It’s that time again, time to pick the best players in the SEC.
All week, we at the SEC blog will be debating which player at each position will have the best 2016 season. Some choices might be easy. Others not so much.
This morning, we looked at the SEC’s top outside linebackers. Now it’s time to choose the league’s best inside linebacker.
Edward Aschoff: When I look at the array of middle linebackers in the SEC, the one I keep coming back to is Florida’s Jarrad Davis. The versatile, fast and incredibly smart Davis easily could have left for the NFL early after the 2015 season, but he decided to come back to wreak havoc on opposing SEC offenses for one last season.
Davis is like a torpedo on the field. He zooms around sideline to sideline, delivering dump truck-type blows to helpless opponents. Davis registered 98 tackles, including 46 solo stops and 11 tackles for loss. He also recorded 3.5 sacks, picked off a pass and had four quarterback hurries. Davis, who averaged seven tackles per game last year, is the quarterback of this defense and has no problem dropping back in coverage, playing the run or zipping into the backfield to cause problems.
With Antonio Morrison gone, Davis will be able to do even more damage in the middle. And with the Gators still trying to figure out its pass-rushing situation, chances are defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will use Davis to get to the quarterback more this fall as well.
Davis is one of the country’s most versatile and well-rounded linebackers, and he’ll close his college career as the SEC’s best interior linebacker.
Greg Ostendorf: I like the Davis pick a lot. He was one of the most underrated linebackers in the SEC last season, and I think he’ll be even better this season. But I also like Kendell Beckwith at LSU. I like Reuben Foster at Alabama, who – like Davis – should benefit from the departure of Reggie Ragland in the middle.
But at the end of the day, how can you ignore what Zach Cunningham did last season? The Vanderbilt sophomore (now junior) finished with 103 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss, the most by any linebacker in the SEC.
Relatively unknown when he first got to Vanderbilt, Cunningham is now all over NFL draft boards for 2017. He’s good against the run. He can cover. And he can get to the quarterback. It’s hard to find a linebacker who can do all three, especially one who has the size, athleticism and physicality that the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cunningham brings.
The return of Nigel Bowden from injury might cut into Cunningham’s production. But don’t be fooled just because he plays at Vanderbilt. Cunningham is a star. And if he can duplicate what he did last season, let alone improve on it, good luck finding me a better inside linebacker in the SEC this fall.