Who has the best receivers in the SEC heading into 2022? Somehow, it's LSU
When Ja’Marr Chase was introduced as a starter on NBC’s Super Bowl LVI broadcast, he didn’t say that he went to college at LSU. Instead, he went in a slightly different direction.
“Ja’Marr Chase, Wide Receiver U.”
Somewhere, an Alabama fan rolled their eyes.
In Chase’s defense, he just had one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a rookie receiver in the NFL. Fellow first-round picks Justin Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr. both have multiple All-Pro nods, as well, while Jarvis Landry is a 5-time Pro Bowl wideout. LSU didn’t have 4 receivers drafted in the first round in a 2-year stretch like Alabama, but making the claim that it’s “Wide Receiver U” certainly has more legs now than it ever did.
And if you look at the Bayou Bengals’ group of wideouts for 2022, you might not scoff at any “Wide Receiver U” claims. In fact, the Tigers somehow have the best group of receivers returning in the SEC.
That’s with Chase, Jefferson and Terrance Marshall all catching passes on Sundays. That’s with a new coaching staff. That’s with having 5 receivers enter the transfer portal since the start of the 2021 season.
But yes, the SEC’s best collection of 2022 receivers is in Baton Rouge.
It helps when you have the best returning wideout in the league. That’s what Kayshon Boutte is. If not for Jaxson Smith-Njigba going full video game mode in the Rose Bowl, we’d probably see Boutte all over the way-too-early All-America teams alongside 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison.
Wait, really? Boutte hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season like Cedric Tillman, who will return to catch passes from Hendon Hooker. If you just glanced at Boutte’s season-by-season numbers, you’d think he was a good, not great player who probably is benefitting from the great LSU receivers who came before him.
Yeah, about that.
When Terrace Marshall opted out of the final 3 games of the 2020 season, Boutte stepped into the lead role for the LSU wideouts. In those 3 games, he totaled 27 catches for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns. Before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Kentucky in 2021, he racked up 509 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. That was just 6 games of work.
watching Kayshon Boutte play football is SO MUCH FUN
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) September 5, 2021
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In his last 9 games of action dating to Marshall opting out in 2020, Boutte averaged 7 catches for 115 yards and 1.4 touchdowns. Just for the sake of comparison, 2021 All-American and Biletnikoff Award finalist Jameson Williams averaged 5.3 catches for 105 yards and 1 touchdown during his breakout season at Alabama.
Oh, and when Boutte was targeted against press coverage during his entire 2-year career, LSU signal-callers had a quarterback rating of 134.3, which ranks No. 2 among Power 5 receivers during that span (via PFF).
In other words, good things happen when Boutte is a major part of the game plan. Even more impressive was that he did his damage while LSU was in search of a No. 2. In 2021, a handful of true freshmen receivers looked more than capable of stepping into that role.
Brian Thomas Jr. entered his college career with Ed Orgeron claiming that he was set to become the next great LSU receiver. So far, so good. One of the byproducts of Boutte missing the entire latter half of the season was that the 6-5 Thomas got more reps on the outside. In his final 4 games, he averaged 47 snaps and he hauled in his first 2 college touchdowns.
— Lonn Phillips Sullivan (@LonnPhillips) November 21, 2021
You can’t teach those moves in space. That’s not something you’re supposed to see from a 6-5 true freshman.
And on 1 of 2 instances when he lined up in the backfield, Thomas caught a pass in the flat for a touchdown against Alabama.
Again, that’s a 6-5 true freshman we’re talking about here.
Speaking of talented young wideouts who showed they could do things in space, Jack Bech was the surprise of that room in 2021. He was a bit of a hybrid — he played 263 snaps in the slot, 125 inline and 31 out wide — but the guy had 4 catches in 7 of the 12 games he actually played (he played 3 snaps in the bowl game so we’re excluding that). Not only did he show he could be a high-volume guy with 43 catches for 489 yards, but he leads all SEC returning receivers in missed tackles forced in 2021.
Bech delivered one of the more impressive grabs we saw all year in the SEC:
— ESPN (@espn) September 19, 2021
It’s actually Malik Nabers who Orgeron claimed had the best body control among the freshman wideouts. It was also Nabers who earned SEC All-Freshman honors for his debut season in Baton Rouge.
How fitting that the last catch we saw Nabers make in 2021 was showing off that body control. In the midst of LSU’s debacle of a bowl game, Nabers hauled in a touchdown grab in traffic while somehow staying in bounds in the end zone:
The Future Is Bright for Malik Nabers
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) January 5, 2022
Yes, the future is indeed bright for Nabers, who figures to play exclusively in the slot in Year 1 of the Brian Kelly era.
Kelly might have his work cut out for him in that division, but he inherited about as promising of a receiver room as one could’ve hoped for. We made it to this point without even mentioning Chris Hilton Jr., who casually closed out the bowl game with an 81-yard touchdown from Jontre Kirklin:
— TigerDroppings (@TigerDroppings) January 5, 2022
Including Jaray Jenkins, who was the team’s second-leading receiver in his 4th season in Baton Rouge, LSU is set to return its 5 leading receivers from a season ago. That’s 171 catches for 2,276 yards and 24 touchdowns. That doesn’t include Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kyren Lacy, who had 10 touchdown grabs in his first 2 seasons in Billy Napier’s program. The number doesn’t even include Hilton or fellow 2021 true freshman Deion Smith, who entered the transfer portal but is reportedly still weighing his options.
A naysayer will claim that LSU having 5 receivers enter the transfer portal since the start of the 2021 season (including Smith) is a bad look. A realist will claim that’s the byproduct of having a young, loaded group of wideouts.
Ask Ohio State about dealing with that last year. The Buckeyes had 2 wideouts (Williams and Mookie Cooper) leave to become immediate SEC starters. With the way the rules are constructed now with immediate eligibility for first-time undergraduate transfers, it would’ve been surprising if LSU didn’t somehow have a handful of guys bolt.
There’s no denying what the strength of LSU’s roster is. There’s really not much of an argument against LSU having the best group of returning receivers in the SEC, either. Here’s how many top-5 receivers return from each SEC team (based on 2021 receiving yards):
- LSU, 5
- Texas A&M, 4
- Georgia, 3
- Mizzou, 3
- MSU, 3
- South Carolina, 3
- Tennessee, 3
- Auburn, 2
- Florida, 2
- Ole Miss, 2
- Vanderbilt, 2
- Alabama, 1
- Arkansas, 1
- Kentucky, 1
And for what it’s worth, A&M lost leading receiver Jalen Wydermyer and its 4 top returning receivers had a combined 103 catches for 1,260 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s essentially half the production of those 5 leading returning receivers for LSU.
Consider that just another reason why this argument belongs to LSU. Of course, the new LSU standard is Jefferson and Chase, even though it shouldn’t be. There’s a chance that the Tigers will never have a duo like that ever again.
But what’s clear is this 2022 group is loaded with depth that it hasn’t had since that 2019 squad. Perhaps that’ll be what allows LSU to avoid a setback year to kick off the Kelly era.
If nothing else, those wideouts should give Kelly plenty of reasons to keep dancing.