As SEC offenses seek to become more explosive in nature, wide receivers and tight ends become a more valuable position than ever before.
There might not be a player like Julio Jones or Percy Harvin in this year’s crop of returning pass-catchers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate playmaking abilities.
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, we’ve compiled a list of the SEC’s top 10 returning players at each position. This ranking is based on past performance, opportunity and overall ability, so it isn’t just calculated from last year’s stats.
Previous rankings: Running back
Here’s a look at the top 10 returning receivers/tight ends.
No. 10: Isaac Nauta, Georgia – 2016 stats (29 Rec., 361 yards, 12.45 Avg., 3 TDs)
More often than not last season, Georgia’s offense looked very much like one in transition. The line struggled, Jacob Eason was inconsistent and the receivers dropped too many passes. As a true freshman, however, Nauta looked like a poised veteran amidst that turmoil. He already looks like one of the best tight ends in the SEC, and he should only continue to improve as the offense around him finds its rhythm.
No. 9: Bryan Edwards, S. Carolina – 2016 stats (44 Rec., 590 yards, 13.41 Avg., 4 TDs)
Another true freshman who made an immediate impact, Edwards provided South Carolina with a physical option on the perimeter. The 6-3 receiver can attack the ball at its highest point and get behind defensive backs down the field. A hamstring injury slowed Edwards a bit in the middle of the season, but he should be a prime candidate to have a breakout campaign in 2017.
No. 8: Hayden Hurst, S. Carolina – 2016 stats (48 Rec., 616 yards, 12.83 Avg., 1 TD)
Hurst wasn’t known by many outside of South Carolina entering last season, but he deserves to be recognized as an excellent tight end in this conference. The sophomore was a security blanket for the Gamecocks’ varying quarterbacks, and he played well in big spots. A former minor league baseball player who walked onto the football team, Hurts has exceptional athleticism for a player his size and should only continue to get better with more reps with Jake Bentley and this offense.
No. 7: Jauan Jennings, Tennessee – 2016 stats (40 Rec., 580 yards, 14.5 Avg., 7 TDs)
Jennings made one of the biggest plays of the season when he came down with Josh Dobbs’ Hail Mary pass to defeat Georgia in a thriller, and he has a penchant for making good things happen. With Josh Malone heading to the NFL, Jennings should assume the role of No. 1 receiver for the Vols. Jennings was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, and his athleticism is obvious. He is a hard player to tackle and excels at gaining yards after the catch. With a greater share of the workload this fall, Jennings should come through with a career year.
No. 6: Donald Gray, Mississippi State – 2016 stats (41 Rec., 709 yards, 17.29 Avg., 5 TDs)
With star receiver Fred Ross turning pro, Gray is another player expected to step into the lead role for his team. Gray is explosive and makes up for his small stature with elite speed. He averaged 17.29 yards per catch last season — fifth in the SEC. An ideal slot receiver, Gray will likely take on a different sort of role as he becomes a go-to target for Nick Fitzgerald.
No. 5: Deebo Samuel, South Carolina – 2016 stats (59 Rec., 783 yards, 13.27 Avg., 1 TD)
The most explosive player on a team that is quickly improving in that aspect, Samuel is becoming one of the few true No. 1 receivers in the SEC. Samuel, who can turn short-yardage plays into long gains, shared the SEC lead with 17 catches of 20 yards or more. His style is reminiscent of Steve Smith in that Samuel is tenacious with the ball and wants to make plays in big spots. Samuel has shown that he can catch double-digit passes or make the most of a limited number of touches.
No. 4: Antonio Callaway, Florida – 2016 stats (54 Rec., 721 yards, 13.35 Avg., 3 TDs)
Callaway has struggled with drops at times, but few possess his natural ability. With a better quarterback situation, Callaway might be among the best receivers in the country. His versatility is remarkable; Callaway is the first Gator to score a touchdown in five ways: receiving, kickoff return, punt return, rushing and throwing a TD pass. Callaway will have the occasional head-scratching moment, but he’s one of the best pure athletes in the SEC.
No. 3: J’Mon Moore, Missouri – 2016 stats (62 Rec., 1,012 yards, 16.32 Avg., 8 TDs)
Moore could have jumped to the NFL after a career year, but he’s back to improve and assert himself as the best receiver in the conference. Due to his speed, Moore is one of the SEC’s best at turning short slant and crossing routes into long gains. He led the SEC in 10-yard catches (31) and 40-yard catches (8). Moore can improve his route-running ability and he dropped a few too many passes, but at 6-3, 205, he has the physical tools to have a big outing against anyone.
No. 2: Calvin Ridley, Alabama – 2016 stats (72 Rec., 769 yards, 10.68 Avg., 7 TDs)
One of the most polished receivers in the SEC, Ridley’s numbers should tick back up with ArDarius Stewart playing on Sundays. He’s a sharp route-runner who can beat defenders to the ball or run past them with top-end speed. His production was down from his freshman season (89 catches for 1,045 yards), but he still finished tied for fourth with 6 catches for 40 or more yards in 2016.
As Jalen Hurts improves, Ridley should be able to make a great impact next season. There really isn’t much the rising junior can’t do, which makes him all the more fun to watch.
No. 1: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M – 2016 stats (83 Rec., 928 yards, 11.18 Avg., 9 TDs)
Kirk was just a few yards short of topping 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. The sophomore wasn’t even the top receiver at Texas A&M in 2016, but he will be the go-to guy now that Josh Reynolds and Co. are moving on. The best word to describe Kirk is smooth. He is an agile route-runner who is deceptive in and out of his breaks.
Kirk always looks to make a big play (he was tied for second in the SEC with 4 catches for 50-plus yards), and he should have the ball a lot next season.