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Best DB in the SEC: Vernon Hargreaves III vs. the field

6/26/2015

It's come down to this.

We've already debated the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the SEC. We've already looked at the best linebacker and defensive lineman, too. Our breakdown of the best player at each position in the SEC is almost over. All that's left to tackle are the defensive backs.

It's a bit of a one-sided debate as you'll see, but it's worth exploring the league's options.

Greg Ostendorf: Can I be honest here? When it comes to SEC defensive backs, this is Vernon Hargreaves III world, and everybody else is just living in it.

Don't get me wrong, there are other good defensive backs in the conference, but Hargreaves is on another level. He's been a true lockdown corner since the day he arrived on Florida's campus, which is rare in this day and age. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and it's safe to say he's more than lived up to the expectations.

Last year, as a sophomore, most teams avoided his side of the field. And yet, Hargreaves still led the SEC with 13 passes broken up. He also pulled down three interceptions, including one to clinch the game in Florida's win against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. It was no surprise then to see him earn first-team All-SEC honors for the second straight year.

Critics will point out the Alabama game when star wide receiver Amari Cooper went off for 10 catches, 201 yards and three touchdowns against Florida's secondary. But if you watch the tape, you'll see that most of that production came when Cooper was lined up in the slot or matched up against somebody other than Hargreaves. In man-to-man coverage, when the two were lined up against each other, Cooper had just five catches for 51 yards and one of his three touchdowns.

All I'm saying is don't let that one game fool you. Hargreaves is an elite talent, arguably the best cornerback in college football, and he will likely be a top-10 draft pick next spring.

When we're ranking SEC defensive backs, it's Hargreaves and then everybody else.

Alex Scarborough: You're right, Greg, Hargreaves is clearly the leader here and it's not even close. But if nothing else, we should go over some names to watch that might make a run at his crown. After all, anything is possible.

At cornerback, I like what Cyrus Jones has become at Alabama after struggling with the transition from receiver as a sophomore. Last season he emerged as the Tide's most consistent on-ball defender, showing off the athleticism that made him a top-25 prospect coming out of high school. With Landon Collins no longer at safety this year, things could get dicey, but as a senior it's hard to discount Jones' experience and ability.

Besides Jones, it's about time we start recognizing how good Cameron Sutton has been at Tennessee. He led the SEC in passes defended last season and could get even more help this year from a D-line that should improve with Derek Barnett's continued emerge as a star and newcomers Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie expected to add more talent and depth to a unit that returned exactly zero starters in 2014.

Jones and Sutton stand out most to me at corner, but don't forget Kenya Dennis at Missouri, Tre'Davious White at LSU, Jonathan Jones at Auburn and Will Redmond at Mississippi State.

On the back end of the defense at safety there's a lot to like, too, especially the tandem of Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills at LSU. Mills' athleticism and ability in one-on-one coverage makes him special, while Adams is more of a heavy-hitter who can change a game with one play. If they can play well off one another, what's not to like?

Outside of the tandem of safeties at LSU, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Kentucky safety A.J. Stamps and Ole Miss nickel Tony Conner. Stamps made a few big plays after transferring in from a junior college and could do even more with another year under his belt. Conner, meanwhile, has made good on his high billing coming out of high school with 139 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and eight pass breakups over the past two seasons. With a strong junior year, he'll have a chance to sneak in to the first round of the draft.

While I can't argue that any of the players I've just mentioned have the star power or talent of Hargreaves, they're awfully good in their own right.