As the 2016 season draws nearer, we’re tired of All-SEC predictions and position-based lists. We want to know who the conference’s best players are, regardless of whether they throw, run, catch, block, tackle or kick.
We asked 20 SEC writers — including at least one based in each SEC town — to pick their favorites using a six-tiered voting system, and then asked five NFL draft experts to break down dozens of the writers’ choices.
Voters: Zach Abolverdi (SEC Country), Bill Bender (Sporting News), Marq Burnett (SEC Country), Jason Butt (The [Macon] Telegraph), David Cloninger (The State), Joel Coleman (Starkville Daily), Richard Croome (The [Bryan-College Station] Eagle), John Davis (Oxford Citizen), Mike Griffith (SEC Country), Shehan Jeyarajah (SEC Country), Jason Kersey (SEC Country), Mitch Light (Athlon), Dave Matter (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Scott Rabalais (The [Baton Rouge] Advocate), Alec Shirkey (SEC Country), Alex Martin Smith (SEC Country), Christopher Smith (SEC Country), Adam Sparks (The Tennessean), Dana Sulonen (The Opelika-Auburn News), Kyle Tucker (SEC Country)
Analysts: Charlie Campbell (WalterFootball.com), Eric Galko (Sporting News), Dan Kadar (SBNation.com), Rob Rang (CBSSports.com), Lance Zierlein (NFL.com)
Here’s Part 4 of the inaugural SEC 101:
25. Tre’Davious White, LSU cornerback
Senior | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 197 | Hometown: Shreveport, La.
Last year was a mixed campaign for White, who continued to flash his talent on defense and special teams (as a punt returner), but gave up too many touchdowns through the air to be considered a “shutdown” corner. This season, he’ll spend a lot of time at nickelback, a spot that should utilize his size and speed a little more. Tigers coaches hope the new focus will allow White to make more plays, as well as give LSU’s younger cornerbacks more snaps.
24. Tim Williams, Alabama linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 252 | Hometown: Baton Rouge, La.
Williams was a pass-rush specialist on a deep defensive line unit last season. He made the most of his opportunities, recording 10.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hurries, and then decided to boost his NFL draft stock by sticking around Tuscaloosa for another year. It’s a move that could well pay off: He’ll see the field more in 2016, and some pundits already have anointed Williams a top-five pick in next spring’s draft.
NFL draft expert: “Playing with awesome hand strength and lateral control, Williams is a pro-ready edge-setting rusher. While he doesn’t have the top-end bend to run the arc and finish consistently, he offers a developed repertoire of rush moves, especially winning with outside-in and rip moves on the inside. He’s able to attack inside leverage and embraces double teams with great extended power and control … He looks the part of the SOLB, and his constant disruption should secure him a top-64 pick, though (undisclosed) non-football concerns may give teams pause.” (Eric Galko, SportingNews.com)
23. Fred Ross, Mississippi State wide receiver
Senior | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 205 | Hometown: Tyler, Texas
It’s too bad Ross’ swan song will not include Dak Prescott. An uninspiring quarterback competition in Starkville means that the Bulldogs’ star receiver will be hard pressed to match his 2015 numbers (88 receptions for 1,007 yards and 5 touchdowns), though his impressive punt-return skills should still be on display. Last year, he averaged 10.5 yards per return, including a 77-yard score. The combination of Ross and Brandon Holloway (No. 99 on this list) makes Mississippi State a constant threat to shift field position.
NFL draft expert: “He’s got pretty good size, pretty good feet, pretty good hands, but there isn’t anything that really stands out on him from a scouting standpoint. He’s not as sudden as you like in his routes and doesn’t have the vertical juice to consistently challenge cornerbacks. I think he’s a possession receiver from the slot who is going to have to catch everything that comes his way.” (Lance Zierlein, NFL.com)
22. Jarrad Davis, Florida linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 238 | Hometown: Kingsland, Ga.
Davis doesn’t have a flashy game or stat line. He simply does the things that help make Florida’s defense elite: Sure tackling, making plays behind the line of scrimmage, breaking up passes, etc. He’s that traditional “tough” linebacker who directs the Gators and takes care of his own business in the process. There are plenty of future NFL stars on “D” in Gainesville, but Davis’ instincts glue it all together.
NFL draft expert: “Davis will provide his future NFL defensive coordinator with options, as he possesses the speed and agility of a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker with the compact frame normally associated on the inside. He shows terrific football intelligence, quickly locating the ball and anticipating where it is going. Davis has the agility to slip past would-be blockers and his naturally low center of gravity and core strength help him quickly disengage when opponents do reach him. Davis plays with an Energizer bunny’s motor, frequently chasing down ball-carriers from behind and he generates impressive closing speed, which results in explosive collisions.” (Rob Rang, CBSSports.com)
21. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt linebacker
RS junior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 230 | Hometown: Pinson, Ala.
Cunningham broke out last season, earning first-team All-SEC honors after recording 69 solo tackles (most by a Vandy linebacker in 12 years) and 16.5 tackles for loss (most in 16 years). He was the heart of an under-appreciated Commodores unit that ranked among the nation’s elite but could not overcome a disastrous offense to lift Vanderbilt into bowl contention. If Cunningham can improve on his brilliant redshirt sophomore season, the ‘Dores might be able to make that leap in 2016.
20. Evan Engram, Ole Miss tight end
Senior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 227 | Hometown: Powder Springs, Ga.
If not for O.J. Howard’s breakout performance in the national championship game, Engram likely would have been a consensus choice for as the SEC’s best tight end this preseason. He’s posted 97 receptions for 1,394 yards and 7 touchdowns over his first three years in Oxford, and he’s now gunning for an impressive accomplishment: four straight All-SEC seasons. With top Rebels receiver Laquon Treadwell off to the NFL, Engram stands to get even more looks from star quarterback Chad Kelly this year.
19. Eddie Jackson, Alabama safety
Senior | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 194 | Hometown: Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.
Jackson made the switch from cornerback to safety before last season, and it proved to be a genius move by the coaching staff. His All-America season included 6 interceptions and 230 return yards, an Alabama record. Against Texas A&M, Jackson returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns (also a Tide record), and his pick of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in January’s national title game helped earn him Defensive MVP honors.
18. Charles Harris, Missouri defensive end
RS junior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 260 | Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.
Harris got his All-SEC season started with a demolition of Arkansas State in early September (4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 2 quarterback hurries). From there, he recorded 18.5 total tackles for loss while leading Missouri’s defense into elite statistical territory — and becoming a bonafide first-round NFL prospect in the process. Harris is the latest in a long line of elite defensive-line players at Missouri — following in the footsteps of Justin Smith, C.J. Mosley, Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Shane Ray, Markus Golden, etc. — and he might be the pick of the Tigers litter.
NFL draft expert: “Ascending defensive-end prospect who already has scouts buzzing. Harris has a terrific motor and an NFL-caliber spin move that he can use in either direction. He rarely stays blocked for very long against run blockers and has an exceptional first step as a pass rusher. Harris should see his sacks hop into double-digit territory this year.” (Lance Zierlein, NFL.com)
17. Carl Lawson, Auburn defensive end
RS junior | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 253 | Hometown: Alpharetta, Ga.
Injuries have defined Lawson’s legacy since he was named a Freshman All-American in 2013. He missed his entire sophomore season with an ACL tear and six games of his junior season with a hip problem. Now, it’s another preseason full of high praise and empty accolades for the gifted pass rusher, who must stay on the field if the Auburn defense wants to scare anybody.
16. Jamal Adams, LSU safety
Junior | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 213 | Lewisville, Texas
In his first year as a starter, Adams proved to be capable in both run support (67 tackles) and pass coverage, registering 4 interceptions and 6 breakups. He spearheads a talented LSU defense that should be one of the nation’s best, although a pair of young boundary corners — All-SEC selection Tre’Davious White will be playing more in the slot — could force Adams to be more conservative, depending on their development.
NFL draft expert: “NFL sources tell me that they already think Adams is a top-20 talent. He is a tremendous safety that can do it all … Adams is a physical run defender with the speed and athleticism to cover in pass coverage. He has the potential to be an elite prospect and looks like a potential Pro Bowl safety in the NFL.” (Charlie Campbell, WalterFootball.com)
15. Derek Barnett, Tennessee defensive end
Junior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 265 | Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
One of Rocky Top’s greatest true freshmen avoided a sophomore slump last season to post his second straight 10-sack year for the Volunteers. He finished the year with at least one sack in seven of his final eight contests, and made the Associated Press All-Bowl team after recording 8 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Tennessee’s offense appears set for a huge year, but an improved Barnett (and his teammate at No. 13) might be the bigger worry for opposing teams.
NFL draft expert: “Barnett is a quality all-around edge rusher, winning with a combination of initial burst, power at the point of attack and hustle in pursuit. He is not truly explosive off the ball but times his get-off with the snap well, taking full advantage of the raucous crowds at Neyland Stadium. Barnett chops at the hands of pass blockers, showing strength and hand placement to keep opponents from latching on. Some of his statistics are manufactured, as the Vols do a nice job of creating matchups for him, moving him from his customary right defensive end position to the left side (and even inside at defensive tackle), allowing him to rush out of either the two- (or) three-point stances. He needs to do a better job of recognizing cut blocks, showing only average lateral agility and balance to avoid them.” (Rob Rang, CBSSports.com)
14. O.J. Howard, Alabama tight end
Senior | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 251 | Hometown: Prattville, Ala.
Four quarters of January football changed the narrative on Howard, an elite athlete who did everything Alabama asked of him, but had not previously been a major factor in the Crimson Tide’s passing game. He fulfilled his potential against Clemson, breaking out for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns on 5 receptions. Now, opponents must decide in the passing game: Double up Alabama’s outstanding wide receivers, or keep No. 88 from breaking free up the middle? There’s no correct answer.
NFL draft expert: “Had Howard entered this year’s draft, he may have been the first tight end selected. He has a nice combination of size and speed and unlike most tight ends is capable of lining up with his hand down. If Howard can figure out how to create some separation on his route running, he can be a Jason Witten-type of player in the NFL.” (Dan Kadar, SBNation.com)
13. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 230 | Hometown: Clarksville, Tenn.
Not only did Reeves-Maybin improve his tackling total from 101 to 105 last year, he jumped 4 sacks (6 total) and 3 tackles for loss (14 total) from 2014. His stat line also featured a pair of forced fumbles and 4 pass breakups. He did a little bit of everything for the Volunteers defense and will rightfully be counted on as the team’s defensive captain in 2016.
NFL draft expert: “There are few better linebackers than Reeves-Maybin. He’s got range for days and will make plays all over the field. His read-and-reaction ability is very good, and he knows how to work around blockers. Reeves-Maybin isn’t the biggest, and that will knock him down in the draft a bit, but his production and sideline-to-sideline play should not be overlooked.” (Dan Kadar, SBNation.com)
12. Reuben Foster, Alabama linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 236 | Hometown: Auburn, Ala.
As soon as Reggie Ragland left the building, Foster became the de facto leader of the Alabama defense. Many expect him to make a Ragland-sized jump from sidekick to All-American after returning for his senior year. Alabama saw plenty of talent walk out the door, but Foster and a few others decided to make another national-title run, and this year’s defense — led by the kid from Auburn — has a chance to be better than the last.
NFL draft expert: “Foster was having a quiet season before coming alive late in the year. He had the game of his life against Clemson in the national championship and showed real potential in pass coverage. It looks like the light came on for him.” (Charlie Campbell, WalterFootball.com)
11. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee quarterback
Senior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 210 | Hometown: Alpharetta, Ga.
A weight the size of the Smokies is on Dobbs’ shoulders this season. There are two ugly losing streaks to break (11 games to Florida and six to Alabama) and SEC East championship expectations to meet. He has plenty of help, sure, but if the Volunteers can’t reach their goals in 2016, no player’s legacy will suffer more than the star quarterback’s.
NFL draft expert: “A smart, heady player … Dobbs offers experience, mental capacity, and ‘plus’ athleticism … As a passer, Dobbs does a great job of reading the defense and has a strong arm that can zip almost any NFL-style pass. His footwork clearly needs work, and he often doesn’t get his feet set to make throws limiting his accuracy. There are also a few mechanical issues in his throw that need to be adjusted. A terrific athlete with great arm strength, Dobbs could be a boom-or-bust polarizing prospect this year.” (Eric Galko, SportingNews.com)