Ranking college football's top wide receivers for the season ahead
The wide receiver position was hit hard by departures following the 2017 college football season, but there’s still plenty of talent on campus for ’18. Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry and West Virginia’s David Sills lead the way in Athlon’s receiver rankings, with South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Georgia State’s Penny Hart and Buffalo’s Anthony Johnson rounding out the next tier.
Athlon Sports is taking an early look at the wide receiver position by ranking the top 50 players for 2018. This article is not a ranking of receivers only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. This list could look a lot different by August, especially once some of the battles for playing time are settled. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2017 statistics, having a clear hold on a starting role and established quarterback, pro potential, changes in scheme or coaching, projection for 2018, production, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2018, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
College Football's Top 50 Wide Receivers for 2018
The Next Tier: McLane Mannix, Nevada; Brendan O'Leary-Orange, Nevada; Ty Lee, MTSU; Tyrie Cleveland, Florida; Van Jefferson, Florida; Papi White, Ohio; Scott Miller, Bowling Green; Willie Wright, FAU; Justin McInnis, Arkansas State; Dylan Collie, BYU; John Ursua, Hawaii; Damonte Coxie, Memphis; Jon'Vea Johnson, Toledo; Tay Martin, Washington State; Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M; Dillon Stoner, Oklahoma State; Tyron Johnson, Oklahoma State; Nick Westbrook, Indiana; Teddy Veal, Louisiana Tech; Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Texas; Miles Boykin, Notre Dame; Jovon Durante, FAU; Devin Butler, Syracuse; Dredrick Snelson, UCF; Vic Wharton, California; Preston Williams, Colorado State; Steven Sims, Kansas; Tyler Johnson, Minnesota; Justin Hobbs, Tulsa; Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville; Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia; Jakobi Meyers, NC State; James Proche, SMU; Tyre McCants, USF; Andre Wilson, UAB; DaMarkus Lodge, Ole Miss; Deondre Douglas, Troy; Riley Ridley, Georgia
50. Hunter Renfrow, Clemson
From walk-on to national championship hero. Renfrow’s career in Death Valley has been a fascinating story to watch, and he’s been a consistent contributor for Clemson’s passing game in each of the last three years. Renfrow caught 60 passes last fall, which came one season after grabbing 44 – including the game-winning score versus Alabama in the national championship.
49. Tarik Black, Michigan
A foot injury ended a promising freshman season for Black. Through the first three games of 2017, Black accumulated 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. With Shea Patterson at the controls, Black is poised to have a breakout year in 2018.
48. Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
The potent pass-catch combination of quarterback Stephen Calvert to Gandy-Golden will lead the way for Liberty as it transitions to the FBS level. Gandy-Golden led the Flames with 69 catches for 1,066 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. He also accumulated 13 receptions for 192 yards and two scores in Liberty’s upset win over Baylor in last year’s season opener.
47. Jalen McCleskey, Oklahoma State
James Washington and Marcell Ateman leave big shoes to fill in Stillwater, but Oklahoma State’s receiving corps is still loaded with talent. McCleskey finished third on the team with 50 catches for 645 yards and five scores last fall and is poised for a bigger role in the offense in 2018. However, Dillon Stoner and Tyron Johnson will also see more targets. If we knew McCleskey would be the go-to target, he would rank higher on this list.
46. Jalen Guyton, North Texas
Guyton began his collegiate career at Notre Dame and spent a year at Trinity Valley Community College in 2016. The Texas native landed at North Texas prior to the 2017 season and emerged as one of the top receivers in Conference USA. Guyton caught 49 passes for 775 yards and led the Mean Green with nine touchdown grabs.
45. T.J. Vasher, Texas Tech
Breakout candidate. Vasher showcased his potential by catching 29 passes for 545 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman last fall. He should slide into the No. 1 role for coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2018.
44. Quintez Cephus, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s ground attack and offensive line will generate most of the offseason headlines, but don’t overlook the receiving corps in Madison. Coach Paul Chryst has quietly assembled one of the Big Ten’s top groups for 2018. Cephus had a breakout 2017 season by catching 30 passes for 501 yards and six scores. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Cephus missed the last five games due to injury.
43. Nyqwan Murray, Florida State
Murray was sidelined during spring ball due to a knee injury but is slated to return in time for the 2018 season. He led the team with 40 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns last fall and is due for more targets after Auden Tate left for the NFL. Murray should be the go-to target for Deondre Francois or James Blackman in 2018.
42. Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
Jennings is on track to return to Tennessee’s receiving corps in 2018. The talented Tennessee native played in just one game due to a wrist injury and was later removed from the team in November. As evidenced by his 2016 totals (40 catches for 580 yards and seven scores), having Jennings back on the field would be a huge boost for the Volunteers.
41. Emanuel Hall, Missouri
If you like big plays, Hall is the player to watch in 2018. He averaged 24.8 yards per catch on 33 receptions last season, recording 817 yards and eight touchdowns. Hall also led the SEC by recording nine receptions of at least 40 yards or more. He should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2018.
40. Jalen Reagor, TCU
Reagor is just scratching the surface of his potential and is poised for a breakout year in 2018. The Texas native didn’t disappoint in his first season in Fort Worth, leading the Horned Frogs with 576 yards and eight touchdown catches on 33 receptions. He also closed out 2017 by posting a career-high 169 receiving yards against Stanford in the Alamo Bowl.
39. James Gardner, Miami
If Miami can keep quarterback Gus Ragland healthy for the entire 2018 campaign, Gardner should have a huge senior year in Oxford. The Florida native earned first-team All-MAC honors after catching 47 passes for 927 yards and 11 scores. His 19.7 per-catch average ranked second among receivers from the MAC.
38. Terry Godwin, Georgia
Godwin ranked as one of the nation’s top receivers in the 2015 signing class and has been a consistent producer for Georgia’s offense in each of the last three years. He’s finished second on the team in receiving yards every season since stepping onto campus but is coming off his best year in a Bulldog uniform. Godwin grabbed 38 passes for 639 yards and six touchdowns last fall, including four catches for 48 yards against Alabama in the national championship.
37. Andy Isabella, UMass
With tight end Adam Breneman out of eligibility, Isabella could see even more targets in 2018. He quietly racked up 65 receptions for 1,020 yards and 10 scores last fall.
36. Trevon Brown, East Carolina
Brown was a bright spot for coach Scottie Montgomery last season, catching 60 passes for 1,069 yards and seven scores. In the Nov. 18 matchup against Cincinnati, Brown set a new school and American Athletic Conference record by recording 270 receiving yards on nine catches.
35. Hakeem Butler, Iowa State
With Allen Lazard out of eligibility in Ames, Butler should become the No. 1 target for quarterback Kyle Kempt. The junior has already showcased his potential. In 13 games last fall, Butler grabbed 41 passes for 697 yards and seven scores.
34. Tyre Brady, Marshall
After sitting out the 2016 season due to transfer rules, Brady made an instant impact with the Thundering Herd last fall. He led the team in catches (62), receiving yards (942) and placed second in touchdown receptions (eight). Brady missed two games but torched NC State for 248 yards and also recorded 165 yards on eight catches against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl.
33. D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss
Ole Miss has three receivers worthy of consideration for this list. In addition to A.J. Brown at No. 1, DaMarkus Lodge (41 catches) and Metcalf (39) form one of the nation’s top trios at receiver. Metcalf caught 39 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman last season.
32. Anthony Ratliff-Williams, North Carolina
Ratliff-Williams is one of college football’s top all-around performers at receiver. After playing in a limited role in 2016, the North Carolina native was the top performer on offense for the Tar Heels last season. Ratliff-Williams caught 34 passes for 895 yards and two scores, averaging a massive 26.3 yards a catch. He also added two touchdown passes and scored twice on kickoff returns.
31. Jonathan Giles, LSU
The addition of Giles is a timely and important one for coach Ed Orgeron. The Tigers lost their top two statistical receivers last season, leaving Stephen Sullivan (11 catches) as the top returner at the position. Giles – a transfer from Texas Tech – caught 69 passes for 1,158 yards and 13 touchdowns with the Red Raiders in 2016.
30. Ryan Davis, Auburn
Thanks to the arrival of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Auburn’s passing game took a big step forward on the stat sheet last season. Stidham quickly developed a connection with Davis, as the Florida native set a new school record with 84 receptions and recorded 815 yards and five scores. Davis saved one of his best performances of 2017 for the Iron Bowl by grabbing 11 receptions for 139 yards.
29. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
Thanks to his 6-foot-3 frame and physical ability, Arcega-Whiteside was the favorite target for Stanford quarterbacks last season and played a key role in the red zone. The South Carolina native caught 48 passes for 781 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 16.3 yards per catch.
28. Bryan Edwards, South Carolina
A season-ending injury to Deebo Samuel pushed Edwards into the No. 1 role for quarterback Jake Bentley last season. The South Carolina native was already a proven target after a promising freshman campaign (44 catches for 590 yards) but took his game up a level last fall. Over 13 games, Edwards caught 64 passes for 793 yards and five touchdowns.
27. Cody Thompson, Toledo
Assuming he’s 100 percent healthy by the start of 2018, Thompson should finish the year much higher on this list. He caught 64 passes for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016 but suffered a season-ending injury in the fifth game of Toledo’s 2017 season.
26. Collin Johnson, Texas
Assuming Texas gets more consistency and production out of its quarterbacks this fall, Johnson should easily exceed last year’s production. Over 13 contests, Johnson recorded 54 catches for 765 yards and two touchdowns. The California native has the talent and size (6-foot-6) to take a big step forward this fall.
25. KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State
Johnson has led the Fresno State offense in receiving in back-to-back years and became the program’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2014 last fall. In 14 games, Johnson caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a first-team All-Mountain West selection by Athlon Sports for 2018.
24. Tee Higgins, Clemson
Higgins is just scratching the surface of his potential after catching 17 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman last fall. Look for the sophomore to emerge as one of the ACC’s top receivers in 2018.
23. Jerry Jeudy (or Henry Ruggs or DeVonta Smith), Alabama
Alabama’s receiving corps features a trio of talented sophomores poised to replace Calvin Ridley in 2018. Jeudy gets the nod in this list after catching 14 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III are also in the mix to earn a place on this list.
22. Felton Davis, Michigan State
Prior to the start of 2017, Davis had just 14 career catches and one touchdown reception. However, the Virginia native stepped up in a big way last fall, emerging as the go-to target for quarterback Brian Lewerke. Davis recorded 55 catches for 776 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. He was held without a catch in two contests but posted 118 yards in the Holiday Bowl against Washington State and 181 versus Penn State.
21. Gary Jennings, West Virginia
Jennings was overshadowed by his teammate David Sills last season, but he still managed to catch 97 passes for 1,096 yards and a touchdown. Jennings led all Big 12 receivers by averaging 7.5 receptions a contest.
20. Parris Campbell, Ohio State
All signs point to Campbell having a huge senior year. The Akron native is coming off his best season in an Ohio State uniform (40 catches for 584 yards and three touchdowns), and is one of the Big Ten’s top overall playmakers. Campbell ranks among the fastest players in college football and is a weapon for coach Urban Meyer on kickoff returns, averaging 36.6 yards per attempt last fall.
Related: Q&A With Ohio State DE Nick Bosa
19. Juwan Johnson, Penn State
Penn State has a few voids to fill in its receiving corps this season, as receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall finished their eligibility, and tight end Mike Gesicki left for the NFL. However, quarterback Trace McSorley still has plenty of talent at his disposal, starting with Johnson. As a sophomore in 2017, Johnson caught 54 passes for 701 yards and a touchdown.
18. Marcus Green, ULM
Green might be one of the nation’s most underrated players for 2018. The Mississippi native ranked third nationally in all-purpose yardage per game last fall, recording 167.3 yards a contest. Green did plenty of damage through the air, catching 55 balls for 847 yards and five scores. Additionally, he rushed for 184 yards, averaged 7.8 yards on punt returns and took four kickoffs for scores, finishing the year with a 32.4 average.
17. JD Spielman, Nebraska
Not only was Spielman one of the nation’s top freshmen last fall, but his 2017 season was good enough to rank among the best in the Big Ten and finish with all-conference honors. The Minnesota native caught 55 passes for 830 yards and two touchdowns and was also a weapon on special teams, averaging 24.8 yards a kickoff return. Spielman was more involved as the season progressed, catching 11 passes for 200 yards versus Ohio State and recording 141 receiving yards against Minnesota in November.
16. Tyler Vaughns, USC
Vaughns was regarded as one of the top receiver recruits from the 2016 signing class, and after a redshirt year that season, didn’t disappoint in his first opportunity for action with the Trojans. In 14 contests, Vaughns ranked second on the team with 57 catches for 809 yards and five touchdowns. The California native finished his season on a high note, catching six passes for 119 yards against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl.
15. CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Lamb was an impact addition to Oklahoma’s high-powered passing attack as a freshman last fall. He recorded 46 catches for 807 yards and seven touchdowns, while averaging a robust 17.5 yards a reception. Lamb’s 807 receiving yards were the most by a freshman in Oklahoma school history.
14. Diontae Johnson, Toledo
Toledo’s receiving corps ranks among the nation’s best for 2018. Johnson stepped up after Cody Thompson was lost for the year due to injury and led the Rockets with 74 catches for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns.
13. Jaylen Smith, Louisville
Lamar Jackson left for the NFL, but Louisville’s offense still has plenty of returning talent for coach Bobby Petrino to build around for 2018. Smith is one of those players, as he returns after leading the team with 60 catches for 980 yards and seven scores. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider Smith missed three games (Kent State, Murray State and NC State).
12. Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
Despite missing five games due to an injury, Dortch still finished his freshman season with 53 receptions for 722 yards and nine touchdown catches. The Virginia native also averaged 22.1 yards on kickoff returns and contributed 8.1 on punt returns. He should be an even bigger part of the Wake Forest offense in 2018.
11. Ahmmon Richards, Miami
After an injury-plagued 2017 season, Richards is poised to regain his place among the nation’s top receivers in ’18. As a freshman in 2016, Richards caught 49 passes for 934 yards and three touchdowns. His 934 yards set a new Miami freshman record, while his 19.1 per-catch average ranked fourth in the ACC. Richards was limited due to a knee injury in 2017, which dropped his season totals to just 24 catches for 439 yards and three scores.
10. Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Brown had big shoes to fill in his first year on campus, as Oklahoma’s offense entered 2017 looking for a replacement for Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook. However, Brown ensured the Sooners still had plenty of big-play ability on the outside, as he recorded 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns on 57 catches. His 19.2 average ranked fifth in the Big 12.
9. Denzel Mims, Baylor
Baylor hit the reset button in coach Matt Rhule’s first season in the Waco, but the Bears are poised for marked improvement in 2018, especially with quarterback Charlie Brewer taking a step forward as a sophomore. Brewer and Mims connected frequently last season, as the Texas native ended the year with 61 catches for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns. Mims posted 192 yards against Oklahoma and 132 versus West Virginia last fall.
8. Kelvin Harmon, NC State
With quarterback Ryan Finley back for his senior year, along with a standout group of receivers at his disposal, NC State is poised to have one of the ACC’s top offenses once again. Harmon was Finley’s favorite target last fall, catching 69 passes for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns. Harmon also came up big in some of NC State’s top games last season, posting 114 yards against South Carolina, 155 versus Clemson and 133 against Louisville.
7. Stanley Morgan, Nebraska
Scott Frost’s first team in Lincoln enters 2018 with a few question marks, but the cupboard isn’t empty on the outside. The Cornhuskers possess one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps, led by Morgan – an Athlon Sports All-American for 2018 – and JD Spielman. Morgan grabbed 61 receptions for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns and posted five receptions of 40 yards or more last fall. The 986 receiving yards set a new Nebraska single-season record.
6. Penny Hart, Georgia State
Hart enters 2018 as the nation’s active leader in career receiving yardage (2,281). The Georgia native earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors in 2015, catching 71 passes for 1,099 yards and eight scores. His 2016 campaign was cut short due to injury, but Hart didn’t miss a beat in his return to the gridiron last fall. He caught 74 passes for 1,121 yards and eight scores, while also averaging 15.2 yards per reception.
5. Anthony Johnson, Buffalo
Get ready to see a lot of big plays out of Buffalo’s offense this season. Quarterback Tyree Jackson is a rising star, and Johnson enters his senior year poised to entrench his place among the top receivers for the 2019 NFL Draft. After spending time at two junior colleges, Johnson redshirted in his first year at Buffalo in 2016. That move paid off in a big way, as Johnson caught 76 passes for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Johnson’s 17.8 yards per reception was the most of any MAC player with at least 50 catches in 2017. He also closed out last year by recording at least 100 receiving yards in each of his last three games.
4. Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
A broken leg in mid-September ended Samuel’s 2017 season after three games. However, he’s ready to reclaim his spot among the nation’s top playmakers at receiver in 2018. Prior to the injury, Samuel caught 15 passes for 250 yards and three scores. Those numbers were easily on pace to exceed his 2016 totals: 59 catches for 783 yards and a touchdown. In addition to his ability on offense, Samuel is one of the nation’s top kick returners.
3. N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
Few receivers have the physical gifts that Harry possesses, and the Arizona native will be a key piece of coach Herm Edwards’ first team in Tempe after catching 82 passes for 1,142 yards and eight scores last fall. Harry posted three efforts of 100 or more yards and caught five of his touchdown receptions over the final five contests.
2. David Sills, West Virginia
Sills’ path from a quarterback recruit to West Virginia receiver is well documented. After spending 2016 at a junior college, Sills returned to Morgantown and emerged as a big-time playmaker for quarterback Will Grier. Sills caught 60 passes for 980 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 18 receiving touchdowns tied for first nationally in 2017.
1. A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Brown delivered a breakout season in his second year in Oxford, catching 75 passes for 1,252 yards and 11 scores. He posted six efforts of 100 or more receiving yards, including 233 against South Alabama and 167 versus Mississippi State. Brown also tied for second nationally with three catches of 70 or more yards in 2017.