Our SEC reporters have been ranking the position groups across the conference all week. Now we turn our attention to the front seven: Defensive line and linebackers.
1. Alabama: One of the few programs that can lose talent to the NFL and still be on top because of its depth. Defensive end Jonathan Allen's return was huge for the line. Da'Ron Payne, a freshman All-American, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da'Shawn Hand all played significant snaps last season. At linebacker, Reuben Foster is back on the inside after a 73-tackle season and sackmaster Tim Williams (10.5 sacks) returns to lead the outside linebackers. Ryan Anderson, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans all saw playing time last season and have plenty of ability.
2. LSU: The Tigers should be strong up front as usual. They’ll look a little different in Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense, but he has plenty of talent to work with. On the line, Davon Godchaux (who will play mostly nose but also some end), leads the way. Lewis Neal returns at defensive end but the Tigers suffered a blow by losing their other end, Christian LaCouture, to a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. Fortunately, there’s quality depth including Travonte Valentine, who was academically cleared. At linebacker, preseason first-team All-SEC pick Kendell Beckwith is a stalwart, while Arden Key and Tashawn Bower make up a strong tandem of outside linebackers to rush the passer. Key, who will play the "BUCK" position, could be in for a huge sack year.
3. Ole Miss: They might not have Robert Nkemdiche anymore but that doesn’t mean the Rebels don’t have talent. All-SEC defensive end Marquis Haynes is back and so are interior linemen Breeland Speaks, D.J. Jones and Isaac Gross. The depth up front is as good as it has been in quite some time. At linebacker, the Rebels did lose some experience but return leading tackler DeMarquis Gates. The addition of graduate transfer Rommel Mageo (87 tackles for Oregon State in 2015) will help.
4. Florida: The Gators are reloading up front. Caleb Brantley should build off a solid sophomore season at defensive tackle, senior Joey Ivie looks for a strong senior campaign. Blue-chip recruit Cece Jefferson could have a breakout second season and Bryan Cox Jr. is back too. There’s plenty of depth, both in the form of veterans (Jordan Sherit) and freshmen (Antonneous Clayton). Preseason second-team All-SEC choice Jarrad Davis (98 tackles in 2015) leads the linebackers and Alex Anzalone returns from an injury.
5. Tennessee: Two preseason first-team All-SEC picks anchor the front seven -- defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Barnett (10 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) leads a defensive line that returns four players who started last season (Kendal Vickers, LaTroy Lewis, Corey Vereen). Reeves-Maybin (105 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) is part of a trio that started games last season, with Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Kenny Bynum filling out the group.
6. Texas A&M: The Aggies are loaded and deep on the defensive line with Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall at defensive end and at least five defensive tackles John Chavis feels comfortable rotating in, led by the trio of Zaycoven Henderson, Kingsley Keke and Daylon Mack. That's a young, gifted trio. Linebacker depth is a question but with the Aggies expected to play nickel most of the time, they should be fine if Otaro Alaka and Shaan Washington can stay healthy.
7. Missouri: The dismissals of Walter Brady (seven sacks as a freshman) and Harold Brantley hurt the defensive line but the Tigers will still be good up front with junior stalwart Charles Harris (18.5 tackles for loss), super sophomore Terry Beckner Jr. and seniors Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley. Linebacker is in solid shape with veterans Michael Scherer (90 tackles last season) and Donavin Newsom (63) returning.
8. Arkansas: Most of the Razorbacks' defensive line is back, including returning sack leader Deatrich Wise Jr. (eight sacks, all in SEC games), Taiwan Johnson (who is moving to nose guard) and Jeremiah Ledbetter (who is moving from end to defensive tackle). Five-star recruit McTelvin Agim probably brings the most intrigue. At linebacker, senior Brooks Ellis hopes for an All-SEC caliber season and Dre Greenlaw is back after a strong true freshman campaign.
9. Vanderbilt: The presence of 2015 first-team All-SEC pick Zach Cunningham is huge for the linebackers and regaining Nigel Bowden from injury last season will be key for that group as well. There's experience up front in the form of juniors Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods and seniors Torey Agee and Adam Butler. Those are all good signs for a defense that was good enough to keep the Commodores in games last season.
10. Georgia: With six starters gone from last year's front seven, there’s a lot of inexperience. Defensive tackle Trenton Thompson is the lone returning starter and the Bulldogs will need him to lead the way up front. John Atkins and DaQuan Hawkins both return with some playing time experience from last season. Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter will be counted upon at outside linebacker; Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith will likely play significant roles inside.
11. Auburn: This group could really shoot up the list by season's end if Carl Lawson can stay healthy. Montravius Adams is back too, which is key. One big question is whether Byron Cowart can have a breakout season. Look for five-star signee Derrick Brown to make an early impact also. Linebacker is much more shaky with no returning starters. Tre' Williams has the only real experience and a graduate transfer (T.J. Neal, from Illinois) is expected to step in and contribute immediately.
12. Mississippi State: Having A.J. Jefferson (13.5 tackles for loss) back at defensive end is good and starting defensive tackle Nick James returns, but there isn't much in terms of proven production besides those two. At linebacker, Richie Brown's return will be huge after a 109-tackle, 6.5-sack season. Besides Brown, J.T. Gray (65 tackles) and Gerri Green (49 tackles) provide some experience and redshirt freshman Leo Lewis is intriguing.
13. Kentucky: The inexperience at linebacker leaves a lot of questions. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love is intriguing but youth surrounds him as the team tries to replace Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson and Ryan Flannigan. The defensive line is in a little better shape, led by Denzil Ware's return. The unit suffered a blow with Regie Meant's departure (Mark Stoops said he is out indefinitely for personal reasons), taking away a player who started four games last season. Sophomore Adrian Middleton steps into Meant’s defensive tackle spot; the Wildcats will also count on Courtney Miggins and Matt Elam to step up.
14. South Carolina: There’s some talent on the defensive line with guys like Marquavius Lewis, Kelsey Griffin, Taylor Stallworth, Daniel Fennell and Darius English, but production must improve. The front seven took a huge blow this offseason with the loss of linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s best returning player, but there is experience in the form of senior T.J. Holloman (63 tackles last year) and Jonathan Walton (five tackles for loss). Bryson Allen-Williams will be counted upon to step up.