Top 10 returning units in the SEC
Alabama's linebackers and Tennessee's backfield make the list.
Top 10 returning units in the SEC
SEC Media Days kick off this week, signaling the unofficial start to the college football preseason. As usual, there is a ton of returning talent in the SEC, but which teams are bringing back the strongest units in terms of returning production?
Below we have ranked the top 10 returning units with the help of PFF grades. We had to work hard to get some non-defensive line units onto this list, given how strong that position is for many SEC teams entering the season, but the D-lines are still well-represented below.
Here are the top 10 returning units in the SEC for 2016:
1. Alabama linebackers
We could have easily limited this to Alabama edge rushers, as the duo of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson appears poised for huge things in 2016 after their wildly productive 2015 campaigns. Neither played a ton of snaps last season, but they ranked first and fifth, respectively, among 3-4 outside linebackers in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric, with Williams producing 52 quarterback pressures (including 11 sacks) and Anderson 39 (including seven sacks) in part-time duty. Add in the fact that Reuben Foster ranked fifth in overall grade among returning off-ball linebackers last season, and there might not be a position group in the country bringing back more production than the Crimson Tide linebackers. With a star up front in Jonathan Allen (and depth behind him) and a top-notch secondary (see below), Bama’s defense will again be one of the best in the nation in 2016.
2. Texas A&M defensive line
We have Myles Garrett ranked as the best defensive player in the country entering this season, so that’s a good starting point for this unit. Only Joey Bosa, the Chargers’ No. 3 overall pick out of Ohio State, has earned a higher pass-rushing grade over the last two seasons than Garrett. Opposing offensive lines can’t ignore the Aggies’ other defensive end, however, as 6-foot-6, 260-pound Daeshon Hall was electric at times rushing off the edge last season (he had four sacks in the season-opener versus Arizona State, and graded very well in the bowl game versus Louisville). Defensive tackles Zaycoven Henderson and Daylon Mack both graded positively last season, with Mack a standout against the run as a true freshman – on the season he ranked third among returning D-tackles in run-defense grade, despite playing just 388 snaps.
3. Tennessee backfield
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better running back duo than Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Hurd graded out as one of the top rushers a year ago as the Vols’ leading ball-carrier, and Kamara was even more productive on a per-touch basis, ranking second to only Penn State’s Saquon Barkley in elusive rating among returning Power-5 backs, and second to only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey in yards per pass route run. They are joined by Josh Dobbs, who ranks as one of the nation’s best running QBs after forcing a ridiculous 45 missed tackles as a runner last year, making the Vols’ running game one of the best in the country.
4. Alabama secondary
This is another loaded unit for the Crimson Tide. Marlon Humphrey ranks fifth among returning cornerbacks in overall PFF grade, and should be one of the nation’s best players at his position this year. Minkah Fitzpatrick graded as a slot corner last year as a true freshman, and he figures to start outside in base defense, possibly moving back into the slot in nickel packages following the transfer of Maurice Smith. Bama also brings back a pair of productive safeties in Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison. Jackson earned the top coverage grade last season among returning Power-5 safeties.
5. Florida secondary
The Gators lost cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the NFL draft, but they still have plenty of production returning in their defensive backfield. Only Florida State star Derwin James earned a higher overall PFF grade among returning strong safeties than the Gators’ Marcus Maye, who was a force against the run and also frequently made plays on the ball in coverage, recording seven passes defensed (third-most among all returning safeties). Jalen Tabor earned the fifth-highest coverage grade among returning Power-5 cornerbacks, picking off four passes, knocking away 12 more and allowing the lowest passer rating in the country at 33.0. Fellow corner Quincy Wilson also graded well last season.
6. Missouri defensive line
As mentioned up top, there are several excellent defensive lines in the SEC heading into 2016, but the Tigers stand out for their overall depth as well as for star edge rusher Charles Harris. He earned the fifth-highest overall grade among returning edge defenders, playing very well against the run and even better as a pass-rusher, producing 54 total QB pressures. They have an embarrassment of riches beyond Harris, with seven returning D-linemen who produced positive grades last season. Two to watch: Defensive end Walter Brady, who graded well against the run as a redshirt freshman and produced eight sacks as a pass-rusher, and defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., who ranked 15th in run-defense grade among returning Power-5 DTs despite having his true freshman campaign cut short after just 324 total snaps.
7. Georgia running backs
Nick Chubb missed almost all of last season due to injury, but in 2014 he was one of the best backs in the nation. Among Power-5 running backs, he ranked fifth in overall grade, second in yards after contact per attempt, and first in elusive rating. His replacement Sony Michel wasn’t quite as effective in his absence, but still was very productive, ranking 14th among returning Power-5 backs in overall grade and eighth in elusive rating. The two should form a nice complement for whichever QB gets the starting nod for the Bulldogs, as both have demonstrated an ability to be a pass-catching threat in addition to a running threat – Michel’s 15 missed tackles as a receiver was the most among Power-5 RBs last season.
8. Texas A&M wide receivers
It’s a close call between the Aggies and the Crimson Tide for the best returning group of wideouts in the conference, but we’ll give A&M the slight edge for now based on both units’ grades from last season. Christian Kirk had an outstanding true freshman season, catching 80 passes for 1,019 yards and establishing himself as one of the top slot weapons in the country – his yards per route run from the slot ranked seventh and his seven slot TDs were the most among returning Power-5 WRs. Teammate Josh Reynolds also had a strong 2015 season, producing the fourth-best deep-ball catch rate among returning Power-5 wideouts, hauling in all 11 catchable passes of 20-plus yards last year for 450 yards and two touchdowns. Add in Speedy Noil (who graded much better in 2014 than he did last year) and Ricky Seal-Jones and this is an excellent group of pass-catchers for transfer QB Trevor Knight.
9. LSU backfield
To be fair, this is largely centered around one player, but Leonard Fournette is too good for the Tigers’ backfield not to make this list. He earned the top rushing grade in college football last season and broke a ridiculous 85 tackles as a runner, making him the toughest back in the nation to bring to the ground. He’s a breakaway threat in addition to being a force between the tackles.
It’s also worth noting that fullback John David Moore graded well as a run-blocker prior to his season-ending injury, as did backup running back Darrel Williams in each of the last two seasons. Quarterback Brandon Harris likewise earned a positive grade as a runner, forcing 19 missed tackles and rushing for four touchdowns.
10. Tennessee defensive line
It was difficult selecting just one defensive line for this last spot, as Auburn, Ole Miss and Arkansas all had a reasonable claim based off of their 2015 grades. But we went with the Vols here, in large part due to the presence of Derek Barnett. He enters the season with the highest 2015 grade among edge defenders, having played very well against the run and produced 10 sacks as a pass-rusher. Corey Vereen, the defensive end who will line up opposite Barnett, graded well in 2015, particularly as a rusher. The interior of the line is a little more of a question mark, with projected starters Danny O’Brien and Kendal Vickers having graded negatively last season. But there’s upside there in the form of Shy Tuttle (whose availability for the season’s start is in question due to last year’s season-ending injury) and Kahlil McKenzie, who were both good versus the run in limited snaps last season.
Jeff Dooley | Editor-in-Chief
Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.