The LB talent is pretty well spread out this year. The nine linebackers on the media's All-SEC teams come from seven different teams. Phil Steele has eight players on his top two teams spanning seven teams as well. That's a pretty decent spread of talent. It's hard to find a breakout unit from the pack. But we'll try anyway.
It's hard to isolate linebacker stats. I looked at the total defense stats, yards/play, rushing average allowed, and passing rating allowed. Then I look at the number of starts and tackles returning. I like active linebackers, and then I tried to bonus out those peripheral stats.
1 Mizzou: Yes, Mizzou. The Tigers had one of the better defenses in the SEC last season, and they return two guys with over 100 tackles in Brothers and Scherer. They are two leading returning tacklers in the SEC, and there are only three other returning players with over 100 tackles last year on every other SEC team combined.
2 Georgia: Leonard Floyd is one of the more dynamic playmakers in the SEC, and he might get passed up in accolades by Lorenzo Carter. Depth is a bit of a concern, as they lose a lot from last year, but that top two is outstanding.
3 Alabama: Reggie Ragland is the next Alabama stud linebacker. It is a bit of a concern that Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson couldn't force more playing time last season in a weakened LB corps, but the experience should pay off this year.
4 LSU: Why the hell wasn't Beckwith starting from week one? Debo and Louis means LSU returns tons of experience, but it hasn't yet translated into results. Still, this is a solid, deep, experienced unit with one big-time playmaker in the middle.
5 Tennessee: Curt Maggit can get to the QB, but he's never quite lived up to the promise he flashed as freshman. Jalen Reeves-Maybin has taken over as the guy. If they can find a third body, this unit could be spectacular. The results haven't come yet, but this could be the #1 unit by season's end. They have that kind of upside.
6 Kentucky: Very quietly returns 220 tackles in the middle of their defense, led by Josh Forrest. This is a pretty stout unit, but they will be asked to do too much due to shortages elsewhere.
7 Auburn: I really like Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. They combined for 178 tackles and 21 TFL's last season. Yet the defense still stunk despite their production. What impact are they really making?
8 Florida: Antonio Morrison is a great player, but it's an open question as to what else the Gators have, as they replace two starters and have little depth. One guy can carry the linebacker position, but he needs some help, and he doesn't really make a bunch of game-breaking plays.
9 Ole Miss: They do not return a single player who ranked in the top 50 in tackles in the SEC last season. Graduation hit this unit hard, taking their top three tacklers, and leaving them with the talented yet so far unproven Denzel Nkemdiche. Time to start delivering.
10 Mississippi State: They lose two starters to graduation, but the two Browns, Beniquez and Richie, were both effective last season. Should be able to keep the lights on.
11 Arkansas: I don't feel Martrell Spaight ever got his due for being the dominant player that he was. His absence will be keenly felt as the Hogs try and rebuild on the fly in the middle of the defense.
12 South Carolina: Skai Moore is a terrific player but this defense was pretty awful last year. He's about the only good thing about this unit. Or the entire defense.
13 Vanderbilt: Well, they return all of their starters, so that's got to be something.
14 Texas A&M: A&M was in a dogfight with South Carolina for the worst defense in the SEC last year, and now the Aggies only return one LB starter, Shaan Washington. Unless there's some magical elixir that Chavis has hidden away, this unit figures to be terrible again.
1 Georgia: Replacing some studs inside, but Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter are as good an outside twosome as anybody has in the conference and the big-play ability of those two offsets the loss of Herrera & Wilson for this purpose.
2 Missouri: But production does matter, and nobody returns more than Mizzou with Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer. And the new starter, Donavin Newsom, has some strong relief experience.
3 Auburn: Cassanova McKenzie and Kris Frost are really good, and while Poseur has a point that Auburn's defense was ass in spite of those two, I think that says more about the scarcity of talent around them then the quality of the unit, which is at question here.
4 LSU: Kendell Beckwith is the emerging superstar that NOBODY in this conference is talking about, and he's flanked by two seniors. Watch for Debo Jones on the weakside - he had the speed to really excel in the style of defense Kevin Steele is bringing in.
5 Alabama: Reggie Ragland is a stud, and a likely All-American candidate. But around him? Reuben Foster is a potential breakthrough, but the rest are vets that have never really done anything in Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall.
6 Tennessee: Curt Maggitt and Jaylen Reeves-Maybin are pretty stout.
7 Kentucky: Josh Forrest gets the Wesley Woodyard Memorial Trophy for being a standout on bad Kentucky defenses that will likely go on to a strong pro career while being unknown to most SEC fans.
8 Mississippi State: Replacing two starters, but Richie Brown played well in relief and should transition to the starting lineup well. And Beniquez Brown is a star in the making on the weakside.
9 Florida: Antonio Morrison is pretty good. The rest are unproven, but highly recruited.
10 Arkansas: Brooks Ellis is one of the better returning MIKEs in the league, but I'm not really sure about the rest.
11 Texas A&M: Look for Otaro Alaka to produce, but he's not enough to make this a strong unit.
12 Vanderbilt: Three out of four starters back, which is more than the guys below them can say.
13 Ole Miss: The Rebels are going to miss Serdarius Bryant. They're counting on C.J. Johnson, a former stud linebacker recruit, turned underachieving/oft-injured defensive end and now back at linebacker.
14 South Carolina: Skai Moore is solid, and he's flanked by some returning experience, but this was the worst group in the league last year.
I'm not overwhelmed here. A lot of the league's top tacklers are gone. Only 5 players who registered 100 tackles return. Only 16 of the league's top 50 tacklers from 2015 return and play LB. And those players are most spread out across the league, as Poseur noted.
1 Missouri: Agree with Poseur here. Brothers and Scherer lead the pack for a team that will likely need all the defensive help they can get in 2015. Inflated numbers or not, 236 tackles between the two of them doesn't leave much question for the no. 1 spot.
2 Tennessee: I'm higher on this group than Billy and Poseur. I know their defense as a whole wasn't very strong in 2014, but I think it's bigger than this unit. Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin are two of the SEC's top 3 LBs in TFL returning. To me, that's deserving of a top two spot.
3 Auburn: McKinzy and Frost are like lesser versions of Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin. Remember, Billy and I were keen on Auburn's backers last year and the same guys return this season and this time with an outright great coordinator.
4 Alabama: I'm going primarily on talent here. Ragland is a good player. Same with Devall. Foster needs to step up to prove his lofty recruiting hype. But I like the depth they have. Guys like Shaun-Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans should have bigger roles this year. Christian Miller is coming off a RS and should add another talented body. These are all 5 star talents that are backups.
5 Georgia: I wanted to punish this unit more because you guys are so high on them, but I don't see why. They lost their two best players. Leonard Floyd is a good pass rusher, yes. But how good? He registered only 6 sacks and 8.5 TFL. Jordan Jenkins is a good player too. And Lorenzo Carter is a special, emerging talent. I'm not as high as you two, but I also think there's a sizable drop off after these top 5.
6 Kentucky: I like Josh Forrest a lot. They return plenty of production. Just a solid, quality unit.
7 LSU: A stud flanked by a bunch of meh. I'll be surprised if Louis or Debo make a significant jump this season. They've had plenty of time to prove it before and continued to just be meh. This is a one-man gang without appreciable depth behind it. If Beckwith weren't so good, this would maybe be one of the worst in the conference.
8 Vanderbilt: Hey, they aren't last in something! I like Nigel Bowden, their young stud. He's 6th of all returning LBs in tackles/game. Then you add Stephen Weatherly, who is the 2nd leading, returning LB in TFL despite only playing 12 games. A quietly solid unit on a bad, bad defense.
9 Mississippi State: This group has a lot of experience returning and I think the Brown bros (not really bros) could take a step forward. I like back-up freshman Gerri Green too.
10 Florida: This unit could rise, and I would have much more faith in them if Muschamp was still around. I do like Geoff Collins, but I dunno. Only Morrison has proven anything.
11 South Carolina: I know, I know, their defense was hot garbage in 2015. But I like Skai Moore enough to think they will improve some. Besides, the bad D can't be all the LBs fault, right?
12 Arkansas: Brooks Ellis is nice, I guess.
13 Ole Miss: Lost a lot, don't return much.
14 Texas A&M: Don't worry A&M, Chavis is a LB sensei ;)
I actually agree with a lot of what Paul said. None of the units, aside from Mizzou, really impress me either. LSU ranks highly for me just due to a lack of question marks and that they provided solid production last year in an effective defense, but I like his pick based upon Tennessee's upside. That is the unit that could most likely explode. Though I really don't see a whole lot of difference between Bama and LSU's LB units: one stud surrounded by some solid guys in a very good defense.
I just can't bring myself to rate highly an Auburn defensive unit that has little turnover and wasn't that effective last season. But clearly, rating Auburn highly is a bit more defensible this year than last given the presence of Muschamp and the fact no other unit really stands out. Someone has to be in the top four... though I'd honestly rather it be Tennessee.
9 Mississippi St.
12 Ole Miss
13 South Carolina
14 Texas A&M