Spring practice is underway around the SEC, and it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2017. While a few teams will kick off practice in late March, a majority of the SEC teams are already deep into spring practice and prepping for the upcoming season. As usual with the 14 teams in the SEC, the conference isn't hurting for individual talent. The SEC doesn't have a deep stock of defensive end talent like the league witnessed in 2016, but the overall quarterback play should improve, and there's a standout collection of running backs returning in the fall.
With spring practice underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list of best players in the SEC could look a lot different by the time fall practice arrives. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2016 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2017, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2017, 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 Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2017
Just Missed: Duke Dawson, DB, Florida; Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky; Ronnie Harrison, DB, Alabama; Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia; Bradley Bozeman, OL, Alabama; Damarea Crockett, RB, Missouri; Anthony Averett, CB, Alabama; Mike Edwards, DB, Kentucky
25. Trayveon Williams, RB, Texas A&M
Williams turned in a strong freshman campaign (1,057 yards and eight scores) and will be an even bigger part of the offense in 2017.
24. Armani Watts, DB, Texas A&M
With Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall and Shaan Washington off to the NFL and Watts will be one of the leaders for coordinator John Chavis’ defense in 2017. He was limited to nine games in 2016 but still recorded 56 stops (six for a loss), three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
23. Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama
A torn ACL in the SEC Championship ended Hamilton’s season prematurely in 2016. Prior to the injury, he recorded 64 tackles (nine for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. He is slated to return to full strength for 2017 and help fill the void left behind by Reuben Foster on the interior of Alabama’s linebacking corps.
22. Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
Moore was sidelined for the entire 2016 season due to a neck injury. The senior was cleared to participate in spring ball and is poised to return as one of the SEC’s top linebackers in 2017. Moore earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2015 after recording 111 tackles.
21. Jordan Jones, LB, Kentucky
Jones delivered a breakout campaign last fall, as he led Kentucky’s defense with 109 tackles, generated 15.5 for a loss and seven sacks.
20. Marquis Haynes, DL, Ole Miss
Haynes has been a consistent force off the edge for the Rebels in each of the last three seasons. The Florida native enters 2017 with 24.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for a loss in his career.
19. Ralph Webb, RB, Vanderbilt
Webb is the focal point of Vanderbilt’s offense and enters 2017 with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. Last year’s 1,283 yards set a new Vanderbilt single-season school record.
18. Trent Thompson, DL, Georgia
Thompson is taking a leave of absence this spring but seems to be on track to return to the team by this summer. The former No. 1 overall recruit’s emergence is critical for Georgia’s defense, and Thompson showed signs of progress last year, which included 3.5 tackles for a loss in the bowl win over TCU.
17. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Stidham checks in at No. 17 on this list, but don’t be surprised if he climbs a few spots once we update the rankings prior to fall practice. The Texas native signed with Baylor as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and played in 10 games with 1,265 passing yards and 12 scores. Stidham left the program after coach Art Briles was fired and spent 2016 at a junior college.
16. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
Scarbrough is one of the toughest players to rank headed into spring ball. The Alabama native was a key cog in the run to the national championship appearance, recording at least 90 yards in each of the final four games. Scarbrough has a unique blend of power, speed and size but needs to avoid the injury bug in 2017. If he’s healthy and receiving the bulk of the carries in the backfield, Scarbrough should be higher on this list.
15. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Fitzgerald inherited big shoes to fill by replacing Dak Prescott last spring. However, Fitzgerald wasn’t intimated by that challenge, as he emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. In 13 games, Fitzgerald threw for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 scores.
14. Austin Allen, QB, Arkansas
Allen was one of the SEC’s top players in the first half of 2016 but suffered a knee injury against Auburn and wasn’t quite the same the rest of the way. However, Allen still threw for 3,430 yards and 25 scores and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. A revamped receiving corps will be a spring storyline for Allen and the Arkansas offense.
13. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
After catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman in 2015, Ridley’s numbers slipped with true freshman Jalen Hurts at quarterback in 2016. Ridley still caught 72 passes but only for 769 yards and seven scores. With Hurts having a full offseason to work with the No. 1 offense, Ridley’s numbers should rise closer to his freshman level in 2017.
12. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb’s return to the gridiron was one of the best storylines from the 2016 season, as he made a full recovery from a serious leg injury suffered against Tennessee in 2015. In 13 appearances for the Bulldogs, Chubb recorded 1,130 yards and eight scores. He should be closer to full strength in 2017.
11. Rawleigh Williams, RB, Arkansas
Williams showed no ill-effects from a 2015 season-ending neck injury, as he recorded 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns to anchor the Arkansas ground attack last fall. Williams averaged a healthy 5.6 yards per carry and posted four 100-yard efforts in SEC play.
10. Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn
Injuries derailed Pettway late in the 2016 season but he still finished with 1,224 yards and seven rushing scores. Pettway led all SEC rushers by averaging 138.7 yards in conference-only matchups last year.
9. Da’Ron Payne, DL, Alabama
As the nose guard in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme, Payne isn’t going to post huge numbers during the course of a season. However, the Birmingham native is the anchor for this line and is a key cog in the Crimson Tide’s ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage.
8. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
The Aggies have a few voids to fill in the receiving corps this spring, but Kirk’s return ensures a good safety net for the new starting quarterback. Kirk had a standout freshman campaign in 2015 (80 catches for 1,009 yards and seven scores) and grabbed 83 receptions for 928 yards and nine touchdowns last fall.
7. Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
With Cam Robinson off to the NFL, Alabama won’t have to look far for its new left tackle this spring. After starting all 15 games as a true freshman at right tackle in 2016, Williams is slated to flip to the left side in spring ball.
6. Braden Smith, OL, Auburn
Smith was one of the anchors from Auburn’s standout offensive line in 2016. He started all 13 games last fall and enters 2017 with 27 consecutive starts under his belt. Smith will be among the nation’s top returning linemen this season.
5. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Starting as a true freshman quarterback at Alabama is never easy, but that’s exactly what transpired for Hurts in 2016. He started in 14 contests for coach Nick Saban and threw for 2,780 yards and 23 scores. Hurts’ biggest contribution to the offense was his ability to make plays on the ground, as he accounted for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns. The sophomore still needs work as a passer, but he should enter 2017 as the favorite to earn first-team All-SEC honors.
4. Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
Ragnow enters 2017 with 26 consecutive starts and is the leader for an Arkansas offensive line slated to return four starters this fall. The Minnesota native was a third-team All-American by Athlon Sports last season.
3. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Leonard Fournette will be missed, but LSU’s ground attack is in great shape with Guice leading the way. In 12 appearances last season, Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also averaged a healthy 7.6 yards per rush, including 12 yards per carry on 21 attempts against Arkansas in early November.
2. Arden Key, DL/LB, LSU
Key is taking a leave of absence from the team this spring, but all signs point to a return in 2017. The junior’s presence is a crucial one for coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense. Key is a dynamic edge rusher, leading the team with 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss in 2016.
1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama
An injury to starting safety Eddie Jackson forced Fitzpatrick to slide from cornerback to safety just after the halfway mark of the 2016 campaign. However, Fitzpatrick’s play never dipped, as he helped anchor a secondary that finished ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense and limited opposing offenses to just 52.5 in completion percentage during SEC play. Fitzpatrick recorded 66 tackles (five for a loss), seven pass breakups and six interceptions last year.