Highest-graded returning player at every position: Defense
We are now less than three months away from the start of the 2016 college football season, and it’s a good time to look at the top returning players according to PFF grades.
For this article, we took a look at the player from a Power-5 conference school who earned the highest overall grade at his position last season. Note that these grades are cumulative, so a player who performed well in a smaller amount of games due to injury or any other reason will likely come up short of a player who appeared in every game.
Here are the top-graded returning players on defense heading into 2016, by position:
[Editor’s note: Be sure to check out our highest-graded offensive returners as well.]
Defensive tackle: Jake Replogle, Purdue Boilermakers
There are no shortage of talented defensive tackles returning to the Big Ten this season – Michigan’s Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell among them – but Replogle earned the highest overall grade among any returning D-tackle in the nation last year. He ranked No. 1 versus the run and was nearly as good as a pass-rusher, trailing only LSU’s Davon Godchaux in that area. His sack total was low, with just two, but he generated a position-leading 46 total QB pressures, after racking up 12 hits and 32 hurries.
3-4 defensive end: Jonathan Allen, Alabama Crimson Tide
Allen was part of a dominant Crimson Tide defensive front last season, with teammates A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed both going in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. Of the three, Allen was by far the best pass-rusher, and he has the No. 1 grade in that area among returning 3-4 DEs. That’s after producing a position-leading 13 sacks. He also graded well against the run. Oklahoma’s Charles Walker is the owner of the top run-defense grade among returning 3-4 DEs.
4-3 defensive end: Derek Barnett, Tennessee
We’ve already declared Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett as the most likely player to take over the title of college football’s best pass-rusher from former Ohio State DE Joey Bosa, but Barnett has a strong case himself – and he actually narrowly edged out Garrett in PFF grades last season. They were virtually identical in pass-rush grades, with Garrett holding an edge in sacks (11 to 10), hits (also 11 to 10) but trailing in hurries (42 to 24), while Barnett earned a better grade defending the run. Both players should be among the nation’s best defenders in 2016.
3-4 outside linebacker: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin
Biegel and his fellow Wisconsin outside linebacker Joe Schobert (who was a 2016 fourth-round pick of the Cleveland Browns) were both among the nation’s top-graded players at the position last season, and among returning 3-4 OLBs, Biegel grades out as No. 1 against the run, as a pass-rusher and overall. He earned a positive pass-coverage grade, but faced only five targets all season – most of his damage was done on the edge getting after the QB and defending the run. Two more players to watch: Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, who posted an outstanding grade on limited snaps, and Louisville’s Devonte Fields.
Linebacker: Matt Milano, Boston College Eagles
This position includes 4-3 outside and middle linebackers, and inside linebackers in a 3-4. Milano earned solid grades as a pass-rusher (six sacks, plus eight hits) and in coverage, but where he really stood out in 2016 was against the run. He only missed two tackles on 337 run snaps last season, good for the fifth-best tackling efficiency nationally among returning players. Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham nearly earned the top spot at the position, and Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards earned the No. 1 coverage grade among returning linebackers.
Cornerback: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan Wolverines
There are a number of excellent returning defensive players in the Big Ten this season, including several on the Michigan roster, and Lewis is right up there with the best of them. He earned the No. 1 coverage grade among all college cornerbacks last season, even ahead of Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, the eventual No. 5 overall pick of the Jaguars. He had a modest interception total, with just two, but tied for the national lead with 15 passes defensed, and allowed a passer rating of just 46.8 into his coverage – that means QBs were close to being better off just throwing the ball into the dirt than throwing at Lewis. He also missed just one tackle as a run defender. Iowa’s Desmond King came in a close second here, and figures to push Lewis for the title of the Big Ten’s best corner.
Safety: Derwin James, Florida State Seminoles
James’ performance as a true freshman last year was nothing short of remarkable, and he is the top-graded returning player at his position entering 2016. He was a versatile weapon for the Seminoles’ defense, lining up everywhere from free safety to slot corner to outside corner to a hybrid role to even an edge-rushing position on obvious passing downs. Alabama’s Eddie Jackson earned the highest coverage grade among returning safeties last season, but no player could compete with James’ all-round game – as a pass-rusher, at defending the run and in pass coverage.