SEC Football: Ranking the Top 25 Players Heading into 2014

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

SEC Football: Ranking the Top 25 Players Heading into 2014

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    The SEC led all conferences, once again, with 49 players drafted in 2014. Some of its marquee players from last season such as Loucheiz Purifoy (Florida) and Anthony Johnson (LSU) didn't hear their names called but also won't return in 2014.

    But the SEC doesn't rebuild; it reloads. I want to go wash my fingers out with soap for typing that, but hackneyed or not, it's the truth. How else could the conference have 49 players drafted this year after having 63 players drafted in 2013? That was a record-sized exodus!

    There is still plenty of talent in the SEC, and all 25 names on this list are proof of that. So are the barely undeserving players who didn't make this list, as they will be the ones replacing a good portion of this crop after the 2015 NFL draft rolls around.

    In order to decide on the 25 best players, more than just statistics were considered. Past production played a big role, but so did age and projected improvement. A junior defender with 10 tackles for loss might have been better last season than a freshman with seven. That doesn't mean he will be again in 2014.

    Enjoy!

Just Missed the Cut

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    These eight players were all considered until the final paring if this list. They didn't make the final version, but they are worth keeping an eye on and could become All-SEC players in 2014.

     

    DE/OLB Ray Drew/Jordan Jenkins/Leonard Floyd, Georgia

    All three are important pieces of the Georgia defense/pass rush and should get even better under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Any or all of them could have easily cracked the top 25.

     

    DE Markus Golden, Missouri

    Losing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy hurts, but Missouri's defensive line, which was the best in the SEC last season, consisted of more than two players. Markus Golden actually finished sixth in the conference with 13 tackles for loss and should get even more opportunities as a starter and every-down player in 2014.

     

    DL Chris Jones, Mississippi State

    Chris Jones did not look like a true freshman last year, and he will not look like a true sophomore this year either. At 6'5", 300 pounds, the former blue-chip recruit is a menace against the run and should anchor the upstart Mississippi State defensive line.

     

    DB Jalen Mills, LSU

    A freshman All-American who started 13 games in 2012, Jalen Mills took a small step back last season—as did the whole LSU defense. If he stays for his senior season, which is plausible but unlikely, I expect he'll crack the top 15 of this list next year.

     

    QB Bo Wallace, Ole Miss

    Bo Wallace (M.D.) has helped revive Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze, but for all the good he does, something still feels a little off. If he can cut down on the turnovers and play with more consistency from week to week, he could be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Let's hope his shoulder stays healthy so he can get a fair crack.

     

    WR D'haquille Williams, Auburn

    Count me among the many who expects big things from D'haquille Williams, the top-ranked player on the 247Sports' JUCO Composite who tore up spring camp at Auburn. It just didn't feel right to list him here before he stepped on the field for real. (Same goes for incoming LSU running back Leonard Fournette.)

25. LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee

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    A.J. Johnson has the stats to place higher on this list.

    He's led Tennessee in tackles the past two seasons and finished within one of the team lead as a freshman in 2011. His 138 tackles led the SEC in 2012 and were tied for sixth-best in the country, and he made the All-SEC second team despite a relative down year in 2013.

    In Knoxville, people call Johnson "The Beast." More often than not, that seems like a fitting moniker. However, because he's never played for a particularly good defense, it is hard to slot him higher than No. 25; Bryce Hager used to be regarded the same way at Baylor. 

    Still, if UT does well in 2014, Johnson will be a big reason why. And in that case, he would start shooting up this board.

24. QB Maty Mauk, Missouri

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    Maty Mauk was good in 2013, replacing James Franklin for a healthy portion of the season and managing to keep Missouri afloat.

    He'll need to be even better as a redshirt sophomore in 2014, now that the team is all his. After Dorial Green-Beckham's dismissal, all three of last year's leading receivers are gone along with big-play running back Henry Josey and some important offensive line pieces.

    Fortunately, Mauk has the skill set to mitigate those losses. He is more athletic than Franklin and capable of making things happen when the pocket caves or his first few reads are covered. His arm is underrated, and although he isn't quite the electric threat with the ball in his hands, Mauk is the closest thing the SEC now has to Johnny Manziel.

    No pressure, kid.

23. Carl Lawson, Auburn

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    Carl Lawson is the heir apparent to Dee Ford at Auburn. Those are big cleats to fill, but if his true freshman season was any indication, Lawson should have no problem wearing them.

    Lawson was a 5-star recruit and the No. 21 overall player on the 247Sports Composite. He was inconsistent at times during 2013, but at other times he was dominant. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, whom Lawson sacked twice in October, would attest to that.

    (Lawson finished that game with 3.5 tackles for loss.)

    Auburn's defense needs to be better in 2014 than it was last season. It returns a lot of talent at other spots, so if Lawson can provide a facsimile of the pressure Ford did, this unit should fine—if not great.

    Don't bank on this unit being neither fine nor great.

22. LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State

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    Benardrick McKinney is the opposite of A.J. Johnson.

    He does not have the stats to be on this list, but one glimpse at the game tape—or even a chance to see him boarding the team bus in a track suit—makes it clear that he's a unique physical specimen.

    McKinney is 6'5", 245 pounds and runs a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. He can play a variety of defensive positions, and although his stats don't pop off the page, he did lead an underrated Mississippi State defense with 70 tackles, 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss last season.

    There's a reason he's been popping up in the first round of way-too-early 2015 mock drafts. B/R's Matt Miller has McKinney going No. 24 overall, and Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead has him going No. 9.

    This may sound cliche, but there really is no limit on how good he could be. And by all accounts, he is a leader and the type of guy who will not stop working until he reaches that potential.

    "He’s such a great kid," said defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, per Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com. "He’s blessed to be 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and run a 4.6. He has a 40-inch vertical jump. But he’s even a better kid than he is an athlete. His attention to detail, a great leader."

    McKinney is one to keep an eye on.

21. RB Alex Collins, Arkansas

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    Alex Collins ran into the SEC record book last season, becoming the first freshman in conference history to rush for 100 yards in each of his first three games.

    Although he didn't keep pace with his hot start, he continued to impress throughout the season and was named the SEC Freshman of the Year by The Associated Press. He finished with 1,026 yards and four touchdowns on 190 carries, becoming the first Arkansas freshman since Darren McFadden to crack the 1,000-yard plateau.

    Jonathan Williams remains in the backfield to poach carries, but it is still fair to expect improvement on those numbers in 2014. Arkansas won't be good, but it shouldn't be quite as bad as it was last season. And the more close games that a Bret Bielema-coached team plays, the more opportunities it has to run the football.

    Collins could be in store for a massive year.

20. LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia

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    Ramik Wilson did his finest Alec Ogletree impression in 2013, stepping into the starting lineup and leading the SEC with 133 tackles. He was a consensus member of the All-SEC first-team defense.

    He has the size (6'2", 232 lbs) and speed to dominate the game as a run-stuffing middle linebacker. He's not quite C.J. Mosley going from sideline to sideline, but he's more than fast enough to get by.

    His field instincts are first-class, too. He's not as adept in coverage, and while Georgia could use an improvement in all phases of pass defense, he doesn't exactly need to be. He understands his role.

    Wilson will lead one of the SEC's best front sevens.

19. RB Derrick Henry, Alabama

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    More accomplished players were left off this list. More accomplished running backs were left off this list. Derrick Henry didn't even have 30 touches in the regular season as a true freshman in 2013.

    But what he did in the Sugar Bowl felt important.

    I covered this in greater depth a couple of months ago, but in short, Henry is a physical specimen like college football hasn't seen in a while. Since Adrian Peterson, I'd reckon. He is the leading rusher in high school football history and could have played linebacker if he preferred, but don't let his size and strength deceive you: Henry is fast enough to run away from anyone.

    He may not get enough carries to compete for a spot on the All-SEC team this season. The league is stacked with good running backs—the man who starts above him (whom we'll get to later) not least among them. Henry's big-number season will likely be in 2015, not 2014.

    But so what? He's still one of the conference's top 20 players.

18. WR Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

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    In 2013, Laquon Treadwell was the top-ranked receiver on the 247Sports Composite. His freshman campaign did not disappoint.

    He finished third in the conference behind Jordan Matthews and Jarvis Landry with 72 receptions and was named the league's top freshman by SEC coaches. What's more, he did all that despite playing behind star receiver Donte Moncrief and perhaps not being utilized properly because of it.

    This upcoming season, with Moncrief gone, Treadwell should get to flash the completeness of his game. He should be targeted on more vertical routes and improve his yards per catch (8.44) substantially.

    With experienced quarterback Bo Wallace under center, it would not come as a shock if Treadwell was the SEC's leading receiver in 2014. Whenever he leaves Ole Miss—which will likely be early, after his junior season in 2016—he will almost definitely become a first-round NFL draft pick.

17. OT La'el Collins, LSU

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    Many thought La'el Collins was going to declare for the 2014 NFL draft. If he had, he likely would have been an early-round selection, even in a stacked year for offensive tackles.

    But now that that decision is behind him, Collins is focused on the task at hand: helping LSU replace all of its offensive skill players and becoming an even better prospect than he was in 2014.

    "It feels great because I’m able to come here every day and just work hard and know that in a few months that my time is going to come," Collins said, according to David Ching of ESPN.com. "I'm just going to focus on helping my team win football games here."

    Collins is a Phil Loadholt type: a road-grading run-blocker who needs to refine his pass protection. If freshman Brandon Harris wins the job at quarterback, perhaps working with an outside-the-pocket player will suit his protection style better (although I'm not sure why that would be the case; it just might be).

    Either way, if he improves on that front, Collins will become one of the best, most complete offensive lineman in the country.

16. DL Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

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    Robert Nkemdiche is not Jadeveon Clowney.

    The parallels are obvious, as both were the No. 1 overall recruit on the 247Sports Composite, and both technically play defensive end.

    But Nkemdiche plays a different side of the position than Clowney did, stuffing the run more than he rushes the passer and even dabbling a bit in defensive tackle—where he should find himself in 2014.

    The size (6'4", 277 lbs) and quickness are there for Nkemdiche to play both. He is incredibly nimble for a man so huge, equally adept at shooting a gap or tossing a lineman out of his way to make a stop.

    He "only" had eight tackles for loss as a freshman, but that number should go up in 2014. Even if it doesn't, though, he thrives on the little things that casual fans (and box scores) don't notice, as B/R's Michael Felder explained in his CFB 250 series earlier this year.

    Don't get caught up with his numbers or how he compares to previous SEC greats. Nkemdiche is a force to be reckoned with.

15. OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss

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    Not just any offensive tackle can waltz into the SEC and hold his own as a true freshman. Laremy Tunsil is not just any offensive tackle.

    He more than held his own, too. He wasn't a Day 1 starter for the Rebels last season, but he was impossible to keep off the field and only allowed one sack at left tackle after being plugged into the squad.

    In the video above, Ben Garrett of Ole Miss Spirit calls Tunsil "probably the most physically gifted player Ole Miss has ever had." That is high praise, but it's far from undeserved. Tunsil is 6'5", 315 pounds and moves his feet like a point guard. There's a reason landing him was considered such a coup when it happened.

    Despite his age, he might become an All-American as early as 2014.

14. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State

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    Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote a good feature about Dak Prescott this offseason, arguing that he's the SEC's most underrated quarterback. By the end of the season, that will no longer be the case.

    He will be regarded too highly to be "underrated."

    Or at least that will be the case if he plays like he did at the end of last season. After stepping in for an injured Tyler Russell, Prescott opened up a new dynamic for the insipid Bulldogs offense, throwing for 1,940 yards, rushing for 829 more and totaling 23 touchdowns in less than 10 full games.

    More important than that, he led Mississippi State to an unlikely three-game winning streak at the end of the season, capping it off with a wild upset win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and a blowout of Rice in the Liberty Bowl. He was just as good as he needed to be in the former (which was a defensive affair) and utterly sublime in the latter.

    Don't sleep on Prescott as a dark-horse Heisman candidate.

13. C Reese Dismukes, Auburn

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    It's easy to overlook everyone on Auburn's offensive line who wasn't Greg Robinson. The second overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft was the one who stood out the most on tape throughout the season.

    It's equally easy to overlook anyone who plays center—the most underappreciated position in football and perhaps all of sports.

    But Reese Dismukes is the captain of Auburn's dominant offense, the leader of its offensive line. "He's the glue," said OL coach J.B. Grimes after the SEC Championship Game, per Joel Erickson of AL.com. "The finest leader I've ever had, tough, smart, fast, quick, strong, balanced, just one of the best football players I've ever been around."

    Dismukes has started 37 games at Auburn and was a Rimington Trophy finalist in 2013. He'll likely be a favorite to win the award in 2014 as Auburn competes for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

12. DE/OLB Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

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    Dante Fowler is one of the most complete defenders in college football, capable of making an impact against the run with his sound tackling and against the pass with his deadly speed rush.

    Although his technical skills are not where they need to be—he relies too much on his athleticism and needs to develop a more advanced array of pass-rush moves—he had 8.5 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2012 and led the Gators with 10.5 more last season.

    This upcoming season, Fowler is being counted on to have a Jarvis Jones at Georgia-type breakout. He is the unquestioned leader of the Gators' front seven, and if he can consistently wreak havoc in the backfield, Florida might have the best pass defense in the country.

    This team will not go 4-8 once again.

11. RB Mike Davis, South Carolina

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    Mike Davis might have the most boring name in college football, but that belies his game. He is one of the most exciting, viscerally brilliant players in the country.

    A dead ringer for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice—or at least the pre-2013 version of Rice who didn't run like he was wearing a snowsuit—Davis is undersized at 5'9" but built like a truck and likes to initiate contact. He bounces off tacklers twice his size with regularity.

    But he is also fast enough to get around the edge and has the vision to do so when appropriate. He also has great hands and caught 34 passes last season, opening up a new wrinkle in South Carolina's offense that should be even more prevalent in 2014.

    In almost any other conference in America, Davis would be the top running back. That he's third in the SEC speaks more to the two guys ahead of him than his own (nonexistent) deficiencies.

10. DE Trey Flowers, Arkansas

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    No returning player in the SEC had more tackles for loss last season than Trey Flowers, who racked up 13.5 across the line from Chris Smith—who was supposed to be Arkansas' best defensive player.

    By the end of the season, he was its second-best defensive end.

    But that was by no fault of Smith's own. Flowers emerged as one of the hardest-to-block players in the country and should only continue to get better as a senior in 2014.

    Not having Smith could lead to more attention and double-teams, but Flowers is more than ready to handle it. He is, after all, 6'4" with linebacker speed and flexibility off the edge.

    That is a deadly combination, especially when mixed with tangible production. It also helps explain why B/R's Matt Miller has Flowers going No. 16 overall in his way-too-early 2015 NFL mock draft.

9. RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

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    With all the hoopla surrounding Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon reminded fans during the spring game that he is still the starter in Alabama's backfield. It wasn't so long ago that he was the sexy new model and not the game-worn veteran whom fans are jaded of watching.

    Not that he had anything to prove. Yeldon might be the best all-purpose back in the country and came through when the Crimson Tide needed him most against LSU last season. He also had 141 yards against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, although everything sans the last few minutes of that game seems to have gone forgotten.

    If not for his fumbling problems, Yeldon might place even higher than No. 9 on this list. He has coughed up the ball in pivotal moments of multiple games throughout his career, although I'd argue the timing of those errors is more random than a sign of him choking.

    It takes a special player to hold off Henry, the No. 20 player on this list. Yeldon is precisely that.

8. S Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss

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    Cody Prewitt is the lone returning SEC player from the AP All-America first team and one of just two defenders (along with Clemson's Vic Beasley) returning throughout the country.

    Not built like your typical safety, he (6'2", 212 lbs) is a force against the run and had 71 tackles last season. He's sort of the Kam Chancellor of college football, a linebacker in the secondary.

    But he's no slouch against the pass, either. Despite speed limitations that hinder him in coverage, Prewitt is a constant source of big plays for the Rebels defense. He finished with six interceptions in 2013.

    Two defensive backs—including one safety—rank higher than Prewitt on this list, in large part because they are more complete. But what he does well, he does about as well as any player in America.

7. DE A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama

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    A'Shawn Robinson is a guy who jumps out on tape.

    Despite relatively sedate numbers (eight tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks), he was Alabama's best defensive lineman as a true freshman last season and one of the best in the SEC at large.

    Robinson was so good, in fact, that B/R's Michael Felder ranked him the No. 22 player in all of college football last season—higher than all but one returning player in the SEC and more than 20 spots ahead of former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

    I'm not quite as keen on Robinson, but I get why Felder did what he did. Robinson was a beast, is a beast and should continue to be a beast in 2014 and (at least) the season after.

6. S Landon Collins, Alabama

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    It wouldn't be an Alabama defense without at least one potential top-10 pick in the secondary. This year, that guy is Landon Collins.

    Collins didn't even start at the beginning of last season and likely would have stayed on the bench if not for an ACL injury to Vinnie Sunseri. Once he was inserted, however, the silky smooth completeness of his game became impossible to ignore.

    He has tremendous range on the back end of the secondary, is a sound tackler and got better against the run as the season went on. If he puts all the pieces together this season, he might end up being even better than his former partner-in-crime, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

    Seriously. Collins is that good.

5. QB Nick Marshall, Auburn

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    Nick Marshall was not a good passer for a large chunk of last season.

    There. I said it. Come at me if you must, Auburn fans, but he was a glorified running back who limited the playbook and helped lesser teams such as Washington State, Mississippi State and Georgia almost beat the eventual national runner-up.

    At the end of the season, however, Marshall looked to have turned the proverbial corner. He further looked the part during the A-Day game in April, completing 13-of-22 passes for 236 yards.

    Combine that with the threat he poses in the rushing game, and you have a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate. The stats will be there, and there will be no shortage of Heisman moments from a man capable of doing amazing things both inside and out of the pocket.

    Is he a legitimate NFL prospect at the position? I'm not quite sold. But I know Marshall is a heck of a college quarterback.

4. WR Amari Cooper, Alabama

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    After an 1,000-yard receiving season in 2012, Amari Cooper came back to Earth as a true sophomore in 2013, seeing his stat totals essentially get cut in half.

    This is worrisome but not impugning. Cooper battled through nagging injuries all season, and there is a precedent for blue-chip receivers to tail off a bit as sophomores after giant freshman seasons. A.J. Green and Sammy Watkins both turned out fine, did they not?

    Cooper is the same type of transcendent talent. He is a blur going vertical and difficult to tackle on bubble screens—a play B/R's Adam Kramer says he's the best at in the country in the video above.

    Lane Kiffin is punch line for his non-prowess as a head coach, but he always knew how to use his weapons at USC. He'll know how to use Cooper as well. No matter who winds up playing quarterback, prepare for a massive season.

3. OT Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M

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    Penn State has always been "Linebacker U." Schools such as Texas and LSU have squabbled for years over the moniker "Defensive Back U." But Texas A&M is without a doubt becoming "Offensive Tackle U."

    Cedric Ogbuehi is the latest beast to come through the pipeline, and the chatter around him this offseason has been familiar. Just as many said Jake Matthews might be better than his forerunner, Luke Joeckel, many think Ogbuehi might be better than his predecessor, Matthews.

    B/R's Matt Miller has Ogbuehi going No. 4 overall in his way-too-early 2015 NFL mock draft; Chris Burke of SI.com has him going No. 1. Such is life when you're a left tackle in College Station, Texas.

    That holds doubly true when you're 6'5", weigh 300 pounds and reportedly run a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash.

2. CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

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    Last year was a great year for blue-chip freshman defensive backs. The Nos. 2-4 players at the position on the 247Sports Composite—USC safety Su'a Cravens, Florida State cornerback/safety Jalen Ramsey and Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller—all started right out of the gate and look like future All-Conference performers.

    And hardly anybody noticed.

    Why? Because Vernon Hargreaves III stole all the headlines. There was no room in the lede for players such as Cravens, Ramsey and Fuller, while Hargreaves was slowly becoming one of the best defensive players in the country at Florida.

    And make no mistake, that's what he is. His tackling still needs some improvement, but he might already be the best lockdown cornerback in the game. He is long and rangy and instinctive, and he comes down with interceptions instead of merely isolating an opponent.

    Expect more of the same in 2014.

1. RB Todd Gurley, Georgia

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    When healthy, there is no better player in the SEC.

    That's all there is to it.

    Todd Gurley is a complete running back specimen the likes of which college football has rarely ever seen. He runs over people, around people and away from people, catches the ball out of the backfield and doesn't stop playing even after the whistle has blown and his helmet has been ripped from his head.

    The only thing one could ask for is better durability, as Gurley was banged up against LSU in 2013, missed the next three games and played on a wobbly ankle for the rest of the season.

    But even so, he finished his sophomore campaign averaging 5.99 yards per carry with 989 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

    All things considered, those numbers are remarkable.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics were courtesy of cfbstats.com; all heights and weights were courtesy of the teams' official websites; and all All-Conference inclusions were courtesy of the SEC Digital Network.