College News & Analysis

PFF 2021 College Preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List: Best receiver in college football

Nov 23, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Chris Olave (17) celebrates after his fourth quarter touchdown against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

College football award watch season has finally arrived, which means it’s time for PFF to provide the world with our preseason picks for the most prestigious honors in the game. Today, we dive into the Biletnikoff Award, which is given each year to the nation’s top receiver.

With the help of PFF’s College Football Preview Magazine, PFF grades, advanced stats and, of course, the tape, here is a look at PFF’s favorites and a list of other names to watch who could be in contention by season’s end.

Editor's note: This is a PFF preseason award watch list that is in no way affiliated with the Biletnikoff Award.

1. CHRIS OLAVE, OHIO STATE

Olave was projected to be a first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft but made the surprising decision to return to school and boost his stock even higher. For the Buckeyes, this is fantastic news. They are returning perhaps the most refined route-runner in college football.

Olave has generated a step or more of separation on over 87% of his targets since 2019, the highest rate in the country. Against single coverage over the past two seasons, he has racked up 15 receptions of 15-plus yards in which he had more than a couple of steps of separation. That trailed only Alabama's DeVonta Smith for the most in the FBS (19) and was five more than the next-best Power Five receiver.

2. GARRETT WILSON, OHIO STATE

Like his teammate Olave, Wilson is one of the best route-runners in the game. He impressed against single coverage (sixth in PFF grade on such plays) and frequently found soft spots against zone coverage while working from the slot, leading to a separation rate that ranked eighth-best in college football last season. The 2019 five-star recruit is bound to put up numbers in this offense once again in 2021.

3. JUSTYN ROSS, CLEMSON

After doctors discovered Ross’ spinal condition, which led to surgery this past offseason, his football career seemed up in the air. Ross missed all of 2020 but fortunately made a full recovery and is healthy for the 2021 season. That means Clemson returns a top-three receiver in college football.

Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Justyn Ross (8) catches a touchdown pass in first quarter in the 2019 ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium. Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 6-foot-4 wideout established himself as one of the best deep threats in college football prior to 2020 thanks to his size, as he often bodies defensive backs in contested situations. In addition to coming away with the third-most touchdowns on targets of 20-plus yards in 2018 and 2019 (11), Ross hauled in nine of 13 such deep targets in his career. He isn’t uber-athletic, but he wins so often because of his physicality.

4. ARIK GILBERT, GEORGIA

Former LSU tight end Gilbert looked like the baby version of Kyle Pitts as a true freshman and will now take his talents to Georgia to play wide receiver. And he's going to be a good one.

The 6-foot-5, 249-pounder is an elite athlete, possesses a massive catch radius and has some craftiness as a route-runner and after-the-catch weapon. He hauled in seven of his 13 contested targets and broke nine tackles on 35 receptions in 2020. He ran 33 routes on the outside for LSU last season, picking up eight receptions for 85 yards.

5. TREYLON BURKS, ARKANSAS

Burks took his play to new heights in 2020 after being solely utilized as a deep threat as a true freshman in 2019. He improved his receiving grade from 70.5 to 88.9 last season. Burks still made his fair share of deep plays, but he started to produce on the underneath and intermediate route trees, too.

The Razorbacks receiver was a hard man to tackle with his size, physicality and speed, averaging 7.6 yards after the catch and breaking nine tackles on 50 receptions in 2020. Those traits have helped him vertically, as well. Over the past two seasons, he has been responsible for 17 receptions of 20-plus yards, the 10th-most among Power Five receivers. And he did that as an underclassman.

6. MARVIN MIMS, OKLAHOMA

Mims wasn’t the first, second or even third option in the Oklahoma offense last year. The true freshman ranked fourth on his team in total routes run but was by far the most productive Sooner and one of the most productive receivers in the FBS. His 89.1 receiving grade and 4.07 yards per route run both ranked among the 10 best marks at the position in 2020. 

Apr 24, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Marvin Mims (17) runs with the ball during the spring game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 5-foot-11 and 177-pound receiver showed quality body adjustment and speed while routinely getting open downfield. Despite seeing only 49 targets, Mims was able to bring down 11 deep receptions in 2020 (tied for the fourth-most in the Power Five). His stock is on the rise for 2021.

7. JAQUARII ROBERSON, WAKE FOREST

Roberson came into the season with 29 targets in three years at Wake Forest and finished 2020 as the second-highest-graded wide receiver in the FBS (92.6) — just like we all expected. He exploited holes in zone coverage like clockwork for the Demon Deacons and extended several plays in the open field with his after-the-catch ability. 

His 340 receiving yards against zone were the second-most in the Power Five, and he racked up 7.6 yards after the catch and eight broken tackles on 16 such receptions. Roberson also won with his routes in one-on-one opportunities; his separation percentage against single coverage was the ninth-best in the FBS in 2020.

8. KHALIL SHAKIR, BOISE STATE

Shakir went from playing predominantly in the slot in 2019 to mostly out wide in 2020, but his production didn’t skip a beat. His strong 88.2 receiving grade from 2019 increased slightly to 88.8 this past season, the ninth-best mark in the FBS. Regardless of alignment, Shakir was uber-productive. He joined Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Ole Miss' Elijah Moore as the only FBS wide receivers to generate over 3.2 yards per route run in both the slot and out wide.

9. DAVID BELL, PURDUE

Bell is far from a separator, but he makes up for it with top-notch body control and strong play against tight coverage. As a true freshman and sophomore over the past two years, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver produced a receiving grade against tight coverage that trails only LSU's Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama's DeVonta Smith in the Power Five. His 30 contested catches over those two years are also seven more than anyone in the Power Five. 

10. TY FRYFOGLE, INDIANA

Fryfogle had a mini breakout this past season when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was on the field. In the five games prior to his quarterback going down with a season-ending injury, Fryfogle ranked ninth in the FBS in receiving grade (87.2). Like Bell from Purdue, Fryfogle isn’t going to win with separation. He beats opponents with his 6-foot-2, 214-pound frame and physicality at the catch point, line of scrimmage and along the route. 

Nov 21, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Indiana Hoosiers wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (3) makes the catch over Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade (24) and eventually scored on the play during the third quarter at Ohio Stadium. Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

For the season, no Power Five receiver generated a higher PFF grade on contested targets than Fryfogle. He was responsible for nine contested receptions of 15-plus yards in 2020, two more than any other Power Five receiver. His route tree is extremely limited, but he is a true go/back-shoulder weapon.

11. JOHN METCHIE III, ALABAMA

DeVonta Smith was of course the most productive wide receiver against press coverage in the 2020 season, but right behind him was teammate John Metchie III, who will now be the focal point of the Alabama offense. The sophomore put up 3.55 yards per route run against press coverage in 2020, which was the fifth-most we have seen among Power Five wide receivers in the last five years. 

Metchie has that second gear to get on top of defensive backs and handles contact well along the route, but the latter disappears at the catch point in contested scenarios (he caught four of 13 in 2020), and he isn’t much of a tackle-breaker after the catch. We're expecting some growth and a big junior year breakout from Metchie, but at a minimum he’s going to be a big-play threat for the Crimson Tide.

OTHERS TO WATCH (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

CHRIS AUTMAN-BELL, MINNESOTA
KAYSHON BOUTTE, LSU
JAHAN DOTSON, PENN STATE
ROMEO DOUBS, NEVADA
ZAY FLOWERS, BOSTON COLLEGE
JUSTIN HALL, BALL STATE
JAIVON HEILIGH, COASTAL CAROLINA
QUENTIN JOHNSTON, TCU
DRAKE LONDON, USC
BO MELTON, RUTGERS
REGGIE ROBERSON JR., SMU
JD SPIELMAN, TCU
JALEN TOLBERT, SOUTH ALABAMA
TRE TURNER, VIRGINIA TECH
DANTE WRIGHT, COLORADO STATE

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