ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. recently released his top five returning players at every position and the ACC is well-represented. Not only is this a sneak peek at the 2011 NFL draft, but it's also a good way to highlight some of the top players to watch in the conference this spring.
It's also a black-and-white reminder of just how high the expectations are for North Carolina's defense. Kiper has three Tar Heels ranked No. 1 at their respective positions and five ranked overall. (Not sure people realized just how much TE Zack Pianalto's injury last year hurt the Heels.) There's no shortage of NFL talent for Butch Davis to work with. It's a different story for Paul Johnson, though, this year.
Here's a look at the players who ranked among Kiper's top five at each position:
No. 4 QB Christian Ponder, FSU
No. 4 FB Marcus Sims, North Alabama (Former FSU player)
No. 3 WR Leonard Hankerson, Miami
No. 3 TE Zack Pianalto, UNC
No. 1 OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College -- Here's what Kiper had to say about AC:
Castonzo was No. 3 on this list last week. He should be a focus of this summer and fall, and is one of those athletic types an NFL coach like Mike Shanahan likes to use.
No. 1 OG Rodney Hudson, FSU
No. 5 OG Orlando Franklin, Miami
No. 4 C Ryan McMahon, FSU
No. 2 DE Allen Bailey, Miami
No. 1 DT Marvin Austin, UNC -- Kiper's take:
Austin is going to be part of an excellent defense next season in Chapel Hill. I was a little surprised he opted to return, given how highly many people regard him, but he avoids being part of an immensely deep class and could do extremely well if he stays healthy.
No. 1 ILB Quan Sturdivant, UNC
No. 4 ILB Alex Wujciak, Maryland
No. 1 OLB Bruce Carter, UNC
No. 5 OLB Nate Irving, NC State
No. 1 CB Ras-I Dowling, Virginia
No. 4 CB Rashad Carmichael, Virginia Tech
No. 1 S DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson
No. 2 S Deunta Williams, UNC
McDaniel hadn't previously cracked any of my lists, but he's long been on the radar of NFL personnel folks. Next season should be his official coming-out party.
No. 5 P Travis Baltz, Maryland