College News & Analysis

Ranking the top 10 returning college WRs

College football has been home to countless examples of immaculate wide receiver play over the past couple of years; the 2020 and 2021 NFL Draft wide receiver classes are two of the best we have ever seen.

While there has been a rapid turnover in talent at the position as of late, a plethora of talented receivers in the collegiate ranks can take that next step to elite status. Today, we're going to take a look at specifically the 10 best wide receivers heading back to campus next fall. 

The following are PFF’s top 10 wide receivers returning in 2021 based on a bevy of factors, including PFF grade and other advanced metrics available to CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers.

1. CHRIS OLAVE, OHIO STATE

Olave was projected to be a first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he made the surprising decision to return to school and boost his stock even higher. For the Buckeyes, this is clearly fantastic news. They are getting back one of the most, if not the most, refined route-runners in college football.

He 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, Olave has racked up 15 receptions to result in a 15-plus yard gain 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 is five more than the next best Power Five receiver. 

2. GARRETT WILSON, OHIO STATE

Ohio State may no longer have Justin Fields, but the team does have the clear-cut best wide receiver duo in the country. That’ll surely ease the transition for (most likely) C.J. Stroud at quarterback. 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 while working from the slot. That led to a separation rate that ranked eighth-highest in college football this past season. The 2019 five-star recruit is bound to put up numbers in this offense once again in 2021.

3. JUSTYN ROSS, CLEMSON

After it was discovered Ross had a spinal condition, which led to a fusion surgery this past offseason, it was unknown whether he would be able to play a down of football again. He subsequently missed all of 2020, but fortunately, it looks like he will be cleared moving forward. That means Clemson returns a top-three receiver in the game.

Vertical routes are where the 6-foot-4 receiver earns his cheddar. He established himself as one of the best deep threats in college football in his two years prior to 2020, coming away with the third-most touchdowns on targets of 20-plus yards in that span (11). His size comes in clutch on these targets, as he just flat-out bodies defensive backs in contested situations, Ross has 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. GEORGE PICKENS, GEORGIA

Pickens took a step back in 2020, but he has more than proven to be capable of producing at an elite level. As a true freshman in 2019, Pickens earned an 88.0 receiving grade and displayed some of the best hands in the country. He saw 77 targets, and not a single one resulted in a drop.

In 2020, his production took a pretty steep hit. Pickens’ receiving grade dipped to 71.1, and he generated only 1.93 yards per route run. That said, lowly quarterback play early on from Stetson Bennett played a part, as did a nagging upper-body injury. Pickens did, however, get better in one key area: contested scenarios. He raised his 27.8% contested catch rate in 2019 to 64.3% in 2020.

With a clean bill of health in 2021, expect Pickens to get back to doing what he does best: making highlight-reel snags with his massive catch radius.

5. TREYLON BURKS, ARKANSAS

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

With his size, physicality and speed, Burks was a hard man to tackle — and that resulted in 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 downfield, 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 this Oklahoma offense this past 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.

The 5-foot-11, 177-pound receiver showed quality body adjustment and speed while routinely getting open downfield. Despite seeing only 49 targets, Mims was able to bring in 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 has left it 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 when in an open field with his after-the-catch ability.

Roberson’s 340 receiving yards coming from finding a hole in zone were the second-most in the Power Five, and he racked up 7.6 yards after the catch and eight broken tackles on his 16 such receptions. He 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, though, 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 separation-getter, but he makes up for it with his top-notch body control and strong play against tight coverage. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver has produced a receiving grade against tight coverage as a true freshman and sophomore over the past two years that trails only LSU's Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama's DeVonta Smith for the best in the Power Five. His 30 contested catches in those two years are also seven more than anyone in the Power Five. 

For most receivers, falling down along a route like Bell did on this play would have resulted in an incomplete ball. But not for the Purdue receiver…

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 the quarterback going down with a season-ending injury, Fryfogle ranked ninth in the FBS in receiving grade (87.2). Like his rival 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.

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, and one can expect him to routinely make plays like this in the coming season:

Honorable Mentions: Jalen Tolbert (South Alabama), Jaivon Heiligh (Coastal Carolina), Jahan Dotson (Penn State), Kearis Jackson (Georgia), John Metchie III (Alabama)

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