Top 25 breakout players of 2016
Last year’s list of breakout players featured a who’s who of the nation’s top players by season’s end, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, as well as Heisman candidates Deshaun Watson and Leonard Fournette. It also featured a first-round pick in Clemson’s Shaq Lawson as our list was able to identify a number of players with strong performances in limited snaps in 2014 to project their taking the next step toward stardom in 2015.
This year, the criteria is the same. We are identifying players with strong performances in their limited time last season, projecting larger roles and in turn, larger impact in 2016. Here’s a look at the players you’ll know a lot more about by season’s end.
1. Deatrich Wise Jr, DE, Arkansas
2016 grade: 81.6 | 2015 snaps: 375 | PFF College 101 rank: 22
Few players affected the quarterback as frequently as Wise Jr during the second half of the season and his pass rush productivity of 16.0 against Power-5 competition ranked second to only first-round pick Joey Bosa among 4-3 defensive ends. Wise used his long frame to pick up 10 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 21 hurries on only 258 hurries last season and he complemented it with a solid +4.5 grade against the run. Wise has the size to move around the defensive front for the Razorbacks, so look for him to rush off the edge while also kicking inside to take advantage of guards as well. Wise may not be able to keep up last year’s incredible pace, but a full-season workload should make him one of the nation’s most productive pass rushers.
2. Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama
2016 grade: 83.7 | 2015 snaps: 361| PFF College 101 rank: 37
Internally, Anderson is already a star as his two-year grade of +53.7 on only 681 snaps is outstanding. However, he’s merely been a rotating piece for Alabama at outside linebacker, but an expanded role this season should help him stick out as an all-around talent. He sets a strong edge in the running game, jacking up blockers and shedding to make plays as he’s graded at +23.9 against the run in our two seasons of grading. His pass rushing has been just as efficient as he’s posted a +28.8 grade with 10 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 48 hurries on just 342 rushes.
To see an example of Anderson’s potential dominance, look no further than the SEC Championship last season in which he picked up two sacks, a QB hit, and four hurries on just 10 rushes, to go with a +1.9 grade against the run on only six snaps. While Alabama is generally known for their stout run-stopping outside linebackers – a trend bucked last season by pass rush specialist, Tim Williams – Anderson has a chance to be the best all-around outside ‘backer to come out of Tuscaloosa in the Nick Saban era.
3. Ryan Glasgow, DT, Michigan
2016 grade: 84.8 | 2015 snaps: 332 | PFF College 101 rank: 72
The argument could be made that Glasgow has already broken out as he boasted the nation’s No. 19 run-stopping grade before going down to injury last season, but since he only played 332 snaps, he still qualifies as a breakout candidate. He’s seen the field for 753 snaps the last two seasons, posting a strong +32.7 grade against the run, and last year he improved his pass rush grade to +9.0 on the strength of a sack, four QB hits, and 12 hurries on 179 rushes. Glasgow is part of a loaded defensive line at Michigan that is often difficult to single out the best of the bunch, but he’ll have plenty of moments as the anchor at nose tackle.
4. Kevin Maurice, DT, Nebraska
2016 grade: 83.2 | 2015 snaps: 332
Last year saw Maurice’s teammate, Maliek Collins, break out and rank No. 12 among the nation’s interior defensive linemen on his way to a third-round selection by the Dallas Cowboys. Maurice is primed to have a similar impact this season after his dominant +23.4 performance on only 281 snaps. He was unblockable against Southern Miss — picking up nine hurries on only 32 rushes — and in his only extended game action, Maurice posted a +6.4 overall grade on a 76-snap effort against Illinois in Week 5. He plays low and explodes into blockers, showing equal ability to blow up both runs and passes. Maurice will be the anchors of the Nebraska defensive line in 2016.
5. Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
2016 grade: 78.4 | 2015 snaps: 399
Miami’s slot receiver last season, Coley will see the field more often with WRs Herb Waters and Rashawn Scott moving on. He caught 70.4 percent of his targets last season, and despite playing the third-most snaps among Miami’s receivers, he posted the top grade at 78.4. Coley is more than just a short-area slot receiver as he has the speed to stretch the field and on-target passes usually turn into receptions as he’s only dropped three of his 72 catchable targets the last two years.
6. Marcus Newby, LB, Nebraska
2016 grade: 84.0 | 2015 snaps: 319
One of the most explosive players on Nebraska’s defense, Newby packs a punch when taking on blockers in the running game, often dictating the action to opposing offensive linemen and lead blockers. In addition to his strong work in the running game, Newby graded positively in coverage, including three passes defensed on only 18 targets, and he added a sack, two QB hits, and eight hurries on his 43 blitzes. He’s played only 362 snaps in his career, but he’s made the most of them with a +18.9 overall grade.
7. Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
2016 grade: 83.0 | 2015 snaps: 389
Yet another Michigan defensive linemen to highlight, Charlton was extremely productive on his 389 snaps last year. He was solid against the run with a 79.2 mark, while his pass rushing took a huge step forward at 82.6. After compiling only 11 pressures on 120 rushes in 2014, Charlton notched six sacks, nine QB hits, and 26 hurries (41 total pressures) on 229 rushes last season. The Wolverines’ defensive line is top heavy with most of their returning talent at defensive tackle, and while Charlton is certainly not slight at 6-6 and 275 pounds, he brings the best edge rushing dynamic on the team. Look for Charlton to play at least 600 snaps this season while continuing to develop into one of the nation’s best edge rushers.
8. George Kittle, TE, Iowa
2016 grade: 82.2 | 2015 snaps: 383
While teammate Henry Krieger Coble saw the majority of the snaps at tight end a year ago (879), Kittle was the better all-around player and he’s the best all-around tight end heading into 2016. He was used as a “move” tight end in Iowa’s offense, bringing outstanding run blocking while also showing well as a receiver. As a blocker, he was able to move defenders much better than his 6-4, 235-pound frame would indicate and as a receiver, he used his speed and athleticism to both get behind the defense and sprinkle in the spectacular catch. Kittle ranked eighth among all returning tight ends in both run blocking and receiving, and he’ll get a much bigger opportunity to showcase his skills with Krieger Coble off to the NFL.
9. Terry Beckner, Jr; DT, Missouri
2016 grade: 81.0 | 2015 snaps: 324
A late-season injury kept Becker Jr eligible for this list as he was on his way to one of the best true freshman seasons in the nation. He still finished as the top true freshman interior defensive lineman at 81.0 as he brought excellent run defense (83.1) to go with an average pass rushing effort (74.1). Beckner Jr came in with plenty of recruiting hype and he lived up to it when he had an opportunity to play as a freshman. Expect another step forward as he becomes more of a household name around the nation as a sophomore.
10. William Johnson, CB, Oklahoma
2016 grade: 79.9 | 2015 snaps: 332
After starting to see more playing time in week seven, Johnson locked down the slot corner role for the Sooners. He did a fine job of attacking screens and staying on top of the many wheel routes deployed by Big 12 offenses, leading to a strong coverage grade of 79.5. Johnson was also a sure tackler, missing only one of his 17 attempts while providing strong run defense. Other than a few plays in which he was burned, Johnson was an important piece of the Oklahoma defense and he’s poised to make an even bigger name for himself in 2016.
11. Duke Ejiofor, DT, Wake Forest
2016 grade: 80.6 | 2015 snaps: 332
Injuries slowed Ejiofor down last season, but once he got back on the field in week six, he was Wake Forest’s most productive defensive linemen. Ejiofor’s strong hand usage allowed him to post a +13.4 pass rush grade as he picked up four sacks, two QB hits, and 16 hurries on only 207 rushes. He still has room to improve against the run, but with a full season of action, Ejiofor will be one of the ACC’s best pass rushers by year’s end.
12. Daylon Mack, DT, Texas A&M
2016 grade: 79.7 | 2015 snaps: 388
Much like Beckner Jr, Mack stepped right in as a true freshman and did a fine job against the run. Known for his impressive high school running back film, Mack moves well for a 335-pounder and those skills translated in the transition to the SEC. His 84.6 run defense grade led all true freshmen, so that will earn him even more snaps in 2016, but he does have work to do to improve as a pass rusher. Mack pressured the quarterback on only two of his 148 rushes, but his athleticism should allow for improvement in that area. At the very least, Mack will emerge as one of the nation’s top interior run stoppers on one of the nation’s top defensive lines.
13. Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers
2016 grade: 80.4 | 2015 snaps: 239
Turay was on this list a year ago on the strength of his pass rush ability and athleticism, and he’s back on the list after failing to earn full-time snaps in 2015. He continued his strong pass rushing with an 82.8 mark after grading at 81.4 as a rusher in 2014. The last two years, Turay has picked up 10 sacks, 15 QB hits, and 44 hurries on only 382 rushes. The key in 2016 will be to improve against the run and get on the field for at least 500-plus snaps. If he does, expect Turay to notch a 10-sack season and grab the attention of NFL scouts.
14. Mikal Myers, DT, UConn
2016 grade: 79.9 | 2015 snaps: 365
UConn is quietly loaded with impressive run stoppers and Myers has been a dominant run defender on his 653 total snaps the last two seasons. He’s posted run defense grades of 82.7 and 85.9 each of the last two years respectively, making the most of his part-time role. In our two years of grading, Myers has a mere three negatively-graded games and even those were hardly disastrous efforts. Like Daylon Mack, there’s room to grow as a pass rusher, but against the run, Myers is poised to rank among the nation’s best if given a heavier workload.
15. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
2016 grade: 79.7 | 2015 snaps: 338
Backfield mate Jalen Hurd gets more of the publicity, but Kamara made the most of his 338 snaps last season. He was a threat on the ground, averaging 6.6 yards per carry and an impressive 3.8 yards after contact per rush, good for 12th in the nation. As good as Kamara was as a runner, he was even more impressive as a receiver, finishing with the nation’s ninth-best grade at 82.1 as he forced 13 missed tackles on his 35 receptions. With Kamara and Hurd flanking a run-first quarterback in Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee has one of the nation’s most dynamic backfields and Kamara will see his fair share of touches.
16. Jack Cichy, OLB, Wisconsin
2016 grade: 79.0 | 2015 snaps: 349
Wisconsin has had outstanding production from their outside linebackers the last two years, mostly behind Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Schobert moves on to the NFL, but Biegel returns and Cichy has a chance to mitigate the drop-off from Schobert’s departure. Last season, he made an impact in all phases, particularly as a pass rusher and in coverage. He rushed the passer only 60 times, but came back with five sacks, four QB hits, and eight hurries. In coverage, he posted an 83.7 grade as he had a knack for getting his hands in passing lanes, finishing with four passes defensed despite being targeted only nine times. Cichy capped the season with a six-pressure outing (three sacks, one QB hit, two hurries) against USC in the Holiday Bowl and he’s ready for a big 2016 season.
17. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
2016 grade: 66.7 | 2015 snaps: 119
The sample size was small but excellent for Trubisky last season, and he’s primed for a big season in North Carolina’s offense. Even if the play-by-play grading doesn’t live up to expectations, Trubisky will likely put up huge numbers in an offense with a loaded, well-rounded receiving corps and one of the nation’s best running backs in Elijah Hood. Trubisky showed the quick release and accuracy needed to excel in North Carolina’s system as he completed 40-of-47 passes, averaging 11.8 yards per attempt to go with six touchdowns and no interceptions. While 47 passes do not a career make, Trubisky’s skills combined with North Carolina’s playmakers should have that offense rolling this season.
18. Devaroe Lawrence, DE, Auburn
2016 grade: 77.8 | 2015 snaps: 287
After transferring from JUCO, Lawrence saw the field for only 26 snaps in 2014 before seeing action on 287 plays last season. He was stout against the run, finishing at 82.2, including a strong late-season stretch against SEC rivals Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama. He led Auburn defensive linemen with a run stop percentage of 7.6, putting him in line for more early down snaps this season. Lawrence added in a sack, two QB hits and six hurries on his 105 rushes, good for a XX rush, so he’s not just a one-dimensional player.
19. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
2016 grade: 77.4 | 2015 snaps: 346
Ohio State’s attrition on both sides of the ball is one of the biggest stories heading into 2016, but Hubbard is ready to make up for the large voids along the defensive line. Replacing the nation’s top-graded defensive linemen (Joey Bosa) is no easy task, but Hubbard showed his potential on his 346 snaps as a redshirt freshman. He’s still young as a defensive lineman as he played safety in high school while dabbling at tight end and linebacker while redshirting in 2014. He picked up seven sacks, six QB hits, and nine hurries on only 186 rushes while holding his own in the run game. Given his lack of experience at the position and strong production last season, the future is bright for Hubbard.
20. Pita Taumoepenu, DE, Utah
2016 grade: 77.1 | 2015 snaps: 154
Last year we touted Alabama’s Tim Williams as a highly-efficient edge rusher who was ready to break out and this season it’s Taumoepenu. Over the last two seasons, he’s played only 335 snaps but he’s still notched 12 sacks, eight QB hits and 22 hurries on only 229 rushes. It’s not as simple as merely extrapolating that production over a full season, but even a manageable 500-snap workload could lead to gaudy pass rush production from Taumoepenu. Utah is very deep along the defensive line, but expect Taumoepenu to be one of their most efficient pass rushers once again.
21. Vic Enwere, RB, Cal
2016 grade: 77.0 | 2015 snaps: 245
The passing game has taken center stage at Cal the last few years behind 2016 first-overall pick Jared Goff, but they’ve quietly featured a number of strong running backs as well. Daniel Lasco moves on to the NFL after a strong 2014 and injury-riddled 2015, leaving three strong options in Enwere, Khalfani Muhammad, and Tre Watson. Enwere graded the best of the bunch last season and he forced 33 missed tackles on just 106 carries, leading to an elusive rating of 105.0 that ranked 11th in the nation. With Goff to the NFL, expect more reliance on the running game at Cal and Enwere has a leg up in what should be a strong trio of runners this season.
22. Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State
2016 grade: 75.9 | 2015 snaps: 397
Ballage pairs with Demario Richard to form one of the best running back duos in the nation and he’s in line for even more opportunities this season. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, Ballage has size and speed that few running backs can match. He can take it to the house any time he touches the ball, often using that speed to get to the edge or using his size to run through tacklers. Ballage’s 75.0 run grade bested Richard’s 73.0 mark, so expect a bigger workload for Ballage who missed the first three games last season.
23. Darius English, DE, South Carolina
2016 grade: 70.3 | 2015 snaps: 295
Admittedly, English has been a one-dimensional player at South Carolina but that one dimension has a chance to explode this season. Despite massive struggles against the run, English started to tap into his pass rush potential last season, finishing with six sacks, three QB hits, and 12 hurries on only 133 rushes. He possesses a classic, late-blooming pass rush frame at 6-6 and 241 pounds and another year of development and an increased workload could see even strong pass rush numbers. The point may be moot if English doesn’t improve against the run and he can’t get on the field, but he has 10-sack potential heading into his senior year.
24. Jeremy Tyler, S, West Virginia
2016 grade: 79.9| 2015 snaps: 287
West Virginia is losing a lot of talent off their strong defense and Tyler will be called upon to fill a bigger role this season. He played deep safety at times while also showing well as a box safety in West Virginia’s scheme, using his speed to make plays off the edge. Tyler showed well as a tackler where he missed only one of his 26 attempts and he finished the season on a high note with a strong bowl performance against Arizona State as he played a season-high 74 snaps.
25. Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
2016 grade: 70.1 | 2015 snaps: 222
While the grade wasn’t as good as others on the list – largely in part due to his dropping four of 22 catchable targets – Seales’ speed stood out on tape and he made just enough big plays to whet the appetite of Oklahoma State fans. Seales has good size at 6-2, 185 pounds and his speed was evident when watching QB Mason Rudolph and the rest of the strong Oklahoma State receiving corps. Seales explodes into his routes, often sneaking up on cornerbacks and showing the ability to get behind them for big plays. With WR Marcell Ateman expected to be sidelined until at least October, Seales has an opportunity to shine and Rudolph is one of the nation’s best deep ball throwers – expect a few big plays to Seales.