sheet. He seemed to have a knack for coming up with a huge play in key moments of tight games. Whether it was Miami, Kentucky or Auburn, Davis was always ready to make a momentum-shifting play. The senior’s return was crucial for a defense that has some big-time pieces to replace. But go figure that a Florida secondary who lost top-10 pick C.J. Henderson should actually be even better this year.

22. Kobie Whiteside, Mizzou DL

If you asked the question, “which SEC returners had the most sacks last year,” I bet few would name Whiteside and Boogie Watson. But that would be the correct answer. Whiteside’s emergence was needed for a Mizzou defense that did all the heavy lifting in the latter half of 2019. That’s not bad for an interior defensive lineman who started for the first time in 2019. Like Nick Bolton, whom I’ll get to later, Mizzou’s habit of finding overlooked recruits in Texas and turning them into studs appears to have continued with Whiteside. And hey, it doesn’t hurt that his new coach said “he has the body of a Greek god.”

21. Zachary Carter, Florida DL

Who will emerge in Todd Grantham’s front 7 after losing the likes of Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga? Well, there are plenty of candidates. Mohamoud Diabate, Jeremiah Moon and Brenton Cox are all worthy candidates. But Carter flashed that potential already in 2019. He had 7 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks rushing off the edge in Year 3 in Gainesville. And again, that was with a loaded group ahead of him. Now, after waiting patiently, Carter is going to have more snaps to harass SEC offensive lines. Something tells me he’ll be plenty inspired this year, too:

20. Bobby Brown, Texas A&M DL

I might not be quite as high on Brown as others — the league’s sports information directors voted him the top defensive lineman returning in the SEC — but I’m still a fan of what he can do as a run-stopping interior defender in Mike Elko’s defense. A&M had a top-30 run defense and allowed just 13 rushing scores. Christian Barmore is the only higher-graded returning SEC defensive tackle (PFF). Of course, he’ll be expected to take on a bigger role — and more double teams — after the loss of the underrated Justin Madubuike. Brown is ready for that.

19. Big Kat Bryant, Auburn DE

Not only is Big Kat Bryant an annual all-name team selection, but he also has All-SEC potential in Kevin Steele’s defense. He hasn’t necessarily dominated yet, but his playing time was limited because of Auburn’s generational defensive line led by Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. With those guys and Nick Coe gone, Bryant is going to get every opportunity to become the next great Auburn defensive lineman. His 9 quarterback hurries will absolutely spike, as will those pedestrian sack numbers. The ability is there, and now, so is the opportunity.

18. Demani Richardson, Texas A&M S

Yes, it’s a good sign that a true freshman defensive back had 71 tackles. If a true freshman is starting for an above-average SEC team, that’s also usually a good sign. You know what else is a good sign? When your first career interception comes off fooling Tua Tagovailoa:

Certainly Richardson thrived helping out in the run game in Mike Elko’s defense. That’s exactly the type of player he wants on the back end of his defense. Richardson, who reportedly added some size this offseason, is going to lock down the safety position as long as he’s in College Station. A big Year 2 is ahead.

17. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina CB

A strong, physical corner who isn’t afraid to make a hit on the open field, Horn is entering his third year as a key piece of Will Muschamp’s defense. In 1,426 career snaps, Horn has only allowed 2 touchdowns. He has 17 career pass breakups to go with his 6 tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles. No, he doesn’t have an interception yet. Don’t get hung up on that. Making plays like these against elite receivers are why he’s one of the league’s best cover corners:

Give me a guy who can make that play instead of trying to intercept every pass. Muschamp has his best secondary yet, and Horn is a huge reason that’s the case.

16. Malik Herring, Georgia DL

Herring, like many of his Georgia teammates on this list, might not have lit up the stat sheet in 2019, but don’t downplay his impact. Nick Bolton is the only returning SEC defender who graded higher than Herring last year (PFF). Why? At 280 pounds, Herring showed that he can get pressure on SEC quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus had him charted for 41 career pressures and a win rate of 16.1%, which is insanely good. He’d be even higher on this list if he had played more than 488 career snaps. But yeah, the guy with 1 career missed tackle is an important piece of Georgia’s No. 1 run defense and No. 1 overall defense.

15. LaBryan Ray, Alabama LB

It’s a shame that Ray suffered that late-September injury. Coming off a 2018 season in which he had 5.5 tackles for a loss, I thought he flashed that breakout potential in the limited action we saw from him in 2019 before he got hurt against South Carolina. Shoot, even in that South Carolina game he hurt people. This is just … I don’t know, man:

Sadarius Hutcherson is no slouch, either. He was a 3-year starter and Ray tossed him like a rag doll. That’s why Alabama fans are excited to see what he can do now that he’s healthy. He’s the versatile, destructive defensive end who should thrive working alongside someone like Christian Barmore. If not for that injury, Ray would be even higher on this list.

14. Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee LB

I was trying to find this and I couldn’t: How many Power 5 teams that have a winning conference record with a top-30 defense can claim that their leading tackler was … a true freshman? Tennessee can thanks to the stud young linebacker. To’o To’o put on some size this offseason, as well. There’s reason to think that a guy who started with 72 tackles is only going to improve those instincts. The freshman All-American would have been a candidate to hit the 100-tackle mark with a 12-game regular season, but if what we saw last year was any indication, we probably shouldn’t rule that out in a 10-game schedule, either.

13. Boogie Watson, Kentucky LB

One of the many all-name team selections is also an elite SEC defender. A late-bloomer, Watson is. He’s coming off a redshirt junior season in which he had 11.5 tackles for loss (6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles) for a Kentucky defense that finished No. 14 in FBS in 2019. No returning SEC player had more sacks than Watson last year. That didn’t even include his team-best 7 quarterback hurries. It’s not surprising that he’s the SEC’s highest-graded returning pass-rusher, according to PFF. Watson’s new mark to hit? Cap off his career like Josh Allen did.

12. Christian Barmore, Alabama DT

Is part of this based on his breakout potential? Sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have visions of Quinnen Williams with someone as versatile as Barmore at the defensive tackle position. We didn’t get a ton of Barmore last year (1 start), but the results were telling. Pro Football Focus had him graded as an 88.1 on pass-rushing and an 83 against the run. Again, the versatility. Six tackles for loss with 5 quarterback pressures in such limited work was a darn impressive feat from that position. Entering Year 3, the best is yet to come from Barmore now that he’ll be in a more full-time role.

11. Jordan Davis, Georgia DL

Georgia’s “no-name defense” is loaded with guys like Davis who might not fill up the stat sheet, but they certainly make their presence felt. At 330 pounds, Davis’ ability to get off blocks is why Georgia fans can’t wait to see him healthy in Kirby Smart’s defense in 2020. Davis takes on blocks and frees up his teammates in a way that allows players like Monty Rice and Azeez Ojulari to get downhill. He’s never going to have gaudy numbers for that reason, and because he probably won’t play more than a couple dozen snaps per game. Georgia doesn’t lead the nation in run defense and allow 2 rushing scores in 2019 without Davis.

10. Monty Rice, Georgia LB

I could have gone with Azeez Ojulari here, and I know Georgia fans are excited about Nakobe Dean. Both of those guys could be here by season’s end, but I went with Rice in part because he was the leading tackler for the nation’s No. 1 defense. Rice is as sure a tackler as there is in the conference, and he graded as the No. 4 Power 5 pass-rusher over the past 2 seasons. He might not make the flashiest of plays, but when you watch how disciplined Georgia’s “no-name defense” is, you clearly see Rice’s impact. You could make a case that he’s the most valuable piece of that defense, and that includes Richard LeCounte (more on him later).

You can’t teach these instincts:

9. Kaiir Elam, Florida CB

No, I don’t think that Elam got the credit he deserved last year. Yes, I do think Derek Stingley’s emergence was a big part of that. It probably didn’t help that C.J. Henderson was a top-1o pick who often started ahead of Elam, who only played 310 snaps (via PFF). That’s why he’s not ranked higher than a few other corners that I’ll get to in a minute. But don’t get it twisted. Elam is already true lockdown corner. He allowed just 5 first downs all of last year, and he finished with PFF’s 4th-best season by an SEC true freshman corner since 2014. The ball skills are already there (3 interceptions, 4 pass breakups), which is why Florida fans are fired up about his next 2 seasons in Gainesville.

8. Eric Stokes, Georgia CB

I have a lot of respect for a 3-star guy who finds a way to play for a defense that’s loaded with blue-chip recruits. Stokes is that guy. There’s a reason Kirby Smart can’t keep him off the field. A disciplined, competitive lockdown corner, Stokes showed his value in a major way last year. He only allowed 1 touchdown and quarterbacks had a 48.4% completion percentage when targeting him (PFF). That’s what elite corners do. He might not be a former 5-star recruit with NFL bloodlines like Derek Stingley Jr. or Patrick Surtain II, but make no mistake, Stokes is plenty capable of consistently shutting down No. 1 SEC wideouts. Don’t let the lack of interceptions fool you.

7. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama CB

As someone who was critical of Surtain as a true freshman, especially after his struggles against Oklahoma, I thought he settled into his role much better as a sophomore. He had 8 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions and he recovered a fumble. Surtain flashed that pro potential for an Alabama pass defense that somewhat quietly finished No. 1 in Power 5 in turnovers forced per game. Surtain was a big part of that. He’ll undoubtedly benefit from what should be a healthier, more experienced group of pass-rushers in Alabama’s front 7. That first-round buzz will follow Surtain all season.

6. K.J. Britt, Auburn LB

The linebacker position is loaded in the SEC in 2020, and Britt is a major reason that’s the case. He’s the best returning defender in Kevin Steele’s defense after a year in which the run-stuffing extraordinaire racked up double-digit tackles for loss as a first-time starter. Do I have questions if it’ll be more difficult to play that position without Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown taking on double teams up front? Absolutely. But I trust Britt’s instincts and Steele’s ability to confuse offensive fronts for that production not to take a dip.

5. JaCoby Stevens, LSU S

LSU’s most important “I’m staying in school” announcement was Stevens. Granted, there weren’t a ton of those in Baton Rouge. Nevertheless, Stevens is the leader of that group. He might not have the upside of an Isaiah Simmons, but in terms of trusting a guy to make plays regardless of where he lines up, Stevens is that guy. He’s coming off a year in which he had 85 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and 3 interceptions. One has to think that Bo Pelini is going to maximize that versatility as much as possible, especially for a unit that has some major turnover on the back end. Pelini said NFL teams will be “getting in line” to draft Stevens because of how many things he can do. A big year is ahead for the LSU senior.

4. Richard LeCounte, Georgia S

Yeah, we’re in the “these teams are extremely lucky that these guys returned” part of the list. Georgia is certainly glad to not have to replace both J.R. Reed and LeCounte. The preseason All-American had 4 interceptions (2nd in SEC), 3 fumble recoveries (T-1st in SEC) and he forced 2 fumbles for the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation. Oh, and he defended 7 passes and had 61 tackles, 4.5 of which were for a loss. Stat-sheet stuffer, leader, game-changer, etc. LeCounte has instincts that you can’t teach. Last year was truly a breakout season, and while it might have made sense for him to ride his 2-interception Sugar Bowl performance into the sunset, LeCounte would rather cap his college career by leading Georgia to a national title. Certainly he’s got a legitimate shot to do that.

3. Dylan Moses, Alabama LB

Alabama missed Moses badly last year. His season-ending injury last August was a tough pill to swallow considering how good he was as a sophomore and how much he was relied on to be the quarterback of Alabama’s defense. As a result, the Crimson Tide had many more moments than usual in which they struggled against the run, and veterans like Terrell Lewis said that communication wasn’t at the level it needed to be. But now, Moses is back to pick up where he left off in 2018 when he led Alabama in tackles. He’s the alpha that group needs. Moses’ ability to work sideline to sideline is why he’ll have Round 1 buzz all year, but more importantly, it’s the biggest reason Alabama’s defense should return to form. The only reason he isn’t the top linebacker listed is because he’s coming off a major injury.

2. Nick Bolton, Mizzou LB

Yes, I believe Bolton is the best returning linebacker in the conference. Yes, I slept on him for far too long. I can admit that. I can also admit that it took me rewatching him make plays like this to realize just how special he was:

And before you tell me his tackling form was sloppy because he didn’t wrap up, make note of the fact that he had 107 tackles in 12 games, which led all SEC players in the regular season. By the way, he’s elite in coverage, too. Who cares if Bolton is only 5-11? Well, I suppose Mizzou does because that’s why the big Texas schools passed on him. His instincts are already at an All-American level. He had 12 more run stops than the next-closest returning SEC defender (ESPN), he’s the highest-graded returning SEC linebacker in coverage (PFF) and he and Micah Parsons were the only 2 Power 5 linebackers who earned a 90-plus grade last year. Don’t be like me and sleep on Bolton for far too long.

1. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU CB

Yes, Alabama fans. Stingley allowed those big plays to DeVonta Smith (one of which was when he was looking to the sideline when the ball was snapped). More than a few plays factored into these rankings. For those who were willing to look beyond that, they saw Stingley do a LeBron James thing. That is, enter with massive expectations as the homegrown, can’t-miss player … and somehow exceed those expectations immediately. We don’t often see true freshmen start as SEC corners, much less become first-team All-Americans. Stingley was No. 2 in FBS with 21 passes defended, and he led the SEC with 6 interceptions.

There are a few things about Stingley that scream “special talent,” especially when you see him in person. One is that in the rare instance that he makes a mistake, he bounces back (just like that interception after he muffed a punt earlier in the Auburn game and with that game-ceiling interception following Van Jefferson’s success against him in the Florida game). He understands the importance of making the right play, and not necessarily the flashiest play, though you wouldn’t realize that by looking at his numbers. Pro Football Focus graded Stingley as the most valuable non-quarterback since they started grading college players. Even if his interception numbers inevitably take a hit with teams avoiding him, don’t assume that means he’s regressing. Stingley could finish his career as the best cornerback in SEC history. I wouldn’t bet against that.