Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) reacts after a touchdown in the second half against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
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This year’s 2017 NFL Draft is filled heavily with defensive standouts, but the ACC still has a talented crop of players.
The Atlantic Coast Conference had a big season in the college football ranks. The Clemson Tigers took home the National Championship and as a result, a lot of players improved their draft stocks. After 60 players participated in this year’s NFL Combine, ACC players prepare to take the next steps in their careers.
The Clemson Tigers, Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes led all ACC schools with 9 invites to the combine. As players await their names to be called on April 27, we look at some players who could make a splash at the next level.
The ACC had a lot of talent on the field in 2016. Quarterbacks Brad Kaaya (Miami), Mitchell Trubisky (North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (Clemson) and Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech) are all early draft entrants. Watson and Trubisky are two players who could see their names called early. Kaaya and Evans could be late-round picks who develop into more complete passers.
In terms of wide receivers, Clemson’s Mike Williams leads a thin but potentially talented group into the 2017 NFL Draft. Also in this draft are North Carolina receivers Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. Each player was a key to much of Mitchell Trubisky’s success in 2016.
Defensively, there are also some gems. While not highly rated, Seminoles defensive end Demarcus Walker and Tigers defensive tackle Carlos Watkins are two players who could make big splashes with the right situation.
Here’s a look at the top 10 prospects from the ACC to watch in the NFL Draft.
Nov 28, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels receiver Quinshad Davis (14) is tackled by North Carolina State Wolfpack defensive back Josh Jones (2) after a reception during the first half at Carter Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
S, N.C. State
N.C. State Wolfpack safety Josh Jones is Early draft entrant who was not a household name in the ACC. However, a strong NFL Combine has scouts taking notice of Jones’ ability.
Jones ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at NFL Combine, second among safeties and posted a 37.5′ vertical. He also had 20 reps on the bench press, which tied for first with Rudy Ford from Auburn. Jones’ performance at the combine elevated his stock, he’s already got prototypical size for a safety at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds.
The NC State defense ranked 27th in the FBS in scoring defense (22.8 ppg) in 2016. Jones led the Wolfpack in tackles with 109 total (62 solo, 47 assisted) along with 4.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions and eight pass breakups last season. He was sixth in the ACC in solo tackles and eighth in total tackles.
The early draft entrant tied for a game-high 10 tackles with a forced fumble and fumble recovery despite the team losing 54-13 to Louisville. He’s intercepted eight passes in his NC State career. He recorded four interceptions as a redshirt freshman which tied for second in the ACC.
Jones is projected to go anywhere in the late first round to a pick in the second to fifth round. With coverage ability and a nose for the football, he’s one ACC player to watch for on April 27.
Dec 28, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) throws the ball during 2nd half of The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Northwestern defeats Pittsburgh 31-24. Mandatory Credit: William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman is a prospect with experience in a pro-style offense that could take him places. Peterman originally attended Tennessee, where he was the starter before losing the starting job to Josh Dobbs due to a broken hand.
As a two-year starter at Pittsburgh, he bounced back. He threw 47 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in two seasons, but was an accurate passer. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes with 163.4 passing efficiency rating (second in the ACC) as a senior.
Despite not throwing a lot of passing yards, Peterman was still first in passing yards per attempt (10.1) in the ACC in 2016. He still threw for 2,855 passing yards last season. He didn’t have to do much with his arm as the Panthers averaged 225.1 rushing yards per game on offense.
Peterman threw for a career-high 308 pass yards and five pass touchdowns against Clemson Tigers defense in 2016, a game Pittsburgh won 43-42. He also led the Panthers to a victory.
With his experience, a team is sure to take a chance on him in a draft that isn’t heavily filled with quarterbacks. He’s met with the Bills, Steelers and Chiefs so far and could see his name called on Day Two or Three.
Dec 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies tight end Bucky Hodges (7) runs after a catch in the second half against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium. Virginia Tech defeated Arkansas 35-24. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
TE, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges is not your prototypical tight end, but he’s got tons of potential at the next level. Hodges didn’t have the strongest performance at the NFL Combine but some numbers still put him above other talent in the ACC.
Hodges caught 133 passes for 1,747 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns in three years at Virginia Tech. He finished top 10 in the ACC in receiving touchdowns all three seasons. He caught 48 passes for 691 receiving yards, both career-highs, and seven touchdowns in 2016.
Hodges has outstanding talent with a lot to offer but also has a lot to learning to do. While he didn’t have the fastest 40-time at the NFL Combine, his 39.0 vertical leap was the best out of all tight ends.
He had a five-catch, 101 receiving yard performance against Duke back in 2015 with three receiving touchdowns. He had a career-high 145 receiving yards against the Pittsburgh Panthers last season as well, probably the most physical defense in the ACC. Hodges has shown big-play ability but needs to do it more on a consistent basis in the NFL.
Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson is a player who shook off a lot of demons in 2016. He won ACC Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 but he won the ultimate prize in 2016: a National Championship.
He was first in passing completions in 2015 (333) & 2016 (388), using his legs a lot less last season. It largely paid off for him with targets like Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Hunter Renfrow in the passing game. He was a 67.4 percent passer in three seasons at Clemson, throwing for 90 touchdowns and 10,168 passing yards.
Watson also has his memorable game-winning touchdown pass against Alabama to win the National Championship under his belt. He ran for just 629 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in 2016. In 2015, he had 1,105 rush yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. He developed tons as a quarterback at Clemson but was also first in the ACC and second in the FBS in interceptions in 2016 (17). He was second in the ACC in interceptions in 2015 (13).
Watson will need to show teams he can limit his turnovers at the next level to be a successful quarterback. He could just point to his performances against the Alabama defense. Watson threw for 825 passing yards, seven passing touchdowns and an interception in two games. He has the potential to be a first-round option for the Cleveland Browns but could get picked up in the later rounds.
Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Kenyan Drake (17) runs with the ball against Clemson Tigers cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (25) during the 2016 CFP National Championship at U. of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Tigers cornerback Cordrea Tankersley had a strong NFL Combine to raise his draft stock. He ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at NFL Combine, fifth-best among the cornerbacks group at the combine. Tankersley is part of a deep defensive draft class in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Tankersley had a strong finish to the 2016 season. He recorded four tackles and two interceptions in ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. In the College Football Playoff Semifinal, he had four tackles and an interception against Ohio State in a 31-0 shutout.
Tankersley was a first-team All-ACC selection and third-team AP All-American, matching a career-high in solo tackles in back-to-back seasons. He record nine interceptions and 20 pass breakups in the past two seasons with 28 starts. He led the Clemson defense in interceptions in 2015 (5) and was second on the team in 2016 (four).
Tankersley is a cover corner with tons of ability. He’ll need to improve on his mechanics, but his aggressive style of play and speed could get him drafted in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. At 6-foot-1 and 199 pounds, he has the physical build and tools to be a successful corner in the NFL.
Sep 5, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles defensive end DeMarcus Walker (44) reacts after a sack in the fourth quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Camping World Stadium. Florida State Seminoles won 45-34. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
DE, Florida State
Florida State Seminoles defensive end Demarcus Walker is one of the more underrated draft prospects in this year’s draft classs. However, the early entrant isn’t getting much attention of NFL Mock Drafts.
Walker was the 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and first-team All-ACC selection last season for his play. He recorded 67 total tackles (45 solo, 22 assisted), 19.5 tackles for loss (fifth in the ACC), 16.0 sacks (2nd in the FBS and the ACC), 3 FF’s (fifth) and 2 FR’s.
He was fifth in the ACC in tackles for loss on a Florida State defense that allowed 128 rushing yards per game in 2016. His sacks were second in the FBS and ACC and his forced fumbles ranked fifth in the conference.
Scouts questions Walker’s motor but with 33.5 tackles for loss and 25.0 sacks in the past two seasons, his body of work is hard to overlook. At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, he’s got the build to play as an interior rusher in the NFL, but is questionable as an edge rusher.
Walker would thrive in a 3-4 system as a defensive end or outside linebacker but not in a traditional 4-3 defense. He’ll be a second day pick but the NFL team who drafts him could be in for a treat.
Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) dives for the end zone to score a touchdown against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the second half at Camping World Stadium. The Miami Hurricanes defeat the West Virginia Mountaineers 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku is another underrated draft prospect out of the ACC. He follows the likes of Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, Kellen Winslow and most recently Jimmy Graham to the NFL.
Njoku started just five games but appeared in all 13 contests in 2016. He had 43 receptions for 698 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns. Njoku was one of quarterback Brad Kaaya’s favorite targets last season. He caught two passes for 134 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 40-21 victory over Duke.
Njoku is a young tight end with a ton of upside and potential. He emerged as a top target in the Hurricanes offense the past two seasons, particularly in the redzone. He accumulated 1,060 receiving yards in two seasons.
Njoku earned ACC Honorable Mention for his play, ranking sixth in the ACC in receiving touchdowns. At 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds, Njoku is another athletic and highly-rated tight end out of the U. He could be a late first-round selection or early second-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft.
Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) catches a touchdown against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) during the fourth quarter in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams is one of the best receivers in this year’s draft class, which is a good thing for him. After all, this year’s NFL Draft isn’t exactly filled with big play receivers.
After recovering from a brutal neck injury in 2015, Williams came back better than ever in 2016. He caught a career-high 98 receptions for 1,361 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Williams was a first-team All-ACC selection and second-team All-American for his play. He caught nine balls for 174 receiving yards in his first game back against the Auburn Tigers.
Williams ranked first in the ACC and fifth in the FBS in receptions, second in the conference in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He had five games of 100 yards receiving or more in 2016. He caught six passes for 100 receiving yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina.
Williams reasonable size at 6-foot-4 for a downfield-threat and the build (218 pounds) to be a possession receiver in the NFL. He’s got highlight reel catching ability as well. After posting back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons post-injury, he’s ready to take the step to the next level.
Nov 25, 2016; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) is pushed out of bounds by North Carolina State Wolfpack linebacker Jarod Fernandez (4) during the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. The Wolfpack won 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
QB, North Carolina
North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL Draft from an accuracy standpoint. He completed 68.0 percent in 2016, ranking first in the ACC and sixth in the FBS. He earned just third-team All-ACC honors but with Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson in the way, it’s understandable.
Trubisky started all 13 games in his first season at quarterback. He threw for 3,748 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season. He was second in the ACC in passing yards and 10th in the FBS.
The first-year starter set the single-season record for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total offense (4,056). He threw at least three touchdowns in seven games, finishing with a 157.9 passing efficiency rating.
Trubisky threw 13 touchdowns passes before throwing his first interception of the season. He’s shown tons of accuracy in the ACC, but it remains to be seen if it can translate to the NFL. He’ll need to prove to NFL teams he can take snaps under center, however, as a majority of his snaps in UNC’s offense came out the shotgun formation. He could be a late first-round pick or an early second-round pick.
Dec 30, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (4) celebrates with offensive lineman Kareem Are (72) after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
RB, Florida State
Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in the NFL Draft. He averaged 135.8 rush yds per game, ranking sixth in the FBS and first in the ACC. With 22 bench press reps at the NFL Combine and a 4.49 40-time, Cook has shown he’s a speedy runner with elusiveness and burst in the open field.
He ran for 1,765 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns in 2016. He finished the final four games with 100 rushing yards or more and with a rushing touchdown in the final six games of the season. Cook was a first-team AP All-American and was a first-team All-ACC regular in his tenure at Florida State.
Cook raised the bar every season while at Florida State. He set a new career-high in rushing yards against South Florida last season, running for 267 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He had 225 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns against Syracuse.
Cook is a running back with tons of ability but a few red flags with lingering injuries and off-the-field issues. If he can leave his past where it is, much like he did with his 2016 performance, he’ll be a reliable back in the NFL for years to come.