Ranking the Top 10 Juniors for the 2018 College Football Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 12, 2018

Ranking the Top 10 Juniors for the 2018 College Football Season

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    Ed Oliver
    Ed OliverEric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Ed Oliver, Nick Bosa and Clelin Ferrell headline the deep list of elite defensive linemen who will be juniors during the 2018 college football season. But there are also a handful of quarterbacks and running backs alongside those pass-rushers and run-stoppers in our ranking of the 10 best juniors in the country.

    The 2018 NFL draft is just around the corner, and these are the players who ought to feature prominently in the "way too early 2019 NFL mock drafts" that get published right after Mr. Irrelevant is chosen. They each still have at least one more year of dominance remaining at the collegiate level, though.

    Using a combination of past performance, 2018 expectations and NFL potential, here are the projected 10 best juniors for the upcoming college football season.

Honorable Mentions

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    A.J. Brown, Ole Miss, WR

    Among returning players, only Anthony Johnson (Buffalo) and Diontae Johnson (Toledo) finished last season with more receiving yards than Brown. He did most of his damage with Shea Patterson at QB, but Brown did have a couple of big performances with Jordan Ta'amu slinging the ball. He should be the top receiver in the country.

           

    Devin White, LSU, LB

    At times, you could swear there were two Devin Whites on the field for LSU last season. That's the only rational explanation for how this linebacker had eight games with at least 11 tackles. He was everywhere as a sophomore, including in the backfield, where he had a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

           

    Jonah Williams, Alabama, OT

    After starting at right tackle for his entire freshman season, Williams seamlessly made the transition to left tackle last year. If the left-handed Tua Tagovailoa locks down the starting job at quarterback, Williams might be asked to move back to right tackle to protect his blind side. Regardless of where he lines up, though, the Crimson Tide are better protected with this stud on the offensive line.

           

    Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois, DE

    After switching from running back to defensive end and making almost no impact as a redshirt freshman, Smith exploded for a nation-leading 30.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks last season. In any other year, he'd be a lock for the top 10 on this list. But there are so many elite defensive linemen among juniors this year that this likely Group of Five defensive player of the year could get lost in the shuffle.

10. Shea Patterson, Michigan

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Sophomore Year Results

    Shea Patterson suffered a torn PCL in an October game against LSU, but he was impressive up until that point. Sure, he had a rough performance against Alabama's secondary, but who doesn't? In the five other games before the injury, he averaged 395.6 passing yards and 3.4 touchdowns against 0.8 interceptions.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Ole Miss recently filed an objection to Patterson's request for immediate eligibility after his transfer to Michigan. But assuming he's allowed to play, he should be the answer for a Wolverines team who was desperately lacking consistency at QB last season. Don't expect nearly as many passing attempts per game as he got in the Rebels offense, but do expect him to quickly develop a lethal connection with Donovan Peoples-Jones.

           

    NFL Potential

    Patterson was one of the top recruits in the country in 2016, entering college as a phenom with the likelihood of leaving after three years. But between only playing in 10 games in his first two years and now needing to learn a new offense, perhaps he'll stick around for the 2019 season. When he does leave, though, his big arm will be a coveted commodity. If he winds up with a team with good pass blocking, he could be special.

9. Rashan Gary, Michigan

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Sophomore Year Results

    Rashan Gary was one piece of a maize and blue gang that terrorized opposing offensive linemen. Six Michigan defenders finished last season with at least 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, including Gary at 11.5 and 5.5, respectively. One could easily argue that a big reason so many different Wolverines spent so much time in the backfield is because opponents were too focused on trying to shut down the No. 1 overall recruit in 2016, per 247Sports.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Gary saved his best for last, tallying 10 total tackles and a pair of sacks in the regular-season finale against Ohio State. That could be a sign of things to come. He'll need to shoulder more of the load with both Maurice Hurst and Mike McCray out of the picture, but there's plenty of reason to believe this will be his breakout year, resulting in at least 10 sacks.

         

    NFL Potential

    As far as the draft is concerned, Gary might be a mid-to-late first-round pick, simply becauseassuming all three declare after their junior seasonsboth Ed Oliver and Dexter Lawrence are more enticing options at defensive tackle. Regardless of when his named is called, everyone will be expecting big things. He should be headed for a Ndamukong Suh type of salary in a hurry.

8. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn

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    Sophomore Year Results

    Jarrett Stidham was hit-or-miss in his first season with Auburn. He looked fantastic against Missouri, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and in the first game against Georgia. He was also great in the win over Alabama, completing 75 percent of his passes against an elite secondary. But Stidham was dreadful in the losses to Clemson and LSU, as well as in the SEC championship against Georgia. All told, though, not too shabby for a guy who didn't play in 2016 after leaving Baylor.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Auburn is always a run-first offense, but after losing both Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway from its backfield attack, it might rely more heavily on Stidham's arm in 2018. With the exception of Johnson, all six of Stidham's top targets in the passing game will be back. It's the first time in a long time that the Tigers have had this much returning cohesion between passer and receivers, and that should mean a more impressive campaign for the QB.

         

    NFL Potential

    Stidham could have a nice, long run in the NFL as a middle-of-the-road starter. In other words, he probably won't go to that many Pro Bowls, but he's gifted enough that he'll always be able to find a job, provided he can stay healthy. The big question is consistency and accuracy. Stidham has a big arm, but he'll need to develop more of an ability to put the ball right where the receiver wants it time and again.

7. Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

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    Sophomore Year Results

    The crown jewel of Lane Kiffin's unstoppable offense, Devin Singletary rushed for 1,918 yards and an absurd 32 touchdowns last season. He began the year with a couple of duds against Navy and Wisconsin, but he averaged 155.9 yards and 2.7 rushing touchdowns over his final 11 games. He led the nation in rushing touchdowns by a wide margin and finished fourth in total rushing yards.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Don't expect much to change. Maybe Singletary will get a few more touches since the Owls know from the outset that he's their best source of offense, but at 21.5 carries per game, he was already getting a lot of work. FAU does have nonconference games against Oklahoma and UCF, who could be tough to move the ball against, but look for Singletary to run rampant through Conference USA once again.

         

    NFL Potential

    Singletary has been incredible against the likes of Rice, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky. In three career games against Power Five teams, however, he has averaged just 31.0 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. If he can put on a show against Oklahoma, it'll open a lot of eyes to what he could bring to the NFL. In 2020, he might be the next Kareem Hunt, taking the professional world by storm as a rookie who was underappreciated in college.

6. McKenzie Milton, UCF

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    Sophomore Year Results

    Were it not for Baker Mayfield putting up historically efficient numbers for a second straight season, more people would have noticed what an incredible job McKenzie Milton did for the 13-0 UCF Knights. The dual-threat QB averaged better than four passing touchdowns per interception and better than 310 yards per game while completing 67 percent of his pass attempts. He also rushed for 613 yards and eight scores.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Milton's favorite target (Tre'Quan Smith: 1,171 yards, 13 TD) left for the NFL, and his head coach (Scott Frost) departed for the opening at Nebraska, so it's hard to know what we should expect from Milton this year. Fellow AAC QB Quinton Flowers went through a similar transition last year, and it was nearly two months before he started looking like his old self again. Hopefully, new head coach and former QB Josh Heupel will be able to keep Milton operating at a high level.

         

    NFL Potential

    Milton is a great college quarterback, but at just 5'11", he'll have a hard time finding a job as a quarterback in the NFL. It's not an impossible journey. Doug Flutie was 5'10" and played professionally for more than two decades. But he's clearly the exception rather than the expectation. The good news for UCF is that means Milton will probably stick around for two more years.

5. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

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    Sophomore Year Results

    Dexter Lawrence had the least noteworthy numbers among Clemson's tenacious defensive linemen. The big DT finished the year with just 33 tackles and two sacks while Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins racked up big numbers. But there are two reasons for that: Lawrence battled an ankle injury for much of his sophomore season, and he commands so much attention from opposing offenses that it inevitably becomes easier for his teammates to get into the backfield.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    A healthy Lawrence is a terrifying proposition for the rest of the country, especially when also considering that the rest of Clemson's starting defensive line is back for another year. The Tigers were already tied for the national lead with 46 sacks last season and had one of the most impenetrable rushing defenses. Maybe Lawrence doesn't put up outlandish individual numbers, but he should be the keystone for a D-line that we'll be talking about for years to come.

         

    NFL Potential

    The sky is the limit for Lawrence. Whether he's a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense or a pass-rushing interior lineman in a different scheme, this dude is going to be the cause of a lot of lost sleep for O-line coaches in the NFL. Unless teams at the top of next year's draft order are desperate to fill a different need rather than grabbing the best player available, Lawrence is a near-lock to be a top-10 pick in 2019.

4. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Sophomore Year Results

    The biggest beneficiary of Dexter Lawrence's mountainous presence in Clemson's defense was Clelin Ferrell. The redshirt sophomore led the Tigers in both tackles for loss (18) and sacks (9.5). In just one game against Syracuse, Ferrell did a lot of that damage, though it ended up being Clemson's lone loss during the regular season. He had 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss against the Orange.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    Lather, rinse, repeat. Unless he inexplicably loses a step over the summer, Ferrell will remain one of the best pass-rushers in the nation. He's so quick off the snap that quarterbacks barely have time to find the laces on the ball before they are running away from Ferrell. Look for him to comfortably eclipse the double-digit mark in sacks that he flirted with last year.

         

    NFL Potential

    Edge-rushers tend to be more of a lottery ticket than a sure thing when it comes to projecting NFL success, but it certainly feels like Ferrell is destined to make a major impact at the next level. Whether he remains a defensive end or some team tries to convert him to outside linebacker, his instincts and pursuit of the ball-carrier will make him a defensive force for years to come. Go ahead and mark Ferrell down as a top-half-of-the-first-round pick in 2019.

3. Nick Bosa, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Sophomore Year Results

    Along with Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa made life miserable for Ohio State's opponents. The duo combined for 29.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks, with Bosa (16.0 and 8.5) accounting for the slight majority in each category. Nearly half of all his tackles (34) occurred behind the line of scrimmage.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    With both Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis out of the picture, Bosa figures to command even more attention in 2018. And we're talking about a guy who already had to face more than his fair share of double-teams as a sophomore. Don't be surprised if Bosa's numbers decrease, similar to what happened to older brother Joey and Jadeveon Clowney during their junior seasons. But also don't be surprised when he becomes a top-five draft pick in spite of it.

         

    NFL Potential

    Because of his last name, expectations are sky high for Bosa. Nick might be even better than Joey, though. The younger Bosa can thrive at just about any spot on the defensive line, which will improve his odds of immediately becoming a starter and a sack machine at the next level.

2. Khalil Tate, Arizona

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    Sophomore Year Results

    The overnight sensation of the 2017 season, Khalil Tate had a five-game stretch in which he threw for at least 146 yards, rushed for at least 137 yards and scored at least three touchdowns. In his first six starts, he averaged nearly 12 yards per carry and 201.2 yards per game and ran for 11 touchdowns. Even for a running back, that would be incredible. To do that as a quarterback is mind-blowing.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    At the end of the season, teams finally figured out how to contain Tate. He averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in Arizona's final three games—all losses. But Lamar Jackson had a similarly disappointing three-game finish to his sophomore season before destroying opponents once again as a junior. There's no good reason to assume Tate won't be the best dual-threat QB in the country and a wildly entertaining ride once more.

        

    NFL Potential

    Another similarity he'll share with Jackson: Get ready for anonymous NFL draft scouts to insist Tate would be better suited as a wide receiver in the NFL. For the time being, it's too early to forecast what his ceiling might be. If he can do for 12 games what he did for six last year, he'll at least have a chance of becoming a first-round pick. He'll need to prove he can do more with his arm and less with his legs, though.

1. Ed Oliver, Houston

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    Sophomore Year Results

    It's amazing what Ed Oliver has been able to accomplish while serving as the clear-cut primary threat in Houston's defense. This elite DT led the Cougars in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (5.5) while accumulating 73 total tackles. For good measure, he also had a one-yard rushing touchdown in the Hawaii Bowl against Fresno State.

         

    Junior Year Outlook

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Oliver will remain the focal point of opposing offenses, and he will continue shedding double-teams to break up plays in the backfield. In what figures to be the year of the defensive lineman, Oliver should at least sneak on to the fringe of the Heisman conversation as the best of that bunch.

         

    NFL Potential

    Oliver has already unofficially declared for the 2019 NFL draft, and he should be at the top of every draft board heading into next April. Given what he has done without much of a supporting cast at Houston, front offices will be chomping at the bit to pair this game-changing athlete with quality defensive ends and linebackers. He could be the best DT since Warren Sapp.

                    

    Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.