Top 10 returning units in the ACC
There's a lot of Florida State and UNC on the list, but we start off with Clemson's backfield.
Top 10 returning units in the ACC
The ACC brings back a good amount of star power in 2016 – here are the top 10 units in terms of returning production:
1. Clemson backfield
The Tigers have a lot of talent to replace off of last year’s national runner-up, but fortunately they bring back one of the best QB-RB duos in the country. Deshaun Watson enters 2016 as the No. 2 Power-5 QB in our overall PFF grades (behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield) after an outstanding 2015 campaign, when he was one of the top-graded running quarterbacks and also excelled as a passer, ranking second behind only Washington State’s Luke Falk in adjusted completion rate versus Power-5 opponents, at 77 percent. Wayne Gallman is the offense’s unsung hero, however, ranking eighth among returning backs in rushing grade and performing extremely well in pass protection, allowing just seven total pressures and zero sacks in a healthy number of pass-blocking snaps.
2. Florida State secondary
The headliner here is Derwin James, who has the potential to be the best defender in the nation in 2016 as a true sophomore. He is our top-graded returning safety entering the season, but that positional designation sells him short, as he was effective in all aspects of defense last season: coverage, run defense and as a pass-rusher, even coming off the edge and bowling over offensive tackles on some plays. He is joined at the safety position by Nate Andrews, who graded well in a limited role last season, and at corner Marquez White looks well-suited to take over Jalen Ramsey (No. 5 overall pick of the Jaguars) in the No. 1 spot. He allowed just 0.46 yards per coverage snap a year ago, the lowest number among returning Power-5 cornerbacks.
3. UNC secondary
The Tar Heels have perhaps the top returning cornerback tandem in college football. Des Lawrence ranked No. 21 in coverage grade among returning cornerbacks, picking off two passes and knocking away nine more, and posting the eighth-best tackling efficiency. But his running mate MJ Stewart was even better, ranking fourth in coverage grade (second only to Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis among Power-5 CBs) and earning a ridiculously low 39.8 passer rating against him. Stewart’s elite quickness allowed defensive coordinator Gene Chizik to slide him into the slot corner role in passing situations, where he posted top-10 numbers in most categories. There is a lot of depth in this unit as well, behind these two stars.
4. UNC backfield
No returning Power-5 running back averaged more yards after contact per rush than Elijah Hood last season, and he might be the most underrated back in the country. He benefits from an offensive line that will start five offensive linemen who posted good run-blocking grades a year ago, led by Lucas Crowley, who earned the third-best run-blocking grade among returning centers last year. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is unproven, having thrown just 125 passes in his college career, but he graded very well in his limited action a year ago. He posted a nearly perfect 155.5 passer rating, completing 40 of 47 passes for 555 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
5. Florida State backfield
There wasn’t much Dalvin Cook didn’t do as a runner in 2015, and he shows up near the top of every rushing metric we have: fifth in rushing grade among returning Power-5 RBs, fourth in elusive rating, second in yards after contact per attempt, first in breakaway percentage. He has some improvements to make in the passing game, ranking among the worst in drop rate and pass-blocking efficiency, but regardless, he should be one of the nation’s best running backs again this year. Backup Jacques Patrick graded well in a reserve role, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and forcing 12 missed tackles on his 63 carries, scoring five touchdowns. The four projected O-line starters who saw game action last year graded well as run-blockers, led by left tackle Roderick Johnson.
6. Florida State defensive line
The Seminoles are bringing back a pair of defensive ends who graded very well a season ago in DeMarcus Walker (who was better as a pass-rusher than against the run) and Josh Sweat (who was great against the run but just average as a pass-rusher during his freshman season). They also have Jacob Pugh, who quietly produced a high rate of pressure during his 136 pass-rush snaps. Defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas both ranked in the top quarter of the country in run-stop percentage against Power-5 opponents, while Nnadi ranked fifth in pass-rush productivity after generating 16 QB pressures, including four sacks.
7. Boston College linebackers
The Eagles only won three games last season, but they might have had the best group of linebackers in college football. Steven Daniels, the nation’s best run-stuffer at middle linebacker, has moved on to the NFL, but they return Matt Milano, the No. 1 returning 4-3 outside linebacker in the country. He was good in coverage and produced four sacks as a pass-rusher, but was truly excellent as a run defender. Milano is joined by Connor Strachan, another standout versus the run who ranks 13th at his position group entering the season, and Ty Schwab, who was good in his limited role last year. Add in Harold Landry, owner of the top run-stop percentage among 4-3 defensive ends, and this is a formidable front seven.
8. Miami (FL) backfield
Brad Kaaya made our list of potential breakout quarterbacks for 2016, entering the season with the 13th-best passing grade among returning QBs. He fared particularly well on deep balls, completing 27 of 64 attempts of 20 or more yards for 973 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 48 percent adjusted deep completion rate ranks 10th among returning QBs. He lived off of a steady diet of play-action last year, a credit to Miami’s pair of running back in Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton. Yearby earned a good grade as a runner, while many of Walton’s contributions came as a pass-catcher – he ranks fifth among returning backs in yards per route run average.
9. Louisville defensive line
Nose tackle DeAngelo Brown is a force at the point of attack, ranking eighth among all returning defensive tackles in PFF grades. He is joined on the front of the Cardinals’ 3-4 attack by a pair of relatively unproven players at the defensive end position in Drew Bailey and Johnny Richardson (as they try to replace Saints first-round pick Sheldon Rankins), but Bailey actually graded quite well in his 156 snaps last year. But the star here is edge rusher Devonte Fields, the No. 3 returning 3-4 outside linebacker. He ranked eighth in run-stop percentage and led the position with 49 QB pressures and 13 sacks.
10. NC State defensive line
The Wolfpack is strongest up the middle at defensive tackle, with three returners in B.J. Hill, Kentavius Street and Justin Jones who graded very well a year ago. Hill was the top performer, recording five sacks as a pass-rusher and faring even better versus the run. The standout at defensive end is Bradley Chubb, whose eight sacks last year tied for 13th among returners at his position. On the whole, the defensive front is littered with a deep group of players who performed well during their snaps in 2015.
Jeff Dooley | 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.