Ranking the Top 10 Seniors Heading into the 2019 College Football Season
It's become increasingly rare for star college football players to pass up the NFL draft when eligible, but there is always an impressive group of seniors staying in school.
Looking ahead to the 2019 season, Oregon signal-caller Justin Herbert leads a list featuring three quarterbacks. Incidentally, though, he squared off with a couple of the best soon-to-be-senior defenders in the Redbox Bowl against Michigan State last year.
Beyond the MSU duo, five other defenders―two apiece from the ACC and SEC and one representing the Pac-12―complete the 10-man crew.
While a preview of 2019 and NFL forecast factor into this list, past production serves as the primary basis for the ranking.
10. Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
Past Results: Raekwon Davis didn't have the season he expected in 2018, yet he still claimed second-team All-SEC honors with 55 tackles and 5.5 stops for loss. The year before, he collected 69 takedowns and 10 tackles in the backfield, including 8.5 sacks.
2019 Projection: The 6'7", 309-pounder is the lone returning starter on the Crimson Tide defensive line. Davis' biggest strength is defending the run, but a handful of sacks would offer a much-needed boost to a retooling front seven.
Long-Term Outlook: Davis has the upside of a top-10 selection in the NFL draft. He's showed off terrific athleticism at his size, and a more disruptive year should confirm his place as a first-round pick.
9. Mason Fine, QB, North Texas
Past Results: After splitting time as a freshman, Mason Fine threw for 3,700-plus yards with at least 27 touchdowns in 2017 and 2018. He already holds the North Texas career record for passing yards and is six scores from taking the touchdown mark.
2019 Projection: Three of the Mean Green's top four receivers are back in 2019, so Fine should be headed for another massive year. Even better for him, head coach Seth Littrell decided to stay at North Texas rather than chase a power-conference job.
Long-Term Outlook: Since he's listed at 5'11", Fine will be subject to the classic "is he tall enough for the NFL?" conversation. But his efficiency―he completed nearly 64 percent of his passes over the past two seasons―and improved decision-making are definite draws. Fine should be drafted, though likely on Day 2 or later.
8. Evan Weaver, LB, Cal
Past Results: The nation's top returning tackler had 158 takedowns in 2018. Evan Weaver was the centerpiece of a defense that ranked ninth nationally in yards allowed per play, also posting nine stops for loss with 4.5 sacks and two interceptions―one of which sparked Cal's upset of Washington.
2019 Projection: Expecting him to repeat that production is unfair―especially if Cal doesn't lead the Pac-12 in punts per game again. However, the Bears must replace Jordan Kunaszyk, who racked up 148 tackles last season. Weaver's presence will help steady the unit, and he'll probably finish around the 120-tackle mark.
Long-Term Outlook: This is a pivotal year for Weaver. Heading into the season, the linebacker isn't a highly regarded prospect because he's mostly a downhill player. Perhaps he could switch back to defensive end at the next level, but that's simply a projection.
7. Joe Bachie, LB, Michigan State
Past Results: Joe Bachie has posted consecutive seasons of 100 tackles with 8.5 for loss, securing All-Big Ten honors in both years. Last season, he also broke up five passes and forced three fumbles.
2019 Projection: Given that the Spartans return the entire defensive front, Bachie's role shouldn't change much. Besides, the middle linebacker is a sensational run-stopper. As long as he's healthy, Bachie will wrap up his MSU career with another All-Big Ten nod.
Long-Term Outlook: Despite his reliable play, Bachie wasn't often mentioned in NFL conversations last season even before deciding to come back. He's a terrific processor and reacts quickly, but concerns about his level of athleticism translating to the next level have probably limited the attention on Bachie.
6. D'Eriq King, Houston QB
Past Results: D'Eriq King was a returner and receiver for much of 2016 and 2017, ending the latter season as the quarterback when Kyle Allen and Kyle Postma struggled. Then in 2018, King had a breakout year to earn second-team All-AAC recognition. He threw for 2,982 yards, scampered for 674 and accounted for 50 touchdowns.
2019 Projection: Houston has several reasons for excitement beyond King this season. Not only do the Cougars return top wideouts Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark, but new coach Dana Holgorsen brings a dynamic offensive system. King should be among the leaders in total offensive yards.
Long-Term Outlook: Similar to Mason Fine, the 5'11", 195-pound King lacks prototypical size for an NFL quarterback. But with decent arm strength and electrifying mobility, he at least merits Day 3 draft attention to show his versatility.
5. Shaq Quarterman, LB, Miami
Past Results: A three-year starter at Miami, Shaq Quarterman has gathered 80-plus tackles each season. He's totaled 31 stops in the backfield, including personal-high marks of 14 for loss and six sacks en route to first-team All-ACC in 2018.
2019 Projection: Quarterman and fellow senior Michael Pinckney are both dynamic, disruptive players who also cover well. The Hurricanes are tweaking the defensive line and retooling the secondary, but having this duo at linebacker should help Miami stay among the nation's most efficient units.
Long-Term Outlook: There's no question about his downhill talent, stopping the run and frustrating quarterbacks. But will his versatility translate? NFL teams will carefully judge the 6'1", 235-pounder's ability to cover faster players at the next level. If they review it positively, he has first-round upside with a Day 2 floor.
4. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Past Results: Bryce Hall has steadily increased his impact at Virginia. As a freshman, he nabbed two interceptions. The cornerback broke up nine passes in 2017 and then led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 24 total pass defenses and had 62 tackles.
2019 Projection: Virginia must replace a couple of key pieces in the secondary in Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris, so Hall's presence is pivotal to the team's success. While not necessarily a lockdown corner, he's a playmaker because of high awareness in off-man coverage. That should result in another season of 18-plus pass defenses.
Long-Term Outlook: Hall, who checks in at 6'1" and 200 pounds, has ideal length for his position. Like Shaq Quarterman, he's a potential first-rounder who shouldn't last beyond Friday of the 2020 NFL draft.
3. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
Past Results: Over the last two seasons, Derrick Brown has totaled 104 takedowns with 19.5 for loss and eight sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked second in the SEC with 34 stops―tackles considered a win for the defense―last season.
2019 Projection: Both first-team All-SEC defensive tackles headed to the pros, so Brown has a great chance to earn one spot. The question we can't answer is whether he'll attract the double-teams Dontavius Russell used to handle or if his replacement will. Brown's production could drop, but that doesn't automatically mean his impact will, too.
Long-Term Outlook: Russell's departure is an opportunity and a challenge for the senior. As the centerpiece of the defensive line, Brown can either establish himself as a run-stopper with pass-rushing upside or show he's best suited in a complementary spot. The former is a top-15 pick; the latter is bordering on a late Day 2 position.
2. Kenny Willekes, DE, Michigan State
Past Results: Kenny Willekes almost left for the NFL following the 2018 season. However, per Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press, a broken left leg in the Redbox Bowl forced the defensive end to return to MSU. Willekes ended the campaign ranked eighth nationally with 20.5 tackles for loss and won Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
2019 Projection: Provided his recovery goes as planned, Willekes should continue producing at an elite clip. The entire defensive line is back, so Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk and Jacob Panasiuk―who combined for 21 TFL―will make it difficult to key on Willekes.
Long-Term Outlook: Explosiveness, energy and speed are a terrific combination of strengths, but improving the physical side of his game is imperative. Willekes is squarely on NFL radars, but a Day 2 landing spot is seemingly the best-case scenario right now.
1. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Past Results: After working his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, Justin Herbert has steadied the Oregon program. With him as the starter, the Ducks are 15-6 during the last two years. Entering 2019, he has 7,070 yards and 63 touchdowns to 17 interceptions.
2019 Projection: Herbert's low number of turnovers is a huge positive for an offense in need of receivers. Oregon lost record-setting wideout Dillon Mitchell to the NFL, so the Ducks are hoping Herbert can elevate a pass-catching corps that mostly lacks college production. At least the offensive line returns five starters in front of him.
Long-Term Outlook: Some scouts and draft analysts rave about Herbert's size and strength. Others spell out a concerning list of issues, such as inconsistent accuracy and a one-read-and-run tendency. Barring clear-cut improvement in those areas, he'll be a first-round selection who receives varying reviews all the way to draft day.