clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2017 SEC Unit Rankings: Linebackers

New, 10 comments

What we do best: run and hit people

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia
We like hitting in these parts
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This is the hardest position group for me every year because, by and large, the statistical method largely fails. Any attempt to come up with a statistical rating of linebacking groups usually answers the question: do you have a good defense?

The stat that individual linebackers dominate is tackles, and high tackle totals don’t really tell us a whole lot. They aren’t quite the RBI of football stats, but there is some bias in it tells us a lot about usage over talent. So I’m much more amenable to “these guys are super talented” argument here, but I’ll try and keep it grounded in performance.

1. Georgia

Roquan Smith is one of the most productive returning LB in the conference, and Lorenzo Carter is one of the more tantalizing NFL prospects. The Bulldogs return all four starters from the anchor unit of one of the best defenses in the SEC. They should be even better this year at the position and take their place at #1.

2. Kentucky

Yeah, I’m shocked, too. Of the top 25 tacklers last season, 17 were linebackers and only 7 return. Of those seven, three play for Kentucky. The Wildcats return all 4 starters including all around stud Jordan Jones (109 tackles, 15.5 TFL) who is the best returning LB if you’re one of those people who mistakenly believe Arden Key is a DE. Denzil Ware contributed 12 TFL himself, and the wonderfully-named Courtney Love had 76 tackles when he wasn’t busy killing Kurt Cobain.

3. LSU

Arden Key is the best player in the conference. Period. And by season’s end, I think the most important player on LSU’s defense will be Devin White. Aranda is a genius at LB development, and he has more raw tools than he’s ever had before.

4. Auburn

The Tigers return nearly their entire LB corps, and while all of them are good, they lack that top end stud. Tre Williams (67 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and Deshaun Davis (63 tackles, 7 TFL) are both terrific players, but they both benefited playing behind one of the best d-lines in the conference, which is gone to the NFL now.

5. Alabama

The Tide will reload, as always, but this seems like more of a step back than usual. Rashaan Evans is the leading returnee and Dion Henderson (9 TFL) has a decent history of getting to the quarterback, but it's not the usual group of terrifying monsters. Mack Wilson will be the star by midseason, most likely. All of the top 5 units are loaded, to be honest.

6. South Carolina

The Gamecocks only officially list two returning starters, and they return last year’s most impactful player in Bryson Allen-Moore (75 tackles, 8.5 TFL). More importantly, they get Skai Moore back from injury, and he could immediately stake out his position as the best LB in the SEC not named Arden Key.

7. Mississippi St.

The Bulldogs had a pretty lousy defense last year, and I’m not ruling out the probability they will repeat that feat this season. But they do have Leo Lewis, who was terrific as a freshman. JT Gray (71 tackles, 8 TFL) gives him a bit of a cushion so Lewis doesn’t have to do everything, as his role will expand.

8. Tennessee

Darrin Kirkland was limited by injuries, allowing Colton Jumper to sneak into the lineup. There’s a lot of depth here, but they will miss Jalen Reeves-Maybin. There’s lots of experience, but no one has stepped up.

9. Florida

The Gators had one of the best units in the nation last year, and one of the best defenses as well. All three starters are gone. The young guys have some experience, and Kylan Johnson has the makings of a star, but there will be growing pains as they transition to youth this season.

10. Vanderbilt

Let’s pour one out for Zach Cunningham. Oren Burks is likely the best LB on the roster now, though he’s a hybrid safety. Still, he gets all over the field (59 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 PBU), and gives the Commodores a legit playmaker.

11. Texas A&M

A bad defense that is also suffering a huge talent drain, but Otara Alaka (74 tackles, 9 TFL) is the one potential diamond in this sea of coals. Alaka can’t do it alone, but I really don’t know who will step up around him.

12. Arkansas

The Hogs were distinctly average on defense last year, being charitable, and they lose three of four starters at the position, plus their best player. That might be an upgrade.

13. Missouri

The bottom fell out of the Tigers defense, and there might be no putting it back together again. There’s some young talent, but this unit is losing its two best players by a wide margin. Could be a long year.

14. Ole Miss

They return DeMarquis Gates, an undersized linebacker who somehow led the Rebels in tackles (79 tackles, 5.5 TFL). After Gates, there’s a void of question marks. Ole Miss had one of the worst defenses in the SEC last year and could be getting worse.

Paul

Much like with DL, LBs can be difficult to evaluate depending on the system. Chavis' 4-3, for example, almost always features a LB or two with high tackle totals (ahem, Shaan Washington), but I don't think any is here touting the guys playing for Texas A&M right now. But there's some pretty clear tiers here and this is arguably the most talented position in the entire conference.

1. Alabama

Reuben Foster. Reggie Ragland. Trey DePriest. C.J. Moseley. Courtney Upshaw. This is just rinse, lather, repeat at this point. Rashaan Evans is next man up and frankly, Shaun Dion Hamilton is not far behind. The Tide defense suffered a bit when Hamilton went down last year. Oh yeah, and the 14 other 5-stars they have in waiting like Mack Wilson, Ben Davis and ahem, Dylan Moses.

2. Georgia

I LOVE UGA's starting 4, but I think the depth after them is a bit more suspect. Smith is a stud ILB. Patrick is a really solid complement to the group. Carter and Bellamy are pass rushers, primarily. It's a really good crew that could easily be no. 1.

BIG GAP

3. LSU

Call it the Key bump. I think the top two are in a class their own while the rest have a standout or two and some major question marks. Key is absolutely the best player in the conference and White is an emerging, albeit still unproven, star. The problem is, after that you have a collection of talented guys who have never played like Andre Anthony, Michael Divinity, and Jacob Phillips. Or veteran guys who don't have standout talent like Corey Thompson, Donnie Alexander and Devin Voorhies. Don't sleep on Layton Garnett.

4. Auburn

Tre' Williams is a former stud recruit that took a few years to come into his own. Deshaun Davis is a strong player alongside him. Darrell Williams is a solid 3rd guy. They'll be the focal point of a D that has to rebuild its line.

5. South Carolina

Muschamp has a strong history of getting production from his LBs and Skai Moore is just a stud waiting to explode under his tutelage. Bryson Allen-Williams. After that, you are grasping for contributors, but here's where I trust Muschamp.

6. Kentucky

Not nearly as high on this crew as Poseur, in part, because I counted Ware on the DL and he's officially listed on Kentucky's site as a DE. Jordan Jones is a good player. But it's hard to get too excited about a linebacker core for a defense that ranked bottom 3 in the conference in run defense.

7. Tennessee

This is a good, solid crew. Kirkland back healthy should really help. Cortez McDowell and Colton Jumper are solid players. Quart'e Sapp is good depth and Will Ignont should be a freshman contributor. I might like this crew more than Kentucky's overall, but they admittedly have more question marks.

8. Mississippi St.

Clearly, Leo Lewis is the lead dog here, assuming all the Ole Miss drama isn't a distraction. Gerri Green is the guy they've been waiting to develop, but the one to watch is Willie Gay. He's got all-SEC potential as a true freshman. He might be the most talented player on State's entire team.

9. Missouri

Man, they stunk last year but Barry Odom hasn't forgotten how to coach defense. I like Brandon Lee enough. Eric Beisel and Cale Garrett are solid. Could take a nice step forward.

10. Florida

Dear God, McElwain, what have you done? They are looking at starting 3 freshmen, because UF has had more defections than the Mujuru Party, amirite? Not only are they young, they are all 3-star level talents. This D is in line for a major regression.

11. Texas A&M

I still really like Otaro Alaka. And he seems like the type of guy that might flourish as an upperclassman under Chavis. But boy, they haven't figured much else out.

12. Arkansas

I feel like Bert and Robb Smith can't strike out this hard AGAIN. But man, there's not a ton to be confident about here.

13. Vanderbilt

Gone is Zach Cunningham. RIP fun Vanderbilt.

14. Ole Miss

Ole Miss' boosters couldn't find a single damn Linebacker, apparently.

Billy

I think this is one of the areas where you see the league's top-tier recruiters really separate themselves from the pack.

1. Alabama

Why yes, I am getting tired of typing that. Thing is until somebody goes out and takes this spot, there's no reason to think Bama won't have the league's best unit here again. Shaun Dion Hamilton really impressed me last year, and we've seen Rashaan Evans shine in a supporting role. And then you throw in the other umpteen five-star recruits, and some of them are just going to emerge by process of elimination.

2. Georgia

Roquan Smith looks like he may the league's best inside linebacker, and he's surrounded by three other returning starters, including two seniors.

3. LSU

This position was a big question mark for me before the spring, but Devin White looks like somebody ready to really break out and be a star. You have a senior in Donnie Alexander that played very well in two starts to finish out 2016, you have a host of big-time incoming talent, oh, and maybe the best overall player in the league in Arden Key.

4. Auburn

I'm with Dan that you start to see something of a gap here. Auburn doesn't have a star here, but they have guys that were relatively highly recruited and fit the profile of "emerging senior" like Tre Williams.

5. Kentucky

Quietly a really productive group that returns intact in 2017. More than 300 tackles and nearly 20 tackles for a loss back.

6. South Carolina

I've always been impressed by Skai Moore, and Bryson Allen-Williams was pretty solid last season.

7. Texas A&M

Otaro Alaka is likely going to make a ton of tackles, but that might be because nobody else on this defense will.

8. Mississippi St.

Leo Lewis strikes me as an incredibly honest young man oh and he's also a pretty good linebacker. Veteran group, so you'd expect them to take to Todd Grantham's screaming well.

9. Florida

The Gators are rarely weak here, and you expect some players to emerge but this unit really got hit by graduation.

10. Missouri

I have a feeling Eric Beisel will break out, but again, a group that has lost a lot from last season.

11. Tennessee

It's nice to have two starters back, but you'd prefer they at least be in your top three in tackles.

12. Arkansas

Playmakers needed.

13. Vanderbilt

It feels like by the end of the year we're going to know SOMEBODY out of this group like we knew Zach Cunningham, but we don't know who we don't know yet.

14. Ole Miss

You say that somebody has to make tackles on every team but then you watch Ole Miss play anybody that can run the ball.

Crissy

1. Georgia

The Bulldogs group at this position is composed of future NFL starters and some of the best athletes in the SEC. One key factor for them is that they will return will all of their starting four. Expect Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith to be the major playmakers here. Natrez Patrick will get in on the action as well.

2. Alabama

The Tide is absolutely stacked at this position also. And as we know, whatever Alabama loses, they quickly replace. Evans and Hamilton will be the two big stars, with plenty of up and coming talent around them.

3. LSU

If not for Arden Key making his return, the Tigers would be lower than No. 3 on this list. As others have stated, he really is the best player in the conference. White will be right behind him, with several other players looking to make their mark this season too.

4. Kentucky

While not necessarily as flashy and talked about as the three teams above them, this is a really solid and productive unit that will continue to be just that this year. They racked up an impressive number of tackles, totaling 300 last year.

5. Auburn

Auburn didn't lose much between last season and now, and will head into this year with a stout group. Look for Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams will come up big this season.

6. South Carolina

The Gamecocks will have their key linebacker in Bryson Allen-Williams back to play another round. Skai Moore should come into his own and be one of the biggest forces in the conference as well.

7. Missouri

This unit lost a lot of great players from last year, just like a number of other programs have. Fortunately for them, there's still the chance Eric Beisel will have a breakout season and do a lot for this defense single-handedly. There's some hopeful young potential there as well.

8. Mississippi St.

This defense was just average last season, but it seems they might be slowly making some progress. Leo Lewis will undoubtedly be the No. 1 here. Willie Gay and J.T. Gray should be able to provide him with some extra help.

9. Tennessee

The Vols have a lot of experienced players to work with here. This makes for a solid group, but there's just one issue. None of them have proven themselves to be impact players. Someone is going to need really step up and separate themselves from the pack.

10. Arkansas

There's no true playmaker in this bunch. They'll also be without all but one of their starting four from last season.

11. Texas A&M

Otaro Alaka will most likely have a standout season. Maybe someone else will actually try to do something too.

12. Florida

You're probably confused as to why I would put this unit so far towards the bottom. They had one of the best defenses overall last year but will lose three starters, They'll be relying on young guys to try to replicate last season's success, which isn't realistic to expect.

13. Vanderbilt

Zach Cunningham is gone, and this group is left in a rebuilding stage pretty much across the board. Hopefully, a decent playmaker will emerge sometime this season.

14. Ole Miss

To put it plainly, this defense is a hot mess. The linebacker position is no exception.

Poseur

There’s largely consensus here, and it’s especially satisfying for there to be a clean sweep of the last place and it not be by Vandy. Even sweeter, it was Ole Miss. So a week after we were nice to the Rebels, order is restored.

I’m the big outlier here, as I lean far more on production than the other voters, which rocketed Kentucky up my rankings while everyone else grudgingly put them right behind the top tier. It also led me to downgrade Bama, not because I doubt Bama, but because I really like the other units. I disagree mostly with Paul’s “big gap.” Even as low as South Carolina in our rankings, I think you have an elite, nationally elite unit. And just one spot below is Leo Lewis.

SEC linebackers are awesome this year.

1. Georgia
2. Alabama
3. LSU
4. Kentucky
5. Auburn
6. South Carolina
7. Mississippi State
8. Tennessee
9. Mizzou
10. Texas A&M
11. Florida
12. Arkansas
13. Vanderbilt
14. Ole Miss