In the Zone: 10 best players in the SEC
Ranking the best college football players you will see this season in the SEC
We are a mere 53 days away from the first College Football Saturday – and yes, that is a proper noun – of 2013.
It’s about time, then, you get a primer for this upcoming season, because we all know the thirst for college football in this nation, or football of any kind, is never quenched no matter the season, day, or hour.
As Mizzou prepares to enter season two in the SEC, I took it upon myself to rank the 10 best players you will see on the field this year. Lists like these are always met with scorn from someone for some kind of omission or disagreement. That’s fine.
What I will attempt to do is make the subjective as objective as possible.
Players will be ranked on a scale from 0-10 in three most important categories that determine a player’s overall relative value: Talent, Production, and Projection (to the NFL).
Sure, some players in college can put up 5,000 yards passing, but in reality, are not the same caliber of player or athlete that someone who posts only 2,500 yards passing. If that was the case, Timmy Chang would be one of the best college players of all time.
Now, that’s not to say production isn’t important. Clearly, it is. If you don’t produce when on the field, it doesn’t matter how big and fast you are. You’re worthless.
All that being said, here is the list (plus an honorable mention) of the 10 best SEC players you will see on the football field this season. Think and Mizzou Tigers made it? Time to find out…
10) Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt - Grade: 25.7 (8.5 T / 9.4 Prod / 7.8 Proj)
Consider Jordan Matthews the Marques Colston of the college game. He’s never going to be the biggest, fastest, or strongest wide receiver, but he almost always produces.
Matthews caught 94 passes as a junior in 2012 for 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. Five of his seven 100-yard receiving performances last season came against SEC defenses, including performances of 147 against South Carolina, 119 against Georgia, and 131 against Florida.
Those are legit defenses.
His lack of superior athleticism and speed is the only thing that keeps him from being truly elite.
9) Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU – Grade: 26.1 (9.7 T / 6.9 Prod / 9.5 Proj)
He isn’t the first. He won’t be the last. He’s just the latest defensive talent produced from Baton Rouge that has NFL scouts salivating.
Johnson, nicknamed “The Freak” of course, came to LSU as a highly-touted five-star recruit, the top defensive tackle recruit in the country. He’ll finally get his chance to blow up after waiting to play behind 14 other first round draft picks (only a slight exaggeration) on the Tigers d-line.
Despite being stuck behind Benny Logan and Josh Downs for much of last season as a starter, Johnson still managed 30 tackles, a whopping 10 tackles for a loss, and three sacks.
Oh, and Johnson is nicknamed such because he reportedly runs a 4.7 40 at 300 pounds.
8) Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida – Grade: 26.7 (9.8 T / 7.4 Prod / 9.5 Proj)
Purifoy is athletic and talented enough that head coach Will Muschamp was giving him snaps at wide receiver this spring to help boost a Florida passing attack that was abysmal last season.
He is already entrenched as the leader of a cornerback group that could end up producing three first round NFL draft picks in the future: Purifoy, fellow junior Marcus Roberson, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, the top cornerback recruit in the country.
Last season, quarterbacks rarely challenged Purifoy so he had no interceptions and only five pass break ups but he did record 51 tackles and forced three fumbles.
He’s also a demon on special teams. Purifoy blocked two kicks in 2012 and will be the Gators kick returner in 2013.
As you can see, this young man is extremely athletic.
7) Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia – Grade: 27.3 (9.1 T / 9.2 Prod / 9.0 Proj)
Put yourself in the same company as Herschel Walker in Athens, and you’re doing something right.
Todd Gurley was a dominant running back for the Dawgs as a freshman, teaming with fellow classmate Keith Marshall to form, the second-best running back duo in the league.
Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards at 6.2 yards per carry and 17 touchdowns. He also returned a kick for a score.
What’s even more remarkable – and will be interesting to monitor in 2013 – is that Gurley was listed at 195 pounds in 2012. This year? 232.
He’s apparently added nearly 40 pounds to his frame! If he’s able to maintain his athleticism and straight-line speed, he could be entering the NFL with a prospect profile similar to that of former Rams and current Falcons running back, Steven Jackson.
6) C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama – Grade: 27.4 (9.3 T / 8.9 Prod / 9.2 Proj)
A consensus First-team All-American as a junior in 2012, Mosley wreaked havoc as the WLB in Nick Saban’s defense.
Missouri fans may remember him recording a career-high 12 tackles (nine solo) to go with a sack and fumble recovery in the Tide’s 42-10 win over Mizzou at Faurot Field.
After all was said and done in 2012, Mosley posted 107 tackles (8 TFL), 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, and returned one for a touchdown.
He will be coveted by NFL teams because of his production and leadership in Nick Saban’s defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed also makes him an effective blitzer and outstanding in coverage.
5) T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama – Grade: 28.0 (9.7 T / 8.6 Prod / 9.7 Proj)
Hard to imagine that a freshman running back could be ranked higher on this list than Georgia’s Gurley, but on a per-carry basis, Yeldon was just as productive and may be an even better NFL prospect.
Many feel like he is the most talented running back Nick Saban has ever had in Tuscaloosa, and Saban once had a No. 5 overall pick, Trent Richardson, in his backfield.
In fact, some scouts view Yeldon as an Adrian Peterson clone due to his running style, size and skill set.
Sharing duties in the backfield with Eddie Lacy – who was a first round pick of the Green Bay Packers in April – Yeldon ran for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs on only 175 carries in 2012.
With Lacy gone to the NFL, Yeldon could emerge as a legit Heisman challenger.
4) A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama – Grade: 28.1 (9.0 T / 9.9 Prod / 9.2 Proj)
Anyone who has quarterbacked back-to-back national champions is legit.
Yes, Alabama had the best offensive line in the country last season.
Yes, Alabama had the best running back duo in the country last season.
Yes, Alabama had the best defense in the country last season.
Yes, Alabama had the best head coach in college football last season.
These statements are all generally and widely regarded as facts.
But A.J. McCarron is still one of the best QBs in college football, despite all that he benefits from around him.
Last season, his game matured significantly and he showed the ability, when necessary, to make NFL-caliber reads, decisions, and throws.
On the biggest stage he was masterful, completing 20-of-28 passes for 264 yards and 4 TDs in Bama’s dominating BCS Championship Bowl win over Notre Dame.
After all was said and done, his TD/INT ratio was 10:1 (30 touchdowns, 3 interceptions).
His completion percentage and yards per attempt were exceptional last year at 67.2-percent and 9.3 YPA, respectively.
McCarron has re-branded himself to NFL scouts from the “Greg McElroy-game-manager” type to a legit starting QB prospect at the next level.
3) Jake Matthews, LT, Texas A&M – Grade: 28.8 (9.5 T / 9.5 Prod / 9.8 Proj)
Matthews comes from one of the greatest football families in history. His dad is Hall of Fame tackle Bruce Matthews. His brother, Kevin, also played at A&M. His uncle Clay Matthews, like his dad, played 19 NFL seasons and went to four Pro Bowls. He also has two cousins currently in the NFL. Clay Matthews III is one of the best pass rushers in the game, and his other cousin Casey is on the Philadelphia Eagles roster.
Jake will be the next to join the list, and he’ll likely do so as one of the top three picks in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Last season, Matthews manned the right tackle spot because Luke Joeckel – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft – was the incumbent at left tackle.
Even with Joeckel at the left spot, many scouts and coaches think Matthews was, is, and will be the superior player.
His gene pool would suggest that’s probably a wise assumption.
2) Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M – Grade: 29.0 (10.0 T/ 10.0 Prod/ 9.0 Proj)
One more time, just so they sink in: 3,706 passing yards, 26 TD, 9 INT
1,409 rushing yards, 21 TD
1 Heisman Trophy
The only thing holding Johnny Football back is how his talent translates to the next level.
He’s already established himself as one of the greatest college football players of all-time, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole.
No one has ever had a freshman season in the same stratosphere as Manziel’s in 2012.
But at just 6-feet-1 and with unspectacular arm strength, will his magic run out at the next level, or is he the next Russell Wilson? Judging by his tweets this offseason, we may find out in 2014…
1) Jadaveon Clowney, DE, S. Carolina – Grade: 30.0 (10.0 T / 10.0 Prod / 10.0 Proj)
He’s a full point better than the Johnny Football.
His tackles register on the Richter scale.
His dreadlocks are a trophy from a bare knuckle brawl with The Predator.
He would have intercepted the Immaculate Reception.
Nick Saban recruited him to be his defense. His entire defense.
All-State is insured by his hands.
He is…the best player in college football.
“I don’t always decapitate opponents on the playing field, but when I do…it looks like this.” - Jadaveon Clowney
Honorbale Mention: QB Aaron Murray (Georgia), WR Amari Cooper (Alabama), LB A.J. Johnson (Tennessee), OLB/DE Adrian Hubbard (Alabama), S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (Alabama), LT Antonio Richardson (Tennessee), LT Cyrys Kouandijo (Alabama), WR Mike Evans (Texas A&M), CB Marcus Roberson (Florida), CB E.J. Gaines (Missouri), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri), WR Donte Moncrief (Ole Miss), G Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), DT Kelcy Quarles (South Carolina), LT John Theus (Georgia), RB Tre Mason (Auburn), WR Malcolm Mitchell (Georgia), RB Jeremy Hill (LSU), S Craig Loston (LSU)
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