Top 10 returning units in college football
Alabama linebackers, FSU's secondary -- these are the nation's absolute best units taking the field this fall.
Top 10 returning units in college football
As media days have unfolded for the Power-5 conferences, we’ve ranked the top 10 returning units in each league, based on the amount of production they are returning to their rosters.
For this version, we’re taking a look at the top 10 returning units in all of college football:
1. Alabama linebackers
The Crimson Tide’s edge-rushing duo of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson was absolutely outstanding in limited playing time a year ago, ranking first and fifth, respectively, in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers. They combined to produce 91 total QB pressures, including 18 sacks, and appear poised for big 2016 campaigns. Reuben Foster was PFF’s fifth-ranked off-ball linebacker among returning players last season, helping to form an excellent group on a defense that is loaded overall (including a pair of stars in the secondary in safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Marlon Humphrey and a stud up front in Jonathan Allen).
2. Oklahoma backfield
Baker Mayfield was the No. 1 quarterback in PFF grades a season ago, excelling in all facets of the game. He was an efficient runner, he was accurate to all areas of the field, and he was the best QB in the country when facing the opposing pass rush, earning a QB rating under pressure that would hstill have ranked No. 1 overall among all quarterbacks. He is far from the only playmaker on the Sooners’ offense, however, as Samaje Perine returns after his 1,354-yard and 16-touchdown season, ranking seventh among returning Power-5 backs at yards after contact per rush. Backing up Perine is Joe Mixon, who was even more productive than Perine on a per-touch role a year ago.
3. Michigan defensive line
The Wolverines have efficient returning pass-rushers at all four starting positions along their defensive line. Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst and Ryan Glasgow ranked first, second and 18th among returning defensive tackles in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric a year ago, getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks at some of the best rates in the nation. Hurst and Glasgow will man the middle while Wormley kicks out to defensive end, joining the No. 1 defensive end in pass-rush productivity in Taco Charlton. Even better news for Michigan fans: All four of those players graded very well against the run a season ago.
4. Texas A&M defensive line
Defensive end Myles Garrett is PFF’s top-ranked defensive player entering 2016, having earned – as a true freshman and sophomore — the second-best pass-rush grade over the past two years behind only No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa. His presence alone makes the Aggies’ pass rush a threat to opposing offenses, but he’s joined on the opposite side by Daeshon Hall, who showed his elite edge-rush potential with a four-sack performance Week 1 against Arizona State and another excellent game against Louisville in the bowl matchup. Daylon Mack looks like a future star at defensive tackle, having earned the third-best run-defense grade among returners at the position, and he’s joined by another productive player in Zaycoven Henderson.
5. Clemson backfield
There isn’t much 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson can’t do, as last year he was one of the nation’s top-graded QBs as a rusher while also ranking second in adjusted completion rate versus Power-5 competition (only Washington State’s Luke Falk was better, among returning QBs). He needs to improve his performance when facing pressure, but he should have an excellent 2016 season, after grading second overall among returning QBs a year ago (behind only OU’s Baker Mayfield). Running back Wayne Gallman is one of the country’s top returning players at his position, ranking eighth in rushing grade and proving himself to be very good in pass protection, allowing zero sacks a year ago.
6. Florida State secondary
The Seminoles are replacing their best player in cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but get to do so with a player in Marquez White who allowed the lowest yards per coverage snap average a year ago (among Power-5 corners) at 0.46. He is just one element of a loaded secondary, as free safety Nate Andrews graded very well on a per-snap basis a year ago, and there are a few eligible candidates to start at corner along with White. But the reason why this unit could be elite is Derwin James, who returns as the top-graded safety in the nation. He plays all over for FSU, logging snaps at both safety spots, as a slot corner, and even as an edge rusher a year ago. He graded well in coverage, as a pass-rusher and most of all as a run defender, and should be in the running for the title of nation’s best defender this season.
7. Stanford backfield
This unit is more of a one-man show than the other ones on this list, but that one man is PFF’s top-ranked college football player entering 2016. McCaffrey was excellent purely as a runner a year ago, breaking 71 tackles (fourth-most among returning RBs), but he was also one of the best receiving hthreats in all of college football – not just among RBs. His yards per route run average of 3.2 would was tops for running backs and would have ranked better than all but 10 returning wide receivers, despite the fact that nearly all of his targets were fewer than 10 yards downfield. Fullback Daniel arx earned the No. 1 run-blocking grade at the position among returning Power-5 players last year, and cCaffrey’s backup, Bryce Love, showed promise in his reserve role. No matter which QB wins the starting job, Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns, Stanford’s offense should be in good shape.
8. Tennessee backfield
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara form an excellent 1-2 punch at running back. Hurd was the team’s bell-cow back a year ago and graded as one of best runners in the country – and Kamara earned an even better grade in his change-of-pace role. Kamara ranked second among returning Power-5 backs in yards per pass route run (behind Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey) and second in PFF elusive rating (behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley), proving his ability as one of the biggest playmakers in the country. And while quarterback Josh Dobbs still hasn’t performed like one of the nation’s best passers, he is a legitimate threat as a runner. He forced 45 missed tackles as a runner last year – that’s a TON, for a quarterback – excelling on designed runs and showing the ability to scramble when the initial pass play breaks down.
9. UCLA defensive line
The return of Eddie Vanderdoes is huge, as in 2014 he was one of the top-graded interior linemen in the country as a run defender, and was on his way to an excellent Week 1 performance in UCLA’s win over Virginia – both against the run and as a pass-rusher – before being lost to a season-ending torn ACL. Assuming he is fully healthy, he appears poised for an excellent 2016 season, forming a very good D-tackle duo with Eli Ankou, who graded very well in 2015. Those two are joined in the starting lineup of the Bruins’ new four-man front by Takkarist McKinley, who earned the fourth-best run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity score at his position a year ago, and undersized edge rusher Deon Hollins, who is a menace getting after the quarterback.
10. Alabama secondary
It was a close call here in the grades between the Crimson Tide secondary and that of Michigan, but Alabama combines two excellent cornerbacks with our No. 1-graded safety in coverage a year ago. Marlon Humphrey earned the fifth-best cornerback grade among returners last season, and has the potential to be the best player at his position this year (the Wolverines’ Jourdan Lewis will give him a run for his money). Minkah Fitzpatrick had a very good true freshman season playing the slot corner role in Bama’s defense, and figures to start while also possibly still manning slot duties this year. Eddie Jackson was a true playmaker in the back end for the Tide last season, allowing a lowly passer rating of just 49.9 while picking off six passes.
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.