Ranking Top 10 Returning WRs for 2016 College Football Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2016

Ranking Top 10 Returning WRs for 2016 College Football Season

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    College football's passing game is more alive than ever, thanks in large part to the depth of wide receivers.

    Many of the best depart from last year, but that's nothing new. The well is stocked deep enough to replenish itself, especially given some of the upperclassmen who could have, but didn't, declare for the NFL draft.

    This ranking looks mostly backward but also forward, assessing players on past performance with an eye toward how they'll perform in 2016. Its a preseason ranking of receivers we would choose to build our team around, not a prediction of who will post the highest numbers.

    But those things often go hand-in-hand.

    Note: A previous version article listed former Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller, who declared for the NFL draft. This oversight has been corrected.

10. WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Recap

    After flashing as a freshman and posting strong numbers as a sophomore, Trent Taylor became a star as a junior. He caught 99 passes for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns, including five games over 130 yards. His rapport with senior quarterback Jeff Driskel, a former 5-star recruit who transferred in from Florida, worked wonders for both players' careers. Taylor had never played with a better quarterback, and Driskel had never played with a better safety net.

    2016 Outlook

    With Driskel gone, Taylor will be tested. But he's good enough to pass that test. You can't teach his hands and route running, which already rate at NFL levels. Presumed starting quarterback Ryan Higgins, a senior who started six games in 2013 before backing up Cody Sokol and Driskel, has worked a ton of practice reps with Taylor. If they translate that experience to the field, there's no reason Taylor can't catch 100 passes.

9. Artavis Scott/Mike Williams, Clemson

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    2015 Recap

    Mike Williams entered the season with a first-round NFL draft grade but fractured his neck in September against Wofford, and then missed the rest of the year. In his absence, speedy former top-70 recruit Artavis Scott, a true sophomore, emerged as more than just a big-play threat, flashed a sure pair of hands and became Deshaun Watson's favorite target. He finished with 93 catches for 901 yards in 15 games.

    2016 Outlook

    It's unclear how these two will interplay next season. Head coach Dabo Swinney said Williams is "back doing everything," per ESPN.com's David Hale, but he's still hard to bank with confidence. If he's healthy, he's one of the best deep threats in college football and a perfect foil for Scott's underneath game. If not, Scott will carry a big load once again. Either way, one or both of these guys will make the All-ACC team.

8. Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Recap

    Taywan Taylor caught 86 passes for 1,467 yards, more than any returning player in America. He also fared well by advanced metrics, ranking No. 9 in Pro Football Focus' receiver ratings. Only Baylor's Corey Coleman, who started the year on record-breaking pace, caught more than Taylor's 17 touchdowns too. It's hard to doubt that resume.

    2016 Outlook

    Next year will test Taylor's mettle. The same PFF ratings that called him a top-10 receiver called Brandon Doughty the No. 2 quarterback and Forrest Lamp the No. 1 offensive tackle—but now both of those guys are gone. Taylor will be looked upon to keep Western Kentucky's pass offense afloat. Even if he plays well—which he will, because he's more than just a system player—expect his numbers to drop considerably.

7. Corey Davis, Western Michigan

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    2015 Recap

    Daniel Braverman handled the short stuff, ranking No. 2 in the country in receptions (108), and Corey Davis took full advantage. Braverman stole some headlines, but it was Davis who ranked No. 5 in the country with 1,436 receiving yards. He turned things on especially down the stretch, topping 100 yards in each of Western Michigan's final seven games. In that span, he averaged 141 yards yards per contest.

    2016 Outlook

    With Braverman gone, this team belongs to Davis. Senior quarterback Zach Terrell returns, which should help his favorite target post the best numerical year of his career. That's notable since Davis, who posted 941 yards as a freshman and 1,408 yards as a sophomore, has already cracked 3,700 career receiving yards. If he matches last year's total in 2016, he'll become the all-time FBS leader!

6. Gabe Marks, Washington State

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    2015 Recap

    Gabe Marks led the Pac-12 with 104 receptions and 15 touchdowns, including four scores in one game at Arizona. He finished second with 1,192 receiving yards, trailing only the No. 1 player on this list. Not bad for a guy who missed all of 2014 with an illness former coaches called "life-threatening," per Stefanie Loh of the Seattle Times. More than just a comeback story, Marks became a true all-conference player.

    2016 Outlook

    Next year should be more of the same. Head coach Mike Leach returns on the sideline, River Cracraft returns in the slot and Luke Falk returns behind center. That's a head coach who throws more than anyone, a teammate who draws attention and a quarterback who's earned NFL buzz. What more could an outside receiver ask for?

5. Thomas Sperbeck, Boise State

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    Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Recap

    On the heels of his 2015 Fiesta Bowl (12 catches, 199 yards), Thomas Sperback proved he wasn't a one-game wonder. He caught five passes for 41 yards in the first two games combined, struggling while Boise State's offense found its footing, but finished with 88 catches for 1,412 yards, including 20 for 281 against New Mexico! He averaged 7.5 catches for 125 yards after the BYU game in Week 2.

    2016 Outlook

    Sperbeck posted those numbers with true freshman quarterback Brett Rypien. With Rypien one year older and more confident, it's safe to say those numbers—great as they were—might improve. Chaz Anderson returns beside him and running back Jeremy McNichols, one of the nation's most underrated players, returns in the backfield. There's enough to keep offenses from focusing on Sperbeck, which should help him and the Broncos light up scoreboards.

4. Calvin Ridley, Alabama

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    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    2015 Recap

    Calvin Ridley started slow—at least compared to expectations—but broke out late and lived up to the hype. He wasn't Amari Cooper, but the No. 1 receiver in the 2015 recruiting class came through with 89 catches for 1,045 yards. He only posted 80 yards six times, but those performances came against Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida and Michigan State. If nothing else, he showed up on big stages.

    2016 Outlook

    Having now proved he can ball at the college level, Ridley is out to ball on a weekly basis. Alabama loses quarterback Jake Coker and running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, so Ridley will likely become the face of the offense. The past two faces of Alabama's offense, Cooper in 2014 and Henry in 2015, finished No. 3 and No. 1 in respective Heisman voting. Ridley has the talent to follow them.

3. KD Cannon, Baylor

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Recap

    With defenses honing in on Corey Coleman—and rightfully so—KD Cannon posted big numbers. He only caught 50 passes, but those receptions went for 868 yards (17.36 YPC). His year was boom-or-bust, which is something he must work on, but the booms were among the loudest in the country. Just ask Oklahoma State, against whom Cannon caught five passes for 210 yards and two scores.

    2016 Outlook

    Coleman and Jay Lee depart, which puts Cannon in a new situation. He's spent his first two seasons as a deep threat, stretching the field and freeing up space for Coleman, Lee and Antwan Goodley, but now he must become a No. 1. The physical tools are there, but he will need to improve his route running and prove he can get open underneath. If he does that, he's a first-round draft pick waiting to happen.

2. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

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    Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

    2015 Recap

    Christian Kirk announced his presence as a freshman, although his best work came before conference play. He started on a high note with 244 all-purpose yards against Arizona State and finished the year with 1,789. His numbers sunk down the stretch, but that had more to do with Texas A&M's offense, which we now know suffered from chemistry issues, falling apart at the seams. If anything, Kirk should be commended for holding things together.

    2016 Outlook

    Quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both transferred out, but former Oklahoma starter Trevor Knight, who beat Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl but lost his job to Baker Mayfield, transferred in. If he wins the job and plays like he's capable of playing, Kirk is set up well for success. It helps having teammates like Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Josh Reynolds around to suck up coverage. They might cut into Kirk's receiving numbers, but his impact on the offense and special teams extends past the box score.

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    2015 Recap

    Even on a team full of 5-stars, JuJu Smith-Schuster stood out as the alpha. The addition to his last name did nothing to weigh him down, as he exploded for 89 catches and 1,454 yards. That's a huge year for a true sophomore on a winning power-conference offense. But with JuJu, it's the tip of the iceberg.

    2016 Outlook

    Quarterback Cody Kessler departs, which could hurt Smith-Schuster's numbers in September. But former 5-star recruit Max Browne—assuming he wins the job—has a stronger arm and possesses a higher ceiling. It also helps that the Trojans recruited the best group of receivers in the country. Between them, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell, there's enough to keep opponents from doubling JuJu.

    As long as that's the case, he'll rip them to shreds.

    Note: All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings.