Ranking top 10 returning players in SEC

Steve Palazzolo lists the best players in the SEC for 2015, including a Heisman candidate running back.

| 2 years ago
Nick Chubb

(AP Photo/David Stephenson)

Ranking top 10 returning players in SEC

Best conference in America? Even with a national championship “drought” spanning two years, the SEC is still the class of the nation and their talent pool is the deepest in the country. Identifying their top 10 players was really difficult, as some big names had to be left out.

  1. Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida

The nation’s best cornerback put on an impressive display last season as he finished with a grade of 96.7 overall, allowing only 29 receptions into his coverage on 66 attempts for only 266 yards (9.3 yards per reception), one touchdown and eight passes defensed. Opponents had an NFL passer rating of 41.6 when throwing into his coverage, including a similar 49.5 rating against Power 5 opponents. Hargreaves’ lone negative game in coverage came against Alabama when he and No. 4 overall pick Amari Cooper went head-to-head for much of the game. It was one of the better battles of the season, with both players having their moments, but Hargreaves more than held his own against the nation’s best receiver.

  1. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Chubb stepped in as a true freshman last season and performed just as well (89.0 grade), if not better, than first-round pick Todd Gurley. Chubb is a nightmare to tackle, as evidenced by his 60 missed tackles forced against Power 5 competition (third in the nation) and an elusive rating of 113.3 against Power 5 teams that ranked second. His 3.84 yards after contact led the nation, and he showed big-play ability as well with just over half of his yards coming on runs of 15 or more yards (fifth-highest in country). Chubb has Heisman potential heading into 2015.

  1. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

The most impressive freshmen edge rushers in the nation resided in the SEC a year ago, and it’s a virtual toss-up between Barnett and Myles Garrett, but it’s Barnett’s all-around game and his work against better competition that gives him the slight nod here. He finished at 83.2 overall, including an 88 grade against the run that leads all SEC edge rushers heading into 2015. He picked up 47 total pressures, second to only Garrett among freshmen (more on that in a minute), including 11 sacks, nine hits, and 27 hurries. It’s rare to see a true freshman step in with such competence against the run, especially for a defensive lineman in the SEC, making Barnett’s first season all the more impressive and his future all the brighter.

  1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

Speaking of bright futures, Garrett has future NFL first-round potential on his pass-rush ability alone. While he was impressive for a true freshman, the caveat is where exactly he picked up his production, particularly as a pass-rusher. He led all freshmen with 65 total pressures, but 26 of them came in games against Lamar and UL Monroe. Still, he was plenty productive against SEC competition and he looks poised to become one of the nation’s best and most exciting players in 2015. One thing to look for, as Texas A&M brings in former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, is just how much Garrett develops as a run defender. Chavis edge rush disciples are generally excellent at taking on blocks in the running game (think Barkevious Mingo and Danielle Hunter), but often to the detriment of their pass-rushing ability (Hunter had only 14 pressures on 342 rushes last season).

  1. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee

The second-best corner in the conference, Sutton put together an impressive sophomore campaign with raw coverage numbers similar to Hargreaves. His overall coverage grade of 87.8 ranked second as he allowed only 43.3 percent of passes to be completed into his coverage (29-for-67) for 356 yards to go with interceptions and 10 passes defensed. One of the things that kept him out of Hargreaves’ league was his tackling — he missed 11 on only 44 attempts — but his coverage skills are too good to keep him off this list.

  1. A’Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama

Perhaps a little one-dimensional at this point, Robinson’s ability to stop the run is among the best in the nation. His 90.4 rating against the run is the best of all returning interior defenders, as he destroyed blockers all season. Alabama’s scheme is based around strong play at the point of attack, and Robinson is a perfect fit in this regard. The one place he can improve is as a pass-rusher, where he posted a pedestrian 73.7 grade (only 18 pressures on 283 rushes), but his early-down work is more than enough to keep him among the conference’s best players.

  1. Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Georgia

While teammate Leonard Floyd often gets more praise as an edge-rushing presence, Jenkins brings the more complete game, and he’s one of the best all-around edge rushers in the conference. He finished with an 85.0 overall last season, including an 85.2 pass-rush grade that ranks second in the conference and a stellar grade against the run at 81.9. He picked up six sacks, 13 hits, and 16 hurries on 338 rushes, including big-time games against Tennessee, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. Jenkins will pair with Floyd to form one of the best edge-rushing duos in the nation.

  1. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss

One of the nation’s best returning offensive tackles, Tunsil has top-10 draft hype at offensive tackle based on his physical tools. He didn’t exactly play to that level as a true sophomore, but he has the country’s fourth-best pass-blocking rating at 87.7 to go with a solid 79.7 rating in the run game. He gave up 10 pressures on the season (three sacks, no hits, seven hurries) on 364 pass-blocking attempts, good for a 97.6 pass-blocking efficiency that tied for 32nd in the nation (among 256 qualifiers). If Tunsil can improve as a run blocker, he’ll move further into that first-round mix in the 2016 draft.

  1. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina

There are a few exciting receivers in the SEC, and Cooper is right there among the best. Despite uneven quarterback play, he still managed to catch 69 passes for 1,136 yards (16.5 yards per reception) and nine touchdowns. His 87.2 receiving rating is tied for third in the nation among returning receivers, as he picked up 548 of his yards after the catch (7.9 per reception) and his 17 forced missed tackles tied for sixth in the FBS. Cooper’s monster effort against Tennessee (11 receptions, 233 yards, two touchdowns) was one of the best games of any receiver last season. It was hard to separate Cooper from Laquon Treadwell, De’Runnya Wilson and Duke Williams, among others, but he gets the nod on this list due to his big production in a bad situation last year.

  1. Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas

Williams pairs with Alex Collins to form one of the best running back duos in the nation, as both surpassed the 1,000-yard mark last season. Williams is more of a bruiser compared to the shifty Collins, forcing 65 missed tackles last year, good for sixth in the country. His 84.1 run rating ranks fifth among returning running backs, and he’ll be difficult to deal with behind a strong Arkansas offensive line and versatile running game. A 90-yard run against Nichols State aside, Williams is not a game-breaker, but when he gets going downhill, he’s as difficult to stop as any running back in the country.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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