NFL.com recently published a list of the top college football players for 2016. Somewhat surprisingly, offensive lineman Dorian Johnson was the sole Pitt player to crack the list, checking in all the way at No. 61. The list was put together by Chad Reuter and while he is an NFL Draft analyst, he is careful to say that the list isn't a mock draft or anything - merely a list of the best players in college football heading into next year.
That the Panthers were represented by only one player isn't a major surprise. Pitt lost its best player from last season in wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who moved on to the NFL. Further, as things stand right now, Pitt doesn't have a guy on the radar that looks to be a surefire high-round pick in 2017 like Boyd was.
Seeing Johnson top Pitt's list was a bit of a surprise. He is without a doubt a very good player and has transitioned extremely well to guard. He started a few games as a true freshman and has started every game at Pitt for the past two years in a row. Johnson also made the All-ACC Conference Second Team. He's also part of an offensive line that ESPN.com recently ranked as the best in the ACC.
There's no disputing that he is an extremely valuable member of the team but I was surprised to see him so high on this list - especially since he was rated above offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty, a three-year starter, who made the Coaches' All-ACC First-Team last year. Bisnowaty was also cited by ESPN as one of the two Panthers to watch for in next year's NFL Draft.
The other in that linked ESPN article? Running back James Conner.
Conner was the ACC's Player of the Year a couple of seasons ago and ESPN even cited him as a potential Heisman hopeful for this year. He has a long road back, obviously, with his battle against cancer, but all indications point to him playing this season.
Even safety Jordan Whitehead, the ACC's Rookie of the Year last season is already starting to make his mark on college football. Like Conner, he was listed by ESPN as a Heisman hopeful for Pitt and made the Conference's Third Team. Is he a better player than Johnson? They play such different positions that it's hard to gauge. And while I have no problem at all with ranking Johnson ahead of him, I think you can at least make the case for Whitehead.
None of this is to slight Johnson, who could play in the NFL and it's great to see him get some publicity out of this. Unfortunately it may come off as such, but it shouldn't. The fact is that he is extremely valuable to what was a very good running game last year and will no doubt have a chance to play in the pros and be drafted. I was just a little surprised to see him rated ahead of the likes of Bisnowaty and Conner, who have a more established reputation.