The SDS Top 25: Ranking the SEC's best defensive players for 2019
Editor’s note: SDS Top 25 Week continues with a look at the best defensive players in the SEC. Coming Friday: Top 25 draft prospects and Top 25 freshmen in the SEC.
The SEC has finally tapped into some proliferations of modern offensive attacks, but make no mistake, this remains a defense-first conference.
Five of the top 15 scoring defenses last year hailing from the SEC is no mistake, and if you’re going to get to Atlanta and compete for titles, you better dominate on defense.
To do that, you must have good players. Sure, the Xs and Os still carry significant importance, but you gotta have the Jimmys and the Joes to really make some noise. And boy, does the SEC have talented players on defense, especially this year.
Here are the 25 best defensive players in the SEC.
25. Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia
He’s still a bit of a project (especially against the run), but his athleticism and range puts him in rarified air. He’s already an elite cover safety at this point, if the added weight he’s gained this offseason helps him against the run, he’ll contend for All-SEC honors.
24. Kash Daniel, LB, Kentucky
The fiery leader remains the heart and soul of what should be another stout UK defense. He’s their leading returning tackler (84, including 7.5 TFL’s last year). With Josh Allen gone, look for Daniel to improve on both numbers as a senior.
23. Noah Igbinoghene, CB, Auburn
The former receiver – who moonlights as a track star in the offseason – has smoothly and successfully made the move to cornerback. He was tied for 3rd in the SEC with 11 passes defended and also averaged 28.3 yards per kick return, taking one back to the house.
22. T.J. Brunson, LB, South Carolina
He was a tackling machine last year, piling up 106 tackles, 10.5 TFLs and 4 sacks – leading the Gamecocks in each category. He arrived as a 3-star recruit, but Brunson has really emerged as a reliable playmaker who can enforce and disrupt plays between the tackles.
21. J.R. Reed, S, Georgia
His numbers regressed slightly last year after a terrific 2017, but he played very well down the stretch and was arguably Georgia’s best defensive player by the end of the year. He shows a lot of polish with his reads and is a reliable tackler.
20. LaBryan Ray, DE, Alabama
I’m not saying he’s necessarily going to have a Quinnen Williams-level of coming out party in 2019, but the former 5-star recruit is going to really surprise some people as a junior. He’s already a top-notch run defender and is underrated as a pass rusher with his length and natural power.
19. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
Fulton was arguably the most consistent corner LSU had last year, even with the presence of All-American Greedy Williams. He’s physical in press and isn’t afraid to tackle – two highly endearing traits for cornerbacks in the modern game.
18. Erroll Thompson, LB, Mississippi State
On a defense that featured 3 first-round draft picks, Thompson was 2nd in tackles (87), 3rd in TFLs (10) and sacks (4), and tied for the most INTs (2). With a bevy of starters to replace, they need his leadership and playmaking ability now more than ever.
17. Rashard Lawrence, DT, LSU
Lawrence enjoyed a breakout season last year as a junior, finishing 2nd on the team in TFLs (10) and sacks (4). At 6-3, 310 pounds, he has the power to anchor against the run and the quickness to get upfield and rush the passer.
16. Christian Holmes, CB, Mizzou
Much of the attention goes to his running mate opposite of him (DeMarkus Acy), but Holmes is the more consistent of the two, and was 2nd in the SEC with 12 passes defended last year. Turning some of those PDs into INTs could put the 6-1, 200-pound redshirt junior in All-American consideration.
15. Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina
The 6-6, 305-pounder has prototypical length and impressive burst off the ball, constantly putting him in position to make plays in the backfield. With T.J. Brunson returning and D.J. Wonnum coming back healthy, Kinlaw will either see single blocks or create them for his teammates.
14. Anfernee Jennings, Edge, Alabama
After two years of flashing his ability while battling injuries, Jennings finally put together a healthy campaign as a junior, finishing with 50 tackles, 13 TFLs, 5.5 sacks and 11 passes defended. He has a nice combination of twitch and power at the point of attack.
13. Darrell Taylor, Edge, Tennessee
The former 4-star prospect finally came out of his shell last year under first year HC Jeremy Pruitt, leading the team in TFLs (11), sacks (8), forced (3) and recovered (2) fumbles. He’s a smooth athlete with explosiveness and lateral quickness who is also steadily improving his drops in coverage.
12. Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
No longer just the thumping enforcer against the run, McKinney has steadily improved his coverage skills to become more of a complete safety. Coming off a season in which he had 74 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 FFs and 10 passes defended, he might just be scratching the surface of his potential.
11. Cam Dantzler, CB, Mississippi State
Lean and rangy at 6-2, 185, Dantzler has the long arms to disrupt passing windows and the fluid hips and recovery speed to stick to the inside hip of his man. His coach, Terrell Buckley (a former Thorpe Award winner and first-round pick who spent 13 years in the NFL), said he’s the best corner in the country.
10. De’Jon Harris, LB, Arkansas
No returning player in the SEC has averaged more tackles per game over the past 2 years than Harris (9.7). Over the past 24 games, Harris has racked up 233 tackles, 17.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, earning All-SEC honors in 2017 and 2018.
9. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Moses is the ideal middle linebacker in the modern game who is stout against the run, but also has the athleticism and range to cover backs and TEs and play sideline-to-sideline. With Mack Wilson off to the NFL, Moses now gets his chance to call the defense and prove his leadership.
8. Jabari Zuniga, Edge, Florida
Despite being overshadowed at times over the past 3 years, Zuniga is actually the SEC’s active career sacks leader with 15.5. The 6-4, 260-pounder has always shown burst and explosiveness, but now he’s able to convert speed to power and more effectively use his hands to get off blocks instead of just always relying on athleticism.
7. Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
Diggs was playing his way into first-round consideration last year before breaking his foot halfway through the season. Assuming Diggs makes a complete recovery (foot injuries tend to linger), he has the size (6-2/207), speed and playmaking ability to be a high impact playmaker this fall.
6. Nick Coe, Edge, Auburn
Want to see Coe’s potential as a disruptive force up front? Pull up last year’s game against Ole Miss, a game he racked up 3.5 sacks while toying with OT Greg Little, who was a second-round draft pick this spring. The 6-5, 291-pounder has the size and power of an interior linemen and the athleticism to play off the edge.
5. Justin Madubuike, DT, Texas A&M
There might not be a better interior pass rusher in the SEC this fall than the 6-3, 304-pound Madubuike, who was recruited as a DE. In all honesty, I see shades of Gerald McCoy circa 2008 in his game with his ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage and get in opposing backfields.
4. Raekwon Davis, DT, Alabama
Strictly speaking on his natural tools – length (6-7/312), power, lateral quickness, twitch and explosiveness – there might not be a more physically gifted defensive lineman in the country. However, he took a step backward last year after an All-American-caliber campaign as a sophomore, and needs to bounce back with a strong senior season.
3. C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Henderson is arguably the best cornerback eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft class heading into his junior season. He has always been a wet blanket in man coverage, and now that he has taken strides to improve his run defense and ability to blitz off the edge, he’s rounded into a more complete player.
2. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
At 6-5, 325 pounds, Brown is blessed with a rare combination of size and athleticism, as he has proven not only to be a consistent force against the run, but he’s steadily improved his pass rushing prowess to become a nightmare to block 1-on-1. After turning down first-round dollars last spring, Brown returns to create more havoc on SEC offensive lines.
1. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Pound for pound the best player in the country in my opinion, and a guy who is as versatile and complete of a defensive weapon we’ve seen recently. Imagine if Tyrann Mathieu were bigger, faster and stronger – that’s what you have with Delpit, who racked up 74 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 5 INTs and 9 passes defended last season. He can play man (press or off) and zone coverage, stop the run, pressure the QB and drop deep into a single high centerfield look – all while being able to line up virtually anywhere.