The NFL may not put high value on tailbacks these days, but we do. College football is loaded with a bunch of excellent ones. My Top 20 player rankings are based on past performance but also a projection of who I think will really shine in 2016, as well as conversations this offseason with coaches and players from around the country. Just missed: Budda Baker, Washington, DB; Samaje Perine, Oklahoma, RB; Corey Davis, WMU, WR; Caleb Brantley, Florida, DL; Greg Ward, Jr, Houston, QB; Royce Freeman, Oregon, RB; Mike Williams, Clemson, WR; Calvin Ridley, Alabama, WR; Anthony Walker, Northwestern, LB; J.T. Barrett, Ohio State, QB. Brad Kaaya, Miami, QB; Elijah Hood, UNC, RB.
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Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech (T-20)
Kliff Kingsbury’s latest protege has a huge arm and a special gift for his ability to make so many unconventional throws. "Those different arm angles roaming to his right and to his left, and to still be accurate and have zip on the ball, I’ve never seen anything like quite like that,” said Kingsbury. In 2015, Mahomes produced more than 5,000 yards running and throwing, completed 64 percent of his passes to go with a 36-15 TD-INT ratio and also ran for 10 more touchdowns. Folks inside Tech’s program expect him to be even better with him focusing on being more disciplined and not so tempted to take off and run so much.
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Luke Falk, QB, Washington State (T-20)
In his first season as a starter, he threw for 4,561 yards, completed over 69 percent of his passes, threw 38 TDs and had only eight picks. In games away from Pullman, Falk had a 20-2 TD-INT ratio. He also proved to be a whiz and leading the Cougars to more than their share of clutch moments in the fourth quarter. Mike Leach QBs often produce gaudy stats, but the most impressive one for Falk is a simple one. This team won three games before Falk took over and won nine with him last year, including two road games -- at Oregon and at UCLA -- as double-digit underdogs. "Leach gets a lot of credit (for the Cougars’ stunning turnaround last season) and he should because he’s Mike Leach but Luke is the reason this started working,” said star WR Gabe Marks.
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Tim Williams, LB, Alabama
This could have been Alabama's Jonathan Allen or Calvin Ridley, but I went with Bama’s pass-rushing terror, who in limited action had 10.5 sacks. Folks inside the Tide program gush about about how instinctive the 6-3, 245-pound Williams is. He's both explosive and naturally strong but also has a great feel for time and space, evoking memories of Charles Haley.
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Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
A senior, the 185-pound Lewis arrived in Ann Arbor weighing 159 pounds but has blossomed into a star, thriving when Jim Harbaugh took over and brought D.J. Durkin’s more heavy press and man-to-man coverage. In 2015, Lewis broke up 20 passes and earned All-American honors. He allowed just one touchdown pass all season. It came against Oregon State, where Hunter Jarmon scored on a switch route where there was some miscommunication in the Wolverines secondary. "He understands the game. He’s very disciplined. It’s hard to beat him off double moves. He’s always there. The only way you can beat him is with spectacular catches,” said Michigan WR Amara Darboh, who goes up against Lewis every day in practice.
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Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
A huge man with great power and surprising agility at 6-6, 280, McDowell had 13 TFLs, eight QB hurries and 4.5 sacks last year. He also picked off a pass. McDowell will lead a pretty salty defense and is backed by some terrific linebackers. His coaches gush about his potential. Oh, and the guy just turned 20.
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Christian Kirk, WR/KR, Texas A&M
He caught 80 passes for 1,009 yards as a true freshman, but he’s a lot more than just a terrific wideout. The 5-11, 200-pound sophomore is a terrific returnman who produced 1,789 all-purpose yards, leading the Aggies. Kirk is strong, quick and very mature. Coaches rave about his character and have said he approaches the game like a pro and has from the moment he first showed up.
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Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
The latest special Mizzou D-lineman, Harris has blossomed into a star in a hurry in Columbia. He doesn’t get as much hype as Myles Garrett or even Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, but NFL scouts know plenty about Harris and his impressive array of pass-rush moves and a high-level motor. He led the SEC in TFLs with 18.5 last fall in his first season as a starter. “The guy flies all over the field,” said one SEC offensive coordinator. “He’s a fantastic player.”
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Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
Not quite as nimble a pass protector as Laremy Tunsil, but the 6-6, 328-pound junior is as physical in the run game as anyone in the college game. The Tide live off physical football and they love to run his way.
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Desmond King, CB, Iowa
There were many excellent DBs in college football last year, but it King won the Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back in college football. He’s very instinctive and smart and that helped him pick off eight passes in 2015, tops in FBS.
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Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
No quarterback in college football has better arm talent than Rosen, and he’ll be in a scheme that is more tailored to his ability. In his rookie season he threw 23 TDs against 11 INT while passing for 3,670 yards. Rosen has added some bulk this offseason and is up to 225 pounds on his 6-3 frame.
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Jabrill Peppers, OLB/DB/WR/RB/KR, Michigan
The 6-1, 210-pound former sprint champ is the most versatile player in football, and he’s primed for a breakout season as the Wolverines X-factor now that "Dr. Blitz” Don Brown has come to Ann Arbor as the new DC. “He’s our best nickel guy by far. He can play linebacker. He can rush the passer. He can cover anybody,” said Jim Harbaugh. "Put him on the other side of the ball, he’d probably be our best slot receiver. He could give anybody a run for their money as our best tailback. He’s a Jim Thorpe type of guy. He’s an exciting, motivating type of guy. He’s serious about being good. He’s got a lot of fire and intensity about him and that gives him the opportunity to be really great. I’d hate to diminish anyone but off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone (in college that I’ve coached) more athletic than Jabrill.”
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Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
The Dawgs’ latest special RB has been fantastic when he’s been in the lineup. Chubb ran for 747 yards in essentially only five games last season before tearing up his knee. He went for 1,547 yards in his debut season for Georgia."Nick Chubb is really special,” Vandy coach Derek Mason said. "His feet never stop. He always moves the line of scrimmage. He can anticipate contact and his ability to offset tacklers from angles is unbelievable. That’s an innate ability. His ability to see what’s happening in front him and react on a dime. Had he not gotten hurt (last year), there wasn’t anybody he wasn’t running through or making miss. Nick Chubb is the best running back in this conference that I’ve faced (in two seasons).” If Chubb is back to 100 percent, he’s a Heisman contender.
Derwin James, DB/Edge Rusher, Florida State
The 6-3, 211-pound sophomore, FSU’s next great defensive player, had a spectacular debut season at FSU, making 91 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. “He reminds me of (former Miami great) Sean Taylor,” said one rival coach. “He’s big, he really flies around. Taylor was big enough where he could’ve been a college defensive end, and they use James that way sometimes, bringing him off the end and he gives people all kinds of problems.”
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Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
The Trojans have to break in a new QB, but whoever is throwing for USC will be leaning heavily on Smith, who often carried the offense in 2015, going for 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs with 67 of those 89 receptions going for either first downs or touchdowns.
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Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
No, he isn’t a workout Freak like Myles Garrett, but the 6-4, 270-pound Barrett plays as hard as any D-linemen in college football. He’s piled up 20 sacks and 33 TFLs in his first two seasons, including 17 sacks and 27 TFLs in 16 SEC games. Barnett’s leadership in the locker room is another big reason why Vols coaches love this guy so much. He -- and the Vols D -- should get a nice boost this fall with the arrival of new DC Bob Shoop, who proved to be one of the best in the game.
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Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Of all running backs who had at least 200 carries, only Georgia Southern’s Matt Breida averaged more than 7.38 yards per rush last season. Cook’s 11-yard carry in average in first quarters helped set a tone for the NFL and FSU, and Cook should only be even more dangerous since every other starter on the offense is back in 2016.
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Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
In his debut season with the Sooners, he threw for 3,700 yards, completing over 68 percent of his passes, and had a 36-7 TD-INT clip to go with 405 rushing yards and seven more touchdowns. Mayfield was a terrific fit for new OC Lincoln Riley’s offense that jumped from No. 24 in the nation up to No. 7.
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Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
The biggest Freak in college football, the 6-4, 262-pound Garrett has 24 sacks and 33.5 TFLs in his two seasons in College Station despite facing constant double-teams and schemes focused on him in 2015.
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Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
A scary combination of size (228 pounds) and speed (4.42 in the 40), Fournette led the nation in broken tackles last season and also in rushing yards per game (163) by 15 more than any other back in FBS. His game should be even better this fall with him having leaned out a bit and with the expectation that the Tiger passing game should be sharper, giving defenses more to worry about.
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Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Nick Saban’s still probably having nightmares from dealing with Watson. The 6-2, 215-pound junior is a true dual-threat QB who thrives in the spotlight. His completion percentage in the fourth quarter went up to 73 percent from 66 in first halves. The Tigers also rely heavily on Watson’s wheels in big games. He averaged 110 rushing yards against ranked teams on 20 carries a game as compared to 56 rushing yards on 11 carries vs. non-ranked. Watson’s bulked up 15 pounds this offseason, which should enable him to better handle the pounding, and he gets back his most dynamic WR in Mike Williams, who missed almost all of 2015.
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Christian McCaffrey, RB/KR, Stanford
In 2015, he compiled a staggering 3,864 all-purpose yards, a single-season NCAA record. He’s great at reading his blocks, evading people and has go-the-distance speed. Some folks inside the Cardinal program see the 6-0, 205-pound McCaffrey as this generation’s LaDainian Tomlinson. Heady stuff, but the junior is that talented.