Talented wide receivers leave big holes for Pac-12 offenses to fill
The story of the Pac-12 Conference's 2019 NFL Draft early-entry pool is that there isn't much of one. Marquee names like Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert — a not-unpopular suggestion for the No. 1 overall pick at times — UCLA running back Joshua Kelley, USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., and Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae all return to the fold for next season.
That doesn't mean the conference isn't without some stars leaving early for the NFL, however. The conference will be hit especially hard with the exits of some outstanding pass catchers, both at wide receiver and tight end.
Gone: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR
The Bizarro World evidently imported in Stanford's offense for the 2018 season. The Cardinal finished ahead of only Washington State in rushing offense, leaving the passing game to shoulder much of the responsibility. For quarterback K.J. Costello, the most reliable and most explosive target was Arcega-Whiteside.
Arcega-Whiteside's leaping ability on a number of long gains and touchdowns made it seem like he could transition to the NBA. He's instead off to the NFL, leaving a massive void in the Stanford offense. With more than 1,000 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Arcega-Whiteside may be the most difficult early entrant to replace in the Pac-12 for 2019.
In: Osiris St. Brown, rising redshirt sophomore
Before he became the No. 1 weapon in Stanford's offense, Arcega-Whiteside was a rangy youngster with a sprinkling of highlight-reel plays to his credit. To that end, St. Brown seems a perfect candidate to step into Arcega-Whiteside's void.
The 6-foot-2 St. Brown is built like Arcega-Whiteside, and his contributions during the 2018 season included gains of 52 and 53 yards. The former was a pivotal touchdown in the regular-season finale at UCLA.
2. Arizona State
Gone: N'Keal Harry, WR
Harry may be the best pure pro prospect coming out of the Pac-12, and arguably the most difficult talent to replace. Arizona State benefits from returning more in established production than Stanford does with Arcega-Whiteside's departure, but that should not diminish just how challenging a proposition offensive coordinator Rob Likens faces.
Harry functioned as a big-play deep threat, a dependable possession receiver, and down the stretch in 2018, started to line up in the slot. Replicating his statistical production might be a multi-man job.
In: Frank Darby, rising redshirt junior
At 6-foot, Frank Darby doesn't have the size of Harry, a one-time Div. I-caliber basketball player. However, Darby's a physical receiver with a knack for explosive plays. He averaged more than 20 yards per reception in 2018.
Gone: Caleb Wilson, TE
College football had no more productive pass-catching tight end in 2018 than UCLA's Wilson. He had shown flashes of brilliance under the previous coaching regime, but his game elevated to another level under the direction of head coach Chip Kelly and his staff.
Wilson finished just shy of 1,000 receiving yards with four touchdowns in 2018. He was both the most reliable target in the passing game, and the Bruins' most potent, big-play pass catcher.
In: Devin Asiasi, rising redshirt junior
The Michigan transfer came on strong in the latter half of 2018, doing all of his damage from Oct. 20 on. Asiasi made catches of 24, 25 and 30 yards, showing some of the same long-yardage capability that made Wilson so dangerous. His work also coincided with fellow Michigan transfer Wilton Speight settling in as the starting quarterback.
How Asiasi develops chemistry with next year's starting quarterback — whether that's Dorian Thompson-Robinson or someone else — could determine his place in the passing attack.
Gone: Taylor Rapp, S
Were it not for unanimous All-American Ben Burr-Kirven's efforts at linebacker, Rapp would have been the easy choice for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. Rapp is a versatile playmaker who excelled in both coverage and run support, and was one of Washington's most effective pass rushers in certain blitzing situations.
Replacing Rapp, a three-year starter, comes down to finding another jack-of-all-trades who shows no deficiencies in any area.
In: Brandon McKinney, rising junior
McKinney's job of replacing Rapp already began, with him starting for the injured All-American in the Rose Bowl Game. Washington's typically outstanding passing defense noticeably lost a step with Rapp out of the lineup — though, in McKinney's defense, stepping in against Heisman Trophy finalist Dwayne Haskins Jr. and the prolific Ohio State offense is an exceptionally difficult spot.
Gone: Dillon Mitchell, WR
Justin Herbert's surprising return to Oregon has the Ducks positioned as early favorites in the Pac-12, but the quarterback will have to find a new No. 1 target. Mitchell emerged as the standout pass catcher in Oregon's offense last season, and finished 2018 with the most receiving yards in the Pac-12.
Mitchell's 75 receptions nearly doubled the output of the Ducks' second-most productive target, Jaylon Redd.
In: Johnny Johnson, rising junior
After a promising debut campaign in 2017, Johnson's numbers stagnated in 2018. Without Mitchell's presence, however, Herbert will need to spread the ball around more effectively. Redd returns to give the Ducks a speedy option on shorter and intermediate routes, while the talented Johnson could be the answer as a possession receiver. Johnson and Brenden Schooler figure to be the two most likely candidates to take on some of the workload Mitchell leaves behind.
Gone: Byron Murphy, CB
The Most Valuable Player of the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game should have NFL scouts salivating. Murphy is a difference-maker with a nose for the ball, and elite coverage ability. He was entrusted with slowing some of the nation's best wide receivers, like the aforementioned Arcega-Whiteside and Harry. Those two caught a combined three passes for 31 yards in games against Washington.
Murphy will be one of the first players from the Pac-12 off the board in the draft regardless of position. His name appears lower down the list, however, because Washington's keen recruiting efforts — led by defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake — have a talented and somewhat proven commodity ready to step in.
In: Elijah Molden, rising junior
A 5-star recruit nabbed from rival Oregon, Molden began to integrate more into the defense as a sophomore in 2018. Molden made 29 tackles, broke up five passes, and forced a fumble. He's shown the capacity to be the next star in Washington's outstanding secondary; the onus is on him to take that step in Murphy's absence next season.
Gone: Kaden Smith, TE
Pass-catching tight ends have been integral to the Stanford offense for as long as David Shaw's been on The Farm. Smith was the latest to shine in the role. Smith handled 47 passes for 635 yards in 2018, both good for third on the team. He also brought in a pair of touchdowns.
Part of what makes the pass-catching tight end dangerous at Stanford is that the Cardinal's multiple-TE sets throw two such playmakers at defenses. Stanford has one coming back in Colby Parkinson, whose seven touchdowns were second only to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in 2018. But Smith's early departure to the NFL means a second weapon must step in to continue that complementary look.
In: Scooter Harrington, rising redshirt junior
The Under Armour All-American has just five receptions in two seasons seeing the field at Stanford. Expect his production to pick up dramatically in 2019. Although his role could primarily be as a blocker — he told USA Today in 2016 he prides himself on that facet of his game — Harrington's 6-foot-5 frame makes him a potential red-zone threat to work in tandem with Parkinson.
Gone: P.J. Johnson, DE/DT
One of the more innovative coaching moves made in the 2018 Pac-12 season came from Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. Yates took over the Wildcats' D in 2016, implementing a base scheme with 52 principles — a polar opposite from the 3-3-5 stack predecessor Jeff Casteel ran. One of the primary challenges with introducing the new system was that Arizona's roster lacked the size necessary to run it most effectively.
Enter Johnson. At 335 pounds, he was initially recruited to play on the interior — and that's his most likely position in the pros. But Johnson moved to defensive end to give the Wildcats a beefier look up front. Johnson immediately took to the role, recording 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks in the final two months of the season.
To underscore just how unique Johnson playing defensive end at 335 pounds was, consider that his counterpart on the other side, J.B. Brown, weighed in at 265. Replacing Johnson isn't so simple as sliding another tackle into that role; it takes a special talent to make that transition. What's more, Arizona is replacing fellow big body Dereck Boles on the line. A more traditional end will likely take over that spot in the starting lineup.
Gone: Andre James, OT
UCLA operated with a sometimes patchwork offensive line in 2018, which made James' performance all the more impressive. A high 4-star recruit when he arrived, James lived up to his billing in 2018 as a primary road-paver for breakout star Joshua Kelley.
Offensive line play has been a trouble spot for UCLA for the better part of this decade. Chip Kelly's teams at Oregon thrived with outstanding play from the front five, often featuring at least one future NFL draft pick in a prominent role.
With James departing early and Justin Murphy opting to use his sixth year of eligibility for another transfer, however, offensive tackle is yet again a question mark for the Bruins heading into the offseason.
Gone: Nate Herbig, OG
Herbig played an integral part in teammate Bryce Love's 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up performance. Like Love, Herbig was greatly limited in 2018 with injury. The lingering shoulder problem that sidelined Herbig for much of the campaign gave David Shaw the opportunty to audition potential replacements for 2019, but settling on a full-time starter is still a work in progress. That much is evident in the Cardinal's anemic rushing output during the campaign.
It wasn't just Herbig missing from the Stanford offensive line in 2018, though his absence was the most noticeable. Walker Little was the one constant on the front five, while a variety of others rotated at guard. Former high 4-star recruit Devery Henderson made some starts in Herbig's guard spot, but Henderson is better suited to playing tackle.