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OAYP: 2019 SEC Linebacker Rankings

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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The new OAYP advanced metric ranks the SEC's returning linebackers.

Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone, it’s time to resume releasing the 2019 SEC OAYP player rankings.

In case you missed them, the entire offensive rankings, as well as those for the defensive linemen and edge rushers, are already up:

-Quarterbacks

-Running Backs

-Receivers

-Tight Ends

-Offensive Linemen

-Edge Rushers

-Defensive Linemen

Now it’s time for the linebackers. Thanks to the departure of Devin White, the SEC LB throne is up for grabs. There are a couple of front runners, one that’s pretty obvious, one not as much, but a deep second tier, as well, from which a contender could emerge.

So, just as we’ve done with all the other position groups, let’s tier the SEC linebackers into Superstars (marginal OAYP >1.0), the second tier (marginal OAYP between 0.5-1.0), and potential breakout stars.

*marginal OAYP scores in parentheses*

Superstars

-Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State (1.34)

If you were expecting to see Dylan Moses’ name here… so was I. We’ll get to the Alabama standout shortly, but Erroll Thompson deserves his due.

Other than White, Thompson was probably the best coverage linebacker in the league last year. Among SEC players at the position, with at least 200 snaps in coverage, Thompson’s 56.2 allowed passer rating on throws into his coverage ranked first, and his two interceptions tied for first among the group. He also sits in the top five among returning SEC linebackers in tackles and the top ten in tackles for loss, even including edge defenders.

For some historical context, according to CFB Reference, just five linebackers since 2000 had as many tackles, TFL’s, sacks, and picks in a single season as Thompson -- a shortlist that includes the likes of Deion Jones and Rolando McClain. Everyone talked about Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons last year, and with good reason, but Mississippi State didn’t have one of the best defenses in the nation last year because of just two guys. The linebacking corps, one of whom we’ll talk about shortly, led by Thompson, was nasty in its own right.

Second Tier

-Dylan Moses, Alabama (0.94)
-De'Jon Harris, Arkansas (0.78)
-TJ Brunson, South Carolina (0.67)
-Cale Garrett, Missouri (0.6)
-Willie Gay, Mississippi State (0.59)

This could really be split into two tiers, given how close Moses is to that 1.0 mark, with Brunson, Garrett, and Gay a notch below, and Harris straddling the line.

I would be remiss not to point out that while the individual OAYP formula does seem to do a pretty good job of ranking players straight up, players’ value to their respective teams do factor into the equation. For the record, I don’t think Thompson is a better pure linebacker than Moses, and OAYP doesn’t necessarily either. I do, however, agree with the formula that he is significantly more valuable to Mississippi State than Moses to Alabama, and given how close their on-field play is, I think the ranking is justifiable.

Of course, that 0.94 marginal OAYP speaks pretty highly of the Butkus Award finalist, so I don’t think I should feel compelled to make excuses. Moses is a genuinely special athlete that could probably play just about position for any defense in the country with great success. He and Thompson had almost identical production in 2018. He had just one fewer tackle, the same number of sacks, and one more tackle for loss. And though he wasn’t as elite as Thompson was in coverage, he has all the athletic tools to be even better. If he takes a step forward in that respect, he’ll be the best linebacker in the country this season.

De’Jon Harris has been a personal favorite player of mine for a couple of years now. In just three seasons, and 33 games, he’s amassed 270 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. One of just ten SEC players to hit all of those marks since the turn of the century, his 33 games to do it are the fewest of the group -- a group that features names like C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain, Brandon Spikes, and Devin White.

The other three, Brunson, Garrett, and Gay, are solid, pretty much all-around, but you could combine each one’s elite traits for the ultimate linebacker. Take the phyiscality and tenacious run defense of TJ Brunson, the sure-tackling of Cale Garrett, and the pass rush ability of Wille Gay and, well, you’ve basically got Devin White.

None of them have put it all together yet, but any and all of them have the potential to threaten Thompson and Moses for the title of ‘best linebacker in the SEC’.

Potential Breakout Stars

-Buddy Johnson, Texas A&M (0.53)
-Jamar Watson, Kentucky (0.34)
-Deandre Square, Kentucky (0.28)
-James Houston, Florida (0.24)

Texas A&M loses a ton of talent from the front seven, returning just one qualifying OAYP candidate in Justin Madubuike. Of all the new faces, though, Buddy Johnson appears most poised to bear the leadership burden. He’s got more than a few meaningful reps under his belt now, and has flashed in big games over the past two years, most specifically at LSU in 2017 and Mississippi State in 2018, and in the Aggies’ bowl win over NC State last year. Looking to carry that postseason momentum into 2019, Johnson has a chance to make a name for himself around the SEC.

Kentucky obviously had an upper echelon defense a season ago, but having to replace Josh Allen, not to mention the entire secondary, is less than ideal. However, with Watson and Square, alongside Kash Daniel, the dropoff may not be as severe as some people anticipate.

James Houston is also worth keeping an eye on. A natural playmaker, if he can earn more snaps in 2019, he could do a lot in the way of replacing Vosean Joseph’s production.

Full Marginal OAYP Rankings for Qualifying SEC Linebackers

1. Erroll Thompson, Mississippi State (1.34)
2. Dylan Moses, Alabama (0.94)
3. De'Jon Harris, Arkansas (0.78)
4. TJ Brunson, South Carolina (0.67)
5. Cale Garrett, Missouri (0.6)
6. Willie Gay, Mississippi State (0.59)
7. Michael Divinity, LSU (0.36)
8. Mohamed Sanogo, Ole Miss (0.21)
9. Jacob Phillips, LSU (0.19)
10. Tae Crowder, Georgia (0.18)
11. Kash Daniel, Kentucky (-0.14)
12. Daniel Bituli, Tennessee (-0.22)
13. Sherrod Greene, South Carolina (-0.29)
14. Leo Lewis, Mississippi State (-0.37)
15. Darrin Kirkland, Tennessee (-0.54)
16. Monty Rice, Georgia (-0.66)
17. Dmitri Moore, Vanderbilt (-0.74)
18. David Reese, Florida (-0.75)
19. Will Ignont, Tennessee (-1.05)
20. Willie Hibbler, Ole Miss (-1.08)

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP