As the NFL combine winds down and we watch another class of SEC players move on to professional careers, it’s important to keep an eye on the future and the next wave of stars.
Spring practice begins at Texas A&M on Friday and will open throughout the SEC in the weeks to come. And while it’s a tad premature to be asking the question, we’re doing it anyways: Who will be the top defensive linemen in the league next season?
Chris Low, my colleague on the SEC blog, gave his pick for the best offensive linemen last week, and we figured it best not to leave out their combatants in the trenches.
With that said, here's our early take on the SEC's top-four defensive linemen going into the 2014 season. They're listed alphabetically:
Trey Flowers, Arkansas
He’s been doing his thing for a while now so you should know his name. Flowers hasn’t won many games in his career at Arkansas, but that’s not his fault. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end has quietly become a premier lineman in the league, beginning with a rookie campaign that landed him on the SEC All-freshman team in 2011. Last season, he was second-team All-SEC after recording five sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. He also forced three fumbles, hauled in an interception and had two pass breakups. Bret Bielema didn’t have a lot of wins his first season at Arkansas, but convincing Flowers to return for his senior season was one of them.
Dante Fowler Jr., Florida
To be fair, he does play some standing up at linebacker. But Fowler, at 6-foot-3 and 277 pounds, is all pass-rusher in coach Will Muschamp’s defense. The All-SEC second team selection led Florida with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and finished with 3.5 sacks. He’ll be asked to do more in 2014, and the former four-star prospect has the tools to pull it off. The lightning-quick rising sophomore will need some help, though. If a second pass-rusher emerges to take away double-teams, look for Fowler to take off.
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
You might not have known his name as a recruit, but Jones has worked his way into the conversation as one of the most talented young defensive players in the SEC. Dan Mullen and his coaching staff found themselves a gem at Mississippi State. Jones was a late bloomer in high school but came on quickly in college, developing into an SEC All-freshman team selection with the size (6-5, 305 pounds) to play on the interior of the line and the speed and burst to play outside at end. His seven tackles-for-loss and three sacks only serve to underscore his team-leading 10 quarterback hurries. For perspectives sake, the former No. 1 recruit in the country at the “School Up North” had just three quarterback hurries.
Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Yes, that player was Nkemdiche, the former No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 300. And while his numbers weren’t quite as impressive as his counterpart at Mississippi State (isn’t that rivalry going to be fun?) Nkemdiche did nothing to disappoint in his first season at Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete showed why he was so highly thought of coming out of high school. He not only played both end and tackle for the Rebels, he also carried the ball at running back a few times. Eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks should just be the tip of the iceberg in his career under coach Hugh Freeze.
Four more to watch