Texas A&M Aggies: J.T. Surratt

Some around the SEC suggested that the defensive line talent in the league might have been down last season.

Only five SEC defensive linemen went in the top four rounds of the 2014 NFL draft, and only two of those were tackles.

But as we look ahead to the 2014 season, there’s a promising crop of young defensive linemen in the SEC, particularly the sophomore class.

Today, we kick off our defensive position rankings with the defensive line. We’ll come back later in the day and rank the top 10 tackles in the league and the top 10 ends.

Here goes:

1. Alabama: The defensive line should be the strength of an Alabama defense that will again be rock-solid. The Crimson Tide are big, physical and deep with some talented players joining the mix. Sophomore A'Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast. Jonathan Allen played in every game last season as true freshman, and D.J. Pettway is back at end after a year at junior college. Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake return at nose guard, and look for Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner to make big impacts as well along with incoming five-star freshman end Da'Shawn Hand. There’s no such thing as being too deep in the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore defensive tackle Montravius Adams is one of several talented, young Auburn defensive linemen.
2. Auburn: There’s a bit of an asterisk associated with Auburn’s ranking. Sophomore Carl Lawson would have easily been one of the top defensive ends in the league, but he recently underwent knee surgery, and his status for the season is unclear. But even without Lawson, the Tigers are still extremely talented. Sophomore tackle Montravius Adams is ready to explode after having a big spring. Sophomore end Elijah Daniel also has gobs of talent, while seniors Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeff Whitaker are back at tackle.

3. Missouri: The Tigers just seem to keep reloading up front defensively despite losing Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and Sheldon Richardson the last couple of years. That shouldn’t change in 2014. Markus Golden and Shane Ray form an imposing defensive end tandem. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and the Tigers also have experience in the middle of that line with Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley returning.

4. Ole Miss: As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there’s also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels’ strongest position in 2014.

5. Florida: The Gators breed athletic defensive linemen, and junior Dante Fowler Jr. is the next star in the making. He plays the hybrid “buck” position, but will wind up rushing from an end position much of the time. Fellow junior Jonathan Bullard started eight games at end last season and is another guy ready to take off in this defense. Senior Leon Orr is back at tackle, but there’s not much proven depth inside. True freshman Gerald Willis III has a chance to be special and will play immediately.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return three senior starters in their defensive line -- tackles Kaleb Eulls and P.J. Jones and end Preston Smith. That’s not to mention sophomore Chris Jones, the kind of player who makes everybody around him better. The 6-5, 300-pound sophomore will line up both inside and outside and has star potential. Second-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has plenty of pieces to work with up front in what should be Dan Mullen’s best defense yet.

7. LSU: The Tigers are set at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, although Rasco missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. Sophomore Tashawn Bower should also prosper as a pass rusher in John Chavis’ system. The big question is at tackle, where redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Sophomore Christian LaCouture also returns at tackle and had a solid spring. LSU has recruited well up front defensively, and similar to previous years, new playmakers will emerge for the Tigers.

8. South Carolina: Even though he didn’t put up huge numbers last season, Jadeveon Clowney was the cog that made that defense go. Kelcy Quarles will also be a big loss inside, but senior tackle J.T. Surratt is underrated. The Dixon brothers -- tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. and end Gerald Dixon -- are also poised to make big moves this season. Junior college transfer Abu Lamin went through spring practice and will add muscle in the middle. Finding another pass-rusher will be critical. Third-year sophomore Darius English, who’s bulked up to 245 pounds, will be one to watch.

[+] EnlargeSterling Bailey
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesGeorgia needs big things from defensive end Sterling Bailey to help make up for the loss of Garrison Smith.
9. Georgia: The only loss up front for the Bulldogs was senior end Garrison Smith, which was a big one. First-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker looked at several different combinations this spring. Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are both back at end, although Rocker demoted Drew this spring for a few practices. It looks like John Taylor and James DeLoach will avoid suspensions after their off-the-field trouble, and both are good enough to push for starting jobs. Chris Mayes, Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson are all nose guard types in the 3-4. Johnson was dominant this spring.

10. Kentucky: It all starts for the Wildcats defensively with their combo on the outside of Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. They combined for 13 sacks last season and complement each other well. Smith, in particular, should be even better in his second season after coming over from junior college. The issue is inside. The top three tackles from a year ago are gone. Junior college transfer Cory Johnson will be key, and it helps that he enrolled early and went through spring practice.

11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are shifting to a base 3-4 and have stocked up over the last few years with the kind of big, physical defensive linemen you’re accustomed to seeing in the SEC. Sophomore Adam Butler could be one of the breakout players in the league after moving over to defense from offense last season as a redshirt freshman and playing extremely well. Seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon are both 300-pounders with experience, while redshirt freshman Jay Woods has a huge upside.

12. Arkansas: Senior defensive end Trey Flowers is the centerpiece and one of the more accomplished pass-rushers in the league. Third-year sophomore Darius Philon is the Hogs’ best interior lineman after leading all Arkansas tackles a year ago with 46 total tackles. The Hogs need big seasons out of third-year sophomore ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis. Wise had five sacks in the spring game.

13. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost one of their most promising defensive linemen when sophomore tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They were forced to play several younger players last season and took their lumps in what was a forgettable season on the defensive side of the ball. Still, some of those younger players such as sophomore end Daeshon Hall gained valuable experience. They need a big year out of senior end Gavin Stansbury and are hopeful prized freshman signee Myles Garrett can add some pop to the pass rush.

14. Tennessee: The Vols lost six seniors, including all four starters, on their defensive line, which means there will be a lot of new faces playing heavy minutes in 2014. That’s never a good thing in the SEC, especially when you’re particularly thin at tackle. Sophomore end Corey Vereen came on last season after injuring his knee in preseason camp, and Curt Maggitt could end up playing as much end as linebacker. The Vols like the defensive linemen they signed in this class, but having to play so many freshmen so soon up front has a way of catching up to you.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.

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