Bleacher Report's 2017 Preseason College Football All-America Team

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 21, 2017

Bleacher Report's 2017 Preseason College Football All-America Team

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    Saquon Barkley
    Saquon BarkleyMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Most of college football's 2016 first-team All-Americans are about to begin their rookie seasons in the NFL, but you wouldn't know it from how loaded Bleacher Report's 2017 preseason AA team is.

    Baker Mayfield is back in search of a third season as a Heisman finalist. Saquon Barkley will likely join him on that year-end stage. Connor Williams might be the best CFB offensive lineman in at least a decade. And both Ed Oliver and Dexter Lawrence are right up there among defensive linemen. Heck, even punter JK Scott is one of the greatest to ever boot the ball.

    The panelists voting for these preseason AAs were Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Greg Wallace. In the case of ties, editor Ben Chodos cast the deciding vote.

    The SEC took the cake with nine representatives among our 28 AAs. The ACC came in second with six players, while the Big 12 took home third place with four names on the list. But we didn't forget about the smaller schools, as Conference USA, the AAC and two independent schools made the cut.

    Autumn is coming. Prepare for its arrival with this rundown of what should be the best players in the country.

Quarterback: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

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    Baker Mayfield
    Baker MayfieldGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Declaring one best college football quarterback in the preseason is a nearly impossible task. USC's Sam Darnold is the front-runner for the Heisman. Louisville's Lamar Jackson is the reigning Heisman winner. Wyoming's Josh Allen might be the No. 1 draft pick in April. And it'd be foolish to overlook the likes of Mason Rudolph, J.T. Barrett, Jake Browning, Jalen Hurts and others.

    But Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield has been nothing short of lethal over the past two seasons and will enter his senior year as Bleacher Report's All-American QB.

    Mayfield's 196.4 passer efficiency rating in 2016 was the highest single-season mark in CFB history dating back to 1956, per Sports-Reference. He completed 70.9 percent of his passes and threw for 40 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. In the 66-59 shootout against Texas Tech, Mayfield finished with 545 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Under normal circumstances, one would be at least a little concerned about a quarterback losing two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,500-yard receiver in one offseason. In this case, though, we're just waiting to learn who will fill out the next group of players that Mayfield helps turn into stars.

Running Back: Saquon Barkley, Penn State

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    Saquon Barkley
    Saquon BarkleyMichael Conroy/Associated Press

    According to ESPN's Ben Fawkes, 10 of the 11 players with 20-1 or better odds of winning the 2017 Heisman are quarterbacks. The lone exception to that rule is a running back attempting to become Penn State's career rushing leader as a junior.

    The latest list of top Heisman candidates on OddsShark isn't quite as QB-heavy, but it does have Saquon Barkley listed with the second-shortest odds, trailing only Sam Darnold.

    The point we're trying to make here is that Barkley's spot as a preseason All-American was the ultimate no-brainer. All six of our voters had Barkley in the No. 1 RB spot in advance of what could be a 2002 Larry Johnson type of campaign for the Nittany Lions.

    Though he did post a few duds last yearmost notably a 14-yard game against Michigan State and a 33-carry, 58-yard stinker against Indianapeak Barkley was a sight to behold. During a four-week stretch in the middle of the season, he averaged 168.8 yards per game and 8.3 yards per carry. Then, of course, there was the incredible performance in the Rose Bowl to ensure he began the offseason at the forefront of our minds.

    If Barkley can tap into that level of excellence for eight or nine games instead of just five, he'll become just the sixth player in FBS history to eclipse 2,500 total yards from scrimmage in a single season.

Running Back: Derrius Guice, LSU

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    Derrius Guice
    Derrius GuiceMax Becherer/Associated Press

    Barkley is the clear-cut No. 1 RB, but Derrius Guice isn't exactly a distant No. 2.

    Penn State's stud RB finished last year 109 yards ahead of LSU's top rusher, but it took Barkley two more games and 89 more carries to get there. That's because Guice averaged a slightly ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry for the year, rushing for at least 138 yards in every game Leonard Fournette did not play.

    To be fair, Guice's YPC got a nice boost from Fournette taking the bulk of the carries against the defenses of Alabama, Auburn and Wisconsin. Guice's average is all but guaranteed to decrease now that he'll be the featured back against every opponent.

    But barely averaging 15 carries per game didn't keep Guice from leading the SEC in total rushing yards, and he just might lead the nation in that category while averaging closer to 25 touches per contest this year.

Wide Receiver: James Washington, Oklahoma State

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    James Washington
    James WashingtonEric Gay/Associated Press

    James Washington is to 70-yard receptions what Nolan Ryan was to no-hitters.

    Just about anyone can stumble his way into one. N.C. State's Pharoah McKever made just one reception in the past three years, and it happened to go for 82 yards. Even two such catches might just be a coincidence. But Washington has had seven 70-yard receptions in the last two seasons, putting him in a class of his own.

    Only four other playersTaywan Taylor, Ryan Switzer, Jalen Robinette and Corey Davismade at least four such plays in the past two years, but not one of them has quite the same big-play prowess of Oklahoma State's star.

    Washington has 26 career receiving touchdowns and 2,923 yards. In the former category, he has more than any active FBS player. In the latter, only MTSU's Richie James is ahead of Washington, and only by 36 yards. He has been the No. 1 weapon in this Cowboys offense in each of the past two seasons and figures to be headed for another big year of catching passes from Mason Rudolph.

Wide Receiver: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

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    Christian Kirk
    Christian KirkSam Craft/Associated Press

    Though he was a highly touted recruit out of high school, Christian Kirk was not put in a position to succeed.

    Before he arrived in College Station, teammates Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil had already established themselves as receiving weapons for years to come. Due to a combination of injuries and inconsistencies, Texas A&M's QB situation has been something of a mess in both of Kirk's seasons. And every year, the Aggies have to face the secondaries of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and five other SEC schools.

    None of it mattered. Kirk has led the team in receptions in each of the last two seasons, compiling 163 catches for 1,937 yards and 16 TDs. (We would also mention his accolades as a punt returner here, but [spoiler alert!] those will come up later in the slideshow.)

    But those first two seasons were just warm-ups for the main event. Reynolds, Seals-Jones and Noil are all out of the picture, leaving Kirk as the undisputed No. 1 weapon in this offense. Sure, that means he'll be facing more double teams and will always be drawing the opposing team's top lock-down corner, but his number of targets per game is going to go through the roof.

    There's still uncertainty at QB for the Aggies, and that could keep Kirk from putting up best-in-the-nation receiving numbers. However, as long as he doesn't sustain any significant injuries, anything short of 100 receptions, 1,200 yards and a dozen TDs would be a disappointing surprise.

Wide Receiver: Richie James, Middle Tennessee

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    Richie James
    Richie JamesEugene Tanner/Associated Press

    Only a handful of players from outside the Power Five conferences received preseason All-America honors, but Richie James' numbers were impossible to miss, regardless of conference affiliation.

    James has tallied at least 105 receptions in each of his first two seasons with the Blue Raiders, amassing 2,959 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in the process. Just for good measure, he has also rushed for 497 yards and five scores, served as MTSU's primary punt returner last season and even spent some time at QB when Brent Stockstill was injured late in the year.

    He had at least 73 receiving yards in each game last season, reaching the century mark on nine separate occasions. This included a 16-catch, 223-yard gem against Western Kentucky, as well as a game against Vanderbilt with 14 receptions for 183 yards.

    And here's a scary thought for every other team in Conference USA: James should be headed for even more targets in 2017. Do-it-all running back I'Tavius Mathers (1,561 rushing yards; 66 receptions for 633 yards) graduated, leaving behind a copious amount of touches for the remaining weapons like James.

    James already had 1,964 total yards from scrimmage last season, ranking seventh in the nation in that category and ranking first among players returning for another year. Hard to believe there's plenty of room left before he hits his ceiling, but that appears to be the case.

Tight End: Adam Breneman, Massachusetts

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    Adam Breneman
    Adam BrenemanSean Rayford/Associated Press

    To put it lightly, Massachusetts hasn't had much to brag about since rejoining the FBS ranks in 2012. The Minutemen are 10-50 over the last five years, including a loss to an FCS school (Maine) in 2013.

    But former Penn State transfer Adam Breneman is quite the bright spot in an otherwise dreary program.

    Per CFBstats.com, Breneman led all tight ends with 70 receptions in 2016 and ranked second in both receiving yards (808) and touchdowns (eight). Those numbers are even more impressive when juxtaposed with Massachusetts ranking 114th in total yards and ranking 112th in total points.

    Breneman's best individual performance was a 138-yard, two-TD game against a FCS school (Wagner), but he put up solid numbers all season long. He had at least 69 receiving yards in eight of 12 games, including strong showings against the likes of South Carolina, Mississippi State, BYU and Boston College.

    There's a good chance you'll see more highlights of tight ends like Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalli, Penn State's Mike Gesicki and Florida's DeAndre Goolsby throughout the course of the season, but try not to be too surprised when Breneman finishes the year with better stats than all of them.

Offensive Tackle: Connor Williams, Texas

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    Connor Williams
    Connor WilliamsMichael Thomas/Associated Press

    Most good offensive linemen are great pass-blockers and competent run-blockers or vice versa. To the untrained eye, it may seem like they just pop out of their stance and try to shove defensive linemen around regardless of the play call, but run blocking and pass blocking are two entirely separate skill sets that are rarely found in the same gigantic body.

    But Texas left tackle Connor Williams is one of the best in each arena. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah wrote a summer scouting report about the Longhorn who should feature prominently in the conversation for 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick:

    As a run blocker, he takes good angles, rolls his hips on contact and shows a nasty demeanor to keep moving opponents both to and through the whistle. When you have a mauling run blocker, that player often lacks some athleticism as a pass protector. That's not the case with Williams. He's a graceful mover with tremendous knee bend, balance and the ability to redirect. He plays with great awareness and can sink his weight to anchor down vs. the bull rush. He has a very sharp punch and makes it look easy once he gets position.

    Bleacher Report's NFL draft expert Matt Miller has been raving about Williams for a while, often comparing him to Joe Thomas. Per one of Miller's tweets in May, Williams has allowed just one sack in the last two seasons. This combination of a brick wall and a steamroller is going to turn a lot of heads for a third straight year.

Offensive Tackle: Orlando Brown, Oklahoma

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    Orlando Brown
    Orlando BrownGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Despite losing Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, big things are expected from an Oklahoma offense that returns all five of its starting offensive linemen from last season.

    First and foremost among that group is 6'8" left tackle Orlando Brown.

    Brown isn't the quickest or most technically sound offensive lineman in the country, but he makes up for it with his size and strength. Would-be pass-rushers have little choice but to try to go around him, but bouncing to the outside of a man with the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the strength of a rhinoceros is easier said than done. By the time they get to the quarterback, Baker Mayfield has almost always already found his target downfield.

    For a good look at how he fares against arguably the best defensive line in the country, circle Sep. 9 on your calendars. That showdown with Ohio State's Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa may determine Brown's ceiling (or floor) for the 2018 NFL draft.

    Along with Connor Williams, Brown was named a second-team All-American by the AP in December. And with both of the first-team tackles leaving a year early for the NFL, it only makes sense for Brown and Williams to secure the preseason first-team honors.

Offensive Guard: Cody O'Connell, Washington State

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    Cody O'Connell
    Cody O'ConnellYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    There are only two returning offensive players who received first-team AP All-America honors last season: Lamar Jackson and Cody O'Connell. Though we went in a different direction with our selection at QBand though the Pac-12 somehow managed to not include O'Connell on its first or second all-conference team last yearthere was no debate about O'Connell landing in one of the two spots for OGs.

    After barely seeing the field as a sophomore, O'Connell became the linchpin of Washington State's offense as a junior. According to Pro Football Focus, his pass-blocking grade was No. 1 among all guards last season, as he allowed just six pressures on 648 passing snaps.

    Much of that dominance can be attributed to his massive frame. Like Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, O'Connell is 6'8" and somewhere in the vicinity of 350 pounds. But unlike Brown, who has to worry about edge-rushers speeding around him, O'Connell's role as an interior lineman means he just has to keep opponents from going through him.

    And as the numbers illustrated, it's pretty tough to run through a mountain.

Offensive Guard: Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

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    Quenton Nelson
    Quenton NelsonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    While Cody O'Connell is a monster in Washington State's passing game, Quenton Nelson is the undisputed star of Notre Dame's run-blocking scheme.

    It might seem hard to believe that one of the best run-blockers in the country played for a team that went 4-8 with pedestrian rushing totals on par with those of Troy and New Mexico State. However, our counter-argument would be that the Fighting Irish likely would have had one of the five worst rushing offenses were it not for Nelson.

    Jon Ledyard of NDT Scouting studied the tape on Nelson back in June and was impressed by his commitment to playing through the whistle on every snap.

    "Once Nelson finds your leverage points or gets his hands fitted inside, you better protect yourself as a defender, because he's looking for the kill shot," wrote Ledyard. "Getting finished to this extent as a defensive lineman is demoralizing, especially when it happens repeatedly throughout the game."

    Notre Dame's duo of Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey might be the best one-two punch that any team can boast on the offensive line. If the other three-fifths of the line can pull its weight, the Fighting Irish could bounce back in a big way.

Center: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas

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    Frank Ragnow
    Frank RagnowDanny Johnston/Associated Press

    Shout out to Ohio State's Billy Price, who received multiple votes for this spot despite spending his first three seasons as an offensive guard. After Pat Elflein seamlessly made the transition from guard to center as a senior in 2016 and won the Rimington Trophy awarded to the nation's top center, there's reason to believe the Buckeyes could do it again with Price.

    However, Frank Ragnow was rated by Pro Football Focus as the best offensive lineman in the entire country last season, and he already knows the ins and outs of playing center. Per PFF, Ragnow was the nation's best run-blocking center by a country mile and was also one of the top linemen (regardless of position) on screen plays.

    With Rawleigh Williams III (1,360 rushing yards and 12 TDs) announcing his retirement from football in May, rushing might be more of a challenge for the Razorbacks this season. But with Ragnow leading a group of four returning starters on the offensive line, this team should thrive on the ground, regardless of who's carrying the ball.

Defensive End: Harold Landry, Boston College

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    Harold Landry
    Harold LandryCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It's astounding that Harold Landry didn't get more national attention while turning the 2016 season into his personal pass-rushing playground. Plenty of people bought stock during the offseason, but it somehow flew under the radar that Landry led the nation in sacks.

    In the past 16 years, only six players have recorded at least 16.5 sacks in a season. The only other one to come back for another year was Von Miller, who transitioned to linebacker before becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. That isn't to say Landry is a lock to become a 2018 top-five draft pick because of what he did in 2016, but we are in relatively uncharted waters here with the return of a QB-seeking missile.

    He's more than just a sack machine, too. Landry is an excellent backside run defender, capable of making the hard, precise hits necessary to jar loose a football, as exhibited by his 10 forced fumbles in the last two seasons. He also recorded four passes defended and snagged an interception last season.

    The three big tests will come against Notre Dame, Clemson and Louisville. If he can routinely get by the elite left tackles on the first two teams and bring down the elusive Lamar Jackson once or twice in the third game, Landry will be (pass) rushing to the top of every NFL team's draft board.

Defensive End: Rashan Gary, Michigan

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    Rashan Gary
    Rashan GaryTony Ding/Associated Press

    At the opposite end of the 2016 sack spectrum from Harold Landry, Michigan's Rashan Gary only recorded half a sack as a true freshman. But that's primarily because it was tough to get any playing time on one of the best and most experienced defenses in the country.

    At any rate, if you think anyone in the program is worried that Scout's 2016 No. 1 overall recruit is going to be a bust, think again.

    Back in mid-June, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown told Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News, "(Gary is the) best I've ever seen combining speed, strength, change of direction and the mental curve. He's unbelievable. The sky is the limit."

    About six weeks later, linebacker Mike McCray told Chris Solari of Detroit Free Press, "He's definitely a freak. He's too big to be that fast and athletic. It's something rare that you see. I kind of compare him to Jadeveon Clowney. ... I mean, you watch film, you see how fast he gets off the ball and how aggressive he is. Just a freak of nature."

    Gary is our only preseason All-American who hasn't already had at least one impressive season at the collegiate level, but it certainly sounds like that big year should be coming in 2017.

Defensive Tackle: Ed Oliver, Houston

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    Ed Oliver
    Ed OliverTroy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Ed Oliver was the only 2016 5-star recruit to sign with a Group of Five school, but any fear of that possibly not being a wise decision evaporated in a hurry when he had a pair of sacks against Oklahoma in the first game of his true freshman season.

    The heart and soul of Houston's 3-4 defense would finish the year with 22 tackles for loss, five sacks, six passes defended and a pair of forced fumbles.

    It was his late-season performance against Louisville that opened many eyes to the possibility that Oliver might be the best individual defender in the nation as a sophomore. The funny thing is it was supposed to be the game that cemented Lamar Jackson as the Heisman winner and kept Louisville alive in the College Football Playoff debate.

    Oliver had other plans. Louisville's offensive line had no answer as he knifed his way into the backfield over and over again. Oliver was only credited with 2.0 of Houston's 11 sacks on the night, but he was the definition of disruptive, repeatedly paving the way for teammates to get to Jackson.

    Following that game up with 3.5 more tackles for loss against San Diego State's elite rushing attack in the Las Vegas Bowl was just icing on the cake. There is no ceiling on what Oliver could do this year.

Defensive Tackle: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

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    Dexter Lawrence
    Dexter LawrenceElise Amendola/Associated Press

    Ed Oliver was a unanimous selection for the first DT spot, and this second one was a coin flip between a pair of monsters from Clemson.

    Christian Wilkins led the Tigers with 13.0 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries last season, but the D-lineman also ranked second on the team with nine passes defended. As far as 310-pound warriors in the trenches go, he's about as versatile as they come.

    But teammate Dexter Lawrence gets the nod here. Scout's No. 3 overall recruit in the 2016 class had a sensational freshman season and is already generating buzz as the clear top choice for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

    Thanks in large part to Lawrence, Clemson's pass rush somehow got a little better after losing Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and B.J. Goodson from the previous year. As a team, the Tigers brought down the QB 49 times last seasononce more than they managed in 2015with Lawrence accounting for 6.5 of those sacks.

    In addition to his relentless pursuit of the opposing quarterback, Lawrence ranked fourth on the teamfirst among linemenin total tackles with 62. He was an asset against both the run and the pass, and we have to believe he's only going to improve as a sophomore.

Linebacker: Arden Key, LSU

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    Arden Key
    Arden KeyJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    For what's left of the preseasonotherwise read as: until he gets back on the field and starts mauling quarterbacks againyou're going to see a lot of people expressing concerns about Arden Key.

    They'll question his commitment to the game after his curious leave of absence for personal reasons during the spring. And with 247 Sports LSU beat writer Shea Dixon reporting Thursday night that Ed Orgeron doesn't expect Key to play in the season opener against BYU, there will be even more questions about his health. (Key had offseason shoulder surgery.)

    But even if he's only half of the man we witnessed for the last two seasons, that's still one heck of an edge rusher around which a defense can be built.

    Key was particularly dominant for the first month of last season, tallying 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in the span of four games. There were only 48 players who reached both of those marks in the entire 2016 season. For him to get there by the end of September was proof that he's one of the best at his craft.

    It will be interesting to see how the loss of all five of last year's leading tacklers impacts how Key is utilized by LSU and how opponents prepare to deal with him this season. However, he should be special regardless of his role or where he lines up.

Linebacker: Josey Jewell, Iowa

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    Josey Jewell
    Josey JewellCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa has quietly put together one of the best trios of linebackers in the country. Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann combined for 284 total tackles and 17 passes defended, and all three will return to the starting lineup as seniors. The Hawkeyes only allowed 18.8 points per game last season and ought to be even stingier in 2017.

    The middle linebacker is the crown Jewell of the bunch and one of the top candidates to become the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year.

    Jewell has been a terror in this defense for several years. It started when he racked up 14 tackles in the TaxSlayer Bowl at the end of his freshman season. Over the next two years, he would amass 250 tackles and 15 passes defendedone of just three players to eclipse 200 and 10, respectively, during that span.

    After picking off four passes and recording 3.0 sacks as a sophomore, Jewell had no interceptions and 1.5 sacks this past season. Whether he can bump those numbers back up as a senior could determine whether he becomes a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards for best defensive player in the nation.

Linebacker: Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

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    Tremaine Edmunds
    Tremaine EdmundsBob Leverone/Associated Press

    Tremaine Edmunds was arguably the top defensive breakout sensation in 2016.

    A 3-star recruit who recorded just 11 tackles as a true freshman in 2015, no one could have guessed Edmunds would record 106 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three passes defended and an interception as a sophomore. Though he was named a starter before the season began, even the first two games (combined total of five tackles) offered little evidence that this linebacker was about to become a star.

    But Edmunds had at least seven tackles in 10 of his final 12 games and also had at least one full tackle for a loss in 10 of those 12 games. Out of nowhere, he became the most indispensable part of what might be the best overall defense in the ACC in 2017.

    Heck, as far as NFL.com's Lance Zierlein is concerned, Edmunds is the No. 1 LB to watch this year.

    "Edmunds has the athletic ability and motor that allow his playmaking radius to sprawl all over the field, which is why he will likely be considered a high-end linebacker prospect who has the ability to play outside or inside," wrote Zierlein.

Linebacker: Azeem Victor, Washington

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    Azeem Victor
    Azeem VictorElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Now that we've reached the fourth and final LB, it's time to note just how deep this position is.

    No linebacker appeared on more than four ballots, but eight players made multiple appearances. If we were also naming a second team, Malik Jefferson, Tegray Scales, Cameron Smith and Jerome Baker would have made the cut with Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Travin Howard, Micah Kiser and Kendall Joseph all merely receiving honorable mentions. There figure to be a lot of linebackers called on the first two days of the next NFL draft.

    But Washington's Azeem Victor should be near the top of that list as a possible first-rounder.

    Victor only lasted nine full games into his junior season before a leg injury forced him to the sideline for the rest of the year, but the Huskies won all nine of those games as he racked up enough tackles to still finish just two shy of the team lead.

    And that was a step down from what he did as a sophomore, when he finished the year with 95 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, six passes defended and a pick six.

    Overall, the Huskies have allowed just 18.0 points per game in his 22 healthy games over the last two years. That number may tick up a bit after most of last year's secondary departed for the NFL, but Washington should be in good shape behind its star linebacker.

Cornerback: Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State

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    Tarvarus McFadden
    Tarvarus McFaddenMelina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Tarvarus McFadden tied for the FBS lead in interceptions last season with eight of them, and he may end up with even more in 2017.

    One big reason for that is the return of Derwin James. You would think after a player picks off eight passes and breaks up six others that opposing quarterbacks would avoid him at all costs the following season. However, with James back in the mix, there are no safe places to throw the football, and McFadden may be challenged even more often this season as QBs try to keep the ball away from the elite safety.

    But the bar for McFadden isn't set high just because of a potential increase in opportunities per game. Rather, he has proven himself to be one of the best coverage cornerbacks in the country.

    McFadden is 6'2" with impressive speed and length, excellent hands and a knack for winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. At times, it almost seemed like he knew the route better than the receiver did, running step for step with his opponent before breaking off at just the right moment. And he does a great job of forcing receivers to the outside and using the sideline to his advantage.

    When he goes one-on-one with Calvin Ridley in the season opener against Alabama, it should be one of the most entertaining and skillful individual battles of the entire year.

Cornerback: Jaire Alexander, Louisville

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    Jaire Alexander
    Jaire AlexanderGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    To put it lightly, Jaire Alexander is fast.

    Per ESPN's Andrea Adelson, Alexander ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds this springa time that would have been fourth-best among all players at the 2017 NFL draft combine. He leveraged that speed in becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, finishing last season with five interceptions and nine passes defended. According to Pro Football Focus, Alexander ranked No. 5 among the 269 qualifying CBs in overall grade, despite subpar tackling efficiency.

    This speedster is also Louisville's primary punt returner. In the 63-20 shocking blowout of Florida State, Alexander had a 69-yard return for a score and another 61-yard return that set the Cardinals up in the red zone. His ability to force a punt on defense and then do something with it on special teams ensures he won't be far behind Lamar Jackson in terms of appearances in Louisville's end-of-season highlight reel.

    Can he be more of a consistent factor as a junior, though? Those returns against Florida State were nice, as were the two interceptions each against Clemson and Virginia. But in the other 10 games combined, he had 65 punt-return yards, one interception and no fumbles forced or recovered. Alexander has the speed and the talent to be the best defensive back in the country, provided he shows up on a more regular basis this year.

Safety: Derwin James, Florida State

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    Derwin James
    Derwin JamesDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Technically, Derwin James is listed as a safety. However, he lines up at so many different spots on the field that he could be an All-American at just about any defensive position other than tackle.

    As a true freshman in 2015, James had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes defended and a pair of both fumbles forced and fumbles recovered. That isn't the greatest or most diverse stat line in the history of college football, but it was darn impressive for a first-year player and left us all twitterpated over the thought of what he might accomplish for the next two seasons.

    Unfortunately, a torn meniscus in Week 2 of last season robbed us of one of those years of giddy spectating, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn't buying stock in the possibility (inevitability?) that James comes back this year and sets the world ablaze.

    Between James and Tarvarus McFadden, one has to at least wonder where Florida State's secondary could rank in college football history. The 'Noles aren't holding a candle to the 2001 Miami team led by Ed Reed, Sean Taylor and Phillip Buchanon, but it should be one of the best units since then.

Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

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    Minkah Fitzpatrick
    Minkah FitzpatrickGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    As is the case with Derwin James, there's a debate to be had over what position Minkah Fitzpatrick actually plays. He's certainly a member of the secondary, but he has started games at outside cornerback, nickelback and safety throughout his two years with Alabama. A sideline CB is probably his most natural position, but based on this year's roster, it's looking like he'll primarily serve as the strong safety as a junior.

    Regardless of what label you want to give him, though, there's no question Fitzpatrick deserves to be a first-team All-American.

    He has eight interceptions and 17 passes defended over the past two seasons, including four interceptions returned for touchdowns. But he also has recorded 111 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks during that time, so he's much more than just a ball-hawking center fielder.

    Plenty of defensive backs have been taken No. 5 or No. 6 overall in the NFL drafts over the past two decades, but you have to go back to 1998 to find the last time a secondary player was taken in the top four. That's the year Charles Woodson went No. 4 after winning the 1997 Heisman. If Fitzpatrick can put up numbers even marginally better than what he did last year, he'll be in the conversation for both the Heisman and a top-four pick.

Kicker: Daniel Carlson, Auburn

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    Daniel Carlson
    Daniel CarlsonButch Dill/Associated Press

    All four of our preseason All-Americans on special teams reside in the SEC, starting with Auburn's reliable place kicker.

    Barring injury or a sudden inability to put a football through the uprights, Daniel Carlson will go down as one of the greatest kickers in college football history.

    In 2016, he led the nation in made field goals per game, connecting on 28 of 32 attempts. Carlson also nailed all 44 of his extra-point attempts and had a rushing touchdown to finish the year with 134 points scored. It kept his career PAT percentage at 100 (perfect in 141 tries) and pushed his career point total to 354, putting him in a tie for 91st place on the all-time leaderboard.

    (Carlson has put at least 109 points on the board in each of his three seasons. If that trend continues, he will finish 2017 in the No. 5-7 range on the aforementioned career leaderboard.)

    Though he has not yet won it, Carlson was one of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award in each of the last two seasons. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.

Punter: JK Scott, Alabama

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    JK Scott
    JK ScottKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    As if Alabama doesn't already have an advantage over most of its competition on both offense and defense, opponents can't even hope for a respite on special teams because of JK Scott. Even if you manage to stop this offense and force a punt, the Crimson Tide are still going to pin you deep in your own territory with one of the best punters in CFB history.

    With a mark of 46.32, Scott is the all-time leader in career yards per punt. Scott averaged at least 50 yards per punt in six consecutive games in the middle of last season, posting an average mark of 51.7 yards over the course of a month and a half.

    To put that number in perspective, 2012 was the last time an NFL punter averaged at least 50 yards per boot. Yet, this college kid was consistently well beyond that plateau for half of the regular season.

    Don't be surprised if this punter does a little bit of place kicking, too. Scott made three of four field-goal attempts during Alabama's spring game and should be in the mix for attempting field goals from 40 or more yards out.

Kick Returner: Evan Berry, Tennessee

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    Evan Berry
    Evan BerryJeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

    Evan Berry gets the nod at kick returner, but let's start out by showing some love to Western Kentucky's Kylen Towner.

    At 40.3 yards per kick return, Towner set the FBS record for single-season average in that category. Though he only returned one kickoff for a touchdown, 10 of his 26 returns went for at least 40 yards. No other player in the country had more than five returns of that distance.

    But Berry ranked second in the nation at 32.9 yards per return last year, led the nation the previous year with 38.3 yards per return and has taken four kickoffs to pay dirt in the past two seasons. And the next time he returns a kick, he's going to become the FBS leader in average yards per kick return.

    Berry is currently sitting at 34.2 yards per return, but with only 49 returns so far in his career, he's one shy of the minimum to qualify for that list. However, the current leader has a mark of 30.7, so even if Berry somehow figured out a way to return his next kickoff for negative-142 yards, he would still be alone in first place.

    Towner had a sensational 2016 season, but Berry is going to go down in the record books for his four-year career as a kick returner. Because of that, he's our guy.

Punt Returner: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

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    Christian Kirk
    Christian KirkRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    As previously promised, Christian Kirk makes a second appearance on the list as the top punt returner in the nation.

    Kirk has led the nation in yards per punt return in each of the last two seasons—24.4 in 2015 and 21.7 in 2016. Over the course of his two-year college career, he has averaged 23.1 yards per return, taking five out of 27 punts to the house.

    Last October against New Mexico State, he became one of just 20 players in the past 16 seasons to return multiple punts for touchdowns in the same game. The following week against Mississippi State, he brought back a third consecutive punt for a TD, that one a career-long 93 yards.

    Kirk doesn't appear on Sports-Reference's all-time leaderboard for average yards per return because he hasn't yet returned enough punts to qualify. But how's this for ridiculous? Even if Kirk "returned" 23 punts for a total of zero yards this year, he would still rank in the top 70 for career punt-return average. To rank No. 1 on the list, he need only average 11.8 yards in his next 23 returnswhich is barely half of what he has averaged to this point in his career.

    Long story short, there should probably be an investigation into a point-shaving scandal any time a punter gives Kirk a chance to catch the ball in bounds, because that is a downright reckless decision to make.