Alabama will once again have a tough road that they must overcome if they want a chance at getting back to the college football playoffs.
The Tide should field one of the most explosive offenses this season, but nothing will come easy for Jalen Hurts and company. They’ll have to line up against several of the best defensive players in the country — including the top two overall defensive players according to many draft pundits.
So, who are the top 5 defensive players that the Tide will be going against this season?
5. Marlon Davidson, DE, Auburn
Statistics: 38 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks
Why he made the list: Marlon Davidson’s statistics from his first season on The Plains might not look impressive, but make no mistake, he was an impact player for Auburn’s defense.
The 6-3, 282-pound defensive end from Greenville, Ala. was an excellent complementary piece to former edge rush Carl Lawson, but Davidson is now expected to be the featured defensive linemen heading into this season.
The former 4-star prospect managed to earn SEC All-Freshman honors last season, and don’t be surprised if he continues to build off that as he earns more national attention for his on-field performance. As good as Davidson was for a true freshman, he’s expected to be even better in 2017.
Sports Illustrated recently listed Davidson as their No. 90 overall player in college football heading into this season. The expectations are high, but it won’t be a surprise if Davidson becomes a force in the SEC.
4. Armani Watts, S, Texas A&M
Statistics: 56 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INTs
Why he made the list: Watts only managed to play in 8 games last season. He suffered a nasty knee injury against Ole Miss that cut his season short, and that negatively effected his draft stock.
Had it not been for that injury, Watts would more than likely be left off this list — because he would be preparing for his first season in the NFL.
As a sophomore in 2015, Watts managed to record 126 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 interception and 2 forced fumbles. He displayed impressive range, instincts and physicality that created buzz in NFL circles. He’s not a perfect player, but he should hear his name called sometime during the first two days of the 2018 NFL Draft.
The former 4-star prospect is expected to be one of the top safeties in college football this season.
3. Marquis Haynes, Edge, Ole Miss
Statistics: 53 tackles, 11 TFL, 7 sacks, 3 FF
Why he made the list: Haynes is sometimes overlooked, but he has been one of the most consistent defensive players in the country over the last three seasons.
Coming into his senior year, Haynes already ranks second in school history in career sacks with 24.5 — Greg Hardy ranks first with 26.5 during his four-year career from 2006-09. Barring injury, Haynes should leave Ole Miss breaking Hardy’s record.
At only 6-3, 225 pounds, Haynes is severely undersized for a defensive end. As a result, he’ll be expected to make the move to outside linebacker in the NFL — whether that be as a 3-4 edge rusher or as a 4-3 strong-side linebacker like Von Miller originally played for the Denver Broncos.
Even though he doesn’t have prototypical size, that hasn’t stopped Haynes from making an impact for the Ole Miss defense. In addition to his ability to create sacks, Haynes also has a knack for forcing turnovers. He has managed to record 9 forced fumbles over his three years — recording 3 in each season.
Alabama fans might remember Haynes from this hit that he put on QB Jalen Hurts last season.
The Tide’s offensive tackles are going to have another season in which they are constantly getting tested — so they better be prepared.
2. Arden Key, Edge, LSU
Statistics: 55 tackles, 13 TFL, 12.0 sacks, 3 FF
Why he made the list: Former Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett was the consensus top player in this year’s draft. He’s an extremely gifted athlete with the complementary size needed to make an instant impact in the NFL. With that said, LSU’s Arden Key could end up being better.
Key took the SEC by storm as a true freshman in 2015. He played in all 12 games, and he started the final nine — racking up 5 sacks and a team high 9 QB hurries in the process.
In 2016, Key continued his development. He added both weight and strength, and that helped him become a more complete player. Listed at 6-6, 238 pounds, he still needs to continue to get bigger, but it has been rumored that he’s gotten his weight up to 250-plus pounds.
His 11 solo sacks were the fourth most in college football last season. That statistic is not surprising when you consider his instincts as a pass-rusher combined with the ability to bend and get to the quarterback. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah recently compared Key to former Miami Dolphins edge rusher — and recent Hall of Fame inductee — Jason Taylor.
That’s high praise, but it’s entirely possible for Key to live up to that comparison. Jonah Williams will have to bring his A-game against LSU now that he will be protecting Hurts’ blindside.
1. Derwin James, S, Florida State
Statistics: 11 tackles, 1 INT (2 games played)
Why he made the list: If you ask me, Derwin James is the best player in college football — and it’s not even close.
James has a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism that makes him extremely dangerous on the back half of Florida State’s defense. He was only able to play in two games last season due to a torn meniscus, but he still managed to make his presence known.
To really know what kind of player James can be, you have to go back and watch his tape as a true freshman in 2015. If you do, you’ll see a player who can line up anywhere on the field and make an impact.
He finished that season with 91 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks and 2 pass deflections. He’s drawn similarities to Sean Taylor when it comes to his ability to deliver the bit hit, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch at this point.
NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks did make an eye-opening comparison for James, however.
“This is going to be a crazy combination, but I’m going to take two prospects from this draft we just finished. He (James) has a mix of Jamal Adams and Reuben Foster in his game,” Brooks said last month.
When Alabama’s offense takes the field on Sept. 2nd against the Seminoles, they are going to have to do everything they can to keep the former 5-star from making the game-changing type of impact that he has been known to do.