Just four SEC defenders earned a spot in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but the conference promises to send several dynamic pass rushers to the professional ranks in 2017.
Only 10 players in the SEC finished with seven or more sacks in 2015, and every single one of those players is back to terrorize opposing offensive linemen in 2016. While that’s bad news for quarterbacks and offensive linemen, the loaded conference of pass rushers will have talent evaluators drooling as they prep for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Here are the five players who promise to capture the eyes of scouts looking for players to draft in the first round next spring:
Myles Garrett (Texas A&M)
If Garrett was in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns may have been a little more willing to keep a hold on the top two picks instead of trading them to quarterback-hungry teams.
But the Aggies get the first-team All-SEC selection back for another go because true sophomores aren’t eligible to declare. His junior season will almost certainly be his last though, as there aren’t many reasons why NFL teams won’t be gaga over the pass rusher.
Athleticism? Garrett has a ton.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end reportedly ran a 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds in January 2015 and has a 40-inch vertical.
To put that kind of athleticism in perspective, Texas A&M alum Von Miller ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine with a 37-inch vertical, and he’s 14 pounds lighter than Garrett.
Those elite measurables helped lead to 24 sacks in his first two seasons in College Station and will make him a very coveted draft prospect next spring.
Draft projection: Top 5
Carl Lawson (Auburn)
Lawson is easily the least productive player on this list with just five sacks in his collegiate career, but it’s because injuries have robbed him of a chance to show off his big potential.
Four of his five sacks came three years ago, when Lawson was a true freshman at Auburn. But he missed all of the 2014 season with an ACL tear and two months of his redshirt sophomore season with a cracked hip.
Still, in his limited on the field in 2015, he showed off the special skills that some say could make him the top pass rusher in the 2017 draft class. He showed that against Ole Miss when he gave eventual first-round pick Laremy Tunsil fits (something that Myles Garrett wasn’t able to do).
Chad Kelly was able to slip out of Lawson’s grasp twice, but the pass rusher showed his ability to bend around the edge with impressive hand fighting.
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end moves around a little more than Garrett and doesn’t lack athleticism of his own. He has a 36-inch vertical and the ability to bench press 450 pounds and squat 565 pounds.
Staying healthy will be key for Lawson, but if he finally gets another full season at Auburn, he promises to finally get the production he’s plenty capable of.
Draft projection: Top 10
Tim Williams (Alabama)
In a defensive front that featured A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen, among others, it was almost easy to overlook Williams. Even when he finished third in the SEC in sacks with 10.5.
Unlike other pass rushers like Carl Lawson and Myles Garrett, who both weigh-in at 260 pounds, Williams is almost certainly a player who will play with his hand off the ground, though.
So far during his time with the Crimson Tide, he has mostly played as a third-down pass rusher and has excelled at tearing around the edge, even if he’s often lined up in a traditional lineman stance.
Williams is listed as 6-foot-4, 237 pounds and has 4.75 speed with the ability to squat 545 pounds. But in his first two seasons that athleticism translated to 1.5 sacks for the linebacker.
“Tim has always been a good pass rusher,” Nick Saban told Matt Zenitz of AL.com in October. “The biggest issue is getting him to play with the kind of discipline to do his job the way he needs to do it, and that’s the one thing he’s matured into during this year.”
Williams is as talented a sack artist at the collegiate level as any player in the SEC, but might not be quite as scheme diverse as Garrett or Lawson, and isn’t as freakishly explosive. Still, he has natural edge rushing prowess that will likely warrant a first-round selection for a team with a 3-4 defense.
Draft projection: Mid-first round
Derek Barnett (Tennessee)
In two seasons with the Vols, Barnett already has 20 sacks and 33 tackles for loss. He’s already eighth on the school’s all-time school leaderboard entering his true junior campaign, and needs 12 sacks to tie Reggie White for the school record at 32.
His impact for Tennessee is hard to overstate, and he’s made plenty of game-changing plays in his two seasons of college football. In 2014, he essentially finished off South Carolina with a third-down sack in overtime that forced a 58-yard field goal attempt that came up short.
Barnett’s motor, bend and technically sound rushing has made him a nightmare to deal with, but his testing numbers may keep him from the elite tier that Garrett and Lawson promise to reach.
Unlike other SEC pass rushers, he doesn’t win as often with burst and explosion off the line of scrimmage. His ability to dip is hard to find, but a 40-inch vertical for a 260-pound defensive end is just about impossible to find.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, Barnett reportedly had a 30-inch vertical and 4.8-4.9 speed in high school. With so many other remarkably athletic pass rushers potentially entering the 2017 NFL Draft, Barnett’s numbers may get overshadowed a bit. Although, that means a team in the latter half of the first round may luck into a player who just knows how to beat offensive tackles.
Draft projection: Late first round
Jonathan Allen (Alabama)
Allen may be the best defensive linemen of this entire group, but he won’t be coveted as an NFL prospect for his ability to tear around the edge.
While he finished with 12 sacks, just 0.5 behind Garrett for the conference lead, most of Allen’s big plays in the backfield came because he won with stunts or sheer strength.
Winning with strength is absolutely not a bad thing at all. Allen is a force in both the run and pass game because of it, and never has to come off the field, shifting to the interior of the defensive line on third downs.
But both A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed fell to the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft because run stuffing isn’t as valued as being able to beat an offensive lineman in a one-on-one pass rushing situation.
Allen may be the most well-balanced defensive end in the 2017 class, and CBS Sports ranks him as the top prospect at the position. But when freakishly athletic edge rushers inevitably forgo remaining eligibility to enter the draft, it will likely push Allen toward the latter half of the first round.
Draft projection: Late first round