The top 10 returning Pac-12 players
As the national focus shifts to the players in the current NFL draft class our analysts continue to examine the best returning players in the nation and in each Power-5 conference. These elite players were highly productive in 2016 and we expect high production from them as well in 2017. Here are the top 10 returning players to Pac-12.
1. USC QB Sam Darnold
The Trojans became a different team after Sam Darnold took over as the starting quarterback. Darnold has a knack for staying calm under pressure and extending plays and his 68.8 accuracy percentage under pressure ranks No. 1 among all returning Power-5 quarterbacks. Darnold processes things very quickly on the field and is capable of making pinpoint throws into very small coverage windows. Darnold has the size, strength and processing speed the NFL covets in quarterbacks and his name will continue to gain in prominence on the national stage and within the draft community. Darnold’s 80.8 overall grade is the highest of any returning quarterback in the Pac-12.
2. Washington QB Jake Browning
Browning’s steady play since his freshman year is big-part of the Huskies’ recent return to national prominence. Browning doesn’t have a huge arm but he is accurate; his 70.6 accuracy percentage ranks No. 11 among Power-5 quarterbacks. Browning spends time working on his craft and improving his game each offseason with last offseason seeing him work on his deep ball accuracy. He saw the results on the field as his deep accuracy percentage of 48.6 ranks No. 4 among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. The 2017 version of Browning should be even more polished that previous versions and ready to take the Huskies back to the playoff.
3. Washington State G Cody O’Connell
The Cougars’ offensive scheme spreads the opposing defense out across the field and aids the offensive linemen with very large splits to help identify rushers. However, O’Connell was still one of the most dominant offensive linemen in the nation last year. O’Connell only allowed 1 sack, 1 hit and 4 hurries on 649 pass-blocking snaps and his 92.9 pass-block grade ranks No. 1 among all returning FBS offensive linemen. O’Connell isn’t just a one-trick pony, as he is also a people-moving run blocker. O’Connell’s 87.7 run-block grade ranks No. 1 among all returning Pac-12 offensive linemen.
4. Washington DI Vita Vea
Vita Vea is a favorite of the PFF College analyst team as few returning interior defensive linemen have his combination of run-stopping ability and pass-rush prowess. As a result, Vea found ways to stand out to our analysts on a weekly basis in 2016. Vea’s run-stop percentage of 9.1 ranks No. 8 among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles. As a pass-rusher, Vea generated 5 sacks, 3 hits and 22 hurries on 221 pass-rush snaps and his pass-rushing productivity rating of 10.7 ranks No. 5 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles.
5. Washington State QB Luke Falk
Luke Falk has put up gaudy numbers the last two seasons in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense. Falk doesn’t have above-average arm strength but has he does have above-average ball location. Falk is very accurate, can throw with touch and can make layered throws that drop over second-level defenders. Falk’s 78.0 accuracy percentage ranks No. 2 among returning Power-5 quarterbacks after only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (80.1). Falk also performs well under duress as his accuracy percentage under pressure of 64.6 ranks No. 4 among returning Power-5 quarterbacks. Falk lost two of his best targets in Gabe Marks and River Cracraft so it is highly likely that Falk’s numbers won’t be as big as they have the past two seasons.
6. Washington DI Greg Gaines
Gaines was one of the most underrated players in the nation last year. He is a stout run-stopping force in the middle of the Huskies’ defense and the conference’s best returning run defender as his 87.9 run-defense grade ranks No. 1 among all returning Pac-12 defenders. Gaines’s run-stop percentage of 8.8 ranks No. 18 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles and his 22 run stops ties him at No. 2 among returning Power-5 defensive tackles. Gaines is a solid all-around player inside and his 84.8 overall grade ranks No. 3 among returning interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12.
7. Cal DI James Looney
James Looney is definitely not a nationally recognized defender but he is the best returning defender on the Cal Bears and a consistent playmaker. Looney is a quick and undersized defensive lineman who can “get skinny” into gaps and make plays in opponents’ backfields. Looney was able to make the key goal-line tackle to seal the Bears’ victory over Utah in 2016. Looney’s 81.6 run-defense grade ranks No. 6 among returning front-seven defenders in the Pac-12 and his 22 run stops ties him at No. 2 among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles. As a pass-rusher Looney generated 4 sacks, 5 hits and 21 hurries on his 379 pass-rush snaps and his pass-rushing productivity rating of 6.2 ranks No. 4 among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles. Looney will quickly prove to be new coach Justin Wilcox’s most productive front-seven defender.
8. Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver
The Colorado Buffaloes had arguably the most talented secondary in the nation in 2016 but also one of the most senior. Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon are all leaving for the NFL. Isaiah Oliver is possibly the most talented player in that group but didn’t get starter reps due to his youth but he was solid in coverage and opposing quarterbacks only had a 68.8 QB rating when throwing into Oliver’s coverage. Oliver is also an exceptional special-teams player who won the award for PFF Best Special Teams player in the Pac-12 this year. Oliver handled his reserve CB/special-teams role with a ferocity that has earned him more playing time in 2017.
9. USC LB Cameron Smith
Cameron Smith has been playing since he was a freshman and had some monster games early in his career, such as his three-interception performance against Utah in 2015. Smith turned those flashes of freshman greatness into a more consistent performance as a sophomore, where he could be counted on every week to provide sound run support and coverage to the second level of the Trojans’ defense. Smith’s 28 run stops ranks No. 3 among returning Pac-12 linebackers and his 0.51 yards per coverage snap ranks No. 3 among returning Pac-12 linebackers. Smith’s 81.8 overall grade ranks No. 1 among all returning Pac-12 linebackers.
10. Washington State DI Hercules Mata’afa
Hercules Mata’afa is an undersized interior defensive lineman who has done nothing but out-produce his size for two straight seasons. Mata’afa’s size and playing style are very reminiscent of Tedy Bruschi when he was at the University of Arizona. Mata’afa relies on quickness, instincts and last-second pre-snap shifts to consistently beat the blocker across from him. Mata’afa generated 5 sacks, 15 hits and 35 hurries on 361 pass-rush snaps and his pass-rushing productivity rating of 11.8 ranks No. 1 among returning Pac-12 defensive tackles and No. 3 in the Power-5. Mata’afa’s 25 run stops ranks No. 1 among all returning Pac-12 defensive tackles.