The top 30 players in the country include quarterbacks getting early Heisman buzz and running backs who are expected to build off of breakout years, but it also includes a few names that may surprise you. Faced with the challenge of comparing production and impact across positions, we tried to represent the players with true standout potential at less-heralded spots on the field among the skill position guys who return as some of the nation’s most highly regarded stars
A reminder about our process: In constructing our rankings, the most important factor we assess is how significantly each player’s production will impact his team’s success this season—not how valuable he was to 2017’s team, where he sits on statistical leaderboards or what type of NFL draft prospect he is (although those other things often have a way of lining up). Put another way, this list is forward-looking, but not too forward-looking. If you don’t see your team’s rising star on this list, check out our breakdown of this year’s toughest snubs before you head for our mentions, and keep an eye out all week long as our countdown continues. And if you want some perspective on how accurate last year’s list was, take a look at our self-audit of the 2017 rankings.
30. Rodney Anderson, RB, Oklahoma
Anderson stole the show in Georgia’s double-overtime win over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, carrying 26 times for 201 yards with a pair of touchdowns, including a 41-yard scoring scamper early in the second quarter in which he burst through a hole at the line of scrimmage and dusted the Bulldogs’ secondary on the way to the end zone. That game offered a glimpse of what Anderson can do against an elite defense, and just about all of the ones he’ll face in Big 12 play this season will be far more permissive. With Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield off to the NFL, Oklahoma could increase Anderson’s workload as the new starter (either redshirt junior Kyler Murray or redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall) gets acclimated under center.
29. Levonta Taylor, CB, Florida State
Taylor’s handsy, physical style frustrates larger receivers who in other circumstances might try to overpower the 5'10" corner pestering them, and he’s well on his way to delivering on the five-star promise he brought as a gem of the Seminoles’ 2016 signing class. During the regular season, Taylor did not allow a touchdown in 379 coverage snaps, the most of any corner in the ACC last year according to Pro Football Focus. His two interceptions (one of which was a pick-six) in 2017 both came against Florida, making him the MVP of one of the lower-stakes Sunshine Showdowns of the past decade. Most other teams avoided throwing the ball into his vicinity more effectively.
28. Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
You might have gotten familiar with Davis when he recorded a sack for the Crimson Tide in last year’s season-opening win over Florida State, about a week after he suffered a gunshot wound. He proceeded to lead an Alabama line featuring three 2018 draft picks (Daron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier) with 8.5 sacks and registered 10 tackles for loss, second only to linebacker Rashaan Evans’s 13. This season Davis has a chance to become the face of a unit that seemingly churns out NFL talent on autopilot. Yet unlike his defensive line predecessors in Tuscaloosa, at 6'7", 308 pounds, Davis will tower over the vast majority of blockers he faces.
27. Greg Gaines, DT, Washington
Vita Vea is gone, but Gaines remains every bit the hulking space-eater Vea was, if not quite the one-of-a-kind athlete, in the center of the Huskies’ line. Washington led the nation in rush defense during the 2017 regular season, allowing just 2.6 yards per carry (before getting gashed by Saquon Barkley and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl), and Gaines’s decision to turn down potential first-round money for a senior season in Seattle ensures that the unit won’t cede that title easily. Gaines finished with just 30 total tackles (including five stops for a loss), but he will be the tip of the spear for a defense that holds talent advantages at almost every spot on the field against most opponents.
26. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
A hamstring injury to fellow Buckeyes running back Mike Weber opened the door for Dobbins to assert himself as their lead rusher last season, and he didn’t waste the opportunity, carrying 194 times for 1,403 yards with seven touchdowns. Dobbins may not get the ball quite as often this season if Weber can stay healthy, but he doesn’t need to be an every-down guy to make a big impact: Dobbins averaged a Big Ten–leading 7.23 yards per carry last season. Plus, unlike last season—when Dobbins started in the Buckeyes’ opener against Indiana after an injury sidelined him for practically his entire senior year at La Grange (Tex.) High—Dobbins will be coming off a successful college debut campaign.
25. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
This is the year Michigan’s defense has built toward in two seasons under revered coordinator Don Brown, with a starting lineup that returns nearly everyone from last year’s top-10 unit (as rated by Football Outsiders’ S&P+ metric and many others) and could be made up of entirely juniors and seniors. Bush led the Wolverines in total tackles in 2017, a product of his excellent instincts and speed in pursuit. It’s a critical year for Jim Harbaugh and Brown’s futures in Ann Arbor, and the playmaking abilities of Bush within a front seven that also includes Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and Khaleke Hudson could make the difference in the Big Ten East race.
24. David Long Jr., LB, West Virginia
Long is the defensive ace of a playoff sleeper with an offense-first identity. The Mountaineers missed him during their first four games of last season while he recovered from a knee injury, but he didn’t waste any time showing why he’ll be at the top of opponents’ scouting reports this fall. In nine games, Long recorded six passes defended, 76 total tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss. Assuming there are no setbacks following a shoulder surgery that kept Long out of spring workouts, his pass rushing and run support in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 scheme will help the Mountaineers tame the high-octane offenses around the Big 12.
23. Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
This is a dangerously high ranking for a player with a grand total of six college starts, but in limited national exposure Murphy has made clear that he can be the next elite corner to pass through Chris Petersen’s Washington program. He picked off two passes in his college debut against Rutgers and one in the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State, but a broken foot forced him to miss seven games of his redshirt freshman season. Between Murphy, Myles Bryant and safeties JoJo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, opposing passing games will be hard-pressed to find holes in the Huskies’ secondary.
22. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
Grier has the keys to one of the most explosive offenses in the country: There’s a solid line to give him ample time in the pocket and, in David Sills V and Gary Jennings, a receiving duo without equal in the Big 12. The Florida transfer won’t confront a defense in the conference that he can’t carve up, and the statistical production that should result, coupled with a potential league title challenge from the Mountaineers, could push Grier to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race. A slight uptick in his completion percentage—Grier connected on 64.4% of his 388 attempts last season, fifth in the Big 12—would bolster his case.
21. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
The Rebels may be ineligible for postseason play this year, but that won’t stop them for scoring a boatload of points, primarily through the air. Brown outshined his immensely talented teammates in the Ole Miss receiving corps in 2017, finishing with 1,252 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches and excelling regardless of whether Jordan Ta’amu and Shea Patterson was the quarterback throwing him passes. He is one of three returning Ole Miss wideouts averaging more than 16.5 yards per catch, and his yards after the catch potential often makes him the threat defenses fear most.
20. Trey Adams, OL, Washington
Adams is one of the most important members of an offense with the horses to drive Washington to a Pac-12 championship and playoff berth. He sat out this spring while recovering from a knee injury last October that limited him to seven games in 2017. Provided Adams is fully healthy by the time the Huskies travel to Atlanta for their highly anticipated season opener against Auburn, he will have a chance to solidify his status as an early first-round pick in the 2019 draft while protecting quarterback Jake Browning’s blind side and clearing holes for stud running back Myles Gaskin.
19. Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama
After a freshman year spent on special teams, Wilson gradually took on more responsibility in 2017 as injuries ground down Alabama’s experienced linebacking corps, finally getting the first start of his career in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson. All he produced from then on was an 18-yard pick-six that iced away the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl win and then a team-high 12 total tackles (two for loss) in the national championship game against Georgia. Of the younger linebackers stepping in to replace Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton, Wilson has the highest ceiling.
18. Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina
The season-ending injury Samuel sustained during the third quarter of South Carolina’s loss to Kentucky last September was, to put it simply, a huge bummer. Samuel appeared on the way toward putting together a sensational redshirt junior campaign; he’d already run back two kicks for touchdowns, recorded 250 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns, and notched one rushing score. If he can recapture the form that made him one of the biggest stories in the SEC last September, Samuel should spend conference play grilling opposing defensive backs and coverage units. An uptick in junior quarterback Jake Bentley’s accuracy—among qualifying passers, he finished seventh in the SEC in efficiency and tossed 12 interceptions last season—would further Samuel’s cause.
17. A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College
The rest of the ACC had written off Boston College by mid-October, but Dillon put the Eagles’ frustrating offense on his back in the second half to lead them to a bowl bid, starting with a 279-yard, four-touchdown explosion against Louisville that featured the most ruthless stiff-arm of the season. When the dust settled on the regular season, he was the nation’s 12th-leading rusher, with only seven players shouldering a heavier load than his 268 carries. And that was just his true freshman season. It didn’t seem to matter that late-year opponents knew BC would operate through Dillon. At 6'0", 245 pounds, he has proven that he can do whatever he wants once the ball is in his hands. (And with no receptions all year, it’s on both Dillon and the Eagles’ offensive staff to diversify how he gets the ball in his hands as a sophomore.)
16. Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith has increased his production in each of his three seasons since arriving in Los Angeles as a four-star recruit out of Granite Bay (Calif.) High in the class of 2015. Among Pac-12 players last season, he trailed only Arizona State’s Christian Sam (127) with 112 tackles, and he also recorded 11 tackles for loss. This season Smith’s commanding presence in the middle of USC’s defense will shore up a unit that loses two draft picks from its defensive line in senior Uchenna Nwosu (second round) and junior Rasheem Green (third round), but nonetheless has enough pieces returning to help the Trojans reach the conference title game for the third time in four seasons.
15. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
What’s the ceiling for a Nittany Lions offense that hinges on McSorley’s arm instead of Saquon Barkley’s legs? The answer to that question could determine the fate of the Big Ten East. Penn State fans might tell you we already know the answer: As defenses loaded up to stop Barkley last season, McSorley made them pay with his arm and his legs, posting eight games with at least 280 passing yards and four with at least 60 rushing yards. His YOLO throws make the Nittany Lions a threat to ice games at any time, but they also run the risk of turning into mistakes at inopportune moments. If he leads Penn State past Ohio State and into the East driver’s seat in late September, he could find himself at the top of several midseason Heisman Trophy projections.
14. Shaq Quarterman, LB, Miami
Quarterman’s emergence into a top-flight linebacker coincided with Miami’s rapid turnaround under third-year head coach Mark Richt. After flashing his upside during a promising true freshman season in 2016 in which he tallied 84 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss, last season Quarterman headlined a smothering defense that propelled the Hurricanes to the ACC championship game and a New Year’s Six bowl. With fellow juniors Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud lining up alongside Quarterman in a talented linebacking corps, he’ll serve as a leader and big-time playmaker for a squad with designs on maintaining its place among the Power 5’s legitimate playoff contenders.
13. McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF
Scott Frost is off to Nebraska, but the quarterback that piloted the Knights’ magical run was just a sophomore in 2017, so he will be back for an encore in Orlando. Milton is the nation’s leading returning passer after finishing the year with 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns against just nine interceptions—and all that with one fewer game than most bowl teams due to the scheduling havoc wrought by Hurricane Irma. He sits above several signal-callers for blue-chip programs on this list because of the threat he poses as a runner (Auburn fans may recall his 116 yards and touchdown on the ground in a sterling Peach Bowl performance) and the odds that new coach Josh Heupel, who directed Drew Lock to statistical wonders last year at Missouri, keeps the pedal down to the floor with UCF’s lethal offense and asks Milton to take on the most responsibility for the Knights’ defense of their “national championship.”
12. Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
The Crimson Tide have yet to resolve—at least, as far as we know—an ongoing quarterback battle between sophomore Tua Tagovailoa and junior Jalen Hurts. Whoever wins the starting job, he can take comfort in having Williams on the left edge of the line to stonewall oncoming pass rushers and provide extra time to survey the defense. A rock on Alabama’s offensive line over the last two seasons as a starter at both right and left tackle, Williams is well positioned to vie with Ole Miss’s Greg Little and Washington’s Trey Adams to be the first OT off the board in the 2019 draft.
11. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
Standing 6'2" and hailed as the next star in LSU’s long line of great defensive backs, Williams is as good as guaranteed to land in the first round of next year’s NFL draft if everything goes according to plan this season. In the meantime, he projects to be the best corner in the SEC, having led the league in interceptions (six) and finished top-10 in passes defended (11) as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Those ball skills have gotten him noticed on a national level, but the speed and instincts he flashes at his size will pose another set of problems for the best receivers on LSU’s schedule.
Check back later this week for the full rankings.