In fairness, the SEC as a whole was not as good as the conference usually is in 2016. Alabama was great. But after that, you had a huge pile of mediocrity, with every team in the conference having at least four losses.
However, the lack of dominance certainly didn’t happen because of a shortage of talented players. The SEC had some of the nation’s best players, and that will show come draft time. A good majority of talent is returning next season, but there are going to be some tough players to replace.
Excluding from this list guys like Alabama’s star offensive tackle Cam Robinson and Florida’s impressive, all-conference cornerback tandem of Jalen “Teez” Tabor and Quincy Wilson wasn’t easy. But as always, the SEC has a ridiculous amount of talented players.
So, here are the 10 toughest players to replace in the SEC in 2017. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best players leaving, but the toughest for their respective teams to go on without. That’s why you won’t see Leonard Fournette below, since LSU returns Derrius Guice, the conference’s second-leading rusher last season and a player many consider to be a Heisman Trophy contender for 2017.
10 Toughest Players to Replace in the SEC in 2017
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
For much of his career, Garrett was a lone bright spot on a bad Aggies defense. His leadership helped anchor the defensive line and by the time he got to his junior year, that unit was better. Garrett had 8.5 sacks in 2016 and 15 tackles for a loss. He’s also a prototypical pro-style defensive end, with all the tools necessary to succeed at the next level. Picked by many to go No. 1 overall in the upcoming NFL Draft, this guy will be tough to replace.
Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
A case could be made that Allen deserved the Heisman Trophy last year. Many believe he was the nation’s best player. In fact, he received more first-place votes for the Heisman than Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers — even though Allen wasn’t invited to the ceremony. Allen did win the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award, and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It was his impact on a game that was most impressive, not his stats. Just take a look at the highlight reel.
Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
It’s pretty simple with Cunningham; he was the SEC’s best tackler. Cunningham brought down opposing ball carriers 125 times in his junior year, with 71 of those tackles being solo stops. And this was after he posted 103 tackles in 2015. He anchored a stout Vanderbilt run defense and helped guide the Commodores to a bowl game. As one of the nation’s best linebackers, Cunningham could hear his name called in the first round.
Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
For all of the criticism he took for not being able to throw the ball downfield in his junior season, Dobbs showed tremendous improvement as a passer in 2016, throwing for almost 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also was a major threat on the ground throughout his tenure with the Volunteers. Dobbs made Tennessee’s offense nearly unstoppable in the second half of the season, as the Vols averaged close to 48 points per game over their final five contests.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
He never quite got the praise that peers Myles Garrett or Jonathan Allen got, but all Barnett did throughout his entire Tennessee career was ball out. He led the SEC in sacks with 13 last season, and also paced the conference with 19 tackles for a loss. Perhaps his greatest achievement was notching his 33rd career sack in the final minutes of the Music City Bowl against Nebraska. That broke Reggie White’s school record. Not bad company. Barnett, arguably, is Tennessee’s best defensive player… ever.
Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
It’s sort of hard to argue against the importance of a player who led the SEC in passing yards per game with more than 300. He also happened to torch Alabama’s defense twice. But after throwing for more than 4,000 yards in 2015, Kelly had to miss the final three games of his senior season. In his absence, Ole Miss was blown out 38-17 by Vanderbilt and 55-20 by Mississippi State. That pretty much says it all, right?
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Foster was second in the SEC in total tackles last year with 115. The senior Crimson Tide linebacker had 60 solo stops, including nine against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Foster anchored the nation’s top run defense, and also had 13 tackles for a loss. Foster won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and was a unanimous first-team All-American.
Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
It’s not often you see a tight end as the SEC’s No. 2 pass catcher, but that was the case with Engram, who had 926 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last season. As Chad Kelly’s favorite target, he quietly took care of business as the SEC’s best tight end. Engram only played in 11 games, too. Had he played in 12, he may have very well been the No. 1 “receiver” in the conference.
Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Statistically speaking, Auburn’s defense was simply better when Lawson was on the field. His presence alone dictated how opposing offensive lines game planned, which freed up his teammates to make plays. Lawson had nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss, ranking in the top 10 in the SEC in both categories. Despite battling injuries throughout his career down on the plains, Lawson still managed to emerge as one of the Tigers’ best players.
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
A three-year starter, Adams has been a key part of the Tigers’ defense since arriving in Baton Rouge. A first-team All-SEC selection this past season, Adams finished in the top 20 of the conference in total tackles with 76 and also recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss. Projected by some as the first defensive back to come off of the board in the upcoming draft, Adams appears a safe bet to maintain LSU’s reputation as “DBU.”
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.