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Ranking top 15 ACC players entering 2018 season

The departures of Lamar Jackson, Bradley Chubb and Derwin James have created an opportunity for new standouts to lead 2018’s list of best ACC players.

As most would expect, Clemson is the primary focus. The three-time reigning league champs return a massive group of proven talent that passed up on the NFL after the 2017 campaign. Still, more than half of the ACC is represented in the top 15.

The order is based on a combination of factors, including previous production and 2018 expectations. NFL draft potential is also considered but not weighted heavily.

But that also means we’re focused on proven players. Others, such as Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence, may soon be among the best, but he hasn’t officially attempted a pass in college. His time will come.

15. Ricky Walker, defensive tackle, Virginia Tech

Good defensive tackles are strong run defenders or pass rushers. Great ones can do both, and Ricky Walker. As a junior, he posted 41 total tackles with 12.5 stops for loss and 4.5 sacks. Additionally, he recorded 32 total pressures on the quarterback, per Pro Football Focus. Walker narrowly missed out on earning a third-team All-ACC spot, finishing no more than six voting points behind the two D-tackles. But now, the only returning All-ACC defensive tackles are the Clemson stars. Walker should earn a deserved place higher on the list this season.

14. Ryan Finley, quarterback, North Carolina State

Heading into the 2018 campaign, Ryan Finley is the most productive ACC quarterback. Kelly Bryant deserves a nod for steering Clemson to the College Football Playoff last season, but Finley is more than an efficient thrower. Of course, he was exactly that in 2017, ranking 15th nationally with a 65.1 completion percentage. The Boise State transfer piled up 3,518 yards and 17 touchdowns to only six interceptions through the air, adding 194 yards and three scores on the ground. Finley led NC State to its first nine-win campaign in seven years.

13. Mitch Hyatt, left tackle, Clemson

Not only is Mitch Hyatt a three-year starter for Clemson, he’s secured All-ACC honors each year. The left tackle has risen from third to second to first team as he’s aged, so the logical step for his senior campaign is first-team All-American, right? In all seriousness, he’s been an outstanding blindside protector. Throughout his college career, per CFB Film Room, Hyatt has surrendered only five sacks in nearly 1,500 pass-block snaps. He’s only one part of the offensive line, but it sure is nice for the Tigers to have a cornerstone they trust at left tackle.

12. Levonta Taylor, cornerback, Florida State

Levonta Taylor already had a breakout season, but he should become a familiar name in 2018. As a sophomore, he grabbed two interceptions and allowed one reception for every 30.6 snaps in coverage. That, according to Pro Football Focus, is the best mark among returning corners. He surrendered a meager 28.5 passer rating when targeted. Taylor is a special talent. Since he only registered 18 tackles last season, it might seem Taylor is still working on finding a place on FSU’s defense. But opposing coordinators already know all about him.

11. Jaylen Smith, wide receiver, Louisville

The departure of Lamar Jackson is going to affect Jaylen Smith. Even if his production drops, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not getting open. The burden to capitalize on those skills rests on Jawon Pass, who’s set to replace Jackson at quarterback. Nevertheless, Smith posted career-high marks of 60 receptions, 980 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing three games last season. Other than a 49-yard showing in a win at Florida State, his lowest output was 73 yards. The rising senior is a true difference-maker at receiver.

10. Michael Jackson, cornerback, Miami

Michael Jackson made a habit of wearing the Turnover Chain in 2017. He snagged four interceptions on the season, including one against rival Florida State. It’s no wonder he earned second-team All-ACC recognition, since he absolutely locked down conference opponents all season. According to PFF, Jackson ceded just 188 yards and didn’t allow a touchdown in 37 targets. Factor in his interceptions and pass breakups, and that’s the definition of a lockdown cornerback. With a similar season, the senior could be a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

9. AJ Dillon, running back, Boston College

In terms of production, AJ Dillon has no equal in the conference. Following a quiet start to his freshman season in 2017, Dillon emerged as the league’s most productive running back. He racked up 1,589 yards — the seventh-most in the country — and 14 touchdowns, both of which led the ACC at his position. Had Arizona’s Khalil Tate not put together his sensational mid-year explosion, the nation might’ve been talking about Dillon. Boston College boasts an experienced offensive line in 2018, so that deserved attention could be coming Dillon’s way soon.

8. Cam Akers, running back, Florida State

Jacques Patrick is a quality backup, so Florida State doesn’t need Cam Akers to be a workhorse. Sharing carries is valuable because if keeps both runners fresh. But there’s no doubt who should be taking the majority of snaps. During his true freshman season, the shifty back collected 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns. He leaped past the 100-yard mark in four contests. In a faster-paced system under new coach Willie Taggart, the sophomore should receive more touches. Akers probably won’t lead the ACC in rushing, but he’ll show the most skill.

7. Joe Giles-Harris, linebacker, Duke

No matter if he’s in coverage or helping against the run, Joe Giles-Harris will be around the football. During each of the last two seasons, he’s led the Blue Devils in tackles. As a sophomore, Giles-Harris gathered 125 stops with 16 behind the line of scrimmage. Additionally, he posted 4.5 sacks, six hurries, four pass breakups and one interception. In short: The dude is everywhere. Duke has a much-debated outlook for 2018, but if the program is contending for a Coastal Division crown, it’s safe to say Giles-Harris is flourishing again.

6. Austin Bryant, defensive end, Clemson

After two years in a rotational role, Austin Bryant joined the starting lineup in 2017 and thrived. The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder ended the campaign with 50 tackles, including 8.5 sacks among his 15.5 takedowns for loss. According to CFB Film Room, he tallied a team-high 21 hurries and chipped in five quarterback hits. Bryant isn’t overwhelming with his speed or quickness, but he’s a powerful rusher and a standout defending the run. While the surrounding talent on Clemson’s defensive line benefits Bryant, he’s a terrific NFL prospect on his own.

5. Lukas Denis, safety, Boston College

Safeties cannot be effective without having great awareness. However, the physical ability to actually reach the proper spot is a gift, and Lukas Denis has it. As a junior, he registered 83 tackles, seven interceptions, 10 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. So, not only is Denis a ballhawk on the back end, he’s a reliable contributor in run support. Throw in his impressive man-coverage skills, and Boston College has a hugely valuable, exceptionally versatile star. The second-team All-ACC safety has All-American potential in his senior season.

4. Christian Wilkins, defensive tackle, Clemson

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) reacts after a defense play during the first quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The second member of Clemson’s loaded front four, Christian Wilkins has bounced around the defensive line to fill whatever position needs a boost. Though he’s best suited as a tackle, Wilkins spent much of 2016 at end. He shifted back inside as a junior, tallying 60 stops with 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Per CFB Film Room, he added 11 hurries and four hits. Despite being a likely first-round pick, he decided to stay in college for one more season. Wilkins will solidify that draft expectation if he remains a well-rounded contributor.

3. Jaquan Johnson, safety, Miami

Miami is retooling the defensive line, but the back seven boasts a ton of experience. Jaquan Johnson is the leader of the secondary, and he offers a useful mix of reliability and playmaking skills. He amassed a team-high 96 tackles in 2017, also intercepting four passes and forcing three fumbles. While watching Miami play, Johnson doesn’t jump off the screen as a can’t-miss contributor. Yet when checking the box score, you’ll notice he has eight tackles and a pass breakup. Johnson’s biggest value is being the safety who doesn’t make mistakes.

2. Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Clemson

Dexter Lawrence won’t often make glamorous plays, but someone has to do the dirty work in the trenches. Few in college football are better at it than Lawrence. Listed at 6-foot-4 at 350 pounds, he’s a space-eating machine who excels against the run and provides a steady pass-rushing presence. Through two seasons with the Tigers, he’s notched 96 tackles with nine sacks. Among the “Power Rangers,” Lawrence is the name you’ll likely hear the least. Without his impact, though, Clemson’s defensive line wouldn’t be near as dominant.

1. Clelin Ferrell, defensive end, Clemson

Wilkins’ decision to return was surprising, but Tigers fans couldn’t have anticipated Clelin Ferrell would pass up the NFL. ACC coaches certainly aren’t thrilled about it. Nevertheless, the All-American is back for another year, and he’s one of the nation’s most respected pass-rushers. Ferrell has recorded 110 total tackles, 30.5 takedowns for loss and 15.5 sacks in two seasons. He’s even forced two fumbles. The redshirt junior boasts a combination of speed and strength that makes him a burden to block — and the best player in the ACC.