Several top players left for the 2016 NFL Draft, but the SEC East still abounds with talent.
Identifying talent in the SEC East is simple, but delineating between top talent is difficult. Several members of the All-SEC team return, along with plenty of young talent to push the old guard. The division especially boasts defensive talent, with numerous players who expect to be taken early in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Recently, we counted down the 15 best players in the SEC West. Now, here are the 15 best SEC East players heading into the 2016 season.
1. RB Nick Chubb, Georgia
Before a catastrophic leg injury ended his season, Nick Chubb was having a year for the ages. Chubb tied Herschel Walker’s Georgia record for consecutive 100-yard rushing games before getting hurt the first carry of the game against Tennessee. If he has fully recovered from his ACL tear, Chubb should challenge LSU RB Leonard Fournette for the title of best player in the conference.
2. CB Jalen Tabor, Florida
Vernon Hargreaves III received most of the attention last season, but Jalen Tabor might have been better. Despite starting just nine games, Tabor posted 40 tackles and 14 passes defensed. Teams tried to move the ball away from Hargreaves, but Tabor made them pay. He also nabbed four interceptions and returned a pair for touchdowns. Tabor has the makings of a future top 10 NFL draft pick.
3. LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a two-star starter for Tennessee, and for good reason. Reeves-Maybin led the Volunteers with a combined 206 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 8 sacks the last two seasons. A playmaker in every sense of the word, Reeves-Maybin should be among the top linebackers selected in next year’s NFL draft.
4. DL Charles Harris, Missouri
Despite the struggles on offense, the Missouri defensive line continued to be one of the best in the nation. With a year of starting experience, DE Charles Harris is poised to lead another dangerous defensive line. Harris led the conference with 1.5 tackles for loss per game and posted 56 total tackles and 7 sacks. Those numbers could rise next season in the first year under head coach Barry Odom.
5. LB Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt struggled on offense, but LB Zach Cunningham ensured the defense made strides in the second season under head coach Derrick Mason. As a sophomore, Cunningham led the Commodores with 88 tackles and 14 tackles for loss, despite the fact that he did not start until the third game of the season. The first-team All-SEC member should only continue to get better.
6. LB Jarrad Davis, Florida
Florida lost many of its top playmakers, but LB Jarrad Davis will make sure the defense does not slip too much. Davis finished second on the time with 94 tackles and added 11 tackles for loss and four passes defended. Davis could have joined his teammates in the NFL, but chose to return to lead the Gators to an SEC title.
7. DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
On a Tennessee team loaded with talent, DL Derek Barnett might be the biggest matchup nightmare. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds, Barnett posted 69 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss last season for the Volunteers. Barnett is the kind of electric playmaker that opposing teams have to prepare for drastically. Under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, Barnett will feast.
8. RB Jalen Hurd, Tennesee
Jalen Hurd started nine games as a freshman, but broke out in 2015. Hurd rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns while being the workhorse that powered the improving Volunteers offense. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Hurd is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Should he enter the draft in 2017, Hurd will be a touted pro prospect.
9. DB/PR Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
Not only is Cameron Sutton a three-year starting cornerback for the Volunteers, he’s also one of the most electric punt returners in the nation. Sutton earned All-America honors after leading the nation with 18.7 yards per punt return. His 16.0 yards per punt return is the best mark in Volunteer history.
10. S Dominick Sanders, Georgia
With several top defenders gone to the NFL, Sanders steps into a leadership role in the Georgia secondary. Sanders posted 48 tackles and 5 tackles for loss from the safety position last season while helping to man the nation’s best pass defense. New coach Kirby Smart should help get the most out of Sanders.
11. QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
Joshua Dobbs stepped as starting quarterback for the Volunteers as a sophomore, and Tennessee has hardly stopped winning since. The numbers don’t blow you away (2,291 yards, 15 touchdowns), but Dobbs has proven how essential quality quarterback play is to Butch Jones’ offense. The only statistic that matters: Dobbs is 13-5 as a starter, with four of the five losses coming to AP Top 25 teams.
12. RB Sony Michel, Georgia
Should Nick Chubb struggle to return from his knee injury, Sony Michel can pick up the slack. Though he started just eight games, Michel still finished third in the division with 1,136 rushing yards in 2015. Michel was equally as sought after a recruit as Chubb, and for good reason. He could start on almost every other team in the SEC East.
13. QB Jacob Eason, Georgia
Let the hype train chug on – Jacob Eason is the real deal. A 5-star early-enrollee out of Lake Stevens, Wash., Eason impressed in the Georgia spring game with 244 yards and a touchdown on 29 pass attempts. In a division largely devoid of standout quarterbacks, Eason could quickly turn into a star.
14. KR Evan Berry, Tennessee
He’s probably best known for being Eric Berry’s younger brother, but Evan Berry is starting to make a name for himself. Berry has quickly turned into one of the most dynamic kick returners in college football. As a sophomore, he came just 0.03 yards per return shy of J.J. Nelson’s FBS record 38.32 kickoff return average (2014), but still led the SEC and the nation. For his efforts, he was rewarded with All-American honors.
15. RB Stanley “Boom” Williams, Kentucky
Though he has been underutilized thus far, Kentucky RB Stanley Williams has shown flashes of brilliance. In the seven games that Williams received double-digit carries, he averaged 112.1 yards per game on 7.6 yards per carry. The level of talent in Lexington, Ky., has continued to rise under Mark Stoops. Williams’ development will be key to the Wildcats chances next season.