Preseason Top 5: SEC Edge Defenders

Photo: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 edge defender class looks heavy at the top, but not many of those talents are coming from the SEC this year. After studying tape of a plethora of the conference’s finest, I put together the five players I believe are the best edge defender prospects in the SEC, including one that has a shot at the first round.

1. Montez Sweat, EDGE, Mississippi State

Sweat might be the second-best edge defender in the class after Nick Bosa, as his burst, long strides up the arc and adequate bend make him a real threat off the snap. He uses long arms and a low pad level to keep himself clean as a rusher, but his game is definitely still in need of refined hand usage and proper timing in his counters.

Sweat has to get stronger, as he’ll get pushed around in the run game despite his best efforts and exceptional physicality. He’s far from a perfect prospect, but Sweat has the traits and temperament needed to develop into a first round edge rusher. After a double-digit sack season a year ago, I’m predicting an even more impressive 2018 campaign for Sweat.

2. Anfernee Jennings, EDGE, Alabama

Jennings doesn’t possess much upside, but he’s smart, powerful and capable of making an impact right away in the NFL. He holds the point of attack well and can maul pullers with good technique, using the same power and pad level that also make him a solid bull rusher. But Jennings isn’t explosive off the line of scrimmage and won’t really threaten tackles on their outside hip at all, limiting his impact as a rusher.

So what can he be at the next level? I’d love to see Jennings play more from a 3-point stance in 2018, as a nasty false step really prohibits his ability to win the edge from a 2-point. He doesn’t have great athletic traits, but his impressive technique and developing rush moves could make him a productive player on Alabama’s deep defensive front this season.

3. Darrell Taylor, EDGE, Tennessee

Taylor is only a redshirt junior and just came off his first year as a starter (7 games), but the potential is there for him to be a riser this season. He is an easy mover with obvious natural flexibility, capable of anchoring a gap or making a stop in pursuit to the perimeter. Unlike most SEC edge defenders, Taylor isn’t excessively heavy or laborious in his movements, and word on the street is he’s cutting to the 240s this season to be more explosive.

That’s a good sign, because right now his first step is a little underdeveloped, and he doesn’t win with speed up the arc. I think he can, but he’s still figuring things out as a pass rusher. I love Taylor’s effort to win inside and outside off the edge, keeping tackles honest and showing the quickness to work across their face if they overset on him.

Taylor’s hands and counters as a pass rusher need to develop, but there is potential here I haven’t seen in many other SEC edges. I’ll be watching him closely this season to see if he takes the next step.

4. CeCe Jefferson, EDGE, Florida

The SEC just isn’t offering a lot of noticeably talented edge defenders for the 2019 class, which allows Jefferson to be this high up the rankings. Don’t get me wrong, the Florida edge rusher plays hard, is very physical and knows what he’s doing against the run.

The problem is that Jefferson has no perceivable pass rush ability, lacking the burst, speed and bend to really threaten the corner. Tackles sit on his bull rushes and aren’t afraid of him beating them to the edge, leading to tons of stalemate attempts on passing downs.

Jefferson’s lack of rush moves and counters make him an unlikely contributor on passing downs unless he gets some refinement to his attacks. I would like to see him as a situational inside rusher, because he understands how to work to his opponent’s edge and slant through a gap, but he needs to make major strides in his pass rush plan this season.

5. Jonathan Ledbetter, EDGE, Georgia

Ledbetter might eventually be surpassed by his teammate D’Andre Walker, who is one of the toughest players to figure out that I've seen on tape this summer. Walker out-produced Ledbetter in what appeared to be less snaps, but he needs to make major strides technically to see an NFL field consistently.

Ledbetter is listed 6-foot-3, 277 pounds, and has the frame of what many would call a 3-4 defensive end. But in the modern NFL, base defense is fading fast and defensive linemen must play multiple techniques snap-to-snap. Ledbetter has the size, power and pad level to hold up on the edge, but I question his range and agility in space. He’s tough and physical, but might be better as a situational interior player in the NFL.

Ledbetter isn’t very polished as a pass rusher, appearing to lack the athleticism or explosiveness to be disruptive off the edge. Georgia plays him in a square stance with a lot of tackle reads, making it difficult to judge his get-off, but his movements tend to be a little lumbering. Could Ledbetter drop weight and be more effective on long and late downs? With Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy off to the NFL, that might be in the cards for the Bulldogs’ edge this season.

Also add to watch list: Marlon Davidson, Auburn. Josh Allen, Kentucky. Nick Coe, Auburn. Landis Durham, Texas A&M. Atonneous Clayton, Florida. Jabari Zuniga, Florida. Gerri Green, Mississippi State. D’Andre Walker, Georgia. D.J. Wonnum, South Carolina