As the 2016 college football season winds down and the NFL slowly moves towards the playoffs, the attention of many football fans turns towards the 2017 NFL Draft. For a good reason, many fans have already written off this year and are focused on learning who the next big names are that may potentially be on their roster in 2017. Right now, names like Deshaun Watson, Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers are being picked apart to death as scouts and draft analysts attempt to find the strengths and weaknesses of the best prospects.
But with those players seemingly moving on to the NFL after the seasons close, who will be the next big names in college football?
Fear not, NFL fans, the amount of talent in college football has never been higher. Is your team not in a position to draft one of the best quarterbacks in 2017? There are several guys who may be elite talent by the time the 2018 draft rolls around. Looking for a stud running back? No worries, there are a handful of players who may rival Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook as draft prospects.
Our first installation of this series will focus on the offensive side of the ball, while the following will focus on the defensive side of the ball.
The conversation at quarterback starts no where else than with Josh Rosen (UCLA). The No. 1 QB coming out of high school, Rosen was billed to be a player that could rival Andrew Luck as the best prospect to ever come out of college. At 6-4, 218-pounds, Rosen has NFL-ready size and a great arm to boot. He wowed scouts during his freshman season at UCLA with the ability to make NFL-caliber throws in his first season of college ball.
Unfortunately, a season-ending shoulder injury sidelined him for most of his sophomore season. Despite early reports that there was some nerve damage, UCLA head coach Jim Mora shot those down following his surgery. Assuming that Rosen comes back healthy, he is unquestionably the best quarterback prospect in college football next year. While he might need to play some hero ball for the Bruins next year (they finished 4-8 this season, 3-3 with Rosen at the helm), he will have plenty of opportunities to impress NFL teams and scouts.
Two of the biggest risers this year in college football have been Lamar Jackson of (Louisville) and Sam Darnold (Southern California), both players that will be on draft radars next year. Jackson emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation and won the Heisman trophy after accounting for 51 total touchdowns. A similar player to Robert Griffin III, Jackson is electric with the ball in his hands. The 6-3, 205-pounder could stand to improve as a passer a bit, but there is no doubt he has a place in the NFL as a quarterback.
Meanwhile, Darnold’s rise to the top has been somewhat quiet. He took over as USC’s quarterback in their third game and didn’t look back. He led the Trojans to a 8-1 record while was under center, including a 26-13 upset over #4 Washington on the road. At 6-4, 225-pounds, Darnold has NFL-ready size and has great arm strength as well. He is also very mobile for his size (he played linebacker in high school) and throws well on the run. If there’s one quarterback who could challenge Rosen for the title of “QB1” next year, it will be Sam Darnold.
As funny as it sounds, the best running back talent in this group might actually be labeled as a backup right now. But when the guy ahead of him is one Leonard Fournette, it kind of makes sense.
Derrius Guice (LSU) has been an electric playmaker through his two years in Baton Rouge, despite getting limited carries behind Fournette. At 5-11, 212-pounds, he has the size to be a bruiser, but also possesses the breakaway speed to outrun defenders. Perhaps the most intruiging aspect of his game is how violent he runs. Every time Guice touches the ball, he is aiming to make defenders miss, lower a shoulder or run through someone. He is not a player that goes down easily.
Another name in this group is Saquon Barkley (Penn State). Poor offensive line play held him back as a true freshman, but he still rushed for 1,000 yards. This year, with a more balanced attack, he eclipsed 1,300 yards. Barkley is a complete back and there isn’t necessarily one area he has a weakness in. He improved as a receiver this year as well and has the ability to be a workhorse back for a team at the next level.
Perhaps a name that isn’t on national radars right now is Ronald Jones II (Southern California). He has split carries throughout his two year in Los Angeles, but has proved to be a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. The 6-1, 195-pounder has averaged 6.5 yards per carry in back to back seasons for the Trojans.
Right now, there is not a clear-cut “elite” talent at receiver like we’ve seen in years past with Sammy Watkins and Amari Cooper, but rather a plethora of player who have the potential to blossom into something special with another year in college.
The first name on this list is Christian Kirk (Texas A&M). A former 5-star recruit, Kirk quickly established himself as the Aggies’ best receiver early on in his career. Despite listed at 5-11, 200-pounds, he is great at fighting for contested balls in the air. Kirk is also an electric return man and has returned five punts for touchdowns in his young career. Don’t be surprised if the Antonio Brown comparison is thrown out there for him.
Two players in Tuscaloosa that could emerge as elite talents are Calvin Ridley (Alabama) and ArDarius Stewart (Alabama). Ridley, a sophomore, and Stewart, a junior, have combined to become the most dangerous receiving duo in the SEC. At 6-1, 188-pounds, Ridley drew a lot of comparisons to former Alabama star Amari Cooper for his route running and ability to take over the game as a true freshman. Meanwhile, Stewart, listed at 6-1, 204-pounds, took a little longer to develop as a player but has become a deep-threat option and a player who thrives in one-on-one situations.
One receiver that has flown under the radar due to the talent above him is Deon Cain (Clemson). With Mike Williams and Artavis Scott also on the roster, Cain hasn’t quite burst onto the scene as much as some other players. But with those two departing to the NFL after this season, Cain should start to draw some attention from scouts. At 6-1, 210-pounds, he has ideal size for the position and has caught 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons despite being the Tigers’ No. 3 receiver.
Finally, a big man who has burst onto the scene as a sophomore is Auden Tate (Florida State). At 6-5, 225-pounds, Tate has drawn comparisons to former Florida State star Kelvin Benjamin. He has emerged as the Seminoles’ best receiver over the course of the season and is adept at using his size to his advantage over smaller defensive backs. If he continues to develop, then Tate is a player who will draw a lot of attention from scouts and analysts.
Right now, there are two names at tight end that have emerged above the rest.
The first is Mike Gesicki (Penn State). At 6-6, 252-pounds, Gesicki has ideal size for the tight end position and has grown as a receiver throughout his career at Penn State. He has emerged a playmaker this season and is second on the team with 668 receiving yards. As he showed in the Big 10 Championship versus Wisconsin, he is adept at using his size to go up for contested balls, especially in the end zone. With another good year, there is no doubt that Gesicki’s name will be known in every draft circle.
The other is Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State). Don’t let the small school fool you, Goedert is a playmaker. He eclipsed 1,000 yards as a junior, including 150-yards versus FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. Expect Goedert to show out at the Senior Bowl next year as he watches his draft stock rise.
Similar to the tight end position, there are two names along the offensive line who have blossomed into elite linemen.
Connor Williams (Texas) is not a nationally-known name, but he might be the best offensive lineman in college football right now. The 6-5, 283-pounder took over as a true freshman at left tackle for the Longhorns and has been a stable option despite the chaos around him. A selection on Pro Football Focus’ All-American team, they credit him as being “the best left tackle in the nation, and was one of the most consistent players in the country period.”
The second name is Mitch Hyatt (Clemson). Hyatt, a former 5-star recruit, started from day one as a true freshman at left tackle for Clemson and has developed into one of the most dominant left tackles in the nation. In 933 pass protection snaps, Hyatt has given up just one sack. That’s a franchise left tackle right there.