McCaffrey, Mayfield, Bosa lead PFF's top Heisman candidates
Championship weekend lived up to the hype, especially in regards to the top Heisman candidates in the country. A number of expected finalists made their final push as we conclude what should be a wide open race.
It’s a well-rounded group of candidates — whether you’re looking for an all-purpose superstar, workhorse running back, dual-threat quarterback, or simply an overachieving walk-on leading his team to a playoff berth.
Here’s a look at our top candidates for the Heisman Trophy:
1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Putting together a monster game before midnight Eastern Time can only help McCaffrey’s candidacy, as he capped off a record-setting season by putting on a show against USC. Even beyond the all-purpose yards record that can be heavily inflated by kick return yardage, McCaffrey had 2,387 yards from scrimmage, while posting our second-best grade as a runner at +29.9 while topping all running backs with a +13.3 mark as a receiver. Stanford used McCaffrey’s all-around skills in creative ways, even using him to throw for two touchdowns. Coming into the weekend, consensus around PFF was that it was McCaffrey’s trophy to lose and he capped his season in style while leading Stanford to a Pac-12 championship.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
“What have you done for me lately?” is often the motto of Heisman voters, sometimes focusing so much on the last thing we’ve seen. For that reason, the odds are stacked against Mayfield who has had the best, and most consistent, season of any quarterback. With no championship game in the Big 12, Mayfield sat at home Saturday as his peers made their closing statements, but let’s not overlook his body of work. His +52.9 overall grade leads all quarterbacks, as does his +42.4 mark against Power-5 competition. His game against Baylor was his true showcase, as he graded at +8.5 in one of the better games we’ve seen from any QB this season. Mayfield’s consistent passing, as well as his ability to make plays with his legs, should put him right at the top of the ballot with McCaffrey.
3. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
We know it’s difficult to get any Heisman consideration on the defensive side without posting ridiculous sack totals or having one random highlight play that everyone remembers — but we’ve watched every snap, so PFF can give proper consideration to the defensive side of the ball. Bosa was the most disruptive edge defender for the second year in a row, leading the way with a +45.2 mark as a pass rusher and +26.0 grade against the run. This comes on the heels of leading all edge players with a +73.4 overall mark last year, in a season where a number of his peers were drafted in the first round. If Heisman voters were truly factoring in every snap of the season, Bosa would be in the discussion.
4. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Seemingly the national favorite, Henry capped his season with 189 yards on 44 carries as Alabama rode their horse with a ridiculous 90 carries over the last two weeks. While many see the 189 yards and SEC Championship as a signature finish to the season, we see a fumble and merely high-volume statistics that may not be enough to surpass others on the list. Make no mistake — Henry has carried Alabama’s offense down the stretch, taking on an unprecedented workload — but on a play-for-play basis, he simply didn’t do as much as some of the other top candidates. Henry started slow with pedestrian grades in weeks two through six, and as impressive as his finish to the season has been (+19.4 runner), even during that stretch, it’s McCaffrey who tops our running grades at +26.7. Henry is a viable Heisman candidate, and his value to Alabama’s playoff run is indisputable, but we’ve seen more consistent week to week options this season.
5. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The Heisman front runner through October, Fournette essentially had the inverse of Henry’s season, though perhaps a similar overall campaign when put side by side. He posted our top run grade at +30.3, but that was a +28.9 mark through nine weeks before posting a +1.4 in November. Fournette carried LSU’s offense, but he tailed off on the biggest stage while Henry shone down the stretch.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Perhaps the Derrick Henry of quarterbacks, Watson got off to a slow start of his own this season before living up to his preseason hype in the second half of the year. Since week nine, he’s our top-graded QB at +27.9, including the top grade as a passer at +21.4 and fourth-best grade as a runner at +7.2. Late finishes are essential to Heisman candidacy, so Watson certainly fits that bill, but it’s hard to ignore the first eight weeks where he graded at only +8.4 as he simply missed too many throws in the early going. So like Henry, we love the finish, and we love that he’s carried his team along the way, but when the total body of work is taken into account, Watson is simply lacking after a slow start.
7. Deforest Buckner, DE, Oregon
Buckner was right there with Bosa from a disruption standpoint, leading all interior defensive linemen with a +64.1 overall grade. He led as a pass rusher at +34.7, including 11 sacks, 13 QB hits, and 32 hurries while ranking fifth against the run at +28.5. Like Bosa, if every-down defensive line play was being considered, Buckner would be a top candidate to make the trip to New York.
8. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Injuries slowed Cook’s Heisman campaign, but when he was on the field, there may not have been a more valuable player in the country. Any time Florida State needed a big play, Cook seemed to make it, often in the form of a long touchdown. He picked up 64.1 percent of his yards on “breakaway” runs, those 15 or more yards, as he was a true threat to score from anywhere on the field. Cook averaged 7.9 yards per carry and finished sixth in the nation with 1,658 yards despite having only 211 carries (128 fewer than Henry, 108 fewer than McCaffrey).
9. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
While the raw rushing totals were not as strong as Henry or McCaffrey, Elliott was right there with them for much of the season, and he added strong work as a receiver and blocker. A pedestrian effort in a loss to Michigan State likely ended his campaign, but he only had 12 carries, leading to his criticizing his team’s game plan. The coaches responded by giving him 30 carries against Michigan and he came through with 214 yards and two scores. Elliott’s +33.7 overall grade ranks second only to McCaffrey, in large part due to a +10.8 mark as a blocker, but that one game may have damned his chances at a trip to New York.
10. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Early season losses took Oregon off the radar, but Freeman was one of the nation’s top runners ranking fifth overall at +26.9. He was fourth in rushing yards behind Henry, McCaffrey, and Fournette with 1,706 yards to go with 14 touchdowns, so while there were clear better options at the position, Freeman quietly stated a strong case all year.
Honorable mention: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
Even though Reynolds has one more game to play, and it’s the day of the Heisman ceremony, he deserves a mention for his entire four-year body of work. He set the career rushing touchdown record with 83 and he’s run Navy’s triple-option attack with precision the last four seasons. While he may not be the nation’s top player, Reynolds deserves a mention for all of his on- and off-field efforts.