Who's the SEC's WR1 for 2021? Why Treylon Burks has a better case than George Pickens
Immediately after Treylon Burks scampered in for the first touchdown of the Sam Pittman era in the season-opener against Georgia, it became obvious to more than just the Arkansas faithful.
No longer held down by the Chad Morris offense, Burks was ready for new heights. Sure enough, he took off. In 2021, he was everything that Hog fans could’ve hoped for.
In addition to racking up 820 yards and 7 scores in just 9 games of action against all SEC competition, Burks graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 9 Power 5 receiver, and he had the No. 8 receiving grade among all FBS receivers. Only 2 returning Power 5 players had better receiving grades than Burks in 2020, neither of whom hail from the SEC. John Metchie is the only returning SEC receiver who had more yards than Burks last year — 96 more to be exact — though the former had 4 more games to compile those numbers.
Burks is, by all accounts, a star.
Yet when 2021 kicks off, do I expect it’ll be Burks who gets preseason love as the SEC’s best receiver? Nope. George Pickens will likely be that guy.
On the surface, it makes sense. The former 5-star wideout had 23 catches for 373 yards in his 4 games with JT Daniels, who is returning to Georgia for another season after taking over in the final month of 2020.
You know. In case you haven’t heard.
But give me Burks over Pickens for WR1 in the SEC.
It’s not that I don’t think Pickens is capable of putting up big numbers in Georgia’s revamped offense. He finally is in a system that can execute a deep passing game, which plays perfectly into his hands. Some weeks, I bet he’ll look like the best receiver in America. It’s more that over the course of a full season, I have more trust in Burks being a stud week in, week out.
Part of that was what 2020 showed us. Burks wasn’t quarterback or game-flow dependent like Pickens has been throughout his career.
By the way, did you realize that in the first 18 games of his career, Pickens only hit the 100-yard mark once? Granted, he did that twice in his final 2 games of 2020. Still, though. We’re talking about someone with 1 career 100-yard game against SEC competition.
Burks, on the other hand, did that 4 times last year. That included his 7-catch, 102-yard performance in the aforementioned opener against Georgia. We won’t count Burks’ 102-47 advantage against Pickens that day because as any Georgia fan probably already said by the time this sentence was over, that was with a different quarterback. Stetson Bennett IV ain’t Daniels.
Speaking of playing with different quarterbacks, 3 of Burks’ 100-yard games came with Feleipe Franks, who is off to the next level. Some might assume that means Burks is destined to take a step back without the rocket-armed quarterback around. Not so fast.
Remember that electric Arkansas-Mizzou game? KJ Jefferson played that entire game. He completed 18 passes. Ten went to Burks. Jefferson had 274 passing yards. A whopping 206 (!) of them went to Burks.
KJ Jefferson to Treylon Burks for 68-yard touchdown.
Burks has been unguardable at times this season.pic.twitter.com/a2YtmFCC9Y
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) December 5, 2020
Notice the point that my co-worker made there. Burks was “unguardable” at times in 2020. The guy averaged 7.6 yards after the catch (PFF). Keep in mind that he played 433 of his 515 snaps in the slot. In addition to being “unguardable,” the guy was a nightmare to tackle at 6-3, 232 pounds. At that size, he still managed to catch 17 passes of 20-plus yards downfield, which PFF had charted as No. 10 among Power 5 receivers.
I know what you’re thinking, Georgia fans. Didn’t Pickens have some ridiculous numbers, too?
Sure. As a true freshman, he got 77 targets and not a single one of them was dropped, and as a sophomore, he had a contested catch rate of 64.3% (PFF). In Georgia’s 2 bowl games, Pickens was remarkable. He had a combined 19 catches for 310 yards and 2 scores. That area, obviously, trumps Burks, who has yet to play in a postseason game.
But if we’re looking strictly at 2020 numbers — when Burks played in his first non-Morris offense — there’s really no debate over who the better player was:
For what it’s worth, Pickens wasn’t even the highest-graded receiver on his own team in 2020. Kearis Jackson was (along with Burks and 13 other SEC receivers).
I know there are some Georgia fans yelling at their phones/computers/tablets.
But the quarterback play!
I do see the irony in that considering it’s Georgia fans who have made their fair share of Franks jokes over the years, and now some (not all) will argue that having him instead of Bennett makes it an unfair comp. To that, I’d say Pickens played nearly half of his games with Daniels, who is a fellow former 5-star recruit. And those PFF grades are mentioned because they don’t punish receivers for poor quarterback play. It’s about winning matchups and capitalizing on opportunities. Burks did a better job of that in 2020.
There’s another point that Georgia fans will probably make on Pickens’ behalf.
But the spectacular plays!
I can’t deny that. Pickens makes video game plays. There’s no doubt that in his draft-eligible year, he’s going to have a highlight reel that’ll make NFL scouts drool.
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) January 1, 2021
Reminder: George Pickens is only a freshman 😳 pic.twitter.com/6L4YaDwH3N
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 10, 2019
I was at the Mizzou game. Watching Pickens that night confirmed that the talent isn’t lacking.
Making the spectacular play is Pickens’ best attribute. He high-points, he can lay out, and as a sophomore, he really showed that he could catch balls in traffic. Those often come in highlight-reel fashion.
But this is why I can’t get on board with Pickens being better than Burks. If the deep-ball prowess is supposed to be the separator, then why is it Burks who averaged nearly 2 yards per catch better than Pickens? It’s not as if Burks is lacking in the spectacular play department.
For my money, this was the catch of the year in college football:
Treylon Burks, this is insane. pic.twitter.com/uSyVwybTnN
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 17, 2020
There’s body control, and then there’s whatever that is. Mercy.
At the very worst, Burks is slightly behind Pickens when it comes to turning seemingly uncatchable balls into viral plays. Those are a quarterback’s best friend. I’d still argue Burks has been better on his quarterback and his head coach.
And while I realize it’s been well-documented, Pickens’ discipline issues have to factor somewhere into this. If the Georgia Tech fight or the Jarrett Guarantano water bottle spray incidents were one-offs, this would be a different conversation. If you’re going to be a true No. 1, those things can’t keep happening.
Pickens has yet to show that he can be counted on as a true No. 1 for a full season. Jackson beat him by a single yard for the title of “Georgia’s leading receiver,” and Pickens still doesn’t consistently run his routes at the level of someone like Jermaine Burton.
Burks might not have had the competition around him that Pickens did, but one could argue that helps make the case for the Arkansas pass-catcher because in theory, he should be easier to game plan against for a defense. Still, it was Burks who put up better numbers than Pickens in basically every category.
Either way it plays out, it’ll be fun to see what Burks and Pickens can do with a relatively normal offseason after both played in new (more favorable) systems with new quarterbacks in 2020. Hopefully, both can stay healthy after each dealt with nagging early-season injuries. Both are entering their draft-eligible seasons, and they’ll do so with considerable buzz. Expect more of that buzz to be focused on Pickens.
But who deserves to be the SEC’s preseason No. 1? No. 16 in Fayetteville.