Another season, another loaded year for returning talent in the SEC. While the league is short on proven quarterbacks, there’s plenty of depth at defensive end, receiver and linebacker. LSU running back Leonard Fournette leads the way for Athlon’s projected top 40 SEC players for 2016, followed by Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Defending champion Alabama has three players inside of the top 10, while Georgia running back Nick Chubb checks in at No. 9 after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2015.
With the season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the best players in the nation within each conference. How did we come up with these rankings? Many factors were considered. Overall talent, production, level of competition, position importance and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what players accomplished in 2015. Here’s a look at the top 40 players in the SEC for 2016:
Ranking the SEC's Top 40 Players for 2016
40. Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Arkansas has three new starters on the offensive line, but coach Bret Bielema always seems to find the right mix up front. Skipper is the new leader in the trenches for the Razorbacks and enters 2016 with 34 career starts.
39. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn
Davis was a standout performer as a true freshman in 2015 and is poised to rank as one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks this fall. The Miami native played in all 13 games last year (nine starts) and recorded 56 tackles, 11 passes defended and three interceptions.
38. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
Michel is recovering from an arm injury suffered this offseason, but the junior is on track to return in 2016. When Nick Chubb’s 2015 season ended after the sixth game due to a knee injury, Michel took over the top spot in Georgia’s backfield and ensured there was no drop-off. Michel finished with 1,161 yards and eight scores.
37. Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas
Hunter Henry left for the NFL, but Arkansas is still in great shape at tight end. Sprinkle caught 27 passes for 389 yards and six scores last year and is poised to emerge as the next standout tight end for the Razorbacks. Look for Sprinkle to double his receptions as the full-time starter.
36. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Can Howard build off his performance (five catches for 208 yards and two scores) in the national championship win over Clemson?
35. Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
Engram has caught 38 passes in back-to-back seasons. He should see even more targets in his direction after the departure of Laquon Treadwell to the NFL.
34. Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State
Ross had a breakout 2015 season, catching 88 passes (second-most in the SEC) for 1,007 yards and five scores. He will be the top target in the Bulldogs’ passing attack once again.
33. Ethan Pocic, C, LSU
Pocic enters his third season as a starter and is the anchor for a LSU offensive line replacing both starting tackles from last year’s group.
32. Davon Godchaux, DL, LSU
Godchaux has been a steady performer on LSU’s defensive front since he stepped onto campus in 2013. Over the last two years, Godchaux has recorded 10.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles. With Christian LaCouture out for the year, Godchaux is expected to slide from tackle to end under new coordinator Dave Aranda.
31. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss
Conner was on the cusp of earning a spot among the nation’s best defensive backs in 2015, but a knee injury limited him to just five games. In 2014, Conner recorded 69 stops (nine for a loss), one interception and two passes defended.
30. Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia
Sanders headlined a stingy Georgia secondary last year and tied for the conference lead with six interceptions.
29. Marquis Haynes, DL, Ole Miss
Robert Nkemdiche is off to the NFL, but the cupboard is far from bare up front for the Rebels. Haynes is the next star in Oxford, as he earned second-team All-SEC honors after recording 10 sacks and forced three fumbles last year.
28. Cam Sutton, CB, Tennessee
Is Sutton the SEC’s most underrated defensive back? He’s started all 38 games in his career and accumulated 26 pass breakups and six picks in that span. Sutton also is one of the SEC’s top return men, averaging 16 yards on 39 career punt returns.
27. Kendell Beckwith, LB, LSU
Beckwith was a semifinalist for the Butkus and Bednarik Awards last year after amassing 84 tackles (10 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
26. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
Fitzpatrick ranked as a five-star recruit in Alabama’s 2015 signing class and was a major contributor in his first year on campus. The New Jersey native started 10 games and was a key cog in an Alabama pass defense that limited opponents to a 46.4 completion rate.
25. Arden Key, DL/LB, LSU
Under new coordinator Dave Aranda, Key is expected to work as the team’s buck linebacker, which is a hybrid end/edge rusher position. Key should excel in this role after recording 6.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2015. He should rank near the top of the SEC in sacks this fall.
24. Marcus Maye, DB, Florida
Vernon Hargreaves and safety Keanu Neal will be missed, but Florida’s secondary is still in great shape. Maye emerged as one of the nation’s top safeties last year, recording 82 stops, eight passes defended, five forced fumbles and two interceptions.
23. Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
LSU’s secondary ranked No. 1 in Athlon Sports’ top defensive backfields for 2016. White is a big reason for that ranking, as the Shreveport native is a lockdown corner for coordinator Dave Aranda. White has started 35 games over the last three years, recording four picks and 20 pass breakups.
22. Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
In his first year as a starter in 2015, Davis emerged as one of the SEC’s top linebackers and anchored a rush defense that limited opponents to only 128.1 yards per game. Davis recorded 98 stops (11 for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 14 games.
21. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama
Jackson made a flawless transition from cornerback to safety last season and tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions
20. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee
With the emergence of Darrin Kirkland and Reeves-Maybin’s standout play, Tennesssee’s linebacker group should be among the nation’s best in 2016. Reeves-Maybin has exceeded 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons, while also accumulating 25 stops for a loss and two forced fumbles.
19. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Derek Mason’s decision to handle the play-calling duties for Vanderbilt’s defense paid dividends in 2015. The Commodores ranked sixth in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (21) and return a strong foundation for 2016. Cunningham thrived under Mason’s direction, recording 103 tackles, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. His 16.5 tackles for a loss tied for fourth among SEC defenders last year.
18. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
Proven quarterbacks are in short supply around the SEC this year, but it’s no secret Tennessee has one of the best with Dobbs returning for his senior year. Dobbs is a dynamic runner (671 yards and 11 scores) and threw for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first full year as Tennessee’s starter. Dobbs needs to continue to show improvement as a passer for the Volunteers to make the College Football Playoff.
17. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Injuries have limited Lawson to just seven games over the last two years. If he can stay healthy, Lawson should rank among the nation’s best at defensive end in 2016.
16. Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
Wise finished 2015 on a tear, recording seven of his eight sacks over Arkansas’ final five games. Additionally, Wise’s eight sacks in SEC contests tied for second among league defenders.
15. Tim Williams, LB, Alabama
Few players in the nation possess the explosiveness and first-step quickness that Williams brings off the edge for the Crimson Tide. He ranked second on the team with 10.5 sacks in 2015.
14. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
With Reggie Ragland off to the NFL, Foster is the new leader for the interior of Alabama’s linebacking corps. He ranked second on the team with 73 stops in 2015 and is due for his best all-around season as a senior.
13. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
It didn’t take long for Kirk to emerge as one of the SEC’s top playmakers as a true freshman in 2015. Kirk recorded 106 receiving yards in the opener against Arizona State and finished the year with 1,009 yards on 80 catches. He also scored twice on punt returns.
12. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Hurd has only been on campus for two seasons, but he’s already on the verge of setting a new school record for most career rushing yards. The 6-foot-4 back has recorded 2,187 rushing yards on 467 carries since 2014.
11. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams is the physical enforcer on the back end of LSU’s defense and a first-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016. The Texas native started 12 games for the Tigers last season and recorded 67 tackles (five for a loss), six pass breakups and four interceptions.
10. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Ridley led the Alabama offense with 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven scores as a true freshman last fall. He’s an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2016.
9. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb was off to a fantastic start (747 yards and seven scores) before a season-ending knee injury in Georgia’s sixth game of 2015. All signs point to a return to full strength for Chubb this fall.
8. Charles Harris, DL, Missouri
Harris is the next in a line of standouts on the defensive line for Missouri. In his first year as a starter, Harris wreaked havoc against opposing offensive linemen with seven sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss.
7. Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
Robinson has started all 29 games in his career and possesses all of the necessary tools to be college football’s top offensive lineman.
6. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Tabor was overshadowed by Vernon Hargreaves last year, but the junior cemented a place among the nation’s best cornerbacks in 2015. In 13 appearances, Tabor recorded 40 stops, four interceptions and 18 passes defended.
5. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
After recording 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman in 2014, Barnett delivered another strong season as a sophomore. In 13 appearances, Barnett registered 10 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss.
4. Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama
Allen has been a key cog on Alabama’s defensive line over the last three years and steps into the spotlight as the anchor with A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway departing Tuscaloosa. Allen recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks in 15 games last season.
3. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
Kelly delivered a standout season in his debut at Ole Miss and is easily the SEC’s top returning quarterback for 2016. In 13 starts, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 scores and rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns. Kelly’s 65.1 completion percentage ranked fourth among SEC passers, while his 8.8 yards per attempt ranked second behind Arkansas’ Brandon Allen. Additionally, Kelly connected on 25 passes of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC. Even though receiver Laquon Treadwell will be missed, Kelly should push for All-America honors this fall.
2. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett is the nation’s top returning defensive player for 2016, possessing a unique blend of athleticism, power, speed and quickness off the edge. After recording 14 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks as a true freshman in 2014, Garrett was even better as a sophomore. He played in all 13 games and finished with 19.5 tackles for a loss, 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette’s 2015 season was one of the best individual seasons by a running back in SEC history. The New Orleans native earned first-team All-America honors, averaged 162.8 rushing yards per game (best in the nation), set a SEC single-season record with 1,953 yards and posted four 200-yard efforts last year. Fournette is one of the front-runners to win the Heisman and gets the nod as Athlon’s top returning SEC player in 2016.