Bowl season in the SEC means coaches need to start evaluating players to replace quality talent that the NFL inevitably and habitually claims via the draft each year.
This year will prove no different, with several programs facing substantial changes at key positions.
With that in mind, here is a list of the 35 SEC players who will be the most difficult to replace. Seniors and draft-eligible players who seem likely to go pro are included on this list.
Several factors go into ranking how hard a player will be to replace. Ability, of course, gets taken into the equation, as do intangibles, such as leadership and experience.
This list also examines who each specific team has returning to the positions in question.
Powell was rated by some recruiting services as the No. 1 recruit in 2010. Health never allowed him to live up to that potential, but he still turned into a useful player during his time with the Gators. Last year, he finished with seven tackles for loss and four sacks.
Ellington’s stats don’t stack up with elite SEC receivers like Jordan Matthews or Mike Evans, but when South Carolina needed a big play, it could always go to him. The undersized Ellington turned in huge performances in wins over Missouri and Wisconsin—two of the Gamecocks’ biggest victories this season.
The Wildcats tackling machine went over the century mark in the category again during his senior season, registering 102 tackles. Williamson, a second-team all-SEC player, was one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise dark season.
Losing someone with Williamson’s nose for the football hurts a program like Kentucky more than it would others.
When quarterback Bo Wallace needed a big play, he always knew he could turn to Moncrief and get it. Moncrief’s statistics don’t fully show what he meant to the Ole Miss attack. The Rebels must find a new go-to, big-play receiver—a task that might not prove easy.
The Tigers all-conference lineman helped pave the way for Missouri to be an effective running team a year after lacking toughness. Behind Britt and an improved offensive line, the Tigers finished 12-2 and won the SEC East.
Many LSU fans will remember this duo as underachieving in what might turn out to be its lone season. Johnson and Ferguson certainly look the part of dominant Tigers defensive tackles from the past; they simply didn’t always play like it, combining for just 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
Still, the raw talent that both of them possess meant that these two juniors had to be considered when offensive coordinators drew up game plans. If both players declare for the NFL draft, LSU will be forced to reload again along the defensive front.
If not for a shoulder injury, Franklin might be ranked far higher on this list. However, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk played formidably in his stead, showing that the Tigers are in good hands going forward.
Franklin developed into a far better passer as a senior, breaking out of the run-first mold. A stacked group of receivers should also help usher Missouri into the Mauk years.
Ford missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury. Once he came back, Auburn’s pass rush improved substantially and undeniably. The senior all-conference player recorded 14.5 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks. He also earned 17 quarterback hurries and, at times, appeared impossible to block.
What started as a timeshare backfield quickly became Josey’s position when he proved to be healthy. After a borderline miraculous return from a devastating knee injury, Josey rushed for 1,167 yards and 16 touchdowns before declaring for the NFL draft. Josey left on a high note, rushing for 92 yards and three touchdowns in a Cotton Bowl victory.
That Clinton-Dix ranks so low on this list isn’t an indication that he is somehow not valuable to Alabama. Rather, the Crimson Tide already has a solid replacement for him if the junior opts to leave for the NFL.
Strong safety Vinnie Sunseri will return from his season-ending knee surgery. Landon Collins, who spent time filling in for both Clinton-Dix (suspension) and Sunseri, will assume the free safety position.
Of the few players Auburn will lose next year, Davis will seemingly hurt the most.
The Tigers’ well-chronicled troubles in the secondary won’t become any less substantial when they lose Davis, a second-team all-SEC performer. Not only did Davis’ 14 pass-breakups lead the team, his 74 tackles also finished second on the team. The senior also made a big impact as a return specialist, especially on this play.
Shaw leaves Columbia as the program’s all-time wins leader, and for good reason. The gritty senior hung in the pocket until the last second, made clutch, accurate throws and scrambled—where he incurred further damage—when necessary. Shaw played with a reckless abandon that teammates rallied behind.
The quarterback position will be in good hands next season, though, with coach Steve Spurrier choosing between Dylan Thompson and Connor Mitch. Still, Shaw’s departure will have an impact on the Gamecocks.
Placing Mason this low on the list is not an indictment on the talent that allowed him to break Bo Jackson's single-season rushing record at Auburn. Rather, it’s a statement on what coach Gus Malzahn has proven he can do with revolving pieces of an offense.
With Mason as the engine of the offense, the Tigers hit on all cylinders down the stretch. Mason has not yet declared for the NFL draft, but he is likely to do so. Whoever replaces Mason might not be as dynamic, but Malzahn will find ways to get the most out of his successor. The list of possible replacements includes Racean Thomas: a 5-star tailback—rated by 247 as the No. 3 running back in the country—who is currently committed to Auburn.
Mettenberger took a huge step forward in 2013, emerging as the player LSU coaches hoped he would be a season earlier.
The senior traded careless mistakes for better decisions, leading him to become a 3,000-yard passer with 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions. In 2012, he threw just 12 touchdowns and seven picks. Not only did Mettenberger become the type of quarterback who could win the Tigers games, he evolved into a competent game-manager.
Replacing an all-conference performer has never proven easy for Vanderbilt. Trying to fill the void of an all-SEC player who started all 50 games of his career might be darn close to impossible.
Johnson has been the Commodores’ most reliable, versatile, team-first player. During the course of his career, Johnson started games at both tackle spots, as well as at guard and center.
Though Evans struggled with week-in, week-out consistency, his A-game ranked ahead of just about anyone else’s.
In the event Evans declares himself eligible for the NFL draft, Texas A&M has plenty of talent capable of helping to offset the loss in the receiving corps. Still, it’s not easy replacing someone with Evans’ size—the sophomore is listed as 6'5" and 225 pounds—and production. Evans finished 2013 with 69 catches for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns, including 18 combined receptions for 566 yards and five touchdowns against Alabama and Auburn.
Replacing a starting offensive tackle is never easy in the SEC; trying to replace both can wreak havoc on a team attempting to turn the corner.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has his work cut out for him while trying to recover from his bookends leaving for the NFL. Richardson, a junior, could have returned but opted instead to enter the NFL draft. ESPN.com ranks him as the No. 5 offensive tackle in the draft. James is graded as the lesser talent, but still comes in as the No. 7 tackle.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney drew all the headlines and attention, but Quarles quietly turned in the far superior season. Quarles topped Clowney in tackles (36), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (9.5).
Kouandjio has yet to commit to the NFL draft. Then again, getting projected as a potential top-10 pick seemingly makes it an easy decision for him.
The first-team All-SEC performer has been an anchor to a dominant offensive line over the past two seasons. Alabama always seems to have another behemoth ready to step in at tackle, but that doesn’t devalue what Kouandjio has done for the Crimson Tide.
When State played its best in 2013, it found ways to allow its sledgehammer of a quarterback, Dak Prescott, to run behind Jackson. The outstanding guard made life difficult for opposing defensive lines—especially against the run. Many programs—Mississippi State included—struggle to simply replace players of Jackson’s magnitude.
Around midseason, Auburn decided to start running the ball directly at opponents. Robinson played a big part in that, sealing the edge for running back Tre Mason and Co.
In the process, Robinson caught the attention of NFL scouts. Now, he’s rated No. 9 on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board. He made the easy decision to declare for the NFL draft after the BCS national championship game.
Perhaps no player better embodied the hard-nosed, downhill running approach first-year coach Bret Bielema wanted to utilize than Swanson. The first-team all-SEC center helped Arkansas field a formidable ground attack, despite inexperience at the tailback position.
No, Swanson couldn’t help the Razorbacks turn the corner in Year 1 under Bielema, but he will be a tough act to follow for whoever takes over at center.
Two factors keep this duo—which includes the SEC Defensive Player of the Year—from ranking higher on this list. First, Missouri showed all season that it had players beyond Sam who were capable of wreaking havoc on quarterbacks. The other item is that the Tigers just seamlessly replaced 2012 all-SEC performer, Sheldon Richardson, this year.
Thanks to the efforts of players like Sam, Missouri hardly noticed Richardson’s absence. The Tigers have the talent to reload along the defensive line again.
Florida coach Will Muschamp’s propensity for developing cornerbacks will get put to the test again this year with Purifoy and Roberson going pro after their junior seasons. ESPN.com graded Roberson as the No. 26 NFL prospect, while Purifoy is two spots lower at No. 28.
Having two shutdown corners provided the Gators a luxury of being able to do whatever they wanted in terms of blitzing in 2013. Will they have to go more vanilla next season?
How did Vanderbilt win so many games over the past three seasons? By playing tough-as-nails defense and creating momentum-changing turnovers.
Ladler proved himself as one of the best in both departments. In 2013, he led the Commodores with 91 tackles, five interceptions and five forced fumbles. Nobody else on the team accounted for more than four takeaways.
Lost in Missouri’s impressive run to the SEC East crown was the fact that a dominant pass rush overshadowed an ordinary secondary. Gaines provided the unit one of the few bright spots. He led the team with five interceptions and finished third on the team with 75 tackles, despite missing a couple games.
Even after losing defensive end Michael Sam, the Tigers should still boast one of the best defensive lines in the division—if not the nation. Replacing Gaines won’t be as easy, though, and it will likely keep the impetus on getting after opposing quarterbacks to avoid giving them too much time in the pocket.
Just how much of an impact did Easley have on the Florida defensive line? With Easley, the Gators stacked up as arguably the nation’s staunchest rush defense. Without him, they gave up 429 rushing yards in a home loss to Georgia Southern.
Yes, there were other injuries to the Florida defense. None, however, was as impactful as Easley’s. The dynamic presence in the middle of Florida’s line will be sorely missed.
The decisions Landry and Beckham made to declare for the NFL draft made sense for both players. Their decision can’t help in trying to break in next year's projected starting quarterback Anthony Jennings, however.
The receiving tandem combined for 132 receptions for 2,289 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. No other receiver caught more than seven passes for more than 145 yards. Beckham also played a huge role in the return game. LSU seemingly never lacks skill-position talent, but replacing Landry and Beckham will be difficult.
Remember last year when Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel declared for the NFL draft and everyone marveled at what a luxury it must be for the team to still return a player like Matthews? Well, it turns out teams can’t just keep churning out top-five NFL draft picks every year. Replacing Matthews will be difficult for an Aggies offensive line that seems likely to take a small step back in 2014.
No receiver or running back had a greater impact on his team in 2013 than Matthews. The Commodores receiver finished with 112 catches for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns. He also finished with at least 100 receiving yards nine times and at least 89 yards in 12 of 13 games.
Vanderbilt had significant offensive limitations all year. Matthews helped mask those deficiencies enough to help his team win nine games.
Murray threw for at least 3,000 yards in all four years as Georgia’s starting quarterback. In 2012, he led the program to within one play of an appearance in the BCS national championship game.
The Bulldogs lose in Murray a player who set the SEC career record for both passing yards and passing touchdowns. That’s not easy to replace. Some of Murray’s best work came this year when he did his best to elevate a patchwork offense that was decimated by injuries.
Everything Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron did for the offense, Mosley has done for the Crimson Tide defense. The biggest difference is that McCarron was in on virtually every play—at least to hand the ball off to a tailback.
Mosley doesn’t necessarily have an impact on every snap. That said, there were few linebackers who made as much impact as Mosley. He led Alabama with 108 tackles, including 9 tackles for loss. Like McCarron, Mosley’s presence isn’t fully measured by his strong statistics. His leadership intangibles and ability to turn in his best performances on the biggest stage will be sorely missed.
Few critiques approached the uninformed belief that anyone could step in at quarterback and win games at Alabama. McCarron gave the Crimson Tide—and more importantly, coach Nick Saban—a trustworthy triggerman to lead a potent, balanced offense.
McCarron’s career was understatedly spectacular. What he lacked in number of highlight-reel plays, he made up for in championships and big victories. Good luck to whoever follows the underrated leader of a championship-level program.
Plenty of offensive talent will return to Texas A&M next season, but coach Kevin Sumlin’s attack likely will carry a completely different identity.
Forget replacing Manziel. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner—and a finalist for the award in 2013—combined phenomenal elusiveness, quickness and athleticism with a strong, accurate arm. Look for the Aggies, who return a ton of backfield talent, to rely more upon the run in 2014.
Nobody denies that 2013 was a down year for one of the most freakish players to ever compete in the SEC. However, the bottom line is that opponents had to adjust game plans to get the ball out of quarterbacks’ hands quicker when facing the Gamecocks, and teams ran away from No. 7 all year.
Clowney erased one entire side of the field; one player can’t replace that type of impact.