The thing to remember about “way-too-early” lists is they’re done way too early to provide a true indication of how things will actually play out.

They’re done specifically to set the scene for the next season and to provide us with something to talk about during the long months until the first game is played.

So there’s no reason to panic or become indignant because most of the 2025 NFL Draft projections that have come out since the end of this year’s event on Saturday include so few ACC players. And none ranked among the consensus top 25 prospects.

No big surprise. It comes with the territory.

Granted, there are no Drake Mayes or Jared Verses in next year’s draft class. At least not yet. But with a full season of games to be played between now and next spring’s draft in Green Bay, there are plenty of opportunities for the next wave of ACC stars to work their way up the draft board.

Here’s a peek into the future at some of the most likely candidates:

RB Omarion Hampton, North Carolina

Now that Drake Maye has moved on to the NFL, where the New England Patriots picked him with the 3rd overall pick, Hampton will become the focal point of the Tar Heels’ offense.

If he wasn’t already.

Despite operating behind a less-than-reliable line, Hampton still put together a breakout sophomore season by rushing for 1,504 yards. While that total ranked 5th nationally, no one in college football amassed more than the Tar Heel star’s 1,072 yards after contact.

At 6-foot, 220 pounds, the former 4–star prospect has the size, the lower body strength and durability to withstand the physicality of his running style. But with the ability to put down a 40 in the 4.4s, he also has the speed to outrun defenders to the edge.

Although running backs are no longer a high priority for most teams – it took until the 14th pick of the 2nd round (46th overall) before Texas’ Jonathon Brooks finally broke the ice this year – Hampton has a realistic shot of being the first ball carrier to come off the board in 2025.

Edge Patrick Payton, Florida State

Florida State has developed a tradition of sending elite edge rushers into the league, with Brian Burns, Jermaine Johnson and now Jared Verse going in the 1st round over the past 6 drafts. Payton, a 6-5, 235-pound combination of speed, length and power, is set up to be next in line.

Even though he was a complementary player to Verse and 2nd-rounder Braden Fiske in a defense that helped carry the Seminoles to a 13-0 start and ACC championship in 2023, he still managed to put up impressive numbers by recording 44 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. He still has room to add bulk to his lanky frame, if he can do it without losing any of his trademark quickness.

Payton briefly flirted with entering the transfer portal shortly after the Seminoles’ Playoff snub in search of name, image and likeness opportunities in the same ballpark as Verse. But after entertaining offers, he decided to stay in Tallahassee. He’s already begun showing up as a 1st-rounder in several early mock drafts.

QB Cam Ward, Miami

Ward entered his name into this year’s draft after a monster season at Washington State. But the combination of a deep quarterback class that saw 6 passers taken in the first 12 picks and Miami’s lucrative NIL collective persuaded him to return for a 5th college season.

He joins the Hurricanes as the top-rated quarterback in the portal, a status that has made him the ACC’s highest-rated Heisman candidate at +2000, according to FanDuel sportsbook.

Ward’s extensive experience at the college level makes him 1 of the most plug-and-play ready quarterbacks available in the 2025 draft. He’s already played more than 3,000 snaps in 2 seasons each at FCS Incarnate Word and Washington State.

He’s coming off a 2023 campaign in which he racked up 3,735 yards and 25 touchdowns and has the potential to be even more productive this year thanks to the return of talented receivers Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George. Ward is already off to a good start after throwing for 324 yards and 3 touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ spring game.

LB Barrett Carter, Clemson

A physically gifted 6-1, 230-pound middle linebacker, Carter was mentioned in several mock drafts as a 1st-round pick this year. At the very worst, he would have been taken early in the 2nd had he followed fellow Clemson junior Jeremiah Trotter Jr. into this year’s draft. Instead, he surprised everyone by deciding to return for his senior season, citing “unfinished business.”

Like Florida State’s Verse a year ago, Carter’s decision to delay entry into the draft is based more on his college goals rather than improving his future draft status. He’s determined to help the Tigers bounce back from a disappointing season in which they lost 4 times and fell short of another ACC Championship Game appearance.

Carter is a heavy hitter and sure tackler with the speed to get into opposing backfields and the athleticism to hold his own in pass coverage. The 2-time All-ACC selection racked up 62 tackles in 2023, adding 9.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 6 pass breakups and an interception in 2023. ESPN analyst Matt Miller has him listed as the No. 1 linebacker heading into the 2025 draft.

Best of the rest

NFL general managers base their decisions on performance, not preseason media projections. So while it’s informative to identify the top potential 1st-round targets ahead of time, it’s almost certain that someone currently flying under the radar will emerge as a hot commodity by draft time next year.

Which ACC players could make that kind of jump in 2025?

North Carolina edge rusher Kaimon Rucker is an explosive playmaker who recorded 8.5 sacks and 15 TFLs last season and could thrive in new coordinator Geoff Collins’ defense. Virginia Tech’s Antwaun Powell-Ryland is also poised for a big year after recording 9 sacks and forcing 3 fumbles in his first season after transferring from Florida, while Miami linebacker Francisco Mauigoa would likely have been drafted this year had he not chosen to return for another season playing with his younger brother and fellow NFL prospect Francis.

On offense, former Clemson and Washington State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei could vastly improve his pro prospects with a productive season at Florida State. Syracuse tight end Oronde Gadsden would reemerge on the draft boards if he’s fully recovered from the injury that cost him all but 2 games last year, especially if transfer quarterback Kyle McCord (Ohio State) lives up to his hype. And Clemson offensive tackle Blake Miller could easily play his way into an early departure if he learns to shed his penchant for committing silly penalties.