We are now less than three months away from the start of the 2016 college football season, and it’s a good time to look at the top returning players according to PFF grades.
For this article, we took a look at the player from a Power-5 conference school who earned the highest overall grade at his position last season. Note that these grades are cumulative, so a player who performed well in a smaller amount of games due to injury or any other reason will likely come up short of a player who appeared in every game.
Here are the top-graded returning players on offense heading into 2016, by position:
Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma Sooners
He had an excellent season for the Sooners, and in our opinion should have been invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He was productive as a runner but did his best work with his arm, putting up excellent numbers as a deep thrower (TK) and when faced with pressure. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who was invited to the Heisman ceremony and whose Tigers beat Mayfield’s Sooners in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff, came in second in overall QB grades, following by Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph in third.
Running back: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford Cardinal
We’ve written about McCaffrey quite a bit, as he should be considered the front-runner to win this year’s Heisman based on his 2015 production (when we thought he should have won the Heisman, not Alabama RB Derrick Henry). He ranked slightly behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette in rushing grade, but was higher in overall grade due to his production as a pass-catcher. His 3.20 yards per pass route run was tops among backs and only trailed a few of the nation’s best wide receivers – a remarkable feat considering all but two of his 45 catches came on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield. That’s how good he was after the catch, but he did plenty of damage as a runner as well, breaking 71 tackles (fourth in the nation).
Wide receiver: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska Cornhuskers
This one likely comes as something of a surprise, as Westerkamp isn’t showing up on a lot of lists of the best receivers in college football. But he was quietly one of the most productive in 2015, and given the amount of star receivers who have moved on to the NFL since the end of last season, it leaves Westerkamp as the top-graded returner among Power-5 WRs. He was one of the nation’s most dangerous slot receivers a year ago, with his 2.40 yards per route run from that position ranking fifth overall among returners, including second among Power-5 players. But he was more than just an underneath threat – his deep-ball catch rate of 52 percent ranked fourth among returning players. Two other players to keep an eye on at this position are Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford and USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Tight end: George Kittle, Iowa Hawkeyes
Kittle gets the nod here largely on the strength of his run-blocking (best grade among returning Power-5 TEs), but he was also remarkably efficient on his limited number of targets last season. He caught 20 of his 25 targets for 290 yards (14.5 yards per catch average) and six touchdowns, and produced the No. 1 yards per route run average of any college tight end at 3.09. Two more TEs to watch: Michigan’s Jake Butt, who earned the top receiving grade among returning TEs but graded negatively as a blocker, and NC State’s Jaylen Samuels.
Offensive tackle: Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
He was a dominant run-blocker for the Fighting Irish at right tackle last season, and is moving over to the left side in 2016 to replace the Baltimore Ravens’ No. 6 overall pick, Ronnie Stanley. He held up well in pass protection, too, allowing just 17 total pressures, including zero sacks. The other three tackles to watch based on their 2015 grades all hail from the Pac-12: Oregon’s Tyrell Crosby earned the No. 1 run-blocking grade among returning tackles, Washington State’s Cole Madison earned the No. 1 pass-blocking grade, and USC’s Zach Banner ranked near the top in both areas.
Guard: Eduardo Middleton, Washington State Cougars
His pass-blocking grade – the primary driver behind his top overall grade among returning guards – is inflated a little bit based on the high volume of passing plays run by the Cougars, but he certainly deserves credit for his ability to keep pressure off of his QB. His pass-blocking efficiency ranked in the top 10 among returning Power-5 guards, and he graded positively in the running and screen games as well. Virginia Tech’s Wyatt Teller earned the No. 1 run-blocking grade among returning guards.
Center: Tyler Orlosky, West Virginia Mountaineers
He posted the No. 1 run-blocking grade among returning Power-5 centers, but he was also nearly perfect in pass protection. On 460 pass-blocking snaps, Orlosky allowed just six total pressures, including one sack – good for the best pass-blocking efficiency among returning Power-5 players at the position. One other player to keep an eye on is Ohio State’s Pat Elflein, who graded out as one of the nation’s top guards in 2015 and is moving to the center spot for the Buckeyes in 2016.