There isn’t a great deal of production returning from Big Ten wide receivers in 2018. The only pass catcher from 2017 to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark, 1st-round pick and new Carolina Panther D.J. Moore, is gone. So too, is the only receiver in the big ten to come within 12 receptions of Moore’s conference leading 80, Simmie Cobbs (72 catches in 2017).
The receiving leaderboard will look quite different when this year’s slate of games have been played out, yet NFL Draft hopefuls litter the Big Ten landscape.
With a full season left to play, plenty can (and will) change for these wide receivers and their resumes for the next level. Some may not even enter the 2019 NFL Draft prospect pool, as several have more than one remaining year of eligibility. But as things stand entering the season, here are the five best draft eligible Big Ten wide receivers.
1. Stanley Morgan Jr, Nebraska
While D.J. Moore led the conference in receptions and yardage, it was Morgan who led the conference in receiving touchdowns (10). Morgan is a fast, fluid route runner who can separate in short areas with quickness. Add in polished route stems and a clear illustration of how he can lie to defenders with his head/eyes and feet? Morgan has a very clear pathway to being a successful NFL player.
Although Morgan doesn’t possess the frame or size desired to be an “alpha” receiver, there’s little question that Morgan brings a variety of skills to the table and should be considered a potential starting Z-receiver. Morgan has surprising success as a high point receiver and is quite crafty at the line of scrimmage to get out of his stance clean.
As a result, there is fair reason to believe he can win outside and shouldn’t be pegged strictly as a slot due to his stature and quickness.
Needs to improve: Fighting through inside leverage on vertical stems
2. Juwan Johnson, Penn State
No receiver in the Big Ten is poised for as big of a year as Johnson. He is, without exaggeration, the only prominent pass catcher back for another go with the Lions in 2018.
Gone are RB Saquon Barkley (54 receptions), WR Daesean Hamilton (53 receptions) and TE Mike Gesicki (57 receptions), leaving Johnson’s 54 catches as nearly twice as many as any other returning skill player for Penn State.
The good news? Johnson looks physically up to the task. He’s a huge target at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds and shows some very enticing athleticism for a big receiver. Johnson’s best trait is his catch radius and hands, however. Johnson plucks the ball effortlessly out of the air and has won some very tough possession targets as a result.
Johnson does need more polish, he’s nowhere near the technician that Stanley Morgan Jr. is. That said, the Penn State offense should give him a ton of targets (both vertically and in contested situations) this season. Another strong year in those areas would put Johnson into the limelight thanks to his athletic package.
Needs to improve: Urgency/footwork against press coverage
3. Quintez Cephus, Wisconsin
Quintez Cephus was quietly having a great 2017 campaign for the Badgers before a leg injury derailed his season and forced him to miss the final 5 games of the season, including big time match-ups against Michigan, Ohio State and Miami (2018 Orange Bowl).
Cephus still managed to lead the team in receiving touchdowns (6) and was a big play threat (16.7 yards per catch) at the time of his injury. Proving his health is the most important task for Cephus this season, followed by staving off some impressive depth at the position throughout the year (AJ Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are all promising young talents in their own right).
Cephus is a heady receiver who does well to make himself available to his quarterback, he squares to the line of scrimmage deliberately, providing a clear target in zone coverage. On those targets against zone, Cephus is especially slippery after the catch, he’s effective in slipping contact and shows great field vision for finding space for extra yardage. There’s strong body control here all around, whether it be after the catch or while working up the field on a route stem.
Although Cephus lacks the high-end explosiveness of Morgan and the size of Johnson, he’s a promising player in his own right.
Needs to improve: Vertical ball skills
4. Parris Campbell, Ohio State
Campbell’s game can be summarized with a single word: speed. This might be the fastest player I’ve laid eyes on all summer, Campbell can flat out fly.
Turning on the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin will illustrate that all too well, as Campbell took a quick smoke throw in the flat, turned up the field and shook off a tackle challenge before ripping down the sideline for a long touchdown.
With a more polished thrower in the backfield for the Buckeyes, perhaps Campbell’s potential can be unlocked in 2018? Time will tell, but regardless of the production there are some areas that Campbell can target to make himself a better player and help his draft stock.
Campbell reminds somewhat of Cordarelle Patterson coming out the University of Tennessee, he’s an athletic blur who simply hasn’t developed his route running to this juncture. Campbell clearly doesn’t play with the same speed at the top of his routes as he does in the open field. He’ll need to develop more snap on his breaks and use his hands to assist in creating separation.
If the technique comes along in 2018, look out. Campbell is as gifted an athlete as you’ll find in the conference.
Needs to improve: Route running skills
5. Felton Davis III, Michigan State
Davis is an interesting player. He’s long and wiry, illustrating boundary size and some enticing splash plays (most notably against Northwestern in the 4th quarter and overtime). But Davis also fights the football at times, letting some easy catches get away in the process.
Davis is fairly one dimensional against more physical cornerbacks, as well. He struggles to detach from handy corners will need to work more to force DBs to respect him deep as a measure of preventing them from squatting on his breaks.
But with a tall frame, large catch radius and those flashes of brilliance in tight areas, Davis warrants consideration on this list for what he can become if he continues to work on his all-around game.
Needs to improve: Consistency with hands
Sleeper to watch: A.J. Taylor, Wisconsin