While offensive and defensive lines are arguably more important to the success of any college football team, it’s the skill talent – running backs or receivers – and quarterbacks that generate most of the preseason attention. And with the balance of power in football shifting to the offense, big-play threats and speedy receivers are more valuable than ever.
It's not a great year for individual talent at receiver, but there are plenty of solid groups of playmakers returning. Clemson leads the way in Athlon's best receiving corps, followed by three teams from the SEC - Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
Note: This ranking also takes into account tight ends.
Related: Ranking All 128 Teams for 2016
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings for the receiving corps. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2015.
College Football's Top 40 WR Groups for 2016
Deshaun Watson’s deep collection of receivers from last year’s dynamic offense returns nearly intact. Five of Clemson’s top seven pass catchers are back, and there’s a good mix of speed, size and versatility, starting with All-America candidates in tight end Jordan Leggett and all-around playmaker Artavis Scott. Deon Cain, sure-handed Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are back as key contributors after each player caught at least 29 passes in 2015. This group will get even deeper with the return of Mike Williams — an All-ACC receiver in 2014 who sustained a season-ending neck injury in the 2015 opener.
Podcast: Official 2016 ACC Preview
Whichever quarterback emerges as the starter in Tuscaloosa will inherit a bevy of playmakers. Calvin Ridley turned in a strong freshman campaign in 2015, catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven scores. ArDarius Stewart emerged as a steady No. 2 target last year with 63 receptions, and tight end O.J. Howard is due for a bigger role after a strong performance in the national title win over Clemson. Cam Sims and Robert Foster have potential for breakout years but have struggled with injuries. Graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter should be an impact newcomer.
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies are in transition with a new coordinator (Noel Mazzone) and quarterback (Trevor Knight), but there’s no question the receiving corps is the strength of the offense. Christian Kirk emerged as one of the SEC’s top receivers after catching 80 passes for 1,009 yards and seven scores in a dynamic freshman season. Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones combined for 96 receptions and nine scores last year and provide big targets in the red zone. Speedy Noil, Damion Ratley and Edward Pope round out the other top targets for Knight. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kalvin Cline is expected to start at tight end.
4. Ole Miss
Laquon Treadwell left for the NFL, but Ole Miss isn’t hurting for talent at receiver. Quincy Adeboyejo (38 catches) and Damore’ea Stringfellow (36) were solid as secondary targets last year and are both ready to move into the spotlight as a No. 1. Tight end Evan Engram could be quarterback Chad Kelly’s favorite target in 2016 after grabbing 38 passes for 464 yards in 2015. Markell Pack, Van Jefferson and Damarkus Lodge were four-star recruits coming out of high school. All three should see an increased role this fall. Additionally, there's help on the way from incoming freshmen A.J. Brown, DeKaylin Metcalf and Tre Nixon.
Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson form one of the nation’s best one-two combinations at receiver after combining for 108 catches and 13 touchdowns last year. Chesson suffered a torn PCL in the bowl victory over Florida but is expected to be at full strength by the opener. Eddie McDoom, Nate Johnson, Kekoa Crawford and Ahmir Mitchell are four promising freshmen inked by coach Jim Harbaugh in the 2016 signing class. Tight end Jake Butt caught 51 passes for 654 yards in 2015 was a finalist for the Mackey Award. This group also features promising options in Grant Perry and Drake Harris, as well as redshirt freshman tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr.
Podcast: Official 2016 Pac-12 Preview
The Ducks must replace top receiver Bralon Addison, but there’s no reason to panic in Eugene. Oregon returns a deep (and talented) group of options, starting with Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford. Carrington only played in seven games last year but averaged 19.03 yards per reception and ranked second on the team with 32 catches. Stanford grabbed 30 passes for 463 yards last fall. After splitting snaps with the defense in 2015, Charles Nelson is expected to return to a full-time role on offense. That’s good news for new coordinator Matt Lubick, as Nelson is one of the Pac-12’s top all-around players. Freshman Dillon Mitchell and Devon Allen – provided he returns to football after the Olympics – are two other big-play options for the Ducks. Additionally, tight end Pharaoh Brown is back after missing all of 2015 due to a knee injury.
A deep group of receivers should help to ease new starting quarterback Max Browne or Sam Darnold into the lineup. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the nation’s top returning receiver after catching 89 passes for 1,454 yards and 10 scores in 2015. Steven Mitchell (37 catches last year), Darreus Rogers (28) and De’Quan Hampton (15) are penciled in as the secondary targets. Additionally, the Trojans could employ dynamic cornerback/return man Adoree’ Jackson on offense in a limited role. Senior Taylor McNamara and sophomore Tyler Petite are the top targets at tight end.
8. Florida State
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for this unit. However, is this group ready to take the next step in 2016? The guess here is yes. Travis Rudolph returns after leading the team with 59 catches for 916 yards and seven scores last season, and he will be joined by Kermit Whitfield (57) and Jesus Wilson (58) as three of this group’s main contributors. Rudolph should be the No. 1 target once again, but sophomore Auden Tate had a big spring and could push for time, while juniors Ja’Vonn Harrison and Ermon Lane also remain in the mix. Sophomore tight end Ryan Izzo caught 14 passes for 210 yards and two scores last year and should be more involved this fall.
Here’s a stat that may surprise some: Arkansas led the SEC in scoring (conference-only games – 34.4 ppg) last season. The addition of coordinator Dan Enos was a big reason for the jump in production, as he helped to mold Brandon Allen into one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Although Brandon Allen must be replaced, Arkansas’ offense may not miss too much of a beat. Austin Allen seems to be a capable replacement under center, and the Razorbacks are loaded with talent in the receiving corps. Jeremy Sprinkle is poised for a breakout year as the new starter at tight end, while Drew Morgan (63 catches), Jared Cornelius (24 grabs), Dominique Reed (19.1 ypc) and Keon Hatcher round out the key contributors at receiver. Hatcher led the team with 43 receptions in 2014 but played in just two games due to injury in 2015.
10. North Carolina
The Tar Heels return five of their top six receivers from last season, with Mack Hollins (24.8 ypc) and Ryan Switzer (55 catches) the headliners for coach Larry Fedora. Quinshad Davis (55 catches) is the biggest departure, but Bug Howard (29 receptions), Jordan Fieulleteau and Austin Proehl should be capable targets. Additionally, Vanderbilt transfer Jordan Cunningham joins the mix at receiver, and sophomore tight end Brandon Fritts could have a breakout season after catching 16 passes for 203 yards and four scores as a freshman last fall.
Louisville returns all 16 players that caught a pass last season, including big-play threat Jamari Staples and fellow All-ACC candidate James Quick. Despite missing three games, Staples led the team with 638 receiving yards and averaged 17.2 yards per catch. He’s due for an even better 2016 campaign. Quick paced the Louisville offense with 39 catches last season and will be joined by converted quarterback Reggie Bonnafon in the starting lineup. Jaylen Smith, Ja’Quay Savage, Traveon Samuel and Devante Peete round out the key contributors at receiver. Tight end Cole Hikutini should push for All-ACC honors.
12. Washington State
Mike Leach’s high-powered passing offense is hitting on all cylinders at Washington State. Quarterback Luke Falk helped to engineer an attack that led the nation in most passing yards per game (389.5) in 2015, and the junior is surrounded by a deep and athletic group of receivers. Senior Gabe Marks is the go-to target and an Athlon Sports All-America pick for 2016 after leading the Cougars with 104 receptions last season. Marks is surrounded by two proven and steady seniors in River Cracraft and Robert Lewis, with sophomore Tavares Martin a name to watch in 2016. Freshman Isaiah Johnson enrolled in time to compete in spring ball and should make an immediate impact this year.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big Ten Preview
Could Nebraska be the Big Ten’s top passing offense in 2016? With the return of senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong and a bevy of talented receivers, it’s not out of the question for second-year coach Mike Riley. Jordan Westerkamp is a first-team All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports for 2016 after leading the team with 65 catches for 918 yards and seven scores last fall. Fellow seniors Brandon Reilly (18.9 ypc) and Alonzo Moore (six TD catches) are expected to round out the starting trio, with promising sophomore Stanley Morgan also in the mix for time. This unit will only get deeper if De’Mornay Pierson-El makes a full recovery from a season-ending knee injury last fall. Tight end Cethan Carter is one of the best in the Big Ten and returns after catching 24 passes for 329 yards last year.
Losing a standout receiver like Corey Coleman would be a lot for most teams to overcome in one offseason. However, Baylor recruits and develops this position as well as any team in the nation. KD Cannon caught 50 passes for 868 yards and six scores last year and is slated to replace Coleman as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Chris Platt, Ishmael Zamora and Lynx Hawthorne provide additional support for quarterback Seth Russell.
15. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State is expecting more out of its ground game this season, but coach Mike Gundy’s offense is still going to lean heavily on the big-play combination of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington. Washington averaged a whopping 20.5 yards per reception last year and scored 10 times on 53 receptions. The junior is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2016. The outlook after Washington is a bit unsettled. Marcell Ateman could be out until midseason with a foot injury, leaving sophomore Jalen McCleskey, senior Jhajuan Seales and freshman Dillon Stoner as the next options for Rudolph.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big 12 Preview
17. Penn State
19. West Virginia
20. Texas Tech
23. Virginia Tech
24. Ohio State
26. Mississippi State
28. East Carolina
30. Notre Dame
35. Boise State
36. Louisiana Tech
37. Arizona State
40. Oregon State