The 2017 season features a significant amount of turnover at wide receiver, opening the door for new stars and breakout players to emerge this fall. However, despite some big names moving onto the NFL, there is a clear No. 1 receiver group returning this season. Oklahoma State is loaded with talent, including first-team All-American James Washington, LSU transfer Tyron Johnson and senior Marcell Ateman. With quarterback Mason Rudolph also returning, the Cowboys will rank among the nation's best through the air. Clemson, Colorado, Penn State and Florida round out the projected top five, with Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss also making an appearance in the top 10.
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.
Note: This ranking also takes into account tight ends.
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 2017 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 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016.
College Football's Top 50 Wide Receiver Groups for 2017
1. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State’s lethal passing game could be even better in 2017. Quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington considered early departures to the NFL but decided to return for their senior campaigns. Washington has led the team in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons and boasts a career average of 19.2 yards per catch. LSU transfer Tyron Johnson joins the mix, while Jalen McCleskey (73 catches) is back, and Marcell Ateman returns after sitting out 2016 due to an injury. Freshmen Dillon Stoner, Tyrell Alexander, Tylan Wallace and senior Chris Lacy are expected to provide depth for the high-powered Oklahoma State passing attack.
In addition to replacing star quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers lost three out of last year’s top four receiving threats. However, thanks to coach Dabo Swinney’s work on the recruiting trail, a quick reload is in order. Big-play threat Deon Cain is likely to be the No. 1 receiver after averaging 19.1 yards per catch in 2016. Hunter Renfrow has been a sure-handed option over the last two years and was the hero of the national championship with a game-winning touchdown catch. He’s due for a bigger role. Ray-Ray McCloud (49 catches in 2016) is penciled in as the third starter, with Trevion Thompson, T.J. Chase, Cornell Powell and Diondre Overton rounding out the backup spots. However, top recruits Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers will push for time and round out a deep and talented group of options at receiver. Junior Milan Richard is expected to replace Jordan Leggett at tight end.
The Buffaloes return their top six statistical wide receivers from last season, which should ease the transition for new quarterback Steven Montez. Shay Fields led the team with 883 yards and nine scores, but Devin Ross (69 catches) and Bryce Bobo (44) are also All-Pac-12 candidates. Jay McIntyre and Kabion Ento return after combining for 40 catches last year, while Juwann Winfree — a top junior college recruit in 2016 — adds depth after sitting out 2016 due to injury. Four-star prospect K.D. Nixon ranked as the No. 2 recruit in Colorado’s 2017 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and could push for snaps in a deep rotation this fall.
4. Penn State
Chris Godwin left early for the NFL, but quarterback Trace McSorley isn’t hurting for playmakers at receiver. DaeSean Hamilton was the team’s top receiver in 2014 and has thrived in a complementary role the last two seasons. He’s due for an increased role with Godwin catching passes for the Buccaneers, with tight end Mike Gesicki the preferred big-play option after averaging 14.2 yards per catch in 2016. DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall combined for 42 receptions last season and will team with Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson to round out the key threats for McSorley. Junior Brandon Polk missed nearly all of 2016 due to injury and should help as a slot receiver this fall.
Under Jim McElwain’s direction, this unit has slowly morphed from a weakness into a strength. Antonio Callaway has led the team in receiving yards over the last two seasons and could be poised for his first 1,000-yard campaign with new quarterback Feleipe Franks at the controls. Brandon Powell (45 catches) is a reliable No. 2, but McElwain is eager to utilize Tyrie Cleveland more after Cleveland averaged a healthy 21.3 yards per catch in 2016. Dre Massey also returns after missing nearly all of last season due to a knee injury. Sophomores Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond are expected to provide depth at receiver, but freshmen James Robinson and Kadarius Toney will push for playing time. DeAndre Goolsby, C’yontai Lewis and true freshman Kemore Gamble provide a trio of options at tight end.
6. South Carolina
With Jake Bentley under center for a full year, South Carolina’s offense is poised to show marked improvement on the stat sheet. The Gamecocks averaged only 20.8 points per game last fall and ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing offense. But Bentley’s play at the end of 2016 changed the outlook for this unit, and the sophomore quarterback is surrounded by a talented group of skill players on the outside. Deebo Samuel leads the way at receiver after catching 59 passes for 783 yards and a touchdown last fall. Samuel will be joined by rising star Bryan Edwards, who is poised for a bigger role in the offense after catching 44 passes as a true freshman in 2016. Fellow freshmen Shi Smith, Randrecous Davis and OreTre Smith are expected to join Terry Googer and Chavis Dawkins as the other top contributors at receiver. Tight end Hayden Hurst (48 catches for 616 yards) is an Athlon Sports first-team All-SEC selection for 2017. Junior K.C. Crosby (23 catches last year) is the No. 2 tight end.
ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard depart, but as expected in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide have the next wave of standouts ready to emerge. Junior Calvin Ridley is the go-to target for quarterback Jalen Hurts and is a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports for 2017. Ridley caught 89 passes for 1,045 yards as a freshman in 2015 and grabbed 72 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. He also has 16 receptions of 30 or more yards over the last two seasons. Seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster ranked as top 100 recruits by the 247Sports Composite but have combined for only 48 receptions in their career. Will Sims and Foster deliver breakout campaigns in their final year on campus? The Crimson Tide have reinforcements coming through the freshmen ranks with the arrival of Jerry Jeudy, Tyrell Shavers, Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs. All four players ranked as top 100 recruits by the 247Sports Composite. Sophomore T.J. Simmons and junior Derek Kief are also expected to factor into the receiver rotation, while Miller Forristall, Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. will battle to replace Howard at tight end.
8. Notre Dame
On the strength of their offense, the Fighting Irish should rebound from last year’s disappointing 4-8 record. New play-caller Chip Long inherits a talented core of skill players, while quarterback Brandon Wimbush is poised to deliver a breakout season. Look for Wimbush to target Equanimeous St. Brown as the team’s No. 1 target, as he paced all Notre Dame receivers with 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine scores last fall. With Torii Hunter Jr. departing, there should be more opportunities for Kevin Stepherson (No. 3 on the team with 25 catches last year), Chase Claypool (five) and C.J. Sanders (24). Coach Brian Kelly was also active in the transfer market. Graduate transfers Freddy Canteen (Michigan) and Cameron Smith (Arizona State) will join the team in time for the 2017 campaign. Smith caught 41 passes in 2014 with the Sun Devils, while Canteen ranked as a four-star recruit out of high school. Senior Durham Smythe is back at tight end, but sophomore Alize Mack is expected to be the primary receiver at this position after missing 2016 due to academics.
9. Ole Miss
Even though the Rebels have a new coach (Matt Luke) and must replace tight end Evan Engram and receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow, this offense is going to score its share of points in 2017. That’s largely due to the development of sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, along with the arrival of coordinator Phil Longo from Sam Houston State. While Engram and Stringfellow are going to be missed, Ole Miss still returns a talented and athletic group of options on the outside. Van Jefferson grabbed 49 receptions as a freshman last fall and returns as one of the primary targets for 2017. He’s joined by A.J. Brown (29 catches for 412 yards in 2016), D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge and Markell Pack as key contributors. Redshirt freshman Tre Nixon – a former four-star recruit – is also expected to factor into the passing attack. Sophomore Octavious Cooley was expected to replace Engram at tight end, but he’s suspended indefinitely. Converted quarterback Jason Pellerin or sophomore Dawson Knox are expected to see time at tight end in Cooley’s place.
Despite the departure of the top three receivers from last year’s dynamic offense, Louisville’s passing attack isn’t going to miss a beat. Quarterback Lamar Jackson should continue to refine his passing skills under coach Bobby Petrino this offseason, and the receiver room is stocked thanks to recent recruiting classes. Junior Jaylen Smith led the receiving corps by averaging 22.2 yards per catch last season and is likely to take on a bigger role with the departures of James Quick and Jamari Staples. Traveon Samuel (18 catches) and Seth Dawkins (11) are also expected to see an increased role this fall. Redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick had a breakout performance in the spring game and should push for snaps behind Smith, Dawkins and Samuel. True freshman Josh Johnson is another name to watch at receiver. Senior Charles Standberry, junior Micky Crum and freshman Kemari Averett are vying to replace Cole Hikutini at tight end.
13. Iowa State
16. Florida State
19. Texas Tech
25. NC State
27. Texas A&M
29. Ohio State
30. Washington State
34. Southern Miss
35. Arizona State
38. Colorado State
43. Louisiana Tech
46. Kansas State
48. East Carolina
50. Boise State