Running back might the SEC’s traditional position of strength, but it could be argued the conference has produced a comparable number of elite wide receivers in recent years.
Among the receivers to come out of the conference since 2010: Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and a smattering of other college and pro stars. Last season alone saw five conference alumni finish among the NFL’s top 10 receivers (Jones, Beckham, Evans, Cooper, Landry).
But in the college ranks, just two SEC wideouts cracked the 1,000-yard mark: Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds and Missouri’s J’Mon Moore. And only two of the league’s top seven receivers from last year will return this fall (Moore and Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk).
So who will step up and fill the void in 2017? Here’s SEC Country’s ranking of the conference’s top 10 receivers, along with a handful of other players fans should follow this fall.
Honorable mentions and breakout candidates
Some of these guys have already proven they can consistently produce in the SEC; others are trying to reach that point. Regardless, all are worth watching this season.
- Bryan Edwards, South Carolina: He became one of those rare true freshman to start Week 1, which we can partly attribute to the bare cupboard Steve Spurrier left Will Muschamp. But Edwards certainly had his moments, including an 8-catch, 101-yard performance in his college debut.
- Jared Cornelius, Arkansas: The Hogs said goodbye to six of their top seven receiving targets from last season, including now-retired running back Rawleigh Williams. Cornelius is the lone returnee, so he’s obviously in line for a lot more looks from quarterback Brandon Allen. The senior averaged 16 yards per catch on 32 receptions last season.
- Garrett Johnson, Kentucky: With 2016 leading receiver Jeff Badet having transferred to Oklahoma, Johnson figures to lead the UK receiving corps in 2017. With 5 catches for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns against Louisville in the regular-season finale, Johnson might fit the role nicely.
- Tyrie Cleveland, Florida: The former blue-chip recruit quickly showed Gators fans he can make the big play, averaging 21 yards per catch as a true freshman. His remarkable performance against LSU (see: 98-yard touchdown over Donte Jackson) really opened some eyes.
- Riley Ridley, Georgia: With leading receiver Isaiah McKenzie off to the NFL, Georgia needs someone to step up at the position. The most experienced candidate is Terry Godwin, but Ridley — Alabama WR Calvin Ridley’s younger brother — flashed major potential as a true freshman and could be in line for a bigger role in 2017 (provided he avoids trouble).
- C.J. Duncan, Vanderbilt: The Commodores don’t sport a robust passing game, but they certainly have a weapon in Duncan, who led Vandy in receptions (44) last year after missing all of 2015 with a leg injury. Coach Derek Mason praised Duncan this spring for the potential mismatch he presents as a slot receiver.
- Nate Craig-Myers, Auburn: The Tigers have a slew of young, high-ceiling wideouts, and despite only snagging four passes as a freshman, Craig-Myers might be the best of the bunch.
- Jerry Jeudy, Alabama: Julio Jones begat Amari Cooper, who begat Calvin Ridley, who begat … you see where I’m going with this. Jeudy seems poised to become the Crimson Tide’s next superstar wide receiver, and many expect him to significantly contribute as a true freshman. The 5-star prospect enrolled early and looked great during the spring game.
Tier III: Poised for big seasons
10. A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
- 2016 stats: 29 catches, 412 yards, 2 TDs
- 100-yard games: 0
- Best performance: Texas A&M (4 catches, 77 yards)
Relatively speaking, Brown didn’t see too many looks last fall. But when you remember he was playing behind the likes of Evan Engram, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, just being able to contribute as a freshman is an impressive feat. Brown averaged 14.2 yards per catch and made a few big plays against SEC foes, including Alabama (37-yard TD reception) and Auburn (3 catches, 48 yards). With Engram, Stringfellow and Adeboyejo all out of the picture, Brown should become a favorite target of Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson.
9. D.J. Chark, LSU
- 2016 stats: 26 catches, 466 yards, 5 total TDs
- 100-yard games: 0
- Best performance: Southern Miss (3 catches, 91 yards, 2 total TDs)
Gone are Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, which leaves Chark as the only LSU receiver who caught more than five passes last season. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound senior boasts great speed and versatility — he scored twice on jet sweeps last year — and he’ll be wearing No. 7 for the Tigers this fall. Leonard Fournette, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu all previously donned the No. 7, so there has to be some good mojo for Chark. Right?
Tier II: Last year’s breakouts
8. Van Jefferson, Ole Miss
- 2016 stats: 49 catches, 543 yards, 3 TDs
- 100-yard games: 0
- Best performance: Alabama (6 catches, 91 yards)
Oh, did we forget to mention the Rebels’ other gifted sophomore wideout? Jefferson started in the slot from Day 1, and enjoyed his most productive day against the Crimson Tide. He tallied at least 40 yards receiving in each of his final six games, and three of those came with a new quarterback behind center. The 6-2, 192-pound playmaker has the speed and the wheels to be even better in 2017.
7. Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
- 2016 stats: 40 catches, 580 yards, 7 TDs
- 100-yard games: 1
- Best performance: Florida (3 catches, 111 yards, TD)
Noted young quarterback skeptic Josh Malone is in the NFL now, but Jennings returns for at least one more year. Word out of Knoxville is that nobody on the Vols defense could cover him this spring. The junior’s misdemeanor marijuana citation earlier this year was a disappointing way for him to begin the offseason. But the charges were dropped and if Jennings can put it all together … well, everyone saw what he did against the Gators, who boasted two of the top cornerbacks in the country.
6. Donald Gray, Mississippi State
- 2016 stats: 41 catches, 709 yards, 5 TDs
- 100-yard games: 1
- Best performance: Samford (4 catches, 207 yards, 3 TDs)
Gray, a JUCO signee in MSU’s 2015 class, emerged as a favorite big-play target of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald last fall. With Fred Ross out of the picture and Malik Dear sidelined by a torn ACL, Gray will be expected lead an otherwise inexperienced group of wideouts into battle this season. By all accounts, the senior is ready to accept that challenge. “I demand nothing but greatness [from teammates], just as I do myself,” he said this spring. “I want the same for you.”
5. J’Mon Moore, Missouri
- 2016 stats: 62 catches, 1,012 yards, 9 total TDs
- 100-yard games: 6
- Best performance: Georgia (8 catches, 196 yards, 2 TDs)
Ah, the power of the spread. Moore, who found himself stuck on horrendous offenses in his first two years at Mizzou, exploded for more than 1,000 yards with Josh Heupel calling plays. Seemingly out of nowhere, he became a go-to receiver on an offense that put up steep passing totals. With that said, you have to remember that the Tigers were perpetually playing from behind. Defenses go into prevent mode and space becomes a little easier to find. Still, Moore really opened eyes with a few of his performances — including 100-yard games against Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas. He’s the leading returning receiver in terms of yards in the SEC and definitely a top-5 receiver in the conference.
4. Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
- 2016 stats: 59 catches, 783 yards, 9 total TDs (1 receiving, 6 rushing, 1 passing, 1 kickoff return)
- 100-yard games: 3
- Best performance: South Florida (14 catches, 190 yards, 2 total TDs)
Last summer, coaches thought so highly of Samuel — then just a sophomore with 12 career catches — that they picked him to represent the Gamecocks at SEC Media Days. Sure, the move was partly a byproduct of South Carolina’s depleted roster, but there’s no question Gamecocks coaches expected a big year out of him. Samuel delivered big time, catching at least four balls in each of his final eight games, including an absolute field day against South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. Want a sense of just how good his season was? Consider this: The Inman, S.C., native finished in the top 10 in catches and yards among SEC wideouts despite playing in only 10 games. With two freshmen and a former walk-on at quarterback, by the way.
Tier I: The guys you have to double
All three of these juniors were part of the Class of 2015; two were 5-star prospects, and the third was a 3-star recruit from Miami with a slew of big-time scholarship offers. Looks like they lived up to the hype.
3. Antonio Callaway, Florida
- 2016 stats: 54 catches, 721 yards, 5 total TDs
- 100-yard games: 2
- Best performance: Tennessee (4 catches, 134 yards)
Callaway, the 3-star prospect referenced above, is far and away the Gators’ best offensive player, and with back-to-back 600-yard seasons he’s more than surpassed his recruiting billing, as well. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Callaway’s college career to date is that he’s been productive with a combination of Austin Appleby, Luke Del Rio and Treon Harris at quarterback. If Malik Zaire or Feleipe Franks can give Florida competent play behind center, Callaway should surpass 1,000 yards with ease.
2. Calvin Ridley, Alabama
- 2016 stats: 72 catches, 769 yards, 8 total TDs
- 100-yard games: 2
- Best performance: Kentucky (11 catches, 174 yards, 2 TDs)
Ridley somehow became less involved in the Crimson Tide offense last season after leading the SEC in receptions (89) as a true freshman. Although still a difference-maker in 2016, he was largely outperformed by ArDarius Stewart and completely disappeared in a few games. He caught one pass against Washington, two against LSU and three against Arkansas — all among Alabama’s closest games of the season. Was it a lack of chemistry with a true freshman quarterback? Was it Lane Kiffin spoon-feeding Jalen Hurts option runs when games got tight? Whatever the case, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll must ensure he gets the ball into Ridley’s hands.
1. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
- 2016 stats: 83 catches, 928 yards, 12 total TDs (3 punt return)
- 100-yard games: 3
- Best performance: Mississippi State (7 catches, 144 yards, TD, 93-yard punt return TD)
Kirk is probably the best slot receiver in the country, and the Aggies star’s dynamite punt-return skills bolster his résumé even further. Many expect him to be a first-round NFL draft pick next year, assuming he declares early. In 26 career games, he has 163 catches, 1,937 yards receiving and 21 total touchdowns. Kirk’s speed is deadly, his hands are sure and his consistency is remarkable; he caught at least five passes in all but two games last season, and did so on an offense that distributes the ball to a bunch of different players.