Best returning player on every Top-25 team in college football

Jeff Dooley identifies the best returning player on every top team, including Baker Mayfield, Leonard Fournette and Derwin James.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Best returning player on every Top-25 team in college football

Colleague Steve Palazzolo recently put out the spring edition of the top 25 teams in college football, and we thought it would be fun to go through and pick out the best returning player on each of those teams.

Here is the top player on the 25 best teams in college football:

1. Alabama Crimson Tide: DE Jonathan Allen

It’s tempting to go with edge rushers Tim Williams or Ryan Anderson here, as both have the potential to be dominant this season after grading out very well in part-time roles in 2015. Williams ranked No. 1 in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 OLBs, and Anderson ranked No. 5. Allen likewise had a part-time role for the Tide, but he played more snaps than either of those edge rushers and produced at a very high level both as a run defender and as a pass-rusher (his 13 sacks were the most among 3-4 DEs last year). Allen finished No. 20 in PFF’s interior defender grades, but if you look at his per-snap grades, he measures out similarly to Oregon’s DeForest Buckner – the No. 7 overall pick of the Niners and the most dominant interior D-lineman in college football last season.

2. Oklahoma Sooners: QB Baker Mayfield

D-lineman Charles Walker could be a star for the Sooners this year, but it was impossible to pick anyone other than Mayfield, PFF’s top-graded quarterback in 2015 versus Power-5 competition. He ranked in the top 10 of rushing grades among QBs but did the most damage with his arm, particularly downfield. He completed 87 of 153 passes (56.9 percent) thrown 10 or more yards downfield, for 2,042 yards, 21 TDs and just 2 INTs. He also handled pressure remarkably well, with his passer rating dropping by just three points under pressure versus what he produced with a clean pocket (a typical drop is around 30 points). His only poor grade on the season came in the playoff loss to Clemson, and he’ll have the chance to prove his big-game chops early in 2016 – the Sooner open on the road against Houston, host Ohio State in Week 3 and travel to TCU in Week 5.

3. LSU Tigers: RB Leonard Fournette

This is hardly a surprise, even given the amount of talent that can be found throughout LSU’s roster. Fournette is the best pure runner in all of college football, in part due to his ability to break more tackles than anyone in the country (85 as a runner, 10 as a receiver). Runs like this helped:


He has some work to do as a pass-catcher, after posting one of the worst drop rates last season among running backs, but otherwise there are no flaws to Fournette’s game. Look for him to again be one of the best players in the nation this season, on a Tigers team that should contend for the SEC title.

4. Clemson Tigers: QB Deshaun Watson

He trailed only Mayfield in overall PFF QB grades among Power-5 competition last season, producing the best rushing grade and sixth-best passing grade. He was boosted by monster performances in wins over NC State and Florida State during the regular season, and in Clemson’s national title game loss to Alabama, and he enters the season as an early candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. One critical area of improvement for him is his passing performance under pressure, as his QB rating dropped by 46 points when he was pressured, and he posted a poor grade on those dropbacks (8 TDs, 6 INTs and 15 sacks, compared to 27, 7 and 0 from a clean pocket).

5. Michigan Wolverines: CB Jourdan Lewis

This is a tough call, given the amount of returning production on what could be college football’s best defense in 2016. But Lewis gets the nod after posting the best PFF grade among all cornerbacks last season. He might not have prototypical size for the position at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, but he was the most productive corner in the country. He had “only” two interceptions, but tied for the national lead with 15 passes defensed, and allowed a passer rating of just 46.3 despite being targeted often by opposing QBs. He was good against the run, too, missing just one missed tackle in run defense.

6. Florida State Seminoles: S Derwin James

This one might come as a surprise, especially given the presence of Dalvin Cook, one of the best running backs in all of college football, on the Seminoles’ roster. But we’ll go with the upside of James here, after he graded out as the second-best safety in the nation as a true freshman last year. Colleague Gordon McGuinness made the case that James could be the country’s best defender in 2016, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that could be the case. He did it all for FSU last season, lining up as a deep free safety, as an outside corner, as a slot corner, as an in-the-box safety/linebacker, and he even excelled when lining up in a true edge-rushing role. He is a versatile and productive weapon in both run and pass defense, and should have an excellent 2016 season.


7. Stanford Cardinal: RB Christian McCaffrey

He enters the season as the front-runner to win the Heisman, after he should have won the award last year. He is one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in college football regardless of position, after posting a RB-leading yards per route run average of 3.2 that out-paced all but two of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2016 class. Factor in his abilities as a returner and as a runner (his 71 forced missed tackles as a runner ranked sixth among RBs) and you get the best all-around offensive weapon in the country.

8. Ohio State Buckeyes: C Pat Elflein

The Buckeyes lost so much production to the NFL that it’s difficult coming up with the answer here. It’s very likely that by season’s end one or more defensive players will have emerged as stars (edge defenders Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard and linebacker Raekwon McMillan are among the candidates), but we’ll go with Elflein, who graded out as the 10th-best guard in the nation versus Power-5 competition last season, and is expected to thrive in his move to center. He allowed just one sack in pass protection and was a mauler in the running game.

9. Tennessee Volunteers: DE Derek Barnett

The Vols might have the best running back duo in the nation in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but their best returning player is Barnett. No edge defender earned a higher pass-rush grade against Power-5 competition last year than Barnett, and his 62 total QB pressures (which included 10 sacks) tied for fifth among all 4-3 defensive ends. While his best work comes in getting after the quarterback, Barnett graded well against the run, too, as his 27 run stops ranked ninth at his position. He should be one of the best defenders in the country in 2016, on a Tennessee team that is good enough to compete for an SEC championship.

10. Ole Miss Rebels: QB Chad Kelly

Only three returning QBs earned a higher overall PFF grade than Kelly last season (Mayfield, Watson and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph). He had some ups and downs to his 2015 season (he had particularly poor outings in the Rebels’ loss to Florida and win over Texas A&M), but he had an excellent five-game stretch to close out the year, including a bowl win over Oklahoma State. He was a threat with his legs, ranking 14th among all QBs in rushing grade, and his deep accuracy rate of 53 percent ranked sixth nationally. Ole Miss faces FSU in Orlando Week 1 and Alabama and Georgia at home in Weeks 3 and 4, so Kelly will have the chance right away to prove himself as one of the country’s best QBs.

11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: LT Mike McGlinchey

The Irish lost some of college football’s most productive players to the NFL, but return a very good one in McGlinchey. Among returning tackles, he earned the third-highest PFF grade last season, excelling as a run-blocker and allowing just 17 pressures in pass protection, including 0 sacks and just two hits. He’ll move over from right tackle to man the left tackle spot vacated by Ravens No. 6 overall pick Ronnie Stanley (who allowed 14 pressures in 2015, including three sacks and four hits). He struggled against Clemson’s edge-rushing duo of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd last season, but absolutely dominated a stout Stanford front in the run game. Look for him to have a big 2016 season.

12. Baylor Bears: QB Seth Russell

This is a really tough call, as the Bears have two explosive running backs in Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson, and a pair of defensive players in D-lineman K.J. Smith and linebacker Taylor Young who also merit consideration here. But Russell was a top-10 QB in PFF grades prior to his season-ending neck injury, excelling as a runner and as a passer. He’ll need to prove he can do so against tough competition, and do a better job versus pressure. His passer rating from a clean pocket was a near-perfect 134.3, but dropped all the way to 61.5 when the opposing pass rush got to him.

13. North Carolina Tar Heels: RB Elijah Hood

The Tar Heels are quietly returning a ton of production from 2015, and passing over their D-tackle combo of Nazair Jones and Jeremiah Clarke and cornerback M.J. Stewart (No. 4 coverage grade among returning CBs) is difficult here. But Hood is one of the most underrated backs in the entire country, ranking second last season in yards after contact per rush attempt (with a whopping 4.1) and seventh in elusive rating. Among returning backs, only three earned a higher PFF grade versus Power-5 competition than Hood: Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Royce Freeman. That is excellent company to be in. He and QB Mitch Trubisky should form a potent duo.

14. Boise State Broncos: RB Jeremy McNichols

The Broncos are returning a lot of production at several positions on both offense and defense, but McNichols stood out the most in 2015 among their returning players. He earned the fourth-highest grade among returning RBs, and excelled both as a runner (his 3.48 yards after contact per attempt ranks 14th among returning backs) and as a pass-catcher (his 461 receiving yards ranks fifth). He’ll be a valuable weapon for QB Brett Rypien.

15. Oklahoma State Cowboys: QB Mason Rudolph

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are the only returning Power-5 quarterbacks who earned a higher PFF grade in 2015 than Rudolph – and if you isolate passing grade, he is No. 1 among returning QBs. He was one of the most dangerous deep passers in the nation, completing 57 percent of his attempts thrown 20-plus yards downfield (second behind only Michigan State’s Connor Cook) for 1,425 yards, 13 TDs and 2 INTs, with those passes making up 21 percent of his attempts.


16. Houston Cougars: LB Steven Taylor

Greg Ward Jr. deserves special mention as the quarterback with the highest rushing grade in 2015, but his occasional struggles as a passer led to us going with Taylor as the choice here. Among returning 3-4 outside linebackers, Taylor earned the second-best pass-rush productivity after generating 45 QB pressures, including 10 sacks. He was also excellent at defending the run, producing the highest run-stop percentage among returning players at his position.

17. Washington Huskies: RB Myles Gaskin

The Huskies return a lot of defensive talent, and sophomore QB Jake Browning is a rising star after excellent games last season against Arizona, Arizona State and Southern Miss. But no returning player was more productive than Gaskin last season, who earned the fifth-best grade among returning backs – as a true freshman. His yards after contact per attempt average of 3.87 ranks fifth among returning RBs, and his 61 forced missed tackles as a runner were just 10 fewer than Christian McCaffrey – on 110 fewer rush attempts. He did little in the passing game (six catches on eight targets) and wasn’t asked to pass protect much, so those are areas of improvement, but he has the potential to be one of college football’s best runners in 2016.

18. Utah Utes: OT J.J. Dielman

This was another tough call. The strength of this Utes’ team is its defensive front, and DT Lowell Lotulelei certainly merits consideration as the highest-graded player in that unit (now that Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has decided to transfer). But among returning tackles, Dielman earned the eighth-best PFF grade last season. He was a mauler in the run game, putting together especially impressive performances in games against USC and Colorado, and while he wasn’t perfect in pass protection (allowed 17 pressures, including three sacks), he held up well enough in that area to earn a positive grade.

19. TCU Horned Frogs: S Denzel Johnson

Johnson earned the fifth-best PFF grade among returning safeties in 2015, after grading positively as a pass-rusher, versus the run and in coverage. Outside of a pair of poor coverage performances against Iowa State and West Virginia, Johnson was consistently productive all year: He generated seven QB pressures (including one sack), 70 tackles, one interception (which he returned for a touchdown) and five passes defensed. On the offensive side of the ball, keep an eye on Texas A&M transfer QB Kenny Hill, who graded well in 2014, and KaVontae Turpin, one of the nation’s most efficient slot WRs in 2015.

20. Iowa Hawkeyes: CB Desmond King

No cornerback in college football made more plays on the ball in 2015 than King, who had 12 passes defensed to go with his eight interceptions (including one against Maryland he brought back 88 yards for a touchdown). He finished behind only Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Jaguars No. 5 overall pick Jalen Ramsey in cornerback grades last season, performing very well in run defense in addition to his coverage prowess. His 30 tackles ranked 15th among corners, and he missed just one all season long, giving him the No. 2 tackling efficiency at the position.

21. Oregon Ducks: RB Royce Freeman

Colleague Gordon McGuinness went into detail earlier this month on why Freeman should be one of the best running backs in the country this season, and his combination of elusiveness and underrated power is a big reason why. He ranked tied for third nationally with LSU’s Leonard Fournette in elusive rating (PFF’s measure of how good a back is at generating yards on his own), having forced a combined 89 missed tackles that was bested by only Fournette. He has the potential to make more of an impact in the passing game in 2016 for the Ducks, as well.


22. Auburn Tigers: DE Carl Lawson

This selection involves a little more projection than many of the others on this list, in part because Auburn isn’t returning a ton of proven production and also because when Lawson was on the field in 2016 (even though he was dealing with injuries most of the year), he produced very good grades, including excellent performances to book-end his season in Week 1 versus Louisville and in the bowl win over Memphis. His pass-rush productivity among returning 4-3 defensive ends ranked 23rd in 2015, and it’s not unreasonable to expect a big jump in performance if he stays healthy this season.

23. Washington State Cougars: DE Hercules Mata’afa

The Cougars are known for their prolific passing attack under head coach Mike Leach, and quarterback Luke Falk and wide receiver Gabe Marks should both have big years after grading well in 2015. But we’re going with Mata’afa here, after he put up a pass-rush productivity score of 12.9 that ranks No. 1 among returning 3-4 defensive ends, on the strength of his 37 total pressures, including seven sacks. He was also very good in run defense, including a standout performance against Stanford, the top-graded run-blocking offensive line in the country. His rate stats are nearly identical to those of Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, and again, he did all of that as a freshman. Look at Mata’afa as a potential breakout player in 2016.

24. Texas A&M Aggies: DE Myles Garrett

Garrett is the early front-runner for title of nation’s best pass-rusher in 2016, taking the mantle from Chargers No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa out of Ohio State. (For an in-depth look at why, click here.) He ranked fourth in pass-rush grades among edge defenders last season after ranking second in 2014, and his 22 sacks over the last two years are the second-most at the position behind only Browns second-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah out of Oklahoma State. While he is most dangerous to opposing offenses for his edge-rush ability, he also graded well against the run and has the potential to be even better in that area in 2016.

25. UCLA Bruins: DE Takkarist McKinley

Bruins fans will likely hope this answer is Josh Rosen by season’s end, as the QB flashed a lot of promise during his up-and-down true freshman season, and DT Eddie Vanderdoes is worth keeping an eye on as he comes back from injury. But we’re going with McKinley here, a season after he graded out as the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end (among returning players at the position). He produced equally well as a run defender and as a pass-rusher, ranking fourth both in run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity.


| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

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  • crosseyedlemon

    Eliminating Blake O’Neil as the Wolverines best player probably took a nanosecond. On the offensive side TE Jake Butt has definitely caught the attention of pro scouts.

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