It has been almost two weeks since Clemson beat Alabama for the national championship, so naturally instead of letting the Tigers soak in the glory of its first national title in more than 30 years, the ACC blog is moving on to 2017.
Graduation and early defections hit the ACC hard the last few weeks, which has shaken up our list of the conference’s best players returning for 2017. On the way out are the likes of Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook, but good news is the Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson remains for at least one more season.
This isn’t just a reprint of the top 25 names from the end of 2016 with just a few additions to fill space. This list of the ACC’s best players for 2017 is part past performance and part projection. It still matters what these players did in 2016 (so no players that haven’t played much), but there is also an eye to the future.
So here are the top 25 players for 2017 as compiled by Andrea Adelson, David Hale and Jared Shanker.
Also be sure the check out Adam Rittenberg's list of the top 50 players returning nationally.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Last season fell apart when Jackson was no longer able to compensate for a Swiss-cheese offensive line. A better line under a new position coach will make Jackson even better.
2. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson: The versatile Wilkins plays all over the line and even dabbles at fullback. Now that Clemson finally isn’t replacing everyone around Wilkins, he could solidify himself as the country’s best lineman.
3. Derwin James, S, Florida State: Did you forget about FSU’s star safety? He missed nearly all of 2016 with a knee injury, but the rangy, hard-hitting defensive back will remind offense’s rather quickly that scoring won’t be nearly as easy with him on the field.
4. Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State: The Chubb name is a recognizable one, but Bradley is often breaking into backfields rather than lining up in them.
5. Harold Landry, DE, Boston College: The Eagles received good news when the nation’s sack leader opted to return for his final season. He’ll contend for the ACC’s sack crown again.
6. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State: He tied for the national lead in 2016 with eight interceptions. Odds are quarterbacks won’t give him an opportunity to match that total next season.
7. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson: The Tigers’ offensive line had their issues at times in 2016, but Hyatt did a good job protecting Watson’s blind side. Clemson could lean on him to pave the way early as it breaks in a new backfield.
8. Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson: It must be an uneasy feeling for ACC coaches that Lawrence was only a freshman last season. His teammates think he’s a future No. 1 pick.
9. Brian Burns, DE, Florida State: Get ready for Burns’ name to burst on the scene. Coach Jimbo Fisher would tell anyone who would listen he expected big things out of Burns, and he led all freshmen with 9.5 sacks this past season.
10. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: Nearly half of his 12.5 tackles for loss came in the postseason, and he was dominant against Ohio State. At the end of the season, he could be considered the ACC’s best player.
11. Quadree Henderson, AP, Pittsburgh: There isn’t a better kick returner in the country, and when Henderson isn’t scoring on kickoffs he’s usually setting up the offense with great field position. He’s just as good on jet sweeps as he was the only FBS player to average more than 10 yards per carry in 2016.
12. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State: Once the No. 1 high school player nationally, Sweat felt he helped usher the lazy label upon the Seminoles defense. The light came on midseason once fully healed from a knee injury, and now he looks poised to be one of the conference’s best all-around ends.
13. Deondre Francois, QB, Florida State: He has earned the respect of teammates and opponents for his unwillingness to sit out a game despite taking a series of blows every Saturday. As a passer he struggled against the best defenses, but he was only a redshirt freshman and has a top quarterback coach in Fisher to help him progress.
14. Jaylen Samuels, AP, NC State: Coaches describe Samuels as a “throwback” because he lines up all over the field. He’s hard to stop as a rusher, receiver and even passer as he completed his only attempt last season for a 59-yard touchdown. And he scored 13 of his own.
15. Mark Walton, RB, Miami: With much of the passing game having left for the NFL, pro-style play-caller Mark Richt could lean heavily on Walton. He should be up to the task having rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore.
16. Ahmmon Richards, WR, Miami: And when the Hurricanes do throw the ball, expect Richards to often be on the receiving end. He’ll emerge as one of the ACC’s best receivers after racking up close to 1,000 yards as a freshman.
17. Cam Phillips, WR, Virginia Tech: The Hokies’ future quarterback’s job will be made a lot easier with Phillips at receiver. He will have a chance to break 1,000 yards in 2017.
18. Duke Ejiofor, DE, Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons quietly have one of the conference’s best defenses, and Ejiofor’s presence is a major reason for it.
19. Shaq Quarterman, LB, Miami: There was concern Miami would suffer with Quarterman, a freshman, in the middle of the defense. Turns out Quarterman proved he was deserving of being on the field, and he could be the next great Canes linebacker.
20. Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: Mike Williams overshadowed Cain, but he’s one of the best deep threats in the country. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Cain will provide a downfield target for the Tigers’ next quarterback.
21. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State: He contributed only six sacks, but Nnadi’s collapsing of pockets helped the Seminoles lead the country in sacks per game. If he’s healthy for all of his senior season, he’ll prevent opponents from double teaming Burns and Sweat.
22. Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville: The cornerback and returner has a flair for the dramatic, coming up with interceptions and return touchdowns in critical games. Many of the defensive pieces around him at Louisville are now gone, so even more responsibility will fall on his shoulders.
23. Kendrick Norton, DT, Miami: If the Hurricanes are going to cement themselves as one of the nation’s best defense, Norton will be a key. Interior linemen don’t often get the deserved recognition, but Miami knows how important Norton will be in 2017.
24. Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia: It was a disappointing season for Virginia, but there was good news when Kiser, who led all Power 5 players in tackles, announced he is returning.
25. Nyqwan Murray, WR, Florida State: With three receivers departing, Florida State is counting on Murray to continue to be the explosive threat he was to end last season. Now that he has matured and has a better grasp of the offense, Murray should be more consistent.