Ranking the Top 25 players in the SEC for 2021
It’s not easy getting down to 25.
The SEC is the conference that can put 25 players in the first 2 rounds of the NFL Draft. It’s the conference with 7 of the past 14 Heisman Trophy winners, which is more than the Big 12, ACC and Big Ten combined. Hence, that’s why the SEC has 11 of the past 15 national champions.
Getting down to a ranking of top 25 players in this league is a bit of a challenge. How do you rank someone like Bryce Young, who entered college as a higher-rated recruit than any SEC quarterback since Justin Fields, but has yet to start a game. Or how do you rank someone like Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson, who already was a star at the Power 5 level but has yet to prove he can dominate SEC competition? Can I rank George Pickens, who has more receiving touchdowns than any player in the SEC but is out indefinitely with a torn ACL?
These are the tough questions with any preseason ranking. And any time we’re talking about ranking different position groups, it gets complicated, as well. I personally default to the guys I’ve seen do it before in this league.
For these rankings, I’ll mostly defer to the decision-making process I had for my All-SEC ballot in 2021. That is, who do I want on my team if I have to win a game played tomorrow?
Yes, that’s subjective. Yes, that’s a brutal task with how much talent is in this league.
But let’s give it a shot. Let’s also do so while highlighting their best attribute. As in, why are they on this list?
These are the top 25 players in the SEC for 2021:
25. Ainias Smith, Texas A&M WR
Why he’s here — It’s his ability to make people miss in the open field. Whether that’s taking a traditional handoff out of the backfield or putting his foot in the dirt and leaving a linebacker in the dust after a catch, Smith is exceptional at making grown men look silly. He’s going to be a nightmare matchup playing more out of the slot this year after his breakout sophomore season as a hybrid weapon.
24. Jalen Catalon, Arkansas S
Why he’s here — Because in an era when the hard-hitting safety is supposed to be eliminated, Catalon still makes plays left and right. Coverage? No problem. Slot corner? Sure. Lining up in the box and defending the run? You bet. Not only does Catalon want to stop you dead in your tracks — he’ll do it in a spring game, too — but he can cover. He was 1 of just 2 Power 5 safeties with PFF grades north of 79.0 in coverage and run defense. That’s a star.
23. Kayshon Boutte, LSU WR
Why he’s here — I’m not sure how many true freshman can be 6-0 (or smaller?) and get separation as an outside receiver. To do so in the way that Boutte did was remarkable. Once Terrace Marshall Jr. opted out, Boutte was lights out. In his last 3 games, Boutte averaged 176 receiving yards on 9 catches. The vast majority of that was with Max Johnson as his starting quarterback. In other words, there’s all sorts of potential for Boutte to be the next great LSU receiver.
22. Grant Morgan, Arkansas LB
Why he’s here — When Morgan was healthy, he was a cover machine in Barry Odom’s defense. Only Clemson’s Mike Jones (now at LSU) had a better coverage grade among Power 5 linebackers than Morgan, who delivered a team-high 111 tackles and posted one of the best individual games of any defensive player in 2021 (the one-armed bandit is an all-time nickname). Now healthy with a normal offseason, the 6th-year senior is the leader of an extremely experienced defense.
21. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss RB
Why he’s here — Versatile players like Smith and Ealy get the benefit of the doubt for me. Through 2 seasons, he already has nearly 1,800 scrimmage yards and got 19 total touchdowns (2 via kickoff returns). PFF had him as the SEC running back with the most rushing attempts without a fumble. Ealy is reliable, even as a guy who is exceptional at breaking tackles. He had the SEC’s 4th-best broken tackle rate per 25 attempts (via @CFBFilmRoom), and he had PFF’s No. 7 run grade among Power 5 backs. Ealy, if he can stay healthy, is an obvious candidate to post 1,600 yards from scrimmage and win the Paul Hornung Award.
20. Christian Harris, Alabama LB
Why he’s here — For the past 2 years, all Harris did was step in and become one of the nation’s better inside linebackers. The explosiveness allows him to shoot through gaps and get into the backfield. Harris had at least 7 tackles for loss in each of his first 2 seasons, which also saw him record 142 tackles. Again, this comes back to the versatility. We’ve seen Harris sniff out run plays at an elite level, we’ve seen him flex his pass coverage muscles (that Playoff semifinal interception was something) and we’ve seen him become the leader that the Alabama defense needed. His value goes beyond the box score.
19. Kaiir Elam, Florida CB
Why he’s here — It’s hard to say Elam was the reason for Florida’s defensive struggles. Entering 2021, the only active Power 5 corner with a better career PFF coverage grade is Derek Stingley (more on him later), and in 2 seasons, he only allowed a total of 19 plays that went for first downs or touchdowns. For someone who played 600 coverage snaps, that’s remarkable. Elam won’t get the shine of Stingley, but there’s no question he’s an exceptional outside corner.
18. Josh Jobe, Alabama CB
Why he’s here — No, he didn’t draw the assignments that Patrick Surtain did, but that should almost work in Jobe’s favor. Teams targeted him. And how did he respond?
Josh Jobe didn’t allow a single 20+ yard catch across 551 coverage snaps at Alabama last season
Top-5 CB returning in 2021 🔥 pic.twitter.com/IsMvRqYsgv
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 4, 2021
To play 844 snaps as an outside corner and still put up a number like that is quite the feat. Jobe might have to dial it back when it comes to getting flagged, but that’s the same, Jaycee Horn-like mean streak that’ll make him one of the SEC’s stars in 2021.
17. John Metchie, Alabama WR
Why he’s here — Do we know that Metchie can be a No. 1? Not yet. But that doesn’t mean his 2020 is a wash. He posted 916 receiving yards (most among SEC returners) and took over in games against Tennessee and Texas A&M. I thought the way he played in the second half against Ohio State after DeVonta Smith went down was a nice glimpse into the future. Metchie will no longer be the guy who can benefit from playing alongside Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but it’s not like he made all of his catches on coverage busts or with 5 yards of separation. Metchie should still be in for a big year, even if it isn’t on that level just yet.
16. Kevin Harris, South Carolina RB
Why he’s here — Imagine seeing all the loaded boxes that Harris saw and still producing more rushing yards than all but 1 returning tailback in America. That can’t be denied, even though the advanced metrics don’t favor Harris. On a team that lacked options to stretch the field, Harris still managed 6.2 yards per carry. Harris was bottled up by teams with better defensive lines (A&M, Georgia, Auburn), but man, he could take over a game at a moments notice. He showed that, despite what he was told throughout the recruiting process, he’s absolutely fast enough to play in this conference.
— Ray G 🏁 (@RayGQue) August 1, 2021
15. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky RB
Why he’s here — Wait, somebody who has never started a game is a top-15 player in the SEC? Yes. Nobody in the SEC in past 2 years has been better with average yards after contact than Rodriguez, and he had the highest percentage of first down/touchdown rate among SEC backs (@SEC_StatCat). Pro Football Focus had Rodriguez as the No. 2 graded back in FBS last year. Why? He averaged a casual 7 yards per carry and he had PFF’s No. 2 pass-blocking grade among Power 5 backs. Oh, and in his 6 games with double-digit carries in 2020, he averaged 114 rushing yards on 15.7 carries per contest. He’s going to be a force in Liam Coen’s offense.
14. Jordan Battle, Alabama S
Why he’s here — OK, you remember how I said Ainias Smith is elite in the open field? Now watch the A&M weapon try to get past Battle.
Great open field tackle by Jordan Battle and his teammates did not care lol pic.twitter.com/sZtP998zNF
— Big CROCKY⚡️ (@eric_crocker) February 11, 2021
Battle feels like a throwback safety. You could watch clips of him and convince yourself that it’s 1995. With a head of steam, look out. And Battle, like Catalon, can play the run and the pass at a high level. Remember that stat about Catalon as 1 of just 2 Power 5 safeties with PFF grades north of 79.0 in coverage and run defense? Battle was the other one. He’s a playmaker in every sense of the word.
13. Jordan Davis, Georgia DL
Why he’s here — Because he’s more than just an incredible interview. He’s more than just the most important run-stuffer for the nation’s top run defense. He’s more than just an unquestioned leader of a defense loaded with 5-star dudes. He’s all of that. Davis is as unselfish of a player as you’ll find. He loves taking on double teams to free up his teammates.
Jordan Davis just bench pressing everyone’s favorite Chiefs rookie😳 pic.twitter.com/XsuuKZaQWb
— Brandon Coyle / NFL Draft (@CoyleNfl) August 6, 2021
Does he have to continue to improve his conditioning so he can play more snaps? Absolutely. But Davis is an invaluable piece of Georgia’s defense, no matter what the traditional stats (tackles, TFLs, sacks, etc.) might suggest.
12. Eli Ricks, LSU CB
Why he’s here — To perform as well as Ricks did as a true freshman was no small feat, especially considering he had some incompetent coaching in an overcomplicated system. PFF had Ricks for the fewest receptions allowed among SEC corners (13) among players with at least 25-plus targets, and he had the best man coverage grade of any defensive back in America. Not a fan of those metrics? He tied for 2nd in the SEC in interceptions (4), and he had a pair of defensive touchdowns. Ricks outperformed Stingley, and he did so as a true freshman. The sky is the limit for the LSU sophomore, especially in a post-Bo Pelini world.
11. JT Daniels, Georgia QB
Why he’s here — Am I projecting a bit? Perhaps. But in the latter half of the season, how many SEC quarterbacks were better than Daniels? Once he was healthy, he was exceptional in Todd Monken’s offense. Daniels was graded as the best quarterback against the blitz last year, and he performed well against defenses that threw a lot of different looks at him. I still think his ability to process basic coverages will improve greatly. Daniels has that gear, and yes, he can improve there. He’s going to make the occasional mistake — it could be a floated deep ball or fumbling on a strip sack — but the upside is there to put up massive numbers and lead a national title contender.
10. Matt Corral, Ole Miss QB
Why he’s here — Everything I want in a quarterback, Corral has. A cannon to stretch the field? Yep. Mobility to scramble or escape pressure while keeping his eyes downfield? Got it. A mindset that no amount of interceptions is going to deter his confidence? Oh yeah. Corral took a lot of heat for 2 games. But we shouldn’t let that define someone who completed 71% of his passes. This is the first time that Corral has the same system as he did the previous year. His ability to improve against drop-8 coverage will determine his potential. But given Corral’s approach — and his honesty about that — I wouldn’t bet against him.
9. Jalen Wydermyer, Texas A&M TE
Why he’s here — I had Wydermyer as my preseason All-American tight end. Why? The guy never leaves the field. He played in 13 fewer snaps than Kellen Mond last year. That’s not supposed to happen with tight ends. Even though he isn’t an athletic freak in the same way as Arik Gilbert or Kyle Pitts are, Wydermyer has a next-level catch radius. If you don’t believe that, you didn’t watch how well he hauled in balls in traffic. He also had arguably the biggest block of the year to free up Devon Achane on that dagger touchdown in the Orange Bowl. Wydermyer is the total package and a clear TE1 in the SEC.
8. Will Anderson, Alabama LB
Why he’s here — I’m gonna be honest. Anderson was one of those guys who I thought was good during the season, but I didn’t really process just how good he was until the very end of the year and in the early part of the offseason. As a true freshman, Anderson was 3rd in the league in sacks and tackles for loss. He plays that Jack linebacker role in Nick Saban’s defense, which has him lined up at the line of scrimmage (634 snaps on the D-line compared to 5 in the box) either in a 4-point stance or a 2-point stance on either side of the ball. He harassed SEC right tackles last year with his ability to get off the ball. He was also at his best against Florida, LSU and Texas A&M, and he was exceptional in the Playoff games, as well. For my money, he’s the best returning player on a defense which could be No. 1 in all of college football in 2021.
7. Kenyon Green, Texas A&M OT
Why he’s here — Green was arguably the best offensive player on a group that nearly won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in college football. The All-American left guard dominated as a run-blocker and protecting Kellen Mond, who was only sacked 7 times in 9 SEC games. Green helped pave the way for a ground game that led the SEC in yards per carry (5.45), and he graded out as the No. 6 run-blocker among SEC guards. I’m a bit skeptical of how Green, Evan Neal and Darian Kinnard will perform in their transitions to left tackle, but I’m still optimistic on their upside as every-down players.
6. Evan Neal, Alabama OT
Why he’s here — Because any dude at 6-7, 360 pounds who can do this is worth a statue.
For the record, Evan Neal is the size of three normal sized humans and he’s doing this. 😲
— Touchdown Alabama (@TDAlabamaMag) July 13, 2021
OK, so that doesn’t exactly win championships. It does, however, show the freakish abilities of Neal, who had PFF grades north of 70 as a run-blocker and in pass-protection (only 3 total SEC guards did that). He’s playing his third position in as many years because all he does is adapt and excel. Neal was a key reason Mac Jones only took 11 sacks, and he was No. 11 among Power 5 tackles in run grade. He was credited with just 6 missed assignments all year. That’s what wins championships, and it’s also what earns you a spot on this list.
5. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky OT
Why he’s here — Here’s a telling stat about Kinnard. The only Power 5 tackles who graded as better run-blockers went in the first 40 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft, according to PFF. On top of that, Ohio State’s Thayer Munford is the only FBS tackle returning who graded better than Kinnard vs. Power 5 competition last year. Kinnard is going to be playing in a more balanced offense, which will be an adjustment. The Big Blue Wall was built on a running foundation with dudes like Kinnard who seem like a nightmare to get past in the later stages of a game. But there will still be plenty of opportunities for Kinnard to flex his run-blocking muscles and protect a new starting quarterback at a high level.
4. Treylon Burks, Arkansas WR
Why he’s here — Because he hunts hogs with a knife! No, jokes aside, Burks is here because he showed he could dominate any matchup and excel with any quarterback. He’s easily the SEC’s top returning receiver because at 6-3, 230 pounds, he can line up in the slot and catch anything thrown his way. This was as good as any catch all of last year:
Watch out for Arkansas’ Treylon Burks in 2021 👀
PFF’s WR4 next season 🔥pic.twitter.com/WWEqCJh9s4
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 27, 2021
He’s a gifted athlete who had 90-plus receiving yards in 6 of the 8 games he was actually healthy for in 2020. Big things are in store for Burks alongside potential SEC breakout quarterback KJ Jefferson, especially if Arkansas can find a new No. 2 receiver.
3. DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M DL
Why he’s here — Here’s the list of Power 5 edge defenders who had PFF grades north of 80 in pass-rushing and run-stuffing:
- DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M
- Jaelen Phillips, Miami
- Ronnie Perkins, Oklahoma
One of those guys was a first-round pick, one of those guys was a third-round pick and one of those guys is back in college. Want to guess which one Leal is? Leal is a perfect fit on Mike Elko’s defensive line because he does it all. That’s why he’s getting way-too-early love to go in the top 5 of the 2022 NFL Draft. He led A&M in hurries (8), and he was solid in the ground game for an A&M defense who ranked No. 2 in FBS against the run. Leal really came on down the stretch, as well. In his last 5 games, he had a tackle for loss every game, he had a pair of 7-tackle games, he forced a fumble against Tennessee and he ultimately was A&M’s defensive MVP. What does that mean? He’s going to see double teams galore in 2021.
2. Tank Bigsby, Auburn RB
Why he’s here — I love Tank Bigsby, and I don’t care who knows it. As a true freshman playing exclusively against All-SEC competition with a team who couldn’t throw the ball particularly well, Bigsby was a revelation. Before he had that awkward landing against Tennessee, he was PFF’s No. 3 running back in FBS. Bigsby doesn’t have the cumulative stats because in the first part of the year, Chad Morris didn’t recognize his brilliance until Week 3 and he was hobbled for a couple weeks post-Tennessee injury. But in 5 games with 15-plus carries, he averaged 130 rushing yards. Not bad at all.
His ability to break tackles (PFF had him with the No. 5 broken tackle rate in FBS) and get to the second level will make him a force, regardless of how successful Mike Bobo’s system is in Year 1. This comes down to something pretty simple. If you could start your SEC team with any offensive player, who would it be? For me, it’s Bigsby.
1. Derek Stingley, Jr, LSU CB
Why he’s here — Even though 2020 was a bit of a lost year for Stingley, the guy still turned in one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a college football defensive back in 2019. That gives him the benefit of the doubt in my book. Besides, DeVonta Smith is gone now. Relax, LSU fans. Just joking. Teams didn’t throw on Stingley much last year. He only saw 30 targets in his 7 games of action. That number should increase with the aforementioned Ricks now established as an elite corner himself. Stingley was so good in 2019 that he still has PFF’s highest coverage grade (91.3) and interceptions (4) in single coverage over the past 2 years.
This ranking would be justified even if I knew Stingley wouldn’t get an offensive snap. His ball skills, his instincts and his understanding of the game could make him as good as any player in college football in 2021.