LSU defense: Our top five

We all know LSU's defense is loaded.

The Tigers have made it a habit to replace NFL talent with NFL talent. So loaded are the Tigers that two of the top five players in next year's NFL draft rankings come from the defensive line alone (and you can name five who might be first-round picks).

So who's best?

The GTN staff pondered the question and came up with their list of the five best Tigers on defense with their explanations for why they voted ...

Gary Laney

1. DE Sam Montgomery: So much is made of the LSU secondary, and rightfully so, but when I see offenses struggle trying to figure out how to move the ball against the Tigers, it seems like the biggest preoccupation is with how to block them.

Think about some of those "Honey Badger" highlights. On how many big plays is he unblocked? A lot. And why would they not think to block a Heisman Trophy Finalist? Because they are so busy trying to get the front four blocked.

And that's where Montgomery is so special. He had 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks last season. He must be accounted for, which frees up so many other players to make plays.

2. DB Tyrann Mathieu: On a defense where there will be opportunities to make plays, nobody is more opportunistic than the Honey Badger. Whether he's coming off the slot on a blitz and forcing a fumble or picking off an errant pass, there isn't a better ball hawk in college football. And he's really not as bad at pass coverage as some think. He's just so good at everything else (and LSU has had so many great corners sharing the field), Mathieu's coverage skills don't stand out.

3. S Eric Reid: A solid free safety headed for a pro career (likely as a first-round draft pick), Reid is like a quarterback for the defense. He quietly gets the job done.

4. DE Barkevious Mingo: Mingo and Montgomery are close and Mingo actually had more tackles for loss (15) than Montgomery and just one fewer sack. The only question for Mingo, who was mostly a backup last season, is how will he hold up as a starter playing every down and not coming in mainly on pass-rush downs. I suspect he'll be fine, but won't assume it.

5. CB Tharold Simon: I debated hard between Simon, dominant tackle Bennie Logan and emerging linebacker Kevin Minter. I love Simon's length (6-foot-3) and surprisingly quick hips that allow him to cover even big receivers. Being able to cover at the corners gives John Chavis so much creative freedom with his schemes.

David Helman

1. Reid: This is more an indication of where I think the Dutchtown product will be than where he finished 2011. Reid was on at least one All-America list, led the team in tackles and made perhaps the play of the season (the goal line interception of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron) on Nov. 3. Reid has a knack for making big plays, and he has prototypical size for a NFL safety.

2. Mingo: Montgomery might have the brighter professional future, but Mingo's freakish athleticism is something I've never seen on the college level. We knew we were going to see a special season when the West Monroe alum ran down LaMichael James in the backfield last year against Oregon. With another offseason to improve, the junior promises to showcase his freaky linebacker/end athleticism at an even higher level.

3. Montgomery: It's six of one, half a dozen of the other between "Big Sam" and "KeKe." There might not be an offensive line on LSU's schedule that can withstand the two of them for a full four quarters.

4. LB Kevin Minter: I put Minter here more because of his importance than his skill level. He is far and away the Tigers' most experienced linebacker, and his know-how will be invaluable to a unit that is breaking in so many new players. He finished fifth on the team with 61 tackles in just 11 starts last fall. With the amount of nickel and dime packages LSU runs, he'll likely be the only linebacker on the field in many cases, and he'll need to step up.

5. Mathieu: I know it looks like I'm short-changing the Honey Badger by putting him this low. His history of forcing turnovers is undeniable. But at just 5-foot-9, I worry about his ability to cover the bigger receivers in the SEC -- which he might be called on to do. If he remains primarily as an extra DB, it's hard to justify ranking a nickelback above the guys on this list.