Donald Love: F
Love only managed four first-team appearances before suffering a major injury. In those four games way back in August one thing was clear: even though the club has suffered back-to-back relegations, Love is still hopelessly out of his depth.
Jack Ross tried using Love in his fluid early season lopsided 3-5-2/4-3-3 formation, using the 24-year-old as a right-back who could cover the right centre-back position when Lynden Gooch bombed forward.
The gaffer soon realised Love’s lack of technical ability outweighed his tactical versatility and dropped the 24-year-old from his matchday squads before Love’s season-changing injury.
Heading towards his athletic prime, having lost almost an entire season to injury it would suit all parties if Love was moved on in the summer.
Adam Matthews: C
In researching this column, I was shocked to find out Matthews played 28 times this season and in half of Sunderland’s League One matches. Part of the reason that number caught me off guard is the way Luke O’Nien made the right-back slot his own. The other reason is the no thrills, forgettable nature of the Welsh international’s performances.
Much like last year when Matthews is actually on the pitch, he’s pretty good - a quality passer, especially at full-back, especially for League One. The 27-year-old was a useful asset going forward and could have established himself as one of the best attacking full-backs in the division if he was more durable.
If Love worked in a back three/back four hybrid role in Ross’ initial system from a tactical standpoint, but lacked the talent to be worth playing, Matthews had the opposite problem and was an awful fit for the system, and his defensive struggles forced Ross to abandon that formation after Glenn Loovens went down injured.
Like Sunderland’s other international full-back Bryan Oviedo, Matthews can be a liability defensively and both were dreadful in the Black Cats first defeat of the season at the Pirelli Stadium.
Matthews’ grade doesn’t reflect his true ability, but how much use is a footballer - especially a defender - if they can only stay fit for half a season in their mid-twenties?
Luke O’Nien: B+
Who’d have thought Sunderland’s most impressive defender would end up being a converted midfielder?
O’Nien’s mid-season switch from a super-sub to defender changed the former Wycombe midfielder from a potential flop to a cult hero.
His energy and relentlessness from the right-back slot gave Sunderland another player who could wreak havoc and cause uncertainty against deep-lying defences at home. And his deceptive physicality and sneaky ability to commit fouls without referees noticing meant he rarely got exposed defensively against lesser competition.
For all the praise Sunderland’s young player of the year rightfully receives, he did have his struggles against League One’s better sides. His positional naivety was exposed by Portsmouth and Jamal Lowe in the Checkatrade Trophy final. He was also a complete disaster in the five-goal defensive horror show against Coventry that severely damaged Sunderland’s automatic promotion chances.
The 24-year-old often makes smart decisions in the final third, perhaps recognising midfield runs quicker than a long-serving defender would, but he also needs to improve his crossing if he does remain Sunderland’s long-term choice at the right-back position.
On the whole O’Nien deserves great credit for keeping an experienced international on the bench and improving Sunderland’s ability to break down defensively-minded teams.
Jordan Hunter: D
Suffered the ignominy of being hooked in his only first-team appearance against Morecambe in the EFL Cup.
Brandon Taylor: C
Looked better than Hunter after replacing the 19-year-old in the Morecambe game in his only first-team outing.
Jack Baldwin: C-
It seems like a lifetime ago that Jack Baldwin looked out of place in League One and ‘could’ have been considered Sunderland’s best player. But that was the case at the start of the season.
It looked like the Black Cats had pulled off a great heist in signing this 25-year-old who had an outstanding passing range, a calmness in possession, a genuine mean streak and the aggressive mentality all good defenders need.
By Autumn it all became clear as to why Peterborough United were happy to offload our new centre-half as his passing became infuriatingly sketchy, he started going to ground way too often, and his lapses in concentration became more frequent.
Most importantly - like his regular defensive partner, Tom Flanagan - Baldwin isn’t suited to battling League One’s biggest, toughest target men. Baldwin’s problems in this area were nowhere near as pronounced as Flanagan, but their partnership created a clear weakness in Sunderland’s team that wasn’t addressed until far too late into the season.
For all his great work early in the season, and some impressive showings scattered through the second-half of our campaign, it’s hard to look past Baldwin’s final week in the team - the disastrous draw at home to Burton Albion and then the five-goal humiliation against Coventry City.
Ross never trusted Baldwin again after an all-time embarrassing defensive performance from Sunderland in which Baldwin was especially bad for Coventry’s fourth and fifth goals. Ranking Baldwin is tough, for all the mistakes he made he’s still clearly the most gifted centre-back we own and was integral to Sunderland’s solid first-half of the League One season.
Ultimately, the costly mistakes will live longer in the memory than his promising start on Wearside, whether that’s fair or not.
Tom Flanagan: C-
Like Baldwin, it’s hard to weigh up the good against the bad when grading the former Burton man’s season.
Flanagan has similar strengths and weaknesses to Peterborough’s former captain. He’s a decent technician for League One and can carry the ball out from defence. His defensive instincts and ability to read play is better than Baldwin’s, but physicality is an even bigger issue for the versatile defender.
Flanagan just gets bullied at this level. The list of strikers who dominated the 27-year-old is long, but Kiefer Moore and Armand Gnanduillet must still be in Flanagan’s nightmares given the difficulty he had stopping either striker from pinning him, or in Gnadulliet’s case just knocking him over. Those are the two most obvious examples of strikers big-brothering Flanagan, but plenty of centre-forwards had their way with the skinny defender.
Outside of the aforementioned promotion-costing week where Sunderland failed to beat Burton and Coventry at home, Flanagan - for all his limitations - was probably Sunderland’s most consistent centre-back.
But given the importance of those two matches, and quite how badly Flanagan played in those games it becomes impossible to give the defender a high rank. I’ve never seen a footballer more closely resemble the scene in Space Jam where the basketballers lose their talent and can’t function anymore than watching Flanagan that week.
Unsurprisingly, like Baldwin, Flanagan was dropped after two abysmal performances, yet Ross did bring Flanagan back for Sunderland’s final few fixtures and the post-season as the Scot trusted him slightly more than the hapless Jimmy Dunne.
Yet in those final games Flanagan still looked shook and short of confidence after his Coventry breakdown - ultimately the 27-year-old wilted when the stakes were highest.
Alim Ozturk: C
A total calamity in his early appearances to the point that he wasn’t trusted in important games for half a year - Ozturk then emerged as a potential saviour and unlikely hero in Sunderland’s promotion campaign when Baldwin and Flanagan were unceremoniously dropped after the Coventry meltdown.
Unsurprisingly, the truth with Ozturk lies somewhere in between. He wasn’t as bad as his horror show performances against Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic suggested in the summer. The 26-year-old also wasn’t some outstanding, dominant defender hiding in plain sight that was poorly used by Ross.
His ability to match physicality and take-on some of League One’s more robust strikers was unique among the Black Cats collection of defenders, and with hindsight Ozturk could have been used more during the first three quarters of the season to negate certain match-ups.
But, let’s be real, if you want to win a League One championship and dominate at this level you don’t want an outfield player as limited as Ozturk regularly starting.
If Ozturk was signed to be a fourth-choice centre-half then it's fair to say he’s surpassed expectations, but as a regular starter for an ambitious team he falls short.
Jimmy Dunne: E+
Jimmy Dunne is the answer to the question “what would happen if you gave a player with National League technique and Papy Djilobodji’s football brain?”.
That’s slightly unfair - Dunne is good at heading the ball and his height combined with Grant Leadbitter’s improved delivery did raise Sunderland’s threat from set-pieces. Dunne isn’t that much worse than Sunderland’s four other senior centre halves, but considering when we signed him and our desperation for a streetwise, tough League One defender Dunne’s arrival and performances on Wearside represent a major disappointment.
Like Tyias Browning last year, this is a player Sunderland have loaned from the Premier League whose long-term future looks even worse than ours.
Glenn Loovens: E-
He’s a very good player who has achieved a lot in his career, but boy oh boy is Loovens washed now. The defining memory from Loovens’ season was bundling over Portsmouth’s Oli Hawkins for a red-card and penalty to ruin Sunderland’s chances of winning at Fratton Park early in the season - a moment he never really recovered from.
Like Baldwin, Loovens leaves the ground too often, but his biggest problem was his inability to move one leg after another at the speed of a professional athlete. The Dutchman is glacially slow and just completely finished as a footballer.
The only time that Ross seemed to discover a useful tactical role for the Dutchman, Loovens went down injured about ten minutes into his second game in that formation.
Ultimately he’s been a useless signing, and amazingly we might be stuck with the 35-year-old for yet another year.
Jack Bainbridge: B
Bainbridge played so well in the Checkatrade Trophy that a few fans suggested he could be a solution to our problems at centre-back, but ultimately he wasn’t trusted beyond those appearances and was taken back down to play at U23 level.
Bryan Oviedo: C+
Oviedo started and finished the season strongly, but for the third season in a row injuries and defensive mistakes were littered throughout his year.
Oviedo’s technique - whether it’s his dribbling, passing, crossing or several other aspects of his game - stick out like a sore thumb in League One.
The injuries, and the fact he was so bad defensively that he was trusted less than a much more limited player in Reece James, lower Oviedo’s report card.
Reece James: C
Probably Sunderland’s most consistent defender all season - Reece James’ attacking limitations stop him being an A-grade player.
As the season rolled on, and Aiden McGeady’s influence and ability to strike fear into League One defence’s increased, James’ failure to exploit the space the Irish international opened up for him became more and more frustrating.
But, for all his defensive excellence, James was too limited going forward for a team seeking promotion and that’s why he earns a comfortable C.
Denver Hume: B
Hume looked set to become a breakout star after vaulting from occasional Checkatrade player and under-23 prospect to starting league matches almost overnight.
The 20-year-old was fearless when joining the first team, taking players on, not being afraid to shoot and proving to be a capable crosser. If Oviedo was brilliant going forward, but a liability in defence and James the polar opposite, Hume looked like a more-rounded version of both.
A knee injury halted Hume’s progress and left the youngster side-lined for five months, killing all his momentum.
It wasn’t all great for Hume however, he was targeted defensively after his return from injury and dropped after poor showings against Accrington Stanley and Rochdale. Along with Matthews, he was also poor at Southend in our final league match, ruining his chances of playing in the post-season.
On the whole, Hume enjoyed a great first season playing in men’s football and has established himself as an important squad player for the Black Cats going forward.