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10 Toughest Players to Replace in the SEC in 2018

Roquan Smith

Roquan Smith

Alabama Crimson Tide DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

You know how the SEC is, great players leave, great players fill in the gaps. Even the ones that leave campus early to go to the NFL eventually get replaced by another four- or five-star recruit and the whole carousel keeps spinning and SEC domination continues through the years.

But there are always those certain difference-makers that ooze extraordinary talent and intangible qualities that has his head coach kicking the dirt, wishing he could keep that player one more season. This is a list of those SEC uber-talents who will be missed the most this offseason.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama

The New Jersey native (above, right) was a huge dynamo for that always-tough Crimson Tide defense. He was a heat-seeker across the middle of that Bama defense and a ball hawk when quarterbacks dared to throw in his direction. The best part about Fitz was that he was a Swiss Army Knife for the Tide defense, able to play safety, cornerback and linebacker.

Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia

The Junkyard Dogs were the sixth-ranked defense in the country with the help of Smith playing with his hair on fire. The Butkus Award winner finished the season with 113 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, 5.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. It was his leadership qualities that couldn’t be noted on a stat sheet.

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn

How important was Johnson (right) to the Tigers' success this past season? Well for one, he was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year after leading the conference in rushing yards (1,391) and total touchdowns (20). And his absence was really felt in Auburn's four losses. He didn't play in the Clemson game because of injury, wasn't 100 percent healthy in the SEC Championship Game, and managed just 71 yards on the ground in the Peach Bowl. Oh and he ran for 104 yards and a touchdown in the Iron Bowl. How's that for valuable?

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Arden Key, DE, LSU

It was a typical lock-down year for the Tigers’ defense in 2017, even though Key (right) missed a good bit of action along the way. Even still, his speed, agile feet and voracious appetite for stops behind the line of scrimmage will be missed as the Tigers strive to get the program back into national title contention.

Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M

Some scouts thought Kirk had the talent to be the top wideout in the country and they’re not wrong. His 66 catches and 10 touchdowns made him a marked man by opposing defenses, yet he still put up good numbers. His influence on the defensive scheming and planning against him will be felt after his departure.

Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama

The big block of granite in the middle of the Tide D-line was actually quite the freakish athlete, even catching a touchdown out of the backfield in the College Football Playoff semifinal victory over Clemson. His presence in the middle will be missed, but so will his engaging personality on the field. He could go top 10 in the draft, making him all that much more of a loss.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

He may not get selected higher than Christian Kirk in the NFL draft, but Ridley was, by a large margin, the most valuable receiver on the Tide’s roster. While he was busy pulling down 63 catches for 967 yards this season, the remaining seven wideouts combined for 64 catches. Finding a go-to guy that can stretch the field will be Job 1 for the Alabama offensive coaching staff this offseason.

John Kelly, RB, Tennessee

The hapless Volunteers could use all hands on deck in order to make their program makeover as painless as possible but now Kelly (right) has jumped to the NFL a year early. Kelly was THE running game for the Big Orange this past season, gaining 831 yards on the ground. The next nearest total to that was 326 yards gained by Ty Chandler.

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Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

With Minkah Fitzpatrick going pro a year early, losing Harrison becomes even more of a difficult pill to swallow. And talk about being all over the field, Harrison led the entire Tide defense with 43 solo tackles and 74 total tackles. As offenses stayed away from Fitzpatrick, Harrison’s role only intensified in importance.

Nick Chubb/Sony Michel, RBs, Georgia

Yes, we have a tie here. Both of these record-setting ramblers will be huge losses to that Bulldog running game. On top of all the yards they gained this year (2,572 combined), they also were senior leaders on the team and helped protect freshman QB Nick Fromm in passing situations. These two leave a gaping hole in the offensive plans for next season.

12 Others That Will Be Missed

(in alphabetical order)

DJ Chark, WR, LSU

Will Clapp, OL, LSU

Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

Jeff Holland, DL, Auburn

Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina

Donte Jackson, CB, LSU

Frank Ragnow, OL, Arkansas

Martinas Rankin, OL, Mississippi State

Braden Smith, OL, Auburn

Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M

Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia

— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.