The top 25 returning players in college football

Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo runs down the top 25 players coming back to the college game next season.

| 4 months ago
Baker Mayfield

(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The top 25 returning players in college football


January is always a critical time for both the NFL and college football as many college stars announce their intentions to enter the NFL draft or return to school. This year, a number of underclassmen strengthened the draft class, but there is still plenty of talent returning to college for next season. Many of those players find themselves among the top 25 returnees for 2017, but there’s also a good mix of third-year players and a few second-year players who are looking to build off their impressive debuts as true freshmen. Here are the top 25 players in college football heading into 2017.

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The PFF College award winner for offensive player of the year and best passer returns after topping all quarterbacks in overall grade each of the last two years (93.0 in 2015 and 96.3 in 2016). He has an excellent feel for the game, both inside the pocket and out of it, and Mayfield has led the nation in passer rating under pressure each of the last two years (117.4 in 2015 and 119.9 in 2016). Mayfield has few weaknesses as a college quarterback and he heads into 2017 as the best player in the nation.

2. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

The 2016 Heisman winner took the nation by storm with one of the all-time great seasons for a running quarterback. Jackson rushed for 1,897 yards and 21 touchdowns, including 1,393 yards on designed runs, all while averaging 8.8 yards per carry. Jackson still has room to improve as a passer, but he took strides, improving his adjusted completion percentage from 63.8 percent in 2015 to 69.3 percent in 2016. Another step forward as a passer is a scary proposition for opposing defenses.

3. Derwin James, S, Florida State

After a true freshman season that saw him top all safeties with a 91.0 overall grade, James was limited to only 100 snaps last year. He affected all phases of the game like few players, lining up all over the field from free safety to edge rusher. James finished with the No. 6 grade against the run at 82.8 and his 78.8 pass-rush grade ranked second as he notched five sacks, two QB hits and 15 hurries on only 61 rushes as a freshman. When healthy, James is the most versatile defensive player in the country.

4. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

(Brett Deering/Getty Images)

A three-year starter at Oklahoma State, Rudolph returns after ranking eighth overall in 2015 at 86.1 and second in 2016 at 92.3. Rudolph has gotten the ball down the field as well as any quarterback in the nation the last three years, ranking fourth in deep yards in 2015 and second in 2016. He’ll battle Mayfield for the top spot at quarterback in the Big 12 and in the nation, while making Oklahoma State a contender for both a conference and national title.

5. Dexter Lawrence, DI, Clemson

True freshman interior defensive linemen rarely make a massive down-to-down impact, but Lawrence and Houston’s Ed Oliver are the only two to rank in the top 30 as true freshmen, finishing tied for ninth in the nation at 87.6 last season. Lawrence was a key piece of Clemson’s championship run, disrupting plays against the run to finish with an 85.9 grade while ranking 14th among interior defensive linemen with an 85.3 pass-rush grade.

6. Ed Oliver, DI, Houston

Oliver and Lawrence were right there with each other all season, capping the best true freshman performances we’ve seen from interior defensive linemen in our three years of grading by a wide margin. Oliver had the nation’s No. 5 grade against the run at 89.6 while showing well as a pass-rusher at 79.1.

7. Arden Key, Edge, LSU

After grading as the top true freshman edge defender in 2015, Key made a big leap in year two to finish at 88.9 as a pass-rusher, good for eighth in the nation. He finished with 12 sacks, 13 QB hits and 29 hurries while playing sound against the run. Key will enter 2017 as a potential first-round pick and perhaps the best pass-rusher in the country.

8. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Outstanding as a true freshman, Barkley had the nation’s top elusive rating in 2015 at 126.7, forcing an incredible 60 missed tackles on only 182 rushing attempts. While that number wasn’t as impressive last season, Barkley was a better overall runner, ranking eighth in the nation among running backs at 85.0 overall while contributing both on the ground and in the passing game. Barkley has the speed to create big plays and the wiggle to make defenders miss, and he heads into 2017 has a viable Heisman Trophy candidate.

9. Harold Landry, Edge, Boston College

Landry broke out in 2015, ranking fifth in the nation against the run at 87.2, but 2016 saw him take his pass-rushing to a new level with a 90.2 grade that ranked seventh among edge defenders. Landry finished with 18 sacks, seven QB hits, and 44 hurries on his 340 rushes while maintaining his strong work against the run. Landry turned down an opportunity to go to the NFL, and he’ll return as one of the nation’s top edge defenders.

10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas

Few true freshman offensive tackles can step in and have success, but Williams did just that in 2015 with a strong 78.9 overall grade. He’s a smooth pass protector, allowing only 21 pressures over his two years including only five in 2016. He improved greatly in the run game, showing the athleticism to make key second-level blocks on his way to the No. 3 run-blocking grade in the nation in 2016 at 83.6.

11. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

USC’s offense looked completely different once Darnold took over in Week 4 and he finished with a strong 80.3 overall grade that is even more impressive when considering he was only a redshirt freshman. The Rose Bowl summed up Darnold’s potential as he led the Trojans back while making a number of big throws, and his polish in the pocket and ability to hit tight-window throws have already turned heads in the NFL draft community.

12. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Once RB Leonard Fournette went down the injury, Guice picked right up where he left off as an incredible big-play threat for LSU’s offense. He tied for 10th in the nation at 82.9 overall and 59.7 percent of his yards came on breakaway (15-plus yard) runs, third-highest in the nation. Guice averaged 7.6 yards/carry while posting an elusive rating of 112.3 that ranked third among backs with at least 180 carries. Guice enters 2017 as one of the nation’s best big-play threats.

13. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama

One of the nation’s most versatile defenders, Fitzpatrick has played mostly in the slot in his two years at Alabama though he’s dabbled at safety and he’s capable of playing outside at cornerback. Fitzpatrick ranked seventh in the nation at 87.2 overall including an 86.9 coverage grade that ranked sixth. He intercepted six passes, broke up eight more, and played strong run defense from his slot corner position.

14. Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas

It was a breakout 2016 season for Ragnow, who topped all centers with an 89.4 overall grade, including the top grade as a run blocker at 88.9. Whether in-line or at the second level, Ragnow made a number of key blocks in Arkansas’ versatile run game while posting a strong grade in pass protection at 83.2.

15. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman in 2014 before injury limited him in 2015. Last season wasn’t his finest work at 75.8 overall, though he still managed to average 3.7 yards after contact per rush. Being another year removed from the injury should only help him get back to his true self in 2017, which is a runner capable of maximizing the yardage given by the offensive line while running through contact as one of the more difficult runners to tackle in the nation.

16. Bradley Chubb, Edge, NC State

With the No. 4 grade among returning edge defenders, Chubb has one of the best combinations of pass-rusher and run defender in the country. He graded at 84.3 against the run and 83.0 as a pass-rusher where he produced nine sacks, nine QB hits, and 35 hurries on his 376 rushes. Chubb turned down an opportunity at the NFL to return to NC State.

17. Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State

(Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The top-graded true freshman edge defender in 2016, Bosa had a dominant 360 snaps that saw him grade at 82.2 against the run and 82.8 as a pass-rusher. He picked up five sacks, seven QB hits and 26 hurries in his limited time and that production will only increase as Bosa’s role expands next season.

18. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville

While Lamar Jackson was getting the Heisman hype, Alexander quietly ranked fourth in the nation among cornerbacks at 87.7 overall. He picked off five passes and broke up eight on his 61 targets while doing a nice job of keeping the ball in front of him when he did allow a catch into his coverage. Alexander also added strong work in the return game, including a punt return for a touchdown.

19. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Edge, Oklahoma

Okoronkwo emerged as a much-needed pass-rushing threat off the edge in 2016, finishing with nine sacks, 14 QB hits and 36 hurries on only 262 rushes. That was just a part of his game as he graded at 79.5 on 237 snaps in coverage and he was sound in the run game. Look for Okoronkwo to be unleashed as a pass-rusher even more in 2017.

20. Will Hernandez, G, UTEP

The nation’s top-graded guard at 94.5 overall, Hernandez led the way as a run blocker (91.5) and ranked third as a pass-blocker with an identical 91.5 grade. Hernandez was charged with only one hurry on 381 snaps in pass protection, earning him the PFF College award for best pass-blocker in the nation, and his power as an in-line blocker allowed him to create massive holes for UTEP’s running game.

21. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

While things didn’t go Browning’s way down the stretch — perhaps due to a shoulder injury — he’s proficient in running Washington’s offense. Browning was our top-graded true freshman quarterback in 2015 and his 43 touchdowns and nine interceptions are good indicators of Browning’s strong decision-making and red-zone accuracy. It was a rough finish to the season with two poor games against Colorado and Alabama, but Browning’s two-year body of work has him primed for a big junior season at Washington.

22. Maurice Hurst, DI, Michigan

There was talent all over the Michigan defensive line the last two years and Hurst was right near the top as the most disruptive. His 86.2 overall grade ranked 15th in the nation in 2016, including an 85.1 pass-rush grade that ranked 16th. Hurst’s run-stop percentage of 11.6 percent ranked 11th among defensive tackles and he’ll be counted on to take on a bigger workload in 2017.

23. Cody O’Connell, G, Washington State

While the Washington State offense is favorable for the offensive line, O’Connell played above expectation in 2016, finishing with the No. 2 grade among the nation’s guards and the top grade in the Power-5 at 91.5 overall. O’Connell allowed only six pressures on the season while ranking second in the nation with an 86.6 grade against the run in one of the best all-around seasons for any offensive linemen in 2016.

24. Stacy Thomas, LB, Louisville

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Another quietly productive Louisville defensive player, Thomas made plays in all phases, including an interception and four pass breakups that led to the No. 8 coverage grade in the nation at 87.0. Thomas was also excellent against the run, ranking third at 87.7.

25. Christian Wilkins, DI, Clemson

The most impressive part of Wilkins’ 2016 season was his playing on the edge at 300-plus pounds, a necessity for Clemson’s defense due to injuries and a lack of depth. Even playing out of position, Wilkins ranked eighth among edge defenders with an 85.2 grade against the run yet he was still productive as a pass-rusher with three sacks, eight QB hits, and 30 hurries on his 393 rushes.

| 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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