Saturday Down South's SEC Player Value Rankings: Part I (Nos. 50-31)
Part I: Nos. 50-31
By John Crist
It doesn’t take much clicking around to find a fresh “Top 50 Players in the SEC” story this time of year.
With a few weeks still left before Media Days next month, nothing fills a big content void faster than yet another list that can be gratuitously discussed among 14 fan bases in a comments section for days on end.
But we wanted to take a different spin on the subject and do something you likely haven’t seen elsewhere.
What if you were building a new football roster from scratch? What if you had to consider not only what a player can do for you this season, but perhaps another season or two — maybe even three — down the road?
LSU junior running back Leonard Fournette is the “best” player in the league by most reasonable measures.
However, despite having two years of eligibility left, he’s surely declaring early for the NFL Draft after the 2016 campaign. Fournette will help you win this year, but then next year he leaves a tremendous void.
Is it possible Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, with his unlimited potential, is more “valuable?”
(Please, let’s put aside the “if he stays healthy” argument. It’s football. That’s the case for everyone.)
It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, Fournette is a shoe-in to challenge for the Heisman Trophy this season. Eason may not even start if the ‘Dogs go conservative and stick with senior Greyson Lambert.
Still, even if Eason takes awhile to develop, it’s fair to foresee him making two or three All-SEC teams.
When you factor in the various positions, some of which are valued quite differently from coach to coach, the debate gets much more nuanced. This isn’t basketball, where you can just throw five guys on the floor.
All things being equal, is a sophomore linebacker more desirable than a junior pass rusher? Or vice versa?
Value also varies greatly from school to school. Even if a front-seven defender at Alabama is a possible first-rounder, chances are there’s another possible first-rounder behind him on the depth chart.
Conversely, a potential third-round cornerback at a program like Kentucky might be just about irreplaceable.
There are many traits to consider. Pure talent, of course. Potential, naturally. Production matters, too. Eligibility left must play a part. So does the depth chart and each team’s ability to replace said player.
Anybody can do a Top 50. But we wanted to give you something more. “Value” is in the eyes of the beholder.
MISSING THE CUT
Clearly the best defender in Columbia and an All-SEC selection from a year ago, he’ll sit out the entire 2016 campaign with a herniated disc in his neck. He’s eligible to return in 2017 but might have played his final game in garnet and black.
Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson are fantastic players, particularly Allen, but this is a program that just had Reggie Ragland, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed go in Round 2 of the NFL Draft. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has so many four- and five-star kids waiting in the wings, especially on defense, all of the seniors appear to be replaceable.
The leading tackler and sack man in Starkville, he filled up the stat sheet on a bad defense this past season and only has one year of eligibility left for a team that might finish last in the SEC West.
Texas A&M DE Daeshon Hall (Sr.)
Wise had a flurry of sacks last November but didn’t do much the first two months of the year. Four of Hall’s seven sacks came in the season opener against Arizona State, plus he hardly ever faces a double team with Myles Garrett on the other side of the formation.
A quality defensive back, to be sure, but having two lockdown corners in Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor — not to mention eventual first-rounder Keanu Neal at the other safety — this past season surely made his job a bit easier.
Missouri QB Drew Lock (So.)
Both were pushed into action as freshmen with Patrick Towles and Maty Mauk failing to live up to expectations for the Wildcats and Tigers, respectively — Towles on the field, Mauk off the field. Neither Barker nor Lock did much with his initial opportunity, though.
He’s a reliable target, plus receivers Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core are both a memory now, but Engram actually made fewer big plays with Chad Kelly at the controls in 2015.
Arkansas WR Drew Morgan (Sr.)
Ross no longer has face-of-the-program Dak Prescott throwing him the ball, just like Morgan has to adjust from the experienced Brandon Allen to the inexperienced Austin Allen. Don’t expect either to be as productive in 2016.
While he’s an all-conference pick as a punt returner, as a defensive back he doesn’t get his hands on enough passes.
Until the Tigers develop a more consistent passing game to complement Fournette on the ground, this gifted athlete will spend too much time blocking downfield instead of catching passes.
When the Razorbacks are really humming offensively, the play-action pass plays a huge role. Sprinkle flashed at times in 2015 as the secondary tight end alongside All-American Hunter Henry. With Henry now in the NFL and the offense transitioning from the older Allen to the younger Allen, Sprinkle should be a welcome security blanket for his new QB.
An Under Armour All-American in high school and five-star prospect across all the recruiting services, we’re still waiting for Carter to live up to his potential. Somehow, the 6-foot-6, 242-pounder didn’t have a single tackle for loss this past season. Perhaps new coach Kirby Smart can unlock the beast within Carter, who is swimming curiously close to bust waters.
With former Alabama center Ryan Kelly no longer in Tuscaloosa, Toth can state his case as the premier center in the SEC. His leadership along the offensive line will be critical to the development of Barker in the passing game and production of Stanley “Boom” Williams in the running game.
The consensus No. 1 defensive end prospect for the class of 2015, Cowart didn’t make much of an impact as a freshman playing for former coordinator Will Muschamp. It’ll be up to Kevin Steele to get more out of this 6-foot-3, 276-pound mass of possibilities. If Cowart is only responsible for six tackles again this season, then the recruiting sites really got this one wrong.
While the Commodores’ front seven is headlined by do-everything linebacker Zach Cunningham, Burks is the most vital member of Vandy’s secondary. An All-SEC performer both on the field and in the classroom, he should continue to be a stabilizing force on the back end for the next two years.
Considering how atrocious Mizzou was on offense last year, Fatony had more than enough opportunities to show off his leg strength as a freshman. Averaging 42.9 yards on 81 punts and launching one of at least 60 yards in three games, the Tigers have this aspect of their special teams sewn up through 2018.
The top offensive tackle recruit in the country in 2015, Ivey settled in at left guard for the Gators as a first-year player. Florida likely won’t field a senior along the O-line this season, but Ivey was a member of the SEC’s all-freshman squad and probably has the most upside going forward.
The first true freshman to make the list, meaning he’s still yet to take his initial snap as a collegian, Brown was the SEC’s top-rated defensive signee for the class of 2016. If the Tigers are going to turn it around defensively, then the inside-outside combination of Brown and Cowart needs to live up to its billing.
One of the top interception artists in the conference, Wilson earned an All-SEC nod this past season thanks to his five picks — one of which he returned 60 yards for a touchdown. If Garrett and Hall and continue to terrorize quarterbacks in College Station, he’ll have plenty of opportunities for more INTs.
A second-team all-conference choice a year ago, Smith is one of the few sure things offensively for the Tigers right now. But who he’ll be protecting in the pocket — Jeremy Johnson? Sean White? John Franklins III? — is still anyone’s guess.
Watching the Gators in the kicking game this past year was excruciating. The fact that coach Jim McElwain held a tryout on campus to find another kicker — he settled on a dental student who hadn’t kicked since high school — was one of the strangest stories of the season. Pineiro, a YouTube sensation, has a monster leg and drilled a pair of 50-yarders in the spring game to the delight of the orange-and-blue faithful.
More potential than production for much of his career, Howard never found the end zone for the longest time. But then he was the star of Alabama’s win over Clemson in the national championship game, catching five passes for 208 yards and two scores. With Calvin Ridley so dangerous downfield, Howard is a mismatch underneath for linebackers and safeties.
Another member of the SEC’s all-freshman team from a year ago, Brady had a four-game stretch in September and October that resulted in six sacks. While he faded a bit in November rushing the passer, he closed the season with five tackles vs. Tennessee and five more at Arkansas.
Few programs have produced more NFL-ready defensive backs than the one in Baton Rouge. In addition to his four interceptions last year, Adams also posted double-digit tackles in consecutive games. While the first one was at home vs. Western Kentucky, the second was on the road against ‘Bama.
Beckner, a five-star recruit for 2015, turned down offers from the likes of Florida State, Ohio State and USC to stay closer to home. He recorded four or more tackles in five games as a true freshman, which is quality work from the interior of the defensive line. However, Beckner has some issues on and off the field, as he tore up his knee in November and then got suspended following an arrest for marijuana possession in January.
It was a chaotic offseason for the Aggies at the game’s most important position, as both Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred and then 2017 recruit Tate Martell decommitted shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t too long ago when Knight was starting at Oklahoma and tearing up the Tide in the Sugar Bowl. If coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone can work their magic with Knight, he could put up huge numbers with all those receiving targets.
While Fournette averaged a spectacular 6.5 yards per carry last year, Guice averaged an eye-popping 8.5 in a reserve role as a freshman. Fournette may be a junior, but this is surely his final season on the bayou. And if Fournette were to get injured, heaven forbid, Guice likely steps right in and shines.
Much like Saban, his mentor, Smart knows defensive backs. Sanders, coming off a six-INT showing in Athens, should carry on as a ballhawk on the back end for the Bulldogs.
Berry had just one interception this past season, although he did return it 100 yards for a touchdown in Tennessee’s 45-6 beatdown of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. It’s that kind of game-breaking ability that makes Berry an All-SEC choice as a kick returner (three TDs), too.
Key got off to a bit of a slow start as a freshman, but he really started to turn the corner in November. He registered at least one sack against Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M, plus the 6-foot-6, 231-pounder also had a season-high eight tackles vs. the Aggies. The Tigers can expect big things from Key for the next two years at least.
Be on the lookout for Part II, which will cover Nos. 30-11, on Monday.