The best collection of talent in college football resides in the SEC. While the conference is short on proven quarterbacks for 2016, ranking the top 25 players headed into spring practice is no easy assignment considering the talent on defense and some of the positions on offense. LSU’s Leonard Fournette takes the top spot in our pre-spring player rankings, with Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett a close No. 2.
As spring practice begins around the SEC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the SEC for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
SEC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
15 to Watch on Offense: Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas; Jeremy Sprinkle, TE, Arkansas; Boom Williams, RB, Kentucky; Antonio Callaway, WR, Florida; Alex Kozan, OL, Auburn; Braden Smith, OL, Auburn; Drew Morgan, WR, Arkansas; Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State; Ralph Webb, RB, Vanderbilt; Travin Dural, WR, LSU; Brandon Kublanow, OL, Georgia; Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama; Josh Reynolds, WR, Texas A&M; Ethan Pocic, OL, LSU; Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
15 to Watch on Defense: Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Tennessee; Charles Harris, DE, Missouri; Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina; Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida; Kendell Beckwith, LB, LSU; Cam Sutton, CB, Tennessee; Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn; Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M; Marcus Maye, DB, Florida; Dre Greenlaw, LB, Arkansas; Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State; Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn; Lewis Neal, DL, LSU; Dominick Sanders, S, Georgia; Terry Beckner, DT, Missouri
25. Tim Williams, LB, Alabama
Williams wasn’t a full-time starter for Alabama last season, but his ability to get to the quarterback was a huge asset for coach Nick Saban. In 15 games, Williams finished with 10.5 sacks (third in the SEC) and recorded 12.5 tackles for a loss. He should have an opportunity to earn more of a full-time role in the linebacking corps this spring.
24. Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss
With Robert Nkemdiche off to the NFL, Haynes is the new leader in the trenches for the Rebels. He led the team with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss and recorded three forced fumbles in 2015.
23. Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
LSU’s secondary surprisingly finished 51st nationally in pass efficiency defense last season but improvement should be noticeable in 2016. White defended seven passes in 2015 and recorded 44 tackles. He is considered among the best prospects at cornerback for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Related: Ranking the SEC Rosters for 2016
22. Davon Godchaux, DT, LSU
Dave Aranda is one of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2016, and the first-year assistant in Baton Rouge should make a difference for the LSU defense. Godchaux is one of the standouts for Aranda in the trenches and is expected to build off a strong sophomore campaign (41 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble) next season.
21. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss
Conner was projected as one of the nation’s best safeties going into the 2015 season, but a knee injury limited the junior to just five games. He recorded 17 stops (four for a loss) in limited action. Conner’s return should be a big boost for the Rebels’ secondary.
20. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Howard was quiet for most of the 2015 season but finished with a monster performance (five catches for 208 yards and two scores) against Clemson in the national title game. After turning down the NFL for one more season in Tuscaloosa, it’s safe to assume coordinator Lane Kiffin will find more ways to get Howard involved.
19. Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
It’s a close call between Engram and Alabama’s O.J. Howard as the top tight end from the SEC. Engram caught 38 passes for 464 yards and two touchdowns last season and is expected to see a bigger role in 2016 with the departure of receivers Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core.
18. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama
Jackson’s move from cornerback to safety added more athleticism in the secondary and paid huge dividends for Alabama’s defense. Jackson recorded 46 tackles, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and led the defense with six interceptions.
17. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
Alabama’s secondary took a step forward in 2015 and finished No. 8 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Despite the loss of cornerback Cyrus Jones, this unit should be one of the best in the nation. Fitzpatrick played in 14 games as a true freshman last season and recorded 45 tackles (three for a loss), two sacks, two interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
16. Arden Key, DE, LSU
All signs point to Key emerging as the next star edge rusher in Baton Rouge. As a true freshman last season, Key recorded five sacks, 6.5 tackles for a loss and led all LSU defenders with nine quarterback hurries. Under the watchful eye of line coach Ed Orgeron, expect Key to elevate his game even higher in 2016.
15. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
Foster is known as a big hitter, but he’s developed into an all-around standout at linebacker for the Crimson Tide. He ranked second on the team with 73 tackles last season (eight for a loss) and broke up nine passes. With Reggie Ragland off to the NFL, Foster is now the leader of Alabama’s linebacking corps.
14. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
In his first full season as Tennessee’s starting quarterback, Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards and 15 scores and showcased his rushing ability by adding 671 yards and 11 touchdowns. Elevating the passing attack and stretching the field to generate more big plays are at the top of the priority list for Dobbs this spring.
13. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt’s defense showed marked improvement with Derek Mason calling the plays last season. The Commodores should build off their 2015 success on defense with seven starters back, including Cunningham – a likely first-team All-SEC selection. Cunningham led all Vanderbilt defenders with 103 tackles (16.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks and recorded four forced fumbles.
12. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Kirk was one of the nation’s top freshmen last season and was a valuable all-purpose threat for coach Kevin Sumlin. In 13 appearances, Kirk averaged 137.6 all-purpose yards per game and grabbed 80 passes for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns. He also scored twice on punt returns last year.
11. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette garnered most of the attention among SEC running backs last season, but Hurd quietly rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 scores. Through two seasons, Hurd has 2,187 yards on the ground, 57 receptions and 21 overall scores. If Hurd eclipses the 1,000-yard mark in 2016, he will set a new Tennessee record for most rushing yards in a career.
10. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb’s 2015 season was cut short by a serious knee injury suffered in the sixth game of the year. Prior to the injury, Chubb rushed for 747 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. How long will it take for Chubb to return to 100 percent and back to the player that rushed for 1,547 yards in 2014?
9. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams is the enforcer patrolling the secondary for new coordinator Dave Aranda, and the Texas native is poised to build off a strong sophomore season (67 tackles, four interceptions and six pass breakups).
8. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
Most of the attention in the Florida secondary went to Vernon Hargreaves III last season, but Tabor quietly had a strong 2015 campaign. In 13 games, Tabor broke up 14 passes (tied for most in the SEC), intercepted four passes and recorded 40 tackles. He should be the SEC’s top cover corner in 2016.
7. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
The SEC is light on proven quarterbacks for 2016, but there’s no doubt the best one resides in Oxford next season. Kelly was an impact addition for coach Hugh Freeze, passing for 4,402 yards and 31 scores. Additionally, Kelly rushed for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns.
6. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
One of the biggest question marks for Alabama’s offense last season was who would step up to replace standout receiver Amari Cooper. Ridley quickly emerged as the Crimson Tide’s go-to target, catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven scores. And here’s a scary thought for the rest of the SEC: He’s only a sophomore in 2016.
5. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Barnett has been an immediate difference maker for the Volunteers since he stepped on campus in 2014. The Tennessee native has recorded back-to-back seasons of 10 sacks and generated 33 tackles for a loss in his career. Barnett anchors one of the SEC’s best defensive lines for 2016.
4. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Robinson is one of the top prospects on the offensive line for the 2017 NFL Draft. After two years of steady play on the left side for coach Nick Saban, Robinson is poised for his best season in Tuscaloosa.
3. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Allen’s decision to return to Tuscaloosa was somewhat of a surprise, but the news was certainly a welcomed sight for coach Nick Saban. With A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed off to the NFL, Allen is expected to see more attention from opposing offensive linemen. In 15 games last year, Allen recorded 36 tackles (14.5 for a loss), 12 sacks and two forced fumbles.
2. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett is a physical specimen at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds and is the top defender in the SEC for 2016. The junior is an explosive edge rusher and possesses the ability to dominate at the point of attack. The Texas native has recorded 24 sacks, five forced fumbles and 33.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons and could be the first player picked in the 2017 NFL Draft.
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
In terms of pure talent, not many running backs in recent history can match Fournette’s ability. The New Orleans native set the LSU single-season rushing record for most yards in a season (1,953) and touchdowns (22) in 2015. Only two teams – Arkansas and Alabama – managed to keep Fournette under the 100-yard mark last year. Fournette is once again the focal point of LSU’s offense and one of the preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.