After looking at the SEC’s “All-Tape” offense it’s time to move to the defensive side of the ball.
Remember, these aren’t necessarily the best players at each position, they’re ones who are intriguing schematically, consistently make “wow” plays or are just fun to watch.
Charles Harris, Edge, Missouri
Harris has the most positional and scheme versatility of any edge player in the conference. Just seeing where he aligns pre-snap and what his assignment is post-snap is a fascinating sub-plot to every Mizzou game.
As a pure edge rusher, Harris is a tick below the likes of Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. However, unlike most college linemen, he has shown the ability to read and react in a two-gap system or cut it loose in a one-gap scheme. Positionally, he is equally as versatile; lining up with his hand on the ground or standing up as a linebacker, all over the defensive front.
Missouri has shifted its system, with linemen sitting and reading more than they used to. It’s an odd choice given the success that the program has had along its defensive line, and the skill-set of Harris, the team’s best player. But he has continued to thrive, showcasing skills that few other pass-rushers in the country have been able to display.
Adam Butler, DL, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt has interesting players at every level of its defense, with Butler being the top player along its line.
Butler is a disruptive interior rusher, who can kick outside and rush off the edge. He might not be a household name, but has the first-step quickness, power, and talent to play on Sundays. He was dominant in Vanderbilt’s game vs. Florida, consistently beating linemen off the snap and penetrating the backfield, while moving all over the defensive front.
Terry Beckner Jr., DL, Missouri
Beckner hasn’t fully recovered from an ACL tear sustained 11 months ago. In fact, he often doesn’t even start in Mizzou’s base defense. But whenever he’s on the field it’s must-watch TV, not something you often say for an interior defensive player. His first step explosiveness and overwhelming power at the point of attack make him a menace. His motor isn’t quite where you would want it to be but he flashes in every game, making a number of “wow” plays.
Derek Barnett, Edge, Tennessee
This second edge position could go to any number of players. For me, Myles Garrett is the best player in the nation and the best pass -rusher in the SEC. However, I wanted to use this space to discuss just how impressive Barnett has been.
Barnett’s performances have been so dominant, particularly at big moments in close games, that he really should be in the Heisman discussion.
What’s interesting is that Barnett was not as disruptive in the first two games of the season, when he lined up strictly as a left side defensive end. As Tennessee has got more creative with where he lines up, and what he’s asked to do – including being both the crasher, and point man on stunts – his impact and production have increased.
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
It feels like every year you can slot an Alabama inside linebacker into this team. From Rolando McClain, to Dont’a Hightower, CJ Mosley, and Reggie Ragland, the Tide churns out elite sideline-to-sideline linebackers.
Foster is the best linebacker in the country, lining up in the middle of the nation’s best defense.
Unlike former Crimson Tide linebackers, he doesn’t have great instincts. Instead, he makes up for it with great athletic ability, closing speed, and by delivering thunderous hits.
This shot – delivered to Southern Cal’s Justin Davis – was a bone-crusher.
But beyond the hit, you see his ability to diagnose, getting downhill and meeting the running back at the point of attack. Foster’s athleticism and skills in space jump off the screen each week. On a defense loaded with future NFL draft picks, Foster has impressed the most.
Oren Burks, LB, Vanderbilt
Burks’ teammate Zach Cunningham is the better player and is equally fun. However, Burks brings a different level of intrigue on each play through his pre-snap alignment.
In a single game, you will see him line up as an inside linebacker, down lineman, covering in the slot, and playing deep in center field.
We are now in the age of hybrid and position-less defensive chess pieces, and few players in the SEC embody that as much as Burks.
Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida
Bonus points go to Anzalone for having far and away the best helmet hair in the conference.
Anzalone is a fun player to watch. He plays with reckless abandon. His first-quarter performance against Kentucky was nothing short of amazing.
Lining up alongside future first-round NFL pick Jarrad Davis is clearly a big help. It allows Anzalone to plant and drive, cutting it loose and attacking whenever he sees fit, with the insurance policy of an elite sideline-to-sideline athlete playing next to him.
Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
Wilson has played in the shadow of Vernon Hargreaves last year and Jalen Tabor this year. But if you asked me to name the best Gator cornerback so far in 2016, I’d opt for Wilson.
In this era of spread offenses, cornerbacks have to be willing to play in space against the run and screen passes. Wilson has been exceptional playing on the boundary. And he’s also shown the ability to cover as well as Tabor.
He might not have the same name recognition. But if you just got by the tape, Wilson has been equally as important and impressive as his teammate, who many expect to be a first-round NFL draft pick.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama
Continuing the theme of corners who play well against the run, there are few better than Fitzpatrick.
Playing out of the slot or lined up on the boundary, Fitzpatrick has shown elite coverage and playmaking skills. But what sets him apart has been his ability to blitz off the edge, create pressure, and break down in space against the run.
Having a versatile cornerback who can move into the slot and is impactful in all three phases – coverage, against the run, and blitzing – is a major advantage. It allows Alabama to utilize switch and banjo coverages against stacked formations and unfavorable matchups, without fear of having an inferior cornerback covering a team’s top receiver.
Fitzpatrick showed an awful lot in Alabama’s game against Arkansas — outside of the three interceptions. Against a power running team with a true in-line tight end, they consistently ran directly at Fitzpatrick. He stood up to the test, showing the ability to stack-and-shed, as well as the competitiveness to take on larger bodies at the point of attack.
Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M
Aggies defensive coordinator John Chavis does more with his safeties pre-snap than I’ve seen from any other coordinator in the SEC.
Watts is a dynamic player, who like many on this list, is used in a variety of ways.
I love Watts’ playmaking instincts. He is willing to gamble on giving up a big play in order to make a momentum shifting one for the Texas A&M defense.
Against the run, he goes from from 0 to 100, never pausing to read-and-react, just firing off and making plays. Sometimes that goes against the structure of the defense – it really is boom-or-bust – but so much of what he delivers falls under “boom” and I love his willingness to put his body on the line in order to change games.
As the Aggies’ defense has improved this year, Watts’ numbers have declined. But as I wrote earlier in the season, Watts is having a greater impact than ever before.