Linebackers are probably the hardest unit to come up with a statistical ranking for, as they are involved in every bit of the defense. While defensive backs help stop the running game, we primarily judge them on their ability to stop the pass. We look at the line and wonder about them controlling the line.
Rating linebackers is almost like asking whether you have a good defense. It’s nearly impossible to separate linebacking performance from overall defensive performance. So, that will be a big part of my statistical look in, but there is a healthy dash of one other stat: long plays from scrimmage allowed.
During LSU’s catastrophic linebacking season of two years ago, it really hit me how important linebackers are to stopping big plays. If that team didn’t make a stop at the line, those players were almost assured of getting to the second level. Linebackers control the middle of the field, and when they field, the offense runs wild through that middle if it gets past the line and to the defensive backfield.
1. Mizzou: Criminally underrated. The Tigers were in a virtual dead heat with Bama in yards/play allowed, and were #2 in run defense and #1 in pass defense. They dominated when it came to preventing big plays, running away with the SEC lead. Mizzou returns senior starters Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. Neither made preseason All-SEC because life is unfair.
2. Florida: The Gators’ defensive accomplishments last season were even more impressive when you consider the lack of help the offense gave them. Jarrad Davis was half of the best LB combo in the SEC last year, and he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
3. Alabama: Saban was able to hide the linebackers a little bit last year behind that phenomenal line (and that Reggie Ragland guy). But Bama, surprisingly, ranked in the bottom third in the SEC when it came to giving up big plays. While tackles can be a misleading stat, Reuben Foster ranked 29th in the SEC. it’s not THAT misleading. Tim Williams is a spectacular pass rusher.
4. Georgia: The Dawgs lose two longtime starters, but they had done a good job of easing the new guys in the rotation, so they should be able to step in without a drop in production, and maybe even improve off of it. Lorenzo Carter is ready to break out.
5. LSU: Speaking of ready for the breakout, Arden Key is ready for his closeup. LSU scored a huge victory by getting Kendall Beckwith back, but depth is a pretty big question. LSU has struggled to find three quality LB’s, and now it is shifting to a 3-4.
6. Tennessee: Jalen Reeves-Maybin is probably the best linebacker in the conference, so that helps. I’m not as sold on Darrin Kirkland, but he was just a freshman last year. The defense was below average against the run, and fairly susceptible to the big play. It takes more than one great player to be a great unit, so they could rocket up the charts.
7. Vanderbilt: Zach Cunningham would be a star at any school in the SEC. He’s not just good for Vandy, he’s good. Period. They return experience and depth at the position, and this is one of the few places Vandy does not suffer a massive talent mismatch.
8. Mississippi St: Stop me if you’ve heard this about State before, but this unit is solid and unspectacular. Richie Brown is the leading returning LB tackler in the SEC. The defense is hemorrhaging talent, so he’s going to be asked to hold this whole defense together.
9. Ole Miss: Speaking of hemorrhaging talent. The Rebels don’t return any starts and will likely rely on Rommel Mageo, a grad transfer, to keep the lights on. But man, this group was pretty great last year. So I can’t drop them into the teens.
10. Arkansas: The Hogs boasted one of the worst LB corps in the conference last year, but they return two starters and that usually bodes well for improvement. Arkansas had the worst YPP and big plays allowed in the SEC, but they did have a good run defense, so there’s something to build on.
11. Auburn: The Tigers play only two LB and return 0 starters from a unit that wasn’t particularly good last year, despite lots of preseason plaudits. Maybe the lack of hype will help this team.
12. Texas A&M: A&M was terrible against the run last year, but pretty good against the pass. Shaan Washington was pretty solid in the middle, and he returns to anchor a defense that needs a lot of help.
13. South Carolina: They allowed over 6 yard per play last year and unlike Arkansas, they don’t have a good stat to build off of.
14. Kentucky: The Cats need to replace every starter from last year, which is probably a good thing.
Poseur's Mizzou fetish is growing unchecked here. I like the Tigers too, but losing their elite DL coach should have a blow. That said, promoting Barry Odom, a defensive minded coach, should keep their unit strongly in check. I like them... but there's a giant elephant in the room and that elephant is...
1. Alabama: Look, I understand they lose Reggie Ragland and Denzel Devall, but it's possible this unit UPGRADED in talent level. I counted Tim Williams as a DL in our DL rankings, because last season he was primarily a pin-your-ears-back pass rusher, so I can't lump him in here. Reuben Foster is maybe the best returning LB in the league. Ryan Anderson is a valuable veteran pass rusher. They will play a wave of upperclassmen that are backed up by even more 5-stars. To me, everything comes up Alabama until further notice.
2. Mizzou: Okay, I can't dog our northern brethren too heavily here. I like Newsom and Scherer. Losing Brothers is tough, but I'm a huge fan of Brandon Lee, who could be a breakout player in the SEC this year. I'm a fan of backup Terez Hall as well, though this unit is largely strong with their first 3 and a major question mark after that.
3. Tennessee: Jalen Reaves-Maybin is one of the best LBs in the SEC. Darrin Kirkland Jr. is ready to be a star after a strong freshman campaign. I think this group could see a nice boost in performance under the watch of Bob Shoop, who has a good history with LBs.
4. LSU: Yeah, I'm projecting. Yeah, I know this unit has lent itself any favors. But I think this is the most talented we've been at the position since Sheppard/Riley were holding down the spots. The depth is weak, but the talent is not. Beckwith has NFL aspirations and is primed for a big time senior season. Arden Key may be the singular most talented player on the entire roster... which feature Leonard Fournette. Devin White was already making waves in the Spring. He's a near lock to hold down a starting position. They've got to fill that fourth spot, but there's a sea of veterans in Devin Voorhies, Donnie Alexander and Corey Thompson OR perhaps White's fellow incoming freshman Michael Divinity. My biggest reason for confidence? Dave Aranda, who has spent a career making lemonade out of lemons. He's gonna make a tremendous impact on the position.
5. Georgia: Losing Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins hurts. But I still like the overall talent here. Smart has a pretty strong history with LB production from Alabama, so I think this will be a nice unit.
6. Florida: Not as keen on this unit as Poseur. Florida is losing so many key pieces. I like that they have 3 SR starters, but the depth isn't stellar, and I think this defense is in line for a regression.
7. Vanderbilt: Cunningham is a stud. Losing Weatherly hurts. As with all things Vandy, the talent level just isn't there, but I can respect a solid unit that Mason has built.
8. Mississippi St.: Richie Brown is one of the best LBs in the conference. If former LSU recruit Leo Lewis can make an impact they could vault up this list a bit.
9. Arkansas: I like this group. They are blue collar. They are tough. They aren't the most explosive and talented unit. Their struggling with big plays relates to their athleticism or lack thereof.
10. Ole Miss: These
11. Auburn: Units
12. Texas A&M: Are
13. South Carolina: Very
14. Kentucky: Bad.
1. Alabama: Well, because they're Alabama. Reuben Foster is awesome, Ryan Anderson can cause a lot of problems if left unchecked as a pass rusher. Tim Williams is sort of more of a DE. But can drop back to LB and do that really well. They're just more talented than you.
2. Tennessee: Jalen Reeves-Maybin doesn't shoot Tennessee into this spot by himself, but when you have one singular dominant player like him at LB, it's big. Darrin Kirkland was very solid in his freshman year and should get better too.
3. LSU: Kendall Beckwith isn't a singular dominant force the way Maybin is and I think we expect him to be, so when he's merely great...we dock him for it. But he is great, he stops the run really well and can get after the QB when given the chance. Arden Key is a freak and there's talent here that's way better than what Dave Aranda used to incredible success at Wisconsin
4. Mizzou: When you're not churning out an assembly line of blue chips like Bama, you can't lose the best defensive player in the conference like Kentrell Brothers and get better. But Michael Sherer is very good and he's got a solid, experienced player in Donavin Newsom alongside him.
5. Georgia: Lorenzo Carter is going to be a beast and there's a nice blend of young talent and experience with this group. I also like what Kirby Smart will be able to do considering his track record.
6. Mississippi St.: They get the nod here by virtue of the fact Richie Brown is an absolute stud. Probably one of the top 5 LB's in the conference. And those guys make a difference. Will Coleman is another SR alongside him, and experience plays at LB.
7. Florida: Jerrad Davis is just outside that top tier of elite LB's in the SEC, but he's still a great player and could get better this year. There's a certain reliability with Florida on defense, but they just lose so much experience I couldn't quite move them up higher.
8. Vanderbilt: If they had more talent, they may be at #5 because Zach Cunningham is a wrecking ball. A tremendous player. But that talent differential means less of a benefit of the doubt, but Derek Mason could do good work.
9. Arkansas: Experienced, play hard, always very consistent and tough. They personify what you can expect from a Bielema unit at Arkansas and that usually is a good thing.
10. Ole Miss: There's... experience here. That helps. Talent... less so.
11. Auburn: Kris Frost was the only thing to write home about with this group and he's gone. War GusBus.
12. South Carolina: They're gonna try
13. Kentucky: They also will try
14. Texas A&M: Oh god. Uh. Yeah. Well....it's bad.
I wonder if we should have put a hard rule on whether players like Tim Williams and Arden Key count here, or as defensive linemen? Although I'm not sure it makes a huge difference at the top.
1. Alabama: Honestly, I think this unit was nearly as deep as their defensive line last year. Alabama’s done a fantastic job of working young linebackers in in specific roles in order to grow them out from there – it’s one of the real luxuries that depth can afford you. And when the time comes to take on a major role, guys like Rueben Foster, Rashaan Evans, etc… have played a lot of football and know their roles in the defense. Foster, athletically, is already a better prospect than Reggie Ragland, and guys like Anderson and Williams excelled in smaller roles last season. I expect the cycle to continue with guys like Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson as well.
2. Missouri: The other other Tigers ask a lot of their linebackers and they’ve answered the call the last few seasons. That you can lose a Kentrell Brothers and still have nearly 200 tackles returning is a testament to the depth of this group.
3. Florida: Jarrad Davis is really, really good and he’s surrounded by a group of seniors that have played a lot of ball over the years.
4. Tennessee: Jalen Reeves-Maybin is on the short list of players that elevate his unit single-handedly.
5. LSU: Homer pick? Sure. But Kendell Beckwith and Arden Key will become two of the biggest big-play threats in the conference in Dave Aranda’s defense, and the new coach is singing Duke Riley’s praises to anybody that will listen. The overall athleticism of this unit is on the uptick and that may only continue now.
6. Georgia: Dawgs have recruited well here, and there shouldn’t be much of a transition from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense to Kirby Smart. Lorenzo and Reggie Carter both seem like good fits that should hit the ground running.
7. Vanderbilt: Zach Cunningham is here to continue the long Vandy tradition of having at least one 100-plus tackle linebacker that looks way too good to be playing there. Coincidentally, he’s being coached by Chris Marve, who served in that role a couple years back.
8. Mississippi St.: It’s a testament to the depth of this position in the league that State is this low, because Richie Brown and Leo Lewis are excellent tacklers.
9. Arkansas: Not the most athletic group, but Brooks Ellis and Co. know their jobs and do them very well.
10. Ole Miss: This unit hasn’t been the same since Serderius Brown left in 2014. Tony Connor is really good, but he’s more of a DB. Telling that they’re counting on a grad transfer from Oregon State to stabilize things.
11. Auburn: Well, last year’s unit was really bad, and the new starters here weren’t good enough to beat those guys out so…
12. Texas A&M: There’s some actual talent on the defensive line here. But after that, nobody to tackle running backs.
13. South Carolina: Poor Skai Moore.
14. Kentucky: Where have you gone, Josh Forrest?
I’m definitely the guy out of step with consensus here. The other three guys combined only cast four total votes outside of one slot from the consensus rank, and they entirely agreed on four teams with zero variation.
I was outside of the consensus by two slots or more on four teams by myself. I did cast five votes that precisely lined up with consensus, mainly because I fell into line on the dregs of the conference. I joined the consensus on voted 11-14.
I’m probably underrating Tennessee, but they really do have a disturbing lack of depth and I can’t get over the fact that their defense wasn’t terribly good last year. The linebackers get a lot of credit when things go right, but it’s hard to give them credit and not also assign blame.
I am way out of step on Alabama, but I also ranked LSU below consensus on this position. I think that Alabama’s defensive successes last year were more attributable to the amazing front four, and I do think the defense gave up too many big plays, which points to the weak link as the linebackers. Weak link is relative, of course, as our top six units all could be elite units, nationally. But I stand firm in my stance that Mizzou’s defense is great.
8. Mississippi St.
10. Ole Miss
12. Texas A&M
13. South Carolina