Ranking top 10 returning players in ACC

Steve Palazzolo ranks the 10 best returning players in the ACC, including a pair of high-upside QBs and a star running back.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

(AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

Ranking top 10 returning players in ACC

Can anyone catch Florida State? Perhaps the loss of No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston will open the door for a new champion in the ACC, but Florida State is still loaded with young, but unproven, talent.

When it comes to returning talent, however, Florida State puts only one player on this top 10 list (pending off-field issues for RB Dalvin Cook keep him off the list for now). The talent is heavy on athletes and short in the trenches this year in the ACC, although the top dog may be the best interior defensive lineman in the country.

Here are the 10 best returning players in the ACC:

(Also, check out our ranking of the top 10 returning players in the Pac-12 and Big Ten.)

  1. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville

During the 2015 draft process we raved about Clemson DT Grady Jarrett, but Rankins was right there with him as the top defensive tackle in the ACC and one of the best in the nation. He has the highest grade of all returning interior defensive linemen, including the top grade against the run (93.0) and an 85.8 pass-rush grade that ranks eighth. Rankins ranked second among all defensive tackles with a run-stop percentage of 10.1 percent last year, trailing only first-round pick Malcom Brown. Though he only received third-team All-ACC honors a year ago, Rankins was one of the nation’s most disruptive players and a PFF second-team All-American last season.

  1. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

While the raw stats jump off the page for Conner (1,758 yards, 26 touchdowns), it’s how he got there that is most impressive. No running back forced more missed tackles than Conner’s 88 last season, leading to an elusive rating of 88.3 that ranked 10th in the country. He’s not a big breakaway threat — only 32.7 percent of his yards came on runs of 15-plus yards (43rd in nation) — but he took advantage of a strong run-blocking offensive line to keep Pittsburgh’s offense on schedule all season. Even with the departure of two strong run-blockers up front (T.J. Clemmings and Matt Rotheram), Conner should once again be very difficult to tackle in 2015.

  1. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh

While Conner keeps the chains moving, Boyd provides the explosive plays for the Pittsburgh offense. He ranked third among ACC receivers with 1,261 receiving yards while averaging 16.2 yards per reception. His 87.2 PFF rating ranks second in the nation among returning receivers and he’s already been mentioned as a potential first-round pick in next year’s draft. Boyd dropped only five of his 83 catchable passes, good for a drop rate of 6.02 percent that ranked fourth in the ACC. He is poised to make noise as one of the nation’s best receivers in 2015.

  1. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State

Continuing in the Florida State tradition of hybrid slot/safety defenders, Ramsey stepped right into 2014 St. Louis Rams draft pick Lamarcus Joyner’s vacated role as a true sophomore and he performed extremely well. Whether dropping into coverage, playing the run, or blitzing off the edge, Ramsey was one of Florida State’s best defensive players and often its biggest key to victory. His game against Miami was a thing of beauty, as he took it over like few defensive backs can. He forced a fumble, picked up two hits, two hurries, and a batted pass as a pass-rusher, deflected a pass in coverage, then sealed the game with an interception in the fourth quarter. It was one of the more impressive all-around games you’ll see from a defensive back. Ramsey is slotted to move to more of an outside cornerback role this season, which may hurt his ability to affect the game from all angles, but he certainly has the talent to succeed there as well.

  1. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

Clemson’s defense had all of the publicity last season, but Williams quietly emerged as a playmaker on the Tigers’ offense. His 1,030 yards ranked fifth in the conference, as he averaged an impressive 18.1 yards per reception. Williams enters 2015 with the third-highest PFF rating among wide receivers at 85.5, and he’ll be one of the nation’s best big-play threats, whether he’s making diving touchdown catches as he did against NC State or picking up yards after the catch (7.1 YAC/reception). Look for Williams to combine with QB Deshaun Watson to form one of the nations’ best QB-WR duos this season.

  1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Speaking of Watson, I’ve tempered my excitement by putting him here at No. 6, mostly due to a small sample size and a sprinkle of typical true freshman mistakes last season. But by the end of 2015, Watson may be on top of this list, and he may be the best NFL quarterback prospect in the nation — even though his true sophomore status will keep him out of the draft until at least 2017. His deep touch was impressive (check out his throw versus Georgia, with 14 minutes to go in the second quarter), and he’s one of the nation’s best returning running QBs with a 87.9 grade.

  1. Jeremy Cash, CB, Duke

While Ramsey gets all of the hype in the ACC, Cash plays a similar role in Duke’s defense and is very effective. He’s part linebacker, part slot cornerback. His 84.6 rating against the run ranks 12th among returning cornerbacks, and he does a nice job of beating blocks as a blitzer, as his six sacks, four hits and six hurries will attest. Cash is no slouch in coverage, either, grading at 83.2, good for 13th among returning cornerbacks. Cash’s 49 stops led all cornerbacks in the FBS, as he has a knack for finding the football and making plays.

  1. Jamal Golden, FS, Georgia Tech

With safeties, it’s often about not making the bad plays as much as it is making the good plays, and Golden fits that description. He didn’t post one game “in the red” last season and he enters 2015 with an 84.2 rating that ranks fifth in the country. He had a nice year in coverage, picking up four interceptions and defending two more passes while allowing a long pass of only 19 yards into his primary coverage. His 86.3 coverage grade ranks third in the country heading into 2015. When you throw in Golden’s three forced fumbles and a kick-return grade that tops all returning ACC players, you get a key cog to Georgia Tech’s team this fall.

  1. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State

Despite a few disastrous games as a passer, Brissett brings an offensive dimension to the NC State offense that should keep them in every game. He has the best running grade of any returning quarterback at 90.2, while his passing grade is solid at 77.2. He flashed his passing potential in various games last season — USF, Louisville, and at times against Florida State — but he needs to bring it on a week-to-week basis to rise up on this list. Still, his ability as a scrambler (538 of his 735 rushes yards came on scrambles) make him difficult to defend.

  1. Joe Thuney, G, NC State

There are a number of guards cluttered together at the top of the ACC ranks, including Miami’s Danny Isidora, Pittsburgh’s Dorian Johnson, and Virginia Tech’s Wyatt Teller, but Thuney gets the nod here for his strong play in his nine games a year ago. He’s not the most powerful in-line blocker, but he does a nice job of targeting defenders at the second level, a big reason for his 87.6 run-block rating. He also comes in with the highest pass-protection grade of ACC guards at 83.9.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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