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Which Alabama football players are the most important to the future success of this team? Inspired by a recent story from The Athletic, let's fill the bye-week boredom by discussing which players the Alabama Crimson Tide might protect in a hypothetical expansion draft.

Imagine: The date is January 13, 2021. The college football season has just ended and NFL Draft announcements are on the horizon.

The SEC has also just announced the creation of a brand-new football team to begin play in the 2021 season to help restore the competitive balance to the conference. Following the process used by new teams in professional sports leagues, this new SEC team will fill its roster by choosing players from the rosters of the existing 14 teams.

Each existing team can "protect" eight of its players from being drafted onto the new team, but all the other players are fair game. After coaches' frustrations subside, their attention must turn to which eight players they deem the most crucial to their program over the next few years.

Considering factors such as age, experience, upside, consistency, position and NFL Draft outlook, here are the eight players Alabama would choose, listed in alphabetical order by last name:

  • Will Anderson Jr.: Anderson starts at outside linebacker as a true freshman, and his lightning-fast first step is as quick as advertised. He has the capability to get into the backfield in a hurry, and rushing the passer is essential in the modern era of college football. He has at least two more seasons of terrorizing SEC quarterbacks and running backs.
  • Javon Baker: We haven't seen much of Baker yet, but by all accounts, he had a strong fall camp and has impressed his teammates on both sides of the ball. DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are likely headed to the NFL, and even if not, they'll only stay one more season. John Metchie III is a candidate here too, but it's too risky that he might leave after 2021. Baker has been compared to former Alabama great Amari Cooper and cannot leave for the NFL for two more seasons.
  • Jordan Battle: Nick Saban raves about Battle like he did about former Crimson Tide defensive backs like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey. Battle had a role as a true freshman and has emerged as a leader now that he's a full-time starter at safety. There's a possibility he could leave after his junior season, but his blend of talent and experience gives a huge boost to the secondary. It's worth the risk, and if you could get two more years out of him, that's a bonus.
  • Emil Ekiyor Jr.: The top two points in Ekiyor's favor are position versatility — he can play left guard, center or right guard — and upside. The coaching staff likes the power that he plays with at 6-foot-3 and 324 pounds. He flew under the radar during fall camp and had a rocky start to the season, but he has now settled into the starting right guard spot. He's the only redshirt sophomore here in a group of freshmen and sophomores, but there's a solid chance he stays through the 2022 season.
  • Christian Harris: With Dylan Moses likely off to the NFL Draft, Harris is a candidate to assume the team's Mike linebacker role in 2021. He has continued to progress after switching from corner to linebacker in college, and he has the athleticism to rush off the edge, too. His speed and coverage are assets against modern offenses, but due to his inexperience at linebacker, it's unlikely he leaves Alabama after 2021.
  • Malachi Moore: One of the easiest selections on the list, Moore has been an instant-impact player as a true freshman. He has been named the SEC Freshman of the Week twice in his first six games, courtesy of his six pass breakups, two interceptions and a fumble returned for a touchdown. He will be a staple on the defense for the next two or three years.
  • Bryce Young: Even if Mac Jones stays for the 2021 season, which is looking increasingly unlikely, the team has to lock up its starting quarterback of the future. That's widely expected to be Young, the top quarterback recruit in the 2020 class who is revered for his unflappable demeanor, arm talent and escapability. This was a no-brainer.
  • Byron Young: Alabama only has one player on the defensive front protected right now, and that's 235-pound Will Anderson. The team needs more bulk to help maintain its run defense, and Young has shown he's one of the Crimson Tide's better run stuffers. The sophomore defensive end has three tackles for loss this season, and Saban recently complimented his improved quickness. There are several defensive linemen the team could choose from, but Young gets the nod due to his ascending play and the fact that he's still just a true sophomore.

That's three offensive players and five defensive players. Broken down by position, it's one quarterback, one wide receiver, one offensive lineman, one defensive lineman, one outside linebacker, one inside linebacker and two defensive backs who form the core of the Crimson Tide going forward.