If football is becoming a quarterback’s game, then it follows that it’s also becoming a receiver’s game.
College football offenses are finding more and more ways to get their fastest, flashiest and most athletic players the ball. That’s more than evident ahead of the 2019 season, where receivers like Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace and Clemson’s Justyn Ross will dominate headlines and scoreboards.
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It’s a loaded field, to say the least. But who will be the top receiver at season’s end?
Sporting News’ top 25 college football wide receivers for 2019:
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
Tamorrion Terry, Florida State
Cedric Byrd II, Hawaii
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
Kirk Merritt, Arkansas State
No. 25 Marquez Stevenson, Houston
Stevenson was a do-it-all playmaker for the Cougars in 2018. The rising redshirt junior broke out with 75 receptions for 1,019 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season, adding 269 kickoff return yards to that total. His 503 yards after the catch – good for second in the American Athletic Conference last year – shows how talented the speedster is with the ball in his hands.
No. 24 Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC
St. Brown’s wasn’t the most productive freshman campaign, but he showed enough athleticism and big-play ability to earn a spot on this list – just look at his 167-yard performance against Texas. He led the Trojans with 60 receptions, 30 of which went for first downs, and finished second on the team with 750 receiving yards. Adding Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator should only help his development in Year 2.
No. 23 Nico Collins, Michigan
You could also put Donovan Peoples-Jones here, but we’ll go with the guy who finished better down the stretch. Collins finished the Wolverines’ last four contests with 179 receiving yards and four touchdowns, including a two-touchdown outing against Ohio State. Michigan coordinator Josh Gattis should help improve the passing game in 2019, and that can only mean good news for Collins and Peoples-Jones.
No. 22 KJ Hamler, Penn State
It didn’t take long for Hamler to make an impact in 2018 as he led the team with 42 receptions and 754 receiving yards. The 5-9 rising sophomore showed not only an ability to maneuver in and out of traffic, but also an ability to take the top off defenses. He’ll be a huge target for presumed starter Sean Clifford in 2019.
No. 21 Rico Bussey Jr., North Texas
Another deep threat on this list, Bussey was Mason Fine’s favorite target in 2018. He led North Texas with 68 receptions for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns, and it should be more of the same this season.
No. 20 Justin Jefferson, LSU
Jefferson was a reliable target for transfer Joe Burrow in 2018, helping him acclimate to the offense in LSU’s first 10-win season since 2013. For his trouble, Jefferson ended up leading LSU in receptions (54), receiving yards (875) and receiving touchdowns (eight). He’ll continue to be a key cog in LSU’s offensive evolution this season.
No. 19 Adrian Hardy, Louisiana Tech
Want proof Hardy will be one of the top receivers in the Group of 5 this year? Look at his game against LSU in 2018: 10 receptions for 181 yards and two touchdowns against a defense that boasted Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit. He’s a stud who should be able to haul in a few more receiving touchdowns than the six he pulled in last year.
18. Bryan Edwards, South Carolina
At 6-3, 220 pounds, Edwards is a physically imposing receiver who uses his size and strength to bully past or over defenders to make his catches. Edwards isn’t the fastest or most agile receiver, but still made a living in opposing secondaries in 2018. With Deebo Samuel gone, Edwards should have an even larger role in the Gamecocks’ passing game.
No. 17 Collin Johnson, Texas
Collin Johnson was easily Texas’ biggest big-play threat in 2018. He thrived on the long ball, hauling in 985 yards and seven touchdowns and leading the conference with a 140.0 passer rating on deep targets. Johnson should see his role increased in 2019 with Lil’Jordan Humphrey now in the NFL.
No. 16 K.J. Hill, Ohio State
K.J. Hill was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Ryan Day’s pass-oriented offense in 2018, earning career-highs in receptions (70), yards (885) and touchdowns (six). Hill is the only of Ohio State’s top five receivers returning from last year, so look for Day to move him all over the field – not just the slot – to best get open for Georgia transfer Justin Fields.
No. 15 Damonte Coxie, Memphis
Coxie is a crisp route-runner who’s at his most dangerous after having caught the ball. He’s hard to take down in the open field, making defenders miss with his elusiveness and breakaway speed despite his 6-3, 200-pound frame.
No. 14 Kalija Lipscomb, Vanderbilt
Kalija Lipscomb is the best receiver in the SEC outside of Alabama. The rising senior has shown steady improvement over his three-year career at Vanderbilt, displaying a handful of highlight-reel catches and an ability to power through defenders for tough yards. Vandy will break in a new quarterback in 2018, but Lipscomb will help that transition be as smooth as possible.
No. 13 DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Get used to seeing Alabama receivers on this list. The first among them is junior DeVonta Smith, hero of the Crimson Tide’s 2018 championship game against Georgia. Smith finished fifth among Alabama’s receiving corps in 2018 in receptions and receiving yards – including behind tight end Irv Smith Jr. – but still hauled in 42 receptions for 693 yards. He’s extremely efficient, turning in an SEC-leading 146.5 passer rating according to PFF. There may be too many playmakers on Alabama’s offense for Smith to see huge numbers, but he’ll continue to be an integral part of the offense.
No. 12 Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
The second Alabama receiver on this list, Waddle was so impressive as a freshman that he earned the eighth-highest grade among receivers in 2018 according to PFF. Thanks to his incredible acceleration, speed and pass-catching ability, he averaged 18.8 yards a reception and caught 75 percent of the passes thrown his way, finishing second on the team with 848 receiving yards. Waddle can take it to the house on any play, both on offense and in the return game.
No. 11 James Proche, SMU
Proche is the leading returning receiver in the Group of 5 thanks to the sheer volume of targets he got. The AAC’s highest-graded receiver last season per PFF dropped only three of 96 catchable passes all year. For those counting, that’s 93 receptions, good for fifth nationally. He’ll continue to be the main target in the Mustangs’ offense.
No. 10 Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
How good was Tyler Johnson in 2018? He finished second in the Big Ten with 1,168 receiving yards, behind only Purdue’s Rondale Moore, and converted his 78 receptions into first 61 downs/touchdowns. He can get it done with short and intermediate routes but is at his most dangerous in the red zone, where he caught a nation-leading 10 touchdowns in 2018.
No. 9 Jalen Reagor, TCU
Reagor showed he can do it all in 2018, whether it was making acrobatic, leaping catches, breaking tackles, juking defenders or simply blazing down the field en route to a touchdown. Defenses will key in on him this season, so it’s up to TCU to make sure he gets as many looks as possible. We think he’ll be fine.
No. 8 Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
The penultimate Tide receiver on this list, Ruggs finished second among Alabama’s receivers last season with 46 receptions and 11 touchdowns. It’s hard not to be successful when you share the field with so many talented pass-catchers, but Ruggs showed great separation and tackle evasion, averaging 8.3 yards after the catch.
No. 7 Tee Higgins, Clemson
Higgins is a powerful, big-bodied receiver who used his 6-4, 200-pound frame to lead Clemson with 59 catches for 965 yards (good for second on the team). If Clemson follows suit in 2019, they’ll make him the team’s top big threat again. That shouldn’t be a problem for him with Trevor Lawrence flinging the ball and Travis Etienne in the backfield to keep defenses honest.
No. 6 Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado
The only reason Shenault didn’t crack our top five is because he only played nine games last season because of injury. Even so, he finished with 86 receptions for 1,011 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns to earn his spot as the top wide receiver in the Pac-12. Whether it’s underneath, over the top or from the Wildcat – he rushed for five touchdowns, tops among receivers – there’s no place Shenault can’t hurt you.
No. 5 CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Lamb was anything but meek in 2018, forming one of the best wide receiver duos in the Big 12 – and the nation – alongside Marquise Brown. The sophomore put up 1,158 receiving yards, 17.8 yards per reception and 11 touchdowns last year – all as the Sooners’ No. 2 receiver. With “Hollywood” off to the NFL, there’s no telling what Lamb can accomplish as he helps bring Jalen Hurts along in Lincoln Riley’s offense.
No. 4 Justyn Ross, Clemson
No player put up a more impressive individual performance in the 2018 College Football Playoff than true freshman Justyn Ross (except maybe his quarterback). Ross torched Notre Dame and Alabama for a combined 303 yards and three touchdowns, part of a season in which he turned in 1,000 receiving yards, an absurd 21.7 yards per reception and 9.6 yards-after-catch average. He’s big, strong and fast, has great hands and can break tackles or juke defenders. He’ll do it again in 2019 and – considering he and Lawrence are both sophomores – will do it again in 2020. After that, the rest of college football can only hope they’ll leave early for the NFL.
No. 3 Rondale Moore, Purdue
Unlike some of his contemporaries on this list, Rondale Moore did not have an excess of similarly talented teammates around him in 2018, allowing defenses to gameplan around him. And still the true freshman led the nation with 114 receptions, 892 post-catch yards and 36 broken tackles after the catch. Moore’s not the biggest receiver at 5-9, 175 pounds, but he uses his compact frame to shed tackles before putting his speed and lateral movement to work. It was a thing of beauty to watch him turn short routes into long gains last season, and it will be again in 2019.
No. 2 Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
How do you replace a Biletnikoff-caliber wide receiver? Easy: Replace him with another one. That’s what Oklahoma State did with Tylan Wallace, who turned in 1,491 receiving yards and 114.7 yards per game – tops among returners in 2019 – in replacement of James Washington. He was a devastating deep-pass target, leading all receivers with 20 receptions and 708 yards on passes at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to PFF. But those weren’t just wide-open routes; he also led the nation with 23 contested catches. There’s no question he’ll be a Biletnikoff finalist again in 2019 – but can he bring it home over the guy who won it last year?
No. 1 Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
Jerry Jeudy is in line to be the next great wide receiver at Alabama, and with good reason: No one else at his position blends top-end speed, athleticism and elusiveness better. He can outrun you with his reported sub-4.3 40 speed. He can stop on a dime, breaking defenders’ ankles or sending them flying by in overpursuit. He can weave in and out of traffic, all while keeping forward momentum. He used those attributes to rack up 1,315 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2018, good for second and first among returners this year, respectively. More impressive? He accumulated those numbers with 49 catches of at least 10 yards, 24 of at least 20 yards and 10 of at least 40 yards. There’s not a bigger home run threat in college football, or a better receiver.
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