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 3 of the inaugural SEC 101:
50. Da’Shawn Hand, Alabama defensive end
Junior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 280 | Hometown: Woodbridge, Va.
Hand is on the cusp of a huge year, thanks in part to the immense talent around him. Teams will be forced to leave one blocker on the former No. 1 recruit because the alternative would be to let star pass rushers Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams (not to mention Ryan Anderson) run free against 1-on-1 blocking. It’s a pick-your-poison situation for opposing coordinators, and Hand (5 career sacks) likely will be the beneficiary.
49. Ar’Darius Stewart, Alabama wide receiver
RS junior | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 204 | Hometown: Fultondale, Ala.
When Robert Foster was lost for the season last September, true freshman Calvin Ridley became QB Jake Coker’s No. 1 option. Coker and Stewart initially struggled to build chemistry — especially in the deep game — and it was not until a crucial fourth quarter vs. Tennessee that Stewart “arrived.” Facing a 5-point deficit with the clock running down, Coker tossed up a prayer on the right sideline that Stewart leapt high in the air to corral, landing hard on his back for a 27-yard gain. The Tide would score the game-winning touchdown later in the drive and went on to win the national championship.
48. Deatrich Wise, Arkansas defensive end
RS senior | Height: 6-5 | Weight: 271 | Hometown: Carrollton, Texas
Wise did most of his damage in conference play last season. All 8 of his sacks came against SEC foes, and he ranked second nationally with 7 sacks in November. He collected only 5 sacks in his first 32 career games, so the outburst was a surprise to fans who had not previously seen Wise add much to the Razorbacks pass rush.
47. Antonio Callaway, Florida wide receiver
Sophomore | Height: 5-11 | Weight: 197 | Hometown: Miami, Fla.
It seemed Florida might lose its Freshman All-American (1,213 all-purpose yards in 2015) earlier this year when coach Jim McElwain indefinitely suspended Callaway for an unspecified violation of university policy. But he returned to the classroom this summer and was cleared in a sexual-assault case earlier this month. Now, his status for the opener is in the hands of the Florida administration, McElwain said. The Gators passing game will be significantly more questionable if Callaway isn’t allowed to play immediately.
NFL draft expert: “His question marks off the field, including marijuana use, will continue to plague Callaway’s career at Florida. Still, Callaway offers remarkable after-catch elusiveness, vertical finishing ability as a downfield target and the downfield speed to threaten whenever he has the ball in his hands.” (Eric Galko, SportingNews.com)
46. Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss defensive end
Junior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 222 | Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
Haynes has already built a nice legacy in Oxford. He tied the school record for single-season sacks (10) in 2015, and is fourth on the Rebels’ career list with 17.5. Perhaps his most important play in an Ole Miss uniform was not a sack, though: Last September, he broke through the Alabama line and hurried Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker into a throw that became a game-clinching interception for the heavy underdogs.
45. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee all-purpose
RS junior | Height: 5-10 | Weight: 215 | Hometown: Norcross, Ga.
Few players were as efficient as Kamara last season. He averaged 6.5 yards per rush, 8.6 yards per catch and 12.5 yards per punt return, scoring 11 total touchdowns. Tennessee still has stud running back Jalen Hurd taking the bulk of the carries, which means Kamara will be free to be a Swiss Army knife again in 2016.
NFL draft expert: “Really good-looking football player. Runs with fearlessness and plus acceleration once he sees the hole, and his pad level gives him maximum pop at impact on tacklers. The fact that he can return punts and make plays out of the backfield as a pass catcher will add to his draftable value when he decides to come out. Hurd will overshadow him, but Kamara can go.” (Lance Zierlein, NFL.com)
44. Marlon Humphrey, Alabama cornerback
RS sophomore | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 196 | Hometown: Hoover, Ala.
One of several freshman surprises for the Crimson Tide in 2015, Humphrey is expected to take over for departed Cyrus Jones as Alabama’s No. 1 cover corner. He made an underrated impact in the national championship game against Clemson, racking up 5 tackles (1 for loss), recording 2 pass breakups and recovering a crucial onside kick in the fourth quarter.
NFL draft expert: “Alabama’s pipeline of defensive backs to the NFL via early round picks looks secure with Humphrey, an athletic and physical cover corner coming off a sensational debut season. The son of former Alabama (and NFL) standout Bobby Humphrey, Marlon looks like a chip off the old Tide with his easy change of direction and acceleration. He’s well-built for a young player … and is an aggressive tackler, including in run support.” (Rob Rang, CBSSports.com)
43. Daniel Carlson, Auburn kicker
RS junior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 218 | Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colo.
It’s apparent where Carlson’s power comes from; he has a bigger build than most Division I quarterbacks. More than 50 percent of his kickoffs have been touchbacks — he has 99 total in two seasons — and he made 85.2 percent of his field goals in 2015 with a long of 56. He could be an early-round NFL draft pick next spring if he keeps up his accuracy this autumn. Oh, and if the Tigers need him to punt, Carlson can do that, too; he averaged 42 yards on 41 boots as a redshirt freshman.
42. Malachi Dupre, LSU wide receiver
Junior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 195 | Hometown: New Orleans, La.
If Travin Dural is the gamebreaking deep threat for LSU, Dupre (698 yards and 6 touchdowns last season) needs to be the steady route runner and pair of sure hands that helps quarterback Brandon Harris improve in 2016. It’s a bit silly to call Dupre a possession receiver because he has a knack for spectacular catches and can outrun defensive backs, but that’s what Dupre needs to be: the training wheels for Harris and the key to a passing game that needs serious life breathed into it.
41. Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas tight end
RS senior | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 256 | Hometown: White Hall, Ark.
Sprinkle has 7 career touchdowns on just 38 receptions, a ratio that the Razorbacks would love to see him keep up in a transition year at quarterback. New passer Austin Allen needs a safety blanket, and Sprinkle has a combination of traits — four years of experience and an elite frame — that should allow him to make crucial plays early in the season.
40. Sony Michel, Georgia running back
Junior | Height: 5-11 | Weight: 222 | Hometown: Plantation, Fla.
An unexpected Offensive MVP for the Bulldogs last year, Michel broke out after star running back Nick Chubb tore up his knee in September. He’s a dual-threat back that can force the ball inside or dance around defenders near the boundaries. With Chubb healthy again, Michel will be one hell of a “respite” for opposing defenses.
39. Arden Key, LSU linebacker
Sophomore | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 238 | Hometown: Atlanta
Key started 9 games for the Tigers as a true freshman, building steam toward an impressive regular-season finale in which he recorded 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3 quarterback hurries against Texas A&M. He’ll be doing much of his pass rushing from the “Buck” outside linebacker spot in new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. That’s a spot that produced tons of sacks at Aranda’s most recent stop, Wisconsin, and should be perfect for Key, who said he wants 20 this season. That would be eight more than LSU’s single-season record.
NFL draft expert: “If Key’s play lives up to his own 20-sack hopes, his NFL Draft stock will skyrocket leading into his junior season in 2017. Key should be a full-time starter this season and once again show off his range and explosive athleticism. NFL teams will want to see him get stronger, but his first-step quickness should lead to him being at least a pass rush specialist early in his pro career.” (Dan Kadar, SBNation.com)
38. Tony Conner, Ole Miss linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 225 | Hometown: Batesville, Miss.
A meniscus tear last season stopped Conner’s streak of 28 straight starts, but he returned six weeks later to record 4 solo tackles against Arkansas. The former All-SEC and Freshman All-America player is ready to hold down the “Huskie” position again, switching between traditional strong safety and linebacker roles depending on the situation. With 152 career tackles (18 for loss), it’s a role he has down pat.
NFL draft expert: “First and foremost, Conner has to stay healthy after only playing five games last year. Ole Miss lines him up all over the place from slot corner, outside corner, in-the-box safety, outside linebacker and even as an edge rusher. He is an instinctive defender that has real potential and a nose for the football. In the NFL, strong safety is probably his best fit.” (Charlie Campbell, WalterFootball.com)
37. Marcus Maye, Florida safety
RS senior | Height: 6-0 | Weight: 216 | Hometown: Melbourne, Fla.
Considered one of the country’s best defensive backs, Maye earned first-team All-America honors from multiple major outlets after a breakout season that produced 82 tackles and 5 forced fumbles (second-best in the nation). He also made some key plays in the air, intercepting 2 passes — including a 30-yard return against Tennessee — and swatting down 6 more.
NFL draft expert: “Maye is a superb athlete that uses great footwork in coverage and rarely gets turned around. He can play free or strong safety, and even slot cover man versus smaller slot receivers. (His) fluid hips and above-average speed allow him to guard anybody in coverage; Maye plays the ball well and has excellent vision to diagnose plays. He can get in the box and play in a run defense. If there is a potentially questioning weakness, it’d likely be his top-line speed. Overall, (there are) few weaknesses and every reason to expect him to continue to emerge as a potential top-20 pick in the 2017 draft.” (Eric Galko, SportingNews.com)
36. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama running back
Sophomore | Height: 6-2 | Weight: 228 | Hometown: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
With Heisman-winning Derrick Henry and backup Kenyan Drake off to the NFL, it’s up to Scarbrough and fellow sophomore Damien Harris to ensure Alabama’s running back legacy remains strong. Scarbrough — by all accounts a physical freak of nature — appears to have the inside track on the starting job, but Harris (No. 97 on this list) is no slouch; he was a 5-star recruit who blew away most of the Crimson Tide during spring testing, and could just as easily handle the load if called upon.
35. JK Scott, Alabama punter
Junior | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 202 | Hometown: Denver
Nick Saban famously silenced doubters of his freshman punter in 2014 when he asked a simple question to the media: “Have you seen him punt?” Scott had his coach’s back, earning All-America honors after posting a 48-yard average and dropping 56.4 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Both marks led the country. While he dropped off a bit last year (44.2 yards per punt), he improved his average every week of the season and dumped a trio of punts inside the 20 during the national championship game.
NFL draft expert: “It isn’t often that a punter warrants consideration among the top 100 players in a conference as gifted as the SEC but Scott is a rare talent. He possesses extraordinary size … and the unusual height seems to help him generate that much more power on his kicks. The ball explodes off of Scott’s foot, arcing high in the air and often sending returners scrambling backwards to field them. Besides power and trajectory, Scott shows touch and good accuracy to pin opponents deep.” (Rob Rang, CBSSports.com)
34. Alex Kozan, Auburn guard
RS senior | Height: 6-4 | Weight: 310 | Hometown: Castle Rock, Colo.
Momentum from a strong freshman season in 2013 was derailed by a season-ending back injury the next fall. But Kozan returned to the spotlight last season, starting every game for the Tigers and earning a gaggle of All-SEC honors. He’s played left guard in all 25 of his starts, so Auburn can count on him to provide running lanes and elite protection for an offense that needs all the help it can get.
33. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama cornerback
Sophomore | Height: 6-1 | Weight: 203 | Hometown: Old Bridge, N.J.
After sliding in at Alabama’s nickel “Star” position, the East Coast product earned Freshman All-America honors thanks to a bevy of big plays. Both of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns, and he got an early-season rout of Georgia started by blocking a punt and picking it up in the end zone. He also picked up his first career sack in that game while making 4 tackles and breaking up a pass. That performance was the perfect showcase for Fitzpatrick’s diverse skill set.
32. Stanley “Boom” Williams, Kentucky running back
Junior | Height: 5-9 | Weight: 196 | Hometown: Monroe, Ga.
If electric running backs are your thing, be sure to keep Kentucky on your screen this season. Williams’ nickname is the perfect complement to his lightning-fast style. He posted three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards as a freshman, then opened last season with a 75-yard touchdown on the first offensive play. The Cats will feed him more in 2016 (he had 121 attempts last year), meaning he likely won’t reach his own single-season school record of 7.1 yards per carry, but that’s a necessary trade to get what everyone wants: More Boom.
NFL draft expert: “He’s a little smaller than you like as a lead running back and I would like to see him run with more consistent decisiveness rather than dancing behind the line of scrimmage. I like his smoothness and there is no question he’s top notch when it comes to lateral movement and making people miss. His three drops and three fumbles (one lost) must be improved this year.” (Lance Zierlein, NFL.com)
31. Greg Pyke, Georgia guard
RS senior | Height: 6-6 | Weight: 325 | Hometown: Baltimore
The rise of Nick Chubb coincided with the rise of Pyke, who earned All-SEC honors in Chubb’s breakout 2014 season. Last year — with Chubb out and Sony Michel in — Pyke upped his game to an All-America level, keeping the left side of the Bulldogs line clear for the their surprise Offensive MVP. Both running backs are still in Athens, and Pyke is back to lead the way.
30. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt running back
RS junior | Height: 5-10 | Weight: 202 | Hometown: Gainesville, Fla.
Uncertainty at quarterback — and a general lack of notable playmakers — leaves Webb as Vanderbilt’s go-to offensive star… again. He posted a solid season last year (1,152 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns), but it was not enough to drag Vandy into bowl contention. There’s still a strong defense in Nashville, but the offense probably can only go as far as Webb can carry it.
NFL draft expert: “The first thing you notice about Webb while watching Vanderbilt is his speed into and out of the hole. He’s a decisive runner who knows when to make his move and has good enough burst to break big runs. He’s not an overly powerful or shifty runner, but his speed helps him gain positive yards and hit big plays.” (Dan Kadar, SBNation.com)
29. Ethan Pocic, LSU center
Senior | Height: 6-7 | Weight: 302 | Hometown: Lemont, Ill.
LSU’s man in the middle has a tough task ahead: Navigating his offensive line through a stream of 8- and 9-man fronts. Until quarterback Brandon Harris proves he can consistently hit open receivers, defenses will load the box against Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, meaning Pocic (25 career starts) will need to be quick not only on his feet, but on his pre-snap adjustments.
28. Cameron Sutton, Tennessee cornerback
Senior | Height: 5-11 | Weight: 186 | Hometown: Jonesboro, Ga.
The All-American has started all 38 games of his Volunteers career, and his special-teams contributions (16-yard punt-return average, 3 touchdowns) make him an elite player for two different units. He already has more career pass breakups (32) than the immortal Eric Berry, but his career interception total (6) is unlikely to shoot up too much as teams avoid his side of the field.
27. Dan Skipper, Arkansas offensive tackle
Senior | Height: 6-10 | Weight: 319 | Hometown: Arvada, Colo.
If you skipped over his measurements, take another look. Skipper is by far the tallest player on this list, and he’s been providing excellent protection for the past three seasons. In fact, the Arkansas line has allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC every season since Skipper started his Razorbacks career in 2013. He’s the steady hand for an offense that is going through plenty of turnover this season.
26. Kendell Beckwith, LSU linebacker
Senior | Height: 6-3 | Weight: 247 | Hometown: Clinton, La.
Beckwith, a former high-school quarterback, has the size and speed to destroy offensive gameplans and he’s primed to improve his tackle total for the fourth straight season. We mentioned that new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda likely will provide a boost for outside linebacker Arden Key, but Beckwith might be the primary beneficiary of the change. Aranda has a long track record of building elite defenses, and the Tigers’ inside linebacker will be counted on to lead this year’s crop of elite talent.
NFL draft expert: “He’s patient in the run game with above-average closing speed though he sometimes gets caught up in being patient and is late in coverage attempts. If he doesn’t get a late jump he is very good in coverage despite not being the fastest linebacker. Beckwith has the potential to be a leader of an NFL defense and a centerpiece in a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense.” (Eric Galko, SportingNews.com)