Who's the SEC's top returning receiver in 2023? Why it's Juice Wells vs. Malik Nabers for WR1
I’ve got a confession — I enjoy watching Malik Nabers and Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. play football.
I know. It’s a stunning revelation to say that a pair of versatile, YAC (yards after catch) machines are worth the price of admission.
That’s why they’re the top 2 returning receivers in the SEC.
Sorry, Georgia fans. I can’t give that title to Mizzou transfer Dominic Lovett, who is vastly underrated but is not quite as versatile as someone who played 85 percent of his snaps out of the slot. Ladd McConkey is solid, but a guy with 1 career 100-yard receiving game can’t be WR1. We’re also going to limit this to just wide receivers, which means technically Brock Bowers doesn’t qualify for this argument (the guy lined up in-line on 335 snaps, so he still counts as a tight end in my book … but TBD on his status as an actual human being).
Vandy’s Will Sheppard is a nice player, but 7 of his 9 touchdowns came in nonconference play, and 22 percent of his 2022 receiving production came against Northern Illinois.
Florida fans might try to convince you that Ricky Pearsall deserves consideration. But they won’t mention the fact that he didn’t crack the top 30 in the SEC in catches, and injuries made him a bit of an afterthought for a 2-month stretch after his breakout game against Tennessee.
And with all due respect to Bru McCoy, who was a huge addition for Josh Heupel before the 2022 season, I can’t give “WR1” status to someone who was “WR3” on his team when it was at full strength.
So why Nabers and Wells for WR1?
Well, it helps that among returning SEC wide receivers (remember, that excludes Bowers), they ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in 2022 receiving yards. And among all SEC receivers, they finished 1st and 2nd in catches.
Need I say more?
Kidding, of course. You didn’t come here for that. You came for a breakdown of what makes Wells and Nabers great … or if you’re a Georgia fan, you came here to tell me I’m disrespecting you. I, however, am here to tell any Georgia fan that if he’s doubting Nabers or Wells, well, he shouldn’t.
As Georgia fans saw up close in personal, Nabers is that dude. He was dominant against freshman All-American Malaki Starks in the SEC Championship. On this play, Nabers not only cooked Starks and future first-round cornerback Kelee Ringo, but he also made the perfect adjustment to haul in the long reception:
It’s not easy to run by Malaki Starks & Kelee Ringo… Malik Nabers made it look like they were standing still.
Really impressive when he kicks into gear. pic.twitter.com/N2yGKH0MiR
— Ryan Fowler (@_RyanFowler_) December 3, 2022
Yeah, that’s not easy to do at all. Nabers is by no means just a deep threat, either. He might be only 6-0, but Nabers can high-point the football like he’s 6-5.
He made this play lined up opposite future early-round NFL corner (and former LSU teammate) Eli Ricks:
Good morning Louisiana! How about some appreciation for one of our natives , sophomore wide receiver Malik Nabers pic.twitter.com/kWlykqcmqS
— Drunk Brian Kelly (@FauxLes) November 16, 2022
In Ricks’ defense, I’m not sure how you stop that. That wasn’t some back-shoulder throw built on having perfect chemistry with a quarterback. That was getting enough separation at the top of the route to make a perfect adjustment on the ball.
What’s so valuable about Nabers is that you can move him all over the formation. He played 61 percent of his snaps out wide and 37 percent out of the slot, and he lined up out of the backfield 10 times. If you want to give him a cushion so that he doesn’t beat you over the top, he can make plays underneath, too. Ask Purdue about that:
MALIK NABERS SHOWING OFF THAT SEC SPEED ?
HAVE A DAY LSU ‼️pic.twitter.com/U4Nsr9BrUn
— DraftKings Sportsbook (@DKSportsbook) January 2, 2023
Nabers’ versatility — as a receiver and definitely not as a punt returner — made him an invaluable piece in LSU’s SEC West crown. His connection with Jayden Daniels allowed the Tigers to come back in the 4th quarter against MSU, which had to be especially painful for the Bulldogs considering Nabers was committed to the program before he ultimately flipped to LSU. Even on a team loaded with receiver options, it was Nabers who emerged with the 1,000-yard season while LSU’s next-closest receiver was Kayshon Boutte with 538 yards (Nabers had 489 receiving yards in the last 4 games alone).
At this time last year, it was Boutte who earned “SEC WR1” status by many (I favored Cedric Tillman). If there was anyone in LSU’s offense who benefited from Boutte’s disappointing season, it was Nabers. With Boutte now off to the NFL, there’s even more belief that the clutch, multifaceted Nabers will thrive.
Speaking of clutch, here’s a trivia question: How many SEC receivers ranked in the top 10 nationally in 2nd-half receiving yards? One. It was Wells, who was No. 6 in FBS with 615. The James Madison transfer became Spencer Rattler’s go-to weapon. Like Nabers and Daniels, Rattler and Wells should both take another step in 2023 after establishing a clear connection, especially down the stretch.
Behind a porous offensive line, an often antsy Rattler spent far too much time throwing on the move (@CFBFilmRoom had Rattler at No. 2 in Power 5 with 36.4 percent of his throws on the move). Wells became a downfield safety blanket of sorts. With Wells’ massive catch radius, Rattler had faith that he could win a perceived 50-50 battle, which was a major asset when he was facing pressure.
Juice Wells oh my Goodness? pic.twitter.com/JTefyWpfcf
— JonGruden2Denver (@SP2YB) November 20, 2022
For my money, there weren’t 5 better catches in college football this past season than that grab. But I guess you could say that lacked significance, considering it was in the 4th quarter of a blowout win against Tennessee.
Let’s instead go to Wells getting behind the secondary while down 9 points in the 3rd quarter against a Clemson team that hadn’t lost a home game in 6 years:
WATCH – Juice Wells with a 72 yard Tocuhdown reception.
Juice is now up to 4 receptions 86 yds, 2 TD.
— Chandler Mack (@chandlerdmack) November 26, 2022
Imagine being a Clemson fan and watching the receiver issues that plagued the Tigers the past 2 seasons … while South Carolina found a game-breaking receiver from the FCS level. Tough look for the team that didn’t sign transfers.
The Gamecocks wouldn’t have pulled off those 2 late-season upsets without Wells, who had a combined 20 catches for 308 yards in those 2 contests. That’s clutch, all right.
So who deserves to be WR1 in the SEC? Is it Wells or Nabers?
There’s no wrong answer here. The fact that both play somewhat interchangeably on the inside and the outside works in their favor, as does the fact that they were ridiculously good to close the season with quarterbacks who are set to return in 2023.
I’ll give the slightest of nods to Nabers.
That’s not a slight, South Carolina fans. I won’t talk anyone out of saying that Wells is the SEC’s top returning receiver. He could very well lead the conference in receiving while making no shortage of highlight-reel grabs.
I was just so impressed by the elite corners that Nabers lined up against and beat. There aren’t a ton of 2nd-year guys who can line up on the outside and do that consistently in the SEC against top-tier competition. Leading the conference in catches is a testament to some unteachable ball skills, but also to how well Nabers can get separation on a variety of routes.
It’ll be interesting to see how teams defend Nabers and Wells in 2023. Nabers had 3 catches of 50 yards, while Wells was tied for No. 2 in FBS with 4 catches of 60 yards. You have to respect their home-run ability, but both showed that they really aren’t downfield dependent for their targets. Hence, why they led the SEC in catches. As long as they stay healthy, all signs point to them battling it out for the conference’s lead in all the major categories.
If we’re ranking returning SEC receivers by tiers, Tier 1 belongs to Nabers and Wells.
Sorry, everyone else.