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The SEC was well-represented at wide receiver during the 2021 NFL Draft. The first five pass-catchers selected in the first round — Kyle Pitts, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Kadarius Toney — all hail from the SEC.
That’s a lot of lost talent, but this is the SEC we’re talking about here.
There will still be plenty of potential Day 1 wide receivers in the conference left to give fans a few game-breaking highlights this season. Unfortunately, one of those players was supposed to be Georgia’s George Pickens, but a torn ACL back in March could cost him his entire season.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been identifying the top returning talent in college football by position and conference, and today we finally get around to the wide receivers in the SEC. Pickens won’t qualify due to his injury, but as you’ll soon learn, the list is still littered with top talent.
Honorable mention: Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss; Jermaine Burton/Kearis Jackson, Georgia
5. Jaden Walley, Mississippi State
Though only a freshman in 2020, Jaden Walley still made his presence known to the rest of the SEC. He finished the season with 52 catches for 718 yards and two touchdowns, and that yardage total was actually a school record for a freshman receiver.
If you want to know where and when Walley made his biggest impact, look no further than the four-game stretch to close out the regular season. Those four contests were against Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn and Missouri, and Walley brought in 29 catches for 520 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and a touchdown.
In other words, he earned his Freshman All-SEC status last season.
Sure, his production in the bowl game against Tulsa took a dip (four catches, 27 yards), but the 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore will only get better from here. Mike Leach’s offense will certainly help, and so should State quarterback Will Rogers, who will have more experience under his belt now too.
He was just a three-star ranked outside the top 500 coming out of high school, but Walley plays with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder. As long as he can make a full recovery from that sprained MCL back in State’s spring game, expect him to open as the team’s WR1 in fall camp.
4. Ainias Smith, Texas A&M
If you were to look at Texas A&M’s football roster, you might wonder why Anias Smith is on a list for top returning wide receivers in the SEC. He’s listed on the roster as a running back, after all, but anyone who keeps up with the Aggies knows he’s so much more than that.
A&M already has a solid 1-2 punch at running back with Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane. The two averaged almost 25 carries for 149.1 yards and combined for 13 rushing touchdowns in 2020. With that sort of production, Smith isn’t needed as a full-time running back.
Granted, he was still given 49 carries in 10 games, which he turned in 293 yards and four scores, but he’s a multi-dimensional weapon who also hauled in 43 catches for 564 yards and six touchdowns through the air. His versatility was on full display against No. 1 Alabama when he totaled 152 yards (29 rush, 123 receiving) and two touchdowns on only 11 touches.
This A&M squad is expected to be a top-10 team in the country once again this year, and Smith is a major reason for that ongoing hype. Even the Crimson Tide have difficulty game-planning against him.
3. Kayshon Boutte, LSU
The difference in statistical output between Kayshon Boutte and Kearis Jackson is telling. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why Jackson only got honorable mention status while Boutte ranks up here at No. 3 on this list. Check this out:
- Jackson (first 3 games): 19 catches, 300 yards, 1 TD
- Jackson (last 7 games): 17 catches, 214 yards, 2 TD
- Boutte (first 7 games): 18 catches, 208 yards, 1 TD
- Boutte (last 3 games): 27 catches, 527 yards, 4 TD
Quite the opposite output, right? Now, statistics don’t always tell the whole story. We need some context here.
LSU started the season without Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. Then the other two top pass-catching options, Terrance Marshall Jr. and tight end Arik Gilbert, chose to opt out during the season. Those developments left Boutte, a five-star freshman, as one of the only reliable, playmaking talents left on offense.
Jackson suffered through inconsistent quarterback play and competition from a slew of other offensive weapons, including Pickens, Jermaine Burton and others. With all that being said, Boutte is clearly the better talent and certainly has a bright future.
The New Iberia, La. native was one of the lone bright spots in LSU’s game against Alabama, where he brought in eight catches for 111 yards. Soon after that standout performance, he turned in a record-setting game when he turned 14 catches into 308 yards and three scores against Ole Miss. Everyone watching can see that Boutte is clearly trending in the right direction.
2. John Metchie III, Alabama
Imagine being John Metchie. As a true freshman in 2019, the wide receiver from Canada was named the MVP of Alabama’s spring game after catching five passes for 133 yards. He was clearly ready to contribute in some capacity back then, but the Tide had four future first-round receivers ahead of him.
Metchie patiently waited his turn behind Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle in 2019. In 2020, he was expected to be the No. 3 receiver behind Smith and Waddle, but the latter suffered a leg injury against Tennessee that sidelined him for most of the season.
That opened the door for Metchie to become the 1-2 punch for Mac Jones, and his production matched the role. He caught 55 balls for 916 yards and six touchdowns. Now that the others are gone, Metchie is the returning SEC leader in receiving yards from last season.
The question now is can he keep up his impressive pace even as defenses zero in on him? Going into last year, the game plan was to try and stop DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Najee Harris. That created opportunities for Metchie and others, but those opportunities are no longer there. Now, all eyes will be on Metchie.
To be fair, there were similar concerns for Smith last year after the departures of Jeudy and Ruggs, and he turned in one of the greatest single season performances ever recorded for a wide receiver. Metchie probably won’t be that good, but he is still going to be one of the league’s top pass-catchers.
1. Treylon Burks, Arkansas
So far, all of the receivers to make this list — Walley (6-0, 180), Smith (5-10, 190), Boutte (6-0, 185) and Metchie (6-0, 195) — have subpar size. The guy claiming the top spot, however, is the exact opposite. Treylon Burks is a towering 6-3, 225-pound specimen who continues to show improvement year over year.
A four-star, borderline top-100 prospect coming out of high school, Burks immediately assumed a significant role in Arkansas’ offense. As a freshman, he brought in 29 catches for 475 yards, averaging 16.4 yards per catch in 11 games.
Last year, he took things to a whole new level. In only nine games, he averaged 91.1 receiving yards to go along seven touchdowns. The only receivers to average more yards per game were Elijah Moore (149.1) and DeVonta Smith (142.8), who are both now in the NFL.
Coming out of high school, Burks was big enough and athletic enough to play several different positions, including running back, safety and linebacker. He ultimately settled at wide receiver, which clearly was the right move based off talent and production.
He’s extremely physical with the ball in his hands, which is reflected by his 7.6 yards after the catch and nine broken tackles on only 51 catches last season. As long as Burks remains on his current trajectory, he’s a sure-first first-round pick in 2022.
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Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.