Ranking the Top 25 Seniors Heading into the 2017 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2017

Ranking the Top 25 Seniors Heading into the 2017 College Football Season

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    Calling seniors a dying breed in college football is a stretch, but the number of true superstars returning for a fourth (or fifth) season has undoubtedly decreased.

    Not everybody leaves early for the NFL, though.

    The 2017 season will feature a handful of veterans looking to cap their college careers on a high note while also boosting their draft stock. We've ranked the 25 best and analyzed past performance, current outlook and NFL potential.

    While previous contributions were the largest factor in the order, 2017 projection also had a minor effect.

Honorable Mentions

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    We couldn't fit everyone on the list. But that doesn't mean talents like the players listed below weren't worthy of consideration.

    • Alabama C Bradley Bozeman
    • Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
    • Arkansas State LB Ja'Von Rolland-Jones
    • Boise State WR Cedrick Wilson
    • UCF LB Shaquem Griffin
    • Florida CB Duke Dawson
    • Indiana LB Tegray Scales
    • Louisville LB Stacy Thomas
    • Memphis QB Riley Ferguson
    • Miami (Ohio) CB Heath Harding
    • Michigan State C Brian Allen
    • New Mexico State RB Larry Rose III
    • North Carolina CB M.J. Stewart
    • North Carolina State LB Airius Moore
    • North Carolina State TE Jaylen Samuels
    • Notre Dame LT Mike McGlinchey
    • Ohio State C Billy Price
    • Ole Miss DE Marquis Haynes
    • UTEP LG Will Hernandez
    • Virginia S Quin Blanding
    • Wake Forest DE Duke Ejiofor
    • Washington WR/PR Dante Pettis
    • Washington LB Azeem Victor
    • Western Kentucky QB Mike White
    • Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy

25. Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State

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    Junior-year results: Allen Lazard has made steady progress since arriving at Iowa State. That upward trend resulted in personal-best marks of 69 receptions, 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Lazard was named a first-team All-Big 12 wideout.

    Senior-year outlook: Depending on quarterback Jacob Park's development, the Cyclones can continue to build a regularly competitive offense. Lazard is the key for making that happen, though. There's no question defenses will view him as the No. 1 threat.

    NFL potential: At 6'5" and 223 pounds, Lazard has an NFL-caliber frame. With three—and likely four—years of quality production despite being on below-average or average teams, he should be viewed as a Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) or Day 3 (Rounds 5-7) prospect with starter upside.

24. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia

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    Junior-year results: An offseason injury delayed Sony Michel's start to 2016, but he put together a fine—not bad, not greatseason during Georgia's inconsistent year. The running back tallied 840 yards on 5.5 per carry, topping the 100-yard mark three times.

    Senior-year outlook: Part of the reason the Bulldogs are a summer favorite in 2017 is the immensely talented backfield. Michel, along with Nick Chubb and Brian Herrien, gives Georgia a sensational trio of options. Because of Michel's explosiveness, he may be asked to hold a larger receiving role after wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie's departure.

    NFL potential: To steal an NBA term, the NFL has become a pace-and-space league. There's always room for a playmaker like Michel, who should be a top-15 player at the position. That typically translates into a Day 3 selection in the draft.

23. Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo

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    Junior-year results: Finally free of Phillip Ely, Logan Woodside didn't waste his long-awaited opportunity to reclaim the starting role. The first-team All-MAC performer completed 69.1 percent of his 418 attempts for 4,129 yards and 45 touchdowns to just nine interceptions.

    Senior-year outlook: Toledo lost a couple of important pieces—including versatile back Kareem Hunt and premier red-zone threat Michael Robertsbut Woodside has two dangerous big-play threats in Cody Thompson and Jon'Vea Johnson. Another 4,000-yard season is possible for the gunslinger.

    NFL potential: Woodside is a classic case of a non-power-conference quarterback needing to prove more. Although his 2016 production was elite, that doesn't automatically translate to the pros. With a second straight impressive year, Woodside could demand attention on Day 3 of the draft.

22. Quenton Nelson, LG, Notre Dame

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    Junior-year results: Notre Dame's 4-8 campaign overshadowed any bright spots that could be found. Quenton Nelson was definitely one positive performer on the disappointing squad, earning third-team AP All-America alongside teammate Mike McGlinchey.

    Senior-year outlook: It's unlikely you'll find a better left side of an offensive line than the McGlinchey-Nelson tandem. Nelson is a powerful run-blocker who is also reliable in pass protection, and the Irish will be counting on him to protect first-year quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

    NFL potential: Had Nelson declared for the 2017 draft, he probably would've been a Day 2 selection. Instead, Nelson will play one more season in South Bend and could become not only a first-round pick, but perhaps the first guard taken in 2018.

21. Justin Lawler, DE, SMU

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    Junior-year results: Justin Lawler surged into 2016 with a 3.5-sack performance in the season opener. Although his sack number only rose slowly to six, Lawler was a constant presence in the backfield. He amassed 15 tackles for loss among 65 total stops.

    Senior-year outlook: SMU remains a work in progress, especially since Lawler is the only returning defensive lineman who notched more than 21 tackles last year. If a true complementary piece emerges, it might boost Lawler's box-score numbers. Otherwise, he should be a steady force for the Mustangs.

    NFL potential: It's fair to expect 20-25 defensive ends will be drafted in a given year. Can Lawler work his way into that conversation? He's probably on the outer edge of that range, but a strong senior season would put Lawler in decent position.

20. Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB, Alabama

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    Junior-year results: Shaun Dion Hamilton recorded 64 tackles and two interceptions while helping Alabama win the conference, but a torn left ACL ended his season in the SEC Championship Game. He posted nine stops for loss.

    Senior-year outlook: As long as the linebacker is healthy, he should be the starter alongside Rashaan Evans. Granted, Hamilton also needs to hold off promising talents in Mack Wilson, Ben Davis and Dylan Moses, all former highly rated recruits.

    NFL potential: Pre-draft medical checks are always an unknown variable. But under the assumption Hamilton recovers from the ACL tear, he could be among the best inside linebacker prospects. Hamilton is sound against the run and a reliable tackler.

19. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State

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    Junior-year results: Florida State's defense followed a dreadful September with an impressive season-ending turnaround. Derrick Nnadi played a central role in the Seminoles surrendering just 2.6 yards per carry over the final eight games. He gathered 49 total stops with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.

    Senior-year outlook: Opposing offensive lines may struggle to contain both Josh Sweat and Brian Burns. Any extra blocking devoted to those ends could reduce the attention on Nnadi and result in another career year for the D-tackle.

    NFL potential: The position has a formidable group of underclassmen, so Nnadi could slip in the draft due to the younger talent. However, he's still a standout among senior defensive tackles. Nnadi is basically a lock to be drafted and has Day 2 potential.

18. Cody O'Connell, LG, Washington State

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    Junior-year results: After spending three seasons either on the sideline or special teams, Cody O'Connell went from benchwarmer to first-team AP All-America. He started 12 games at left guard and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy.

    Senior-year outlook: Mike Leach-coached offenses are known for a pass-focused attack, but O'Connell is an important part of Washington State adding more balance in 2017. The team ranked 114th in yards per game but 73rd in yards per carry last season, so there is legitimate hope for the Cougs behind O'Connell.

    NFL potential: While O'Connell was a solid run-blocker during his first season as a starter, the 6'8", 370-pound monster excelled in pass protection. NFL teams would love to add a player like O'Connell, though it's likely on late Day 2 or early Day 3 as of now.

17. Obo Okoronkwo, OLB, Oklahoma

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    Junior-year results: Oklahoma didn't generate much pressure as a team, but that doesn't apply to Obo Okoronkwo specifically. He racked up 71 tackles with 12 for loss and nine sacks during his first season as a starter. Pro Football Focus credited Okoronkwo with 36 hurries.

    Senior-year outlook: If that was his breakout season, what does Okoronkwo have for an encore? The 6'1", 242-pounder will play a slightly different role as Oklahoma shifts to a four-man front, but that shouldn't stop Okoronkwo from putting up flashy stats.

    NFL potentialOkoronkwo's level of production and athleticism cannot be ignored. NFL teams might view him as an edge-rusher more than a 4-3 outside linebacker, but there's always a roster spot for someone who knows how to disrupt the quarterback.

16. Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas

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    Junior-year results: It was a relatively atypical year for Arkansas, which failed to average five yards per carry for the first time under head coach Bret Bielema. Yet the blame shouldn't fall on Frank Ragnow, who improved from respectable to dominant last year.

    Senior-year outlook: The Razorbacks have all the right pieces for the puzzle since they return quarterback Austin Allen, running backs Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley as well as a few experienced linemen. Ragnow is the proverbial glue to solidify a bounce-back year.

    NFL potential: No matter what happens in Fayetteville this season, Ragnow will probably be viewed favorably next February. Offseason testing will be another critical factor, but he has the ability to be a top-three prospect at his position.

15. Braden Smith, RT, Auburn

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    Junior-year results: Braden Smith started at right guard and helped Auburn finish the season with the sixth-best rushing offense in the nation. SEC coaches voted him second-team all-conference, while Phil Steele considered Smith a third-team All-American.

    Senior-year outlook: As a result of Robert Leff's departure, the Tigers need a new right tackle. Smith practiced at the position during the spring, and Cal grad transfer Aaron Cochran's decision to choose Oklahoma State probably locked in that switch.

    NFL potential: Professional teams love to see versatility in a mid-draft lineman. If Smith performs well this season, he could be viewed as one of the best swing tackles available next year.

14. Ja'Von Rolland-Jones, DE, Arkansas State

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    Junior-year results: Flying well below the national radar, Ja'Von Rolland-Jones nearly doubled his career sack output last year. Considering he entered 2016, that's rather impressive. Rolland-Jones registered a personal-best 57 total stops, 21 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

    Senior-year outlook: Though Chris Odom will no longer flank the standout edge-rusher, Rolland-Jones will have a great complement in Dee Liner—yes, an aptly named lineman. The Red Wolves should again be near among the Sun Belt's best defenses.

    NFL potential: Rolland-Jones might be the Group of Five favorite in the 2018 cycle. He's a 6'2", 244-pounder with great burst and awareness, two invaluable traits in the draft process. Rolland-Jones could assert himself as a top-10 player at his position.

13. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State

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    Junior-year results: Few receivers were more explosive than James Washington in 2016. He averaged 19.4 yards on 71 receptions, finishing the year with 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns. Washington earned first-team all-conference honors.

    Senior-year outlook: Perhaps he'll improve from second-team All-Big 12 (2014) to first-team All-Big 12 (2015) to first-team All-American. Washington is a perfect complement to Jalen McCleskey, who does most of his damage near the line of scrimmage and after the catch.

    NFL potential: Washington needs to compete with Alabama's Calvin Riley and Texas A&M's Christian Kirk for the No. 1 overall spot, but the senior is arguably the best in his class. Although that doesn't mean he's a first-round lock, Washington has that ability.

12. Quinton Flowers, QB, South Florida

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    Junior-year results: Quinton Flowers torched defenses on his way to AAC Offensive Player of the Year. He completed 62.5 percent of 331 passes for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. Flowers also scampered for 18 scores, and his 1,530 yards led FBS quarterbacks while ranking 12th nationally.

    Senior-year outlook: Though the departure of head coach Willie Taggart will affect Flowers, he's too talented to not impact both facets of the game. Plus, Shane Buechele threw for nearly 3,000 yards as a freshman at Texas. Gilbert must be more creative, but Flowers is a massive threat on designed runs.

    NFL potential: You can practically hear the critics already: "He's too small"; "he only played in the AAC"; "he's more of a runner than a passer." Although the concerns have some degree of validity, they might not stop Flowers from being taken as a high-upside prospect on Day 3.

11. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

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    Junior-year results: Oregon's collective struggles trickled down to Royce Freeman, who battled injury and ran behind a freshman-filled offensive line in 2016. He ended the year with 945 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

    Senior-year outlook: The return of Tyrell Crosby will boost the Ducks, and new head coach Willie Taggart's fresh offensive outlook may invigorate the uptempo offense. Freeman will share carries with Tony Brooks-James, Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin, but a third career 1,000-yard output is well within reason.

    NFL potential: Between a disappointing campaign and a loaded running back class, Freeman made a wise decision to return for his senior year. With a bounce-back season, Freeman may return to his former place as a top-five prospect at the position.

10. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

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    Junior-year results: Falk ranked second nationally in completion percentage (70.0), fourth in passing yards (4,468) and seventh in touchdowns (38). He guided Washington State to an eight-win campaign for the second straight year, which the program hadn't accomplished since the 2002-03 seasons.

    Senior-year outlook: The Cougs will be without two of Falk's favorite targets, Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Wazzu is certainly prepared to handle the changes, though. Five returning receivers and three running backs each had 20-plus catches last year.

    NFL potential: Falk has already received first-round buzz, so the ceiling is the roof, as meme legend Michael Jordan would say. He'll be indirectly battling Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Mason Rudolph and Lamar Jackson for the largest spotlight.

9. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State

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    Junior-year results: One of the better players most college football fans might not recognize, Bradley Chubb earned second-team All-ACC. He accumulated 57 tackles with 21.5 stops for loss and seven sacks last season. Pro Football Focus credited Chubb with 35 hurries.

    Senior-year outlook: Alongside fellow underrated star Justin Jones and in front of standout linebacker Airius Moore, Chubb has first-team All-ACC potential. North Carolina State may quietly boast a top-15 defense led by the 6'4", 275-pounder.

    NFL potential: If Ohio State's Tyquan Lewis isn't the best senior defensive end in 2017, it's almost certainly Chubb. An NFL team will eventually come calling, so the big question is what day the Wolfpack star is answering the phone.

8. Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State

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    Junior-year results: The statsheet says Lewis only registered 29 tackles, but he made a significantly larger impact than that. Coaches voted Lewis the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after he collected 10.5 stops for loss, eight sacks and, per PFF, 34 hurries.

    Senior-year outlook: Ohio State's absurdly talented defensive line is both a blessing and a curse for Lewis individually. On one hand, it could boost his production. On the other, players like Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa might get to the quarterback faster. Regardless, Lewis will be a fixture on the Buckeyes front.

    NFL potential: Depending on Hubbard's expected decision after 2017, Lewis could be the first of three Ohio State D-linemen to hear his name called in the first round during the next two drafts.

7. Josey Jewell, MLB, Iowa

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    Junior-year results: Josey Jewell didn't quite match his 2015 production as a junior. Typically, that might be a minor concern, but not when 126 tackles were the bar. Jewell notched 124 stops with six tackles for loss, adding nine pass breakups en route to second-team All-Big Ten status.

    Senior-year outlook: Iowa boasts an experienced group of linebackers that also includes Bo Bower and Ben Niemann. Largely thanks to the trio, the defense should be among the conference's stingiest units. Centerpieces don't get much more reliable than Jewell.

    NFL potential: Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette notes the NFL draft advisory board suggested Jewell return to school. Taking the advice was a wise decision, and it may allow Jewell to lift his draft stock into the Day 2 range.

6. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

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    Junior-year results: Northwestern has ridden its workhorse back for three straight years. In 2016, Justin Jackson ran for 1,524 yards while averaging 22.9 carries. He scored 15 touchdowns and grabbed 35 passes for 219 yards.

    Senior-year outlook: Despite average run blocking up front last season, Jackson still led the Big Ten with 117.2 yards per game. Four O-line starters return, so their anticipated development could lead to a more efficient campaign—though not necessarily bigger numbers.

    NFL potential: The concern with a bellcow like Jackson is his number of touches. While the talent is obvious, he will already have accrued around 1,300 total barring injury in 2017. Purely as a prospect, he's a top-five-caliber back. Given the context of his college career, though, Jackson could slide a bit.

5. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

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    Junior-year results: Consider it a tale of two seasons for J.T. Barrett. He threw for 2,555 yards and 24 touchdowns while running for 845 yards and nine scores, which was good enough for first-team All-Big Ten and deservedly so. But during the final three games of the year, Ohio State went 2-1 despite major struggles from Barrett.

    Senior-year outlook: We know Barrett can run. Now, can he pass consistently? Kevin Wilson's arrival as the new offensive coordinator should help Ohio State's execution and set up Barrett for more success. If Barrett is a true dual-threat quarterback against top competition, the Buckeyes should return to the College Football Playoff.

    NFL potential: At worst, there will be a quarterback coach who believes he can fix Barrett. He'll find an NFL home in 2018, but his progression in 2017 will likely determine whether that's as a Day 2 selection or a future-minded pick on Day 3.

4. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State

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    Junior-year results: Mason Rudolph was quietly one of the country's most efficient quarterbacks. He posted a 63.4 completion percentage with 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, scoring six more times on the ground.

    Senior-year outlook: Although he's not exactly a dark horse for major awards, Rudolph isn't a household name, either. The signal-caller could put up Heisman-worthy numbers, particularly because of Oklahoma State's expected defensive woes. But can he overcome that unit's issues and lead the 'Pokes to a Big 12 crown?

    NFL potential: Darnold, Rosen and Allen are the most popular quarterbacks in 2018 mock drafts, but Rudolph—and Jackson—should be mentioned in the same breath. Though Rudolph needs to clean up his accuracy on immediate routes, he's a potential first-rounder.

3. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

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    Junior-year results: A knee injury robbed Nick Chubb of a potential Heisman-winning campaign in 2015. Average run blocking last season kept the physical runner from reaching his previous numbers, yet Chubb still managed 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Senior-year outlook: Georgia must replace three starters up front while he, Michel and Herrien share carries, so Chubb's workload may be limited and controlled. He'll still probably eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, but the Bulldogs don't need to overwork him.

    NFL potential: Similar to Hamilton, the unknown we can't answer is pre-draft medical checks. Should Chubb not encounter any red flags there, an NFL franchise will probably select him somewhere on either Day 1 or 2 of the 2018 draft.

2. Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College

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    Junior-year results: The departure of defensive coordinator Don Brown didn't stop Harold Landry from being an edge-rushing menace. He gathered 22 tackles for loss with 16.5 sacks, forcing seven fumbles while tallying 44 hurries, per PFF.

    Senior-year outlook: Despite a few notable graduations, Boston College's defense should remain fierce. No player has ever recorded consecutive 15-sack seasons, according to Sports Reference, so Landry could earn a unique title.

    NFL potentialOf all players who elected not to declare early for the NFL draft, Landry might've been selected the highest in 2017. As long as he doesn't encounter a yearlong slump, Landry will be discussed as a top-10 pick next spring.

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

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    Junior-year results: Baker Mayfield propelled Oklahoma to its second straight Big 12 championship and also finished third in the Heisman Trophy race. His 70.9 completion percentage led the FBS. Mayfield accounted for 4,142 yards of total offense and 46 touchdowns, throwing just eight interceptions.

    Senior-year outlook: The 2017 season will be the greatest test for Mayfield, who lost Sterling Shepard after 2015 and the trio of Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon following last season. Mayfield can carry the offense, but he needs some of the Sooners' young receiving talent to complement Mark Andrews and Kentucky grad transfer Jeff Badet.

    NFL potential: Mayfield has a strong arm, clear willingness to stand in the pocket and ability to create as a scrambler. Those three traits will earn the gunslinger a shot. His below-average frame for the position and recent off-field issue are two negatives, but Mayfield is relatively solidly a Day 2 quarterback.


    Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.