In each edition of the College Football America Yearbook, Publisher Kendall Webb selects a team of the nation’s top incoming freshmen designated by their signing year — e.g., the Class of 2017.
The team is the equivalent of a Freshman All-America team for the upcoming season, but we also continue to track their progress throughout their collegiate careers as the goal is to find players that can make an impact early while also competing for college football’s top awards and All-America status as their careers progress. We call it The Program.
In addition to the senior class of 2013 that has moved on from The Program, we have a number of players that have chosen to leave college early for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Baker was a key to Washington’s quick ascendance under coach Chris Petersen since signing with the Huskies as a member of Petersen’s initial Class of 2014. He immediately earned time as a starter during his true freshman campaign that season, and last fall, Baker capped his career in Seattle by earning All-America honors as a junior. He should be off the board fairly early either possibly as a late first-rounder but almost certainly no later than the third round.
Utah offensive tackle
We ended up having Bolles in the program for just a single year having signed him as a Class of 2016 junior college transfer out of Snow College. After one season at Utah, Bolles has elected to enter the NFL Draft, and he currently projects as a first- or second-round pick as one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the country.
LSU running back
After making a run at the Heisman Trophy during his 2015 sophomore season, Fournette was an early favorite for the award heading into 2016. A high ankle sprain in the preseason, however, proved to be a recurring issue throughout his junior season leading to several missed games and a final rushing total of just 843 yards compared to 1,953 during his big sophomore campaign. Despite the disappointing results, Fournette has long been regarded as a first-round talent, and the results of his junior season have done little to dampen the enthusiasm around the big (6-1, 230-pound) Tiger running back. Anything below the first round would be considered a major disappointment.
Texas A&M defensive end
One of college football’s most talented players over the past three seasons, Garrett has long been regarded as a potential top pick in the NFL Draft. Of course, that depends partly on a team’s need, but most draft experts seem to agree that the Cleveland Browns (who have the first pick) would be hard-pressed to pass him up. The team has needs across the board, of course, and there’s also the possibility the pick could be traded for additional picks. But, ultimately, Garrett is just one of a handful of players in this draft that’s considered a virtual ‘can’t-miss’ prospect, and it’s hard to see him slipping out of the first three to five picks.
Humphrey was a member of our Class of 2014, and after redshirting as a freshman, he broke into the starting lineup for the Alabama Crimson Tide as a redshirt freshman in 2015. Last fall, he earned All-America honors, and after projecting as a first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, he chose to leave college early to begin his professional career. He’s the son of former Alabama running back Bobby Humphrey who enjoyed a brief NFL career of his own as a member of the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins. The elder Humphrey was a two-time All-American before breaking his foot during his senior season, and earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors after rushing 1,151 yards for the Broncos in 1989. He followed that with a 1,202-yard effort in 1990 that earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl, but a holdout that lasted until Week 14 of his third season effectively ended his career in Denver. He was traded to Miami where he rushed for 471 yards in 1992, and what once appeared to be a bright NFL career, was suddenly over. The feeling here is that the younger Humphrey is set for a longer career, and ultimately, has the talent to earn All-Pro recognition in the years to come.
Tennessee wide receiver
Malone is one of those players who feels like he could probably benefit from hanging around and having a big senior season at Tennessee. Instead, he chose to enter the 2017 NFL Draft after the Volunteers’ disappointing 2016 season, and he currently projects as no earlier than probably a fifth-round choice. In a draft with lots of receiver options in that range, there’s even the chance Malone could completely slip off draft boards and end up having to go the free agent route.
Ohio State linebacker
McMillan is a two-time All-American who projects as a first- or second-round pick so it was a no-brainer for the Buckeye standout to enter the NFL Draft. The feeling here is that McMillan will have an impact right away as his play-making ability will be enough to earn him playing time. In the right situation, he’ll probably be a starter from Day One.
Unless you’re a college football fan who somehow missed the entire 2016 season, you know that Peppers was one of the biggest stars last fall, that rare defensive player who even earns Heisman consideration. Of course, he enhanced his Heisman resume by contributing on offense and special teams, but it’s that all-around ability that has pro scouts drooling, too. While he officially played a hybrid safety/linebacker position at Michigan, he projects as a strong safety in the NFL. But he’s got the ability to line up in a number of places on an NFL field, too, and barring an injury in the months leading up to the draft, there’s no way he isn’t a first-round pick.
Alabama offensive tackle
Robinson was another one of our big successes in The Program, and another one of our award winners having captured the 2016 Outland Trophy. He’s considered a certain first-round pick, and could very well be the first offensive tackle off the board on draft day. He’s not quite in the same class as Laremy Tunsil, our former Program member from Ole Miss who was selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, but, ultimately, he could prove to be in the same class if he ends up with the right team and the right opportunities.
Alabama wide receiver
We originally took Stewart as a kick returner out of Fultondale (Birmingham, AL) in our Class of 2013, and after taking a redshirt his freshman season, Stewart emerged over three seasons as one of the top receiver prospects in Tuscaloosa as well. He made some big plays in the championship game vs. Clemson in January, and after projecting as possibly a second-round pick, Stewart chose to leave early for the NFL Draft. He technically could have returned as a redshirt senior, but after four years in Nick Saban’s system, there’s no doubt that Stewart should be well-prepared for a career at the next level. The Alabama association should help him on draft day, too, but with a crowded class of receivers, he could slip to the third or fourth round.
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