Back OAYP: 2019 SEC Position Rankings

Back To SEC

OAYP: 2019 SEC Position Rankings

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

Your hub for every qualifying SEC returnee, ranked by the new OAYP advanced metric.

Earlier in the offseason I released the 2018 OAYP rankings as part of the debut of a new advanced metric to evaluate college football teams. Last season’s scores will obviously factor into the eventual 2019 preseason rankings, but those alone are only reflective, not predictive.

In order to make the aforementioned OAYP metric predictive, we’re factoring in individual player OAYP scores for projected starters and key contributors. Those numbers are a sort of spiritual descendant of adjusted yards per attempt, the quarterback metric first introduced in the book The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn, and Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen’s ‘approximate value’ measure.

The basic premise is to cross the efficiency measure of the former, but across all positions, with the value principles of the latter -- hopefully as a way of more accurately depicting a given team’s returning production. Returning good players is more valuable than returning only average or subpar players, and not all production is created equal, so this should ideally prove to be more predictive than simply looking at the raw number of returning starters or the percentages of returning production.

Below you’ll find all of the guys classified as superstars (marginal OAYP >1.0) for each position group. You can click the link on each header for breakdowns on the second tier players and potential breakout stars, as well as the full rankings for returning qualifiers.

QUARTERBACKS

-Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (3.15)
-Jake Fromm, Georgia (1.9)

Sorry Trevor Lawrence, but until proven otherwise over the course of a full season, Tua Tagovailoa is the best returning quarterback in the country, fresh off of one of the most impressive individual campaigns ever, regardless of how it ended. Since the turn of the century, 20 other quarterbacks had as many passing yards and touchdowns as Tagovailoa, but none did it in as few attempts, and only two with as many or fewer interceptions. He posted the highest passer rating of all time, and even though he had a relatively hard time against Georgia and Clemson down the stretch, those were two of the five best pass defenses in the sport, at worst.

Jake Fromm is the second best quarterback in the conference, and that distinction doesn’t even begin to do him justice. He’s arguably a top three quarterback in the entire nation, just behind Tagovailoa and Lawrence. He’s fresh off of a second consecutive top ten finish in passer rating and only twelve other quarterbacks this century have thrown at least 24 passing touchdowns and seven or fewer picks in back-to-back seasons, as Fromm now has. That shortlist includes the likes of Heisman winners Tim Tebow, Marcus Mariota, and Baker Mayfield. Assuming he does it again, which feels like betting on the sun to rise, he will join Geno Smith as the only other one to do it thrice in a row.

RUNNING BACKS

-Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (2.02)
-D’Andre Swift, Georgia (1.0)

Whether you realize it or not, Ke’Shawn Vaughn absolutely is a superstar. Of players with at least 100 carries in a single season, his 7.92 yards per attempt ranks fourth in the conference all-time, behind just first round NFL Draft picks Felix Jones and Brent Fullwood and College Football Hall of Famer Hank Lauricella. Since the start of the new millennium, the only Power Five running backs with 1,200 rushing yards. 7.9 yards per carry and multiple touchdown receptions in a single season are: Reggie Bush, Travis Etienne and Vaughn. This Nashville native has quietly been historically good for the ‘Dores.

That being said, with all due respect to Vaughn, D’Andre Swift is the best returning rusher in the league. I don’t care what the formula says. There were a couple of weeks last season where I thought that, given the strides Elijah Holyfield made in the offseason, that he had supplanted Swift as the ‘Dawgs’ best running back. “Sure, Swift was playing hurt, but how much was that really holding him back?” I asked myself, stupidly. A lot. A lot is the answer. It was holding him back a lot.

Over the first half of the season, which included games against Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and two of the SEC’s three worst rushing defenses -- South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- he averaged 5.1 yards per carry with a 5.63% touchdown rate. Over the next seven games, among which were two top 20 S&P+ run defenses -- Alabama and Auburn -- not to mention Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry with 6.52% touchdown rate. Somehow, the visual disparity was even more striking than the statistical one. He committed a handful of truly unspeakable atrocities against would-be tacklers in that three game stretch of Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn. For a point of reference, his marginal OAYP over that first stretch was 0.34, which, while solid, put him somewhere between Ty Chandler and Brian Herrien. Over the second half of the season it was 1.48, which is, well, the real D’Andre Swift.

RECEIVERS

-Jerry Jeudy, Alabama (1.98)
-Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (1.59)
-Henry Ruggs, Alabama (1.31)

Tua Tagovailoa is the best quarterback in college football. He returns the best receiving corps in college football. That doesn’t seem fair. Jerry Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to college football’s best receiver, and yet, at least according to Pro Football Focus, he wasn’t even the best pass catcher on his own team. That distinction went to freshman Jaylen Waddle who posted the fourth highest WR grade in the country. Oh yeah, and then there’s Henry Ruggs, maybe the only player in the country that’s faster than Waddle.

TIGHT ENDS

-Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri (1.94)

Albert Okwuegbunam is special. He has the ideal frame for a modern tight end with well above average straight line speed. However, there are a lot of big, athletic guys in the SEC. What separates him from the pack is his ability as a natural pass catcher. He’s a large target with an even greater catch radius, making Drew Lock look good the past couple of years thanks to an innate knack for reeling in those off target throws. Whether he lines up in the slot, in-line like a more traditional TE, or even outside, his leaping ability makes him a special sort of nightmare to defend in the red zone. His season was cut short by injury in 2018, but he nonetheless managed to earn finalist honors for the Mackey Award. There’s not a better returning tight end in college football.

OFFENSIVE LINE

-Andrew Thomas, T, Georgia (3.11)
-Solomon Kindley, G, Georgia (1.4)
-Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms, G, Missouri (1.39)
-Alex Leatherwood, G, Alabama (1.06)
-Prince Tega-Wanogho, T, Auburn (1.02)

It should come as no surprise to see two Georgia Bulldogs at the top. Sam Pittman’s offensive line was a finalist for the 2018 Joe Moore Award, given annually to college football’s best group of blockers. Oklahoma ended up winning, but the Sooners return only one starter from that unit, and Alabama, the other finalist, lost three starters. Georgia only lost one. Kindley was quietly one of the best guards in the league in 2018, not allowing a single sack in the regular season. However, Thomas is the name to know. He might have been the best tackle in the country already, when healthy. Now that all of his closest competitors are off to the NFL, it’s safe to assume he’ll be the best, hands down, in 2019.

Wallace-Simms has been a bastion of consistency for Missouri for a couple of years now, and earned first team All-Conference honors from the media for his efforts. He helped the Tigers to a top 20 ranking in line yards per carry and opportunity rate, and the top ten in allowed stuff rate and sack rate, respectively.

Leatherwood is an interesting case because, based on how highly touted he was out of high school, he can sometimes leave one wanting more. Yet, at the same time, when he’s at his best, there are only a couple of offensive linemen that are in the same class as he is, athletically. He was arguably playing out of position at guard, and could be in a more favorable scenario as he takes over for Jonah Williams at left tackle, so the sky 's the limit in 2019.

There wasn’t a lot to like about Auburn’s offense in 2018, and the offensive line was a big reason why. One bright spot, though, was Prince Tega-Wanogho, who allowed just two combined sacks and hits in pass protection. With Tega-Wanogho leading the way, and all five starters coming back, Auburn’s new signal caller, whoever it ends up being, ought to be in a far more fortuitous situation.

EDGE DEFENDERS

-Jon Greenard (Louisville 2017), Florida (1.32)
-DJ Wonnum (2017), South Carolina (1.08)

Curiously enough, these guys played a combined five games last season. Greenard suffered a season ending injury in the first defensive series of Louisville’s season opener in 2018. Wonnum also went down in South Carolina’s first game, against Coastal Carolina. He returned for a few games in the middle of the season, but didn’t play in either of the Gamecocks’ last two regular season contests or the bowl game.

Therefore, as denoted above, their 2019 projections come as a result of their 2017 production.

It’s tough to just assume that a grad transfer, Greenard, will be one of the best edge defenders in the SEC next year, but there are reasons for Florida fans to be optimistic. He has a prior relationship with Todd Grantham from when the Gators’ DC recruited him to Louisville. He also enters a situation in which the departures of Polite and Cece Jefferson have opened the door to plenty of playing time opposite Jabari Zuniga. Jeremiah Moon, his fiercest competition at the position is also missing spring practice due to injury. At this point, it almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Greenard will earn the bulk of the snaps in what was Polite’s role. Greenard isn’t an elite athlete, but neither was his predecessor. Superior effort was probably Polite’s greatest attribute. Greenard, a bigger defender if not as explosive, shares that unceasing motor. He may not be as good as these numbers would suggest, but he’s a film star. Everytime the whistle is blown, he’s in the camera shot.

Wonnum is a bit easier to project than Greenard, or any grad transfer would be, because we’ve seen him be super productive in this defense. Assuming he’s healthy, few edge defenders in the conference can wreak havoc like Wonnum. However, he needs to be more consistent. He had just two sacks in five games against teams that ranked in the top half of the country in adjusted sack rate that season, and five of his thirteen tackles for loss came against NC State and Tennessee, who ranked 110th and 125th in stuff rate, respectively. In fairness, he did have sacks against both Missouri and NC State, top six teams in sack rate, plus tackles for loss against Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky, all top four teams in stuff rate, so it’s not like he’s just showing up and stockpiling numbers against the hapless. The next step is simply being more impactful on a week to week basis.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

-Justin Madubuike, Texas A&M (1.9)
-Derrick Brown, Auburn (1.35)
-McTelvin Agim, Arkansas (1.33)
-Rashard Lawrence, LSU (1.17)
-Raekwon Davis, Alabama (1.12)

Off the top of my head, I would have had the exact same top five as the formula, but not in that order. My gut says: Brown, Lawrence, Davis, Agim, and then Madubuike.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with Madubuike’s production. In some ways, the formula is, first and foremost, a playmaker index. Whereas, for example, Pro Football Focus’ grades measure consistency, OAYP values the sort of snaps that show up on highlight reels. Madubuike’s three forced fumbles in 2018 are tied with Agim for the most among returning SEC players. He’s also tied for first with Brown and Lawrence among returning interior defenders in tackles for loss alone atop that list in sacks. It will be interesting to see if he can be as statistically impactful in 2019 after Texas A&M’s losses of Otaro Alaka, Tyrel Dodson, Kingsley Keke, Landis Durham, and Daylon Mack in the front seven. The Aggies’ average front seven OAYP score is the lowest of the five schools represented by the above superstars, so while he was the beneficiary of a strong supporting cast last season, he will be the focal point going forward.

In some ways it was surprising to see Derrick Brown come back for his senior year. I actually think it was a good decision, though. This is among the most talented defensive line classes ever, and while he could have been a first rounder, it was not a sure thing. Barring an unfathomable regression, he’ll go in the top half of the first round in 2020. An ideal blend of power and explosiveness, he combines a good first step with a devastating bull rush that only a few SEC offensive linemen have been able to handle over the past couple of seasons. With Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson back alongside, his encore performance could be his best.
Agim has spent some time at end during his career, both in high school, where he developed into a five star prospect, and at Arkansas. He’s a good, even a very good defensive end, but not elite. He is an elite tackle. Now, finally moving to the interior of John Chavis’ defensive front, after posting double digit tackles for loss, QB hurries, and, as noted above, three forced fumbles, just imagine what he can do at his most natural position.

Lawrence is a consummate leader, both on and off the field for LSU. He, like Brown, probably could have gone pro and been a day two selection at worst. He, Brown, and Madubuike had the most tackles for loss of any returning interior defender last year at 10.5. He’ll also continue to benefit from a top tier supporting cast -- LSU’s average front seven OAYP is a full point higher than Texas A&M’s and second only to Alabama among the above five teams. He’s strong, violent, and eats double teams for breakfast. Banged up a season ago, he could challenge Brown for the title of ‘SEC’s best defensive lineman’ in 2019 if he stays healthy.

Rounding out the top five is the monster known as Raekwon Davis. The anticipation going into last season was that he would be Alabama’s best defensive lineman, and perhaps even the best player on their entire defense. He was clearly not Quinnen Williams, and might have even been third in his own position group, behind Isaiah Buggs. That’s not even an indictment of Davis, either, simply a reflection of just how dominant that trio was. He’s as tall as the average NBA player and heavier than Ndamukong Suh, yet shows incredible range for his size. When you hear people discuss the irresistible force paradox, the immovable object they’re referring to is Raekwon Davis.

LINEBACKERS

-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.

CORNERBACKS

-Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State (1.42)
-Shyheim Carter, Alabama (1.25)
-CJ Henderson, Florida (1.15)

2019 should be a good year for cornerbacks in college football, and the SEC is one of the premier reasons why. The conference, like the country, has a deep, talented group of cover guys that could compete for awards, All-American honors, and first round selections.

Cam Dantzler headlined a Mississippi State pass defense that allowed the fewest yards per attempt in the entire nation last year. The pass rush will presumably take a step back in 2019 after losing Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons from the defensive line, but there may not be much drop off, overall, of Dantzler continues to improve. Long and athletic, his two interceptions and nine pass breakups put him sixth among returning SEC cornerbacks, and he allowed the second lowest passer rating in the league on throws into his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.

Shyheim Carter is an interesting case, playing primarily from the slot for Alabama. Elite in both coverage and run defense, he allowed the fewest yards per snap in coverage among SEC returnees last year while also grading out tops at the position against the run. Despite dealing with a hand injury, he also notched two pick-sixes a season ago. Suffice it to say, it would be prudent for most teams to just stay as far away as possible from Carter.

Though third in the SEC in marginal OAYP, there are more than a few knowledgeable analysts that could make a convincing argument he’s the best cornerback in the country. He was expected to be the Gators’ CB2 in 2018, opposite Marco Wilson, but an ACL injury to the latter thrust Henderson into the spotlight, basically from the get-go. Henderson thrived in the face of adversity allowing a 50% catch rate without surrendering a single touchdown. The modern prototype, Henderson now headlines what could be the best secondary in the game in 2019.

SAFETIES

-Grant Delpit, LSU (2.71)
-Xavier McKinney, Alabama (1.72)
-J.R. Reed, Georgia (1.27)

Grant Delpit is not of this world. He can play center field like Andruw Jones, strap up receivers like any number of NFL cornerbacks that LSU has put in the league over the years, come up in the box like a heat seeking missile, and even rush the passer when Dave Aranda’s feeling particularly cruel. He may also be able to fly, breathe underwater, and shoot laser beams out of his eyeballs. His power is limitless.

Delpit led the SEC in interceptions last year, and finished second in total pass defensed. Those nine breakups were the sixth most among FBS safeties in 2018, he had even more quarterback pressures than batted balls -- 13 to be exact, which was fifth. Factor in his 9.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks, both of which led all SEC defensive backs, and there’s no debate as to who the best safety in the entire country is.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprise to see Xavier McKinney ranked where he is, but I was taken aback by just far ahead of the next tier that he ended up. Alabama was very inexperienced in the secondary last season after losing its top six tacklers from the 2017 defensive backfield. Opposite McKinney, Deionte Thompson dominated out of the gates and continued to do so for the rest of the regular season. McKinney had a slower start, relatively speaking, but seemed to get better every week. Then, as Thompson floundered in the College Football Playoff and gave up some uncharacteristic big plays, McKinney was arguably the Tide’s second most consistent defender in the postseason, behind Quinnen Williams. Like Delpit, McKinney is supremely versatile, and was especially strong in coverage last year, allowing a mere 46.5 passer rating on throws into his coverage with no touchdowns and two interceptions, which is the best among returning SEC safeties, just ahead of the aforementioned LSU standout.

If I was doing the rankings based on gut reaction, I would probably flip McKinney and Reed. In some ways, particularly from a defensive back standpoint, the OAYP formula is as much a playmaker index as anything else. Reed doesn’t necessarily fill out a box score like McKinney or Delpit, but his impact is unmistakable, and certainly felt. According to Pro Football Focus, Reed graded out as the SEC’s best safety in coverage last year, and, thanks to that late season dropoff from Thompson, actually ended up as the top graded safety overall. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time and never gives up big plays, which helped allow Georgia to play as bend-don’t-break as they did, whilst still ranking second in yards per pass attempt allowed to teams that ended up with a winning record.

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