An early ranking of college football's top 50 returning players for 2017.
The 2017 college football season is still seven months away, but it’s never too early to look ahead at the upcoming year. Several of the nation’s top players left for the NFL, including Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. That’s just a small sample size of the players departing for the next level, but it’s clear some new faces are going to emerge in 2017. While breakout players and new stars will surface, some familiar names top the list of best players returning this fall. Louisville quarterback and Oklahoma signal-caller Baker Mayfield take two of the top spots on the list, with USC quarterback Sam Darnold and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley also checking in the top five.
The 2017 season is still months away, but the early entry deadline has passed and a better picture of how all 130 teams stack up has started to form. Using career accomplishments so far, projected performance next season, positional importance and overall talent, Athlon Sports has ranked the (early) top 50 players for 2017. This list will look a little different by the fall, but there is no shortage of big names coming back or players poised to take a huge step forward next season.
College Football's Early Top 50 Players for 2017
Just Missed: Trenton Thompson, DL, Georgia; Vita Vea, DL, Washington; Will Hernandez, OL, UTEP, Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State; Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana; Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State; Jaylen Samuels, TE, NC State; Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah; Courtland Sutton, WR, SMU; Dalton Risner, OL, Kansas State
50. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Gaskin leads the way for Washington’s ground attack and has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns.
49. Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Dak Prescott left big shoes to fill in Starkville, but Mississippi State’s offense has its next star under center with Fitzgerald’s emergence in 2016. Fitzgerald ranked third in the SEC by averaging 292.2 total yards per game and accounted for 37 overall scores.
48. Austin Allen, QB, Arkansas
A knee injury suffered against Auburn in late October slowed Allen’s momentum in 2016, but he’s slated to return as one of the SEC's top quarterbacks next fall. Allen threw for 25 touchdowns, 3,430 yards and 15 interceptions last season.
47. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
After catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven scores as a true freshman in 2015, Ridley’s numbers dipped slightly in 2016 (72 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns). However, with ArDarius Stewart leaving for the NFL, Ridley should be the clear go-to target for quarterback Jalen Hurts.
46. Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama
If healthy (and Alabama’s No. 1 running back), Scarbrough could rank much higher on this list. Scarbrough finished the season by recording at least 90 yards in each of the Crimson Tide’s final four games, including a 180-yard effort against Washington in the Peach Bowl.
45. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Chubb’s return from a serious knee injury was one of the best storylines in the SEC last fall. He played in all 13 games for the Bulldogs and rushed for 1,130 yards and eight scores. Considering Chubb will be nearly two years removed from the injury by the 2017 opener, he should resemble the player that averaged 8.1 yards per carry in 2015.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2017
44. Rawleigh Williams, RB, Arkansas
Williams made a triumphant return from a neck injury that ended his 2015 season in late October. In 13 games for the Razorbacks, Williams recorded 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.5 yards per carry and caught 15 passes.
43. Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn
Pettway was on his way to a monster statistical year before an early November injury forced him to record just 12 carries over Auburn’s final three regular season matchups. Pettway eclipsed 100 yards (101) in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, which gave him 1,224 for the season.
42. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
Jewell is a lock for first-team All-Big Ten honors for 2017. The Iowa native has recorded back-to-back 100-tackle seasons and has posted 13.5 for a loss (with two forced fumbles) since 2015.
41. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Jackson turned down the NFL for one more season with the Wildcats. He’s looking for his fourth 1,000-yard season in a row after posting 1,524 yards and 15 scores in 2016.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017
40. Da’Ron Payne, DL, Alabama
As the nose guard for Alabama’s line, Payne isn’t going to post huge totals on the stat sheet. However, his presence is critical to the success of the 3-4 approach and instrumental in winning the battle up front. Payne recorded 3.5 tackles for a loss and 36 stops in 2016.
39. Trey Adams, OL, Washington
Adams is the leader for Washington’s improving offensive line. After starting in nine games as a true freshman in 2015, Adams started all 14 games and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016.
38. Braden Smith, OL, Auburn
Smith is a big reason why Auburn’s rushing offense led the SEC with an average of 271.3 yards per game. The Kansas native checks in at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds and has earned 27 starts during his career. Smith recorded first-team All-SEC honors by the Associated Press in 2016.
37. Billy Price, OL, Ohio State
Price has started all 41 games during his Ohio State career and returns as the leader for the offensive line. With Pat Elflein off to the NFL, Price is slated to move from guard to center this spring.
36. Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
Cam Robinson garnered most of the attention from Alabama’s offensive line in 2016, but Williams - as a true freshman - was just as effective. The California native is expected to flip from right tackle to the left side to replace Robinson in 2017.
35. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Texas A&M has to find a new quarterback, and the receiving corps is also set to lose Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones to the NFL. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect to see plenty of passes in Kirk’s direction. Over the last two years, Kirk has caught 163 passes for 1,937 yards and 16 touchdowns.
34. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington
The Huskies are losing a few key cogs on defense, but this unit should remain one of the best in the Pac-12 with Victor back to lead the way in the front seven. Despite missing the final four games of 2016 due to an injury, Victor earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He recorded 67 stops, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
33. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State
With running back Dalvin Cook off to the NFL, Francois is the new leader for Florida State’s offense. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns and added 196 yards and five scores on the ground.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2017
32. Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Hurts emerged as a key cog in Alabama’s run to the national championship game in 2016. As a true freshman, Hurts threw for 2,780 yards and 23 scores and ranked second on the team with 954 rushing yards. His 13 rushing scores were the most by a Crimson Tide player in 2016. Hurts needs to improve as a passer and is expected to get plenty of help this offseason from new coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
31. Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan
Michigan’s front seven will have a few new faces in key roles after linebackers Jabrill Peppers and Mike McCray and linemen Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley departed Ann Arbor. However, the defense is hardly hurting for talent in the trenches. Hurst is back for his senior campaign after recording 11.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in a backup role in 2016.
30. Quenton Nelson, OL, Notre Dame
Nelson is one half of a standout left side on Notre Dame’s offensive line. The New Jersey native enters his junior season with 23 career starts and earned third-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports last year.
29. Mike McGlinchey, OL, Notre Dame
McGlinchey is the anchor for Notre Dame’s offensive line and returns for 2017 with 26 consecutive starts under his belt.
28. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Freeman entered 2016 as one of the nation’s top running backs. In 13 games in 2015, Freeman recorded 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns. However, injuries took a toll on Freeman last season, as he was limited to just 945 yards and nine touchdowns on 168 carries. He will be a key cog in coach Willie Taggart’s offense this fall.
27. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State
McFadden tied for the top spot among defenders with eight interceptions last season and recorded six pass breakups and 20 tackles. While the interception totals are noteworthy, McFadden became a much better cover corner in the second half of the season.
26. Mitch Hyatt, OL, Clemson
Hyatt will protect the blindside for Clemson’s new starting quarterback after Deshaun Watson departed for the NFL. Hyatt has started all 30 games in his career and earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2016.
25. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
A shoulder injury derailed Rosen’s sophomore season after six games in 2016. All signs point to a return to full strength in 2017, and the addition of new play-caller Jedd Fisch should help UCLA’s offense improve after averaging 24.9 points per game last year. Rosen is one of the nation’s most talented quarterbacks.
Related: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2017
24. Orlando Brown, OL, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s offensive line should be one of the nation’s best in 2017. Brown leads the way for the Sooners up front, as the Georgia native has started all 26 games in his career and earned the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year award last year.
23. Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
Ragnow is the nation’s top returning center and enters 2017 with 26 consecutive starts under his belt. The Minnesota native was a third-team All-American by Athlon Sports in 2016.
22. Cody O’Connell, OL, Washington State
O’Connell emerged as one of the nation’s top offensive linemen in his first year as a starter. The Washington native was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports in 2016.
21. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
The combination of Trace McSorley and new coordinator Joe Moorhead provided a much-needed spark for Penn State’s offense in 2016. McSorley guided the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance and finished the season by accounting for 3,979 total yards and 36 overall scores.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017
20. Connor Williams, OL, Texas
New coach Tom Herman isn’t hurting for talent to build around on offense. Williams anchors the offensive line after starting 23 games over his first two seasons on campus. The Texas native earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last year, and according to Pro Football Focus, only allowed one sack in 11 games.
19. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Rudolph and teammate James Washington turned down the NFL for one more season at Oklahoma State. Rudolph has developed into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks over the last three years and finished 2016 by throwing for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns (and only four picks).
18. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Washington is the go-to target for quarterback Mason Rudolph and one of the nation’s best big-play threats on the outside. Washington grabbed 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. He’s also produced 10 receptions of more than 50 yards over the last two seasons.
17. Bradley Chubb, DL, NC State
The ACC was stocked with talent in the trenches last season, so Chubb’s 2016 campaign (10 sacks and 21.5 TFL) was largely overlooked. He should earn first-team All-ACC honors this offseason.
Related: Early ACC Predictions for 2017
16. Harold Landry, DL, Boston College
Landry is another standout defender from the ACC that didn’t get enough credit last fall. In 13 appearances, Landry recorded 16.5 sacks, 22 tackles for a loss and seven forced fumbles.
15. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk is the triggerman for one of the nation’s top passing attacks. The Utah native has passed for over 10,000 yards (10,888) and 89 touchdowns over the last three years.
14. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
Even with Leonard Fournette sidelined or limited due to injury in 2016, LSU’s ground attack never missed a beat. Guice ranked as one of the nation’s top running backs in the 2015 signing class and showcased his potential with a 1,387-yard season in 2016. Guice could make a run at the Heisman Trophy in 2017.
13. Arden Key, DL/LB, LSU
Even though LSU’s defense loses a couple of key players from its 2016 version, don’t expect this unit to slip much under coordinator Dave Aranda. Key is one of the SEC’s top defenders and a nightmare for offensive linemen as an edge rusher. In 11 games last season, Key recorded 12 sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2017
12. Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Flowers is a dynamic playmaker and a big reason why USF is the top team from the Group of 5 ranks in 2017. He averaged 334 total yards per game and accounted for 42 overall scores in 2016. Flowers has showed improvement as a passer too, raising his completion percentage to 62.5 last year.
11. Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson
Lawrence had a standout true freshman season in 2016, as he recorded nine tackles for a loss and ranked second on the team with 6.5 sacks.
10. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
Browning is having offseason shoulder surgery to correct a late-season injury, but the California native is expected to be at full strength by the 2017 opener. Browning was one of the nation’s breakout quarterbacks for 2016, as he threw for 3,430 yards and 43 scores en route to leading Washington to a playoff berth.
9. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
This may seem high for Barrett after Ohio State’s offense struggled mightily in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. However, the addition of Kevin Wilson as the new play-caller should get the Buckeyes back on track on offense. Barrett has passed for 6,381 yards and 69 touchdowns and rushed for 31 scores and 2,465 yards in three seasons in Columbus.
8. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
The versatility of Wilkins is a huge asset for coordinator Brent Venables, as the Massachusetts native can play off the edge as a rusher or hold the point of attack as a tackle on the interior. Wilkins recorded 3.5 sacks and ranked second on the team with 13 tackles for a loss last season.
7. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama
Alabama’s defense will be one of the best in the nation once again next season. With Fitzpatrick leading the way, the secondary could be the strength of this unit. After Eddie Jackson’s season-ending knee injury in 2016, Fitzpatrick moved from cornerback to safety and continued to excel in that role. Fitzpatrick recorded seven pass breakups, picked off six passes and posted 66 tackles in 2016.
6. Ed Oliver, DL, Houston
Oliver was almost unblockable as a true freshman in 2016. The Texas native recorded 22 tackles for a loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles last season. He also delivered in some of Houston’s biggest games. He posted two tackles for a loss against Oklahoma, three against Louisville and 3.5 in the Las Vegas Bowl against San Diego State.
5. Derwin James, S, Florida State
After a standout freshman season (91 tackles), James was set to emerge as one of the nation’s top defenders last fall. However, a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 ended his year after just two games. James is set to return in 2017 at full strength and reclaim a spot among the nation’s top players.
4. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Barkley has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his Penn State career. He enters his junior year as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy and is college football’s top returning running back.
3. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
Darnold’s insertion into the starting lineup sparked USC over the second half of the season and is a big reason why the Trojans are one of the favorites to claim a spot in the CFB Playoff in 2017. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns and added 250 yards and two scores on the ground.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield set a new FBS record with a quarterback rating of 196.38 and threw for 3,965 yards and 40 scores while leading the Sooners to a second consecutive Big 12 title last year. With coordinator Lincoln Riley returning in 2017, Mayfield should make another run at the Heisman Trophy and push Oklahoma into playoff contention once again.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Dynamic and prolific are the two words to easily describe Jackson’s 2016 season. After showcasing his potential as a true freshman in 2015, Jackson delivered a breakout year under the watchful eye of coach Bobby Petrino. In 13 games, Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 scores and added 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground. The reigning Heisman winner may not repeat in 2017 but another huge statistical season is on tap.