Ranking top 40 college football players entering 2017 season

Lamar Jackson is a boom-or-bust player heading into the 2018 NFL Draft

Who is the best college football player in the land? It’s a lively debate worth having, and we here at Sportsnaut have some ideas of our own on the topic.

All across the nation there is talent galore just peculating, eager to put on a show for the masses during the 2017 college football season. Some players we deep worthy to be mentioned among the best you’ve heard about. Others might be names you don’t recognize.

Among them is last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, a defensive star who could be the top pick of the 2018 NFL Draft and a pass rusher who has a famous last name.

These are the top 40 players in the nation for the 2017 college football season.

40. Trace McSorley, quarterback, Penn State

McSorley was one of the most entertaining quarterbacks in the nation last year as a redshirt sophomore. He loves to push the ball downfield, which is evident in the impressive 9.3 yards per attempt he registered. Accuracy is an issue, but McSorley’s ability to make big-time plays with his legs and arm is a big reason for Penn State’s impressive 11-win 2016 campaign. He’s poised for even bigger things in 2017.

39. Nick Bosa, defensive end, Ohio State

As a rotational player last year for the Buckeyes, Bosa flashed signs he’ll be just as dominant as older brother, Joey Bosa. With five sacks in limited action during his freshman campaign, Bosa figures to become an integral player on a defensive line that defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said is better than any he coached at the NFL level. We’d be shocked if he doesn’t at least double his output from last year in 2017.

38. J.T. Barrett, quarterback, Ohio State

Barrett broke onto the scene with an absurd freshman campaign, but he’s struggled to get back to that level of play since. That doesn’t mean he’s not still one of the best players in college football, however. He’s a guy who has been able to consistently complete a reasonable percentage of his passes, who can throw downfield with the best of them and who can make plays with his legs when the pocket breaks down. With 100 combined touchdowns the past three years, he’s clearly one of the most dangerous weapons out there.

37. Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan

The top recruit from 2016, Gary was buried on the depth chart last season as a true freshman. He still managed to make 23 combined tackles, 5.5 for a loss and half a sack. Now the top starters from last year are gone. Because of his immense talent and drive to succeed, he’s one of the most dangerous impact defenders in the nation entering 2017 as he emerges as a full-time player for the Wolverines.

36. Marquis Haynes, defensive end, Ole Miss

One of the quickest cats you’ll see this year, Haynes makes up for his lack of elite size (just 6-foot-3, 222 pounds) with an elite first step and blazing speed off the edge. With 24.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles playing in the SEC the past three years, he can clearly get the job done. Now entering his final college season, Haynes has to continue piling up the pass-rushing numbers to work his way into the top half of next year’s NFL draft.

35. Iman Marshall, cornerback, USC

Adoree Jackson was just taken No. 18 in the 2017 NFL Draft, but his old USC teammate, Marshall, could be even better as a pure cover corner. In fact, that’s the buzz NFL.com’s Chad Reuter shared earlier this year. With good size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), Marshall has been a rock solid player for the Trojans his first two seasons. Showing toughness in the run game and excellent coverage skills, the former high school safety has piled up 119 tackles, three for a loss, six interceptions and 17 passes broken up.

34. Nick Chubb, running back, Georgia

A devastating knee injury in 2015 didn’t stop Chubb from coming back strong last year for the Bulldogs. He rushed for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging five yards per tote. It was somewhat surprising when he decided to return to Georgia, rather than declare for the draft. If he can stay healthy this season, then Chubb should be among the most productive backs in the nation once again.

33. Ronald Jones, running back, USC

All Jones has done the past two years for the Trojans is rack up 2,069 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. He’s not featured as heavily as some of the top running backs in the nation, but that shouldn’t diminish just how good this kid is. And now that he’s got one of the nation’s top impact freshmen, Stephen Carr, breathing down his neck for carries, Jones will have even more reason to make every snap count in 2017.

32. Tyquan Lewis, defensive end, Ohio State

Though he’s not the most explosive edge rusher in the nation, and quite possibly on his own team, Lewis is as well rounded as any defensive lineman in the Big Ten. As a two-year starter the past couple of seasons, the Buckeyes’ most tenured defensive end put up eight sacks in both 2015 and 2016. He also brought down ball carriers 89 times in that time frame and forced three fumbles last season.

31. Josey Jewell, linebacker, Iowa

Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Josey Jewell is one of the best college football players in the nation heading into 2017

There aren’t many linebackers in the nation that can match Jewell when it comes to doing it all on the gridiron. Blessed with ideal size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds), Jewell possesses outstanding instincts and a nose for the ball. He has tallied 301 career tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He also had four interceptions in 2015, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

30. Billy Price, center, Ohio State

Price has started 41 straight games for the Buckeyes, all of them as a guard. Now that his teammate, Pat Elflein, has moved on to the NFL ranks, it’s time for Price to slide into the middle as the team’s center. An All-American and all-Big Ten Conference performer last season, Price is on pace to break the school record for starts and consecutive starts of 50, set between 1993-96 by Luke Fickell, if he stays healthy throughout the 2017 campaign.

29. Malik Jefferson, linebacker, Texas

One of the most athletically gifted defenders in the nation, Jefferson’s role in Todd Orlando’s scheme is something of a mystery to this point. He’s been putting in work as both an inside and outside linebacker this summer. What we do know is that this young man can make plays from sideline to sideline and has the ability to get to the quarterback. Last year, he racked up 60 tackles (44 solo), nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He also added a forced fumble and two passes defended for good measure.

28. Da’Shawn Hand, defensive lineman, Alabama

If you’re looking at Hand’s previous years at Alabama and wondering why he’s on this list, you haven’t been paying close attention to the ‘Bama way. Nick Saban stockpiles elite talent like a squirrel stockpiles nuts in the fall. Hand will be the next man up replacing Jonathan Allen on the defensive line. Last year as a junior, he tallied 21 tackles, 2.5 for a loss and one sack in a limited role.

27. Jaire Alexander, cornerback, Louisville

One of the top cover cornerbacks in the nation, Alexander sparkled last year as a sophomore for the Cardinals. He played tough at the line of scrimmage, tallying 39 tackles, and became lethal in the passing game with five interceptions. It’ll be a rare occasion to see quarterbacks openly challenge him this year. Adding to his value, Alexander can return punts with the best of him — his 69-yarder against Florida State being a prime example.

26. Orlando Brown, offensive tackle, Oklahoma

Opposing defensive linemen have grown to fear Brown, who is a veritable mountain of a man at 6-foot-8 and a stunning 360 pounds. He moves around pretty well for a man his size, too, earning Big 12 offensive lineman of the year honors last season. Brown has started every game the past two seasons for the Sooners. He’s equally effective plowing holes for his running backs and protecting his passer, Baker Mayfield (more on him later) and could be a first-round pick in 2018.

25. Jake Browning, quarterback, Washington

We’re not convinced Browning is the real deal as it concerns greatness from a positional standpoint. He had a tremendous sophomore campaign in 2016, passing for 3,430 yards with 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. But without John Ross (17 touchdowns last year) at his disposal in 2017 we’re wondering if Browning can match those totals. Still, it’s hard to argue Browning isn’t a darn good passer. This upcoming season will let us know if he’s one of the elites.

24. Calvin Ridley, wide receiver, Alabama

While Jalen Hurts worked out the kinks as a freshman passer last year, Ridley’s overall numbers slipped just a bit. Though, the past two years he’s proven without a shadow of doubt he’s one of the nation’s top receivers. With 161 receptions for 1,814 yards and 14 touchdowns, he’s about as productive as they come. Now that he’s been with Hurts for another year, we’ll be shocked if Ridley’s numbers don’t swell in 2017.

23. Kamryn Pettway, running back, Auburn

Pettway’s breakout 2016 campaign gave Tigers fans reason to hope for even better things this year. After literally touching the ball just once as a freshman, he ran the ball like a bat out of hell for Auburn as a sophomore, tallying 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Auburn’s offensive line should be even better at paving lanes for Pettway this upcoming season, which is full of high hopes for this SEC club.

22. Tavarus McFadden, cornerback, Florida State

Florida State’s defensive backfield is potent. We’ll get to the top defensive back in the nation in a while. For now, let’s discuss the amazing play of McFadden, whose eight interceptions last season were tied for the most in college football. Whether McFadden can keep up that kind of pace will have a heavy bearing on the defense’s ability as a whole to dominate opposing passing attacks. But he’s clearly one of the reasons this team is No. 3 in the nation according to the first Coaches Poll.

21. Courtland Sutton, wide receiver, SMU

Built like an NFL receiver at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, this junior pass catcher was the main reason SMU had a passable passing game last year with freshman Ben Davis behind center. He hauled in 76 catches for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 16.4 yards per catch. Though he doesn’t play for a big-time program, Sutton can certainly work himself into the conversation as a first-round player in the 2018 NFL Draft with another strong campaign for the Mustangs.

20. Bradley Chubb, defensive end, NC State

One of the top seniors in the nation, Chubb leads a strong defense that has plenty of bite up front. After a very strong sophomore campaign in 2015, Chubb exploded onto the national scene last year with 21 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks to go along with 56 total tackles and three forced fumbles. He’s a guy who has a lot to gain at the next level financially with another big-time season in 2017, so he’ll be highly motivated to produce.

19. Micah Kiser, linebacker, Virginia

Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser

If you recall, we previously stated that there weren’t many linebackers in the nation to compare to Josey Jewell. Kiser is a guy we can confidently say has the skills to match, and exceed, what Jewell brings to the table. A big-play machine, he’s been a first-team All-ACC pick the past two years running and has led the Cavaliers in tackles both years. All told, this guy has racked up 250 tackles, 24 for a loss, 14 sacks, eight forced fumbles and one interception since taking over as the starter in 2015.

18. Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA

In terms of pure arm talent, there might not be another quarterback in the nation to match Rosen save for Josh Allen, who would be on this list if not for some serious questions about his accuracy. However, an injury to Rosen’s throwing shoulder last year, combined with questionable accuracy of his own, keeps him from vaulting further up this list. Still, we’re going to be keeping a close eye on Rosen throughout the season to see if he finally lives up to his potential. And we’re hardly the only ones.

17. Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back, Alabama

Alabama defensive backs are hard to gauge sometimes. Because they play in a system that is stocked full of NFL-caliber talent at every position, it’s difficult to determine their true value on their own. However, as it relates to Fitzpatrick there’s one thing nobody can deny — this kid can track the ball as well as any player in the nation. And once he has the ball in his hands, he knows how to take it to the house. In two years for the Tide, Fitzpatrick (who lines up all over the darn place) has intercepted eight passes, four of which he returned for touchdowns.

16. Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State

Rudolph can sling the ball all over the yard. He also has one of the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal, and one of its top overall players, whom we’ll cover shortly. The past two seasons at Oklahoma State, Rudolph has passed for 7,861 yards, averaging nine yards per attempt. Those are big-time numbers. However, the 49 touchdowns thrown in the same span are somewhat troublesome considering the weak defenses Rudolph has faced in the Big 12. Can he get better about punching the ball into the end zone with his arm this year? That’s a big question we’ll be monitoring throughout the season.

15. Harold Landry, defensive end, Boston College

One of the more underrated players in the nation, thanks to where he plays, Landry is a pass-rushing dynamo who surprised many by coming back for his senior season. All he did as a junior in 2016 was lead the nation with 16.5 sacks. Landry also tallied 50 total tackles, including 22 behind the line of scrimmage, seven forced fumbles and one interception. Talk about total domination. Hopefully his decision to return to school pays off.

14. Christian Kirk, wide receiver, Texas A&M

Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk

When you think about Kirk, one word rises above them all — playmaker. Since bursting onto the scene as a freshman in 2015, Kirk has caught 163 catches for 1,937 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also shown some serious skills as a return man, taking five punt returns to the house. Now entering his junior season, the Aggies receiver is ready to blossom in a big way, no matter who emerges as the starting quarterback.

13. Christian Wilkins, defensive lineman, Clemson

One of the most energetic defensive linemen we’ve seen in quite some time, Wilkins has the build (6-foot-4 and 310 pounds) and athleticism to dominate all over the line. He plays inside and out and has a knack for getting his big paws on passes at the line of scrimmage (nine batted passes last year). Though he’s not a dominating pass rusher, Wilkins’ ability to own the line of scrimmage is a boon for Clemson’s defense on both running and passing plays.

12. Bo Scarbrough, running back, Alabama

The biggest knock on Scarbrough has been his inability to stay healthy. When healthy, as he says he is now, Scarbrough brings a rare blend of size (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) speed and power to the table. In 17 games at Alabama, in a limited role, Scarbrough has totaled 938 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 147 touches. That’s insane production, and if he can stay healthy all year long he’ll be very enticing to NFL teams picking near the top of the draft.

11. James Washington, wide receiver, Oklahoma State

A big-play threat every time he touches the ball, Washington averaged 19.4 yards per catch last year, bringing in 71 passes for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns. He could have easily turned pro after the 2016 season but opted to return to school with quarterback Mason Rudolph. If the two of them can stay healthy and on the same page this upcoming season, then their rival, the Sooners, will have their work cut out for them to earn their third straight Big 12 title.

10. Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma

As a Heisman finalist last season, Mayfield put together quite an impressive stat sheet. Leading one of the most diverse and potent offenses in the nation, he totaled 4,142 yards and 46 touchdowns. Mayfield also displayed some crazy accuracy completing 70.9 percent of his passes, which combined with the 11.1 yards per attempt he registered is just off-the-charts insane. Though, without some of his top weapons from last year, Mayfield will have to conjure even more magic to match or better those totals in 2017.

9. Connor Williams, offensive tackle, Texas

A guy many feel could work himself into a top-five spot in next year’s draft, Williams was a freshman All-American in 2015 and an All-American last year. He was a big reason D’Onta Foreman was able to rush for over 2,000 yards, and he’s a beast in pass protection as well. Even more terrifying for opposing defensive linemen is the fact that Williams has shed about 20 pounds of fat while adding 12 pounds of pure muscle. Yikes.

8. Derrius Guice, running back, LSU

It’s kind of crazy to think that Leonard Fournette won’t be missed by the Tigers in 2017. But it’s true. In fact, it’s quite possible Guice might end up being a bigger impact player for LSU than Fournette has been, because he’s a better receiver out of the backfield and is more explosive in the open field. In a part-time role last year while Fournette was laid up with an ankle injury, Guice totaled 1,493 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 8.3 yards per touch and 7.6 yards on the ground.

Oh, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out this kid is ridiculously strong.

7. Arden Key, defensive end, LSU

LSU fans are holding their breath that the offseason shoulder surgery Key needed won’t be an issue as the season approaches. They can take heart with the latest news, which is that head coach Ed Orgeron said Key looks “fantastic” right now. Last season, he was one of the top pass rushers in the nation, totaling 11 sacks while racking up 55 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss.

6. Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC

What Darnold was able to accomplish last year after being plugged into the starting role instead of Max Browne was nothing short of spectacular. Completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Darnold helped USC win its final nine games, including a barnburner in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. With expectations rising to a fevered pitch even before the season begins, this Trojans squad will be depending on Darnold to raise his game to another level if those expectations are to be reached.

5. Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Clemson

Lawrence opened up many eyes to his true potential as a true freshman last year. He made 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks from his defensive tackle spot. And he’s only scratching the surface of what he’ll be capable of doing as he develops technique and strength. This kid is just 19 years of age and measures in at 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds. He’s an absolute monster in the best possible way and is one of the best defenders in the nation.

4. Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State

Barkley has the game to end up being selected in the top 10 of next year’s NFL draft. He’s an incredible, all-around running back who remarkably gets stronger while everyone around him gets weaker in the latter stages of games. Last season as a sophomore, he elevated his play to elite levels, totaling 1,898 yards and 22 touchdowns. In his first two seasons at Penn State he’s totaled 3,135 yards and 30 touchdowns. Look for head coach James Franklin to lean even more on his running back this upcoming season as Penn State pursues a national title.

3. Derwin James, safety, Florida State

Florida State safety Derwin James is one of the top college football stars returning from injury in 2017

The hype machine is working overtime when it comes to James. But the hype is real. He missed almost all of last year after suffering an injury to his knee in the second game of the season. This kid, if he can stay healthy, is going to be not only the best defensive back in the nation at the collegiate level but the next great NFL safety as well. As a true freshman, his impact was immediately felt. He racked up 91 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries for the Seminoles that year, adding 11 tackles and one interception last year.

2. Ed Oliver, defensive tackle, Houston

As much as we adore Dexter Lawrence, he wasn’t the best true freshman defensive tackle in the nation last year. That honor goes to Oliver, who absolutely dominated up front for the Cougars in 2016 at the tender age of 18. Tallying 65 tackles, including 22 for a loss, and five sacks, he owned the line of scrimmage in just about every encounter. Oliver is relentless when it comes to effort and has elite quickness, strength and agility to boot. He’s a player NFL scouts are drooling over, but they can’t have him just yet.

1. Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville

Undeniably the best college player in the nation last year, Jackson takes our top spot ahead of the upcoming season. The runaway Heisman winner, Jackson piled up a ridiculous 5,114 yards and 51 touchdowns as the nation’s best dual-threat quarterback. He took over some contests in video-game fashion, earning the respect of some of the best to ever play at this level.

Now, it’s going to be very interesting indeed to see if Jackson can play at that same level in 2017. His numbers took a dip later in the season against some top competition, and his Citrus Bowl performance against LSU was downright ugly. For now, however, Jackson is the man to beat when it comes to ranking the top players in college football entering 2017.