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Patrick Willis, Peyton Manning lead a stacked All-SEC NFL alumni team

Patrick Willis, Peyton Manning lead a stacked All-SEC NFL alumni team Photo:

No matter where you stand on proclaiming the SEC as college football's best conference (it totally is), the NFL numbers speak for themselves. The SEC had more players drafted this year (49) than any other conference, as well as the most first-rounders by far (11) and the highest total of picks on Days 1 and 2 (23).

We're not just talking about players scraping their way onto NFL rosters. This conference has consistently produced superstars, so much so that the skill positions on our All-SEC alumni team were expanded to include third-team honorees.

Just in case you don't believe the SEC hype, some evidence follows in the form of our final all-conference team.

Quarterbacks: Peyton Manning (Tennessee)
Second team: Cam Newton (Auburn)
Third team: Eli Manning (Mississippi)

Slotting in one Manning -- Peyton as the first-teamer -- was easy. Figuring out what to do with Eli amid Newton, Matthew Stafford (Georgia), Jay Cutler (Vanderbilt) and Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) was the head-scratcher. The final placement came down to a combination of Eli Manning's 2013 slopfest and the two Super Bowl titles he's won. Newton, Stafford, Cutler and Tannehill have one playoff win between them.

So why Newton on the second-team? Chalk it up to the step forward he took last season during Carolina's run to the postseason, coupled with a ceiling that still might be higher than any SEC quarterback candidate shy of Peyton.

Running backs: Arian Foster (Tennessee), Eddie Lacy (Alabama)
Second team:  Zac Stacy (Vanderbilt), Ben Tate (Auburn)
Third team: Darren McFadden (Arkansas),  Stevan Ridley (LSU)

Heck of a debut from Lacy, who claimed Offensive Rookie of the Year while totaling 1,435 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers fall shy of what Foster posted in 2010, '11 and '12 -- he topped out with 2,220 total yards and 18 touchdowns three seasons ago. Can he find that form again now that the Texans' safety net, Tate, has moved on to Cleveland?

Stacy challenged 1,000 yards on the ground in his first NFL season, falling just 27 yards shy. Ridley might be able to reach that plateau if he's given more work by the Patriots.

Wide receivers: A.J. Green (Georgia), Julio Jones (Alabama)
Second team: Percy Harvin (Florida), Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina)
Third team: Randall Cobb (Kentucky), Mike Wallace (Mississippi)

This is a ridiculous collection of talent. Green has claimed a place in the conversation of league's top wideouts alongside the likes of Calvin Johnson. Jeffery might not be all that far behind, coming off a 1,400-yard showing. Harvin's issue has always been his health -- when he's 100 percent (which is not all that often), he is an electrifying talent.

Jones joined him on the sideline last season, missing 11 games due to injury. Bet on a bounceback performance.

Where Alabama needs the most improvement

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Zac Ellis discuss the position where Alabama needs to improve the most in order to bounce back this season.

Tight end: Jason Witten (Tennessee)
Second team: Jared Cook (South Carolina)
Third team: Martellus Bennett (Texas A&M)

In terms of raw talent, this position is Cook's and Cook's alone. He has not been able to turn all that upside into consistent production ... and Witten's middle name is Consistency. The longtime Cowboy has topped 70 catches each of the past six years (with a 110-reception outburst in 2012) and needs just 201 yards receiving to hit 10,000 in his career.

Offensive tackles: Jason Peters (Arkansas), Andre Smith (Alabama)
Second team: D.J. Fluker (Alabama), Cordy Glenn (Georgia)

Put Peters on the left side and Smith on the right, and most teams in the league would have upgraded significantly. Peters and Lane Johnson together did impressive work in Chip Kelly's system last year. Glenn has 29 starts under his belt in two seasons, but his current situation is a mystery, as he's dealing with an undisclosed medical issue.

Guards: Evan Mathis (Alabama), Larry Warford (Kentucky)
Second team: Ben Grubbs (Auburn), Chance Warmack (Alabama)

Mathis finally earned some recognition last season in the form of Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, following back-to-back snubs as a dominant guard for the Eagles. Warford, meanwhile, was one of the absolute gems of the 2013 draft -- a third-round find by the Lions who dropped into the starting lineup and immediately started punishing defenders.

Center: Maurkice Pouncey (Florida)
Second team: Mike Pouncey (Florida)

Which Pouncey is the better NFL center? General consensus would point toward Maurkice, a three-time Pro Bowler and 2011 All-Pro, not to mention the recent recipient of a massive contract extension. Mike Pouncey, though, landed his first Pro Bowl spot last year, with his brother injured for all but part of one game. The injury bug has traveled back Mike's way for 2014 -- he could miss eight weeks of the regular season with a hip injury.

4-3 defensive ends: Carlos Dunlap (Florida), Greg Hardy (Mississippi)
Second team: Michael Bennett (Texas A&M), Charles Johnson (Georgia)

Splitting up the defensive ends for this conference, again due to the overwhelming talent. This group was responsible for 42.0 sacks last season, led by 15 from the Panthers' Hardy. Of course, Bennett claimed a Super Bowl ring for himself after taking a cap-friendly deal to move from Tampa Bay to Seattle. The Seahawks rewarded him this offseason with a four-year, $28.5 million contract.

3-4 defensive ends: Ray McDonald (Florida), Justin Smith (Missouri)
Second team: Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), Sheldon Richardson (Missouri)

Kudos to the 49ers for raiding this conference. McDonald and Smith form two-thirds of the NFC West power's defensive line, and both Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis (still to come on our list) hail from the SEC as well. Cox has performed well in his two seasons with Philadelphia, while Richardson burst onto the scene last year for the Jets

Defensive tackles: Geno Atkins (Georgia), Kyle Williams (LSU)
Second team: Marcell Dareus (Alabama), Nick Fairley (Auburn)

At defensive tackle we find one of the league's best overall defenders in Atkins, an underrated but wholly consistent force in Williams ... and two talented players in need of a kick to the backside. Dareus stumbled through a tumultuous offseason; Fairley's fifth-year contract option was turned down by the Lions in an apparent attempt to motivate Fairley by dangling free agency in front of him.

Outside linebackers: Von Miller (Texas A&M), Aldon Smith (Missouri)
Second team: John Abraham (South Carolina), Justin Houston (Georgia)

Assuming he can stay on the field for 16 games this year, Miller again may jump back into the NFL's best defender conversation with J.J. Watt. Two years ago, Watt took 49 first-place votes for Defensive Player of the Year, with Miller nabbing the lone outlier. Smith certainly has DPOY-level talent, if he can get his off-field demons under control.

Houston does not trail far behind, at least in comparison to Smith. The Chiefs' OLB has been extremely consistent over his first three NFL seasons. Abraham has 14 years under his belt, 13 of them as a defensive. His move to Arizona and an outside linebacker role moves him into this category.

Inside linebackers: Karlos Dansby (Auburn), Patrick Willis (Mississippi)
Second team: DeMeco Ryans (Alabama), Brandon Spikes (Florida)

Their move for Dansby flew under the radar a bit, but the Browns will be happy to have him anchoring their 3-4 linebacker corps. San Francisco is crossing its fingers that NaVorro Bowman will be ready to go at some point soon after a horrific knee injury in the playoffs, but the seven-time Pro Bowler Willis is more than capable of sliding over to the strong side until Bowman returns.

Cornerbacks: Joe Haden (Florida), Patrick Peterson (LSU)
Second team: Tyrann Mathieu (LSU), Captain Munnerlyn (South Carolina)

Probably could have leaned on a talent-forced roster expansion at this position, too: Janoris Jenkins (Florida) and Johnathan Joseph (South Carolina) both arguably deserve some recognition. The first team was set in stone from the outset, with Haden and Peterson counted as borderline elite NFL cornerbacks. Mathieu could be there soon, assuming he bounces back from his 2013 season-ending injury.

Safeties: Eric Berry (Tennessee), Eric Reid (LSU)
Second team: Matt Elam (Florida), Reggie Nelson (Florida)

A healthy mix of proven vets and emerging young stars here, and that's without including another 2013 draft pick in D.J. Swearinger. Reid and Elam have locked down starting gigs for San Francisco and Baltimore, respectively, a pair of contenders. Berry, a 2013 first-team All-Pro, continues to stand out as a top-flight NFL safety.

Kicker: Blair Walsh (Georgia)
Second team: Ryan Succop (South Carolina)

Runaway victory at kicker for the big-legged Walsh over Succop and Caleb Sturgis (Florida). All three guys could stand to improve, however -- Walsh led the group with an 86.7 field goal conversion rate, just 20th-best in the NFL.

Punter: Shane Lechler (Texas A&M)
Second team: Dustin Colquitt (Tennessee)

Lechler, 38 next month, is nearing the twilight of his career. When he retires, he will walk away as one of the greatest punters of his era. In fact, the Hall of Fame named him a first-team player on its All-2000s team. Dustin Colquitt earns the nod over his younger brother, Britton, based on a stronger 2013.

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