Top 10 returning players in college football
Jeff Dooley ranks the best college players taking the field in 2016.
Top 10 returning players in college football
There are a lot of talented players in the 2016 NFL draft class, but there are also several stars who will be returning to college football next season. Using the help of our PFF grades, we ranked the top 10 returning players for 2016:
- Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
He was PFF’s choice for the 2015 Heisman Trophy, over winner Derrick Henry, so it is no surprise that he comes in at No. 1 on the list. There wasn’t a more dynamic offensive playmaker in all of college football last season, as he carried the Cardinal’s offense as both a pass-catcher and a runner. The top-ranked running back in PFF grades, he was nearly impossible to bring down after the catch or on runs, forcing a nation-leading 82 missed tackles versus Power-5 competition.
- Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield’s season ended on a disappointing note, as he earned his lowest game grade of the season in the Sooners’ semifinal playoff loss to Clemson. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’ll enter 2016 as one of, if not the best, quarterbacks in the entire nation. He ranked No. 1 in our QB grades against Power-5 competition, and stood out for his overall accuracy, his deep-ball accuracy, and his performance when facing the opponent’s pass rush (that is, until he faced Clemson).
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
He was the best player in college football for much of the season, and only saw his Heisman candidacy fade after the Tigers struggled down the stretch. But he still finished the season with the top rushing grade in the country, and his 70 forced missed tackles as a runner versus Power-5 teams ranked second only to Henry’s 71 – and Henry had the benefit of an additional game.
- Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson got better and better as the season wore on, and he nearly won the Tigers a national championship with his phenomenal performance against Alabama in the title-game loss. He earned his third-highest game grade of the season versus the Crimson Tide, and for the season overall his numbers were excellent. He finished behind only Mayfield as the No. 2-graded quarterback versus Power-5 competition, and had the top rushing grade among QBs. He’ll begin the season as a Heisman favorite.
- Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, arguably the best player available in the 2016 draft, was the only edge defender to earn a higher grade than Barnett last season. He was an excellent pass-rusher, recording 61 total quarterback pressures (including 10 sacks), fifth-most among defensive ends. But he also held his own against the run better than some of the nation’s other top pass-rushers, grading ninth at his position as a run defender. His performance against Missouri was one of the best we saw out of any defensive player last year.
- Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
Garrett was just behind Barnett as the SEC’s top pass-rusher this season, and should be in for a huge year as a true junior in 2016. He ranked third among all edge defenders behind only Bosa and Barnett in our PFF grades, and while the majority of that grade came from his ability to pressure the quarterback, he improved significantly as a run defender from his 2014 performance. He started off the season with his highest grade of the year versus Arizona State, and finished it with his second-best in the bowl game against Louisville.
- Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
The top-graded cornerback in the nation last season, Lewis is one of several standout defensive players returning for Michigan this season. He earned the No. 1 coverage grade, allowing a very low 46.3 passer rating into his coverage, but he wasn’t a slouch against the run, either, having earned a top-20 grade in run defense. The Wolverines defense could be the best in college football in 2016.
- Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook didn’t receive quite the same level of hype as fellow running backs McCaffrey, Fournette and Henry, but there’s no questioning the fact that he was one of the best runners in the nation last season. He finished seventh in rushing grade, and stood out even more so in a couple of our PFF Signature Stats. He ranked No. 2 in yards after contact per attempt and No. 1 in elusive rating – two measures of how effective a running back is independent of his blocking.
- Desmond King, CB, Iowa
King ranked No. 4 among cornerbacks in PFF grades this season, fueled by an outstanding performance in the Hawkeyes’ close Big Ten championship game loss. He was a top-10 performer against both the run and the pass, and he allowed just three touchdowns on passes thrown into his coverage, while recording eight interceptions.
- Derwin James, S, Florida State
James was perhaps the most well-rounded defensive back in the entire country last season, and he did so as a true freshman. He ranked second among safeties to only Duke’s Jeremy Cash in PFF grades on the strength of top-20 performances in coverage, against the run and as a pass-rusher. He allowed just 169 yards thrown into his coverage and produced 19 total pressures, including four sacks, making him an all-around menace for opposing quarterbacks.
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.