Five best SEC defensive backs of the past decade

I griped Thursday about the difficulty in naming the SEC’s five best offensive linemen of the last decade. Well, defensive back isn’t any easier.

The conference has turned out 16 first-round NFL draft picks in the last 10 years and seven national award winners. Heck, you could be well on your way to a solid top five using only the SEC’s 2012 draft class -- a year where four of the first 17 picks (LSU’s Morris Claiborne, South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore and Alabama’s Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick) were defensive backs from the conference.

Even the No. 1 spot is debatable, if only because the league has turned out a few unbelievable DBs since the 2006 season. Here is our best shot at a top five -- a group so good that it leaves out a Jim Thorpe Award winner (Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks):

1. Eric Berry, Tennessee (2007-09): Arguably the best defensive back in SEC history, Berry’s three seasons at Tennessee saw him win enough awards to fill a gigantic trophy case. He was the SEC’s defensive player of the year as a sophomore in 2008, a season where he tied for the national lead with seven interceptions and returned those picks for a total of 265 yards and two touchdowns. He was a unanimous All-SEC and All-America selection in 2008 and 2009 (he also was second-team All-SEC as a freshman in 2007) and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back in 2009. After going fifth overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2010 NFL draft, Berry has been just as successful as a pro. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro with the Chiefs and also won the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year award last season following his comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As good as the other players on the list are, Berry has a resume that is awfully difficult to beat.

2. Patrick Peterson, LSU (2008-10): Peterson might have been the SEC’s top cover cornerback and return man of the last decade, and he won plenty of awards that add credence to that claim. He won both the Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik (defensive player of the year) awards in 2010 and also was the SEC’s special teams player of the year by averaging 16.1 yards per return on punts (including two touchdowns) and 29.1 yards on kickoffs. After the Arizona Cardinals selected him fifth overall in the 2011 draft, Peterson went on to become one of the league’s most valuable defensive backs. He has made five Pro Bowls and is a three-time All-Pro since joining the Cardinals.

3. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (2010-11): The Honey Badger’s college career was fairly short, but his 2011 season was one of the best ever by an SEC defensive back. He won the Bednarik Award, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and earned the AP’s nod for SEC defensive player of the year because of his ball-hawking style on a dominant LSU defense. The All-SEC and All-America honoree finished 2011 with 77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, five fumble recoveries (two of which he returned for touchdowns), six forced fumbles, nine pass breakups, 11 passes defended and also returned 27 punts for 421 yards (15.6 yards per return) and two more touchdowns. He easily ranks among the SEC’s most exciting players of the past decade, even if his college career was shortened when Tigers coach Les Miles booted him off the team prior to the 2012 season. Mathieu cleaned up his act, however, and developed into an NFL star after the Cardinals picked him in the third round of the 2013 draft. He already is a two-time All-Pro safety with the Cardinals.

4. Joe Haden, Florida (2007-09): Haden won the Sporting News National Defensive Player of the Year award and was a unanimous All-American in 2009, capping three dominant seasons as one of the conference’s top cover corners. Haden was a starter from day one with the Gators and earned freshman All-SEC and freshman All-America honors with the Gators in 2007 before emerging as one of the top players on a loaded Florida defense in the BCS championship season of 2008. Haden entered the draft after his junior season and went seventh overall to the Cleveland Browns in the 2010 draft. He has made a pair of Pro Bowls and has been named an All-Pro once with the Browns.

5. Morris Claiborne, LSU (2009-11): There were several tempting options for this spot (they’re listed below), but we settled on yet another LSU corner in the end. Claiborne was another of the rocks on the Tigers’ 2011 SEC championship defense, picking off six passes (and returning them for 173 yards) en route to winning the coaches’ SEC defensive player of the year award. He also was that season’s Thorpe Award winner and a unanimous All-American. After that standout junior season, Claiborne entered the draft and was the No. 6 overall pick to the Dallas Cowboys.

Just missed the cut: Reggie Nelson, Florida (2005-06); Mark Barron, Alabama (2008-11); Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida (2013-15); Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State (2009-12); LaRon Landry, LSU (2003-06); Dee Milliner, Alabama (2010-12); Eric Reid, LSU (2010-12); Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina (2009-11); Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (2009-11)