The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) consistently produces some of the best National Football League talent in the country. For perspective, the 2018 NFL Draft class boasts 28 ACC players drafted. What’s astounding about that fact is that it not only is the lowest total the ACC has posted in recent memory, but it ranks fifth amongst the Power 5 conferences for 2018.
This may not be a promising development, but it proves that the ACC is a traditional goldmine of talent for the NFL Draft.
Fortunately, it should return to form next year. The 2020 outlook is promising, especially on the top end of the NFL Draft stock. The following are the top five players from the ACC that I’m paying attention to with a new college football season and NFL Draft looming. They are below in no particular order:
Shaquille Quarterman | Linebacker | Miami (FL)
Quarterman was one of the more promising linebackers in the conference heading into 2018. The same could be said about the Miami Hurricanes team that loves its “Turnover Chain” and finished with ten wins the season prior. But unfortunately for him, Quarterman and the Hurricanes stumbled to repeat that level of play with a subpar year.
That won’t stop Quarterman’s 2020 NFL Draft stock, however. The film shows he is a rangy, athletic, intelligent player that demonstrates the tenacity you want in an inside linebacker. While Quarterman attacks blocks with ferocity and showcases three-down athleticism, he needs to display a bit more discipline in attacking run gaps.
Fortunately, the flaws are few. The best part of his resume is probably his track record as a starter. He’s owned the middle linebacker role since he came on campus as a freshman. He is a field general, knowing his teammates’ assignments and barking adjustments on the fly. While he definitely would have been drafted in April, having another chance to prove himself could mean the difference in a couple of rounds come next April’s 2020 NFL Draft.
In addition, and fortunately for Quarterman, his decision to stay in school was particularly wise this year. With Miami hiring Manny Diaz to be their head coach, it made the decision easier. Not only is Quarterman very close to fellow linebacker Michael Pinckney, who is staying as well, but Diaz is the former linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for the Hurricanes that both players respect. In essence, Quarterman has the chance to rejuvenate a day one stock by playing next to his closest teammate and playing under the coach that mentored his position from his freshman season.
Tee Higgins | Wide receiver | Clemson
A former top 20 national high school prospect, Tee Higgins is the new high profile Clemson Tigers wide receiver that’s set foot on Frank Howard Field. Listed at a long and lean 6’4”, 205 lbs., Higgins profiles as a target with a large catch radius and the athleticism to handle contested catches efficiently. In 2018, he notched 936 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, along with second-team All-ACC honors. Higgins is a smooth route runner that has the long speed to complement his size. Additionally, his game is highlighted by natural hands that attack the ball as it is in the air and field awareness to create after the catch.
Higgins will get criticized for his lack of elite speed, as he isn’t the fastest player the ACC has seen. But he is efficient with his strides, and a tenacious runner in space that is willing to eat contact for yards. His ability to fight through contact for passes will probably be his most translatable skill coming into the pros, helping him mold into a red zone threat that will help move the chains. What really helps put him on this list, however, is his quarterback, Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence has been considered the next transcendent quarterback prospect, earning comparisons to greats like Peyton Manning. Lawrence, however, was a true freshman last year, so his growth heading into 2019 will no doubt be a big part of Higgins elevating his respective game.
If Higgins takes a step forward, it will be a huge help for his 2020 NFL Draft stock. He seems like a smaller Mike Williams, current wide receiver for the Los Angeles Chargers. I see a more creative player in space, however, so it’ll be exciting to see his season making plays for the defending champs.
A.J. Dillon | Running back | Boston College
If you want a tough, aggressive, and powerful running back, you don’t have to go to Costco to find it in bulk. The first-team All-ACC A.J. Dillon is the definition of a tough runner. Listed at 6’0” and 250 lbs., Dillon punishes defenses with his relentless running style. His physicality is obvious, as he doesn’t shy away from contact and bulldozes his way for extra yards. He possesses a low center of gravity, as he runs with shorter steps in traffic to bounce off of contact. But most impressive is his lower body strength. His 250 lbs. definitely stands out as he keeps his legs moving and can push a pile. He can also single-handedly push a defender away.
That video is precisely what makes Dillon an intriguing player to watch for the NFL Draft. He’s not a dynamic, electric space player that breaks ankles. He’s literally a battering ram that is evidently much more physically imposing and in shape than his collegiate counterparts.
The knock on Dillon will be his lack of a true, well-rounded game. Dillon has not been asked to produce in the passing game to the extent that the NFL does. He has a mere eight receptions on his career thus far. But Dillon earns his place on this list primarily because of his rushing prowess, that combines speed and power together. Looking at his totals, it’s mindboggling that he got his first set of starts halfway through his freshman season in 2017.
In my eyes, Dillon can be similar to former Boston College and New York Giants running back Andre Williams, except times 10. He could become a game-changing, grind-it-out, aggressive runner in the Derrick Henry/Leonard Fournette mold. He’s easily one of the best players in the ACC.
Travis Etienne | Running back | Clemson
If you’ve kept up with PFN, we’re high on Travis Etienne’s potential. Etienne is possibly the most electrifying draft prospect Clemson has had since Sammy Watkins. Listed at 5’10” and 200 lbs., Etienne plays way above his listed weight. He’s an angry runner that runs hard on every handoff. But the trademark of his game has to be his explosion. Etienne hits his top speed almost instantly and is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Essentially, he runs like a bat out of hell.
The astounding part of his career thus far is that he’s only a true junior. Etienne is already in the Clemson history books, ranked third in career rushing touchdowns, fourth in total touchdowns, first in career yards per rush average, and points per game. Last year was a huge breakout season, however, in which he exploded to set the single-season records for rushing yards, touchdowns, average yards per rush, and points scored for Clemson. In addition, Etienne was a Doak Walker Award finalist, a second-team All-American, first-team All-ACC, and the ACC Player of the Year.
Etienne may get knocked for his size, but he’s well-built, with a chiseled frame, and runs with a thick lower end that packs a wallop upon contact. I’m excited to see his development through the 2019 season, especially as a part of a three-headed monster with Lawrence and Higgins. He could easily be the highest selected running back in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Bryce Hall | Cornerback | Virginia
The list starts with a talented defender and ends with one. Given the plethora of offensive playmakers that that ACC has seen in the last couple of seasons, Bryce Hall comes as no surprise. A standout Cavalier player, Hall is physically the prototype NFL cornerback. At 6’1” and 200 lbs., he possesses the ideal frame to match receivers on the boundary. He is a very gifted athlete, showcasing excellent change of direction skills and overall speed. His second gear is noticeable as well, as he can recover well on poor coverage to track down even the shiftiest receivers.
Hall’s length stands out when he plays in man coverage, which seems to be his niche. He’s fantastic at shadowing opposing receivers and demonstrates excellent ball tracking ability. These skills mesh well with his overall tenacity at the catch point to produce an excellent defensive back that has lockdown potential at the next level. He’s very physical, but not too handsy that it can be detrimental and receive penalties. To top it all off, Hall was Pro Football Focus’s top-graded ACC cornerback.
Bryce Hall was stingy in coverage all season long for UVA pic.twitter.com/GOlG36rD1m
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 30, 2018
Overall, Hall has the tools and traits to be an excellent NFL cornerback. He owns the so-called island that cornerbacks play on since entering UVA as a freshman. That experience, along with his excellent play at the catch point and fantastic movement skills, suggests the excellent potential for the NFL and a first-round prospect.
Sleeper watch list:
Bryce Perkins | Quarterback | Virginia
Bryce Perkins is a very underrated quarterback that may turn some heads. The Cavalier quarterback has a loaded 2018 stat sheet, including finishing first in the ACC in points responsible for with 206 points. He is also one of only two players in the country to finish 2018 with 2,600 passing yards and over 900 rushing yards. The other player with that statistic is 2018 NFL Draft number one pick, Kyler Murray. With a 64.5% completion rate and 25 passing touchdowns last season, Perkins could be the best quarterback UVA has seen in quite some time. Adding his dual-threat ability will make things even worse for opposing defenses. I’ll be keeping an eye on his growth and consistency as the season progresses.
Mekhi Becton | Offensive tackle | Louisville
The offensive lines of the ACC are a strong bunch in competition, but it is not my favorite position group in terms of talent. Mekhi Becton, however, is the most promising lineman in my eyes. He is a shockingly smooth mover with a strong anchor, despite a massive frame at 6’7” and 355 lbs. The key for Becton is to grow and become a stout, consistent tackle presence for the Cardinals. Though I’m not too high on the ACC offensive linemen, he’s likely the most promising and physically gifted one. Becton is also a native of Highland Springs, Virginia, which is a mere 10-minute drive from my residence. I’ll be watching closely, and there is no doubt that NFL circles will too.
Any Georgia Tech player
With the hiring of Geoff Collins came the end of an era: for the first time in 11 years, Georgia Tech football will not feature their famous triple-option offense. Instead, it will shift to a similar scheme Collins ran at Temple University, with more pro-style concepts. The change not only affects the offense, but it will certainly help the defense prepare from week to week, rather than playing the former, rare option scheme.
This massive change is intriguing, and it will be very interesting to watch this program progress during 2019 and witness which players stand out.
For everything NFL Draft-related, follow Pro Football Network’s draft section and via @PFN365 on Twitter. For coverage of the potential 2020 NFL Draft prospects from the Atlantic Coast Conference, follow Felix Davila here on PFN and on Twitter.