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.
This installation will focus on the defensive side of the ball, as the previous focused on the offensive side of the ball.
Unlike previous years, there is no “premier” edge rusher in the same class as Jadeveon Clowney, Joey Bosa or Myles Garrett. Rather, there are a handful of intriguing players who have the potential to become franchise pass rushers, but have not quite reached their ceiling yet.
First up is Arden Key (LSU). At 6-6, 238-pound, Key is a length pass rusher who hasn’t quite filled out his frame just yet. He still has the capability to put on 15-20 more pounds. He led all LSU players with 9.0 sacks this season and become the Tigers’ best pass rusher over the past two seasons. He routinely beats offensive tackles with his speed and length, but will rarely try to go through them with pure power.
Another interesting name is Josh Sweat (Florida State), a player who, at one time, was the No. 1 overall recruit in the country. Unfortunately, Sweat suffered a serious knee injury in high school that cost him that title. But he has recovered miraculously throughout his two years at Florida State, notching 5.5 sacks on the year as a sophomore. Many compared Sweat to Clowney coming out of high school due to his explosive speed off the edge. If Sweat can fully recover and get that insane speed back, there is no doubt he will be a top pick.
Two players in Columbus that could rise to the top are Sam Hubbard (Ohio State) and Tyquan Lewis (Ohio State). Hubbard, a former high school safety, transitioned to defensive end during a redshirt year and has developed into a very good player for the Buckeyes. At 6-5, 266-pounds, he reminds some of Joey Bosa. Lewis, who is measured at 6-4, 266-pounds, leads all Buckeyes with 7.5 sacks and has really helped them cope with the loss of Bosa to the NFL. Keep an eye on these two players, as it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either emerge as a franchise player.
The conversation with defensive linemen starts nowhere else than with Christian Wilkins (Clemson). A former five-star recruit, Wilkins had blossomed into a dominant force for the Tigers’ defensive line. At 6-4, 310-pounds, he is built like a defensive tackle, but has the athleticism to kick outside to play defensive end. The Tigers were forced to play him at end due to injuries, but Wilkins thrived at the position. He leads all Clemson player with 12.0 tackles for loss and will definitely be a name that is well-known around draft circles.
One player who has flown under the radar during his career is Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama). A former Top-10 recruit, Hand’s career hasn’t gone as most expected at Alabama, as he has been relegated to mostly backup duties. But with players like A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen in front of him, it’s understandable. In limited playing time, Hand has flashed the five-star ability that made him one of the best recruits in the country. With Allen departing to the NFL, Hand will have a chance to take a lot of snaps along Alabama’s vaunted defensive front.
A talented, but oft-injured, player who deserves to be mentioned is Terry Beckner (Missouri). A five-star, Beckner burst onto the scene for Missouri as a true freshman, registering 3.0 sacks. However, he has suffered season-ending injuries in both seasons at Missouri, so they will be a concern moving forward. If he can get healthy, he has the talent and potential to develop into a special player along the defensive line.
Despite the loss of Jabrill Peppers to the NFL, there are several talented linebackers that are ready for their moment on the national stage.
First and foremost, Cameron Smith (Southern California) should remind everyone of an old school, downhill, thumping linebacker. At 6-2, 245-pounds, he is a prototypical middle linebacker and looks the part. He missed some of last season due to a knee injury, but has been a wrecking force when on the field. He is also great in pass coverage, as seen from his three-interception performance against Utah as a true freshman. Dare we throw out a Luke Kuechly comparison too early?
We seem to be mentioning a lot of Southern California players, huh? Well we’re not done yet, as Smith’s teammate Porter Gustin (Souther California) absolutely deserves to be mentioned as well. At 6-5, 260-pounds, Gustin is more of a DE/OLB hybrid and specializes at getting after the passer. He leads all Trojans with 5.5 sacks on the year. Between the uniform, the hair style and the style with which he plays, there will be more than one Clay Matthews comparison thrown around before his time in college football is done.
One player who has seen his fair share of the national limelight is Malik Jefferson (Texas). Thrust into the spotlight as a true freshman, Jefferson thrived for the Longhorns despite the lack of talent around him. Don’t let their defensive numbers fool you, Jefferson is the real deal at linebacker. At 6-3, 238-pounds, he has the bulk to take on blockers but also possesses the athleticism to cover receivers and rush off the edge. He’s a special player.
Another season, another year where there are a bunch of elite cornerbacks. At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised. The rate at which talented cornerbacks are developing in college football nowadays is insane.
We start with Tarvarus McFadden (Florida State), who is currently tied for the lead in the nation for interceptions. After playing sparingly as a freshman, McFadden burst onto the scene this year with eight interceptions at cornerbacks. At 6-2, 198-pounds, McFadden has the length and size that NFL teams are looking at nowadays in their cornerbacks. Scouts will fall in love with his ability to attack the ball in the air, especially on contested catches.
Another cornerback who possesses the size and length that NFL teams are looking for in today’s game is Iman “Biggie” Marshall (Southern California). At 6-1, 200-pounds, Marshall is big enough to press receivers on the line, but also athletic enough to cover downfield. Although Adoree’ Jackson gets all the attention, Marshall has quietly been a very good corner for the Trojans through his two seasons in college, with two interceptions and 50 tackles so far as a sophomore.
Two players currently residing in Baton Rouge are Kevin Toliver II (LSU) and Donte Jackson (LSU). Toliver was a Top-10 prospect coming out of high school due to his length and size (6-2, 193-pounds) and athleticism (he was a high school quarterback). He has mainly played a rotational role for the Tigers, but is expected to contribute more with Tre’Davious White moving on to the NFL. Meanwhile, Jackson has contributed somewhat more. He is smaller at 5-11, 173-pounds, but is freakishly athletic and also competes on the track and field team. With Toliver and Jackson returning next year, LSU will definitely have a chance to defend their title of “Defensive Back University.”
The best safety in college football, by far and away, is Derwin James (Florida State).
Despite sitting out most of this year due to injury, one only has to go back to his true freshman campaign to see the type of impact he can have. At 6-3, 211-pounds, he has the size to play linebacker, the athleticism to rush the passer, and the quickness to play cornerback. In short, he is the total package. He quickly became the Seminoles’ best player in defense despite being a true freshman and showed why he was a Top-10 recruit coming out of high school. Remember his name, because it’s one that you will be hearing a lot in 2017.
Do you like turnovers? Then Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama) is your guy. In his two year career for the Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick has seven interceptions, four of which have been returned for touchdowns. Despite being listed at cornerback, the 6-1, 203-pound Fitzpatrick better profiles as a safety at the next level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. He has proven time and time again that he is an elite player, which is difficult to do when everyone around him on Alabama’s defense is also a stud.
Surprise surprise, another Alabama player is on the list at safety. Ronnie Harrison (Alabama) is an intimidating player at 6-3, 216-pounds and plays physical. He’s a player who always seems to be around the ball, whether it’s stopping the run (67 tackles) or covering receivers downfield (7 pass deflections, 2 interceptions). Right now, him and Fitzpatrick probably form the best safety duo in the country.