The 101 best players in college football
College football is finally here. Steve Palazzolo updates his ranking of the top talent in the country heading into the 2016 season.
The 101 best players in college football
Much like our sister list, the PFF 101, the goal is to identify the best college players heading into the 2016 season. While the PFF 101 has generally stood by the notion that all positions are created equally, we’ve adopted that to some degree for the PFF College 101.
With the college game being less quarterback-centric than the NFL, we have some leeway to give positional boosts for certain players who carry the workload for their respective team. The other challenge for the college game is the adjustment for competition, but we also wanted to be careful not to overlook outstanding small-school players. For that reason, the small-schoolers who made the list did so on the strength of excellent grades that were above and beyond their peers, often over a two-year sample.
Keep in mind that this list is all about college football and the 2016 season. We are not projecting for the NFL or any future drafts.
[Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a previous 101 ranking that ran in the offseason.]
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford Cardinal
Our early pick for the Heisman Trophy, McCaffrey does it all for Stanford’s offense. His patience and quickness is perfect for their power-blocking scheme as he allows his blocking to set up before zooming to the second level where he’s a nightmare for opposing defenders in space. McCaffrey’s 89.4 rush grade ranked second in the nation among running backs and he dwarfed the competition with a 90.2 receiving grade where he brings slot receiver ability to the backfield. McCaffrey finished with 645 yards on 45 receptions to pair with his 2019 yards on 337 carries, as he proved to be the most dangerous offensive player in the nation in 2015. With three starters moving on along Stanford’s offensive line, there may not be as much room to run this season, but McCaffrey’s versatility should give him plenty of opportunities even if his raw rushing numbers take a step back.
2. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
After stepping right in as a productive true freshman in 2014, Garrett had another outstanding season in 2015 and he’s on track to be a high pick in next year’s NFL draft. He has the length and explosion of a top edge rusher and it’s showed on the field as he posted the nation’s second-best pass rush grade in 2014 while ranking fourth-best in 2015. He made big strides as a run defenders as a sophomore and there’s still more room to grow as he continues to fill out his long frame to add strength. Garrett has combined for 22 sacks, 20 QB hits, and 69 hurries on 651 rushes in his first two years and he enters 2016 as the nation’s best pass rusher with even more potential to tap into.
3. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette came into college as a heralded five-star recruit and a size/speed monster, but his sophomore-year improvement turned him into one of the nation’s best players and the leader of the Heisman race for much of the season. He added some wiggle to his game, forcing a missed tackle every 3.5 carries in 2015 compared to forcing one every 6.0 carries in 2014. His 94.3 rush grade led the nation, as did his 85 total missed tackles forced, and Fournette heads into 2016 at the head of a loaded group of running backs. As a runner, Fournette is excellent at “getting skinny” and working through tight spaces and he did a fantastic job of stringing multiple moves together last season, allowing for a number of big runs. If Fournette can improve his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, he can become even more dangerous, but he is already a Heisman favorite for the coming season.
4. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Barnett’s career will always be compared to Garrett’s, as they both took the SEC by storm as true freshmen. Barnett did it a little differently as he stepped right in as an outstanding run defender, posting the nation’s 12th-best grade in 2014. He was also strong as a pass rusher as a freshman, but he took it to a new level last season as he picked up 10 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 42 hurries on his 396 rushes, giving him 109 pressures on 736 rushes in his two years of college. While the production ranks right up there with Garrett, Barnett wins more with power and good pad level, a big reason he was able to transition from high to the SEC so smoothly. While Garrett gets more hype, Barnett is right up there with him as one of the best edge defenders in the nation.
5. Derwin James, S, Florida State
One of the nation’s most unique players, James settled into a full-time role and never looked back as he was the best true freshman in the nation a year ago. A safety by trade, James moved around Florida State’s defense, playing deep safety, box safety, covering the slot, and even lining up as a pure edge rusher where he was outstanding at creating pressure. It’s rare that you see a safety line up and beat opposing offensive tackles one-on-one as a rusher, but that’s just what James did on his way to ranking among the top 20 safeties in coverage, as a pass rusher and as a run stopper. Perhaps most impressive is posting positive grades in every game, as he found a way to contribute in all phases and he may be the best all-around defensive player in the nation heading into 2016.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
The nation’s most talented quarterback played like it from Week 9 through the end of the season when he posted the top overall grade in the FBS. Watson was inconsistent early in the year, but he has the big arm to make special throws and the athleticism to be a focal point for Clemson’s rushing attack. There’s still room to grow as his grade on short (1-10 yard) passes ranked 34th in the nation and he was one of the worst quarterbacks when pressured at -10.5 but he had the second-best grade on passes traveling 30-plus yards in the air. If Watson can improve his work under pressure while showing quicker decision-making and accuracy in the short game, he’ll live up to the first overall draft pick status for which he’s been pegged.
7. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
The top-graded cornerback in the nation last year at 88.5, Lewis broke out by leading the FBS with 15 passes defensed while surrendering only 36.7 percent of his targets to be completed, good for fifth-best. Perhaps most impressive was his ability to maintain his strong play from start to finish in 2015, despite facing 90 targets, 10th-most in the nation. He’s excellent at staying “in-phase” with receivers when playing press coverage and he does a nice job of reading the receiver’s hands to make plays on the ball. Lewis will get too physical at times, but it’s that kind of tenacity that allows him to hold about against bigger receivers. He added strong play against the run at 80.1 (19th in nation) and he missed only four of his 53 tackle attempts. It’s unlikely Lewis will see another 90 targets next season as opposing offenses will likely look to avoid him much more than they did in 2015.
8. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield transferred from Texas Tech, sat out the 2014 season, and then carried Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff while nearly capturing the Heisman Trophy along the way. He finished with the third-best overall grade among quarterbacks. Mayfield did a nice job of taking care of the ball as he had the fifth-lowest turnover-worthy play percentage at 2.18 percent and his ratio of positive to negative plays was the best among FBS quarterbacks. When you throw in Mayfield’s 598 yards gained as a runner, including 386 on 48 scrambles (8.0 yards/carry), Mayfield is one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks and a big reason the Sooners are playoff contenders once again.
9. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
King finished third overall among cornerbacks at 87.2, behind only Lewis and first round pick Jalen Ramsey. He has excellent ball skills, as evidenced by his eight interceptions that tied for second in the nation to go with 12 passes defensed that tied for seventh. King has a good feel for playing zone, often peeling off his coverage to make a play on the ball. He’s also one of the best tackling corners in the nation as he’s missed only five of his 138 tackle attempts (one out of every 27.6 attempts) and his 84.5 grade against the run ranked third in the nation in 2015.
10. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
A combination of nifty route running, deep speed and after-the-catch ability make Davis one of the nation’s most dangerous receivers. His receiving grade finished fourth in the country in 2015 after ranking seventh in 2014, and despite his playing the majority of his games against MAC competition, he’s shown that he can compete against Power-5 teams as evidenced by a 10-catch, 154-yard outing against Michigan State last season that was his highest-graded receiving effort of the year. Davis tracks the ball well down the field and he’s averaged 8.9 and 8.2 yards after the catch per reception each of the last two years respectively, so Davis has proven that he can create big plays at every level of the field.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
The most dangerous running back in the nation on a well-blocked play, Cook is a treat to take it to the house any time he reaches the second level as he has angle-breaking speed and acceleration. Other backs are better at maximizing what they’re given from a blocking standpoint, but the Cook has the ability to get to top speed quickly and hit the slightest crease for a big play. He led the nation with 62.9 percent of his yards coming on breakaway runs (15-plus yards) in 2015, a year remove from ranking 16th in that department as a true freshman in 2014. Cook’s big-play ability is a game-changer for the Florida State offense and his penchant for breaking long runs has added multiple wins for the Seminoles over the last two years.
12. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Coming off a season-ending injury, Chubb has averaged 7.4 yards/carry on his 311 career carries, as he runs through tacklers like a bowling ball while showing the speed to create big plays. One of the best parts of Chubb’s game is his ability to create yards on plays with subpar blocking as he’s willing to jam the ball into the line and create yards through contact. Chubb’s overall grade ranked sixth in the nation as a true freshman in 2014 and he was well on his way to another strong season in 2015 before the injury. If he comes back healthy, expect another year of tacklers bouncing off Chubb in both the run and pass game.
13. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
The Tigers continue to churn out quality defensive linemen and Harris broke out in 2015 as the next great one at Missouri. He loves his spin move which helped him rank ninth among edge defenders with a 86.9 pass rush grade. He finished with seven sacks, 14 QB hits, and 33 hurries on only 347 rushes, building on a freshman season that saw him post 3/5/10 on 174 rushes. Harris improved against the run as well, doing a nice job of feeling and defeating blocks on the edge to grade at 83.2, good for 26thamong the nation’s edge defenders. The Missouri defensive line tradition is in good hands with Harris leading the way in 2016.
14. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Freeman may not be as talented as some of the other top running backs on the list, but he has impressive speed for 230 pounds and he’ll be right in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race in 2016. His 87.5 rushing grade ranked fourth in the nation after finishing 16th as a true freshman in 2014 and his 80 forced missed tackles were third-most in the FBS. Only Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette picked up more yards after contact than Freeman (1,067) as he brings a downhill, power-running presence to Oregon’s spread attack. While the offense will give him favorable looks at times, Freeman takes advantage by making tacklers pay and as Oregon goes through yet another transition at quarterback, look for him to carry the offense in 2016.
15. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
While first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves got much of the publicity, Tabor was right there with him from a production standpoint last season, actually beating out his teammate for PFF College All-SEC honors. Tabor’s 85.1 coverage grade ranked 12th in the nation and opposing quarterbacks had an NFL passer rating of 33.0 when targeted him, good for fifth. Tabor breaks on the ball as well as any cornerback in the country as he excels are reading quarterbacks and making them pay for errant throws. Despite 129 cornerbacks seeing more than his 58 targets, Tabor finished with four interceptions and his 12 passes defensed tied for seventh in the nation. He finished with a strong coverage grade in 2014, so Tabor has put together two strong years at Florida and he may follow Hargreaves into the first round in next year’s draft.
16. Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
A move to linebacker is in the works for Peppers after he played more of a slot role each of the last two seasons. After an injury-riddled freshman season limited Peppers to only 92 snaps, he played 789 last season while adding another 55 on offense. He graded positively against the run, as he attacks blockers and disrupts plays in the backfield. In coverage, Peppers got his hands on six passes, tying for eighth among safeties and he allowed only 0.81 yards per cover snap while lined up in the slot, good for 11th among all slot defenders. Peppers adds a movable chess piece to the Michigan defense as he’s capable of matching up with slot receivers and tight ends and he’s comfortable playing close to the line of scrimmage in the run game. Regardless of position, Peppers is a playmaker and we may see even more of him on the offensive side of the ball next season.
17. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
Lawson has battled injuries each of the last two years as he missed all of 2014 and he was limited to only 416 snaps last season. When he’s been on the field, he’s shown versatility along the defensive line, capable of holding up against the run while creating pressure both on the edge and from the interior. Lawson’s two best games were week one and the bowl game, perhaps showing what he can do when fully healthy. Last season he picked up three sacks, two QB hits, and 23 hurries on 196 pass rushes, so there’s some projection to his being this high on the list. Lawson joins the plethora of edge rushing talent in the SEC as they compete for All-American honors and NFL draft status in 2017.
18. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Building on a solid debut as a freshman in 2014, Rudolph finished with the fifth-best passing grade in the nation in 2015. He did a nice job of getting the ball down the field to his versatile playmakers as he posted the second-best grade in the FBS on deep (20-plus yard) passes and his 1,210 deep passing yards ranked second among Power-5 signal callers. Rudolph still has some work to do as his accuracy wanes when going through multiple reads, but he led all Power-5 quarterbacks in big-time throws (BTTs) with 39 and few QBs can match his ability to get the ball down the field or outside the numbers with accuracy. Expect an even bigger season from Rudolph as he returns one of the nation’s best receiving corps and he should get more work in the red zone.
19. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Alabama rode their strong pass rush to another national title and Allen provided the heat from the interior. He was only on the field for 401 snaps, but he notched 13 sacks, six QB hits, and 17 hurries on his 251 rushes, good for a pass rush productivity of 12.1 that tied for fifth in the nation among all interior defensive linemen. Despite not being relied upon as an early-down run stopper, Allen made the most of his 143 snaps against the run, posting an impressive 80.2 grade. It bodes well for an expanded role next season with Alabama’s top two interior run stoppers, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson, moving on to the NFL.
20. Dawuane Smoot, DE, Illinois
Smoot had a dominant run through the Big Ten, finishing the season with eight sacks, seven QB hits, and 45 hurries on 349 hurries on his way to the eighth-best pass rush grade in the country. He beat offensive tackles to the outside at the fourth-highest rate in the country and complemented it with an ability to get inside and bullrush at a healthy rate as well. Smoot’s best game came against Ohio State as he notched 10 total pressures on only 28 rushes, all part of a second-half run that saw him post the top pass-rushing grade in the nation from Week 6 through the end of the regular season. Against the run, Smoot can do a better job at recognizing concepts, but overall he played well to finish at a respectable 78.1.
21. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
The leader in receiving yards among Power-5 receivers a year ago, Smith-Schuster is a big play threat whether running behind the defense or picking up yards after the catch in the short game. He was a dominant force early in 2015, posting the fourth-best receiving grade among Power-5 receivers through nine weeks before tapering off toward the end of the season.
22. Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas
A breakout performer in the second half of last season, Wise used his long frame to finish with 10 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 21 hurries on only 258 rushes. When facing Power-5 competition, Wise’s pass rush productivity of 16.0 trailed only first-round pick Joey Bosa among 4-3 defensive ends, so expect to hear even more from Wise as he increases last year’s 375-snap workload.
23. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
At 6-foot-6, 286 pounds, McDowell resembles first-round pick DeForest Buckner in both frame and playing style, and he could make similar strides this season. He’s coming off a strong year in his first extended action, ranking third as a pass rusher among returning interior defensive linemen to go with a solid 78.2 grade against the run.
24. Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
Vanderdoes had a strong freshman season in 2014, finishing 26th in the nation overall, and he was off to a dominant start in week one against Virginia before going down to injury to end his season. He had already accumulated six run stops on only 19 run snaps to go with three hurries on 13 rushes, so a healthy Vanderdoes appears primed to take the next step toward stardom in 2016.
25. Devonte Fields, OLB, Louisville
After transferring from TCU and sitting out in 2014, Fields used his quick hands to post the 13th-best pass rush grade against Power-5 competition while ranking sixth against the run. It was one of the most well-balanced efforts in the nation last season and Fields finished strong with 19 total pressures, including nine sacks, over his last four games.
26. Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama
No pass rusher has created pressure as efficiently as Williams the last two years and last year’s pass rush productivity of 28.4 was by far the highest mark among edge rushers with at least 100 attempts. He pressured the quarterback on 13 of his 46 rushes in 2014 before notching 52 pressures on only 157 rushes in 2015 (11 sacks, eight QB hits, 33 hurries). Williams has played only 15.1 percent of snaps for Alabama the last two years, so it’d be nice to see how he fares with extended time on early downs, but his one trick of getting after the quarterback is a special one.
27. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan
It’s hard to separate the best players on the loaded Michigan defensive line but Hurst had the strongest case last season. His 86.4 overall grade ranks third among returning interior defensive linemen despite playing only 418 snaps and he ranks with the top 15 among returnees as both a pass rusher (85.6) and against the run (83.9). Hurst shows the explosion to shoot gaps and the power to push the pocket while moving around on the defensive front.
28. Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
The strong Alabama tradition at inside linebacker continues with Foster who graded positively in all three phases (coverage, run stopping, passing rushing) in 2015. He attacks lead blockers with aggression in the running game and he showed well in coverage with seven passes defensed to tie for the national lead among linebackers.
29. Pat Elflein, G, Ohio State
There are not a lot of dominant offensive linemen around the country and Elflein has a strong case as the nation’s best. His two-year overall grade leads all Power-5 linemen, showing strength as a run blocker where he ranked 15th in the nation in 2014 and 18th last season.
30. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
The Alabama defense is well-represented at all levels with Humphrey the best player in the defensive backfield. He was susceptible to big plays at times last season, but he covered well overall, finishing with the seventh-best coverage grade in the nation and the third-best mark among Power-5 cornerbacks.
31. Chris Wormley, DT, Michigan
Wormley is yet another Michigan defensive lineman who can play the run (82.9) and rush the passer (84.9) and his 611 snaps led the way among the Michigan linemen. He finished with the top pass rush productivity among the nation’s interior defensive linemen at 12.5 while ranking 14th in run stop percentage at 8.4.
32. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
As a true freshman, Barkley tried to break our elusive rating scale in the first half of the season before settling in at 126.7, the highest number for any runner with at least 90 carries over the last two seasons. He forced 60 missed tackles on only 182 carries while averaging 3.82 yards after contact per rush, good for seventh in the FBS.
33. Marcus Maye, S, Florida
Maye has been a versatile defender for Florida, lining up at deep safety, in the box and in the slot throughout his career. He finished with the eight-best overall grade among the nation’s safeties in 2015 including the No. 13 coverage grade and No. 11 mark against the run. He broke up seven passes to tie for fourth among safeties, while providing a physical run-stopping presence in the box for the Gators.
34. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
With a plethora of talent off to the NFL, McMillan is left to anchor the Ohio State defense. He’s solid all-around, grading positively both against the run and in coverage. He’s a playmaker in the running game, ranking fourth among returning linebackers with a run stop percentage of 13.7 percent in 2015 and he’s a solid tackler, missing only 13 of his 154 tackle attempts over the last two years.
35. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Our PFF College Freshman All-American running back a year ago, Gaskin started to carry the bulk of the workload and he emerged as one of the nation’s top backs as his 86.9 rushing grade ranked fifth. He finished sixth in elusive rating at 104.6, forcing 62 missed tackles on his 227 carries while averaging 3.87 yards after contact per rush, tied for ninth-best in the country.
36. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame
McGlinchey has made great strides since arriving at Notre Dame as a high-upside freshman. Last year was his first as a starter and he responded with the nation’s highest grade for a right tackle at 84.1. He’s expected to move to the left side to replace top-ten pick Ronnie Stanley, bringing his strong run blocking that ranked ninth among all tackles in the country in 2015.
37. Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama
With Alabama loaded in the front-7, Anderson only played 361 snaps in 2015 after playing 320 in 2014. His two-year production is eye-opening, as he’s posted a massive overall grade, with a dominant performance against the run and as a pass rusher where he’s notched 10 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 48 hurries on only 342 rushes the last two years. Expect even more playing time and corresponding hype for Anderson this season.
38. Zach Cunningham, OLB, Vanderbilt
A versatile, athletic linebacker, Cunningham brings physicality to the running game and range in coverage that helped him rank 16th overall among linebackers last season. He attacks and sheds blocks, leading to a strong 81.6 grade in the run game, but he does need to do a better job of finishing plays as his 13 missed tackles last season can attest.
39. Forrest Lamp, OT, Western Kentucky
Lamp has been incredibly consistent the last two years, finishing fifth overall among offensive tackles in 2014 and fourth in 2015. He does a nice job getting to the second level, a big part of his two-year 86.0 grade as a run blocker and he’s only allowed 26 total pressures on 1,206 pass block attempts.
40. Arden Key, DE, LSU
The best freshman edge rusher in the nation a year ago, Key’s 83.4 pass rush grade ranked 29th in the nation and only Myles Garrett has posted a better mark among freshmen in our two years of grading. Key continued to improve as the year progressed, capping his season with 21 pressures over his last two games against Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Key was also strong against the run and he should rank among the nation’s best edge rushers in 2016.
41. M.J. Stewart, CB, UNC
A PFF College First Team All-American last year as a slot corner, Stewart is coming off an outstanding 2015 season that saw him post the sixth-best coverage grade at 87.9. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 38.9 when targeting him, 12th-best in the nation, and he broke up 12 passes to tie for seventh. Stewart has the movement skills to match up with the best slot receivers and the ball skills to anchor the North Carolina secondary.
42. Calvin Munson, LB, San Diego State
Few linebackers have produced like Munson over the last two seasons as his overall grade ranked ninth in the nation in 2014 and third in 2015. San Diego State used a lot of pre-snap movement to free Munson up as a pass rusher and he took advantage with 13 sacks, nine QB hits, and 17 hurries on 192 rushes and a 78.7 pass rush grade that ranked fourth. Against the run, he can attack and shed blocks and he’s graded at an impressive 82.3 over the last two years.
43. Vince Biegel, OLB, Wisconsin
Biegel paired with fourth round pick Joe Schobert to form one of the best edge defender pairs in the nation. He’s excellent at using his hands to stay clean in the running game, leading to a 87.6 grade in 2015 that leads all returning edge players. He’s an efficient pass rusher as well, finishing with nine sacks, 10 QB hits, and 28 hurries on only 238 rushes to rank fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass rush productivity at 16.4.
44. Greg Ward, Jr; QB, Houston
Perhaps the most exciting quarterback in the nation, Ward had the top rushing grade among signal callers in 2015 as he picked up 733 yards on 118 designed runs and 529 yards on 52 scrambles. He also showed well as a passer at 68.6 and Ward’s dual-threat ability makes him a dark horse Heisman contender if he can carry Houston to another AAC title.
45. Zach Banner, OT, USC
Similar to McGlinchey, Banner came to USC with loads of potential and he started to realize it last season. He was the top pass blocking right tackle at 86.2, allowing only nine total pressures on 426 attempts and he was strong in the running game with a 82.6 grade that ranked 15th in the nation. Banner needs to cut down on his 13 penalties that tied for second in the FBS, but he is one of the better all-around tackles in the nation.
46. Charles Walker, DT, Oklahoma
Oklahoma missed Walker’s presence against Clemson in the College Football Playoff as he was their top-graded run defender last season and his 86.6 grade is third among returning interior defensive linemen. Walker was solid as a pass rusher as well, picking up seven sacks of his 22 total pressures on 212 rushes and perhaps most impressive was his consistency as he didn’t have a negative grade in any game last season.
47. Adoree Jackson, CB/WR, USC
While Jackson took a step back in coverage last season, he still boasts a strong grade in his two years of college. However, it’s his work on the offensive side that pushes him up the list as he has a 72.6 receiving grade on only 207 offensive snaps the last two seasons. USC has done a nice job of getting the ball to Jackson on screens and he’s taken advantage by averaging 15.7 yards after the catch on his 37 receptions while forcing 16 missed tackles and scoring five touchdowns.
48. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Ridley will be hearing the age jokes his entire college career, but even as a 20-year old true freshman, his debut was an impressive one as he emerged as Alabama’s top playmaker. He led all freshmen with 89 receptions and 1,045 yards while forcing 13 missed tackles to tie for 18th in the nation. Expect an even bigger role for Ridley next season as he’s shown capable of making plays at all levels of the field.
49. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College
Landry posted the fifth-best run-stopping grade among edge defenders last season and his run stop percentage of 13.5 percent led the nation. He can shed blocks at the point of attack and he improved greatly as a pass rusher, grading at 78.8 with five sacks, 10 QB hits, and 24 hurries on 317 rushes. Landry has the skills to take yet another step as a pass rusher while providing excellent run defense on the edge.
50. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
Perine has not been as good as the hype as he’s run through the feeble defenses of the Big 12 the last two years, but he moves well for a 243-pounder. Perine’s 100.4 elusive rating ranked sixth in the nation as a true freshman and he followed it up with a 79.8 mark that ranked 12th though his rushing grade did improve as a sophomore.
51. D.J. Jones, DT, Ole Miss
At six-feet tall, Jones often wins the leverage advantage at the line of scrimmage and he combines that with good athleticism for a 324-pounder. After transferring from junior college, he graded at 84.3 overall on 514 snaps in his college debut last season, good for 27th in the nation among interior defensive linemen and sixth among those returning in 2016. Jones was strong against the run at 84.0 and he provided four sacks, four QB hits, and 18 hurries on his 310 pass rushes.
52. Chase Roullier, G, Wyoming
Whether locking onto defenders or clearing out play side in Wyoming’s power scheme, Roullier has done a fine job in the running game the last two years, and he finished with the nation’s second-best overall grade in 2015. He made great strides in pass protection as well, allowing only six pressures on the season, good for a 87.6 grade that ranked 13th in the nation.
53. Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
The SEC’s top returning quarterback, Kelly had the fifth-best overall grade among returning quarterbacks. His adjusted completion percentage on deep passes ranked sixth in the nation at 52.9 percent and he quietly posted the No. 14 grade in the nation as a runner. Kelly ran for 626 yards last season, including 317 yards on 27 scrambles and 307 yards on 51 designed runs.
54. Isaiah Jones, WR, East Carolina
One of the most productive slot receivers in the nation, only three returning receivers had a better receiving grade than Jones last season. He caught 78.4 percent of his targets, tied for fifth among returnees and he ranked third with 23 forced missed tackles. Jones will be the go-to receiver for East Carolina once again, especially in the short game.
55. Nick Mullens, QB, Southern Miss
It was a breakout season for Mullens whose 88.0 passing grade is the top returning mark in the nation. He’s missing his top receivers in Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, so the overall stats may take a hit, but Mullens ranked fourth in the nation with an adjusted completion percentage of 77.6 percent and his adjusted deep passing percentage ranked seventh. Mullens does his best work in the middle of the field where he will have to develop new playmakers to replace Thomas and Martin.
56. Jamal Marcus, DE, Akron
Marcus is relentless in the running game, for better or for worse, often disrupting plays but also taking himself out of position. Still, there’s more good than bad and that same tenacity shows up in his pass rushing where his ranked sixth among the nation’s edge rushers with a 89.4 grade highlighted by five sacks, six QB hits, and 38 hurries on his 343 rushes.
57. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
At 6-1, Tankersley has the size the NFL will love and the on-field production is not far behind. Against Power-5 his 82.5 coverage grade tied for sixth nationally and he allowed only 41.5 percent of passes to be completed his way. For the season, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of only 44.4 when targeting Tankersley, eighth-best in the nation.
58. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Williams missed all of 2015, but he had the 12th-best overall grade among wide receivers in 2014. His 18.1 yards per reception were helped by his averaging 7.6 yards after the catch per reception to go with 11 forced missed tackles on his 57 receptions. A healthy Williams steps right back in as the top playmaker for Clemson.
59. Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Brantley will continue Florida’s recent tradition of dominant defensive linemen as he’s been a disruptive force on his 679 career snaps, grading at 84.5 overall. He’s had back-to-back years of strong run defense while rushing the passer at an impressive rate last season with four sacks, four QB hits, and 15 hurries on only 230 rushes.
60. Tyler Orlosky, C, West Virginia
The top-graded returning center, Orlosky has surrendered only 10 pressures on 1,094 pass blocking snaps the last two years and he complemented it with a 81.2 run blocking grade that tied for ninth in the nation last season. He doesn’t lose many blocks in West Virginia’s zone-heavy system, giving his running backs a chance to pick up yards on either the front or back side of the play.
61. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
The Washington defense has a number of playmakers at every level and Jones may be the best of the bunch. The NFL has already taken notice as he’s six-feet tall and he broke up eight of his 80 targets last season while intercepting four more. After and up-and-down freshman season, Jones took big strides as a sophomore and another step forward could have Washington competing for a Pac-12 title.
62. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
One of the nation’s best returning deep threats, Ford picked up 517 deep yards in 2015 to lead all returning Power-5 receivers. Overall his 82.3 receiving grade ranked 12thamong all Power-5 receivers a year ago and he’ll ease the transition of whoever wins the Virginia Tech quarterback job.
63. Jake Replogle, DT, Purdue
Replogle got in on a number of plays both as a pass rusher and against the run, allowing him to rank among the top-seven returners in both departments. He could stand to finish better as a pass rusher, though he was disruptive as he collected two sacks, 12 QB hits, and 32 hurries on his 349 rushes.
64. Eddie Jackson, S, Alabama
Jackson moved from cornerback to safety in 2015 after posting a respectable grade at corner in 2014 at 77.4 overall. He played mostly free safety last season, where his 84.9 coverage grade was the best among all returning safeties. He has a chance to take another big step forward and his versatility and experience will be coveted in NFL circles.
65. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Kirk stepped right in as a playmaker for Texas A&M, leading the way with 1,009 receiving yards as a true freshman. He ranked 13th in the nation in both yards from the slot with 896 and yards after the catch with 637. Expect his role to grow even more in 2016.
66. Davon Godchaux, DT, LSU
It was a bumpy debut for Godchaux who struggled as a true freshman in 2014, and while he was still lacking the running game last season (-2.8), he turned it on as a pass rusher. His 87.9 grade was the best among returning interior defensive linemen as he picked up six sacks, six QB hits, and 30 hurries on 351 rushes.
67. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
The Baylor offense is certainly conducive to monster passing numbers from the quarterback, but Russell executed the system well. When Art Briles was the head coach, Baylor was all about finding one-on-one matchups down the field and giving his speedy receivers a chance to make plays and Russell had the nation’s seventh-best grade on passes thrown at least 30 yards in the air. Russell was also a big part of Baylor’s ground attack as he picked up 343 yards on designed runs, good for a 87.6 rushing grade.
68. Jaylen Samuels, H-Back, NC State
Whether you call him a tight end, slot receiver, h-back or running back, Samuels is a versatile playmaker for the NC State offense. Last year, he led the Wolfpack with 597 receiving yards and added 368 yards on the ground to go with his 16 offensive touchdowns. Samuels has graded positively as a receiver and as a runner the last two years and NC State will continue to move him around to create mismatches.
69. Colby Gossett, G/T, Appalachian State
Gossett had some impressive run blocks in Appalachian’s zone-blocking scheme last year as he played an almost even split between right guard (420) and right tackle (433). His overall run blocking grade of 91.8 led all guards and tackles and he only surrendered nine pressures on his 332 attempts in pass protection.
70. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
Playing 85 percent off Pittsburgh’s snaps as a true freshman, Whitehead posted the sixth-best overall grade among returning safeties. His 15 run stops when playing in the box ranked second in the nation and he complemented it with a strong 80.9 coverage grade.
71. James McFarland, DE, TCU
McFarland missed all of 2015 due to injury, but he had the No. 18-overall grade in the nation among edge defenders. He was solid against the run and excellent as a pass rusher, picking up 10 sacks, three QB hits, and 22 hurries on 159 rushes. McFarland capped the season with his best effort against Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, earning the game’s defensive MVP honors in the process.
72. Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan
Another standout performer on the Michigan defensive line, Glasgow played only 332 snaps before going down to injury in Week 10. He posted a dominant 84.6 grade against the run to go with a 80.9 pass rush grade and his overall grade ranked 19th in the nation at the time of the injury.
73. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Few true freshman quarterbacks can put on a show like Rosen did in his debut against Virginia last season as he peppered the field with pinpoint accuracy. He came back down to Earth after Week 1, showing the expected true freshman struggles in a number of games, but Rosen also showed his immense potential and the ability to play well against the top competition. He had the nation’s eighth-best grade against Power-5 competition though he only finished 56th in non-Power-5 games. He also suffered a big drop-off when pressures (passer rating fell from 108.4 to 48.6) but if he can improve in those areas, he’ll emerge as one of the nation’s best passers this fall.
74. Luke Falk, Washington State
A touch thrower capable of throwing receivers open through zone coverage, Falk has posted the usual gaudy stats of a Mike Leach quarterback. He has the highest adjusted completion percentage among all returning quarterbacks at 81.8 percent and he’s primed for another huge season as he heads into is third year in the system. As good as Falk is at throwing receivers open through coverage, he’ll force a few as well, leading to a high percentage of “turnover-worthy plays.” If he can cut down on those mistakes, he’ll rank much higher on this list by year’s end and he has the system, playmakers, and experience to make a Heisman run.
75. Wyatt Teller, G, Virginia Tech
Teller was excellent as a redshirt freshman, as he was a top-20 run blocker nationally and he followed it up in 2015 with the nation’s No. 7 mark at 88.8. There’s room to grow as a pass blocker as he has graded negatively in his career, but given his transition from the defensive line, the arrow is still pointed up for Teller.
76. Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee
At a listed 6-foot-3 and reportedly closer to 6-foot-5, Hurd doesn’t have a classic running back build but he runs with power and surprising quickness. The Tennessee offensive line has done him few favors the last two years and his 57.7 elusive rating against Power-5 competition ranked 12th among returning running backs.
77. Tyrell Crosby, OT, Oregon
Crosby was one of the nation’s best run-blocking offensive tackles, finishing third at 84.5. He still has some work to do in pass protection as he surrendered 19 pressures for a slightly-above average pass blocking grade, but his overall body of work was impressive for a true sophomore.
78. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
Regardless of his standing on the list, Conner is one of college football’s best stories as he has overcome the cancer that sidelined him for the 2015 season and he’s expected to take the field in week one for the Panthers. Conner was outstanding in 2014, finishing with the third-best rushing grade in the nation while forcing 88 missed tackles, the most we’ve tracked for a single season in our two years of data.
79. Nazair Jones, DT, North Carolina
There’s a good chance that Jones is going to have a monster season and we may look back at this ranking as laughably low. He’s graded at 84.7 over his 842 career snaps, showing well against the run (83.7) and as a pass rusher (79.1). Jones was limited to only 10 games a year ago, so a full season of action should put him on the radar for All-American status and attention from the NFL. Perhaps most impressive about Jones: he’s only graded “in the red” once in two years.
80. DeJuan Rogers, S, Toledo
Rogers was outstanding in 2015, particularly in coverage where his 91.4 coverage grade led all safeties despite playing in only 10 games. He was one of only three safeties to not miss a tackle in coverage and he finished the year with only two misses on 70 attempts, good for the second-best tackling efficiency in the country.
81. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning quietly graded as the top true freshman in the country last season, handling pressure better than any quarterback on a per-snap basis. He actually accomplished the rare feat of grading better under pressure than he did from a clean pocket, and overall, he did a fine job of taking care of the ball and making strong throws at the intermediate level. If Browning builds on his impressive debut, he’ll be right there with Josh Rosen as one of the nation’s top sophomore signal-callers.
82. Nate Holley, S, Kent State
Mostly a glorified linebacker for Kent State, Holley makes plays around the line of scrimmage as his run stop percentage of 7.7 ranked seventh in the nation to go with a run stopping grade that finished second to only Duke’s Jeremy Cash. He was solid in coverage as well, finishing in the top-25 and grading positively for the second consecutive year.
83. Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State
The nation’s top run/pass threat out of the backfield behind Christian McCaffrey, McNichols posted the second-best receiving grade in the country last year on his way to the nation’s seventh-best overall grade. His elusive rating of 68.7 finished 19thamong running backs and he was fourth with 52.5 percent of his yards coming on breakaway runs (15-plus yards).
84. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
After a strong 2014 season that saw Sutton rank among the top-25 cornerbacks in the nation, he took a step back in 2015 to grade right around average for the year. There were too many negatively-graded games and Sutton’s tackling issues crept up once again (20 misses on 85 attempts the last two years). However, a return to his 2014 form as a corner, combined with his All-SEC ability as a returner could put him among the nation’s top cornerbacks.
85. Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State
Kazee has graded well the last two years, with 2015 particularly strong as he finished 11th nationally among cornerbacks. He’s been a strong run defender and he managed eight interceptions last year while allowing a passer rating of 38.9 into his coverage, also 11th in the nation.
86. Denzel Johnson, S, TCU
Playing safety in TCU’s 4-2-5 scheme, Johnson generally lines up over the slot. He does a nice job staying on top of routes and making the tackles in space as he’s missed only six of his 93 attempts the last two years. His 78.4 grade against the run ranked 14th in the nation last year and his five passes defensed tied for 18th.
87. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami (FL)
There’s a lot to like about Kaaya’s first two years at Miami, though he needs to improve his week-to-week consistency to warrant the future first round hype he’s received. He did take big strides last year as a true sophomore, finishing with the seventh-best passing grade among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. For Kaaya to take the next step, he must improve his play under pressure where his grade took a big hit when compared to his work in a clean pocket.
88. Steven Taylor, LB, Houston
Taylor made plays all over the field for Houston, grading positively against the run, as a pass rusher, and in coverage. He picked up 13 sacks, 14, QB hits, and 25 hurries on his 252 rushes last year while finishing with 57 total stops to rank 10th among the nation’s returning linebackers.
89. Richie James, WR, Middle Tennessee State
No receiver picked up more than James’ 955 yards after the catch last season and his receiving grade ranked sixth in the country. The slippery slot receiver has a good feel for the passing game and he makes the most of the screens and jet sweeps that Middle Tennessee State throw his way.
90. Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska
Gerry took a step back from an outstanding 2014 campaign, but he still enters 2016 as one of the nation’s best safeties. His play-making ways led to the second-best coverage grade in the nation in 2014, though he needs to cut down on his 25 missed tackles over the last two years. Still, Gerry has good instincts and he’ll anchor the back end for Nebraska this season.
91. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
The North Carolina passing game is poised for a huge year, but opposing teams can’t look past the running game. Hood finished seventh in the nation with an elusive rating of 95.7 while his 79.9 rushing grade ranked 13th. He averaged 4.1 yards after contact per rush, second-best in the nation, and if he can cut down on his four fumbles, he’ll be right there in the second tier of this loaded group of running backs.
92. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
Often lost in the mix of top running backs, Gallman’s had the No. 14 rushing grade in the nation and his 67 missed tackles forced were seventh. He finished 11th in elusive rating at 82.0 and his pairing with Deshaun Watson in the backfield will be one of the most-feared combinations in the country.
93. Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA
McKinley was a hot pick to break out last season after pressuring the quarterback on 16 of his 106 rushes in 2014, and while he had a strong season, there’s even more room to improve next season. He plays both on the interior and on the edge in UCLA’s scheme and he strong grades both against the run and as a pass rusher last season.
94. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
The Notre Dame offensive line was strong across the board last season, and Nelson wasn’t out of place in his first college action. He was excellent in the running game, as he was strong at the point of attack and impressive as a puller. Nelson finished with a positive grade in pass protection as well, and his debut bodes well for the future of Notre Dame’s offensive line.
95. DeAngelo Brown, DT, Louisville
While first round defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins got most of the publicity, Brown was a quiet anchor up front for the Cardinals, ranking in the top-25 in both run defense and pass rushing among returning interior defensive linemen. On 948 snaps the last two years, Brown’s posted an outstanding overall grade and an extended workload should give him the recognition he deserves in 2016.
96. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
There’s some boom or bust to Adams’ game, but his overall body of work has lived up to his recruiting hype in his two years at LSU. He’s graded positively against the run, in coverage, and as a blitzer, and he’s made plays in the passing game as he knocked down six passes last year (tied for fifth among returning safeties) to go with four interceptions.
97. Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
While LB Antonio Morrison drew most of the attention the last few years, Davis simply outplayed him in all phases. He can attack downhill and as a blitzer where he notched four sacks, seven QB hits, and 11 hurries on only 49 rushes a year ago and he was strong in coverage where his 85.3 grade ranked 10th in the nation.
98. Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford
Thomas anchored the Stanford defensive line last season, finishing with the 13th-best grade against the run among returning interior defensive linemen. He got after the quarterback at a healthy rate as well, finishing with four sacks, six QB hits, and 15 hurries. If there’s a complaint, it’s the week-to-week consistency from Thomas as a big chunk of his grade came in a handful of games.
99. Darius Hamilton, DT, Rutgers
Injured for all but 17 snaps last season, Hamilton finished 14th among the nation’s interior defensive linemen in 2014, grading in the top-25 both against the run and as a pass rusher. A return to health should have him in the All-American mix on the defensive line.
100. Ed Davis, LB, Michigan State
Another player returning from injury, Davis missed all of 2015 after sixth among the nation’s linebackers in 2014. Michigan State moved him around on defense, sending him after the quarterback about 10 times per game and he responded with eight sacks, 10 QB hits, and 15 hurries. He was strong against the run, ranking 25th in the country and complemented it with a positive grade in coverage.
101. Folorunso Fatukasi, DT, UConn
Fatukasi has been fantastic in his two years on 1,136 snaps, and he finished with an outstanding 84.1 grade last year that ranked 13th among those returning this season. He took strides as a pass rusher to pick up six sacks, three QB hits and 20 hurries on his 341 rushes.