Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2018 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2018

Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2018 College Football Season

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    The appeal of the NFL understandably draws many elite juniors to the pros, but a star-studded group of seniors will return to college football in 2018.

    Although two quarterbacks and a Heisman Trophy runner-up all hold a top-10 place, the list is largely composed of non-glamorous positions in the trenches and at linebacker.

    In addition to breaking down the following players' outlooks for 2018, we'll also provide an early glimpse at their NFL future. Pro projection has no affect on the order, though. Instead, that's based on a combination of previous production and expectations in the fall.

10. Cameron Smith, ILB, USC

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    2017 results: Cameron Smith led the Pac-12 champion USC in tackles last season. The 6'2", 250-pounder collected 112 total stopsincluding 11 in the backfieldand snagged one interception. He secured first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

    2018 outlook: USC's defense needs to rebuild up front and in the secondary, but Smith will be a trustworthy run-stopping force in the middle. He won't be asked to provide a pass-rushing presence as long as Porter Gustin regains his previous form on the edge.

    NFL potential: Heading into the season, Smith should be a popular mid-first-round option in early mock drafts. While he has room to rise, that may depend on predraft athletic testing. Smith lacks the ideal size for an NFL linebacker, but he could mitigate those concerns with an impressive showing at the combine.

9. T.J. Edwards, ILB, Wisconsin

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    2017 results: T.J. Edwards ranked second on Wisconsin with 81 tackles. But he finished first among Big Ten linebackers in passer rating when targeted (38.4), per Pro Football Focus. Edwards had four interceptions, seven pass breakups and 11 tackles for loss to secure a first-team Associated Press All-American spot.

    2018 outlook: Leading tackler and fellow inside 'backer Ryan Connelly returns, so the Badgers have a dominant one-two combination in the middle. Edwards will be an integral part of Wisconsin trying to continue a five-year streak of top-10 finishes in yards per game allowed.

    NFL potential: Athletic testing will be pivotal for Edwards. As he weighed skipping his senior season, the NFL draft advisory committee cited speed as his primary concern, per Jason Galloway of the Wisconsin State Journal. Edwards has the mental aptitude to excel in the pros, so he could be a Day 2 selection if NFL teams feel he's physically prepared as well.

8. Dalton Risner, RT, Kansas State

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    2017 results: After securing a first-team All-Big 12 nod in 2016, Dalton Risner repeated the feat as a junior. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed only four pressures on 276 pass-block snaps while helping Kansas State rank 29th nationally in yards per carry.

    2018 outlook: Risner will serve as the anchor of an experienced offensive line. All five starters return for the Wildcats, who are deciding between Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson at quarterback.

    NFL potential: Stature isn't a concern for Risner, who's listed at 6'5" and 300 pounds. Quickness and arm length will determine whether he's a guard or tackle in the NFL, but Risner should be mentioned as a potential Day 2 selection with a Day 3 floor.

7. Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson

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    2017 results: Austin Bryant spent his first two seasons at Clemson contributing in a reserve role, which helped him prepare to take over as a starter in 2017. He amassed 50 total tackles with 15.5 stops for loss, 8.5 sacks and 21 hurries, per CFB Film Room. Bryant was a third-team AP All-American.

    2018 outlook: He's the fourth-best player on the defensive line. (Clemson opponents, feel free to laugh through your pain.) Bryant will align opposite Clelin Ferrell and next to either Christian Wilkins or Dexter Lawrence, all of whom secured first-team All-ACC honors last year.

    NFL potential: While there's an unquestioned benefit to playing alongside three Day 1 talents, Bryant is tremendous on his own. He's already considered a potential first-round pick and can solidify that perception with a similar season in 2018.

6. Chase Winovich, DE, Michigan

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    2017 results: Most of the preseason attention focused on Rashan Gary, but Chase Winovich exited the 2017 campaign with Michigan-high marks of 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He amassed 79 total stops and 54 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

    2018 outlook: Maurice Hurst leaves a massive void in the middle. Still, the Wolverines have Gary and former prized recruit Aubrey Solomon, along with Bryan Mone. Winovich demands extra attention, but opponents can't sell out to stop him.

    NFL potential: Winovich is tremendous off the edge and also thrives in run support. NFL scouting departments will value his ability to make a three-down impact. Winovich is a first-round talent who hasn't garnered that attention yet.

5. Mitch Hyatt, LT, Clemson

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    2017 results: Mitch Hyatt has been a stalwart at left tackle, holding down the position since his freshman season in 2015. Last year, he surrendered four sacks in 444 pass-blocking snaps, per CFB Film Room. (Wyatt allowed zero sacks in 531 such snaps in 2016.)

    2018 outlook: As the Tigers determine whether to start Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence, they'll be confident in their primary blindside protector. Hyatt will have a new teammate at left guard following Taylor Hearn's departure, though Hyatt's presence plus the return of center Justin Falcinelli should ease that transition.

    NFL potential: Alabama's Jonah Williams, Ole Miss' Greg Little and Washington's Trey Adams are among the favorites at the position. However, Hyatt is a first-round-caliber talent if he improves his strength. The 6'5", 305-pounder should test will athletically, so he's a Day 2 prospect with a clear path to move even higher.

4. Will Grier, QB, West Virginia

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    2017 results: In his first season at West Virginia, Will Grier emerged as one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks. He posted nine 300-yard games prior to a finger injury that effectively cost him three games. Grier totaled 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns on a 64.4 completion percentage, tossing 12 interceptions.

    2018 outlook: Ka'Raun White used up his eligibility, but All-American teammate David Sills V and 97-catch wideout Gary Jennings are back. Plus, Marcus Simms had 35 receptions last year. It would be a surprise if Grier doesn't finish among the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game and yards per attempt in 2018.

    NFL potential: The 2019 class of quarterbacks isn't highly regarded at the moment, but that could change over the next year. Grier is still working on downfield touch, and his association with an Air Raid offense will be a question mark. However, he's a strong-armed quarterback who's comfortable in the pocket and against the blitz. Grier will open 2018 in the first-round conversation.

3. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State

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    2017 results: Trace McSorley followed up his breakout sophomore season in 2016 with another impressive campaign last year. The dual-threat quarterback completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. McSorley also scampered for 491 yards and 11 scores, helping Penn State finish with an 11-2 record.

    2018 outlook: By no means is Penn State's receiving corps decimated, but replacing the production of DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Saeed Blacknall and Saquon Barkley won't be simple, either. McSorley may need to offer a larger running threat, though he and Juwan Johnson should form a tremendous connection.

    NFL potential: Listed at 6'0" and 198 pounds, McSorley is nowhere close to optimal NFL-quarterback size. However, his combination of production, efficiency and mobility will demand a thorough study from scouts. McSorley will likely be pegged as a Day 3 pick, but he could join the Day 2 conversation.

2. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

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    2017 results: The replacement for Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love made quick work of the Stanford record book en route to first-team AP All-America honors. He piled up a program-best 2,118 rushing yards and scored 19 touchdowns on the ground, finishing as the runner-up to Mayfield in Heisman voting.

    2018 outlook: Four offensive linemen return, and a few others have starting experience as well. Love should have plenty of lanes to run through as a senior. He only needs 1,179 yardshe had accumulated that many by the sixth game of the 2017 seasonto set the school mark for career rushing yards.

    NFL potential: Love will likely compete with Alabama's Damien Harris and Washington's Myles Gaskin for the No. 1 running back spot. Love's low receiving numbers aren't a surprise given Stanford's offensive system, but it'll be important for him to show that skill set during predraft workouts to secure a Day 2 slot.

1. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

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    2017 results: After playing on the edge in 2016 to accommodate Clemson's interior talent, Christian Wilkins shifted back inside as a junior and remained a dominant force. The 6'4", 300-pound tackle posted 60 stops, including 8.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

    2018 outlook: It's almost unfair how disruptive the Tigers' defensive front will be. Wilkins will primarily align at tackle, though he could shift out to D-end on occasionbut probably not to safety. Though the supply of elite talent in the front seven will limit his total production, there won't be any questioning Wilkins' impact.

    NFL potential: Had he bolted for the NFL, Wilkins likely would've heard his name called in the mid- to late first round of the 2018 draft. Fellow teammate Dexter Lawrence (if he declares) and Houston star Ed Oliver should be the top interior linemen, but Wilkins has top-10 potential.