The SEC has used fast, athletic defenses to build an empire over the past decade, and no position better explains that scary reputation than defensive end.
You know, the players who typically stand 6-foot-4, weigh more than 250 pounds and can run faster than most quarterbacks. The guys who terrorize offensive lines with raw strength and more swim moves than an Olympic medley, etc.
This year’s crop of pass rushers and blower-uppers is especially strong, with several ends expected to be first-round picks in future NFL drafts. It was tough to narrow the list to 10 standouts, but we found a way.
Here are the results:
10. Bryan Cox, Jr., Florida
The son of a three-time Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl champion, Cox started 13 games for a suffocating Gators defense in 2015. He racked up 45 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 3.5 sacks on the year, showing an ability to excel in both run and pass situations. A wealth of experience — and some All-American help from Florida’s linebackers and defensive backs — should make for a special redshirt junior season.
9. Daeshon Hall, Texas A&M
In the shadow of All-American Myles Garrett (more on him later), Hall broke onto the national scene with a 4-sack night against Arizona State last September. But that was by far his best output on the season, as he had different nine games without a sack. Hall and Garrett should be a strong combo again, but the 6-foot-6 senior still has plenty to prove.
8. Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama
Hand’s production was hurt by Alabama’s incredible depth last season, but he should be on the field opposite Jonathan Allen for most of the Crimson Tide’s important snaps in 2016. As a 3-4 end, Hand will be called upon to fill run gaps and wreak havoc on the opponent’s passing game. And with other teams forced to block him one-on-one (alternative: let Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson run free), Hand could become a star this year.
7. Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
Haynes hit double-digit sacks last season, with 7 of his 10 coming against SEC opponents (tied for second-most in the conference). In an upset of Alabama last September, Haynes’ key quarterback hurry resulted in the game-sealing interception, and he consistently made big plays in marquee games. Robert Nkemdiche is in the NFL now, so offensive lines will have more manpower to stop Haynes; he can prove his elite status by coming through with another season of big numbers.
6. Deatrich Wise, Jr., Arkansas
All eight of his sacks last season came against SEC opponents, the highest number of any pass rusher. Wise heated up late in the year, recording at least one sack in each of his final four regular-season games and racking up seven in November. He also paced the Razorbacks in quarterback hurries (five) and pass breakups (three).
5. Carl Lawson, Auburn
Injuries have dominated Lawson’s career since a breakout freshman year in 2013. He missed all of 2014 (torn ACL) and half of 2015 (hip injury) and failed to record a single sack in his final six games last year. He’s a bit of a mystery, but he’ll get a chance to prove he’s still one of the conference’s best players against No. 2 Clemson on opening night.
4. Charles Harris, Missouri
The Kansas City, Mo., native has developed into one of the nation’s premier defensive linemen. Sure, the Tigers were mostly miserable last year, but that was due to an impotent offense; Harris (56 tackles, 7 sacks) and the Mizzou defense put up elite numbers in 2015, and they’ll be counted on again as new coach Barry Odom — last year’s defensive coordinator — tries to keep his program from sliding. Draft pundits expect the versatile Harris to be the next in a long line of successful pro prospects from Mizzou.
3. Derek Barnett, Tennessee
Recently described as a “savage” on the field, Barnett is 12 sacks away from the Volunteers’ career record. Tennessee has talent across the board, making it a popular SEC East preseason favorite, and Barnett will have plenty of help from his linebackers and defensive backs as he attempts to dominate the line of scrimmage. His numbers last year (69 tackles, 1o sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss) should keep opposing offensive coordinators up late on Friday nights this season.
2. Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Allen was one of several SEC stars who decided to skip the 2016 NFL Draft and return to school for his final season. He figured to be a first- or second-round pick this spring, but he clearly wants to shoot higher, and another run at a national title was enough to convince him to stick around in Tuscaloosa. Last year, he put up big numbers while rushing the passer (12 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss), but also used his 294-pound frame to thwart run-blocking schemes. He’s the total package on a team that already has an unfair number of All-America candidates.
1. Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Seemingly the consensus best defensive player in the SEC, Garrett will be counted on to help carry the Aggies back into the West race this season. Daeshon Hall should be capable enough on the opposite end to keep opponents from overloading protection on Garrett’s side every play, which — coupled with his 6-foot-5 height, upper-body strength and scary speed — could allow the junior to blow by last year’s impressive numbers (59 tackles, 12.5 sacks, five forced fumbles).