Ranking the SEC’s 10 best defensive ends after spring practices
The SEC lost a number of talented defensive linemen and pass rushers to the NFL this year, but not a lot of them played the defensive end position.
There were a few defensive tackles like Quinnen Williams and some EDGE rushers like Josh Allen, but not many defensive ends. What does that mean for 2019? It means there are several talented ends returning to fields throughout the southeast.
But, who is the best of the best? To me, one guy stands out above the rest.
First, though, here’s a look at who makes up the top-10 SEC defensive ends heading into the summer:
10. Nolan Smith, Georgia
No, Smith hasn’t played a single down of college football yet, but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the fact that the Bulldogs landed the No. 1 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class, and he just so happens to be a defensive end.
For a team like Georgia, which has a major need at defensive end, Smith will be given an opportunity to shine right away. If he doesn’t crack the lineup early in the season, it’ll be a disappointment.
Smith has the skill to be an elite pass rusher, so we’ll see what he can do as a true freshman this fall. If he looks good this summer, he’ll have plenty of opportunities this fall.
9. Tyree Johnson, Texas A&M
As a redshirt freshman last season, Johnson played in 12 games, but only recorded 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks. This year, though, he should have more of an opportunity to succeed.
With Kingsley Keke, Daylon Mack and Landis Durham all gone, Johnson will be counted on to step up. He was only a 3-star recruit in the 2017 class, but he could outplay his ranking as a redshirt sophomore this fall.
8. Chauncey Rivers, Mississippi State
Rivers was (understandably) overshadowed by Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons last season, but he still managed to put up some solid numbers. The one-time Georgia Bulldog recorded 24 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and three sacks in 2018.
He has the size and strength necessary to be a talented defensive end, so we’ll see this fall if he can put it all together. Plays like this need to become more common:
Chauncey Rivers and Kobe Jones (the ends) pretty clearly made up their minds that they were not going to be blocked on this down pic.twitter.com/JgJs7DJf7o
— Brett Hudson (@Brett_Hudson) November 23, 2018
He’ll be the guy on the Mississippi State defensive line this year, so it’s his time to make a name for himself.
7. LaBryan Ray, Alabama
Alabama always seems to have one defensive lineman take a huge step forward each year. Just look at what Quinnen Williams did in 2018, going from unheralded backup to the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Ray wouldn’t exactly be coming from nowhere, as he did have 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2018, but he’s looking ready for a big jump this fall. As you can see in the video below, he does have a decent swim move, but he needs to develop some other skills to become elite:
Alabama RDE LaBryan Ray (#89) vs. Mississippi State (11/10/18). #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/tv8CFgxDyL
— PFDZ (@PFDZ44) April 8, 2019
Fortunately for him, he’s playing in front of an elite group of Alabama linebackers and defensive backs, so they’ll provide plenty of opportunities for him to get after the quarterback.
6. Rashard Lawrence, LSU
Lawrence spends some of his time along the interior defensive line, but it seems as if Tyler Shelvin will man the nose tackle spot primarily this fall. With K’Lavon Chaisson manning the pass-rushing EDGE position, Lawrence should be free to play mostly the defensive end spot in the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme.
When it comes to being a 3-4 defensive end, Lawrence is ideal. At 6-3 and 315 pounds, he won’t be easy to move around, but he also has the speed to make life rough for quarterbacks.
5. DJ Wonnum, South Carolina
Coming off a season in which he only played in four games, health will be the big key for Wonnum this fall. However, if he can stay on the field, he could work his way into the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
This is a guy who recorded 57 tackles (13 for a loss) and six sacks in 2017, and with his versatility, he’s a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators. He can play inside on pass-rushing downs, outside on every other down and can even get after opposing quarterbacks from a two-point stance if need be.
4. Marlon Davidson, Auburn
It seems like Davidson has been at Auburn forever, but that’s just because he’s been a steady contributor since he was a freshman back in 2016. He’s never recorded more than three sacks in a season, though, which is very surprising.
He has enough talent to have a breakout season in 2019, and with guys like Derrick Brown and Nick Coe (see below) sharing the defensive line with him, he has no excuses this fall. The Tigers will need their star-studded defensive line to produce in a big way this year if they’re going to have a great season, and Davidson is perhaps the biggest key.
If he can approach double-digit sacks, that’s a huge boost for Auburn. If he’s down around three sacks again, it won’t be good.
3. Raekwon Davis, Alabama
Davis had an awful 2018 season by his standards. He recorded 55 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. For comparison, in 2017, he posted 69 tackles (10 for a loss) and 8.5 sacks.
He was being projected as a Round 1 pick prior to the 2018 season, but that went away quickly. This spring, though, he’s also being projected as a first-round 2020 NFL Draft pick, but he’ll have to show some major improvement and get back to his 2017 form.
Fortunately for him, he’s absolutely massive (6-7, 315 pounds) and has the skills necessary to bounce back. He should be the star on the Alabama defensive line this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does with one final opportunity.
2. Nick Coe, Auburn
Playing alongside potential top-five NFL Draft pick Derrick Brown certainly helps ensure that Coe won’t face many double-teams, but even if he does, he’s strong enough to force his way through them, as he did against Ole Miss last year:
Nick Coe fights through a double team to register his 3rd sack of the game pic.twitter.com/dgNtb5OVNc
— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) October 20, 2018
Coe had seven sacks in 2018, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit double digits this year. He could still use some refinement with some of his moves, but he has all the raw talent you want to see in a potentially elite pass rusher.
1. Jabari Zuniga, Florida
I’m a huge fan of Zuniga’s, and I expect big things from him this fall. Unlike Florida’s leading sack artist last season (Jachai Polite), Zuniga opted to return to school, and that could pay off in a huge way this year.
Zuniga had 6.5 sacks last season, but he can also disrupt opponents’ running games, too:
Left unblocked Florida DE Jabari Zuniga is able to show off his burst to get the TFL #NFLDraft #Gators pic.twitter.com/ox9K1nUYsu
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) May 30, 2019
When he’s chasing down quarterbacks, though, his athleticism really shines. Here, he pushes past a blocker and then changes directions on a dime to bring down the quarterback:
Jabari Zuniga’s first sack in the last two plays. pic.twitter.com/IkpqMB1wB8
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) September 15, 2018
He could (and should) be the SEC’s leader in sacks this year, as long as he stays healthy. Then, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zuniga hear his name called in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.