Ranking the 12 Best Wide Receivers in College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2018

Ranking the 12 Best Wide Receivers in College Football

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    It takes several things to be considered one of the nation's best wide receivers, and they're not all statistics-related.

    To be among the best pass-catchers, you've got to be able to make plays at key moments, you have to be a reliable, consistent target, and it doesn't hurt to have some important highlights. This list also gives a nod to pro prospects and those who've played top-shelf competition.

    Despite those last two elements, sometimes your numbers are too strong to keep you off the list—as is the case with Hawaii's John Ursua and UMass' Andy Isabella. 

    Despite all that, some amazing receivers just missed the list. It's tough keeping a marvel like Texas' Lil'Jordan Humphrey out. East Carolina star Trevon Brown and Wake Forest's Greg Dortch just missed, too.

    Recent slumps or injuries for Stanford's JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Colorado's Laviska Shenault Jr. kept them on the second tier as well.

    Surely, you've got some input on players who were left out or where these guys should go. But let's take a look at the 12 best receivers in college football.

12. Hakeem Butler, Iowa State

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    When Hakeem Butler stops disappearing for big swaths of games, he'll be one of the nation's top three or four receivers. As it is, he's still pretty darn good.

    It probably would help the tall, lanky Iowa State downfield threat (6'6", 225 lbs) if he could get into a consistent rhythm with whoever is throwing to him. Unfortunately for the Cyclones, they've been smacked with injuries at quarterback.

    He seems to be managing the situation, though.

    Butler is still a bit under the radar for NFL scouts, but he can go up and get balls with the best of them and does a good job of stretching the field. He'll be the kind of combine standout who'll surge up draft boards if he declares.

    "He's a guy that's going to definitely have an NFL decision to make after the year and have to decide what's best for him," The Athletic's Dane Brugler told the Des Moines Register's Tommy Birch. "He's a redshirt junior, fourth-year junior, so he's not a young guy. He's been around the program and understands how things work."

    The Cyclones star leads the nation in yards per catch at 22.7 and has eight touchdowns. In head coach Matt Campbell's system, he doesn't catch a ton of balls, but when Iowa State wants to go deep, he's normally the target.

    For the year, he has 36 catches for 816 yards, and he's a matchup terror for undersized cornerbacks.

11. Andy Isabella, UMass

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    Even though he plays for a bad UMass team that hasn't faced a lot of quality opponents, it's tough to shake Andy Isabella's numbers.

    They're amazing, and if you watch the 5'10", 190-pound playmaker in action, you can understand why he leads the nation with 1,479 receiving yards. He's also scored 11 touchdowns for coach Mark Whipple's Minutemen.

    The senior would be higher on this list if not for his struggles against top-tier competition. This past weekend, UMass played BYU. He had 10 catches but for only 88 yards.

    "He's a really good player. Our coaches emphasized his abilities," BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki told the Deseret News' Jeff Call of Isabella. "We watched him on film all week. Everybody did their assignments so he didn't get much. We held him pretty good."

    UMass was coming off a triple-overtime win over Liberty where Isabella had 303 yards as the Minutemen churned out 777 total.

    In the upcoming week, he gets to play No. 5 Georgia, and if he can put up a big game, he'll move higher in the rankings.

    Isabella will probably find an NFL home after this year, and you could see somebody like Bill Belichick maximizing his skill set, but Isabella needs to have big outings against the best teams to be considered elite.

10. John Ursua, Hawaii

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    At 5'10", 175 pounds, John Ursua won't wow anybody with his physical traits.

    But the junior star has become a run-and-shoot dynamo for quarterback Cole McDonald and Hawaii this season. He's fourth nationally with 1,161 receiving yards on 79 catches and leads the nation with 15 scoring grabs.

    The only problem with Ursua is his competition; you just don't know how those numbers would translate if he played in a Power Five conference.

    Regardless, he's a small-school star to be reckoned with, and he may get an NFL shot. He's a 24-year-old redshirt junior who's coming back from torn knee ligaments, so it's an awesome story that he's on this list and has made such an impact this season.

    There's no denying his value to the Warriors or the quality of his numbers. It's just a matter of whether somebody will take a pro swing on him. One thing is almost certain, though: He'll be back for another season. At his age and size, it's most likely he'll have to latch on as a free agent.

    But his collegiate value is massive. McDonald looks to him first, and he's already had six 100-plus receiving-yard games this season and five contests where he's had multiple touchdowns.

9. Marquise Brown, Oklahoma

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    When your nickname is Hollywood, that says something. For Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown, it means he's a flamboyant star.

    One of the fastest players in college football, he has helped the Sooners and first-year starting quarterback Kyler Murray have one of the nation's most explosive offenses. Brown is an all-purpose star and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

    At 5'10", 168 pounds, Brown once had a hard time getting a scholarship offer until folks saw him run. Then, he left JUCO and became a Big 12 standout—first while playing with Baker Mayfield and now Murray. His build may make some NFL teams shy from him in the draft, but he could be a star because of his versatility.

    In a huge Bedlam game last weekend against Oklahoma State, Brown had a bum ankle and still finished with eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown. It was his ninth-career 100-yard game and his fifth this season.

    "Yeah," he told NewsOK.com's Joe Mussatto, "I'm still fast enough."

    For the season, he has 53 catches for 956 yards and has scored eight touchdowns. He may take a few lumps because of his stature, but Brown is still one of the best players in college football.

8. Dillon Mitchell, Oregon

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    Dillon Mitchell may have grown up in Tennessee, but he wanted to play for the Oregon Ducks and committed to them early in the process.

    When former head coach Willie Taggart left after the 2017 season, Mitchell ironically became more of an offensive focal point for quarterback Justin Herbert with Mario Cristobal at the helm. That has translated into big numbers this year for the junior, who is quickly becoming a household name in the Pac-12.

    Yes, it helps having a gunslinger like Herbert under center, but Mitchell is an impact weapon.

    His statistics would be significantly better if not for an early-season slumber where he had just six catches for 98 yards and a touchdown against Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State.

    He's been incredible since. It all started with a 14-catch, 239-yard outburst against Stanford. The only game in that stretch that he's failed to eclipse 100 yards was a seven-catch, 47-yard showing in a big loss to Washington State.

    Had he flashed in that one, he'd be higher on the list.

    Still, Mitchell is blossoming and is impressing lately with four touchdowns in the past two games against UCLA and Utah. He has 64 catches for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns.

7. A.J. Brown, Ole Miss

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    One of the top two NFL prospects on this list—along with Arizona State's N'Keal Harry—A.J. Brown can terrorize the country's best athletes.

    When you put up the kind of numbers he has in the SEC, everybody takes notice. Unfortunately for the star junior, he plays on a struggling Ole Miss team, and he hasn't been able to bust out this year, scoring just five touchdowns.

    That said, he's still quarterback Jordan Ta'amu's go-to guy. 

    The 6'1", 230-pound pass-catcher elected to play for the Rebels rather than stay home in Starkville and suit up for Mississippi State, and he's a fan favorite in Oxford because of that. He's fifth nationally with 1,047 receiving yards on 72 grabs and is a consistent force.

    Unfortunately for him and the Rebels, he's tended to disappear against the best competition this year, which is why he's a bit lower on this list than his prospect status would indicate. In a lopsided loss to Alabama, he had just four catches for 34 yards. Against LSU, he finished with nine grabs but just 72 yards.

    That doesn't change the scouts' perception, and his overall numbers will only enhance the attention.

    NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah called him a faster JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    "His hands are fantastic, and he's hard to bring down," an AFC scout said, according to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. "Those are the things that stand out to me."

6. Rondale Moore, Purdue

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    When you make this ranking as a true freshman, you know you've accomplished something. Purdue first-year standout Rondale Moore would have been higher on this list if not for a couple of down weeks in games against Iowa and Minnesota.

    The 5'9", 175-pound pass-catcher from Louisville, Kentucky, went to Purdue thanks to coach Jeff Brohm's strong ties to the area. He turned down some of the nation's top-tier programs to play for Brohm.

    He hasn't disappointed.

    Before Saturday's struggle-fest against the Golden Gophers, he was No. 1 in the Big 10 and third nationally with 1,537 all-purpose yards.

    "He's awfully impressive," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told Hawkeye Insider's David Eickholt. "For a guy that's a senior it would be really impressive; to consider him being just out of high school, it's awfully impressive. So he's a very dynamic player, very explosive and very, very dangerous in a lot of regards."

    Moore is 21st in the nation with 909 receiving yards, and he has scored eight touchdowns. One of his top performances came in Purdue's resounding win over Ohio State. He had 12 catches for 170 yards and a pair of scores.

    Whether he gets the ball on a return or on a rush, he's always a threat to score. He'll be a dynamic force in the Big 10 for years.

5. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama

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    When it comes to developing those medium-sized, uber-talented receivers from the state of Florida, Alabama has cornered the market in the past few seasons.

    First, Amari Cooper broke the mold for the Crimson Tide and helped them become a little more well-known for receivers outside Nick Saban's first class in 2008, which included the great Julio Jones. After Cooper, Calvin Ridley roamed the perimeter for UA, making a living out of torching SEC cornerbacks.

    Now, it's Jerry Jeudy's turn.

    The Deerfield Beach, Florida, product is enjoying a breakout year as Tua Tagovailoa's primary target. Chances are if it's a deep ball, Jeudy is on the receiving end of it. 

    At 6'1", 192 pounds, the sophomore won't be a guy NFL scouts drool over. But much like Cooper's and Ridley's, his production will be off the charts. He'll have a brilliant career at the Capstone and be a quality NFL player, too.

    This year, he is 19th nationally with 945 yards on just 45 catches, and he's scored 10 touchdowns. He's fifth nationally with a 20.6 yards-per-grab average, and that number has gone down a bit in the past couple of weeks. No matter, as he's proving he can do more than go long.

    Even as LSU took away much of the deep game, he had eight grabs for 103 yards in that win. This past weekend with Tagovailoa's quad nicked up, Jeudy had his worst game of the year with six catches for just 45 yards. Still, his season totals are more than enough to warrant his ranking.

4. Preston Williams, Colorado State

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    At 6'4", 210 pounds, Colorado State receiver Preston Williams is the prototypical big-play pass-catcher who will have NFL franchises drooling. If he played for a better team, he'd be more well-known.

    The problem with Williams is he did play for one of those teams, but he struggled for two seasons at Tennessee before he left former coach Butch Jones' program.

    The Georgia native resurfaced with the Rams, and though coach Mike Bobo's squad is having an awful season, Williams is a dynamic force who should be an upper-round draft pick. He'd be higher on this list if he consistently played top-tier competition.

    Even so, players like him don't escape the eyes of scouts.

    And he's taken up the torch former CSU star receiver Michael Gallup passed on. 

    "Preston Williams is one of the most special talents I've ever seen in my entire life," senior running back Izzy Matthews told the Coloradoan's Kelly Lyell in the spring. "He's a freak athlete."

    Williams has 78 catches for 1,020 yards (sixth nationally) and nine touchdowns, and he saved his best showings for the top teams on the Rams' schedule.

    He had nine grabs for 188 yards and two touchdowns against Hawaii, 12 catches for 154 yards and two scores against Arkansas, nine for 106 against Florida and nine receptions for 154 yards and a score against Boise State.

3. N'Keal Harry, Arizona State

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    N'Keal Harry is a 6'4", 213-pound receiver from Chandler, Arizona, who will be at the top of NFL draft boards this spring. Every franchise in need of a pass-catcher will line up to watch him work out, as he's a can't-miss pro prospect.

    It just so happens that quarterback Manny Wilkins' top target is having a brilliant junior season as well. The surprising Sun Devils (6-4) have impressed in coach Herm Edwards' first season, and Harry deserves a ton of credit. He has 62 catches for 928 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Last year as a sophomore, he had 1,142 yards, and he already has surpassed his career-high in touchdowns (eight) with nine scores in 2018. Though Harry has just three 100-yard games this season, he's a steady force who's always among the statistical standouts. Five other times, he's had more than 80 receiving yards.

    Harry also had a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown against USC and has proved he can do it all.

    "If I have unfinished business, if I feel like I can afford to have another year, I would love to stay," Harry told the Arizona Republic's Greg Moore. "I love my teammates. I love this school. I love what this program is doing."

    But Moore's column is about how Harry should bypass his senior season and how everybody rates him as a top-shelf prospect. If the Sun Devils are promoting themselves as an NFL factory, Harry could be a poster child.

    But college football fans everywhere will hate to see him go.

2. Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State

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    When you've got to fill the shoes of James Washington, who won the nation's top receiver award a season ago, it's not an easy task. When an upperclassman wideout such as Jalen McCleskey leaves the team early in the year, you've got to play well even more quickly.

    That's exactly what Tylan Wallace has done this year for Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State Cowboys.

    He's turning into a superstar as the season progresses, and it's possible he'll give the Cowboys back-to-back Biletnikoff Trophy recipients. The 6'0", 185-pound sophomore from Fort Worth, Texas, has been dynamic for quarterback Taylor Cornelius.

    For the season, Wallace has 1,282 yards (third nationally) on 68 catches and has scored nine touchdowns. His breakout performance came in the massive win over Texas where he had 10 catches for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

    In Bedlam on Saturday, he torched Oklahoma for 10 more catches for 220 yards and another two scores. Much like the No. 1 player on this list, the brighter the lights, the more he shines. Wallace was open on the two-point conversion that would have won the game, but he didn't get the ball.

    He also had a leaping 24-yard grab on 4th-and-12 that gave Oklahoma State the opportunity for the win.

    When it comes to the great OSU receivers, Wallace warrants a mention.

    "He's on his way. How can you deny that?" OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich told the Tulsa World's Bill Haisten. "The guy makes clutch plays. He's able to get the long ball. He's very good on intermediate [routes]. He's good after the catch. He's physical. Likes to mix it up."    

1. Antoine Wesley, Texas Tech

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    The Big 12's aerial style tends to produce receiving stars, but it's impossible to keep players from a high ranking who are churning out huge receiving numbers and play against Power Five competition week in and week out.

    It's a reason Washington won the Biletnikoff a season ago, and it's why a pair of Big 12 pass-catchers should be in the mix for the hardware this year.

    The nation's top receiver is Texas Tech's 6'5", 200-pound junior from Cibolo, Texas, Antoine Wesley.

    Not only is he big, long and fast, but he can also make all the plays. Wesley is second nationally and leads all Power Five receivers with 1,347 yards. He accomplished that on 78 catches and has scored nine touchdowns. He also has six 100-plus receiving-yard games this year.

    Perhaps more remarkably, he's piled up huge numbers despite having three Red Raiders quarterbacks throwing him passes. In the past two games, he had 12 catches for 199 yards against Oklahoma and an eight-catch, 171-yard, two-touchdown performance against Texas.

    The bigger the contest, the better his performance, and that's the mark of an elite receiver. Yes, he plays for a pass-happy offense, and the system helps his numbers. But he's a massive part of what TTU does, and he's great no matter who is throwing to him.

    He's a fan favorite, his coach calls him a great kid and he has a propensity for huge plays, as 1340 The Fan's Rob Breaux notes. Entering this year, he'd never scored. Now that he's getting his chance, he's a star.