Top ACC candidates for 2017 NFL draft

With the 2016 NFL draft in the rearview mirror, let’s look ahead. Here are the big names to have on your radar come a year from now, when another crop of prospects usher in professional dreams. This is an abbreviated list; the ACC had 26 players drafted in 2016 and 47 picked in 2015. Surely, a few off-the-radar players will make strong statements in the next 12 months. And of course, decisions will have to be made by several underclassmen, though that doesn’t preclude them from mention here. In fact, we have more underclassmen on this list than players in their final seasons of eligibility.


Clemson TE Jordan Leggett: Leggett tied a school-record for a tight end last season with eight touchdown receptions. He is a phenomenal athlete who decided to return for his senior year, when he could emerge as the nation’s top tight end.

Clemson CB Cordrea Tankersley: Tankersley was often overlooked when playing next to Mackensie Alexander, but he had a strong junior season that gave him a draft decision to make this winter. He had five interceptions and will be the leader of the Tigers’ secondary this fall.

Florida State DE DeMarcus Walker: Walker did it all in his junior season, leaving him with a serious decision to make about his future. He decided to return, hoping to build off a 2015 in which he had 15.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.

Clemson DT Carlos Watkins: Watkins was a first-team All-ACC selection who made eight tackles for loss last season. Now he’ll be the focal point of Clemson’s defensive line in 2016, along with Christian Wilkins. Like Leggett, Watkins has a chance to emerge as one of the top players at his position nationally.

Louisville DE/LB Devonte Fields: Fields likely would have been one of the top outside linebacker prospects in the 2016 draft, but he opted to return. He had 10.5 sacks in his first season at Louisville. He was the Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2012 at TCU before his dismissal in 2014, which will surely come up in conversations with pro teams.

Louisville LB Keith Kelsey: Kelsey was a captain for Louisville last season, tallying 107 tackles, including 12.5 for loss, as a jack-of-all-trades in the middle of the Cardinals’ defense. He was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2015.

Pitt OL Adam Bisnowaty: A three-year starting tackle, he has been strong throughout his Panthers career, paving the way for James Conner’s 1,700-yard season in 2014 and helping the backfield remain strong last season after Conner went down. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Bisnowaty was a first-team All-ACC selection last season.


Clemson RB Wayne Gallman: The redshirt junior will at least have an option for a fifth year in 2017, although if his 2016 is anything like his 2015, he might not need it. Gallman rushed for a school-record 1,527 yards last season and had 1,740 yards from scrimmage, along with 13 touchdowns.

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson: He’s only a junior, but he is currently on-track to graduate in December. Regardless, it is hard to envision a more enticing NFL prospect than this 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist, who has been pegged as a can’t-miss prospect from Day 1 and has done nothing but live up to the hype.

Clemson WR Mike Williams: The redshirt junior Williams was on the path of so many Tigers receivers before him until a scary neck injury in Week 1 of last season shelved him for the season. He returned to the field this spring and, if he picks up where he left off, could build off a 1,000-yard sophomore season from 2014 and be a first-round pick come next spring.

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook: Cook rewrote the Seminoles record books last season, tallying school-bests of 1,691 rushing yards and 1,935 all-purpose yards as a sophomore despite playing through injury. He was seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting last season and enters his junior year among the nation’s frontrunners for the honor.

Florida State OL Roderick Johnson: The first-team All-ACC selection has emerged as the face of the Noles’ offensive line, paving the way for backs like Cook to do serious damage. Johnson started the final five games as a freshman before truly breaking out last season, and at 6-foot-7 and 312 pounds, he has all the measurables the NFL desires at tackle.

Miami QB Brad Kaaya: In the same vein as Watson, Kaaya is about as enticing as it gets at the next level, with pundits across the country already pegging him (and Watson) as the QB frontrunners for next year’s draft. With a year under the tutelage of Mark Richt, the 6-foot-4 Kaaya could take the next step and depart after his junior year.

Pitt RB James Conner: Conner had a decision to make last season, but a Thanksgiving cancer diagnosis brought him back to Pitt for his redshirt junior year. He has said all along that his goal is to play in 2016, and if he is anything like he was before a knee injury sidelined him for the final 12 games of last season, the 2014 ACC player of the year will be a force to be reckoned with for ACC defenses.

Virginia S Quin Blanding: Blanding was a can’t-miss prospect out of high school and answered the bell from Day 1 in Charlottesville, leading all freshmen nationally in tackles. He received multiple All-American mentions as a sophomore and should thrive under a new coaching staff in his junior season.

Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges: Hodges would have been one of the top tight ends in the 2016 draft, an enticing enough prospect that he gave it consideration but deciding to return for his redshirt junior year. The 6-foot-7, 242-pound Hodges is a versatile threat who even played quarterback in high school. He was a second-team All-ACC selection last season.