PFF Heisman picks: Defensive players dominate list

Steve Palazzolo shares his picks for the Heisman Trophy through eight weeks of play.

| 1 month ago
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

PFF Heisman picks: Defensive players dominate list


The race for the best player in the America has been more than a one-man show this season, even though there is a clear favorite at the top. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson accounted for eight touchdowns on the first Thursday night of college football and he hasn’t slowed one bit in his wire-to-wire performance as the Heisman favorite. However, there are other contenders for the award, even in a year that may not have the standout offensive performances on undefeated teams that we’re accustomed to seeing.

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson sits near the top of most Heisman lists, but that’s based purely on projection and a missed field goal from NC State’s kicker that has kept Clemson’s perfect record intact. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett has been a common name in Heisman top fives, but he’s not even the best offensive player on his own team.

It’s time to look on the defensive side of the ball where PFF’s play-by-play grading can highlight the best, and most impactful, performances from across the nation. While the offensive side of the ball still has their fair share of representation, the door is open for multiple defensive players to enter the conversation to be considered the nation’s top player.

Here’s a look at our top selections in the Heisman race:

  1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

The front-runner for the Heisman, Jackson has been the most dynamic player in college football through eight weeks of the season. His 98.1 rushing grade is by far the top mark among quarterbacks as he’s rushed for 995 yards on 114 carries (8.7 yards per attempt) and the only thing holding that average down is the painted turf at the end of the field that he’s found a nation-high 16 times.

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Of his 995 rushing yards, he’s gained 700 on 92 designed runs (including all 16 scores) to go with 295 yards on 22 scrambles. As a passer, Jackson will miss his fair share of throws but he’ll sprinkle in a few pinpoint passes with a strong arm and the run threat he provides every play opens up easier passing windows. He’s taken advantage with 750 yards on deep (20-plus yard) passes, good for seventh in the nation. Jackson’s running ability more than makes up for any polish he lacks a passer, and given the strides he’s made in that department since last season, it’s scary to think what he could become with continued development.

Don’t let the one loss to Clemson get in the way from recognizing that Jackson has been the best player to take the field this season, and while Heismans are certainly not won in the first eight weeks, he has a long way to drop before someone else should be considered at the top.

  1. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama

The Alabama defense has some of the best players in the nation at their respective positions so singling out one top player is difficult, but Allen deserves the national attention. There’s a formula in place for defensive candidates to get noticed for the Heisman, including a great team record, a Heisman “moment” or two, and of course, touchdowns. We’re putting Allen here because of much more than his two defensive touchdowns, but they will hold some weight if the national voters are going to pay attention to him as a legitimate candidate. We’re putting Allen on the list because his 92.3 overall grade leads all interior defensive linemen and his 94.8 pass rush grade is by far the best grade at the position by a wide margin. He’s lined up all over the defensive line for Alabama and disrupted from all angles with six sacks, seven QB hits, and 27 hurries on only 242 rushes. He’s the top player on the nation’s most dominant defense and his two touchdowns are only icing on the cake that has been the best defensive performance in the country through eight weeks.

  1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

While two early-season losses may stick in the minds of voters, Mayfield has been the nation’s best passing quarterback this season. Even beyond the 23 touchdowns and 11.0 yards per attempt, throw for throw, Mayfield has the nation’s second-highest percentage of positively-graded throws and the second-lowest percentage of negatively-graded throws. Whether working within the flow of the offense or creating outside of it, Mayfield finds the open man and hits him accurately while making just enough plays with his legs to keep the offense moving. On the season, Mayfield has a 93.5 overall grade including the nation’s top passing mark at 88.0 and he has the top grade against Power-5 competition. As is usually the case with quarterbacks, win-loss record will be factored in my voters, but Mayfield’s individual efforts are difficult to ignore.

  1. Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma

There has to be someone on the receiving end of Mayfield’s big plays and that’s Westbrook. His last few weeks are something out of a video game as he’s caught 35 of his last 40 targets for 776 yards and 10 touchdowns. He now sits atop our wide receiver rankings at 89.3 and his emergence has coincided with Mayfield’s dominance. Early in the season, it appeared as if Mayfield missed second-round wide receiver Sterling Shepard, our top-graded receiver a year ago, but the Mayfield-Westbrook connection is now the nation’s best. Westbrook has shown the speed to run away from defenders down the field, but also the after-the-catch ability to turn short passes into big gains and his 463 yards after the catch (8.9 YAC/reception) rank second in the country. Westbrook’s emergence as the Sooners’ go-to guy has vaulted both he and Mayfield right into the Heisman conversation.

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  1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

The top-graded edge defender by a hair over Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Garrett has battled through injury this season with little drop-off in production. His 89.5 pass rush grade ranks second among Power-5 edge rushers as he’s picked up four sacks, a nation–high 11 QB hits, and 20 hurries on only 198 rushes. His disruption as a pass-rusher has never been questioned, but Garrett has taken his work in the run game to a new level this season and he now ranks third among edge defenders at 87.7. Garrett’s chances to win the Heisman are slim as defensive players need to push 20-sack seasons or score random touchdowns like Allen, but if looking at Garrett’s body of work on a play-by-play basis, he should still be a part of the conversation.

  1. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

Right there with Garrett (since 2014), Barnett’s 90.6 overall grade is just behind Garrett’s 90.9. Barnett has actually graded better as a pass-rusher at 91.5, which is best in the nation among edge rushers. He’s gotten to the quarterback with six sacks, nine QB hits, and 21 hurries on 206 rushes while also adding an interception on a tipped pass and a pass defensed on a downfield throw. Barnett’s run defense has been strong at 80.3, and he’s even had a few “Heisman moments” (strip sack in the end zone against Georgia) along the way to keep Tennessee competitive, and he’ll need plenty more to contend for the award, but like Garrett, his every-down impact should keep him in consideration.

Outside the conversation

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Putting Watson on the list would be simply looking at his team’s record and rewarding him for Clemson’s undefeated season. He’s played well overall, but certainly not up to his capabilities as his accuracy and decision-making have taken a step back from a year ago. That said, his performance from Week 9 through the end of the College Football Playoff was the best in the country last season, and there’s a great chance he gets back on track. If he does get back to form down the stretch, Watson is a candidate to jump right back into the race, but for now, our No. 6 Power-5 quarterback is on the outside looking in.

Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Ranked just ahead of Watson at 81.4, Browning has continued his progression after a strong true freshman campaign. Aside from a few bad decisions early in the season, Browning has efficiently run the Washington offense, getting the ball downfield to its playmakers with the third-best adjusted completion percentage on deep passes at 55.0 percent. Browning is sitting at a similar spot as Watson, on the green, and ready to strike with a strong performance down the stretch.

Jabrill Peppers, LB/RB/PR, Michigan

Peppers’ versatility keeps him in the mix has he’s been one of the best in the nation against the run while lining up all over the defensive formation. His 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns are probably overblown from a value standpoint and he’ll need more of that during crunch time down the stretch. His work in the punt return game cannot be ignored, however, as he’s made two highlight-reel returns for touchdowns and numerous others, even if one of the touchdowns was overturned. Peppers has been very good overall but he’ll need to maintain this level of play in all phases to jump into the top group.

Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State

The best player on the Ohio State offense, a loss to Penn State should not take away from Samuel’s impact this season. He’s just about split his time in the backfield and in the slot and he’s been the top playmaker for the Buckeyes, gaining 527 yards on the ground and 471 through the air. His 89.4 receiving grade is by far the best among running backs, but a lack of volume hurts his chances of moving up the list.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Somehow one of the nation’s preseason Heisman favorites has flown under the radar, but Florida State’s disappointing season and Cook’s lack of explosive plays will keep him from the top of the list. Still, he has the nation’s top grade among power-5 running backs at 83.9 and he’s a threat to take the ball to the house at any time. Cook is lurking and he has the potential to gain the attention of the nation very quickly with his big-play potential.

Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama

Two sacks. No interceptions. It doesn’t matter. Foster has been the nation’s top linebacker by a wide margin, grading at 92.5 overall. He’s been a force in the middle of the Alabama defense, providing 89.5 play against the run while grading similarly in coverage at 87.8. The lack of flash plays keep Foster under-the-radar, but he’s been as consistent as it comes with only two missed tackles and few blown assignments this season.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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