Part Five: Ranking Former ACC Players In The NFL This Season, Counting Down From 10 to 1

Are there really 10 players having a better year than LeSean McCoy and Calvin Johnson? The time has come to find out. Today, we finish the countdown. Remember all stats used are before the start of week 16.

#10. Greg Olsen-TE-Miami.

Greg Olsen is having the best year of his career… by far. With two games left in the regular season, Olsen has already set a new career-high in catches with 81 and yards with 960. Barring something unforeseen, Olsen will break the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the first time in his career. He also has six TD’s this season, two off his career high of eight. With a good showing the next two games, he could set a new career-high in that category as well. Olsen’s explosion has come at a great time as he becomes a free agent after next season. Olsen has set himself up for one last big-money contract. Look for the Panthers to offer Olsen a huge extension this offseason, as he has already outperformed his existing contract. With the chemistry between Cam Newton and Olsen, the Panthers need to keep the Newton, Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin nucleus intact and build around them. I wouldn’t risk letting Olsen hit the free agent market where anything can happen. As for the current season, even with all of Greg Olsen’s magic, the Panthers still have work to do next week against the Falcons if they want to make the playoffs.

#9. William Gay-CB-Louisville.

William Gay is another player having the best season of his career, only this time it’s for a team on the right side of the playoff bubble as the Steelers have clinched a playoff berth. Gay has certainly shouldered his share of the load, with 60 tackles on the year and an impressive 12 pass breakups. Those stats alone would have been enough to make the list, but Gay wouldn’t be anywhere near the top 10. As a defender, your job is to keep the opponent from scoring. If by some chance you can take the ball away, that becomes a huge lift for your team. As a defender, if you find a way to score a touchdown then you’ve massively increased the odds of your team winning the game. That’s all basic stuff that William Gay has taken to an expert level this season. Gay makes the top 10 because he picked the ball off three times this year and took each one to the house for a touchdown. That’s right, three picks, three TD’s, resulting in three wins for Pittsburgh. Two of those games were won by one possession, meaning without Gay’s efforts Pittsburgh would have two more losses and would be on the outside looking in this postseason.

#8. Kelvin Benjamin-WR-FSU.

If I had a vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year, it would go to Kelvin Benjamin. All too often, highly drafted guys who were big-time high-profile athletes in college, especially at a diva position like wide receiver, have a tendency to come into the league with big egos, attitudes, and no knowledge of how to carry themselves as a professional. That couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Kelvin Benjamin. Fresh off a National Championship at Florida State, Benjamin was drafted late in the first round by the Carolina Panthers. I would go so far as to say Benjamin is one of, if not the biggest steal of this year’s NFL draft. He has 67 receptions for 952 yards and nine TD’s. Going for 1,000 yards receiving in your first season is a big accomplishment, and Benjamin is poised to do just that. He also has a shot at double-digit TD’s.

Rarely do you see a player put it all together this quickly in their career, but Benjamin has proven to be an extraordinary talent for the Carolina Panthers. To give this situation some context, this offseason, Carolina either lost via free agency or traded away their top four receivers from last year. Most Carolina fans were left scratching their heads as to what was going on, but apparently the Panthers brass had a plan all along. Either that, or they got incredibly lucky. Not only did they hit it big with Benjamin, but with Greg Olsen making good on his extra opportunities, the Panthers are about to have only their second 1,000-yard receiving tandem in franchise history.

#7. DeAndre Hopkins-WR-Clemson.

I submit to you my closing argument on why Clemson has become W.R.U., DeAndre Hopkins. Not too long ago, the Houston Texans were in prime position to make a long playoff run. Now it seems as though the only thing the Texans are good for is a J.J. Watt highlight package. Even at 7-7 the Texans have a long way to go before they can truly be considered a playoff threat again. Lost in all of this is the tremendous talent of DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins had a strong rookie season last year, and even though he has two games left this season, he’s already crushed his numbers from a year ago. He’s caught 69 balls for 1,167 yards. That equals a ridiculous 17 yards per catch. He also has scored six TD’s. For a ranking this high, his touchdown numbers could stand to be a bit better, but Hopkins’ production is undeniable and he still has two more opportunities to add to his totals. As Andre Johnson’s time in the spotlight winds down, DeAndre Hopkins’ time is just beginning, and he could be one of the best receivers in the league for a decade. I’ll be interested to see which of the four Clemson receivers on this list has the best career when it’s all said and done. The smart money is on Hopkins as he is off to a blistering start, but Sammy Watkins has all the potential in the world and even Martavis Bryant is showing flashes of brilliance in the opportunities he’s been given. Regardless of who ultimately comes out on top, for this season DeAndre Hopkins has been stellar and is deserving of #7 on our list.

#6. Elvis Dumervil-OLB-Louisville.

Dumervil has spent time as an undersized defensive end and a pass rush specialist LB in his career. His current team, the Baltimore Ravens, have chosen to use him more as the latter and the results have been phenomenal. Although Dumervil only has 31 tackles, over half of those have come when taking down the QB. Currently Dumervil leads the NFL in sacks with 17. When you are the best in the NFL at what you do, you deserve a spot in our top 10. To cement Dumervil’s spot, not only are those 17 sacks good for the league lead but they’re also a franchise record for the Baltimore Ravens.

#5. Philip Rivers-QB-NCST.

Philip Rivers is the 2nd QB we’ve seen on the list, the first since Teddy Bridgewater. Very rarely, if ever, is Philip Rivers mentioned in conversations about the top tier of QB’s in the league. However, Rivers is one of the more talented QB’s to come out of the ACC in recent memory. The problem that Rivers seems to face each year is a lack of consistent talent around him. Rivers has never had an elite receiver to work with. The closest thing he’s had was Antonio Gates who in his own right has been a terrific TE at times, but injuries have always been a concern with Gates. With an average receiving corps, and a perennially injured offensive line, Rivers is often asked to make the best of a bad situation. This forces him to try and play outside of himself, and as a result, you’ll see Rivers forcing things as a passer. You would be hard pressed to find another QB in the league that is asked to make chicken salad from chicken scratch more than Rivers. The seasons in which Rivers can trust the talent around him, San Diego becomes a playoff threat. This is unfortunate because even though Rivers has a few flaws, he is a tremendous QB and is underappreciated by most fans. Entering week 16, Rivers has thrown for over 3,600 yards with a solid TD-INT ratio. His 27 TD’s vs 13 INT’s combined with his completion percentage give Rivers a season QBR of 97.3. Despite the injury-prone nature of the San Diego roster, Rivers has produced another solid season.

#4. Luke Kuechly-LB-BC.

We’ve seen a pattern in the past couple of decades, where great linebackers dominate their position for multiple seasons at a time. Derrick Brooks was the gold standard in Tampa Bay. He then gave way to Ray Lewis’s dominance in Baltimore who then passed the torch to Patrick Willis in San Francisco. Now the torch resides in Charlotte, North Carolina with the best linebacker in football, Luke Kuechly. At 23 years old, Kuechly should be the man for a very long time. Through 14 games, he has 138 tackles, almost a 10 tackle per game average. He leads the league in tackles for the 2nd time in his three-year career. In addition to his tackles he has three sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception. Not only has he tackled anything that’s moved on a football field, but he’s broken up nine passes. The Panthers have a franchise QB, one of the best receivers in the league in rookie Kelvin Benjamin and a TE that’s only getting better with age in Greg Olsen. Add to that, Luke Kuechly, and Carolina fans have a reason to be excited. With some smart GM work Carolina can become not only the team to beat in the NFC South, but in the entire NFC.

#3. Matt Ryan-QB-BC.

Matt Ryan checks in at #3 on our list. In the past two seasons, Matt Ryan finished in the top five in passing, and is poised to do so again in 2014. So far Ryan has thrown for 4,112 yards with 27 TD’s to 12 INT’s. His QBR is 96.0, and he’s even managed to pick up 132 yards rushing. Many QB’s would be jealous of the weapons Ryan has at his disposal, but even with those weapons, to be successful in the NFL a QB still has to read defenses and deliver accurate, catchable balls. Matt Ryan does just that. Ryan’s impact also goes far beyond what’s found in box scores and stat sheets. His arrival changed the entire philosophy and culture of a franchise. Before Ryan was drafted by Atlanta in 2008, the falcons had spent well over a decade as a run-heavy franchise, from the days of Jamal Anderson and the dirty bird, to the trio of Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, and TJ Duckett. With Matt Ryan at the helm, the Falcons shifted their offense to more of a spread passing attack, even making draft day moves to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones to add to their arsenal. If the Falcons could find consistent o-line play and a pass rush on defense, they would be back in contention for the NFC crown. Until then, Matt Ryan will continue to get every ounce of production he can from the players that surround him.

#2. Russell Wilson-QB-NCST.

“HEY WAIT!!!! Wilson played at Wisconsin! What are you trying to pull!?”

Yes. Yes he did. And before that, he started for three consecutive seasons at NC State. In 2008, he was named first team All-ACC Quarterback becoming the first freshman ever to win the honor in conference history. Wilson graduated from NC State in May of 2010. That means for Wilson to be eligible to play during his r-Junior year in the fall of 2010, he had to be enrolled in grad school at NC State. The point of this little history lesson is to prove that Russell Wilson has every right to be on this list of ACC alums.

Now, the question becomes is he worthy of the #2 spot. As I stated before, I based my list on performances from week 1- week 15, so the fact that Wilson just juked Antonio Cromartie on a TD run so bad that he fell flat on his face doesn’t factor in. He was also on the list before he set a Seahawks’ franchise record for total yards against the Cardinals. (Relevant sidenote:  If the Cardinals want to have any shot at winning a playoff game, they have to turn to ACC alum and former Virginia Tech QB, Logan Thomas. Ryan Lindley looked awful, and at the very least Logan brings better pocket mobility and an increased run threat to the table.)

Russell Wilson had a great season in 2013 ending with a victory in the Super Bowl. Since that game, Wilson’s two most important receivers have gone to other teams leaving Wilson to shoulder even more of the offensive load. That’s a recipe for disaster for most, but for Wilson, it’s just another opportunity to grow as a person and as a player. Before this weekend, Wilson’s passing numbers were as follows: 248 completions on 396 attempts for 2,897 yards with 18 TD’s and only six INT’s. While Wilson doesn’t have the same yardage or TD numbers as Matt Ryan, he has half the interceptions showing impeccable decision-making and game-management skills. Beyond that, Wilson has been a dynamic runner when necessary, carrying the ball 106 times for 754 yards and another five touchdowns, all while not losing a single fumble. I leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I don’t see how Wilson is anything but deserving of at least the #2 spot on this list.

#1. Demaryius Thomas-WR-GT.

Demaryius Thomas is having the best season of any former ACC player in 2014.

Coming out of Georgia Tech, no one doubted Thomas’s physical tools, but after playing in Paul Johnson’s triple option offense, Thomas was thought to be as raw as grocery store ground beef. To Thomas’s credit, he’s worked hard on developing his craft to become a top-flight receiver in the past couple of seasons. Thomas burst onto the scene in 2012 and recorded nearly identically explosive numbers in 2013. He has either already set, or is on pace to set, new career-highs in receptions, yards and yards per game all while not having a single fumble this season.

Thomas has 96 catches for 1,389 yards and 11 TD’s. With at least two games left this season, Thomas should easily eclipse the 100 catch mark for the first time in his career. Averaging 99.2 yards receiving per game this year, Thomas should also break the 1,500 yard mark by the end of the season, another career first.

Thomas is having a career year, but how does it compare to the rest of the league? Coming into this week, Thomas was 2nd in the league in receptions, 3rd in receiving yards and 1st in the league in touchdown catches. The only receiver in the league having a better year than Thomas is Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. For what it’s worth, Brown has the benefit of having more targets than Thomas up to this point in the season. Another interesting wrinkle to Thomas’s year, is the fact that Denver has placed a much greater emphasis on the running game over the course of this season making Thomas’s accomplishments that much more impressive.

That completes our countdown, folks. I’m sure that if you were to do your own list, there would be a few differences, but I think we’ve brought some of the lesser-known players to your attention. At the very least, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at how former ACC players are performing throughout the NFL. Now let’s sit back and watch some great bowl game performances by our current crop of ACC talent.

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