College News & Analysis

Top 10 returning wide receivers in college football for the 2022 season

Pasadena, CA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs in the second quarter against the Utah Utes during the 2022 Rose Bowl college football game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially reset time in college football

We are on to the 2022 season, where teams across the country will compete for a chance to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

There’s still a lot to be figured out between now and then with team rosters and depth charts — the transfer portal deadline is months away — but the 2022 NFL Draft deadline is approaching for those who are eligible, so we now know which of college football’s top talents will be leaving and returning for this season.

Below are the top 10 wide receivers returning to college football for the 2022 season. NFL potential was not considered for these rankings.

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1. JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA, OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Despite having two potential first-round wide receivers depart for the NFL, Ohio State still rosters the best returning player at the position in college football. Shocking, I know.

Smith-Njigba’s record-breaking Rose Bowl performance — in which he caught 15 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns — helped him to a 91.7 PFF grade this season. Not only is that the best of 2021, but it’s also among the three best by a Power Five wide receiver in the past five years. Smith-Njigba also was the most productive wide receiver in the country this year, recording 4.01 yards per route run. Short-area quickness, ball skills, route-running — Smith-Njigba has it all. 

 

2. JORDAN ADDISON, PITT PANTHERS

Addison handled a heavy workload, averaging 10 targets per game in 2021. The Biletnikoff Award winner undoubtedly seized the opportunity, earning an 87.6 receiving grade and hauling in the second-most receptions of 15-plus yards in the Power Five (40). The 2022 true junior primarily works from the slot, where he led the country in touchdowns (12), but he’s also been a productive threat on the outside. Addison’s 3.33 yards per route run from that alignment ranked third among Power Five wide receivers this past season.

3. KAYSHON BOUTTE, LSU TIGERS

Boutte played in just six games in his 2021 true sophomore season before suffering a season-ending injury. If fully healthy next fall, the former five-star recruit will give Jaxon Smith-Njigba a run for his money for the Biletnikoff Award in 2022. His acceleration and toughness have helped him to a 77.1 receiving grade during his time in Baton Rouge. He’s unafraid to make plays over the middle of the field and is showing continuous growth with his releases and route-running.

Boutte has been tasked with a significant amount of press coverage when on the outside, and he’s mostly come out on top on such reps. His 2.49 yards per route run and 134.3 passer rating when targeted against press since 2020 ranks sixth and second, respectively, among Power Five wide receivers in that span.

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4. XAVIER WORTHY, TEXAS LONGHORNS

Worthy was the Longhorns' No. 2 recruit in the 2021 cycle and the 62nd-ranked player overall in the class. He’s a 6-foot-2, 160-pound speedster who turned into the go-to option for the Longhorns in the second half of the season due to a depleted wide receiver room.

Worthy was targeted on 30.4% of his routes from Week 6 on as a true freshman — the sixth-highest rate among Power Five wide receivers. He made the most of the substantial workload, averaging 2.88 yards per route run and 17 receptions of 15 or more yards in that span. In all, Worthy earned an 80.3 receiving grade for the season.

5. JOSH DOWNS, NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

Downs was the lone reliable pass-catcher that eventual 2022 draft pick Sam Howell had at his disposal this past season. He saw a target on 30.2% of his routes and received 97 more passes thrown his way than the next closest receiver on the team. Downs didn’t waver, as he finished with an 83.4 receiving grade.

The 2020 top-100 recruit is an explosive athlete who posted a 42-inch vertical as a junior in high school. Whether he was going up against single coverage or finding a hole against zone, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder consistently got open. Downs’ separation rate for the season placed in the 97th percentile among FBS wide receivers. 

6. MARIO WILLIAMS, USC TROJANS

Williams provided reliability for the Oklahoma Sooners, serving in a reserve role as a true freshman, and now he will be joining Lincoln Riley at USC for 2022 and beyond. He was one of five Power Five wide receivers to see at least 40 targets and drop none of them. The 5-foot-9, 186-pounder primarily lined up on the outside and had no issue going one-on-one in single coverage. In all, he earned a 79.2 receiving grade for the 2021 season.

7. KEYTAON THOMPSON, VIRGINIA CAVALIERS

Thompson began his career as a quarterback at Mississippi State, where he took 105 dropbacks in 2017 and 2018. He didn’t last at that position, though. Thompson transferred to Virginia, made the move to wide receiver and has since become one of the top players at the position. He earned an 85.5 PFF grade this past season, the seventh-best in the Power Five.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver bullied defenders with his size and physicality. He broke 22 tackles on 78 receptions and caught 14 of his 25 contested opportunities.

Thompson is also a versatile weapon who took some carries out of the backfield and as a wildcat quarterback. He produced seven explosive runs of 10 or more yards, broke 22 tackles and averaged 4.67 yards after contact per attempt on 39 designed runs this past season. Thompson’s new offensive coordinator Desmond Kitchings — who was the Atlanta Falcons running backs coach this past year — won’t be shy about using his versatility, given his experience with Cordarrelle Patterson.

8. MARVIN MIMS, OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Mims has yet to be a full-time starter, but his skill set and level of production as a true freshman and sophomore were too good to ignore. He owns an 86.5 receiving grade, 19.1 yards per catch, 3.14 yards per route run and a 143.8 passer rating when targeted since 2020.

Over that span, Mims has turned 34.4% of his targets into a gain of 15 or more yards, the third-highest rate in the Power Five. He should be a vital piece to Jeff Lebby’s offense in 2022.


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9. QUENTIN JOHNSTON, TCU HORNED FROGS

Johnston couldn’t maximize his full abilities in 2021 due to injuries, but the 6-foot-4, 201-pound receiver was still one of the best when on the field. He finished with a 76.4 receiving grade across 61 targets in 2021, which includes seven receptions, 185 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma.

The long-strider is tough to defend on go balls with his frame and top-end speed. His 439 receiving yards since 2020 stemming from nine routes are the second-most in the Power Five. Johnston’s size and athleticism have also translated after the catch. He has averaged 7.7 yards after the catch per reception and broken 25 tackles on 55 career receptions.

10. JACOB COWING, ARIZONA WILDCATS

Only six FBS wide receivers earned a PFF grade above 90.0 in 2021, and one of them was Jacob Cowing at UTEP. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound slot receiver has been a prominent deep threat for the Miners in his three years on campus. His 32 receptions from passes thrown over 20 yards downfield since 2019 rank second in the FBS over that span.

Numerous Power Five programs sought out Cowing’s services when he entered the transfer portal, but it was Arizona who came out on top. Now, Cowing will partner with Washington State transfer quarterback Jayden de Laura to help turn the Wildcats program around.

SLEEPER TO WATCH: ARIAN SMITH, GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Arian Smith is a legitimate track star. In addition to his duties on the football team, he’s also a member of the track and field squad for the Bulldogs, where he earned first-team All-American honors in the 4×100-meter relay.

Smith’s speed has helped him become a big-play threat in his short time on the field for Georgia. Despite running only 16 routes over the past few years, he has caught four deep balls over 20 yards downfield for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Injuries have derailed him as of late, but with a clean bill of health, Smith can become one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in the country.

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