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2017 SEC Unit Rankings: Defensive Line

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Bama still wins, only by not as much.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Louisiana State
We’re pretty good, too
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There are two things I look at for a defensive line: tackles for a loss and sacks. Yes, I know a few of the league leaders are linebackers (SEE Key, Arden), but this is a good starting place, and about three-quarters of the sack and TFL leaders are linemen.

Now, no unit stands on its own, so you have to look at the overall defensive quality as well, and the usual factor of guys coming back. The SEC had an unusual amount of truly stellar linemen last year graduate to the NFL, so the lines might take a bit of a step back. But come on, this is the SEC. It’s not like the units are suddenly going to stink.

1. ALABAMA

Bama loses one stud, another one rises up to take his place. It’s just silly at this point. Jonathan Allen is a huge loss, but the Tide will be just fine with Da’Ron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand terrorizing quarterbacks.

2. LSU

The Tigers will start three seniors on the line, all with starting experience: LaCouture, Gilmore, and Herron. They won’t rack up big numbers, as they will hold up linemen for the linebackers to make the big plays, but this is stacked lineup that should be a team strength.

3. TEXAS A&M

The Aggies led the SEC in TFL/game, and most of that production returns. Yes, Garrett is no longer around to disappear in big games and ignore run defense, but Jarret Johnson and Kingsley Keke are two of the best returning linemen in the conference, and the unit will, I predict, improve without having to coddle its star player.

4. FLORIDA

Outside the top two, Florida had the best pass rush in the conference, and the Gators also averaged near 10 TFL/100 plays, making them an elite unit. They lost some to graduation, but they’ve recruited like mad and shouldn’t take too much of a step back.

5. GEORGIA

They took the lumps of growing pains last year, but now they return all of their starters from a young, middle of the pack unit ready to make the leap to elite. Trenton Thompson needs to come back from his medical issues, so I’m hedging my bets slightly.

6. AUBURN

Marlon Davidson is more hype than finished product right now, but he had a very encouraging freshman year. Losing Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson is huge. They racked up TFL’s (8.94/100 plays) but did have a problem getting to the QB, posting only mediocre sack numbers.

7. TENNESSEE

Derek Barnett was a beast, and one of the greatest linemen in SEC history. The cupboard isn’t entirely bare, but the Vols return just one starter in DT Kendal Vickers. It looks like a rebuilding year for what was a great line.

8 OLE MISS. The Rebels have some roster churn, but they still have a deep, experienced unit led by a gifted player in Marquis Hayes. Here’s the problem, Ole Miss ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks and below average in TFL. And that’s on a defense that could not stop the run at all.

9. MISSOURI

The magic finally ran out for Mizzou. After years and years of defying their talent level with some great production, it all came crashing down, and now this is a struggling unit on the rebuild. They still do average over 6 sacks/100 attempts, putting them in the upper half of the league. But the run defense has collapsed.

10. SOUTH CAROLINA

The overall defense, but the line did not produce. Only Vandy had a worse pass rush per 100 attempts, and only Arkansas had less TFL per 100 plays. They have some quality defensive tackles returning, but this unit needs to start pulling its weight.

11. MISSISSIPPI STATE

A quietly effective group last year, the Bulldogs are starting over from virtually ground zero. They lose every starter on the line including some key depth pieces, but I’ll give them a slight bump for last year’s quality. Coaching matters.

12. VANDERBILT

The worst pass rush in the conference, but they had a solid run defense that was sixth in rushing average. The Commodores return two starters in their 3-4 set, so there is a chance for experience guiding some improvement.

13. KENTUCKY

This is another 3-4 unit whose job it is to make the linebackers look good and rack up sack totals. Unfortunately, they don’t get to the QB nor slow down the other team’s run game. This wasn’t a good unit, and they are replacing most of the key pieces.

14. ARKANSAS

How does Arkansas have a bad D-line? No one made less tackles for a loss (7.18 per 100 plays), made even more remarkable by the fact they had an above average pass rush. Now, most everyone is gone and McTelvin Agim has to grow up in a hurry.

Billy

1. ALABAMA

No question here, even without Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. Alabama not only brings in more premium talent than anybody else, but they get it to sit and wait patiently for a starting role, like Da'Shawn Hand.

2. GEORGIA

Trenton Thompson puts them over the top here. He's super productive in a role that doesn't lend itself towards that. And with a veteran group you expect some improvement.

3. FLORIDA

The Gators are losing some playmaking inside, but they return a solid twosome on the edge in Jefferson and Zuniga.

4. LSU

LSU doesn't have the flashiest group here with some solid vets, but they do their job, stuff the run and set up the linebackers behind them. Rashard Lawrence could break out as a playmaker.

5. AUBURN

Two starters back, but nobody that's all that impressive. But there is talent here.

6. TEXAS A&M

You look at two 300 pounders inside and wonder why this team can't defend the run to save its life. Don't see them getting better without Garrett and Hall outside.

7. SOUTH CAROLINA

Shot in the dark here, but there are three seniors and some beef inside. Muschamp's defense tends to favor the ends.

8. OLE MISS

Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes can get into the backfield, but if that doesn't work there's nothing else here.

9. MISSOURI

Terry Beckner is the saving grace of this bunch.

10. MISSISSIPPI STATE

As is Jeffery Simmons with this group.

11. TENNESSEE

Well, there's some talent here with Kyle Phillips and Kahlil McKenzie, but not a whole lot to show for it.

12. ARKANSAS

McTelvin Agim is probably going to be really good, but he needs some help. Has Bijhon Jackson been at Arkansas since the Houston Nutt Administration?

13. KENTUCKY

Well, at least there are some veteran bodies here.

14. VANDERBILT

Well, at least there are some bodies here.

Paul

It's always difficult to fully assess defensive linemen in these rankings. Where do you count a guy like Arden Key who is listed as a LB but we all know played his best as 4-3 DE last season? Some DLs don't rack up gaudy stats due to schematic choices, but that's not a mark against quality. So here's the best we can do.

1. LSU

Yeah, I did it. No one returns as much experience as LSU, who will feature 3 seniors as starters. The key thing here is that not only the starters, two of LSU's best players may actually be sophomores, Rashard Lawrence and Edwin Alexander. RS Freshman Glen Logan should see time and incoming freshman Tyler Shelvin is likely to contribute as well. LSU features anywhere from 5 to 7 quality bodies on the DL. No, they won't put up gaudy TFL numbers, but these guys will dominate the LOS of scrimmage which should help LSU's young back 8.

2. ALABAMA

At this point, Alabama is stockpiling top flight NFL draft picks. They put players who spend most of the season as consensus no. 1 prospects in America in bench roles and make them wait 3 years to become starters. It's dirty filthy rotten. Hand and Payne will dot your preseason lists, but Isaiah Buggs is an immediate contributor and don't sleep on Raekwon Davis, another top 100 talent. Oh by the way, Josh Frazier is a former top 100 player and there's still Phidarian Mathis on the way.

3. TEXAS A&M

I guess. There's a sizable gap after the top 2 here. A&M loses a couple of studs in Garrett and Hall, but Zaycoven Henderson, Kinglsey Keke and Jarrett Johnson look a lot like vintage high effort Chavis players. Lost in the mix is former stud recruit Daylon Mack who has yet to emerge and prove his immense talents. Qualen Cunningham is no slouch as a 4th starter, and despite being mediocre in the run game, this is a solid attacking unit.

4. GEORGIA

I'll go talent here as Trenton Thompson might be the single most talented DL in the SEC this year. He's a star ready to emerge. But the rest of the unit doesn't blow me away. Still, they ranked solidly last season and return their starters.

5. AUBURN

Losing Lawson and Adams is a major blow, but Marlon Davidson is a stud and they have to hope Byron Cowart is fully recovered from appendix issues that sidelined him in 2016. Auburn is shifting him inside and they should have a solid attacking unit up front, even if it's a Kevin Steele coached defense.

6. FLORIDA

Zuniga and Jefferson combined for 15 TFL and 6.5 sacks. Combined. Arden Key totaled 14.5 TFL and 12 sacks by himself. And I'm supposed to be excited about these two being the anchors of the Florida defense? Jefferson hasn't tapped into his lofty recruiting rankings. It's a collection of solid to fine players and Khairi Clark might be the best of them all as a blocker-eating, run stuffing force inside. They also lost Geoff Collins, which is significant considering his history with DL production.

7. OLE MISS

I like this group enough to not totally trash them, which is more than I can say for basically every other Ole Miss position group in 2017. Haynes is a big threat and Speaks will be an interior stud. Benito Jones is a solid 2nd tackle. They still can't stop the run, but they should be disruptive.

8. MISSOURI

Mizzou badly needs Beckner to become the top 10 player they recruited. Frazier is a solid disruptor. Not much here really excites you, but could be a solid unit under Barry Odom.

9. TENNESSEE

I'm so tired of believing in this unit's potential that I'm completely punishing them in 2017. They lost Barnett, who was an absolute stud. We've been waiting for Khalil Mackenzie, Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips to emerge as superstars for years now, and yet, here they are, as upperclassmen with little to show for it. This should be a top 5 unit but probably won't be.

10. KENTUCKY

Call it the Denzil Ware factor. Yes, he's a DE/OLB, but they list him as a DE on their website. Ware is the best player on any of the remaining teams on the list, and probably a top 5 DL in the conference this year. Enough for me to not rank them at the bottom.

11. SOUTH CAROLINA

Dante Sawyer is a solid player. They have three seniors and Muschamp, which should help them be competent. Then again they were middling last year and lost a pair of their best starters. -\_("/)_/-

12. ARKANSAS

They really have recruited well here and struck out on game changers like Solomon Thomas, which has hurt them badly. Can Bihjon Jackson ever emerge? Agim should be a good player and Randy Ramsey is solid, but what else is there?

13. VANDERBILT

Odeyingbo and Lealao are okay enough players in a unit that struggled to get pressure, but held up against the run game. Losing Zach Cunningham hurts their entire front 7, so there's not a ton to be excited about here.

14. MISSISSIPPI STATE

Jeffery Simmons, I guess. That's about it. They lost everyone.

Crissy

1. LSU

No bias here. The Tigers have done a great job of developing defensive players that perform well at all levels of football over the years. They've got the edge when it comes to experience as well, with LaCouture, Herron and Gilmore on the roster.

2. ALABAMA

Bama is losing just one major guy this year, and they've got everything to make his absence go relatively unnoticed. With talents like Isaiah Buggs, Josh Frazier and Da'Ron Payne just to name a few, there's no doubt the Crimson tide will have one of the best defensive lines in the SEC this season.

3. TEXAS A&M

The Aggies don't even begin to contend with LSU and Alabama in this category. They lost key players like Hall and Garrett, and will be betting on their young talents to fill their shoes. They've struggled with defending the run in the past as well, but I expect to see improvement this year.

4. AUBURN

The Tigers also lost some studs last year in Adams and Lawson, but they do have reliable guys on the roster to replace them. If Byron Cowart is healthy this year, he'll be a major force. Auburn has a decent unit, but will need to put more pressure on the quarterback to move up the rankings.

5. GEORGIA

The Bulldogs come into the season top-heavy this year with one really impressive guy, and a lot of just-above-average ones on the line. Trenton Thompson will be one of the best defensive linemen in the conference this year without question. Whether or not the players around him even come close to his level will determine whether Georgia's line is just solid or one of the most elite in the SEC by the end of the year.

6. FLORIDA

The Gators will be without some of their best defensive linemen that have now graduated, but their ability to stay way ahead in the recruiting game will save them. They bring one of the best pass rushes in college football, and will perform well this year.

7. OLE MISS

Like A&M, this is a team that also fails to stop the run. Haynes and Speaks will be their main guys, and Benito Jones should do some big things for the team at 2nd tackle.

8. TENNESSEE

Tennessee could go both ways this year — it's a question as to whether or not their upperclassmen become the key players they're supposed to be. But they've yet to do that so far, so expectations are low for the Vols.

9. MISSOURI

Frazier is a solid DL, but for Missouri to really break out this year they're going to need to see some serious action from Beckner. There's really nothing flashy about this group, but it's a solid unit.

10. SOUTH CAROLINA

The Gamecocks will be relying on their experience, with three seniors on the line. They were just "okay" last year, and will suffer from the loss of two of their best starters.

11. VANDERBILT

Vandy was mediocre last year, and brings the worst pass rush in the conference. They held up decently against the run game, though.

12 MISSISSIPPI ST. This team will have one of the weakest defensive lines in the conference this year, as they lost all of their starters. They'll be putting most of their faith in Jeffrey Simmons. Whether or not they can rebuild will determine how effective the Bulldogs are this year.

13. ARKANSAS

There's not a ton to work with here. The Razorbacks will be without Solomon Thomas, and will be relying on players like Randy Ramsey Bihjon Jackson to have a breakout season.

14. KENTUCKY

Kentucky doesn't have much going for them either, other than a few experienced players. It's an okay 3-4 unit, but they don't put up many impressive numbers.

Poseur

One of the disadvantages of putting out my list first is that sometimes I think I’m taking a radical stand, and by the time I get all the responses back, everyone agrees with me. I don’t know if that’s because they already had that opinion, they were persuaded by my brilliance, or I have the power of Inception. Probably option 2 or 3.

So I thought I was taking a stand on A&M, but it turns out that everyone, except Billy, thinks the same thing: they won’t really miss Garrett. Breaking our final list out into tiers, LSU and Bama are lapping the field, and the next big gap is between Auburn and Ole Miss at 6 and 7. Then there was a pretty stout battle for last between our bottom three teams, lagging well off the pace.

1. Alabama
2. LSU

3. Texas A&M
4. Georgia
5. Florida
6. Auburn

7. Ole Miss
8. Tennessee
9. Missouri
10. South Carolina

11. Mississippi St
12. Kentucky
13. Vanderbilt
14. Arkansas