NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top CFB players to watch in 2018 at six different positions with an eye toward their NFL potential, beginning today with wide receivers.
The list of wide receiver prospects to watch during the 2018 college football season is an interesting collection, to the say the least. The top two prospects on my list made huge splashes in 2017 during their first seasons as starters for their respective teams. Colorado State lands two receivers on this list despite the fact that neither led the team in catches last season.
Ohio State is hoping that Parris Campbell's outstanding athletic ability will help vault the Buckeyes back into a title hunt, while South Carolina is looking to Deebo Samuel to stay healthy and impose his will on SEC cornerbacks. And Clemson, the new "Wide Receiver U," places yet another talented target on this list.
I thought about putting Louisville's Jaylen Smith or Buffalo's Anthony Johnson in this spot, as both players have more prototypical size/speed for the position. But ultimately, my goal here is to identify guys who will become good players in the NFL, and I'm more bullish on Renfrow right now -- even though he might not have the same upside as some others that could be listed here. Renfrow's production is relatively modest (he had a career-high 602 yards receiving last season), but he has also played on teams loaded with NFL talent. In clutch moments, Clemson QBs have not shied away from searching for Renfrow, and he's been able to deliver. His performances in back-to-back seasons against 2018 first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick should be an indicator of how good his hands are and how tough he is as a competitor. He's a slot-only receiver, but a darn good one.
Williams is a buzzed-about prospect in the scouting world, but there isn't much production to work off of just yet. He played in 12 games and recorded 16 catches during his two seasons at Tennessee before sitting out last year per transfer rules, but he's a classic "traits" prospect with a high-end combination of size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds, per school measurements), speed and athleticism. Scouts are waiting to see if the traits can transform into production, but he's one to keep an eye on in 2018.
When it comes to the traits and measurables that NFL scouts look for from a primary receiver, Richards certainly is not lacking. After bursting onto the scene with an explosive freshman season that saw him average 19.1 yards on 49 receptions, great things were expected from him in his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, injuries prevented him from playing or producing as much as expected in 2017. With his size (6-1, 205, per school measurements), speed and experience, Richards is an intriguing WR1-type talent who might be flying under the radar just a bit.
Johnson was Robin to 2018 third-round pick Michael Gallup's Batman last season for the Rams, but when head coach Mike Bobo needs help this season, he'll be turning to Johnson to make things right. Nicknamed "The Standard," Johnson plays with a keen sense of consistency and technique on every snap. He maintains play speed throughout his routes. He also does a good job of setting up his route turns and stems to help open up workable passing windows for his quarterback. Johnson has the play traits and physical ability to work all three levels of the field and could be in for a big bump in production now that Gallup has moved on.
Murray has some of the most natural receiving talent of any player on this list. He has excellent ball skills, a good feel for space, the toughness to catch through contact and very reliable hands. The senior needs to improve his skill level and focus as a route runner to unlock his full potential. If the Seminoles can get more consistent quarterback play this season, Murray should put together a strong 2018.
On this list, you will find speedsters, finesse talents and long-limbed prototypes. Samuel? He's in a category entitled "tough-guy football players." That's not to say Samuel doesn't have size or speed. (He has both.) However, what stands out most on tape is his urgency and physicality as a receiver. Samuel wins by working back to the throw, keeping defenders on his hip and finishing catches with vice-grip hands. He also provides plus value after the catch with outstanding vision as a runner and a punishing demeanor that helps him grind out additional yards after contact. Unfortunately, Samuel missed seven games in 2015 with a hamstring injury and the final 10 games last year after suffering a broken leg. He has to prove he can stay on the field this year.
At 6-4 and 213 pounds (school measurements), Harry has prototypical size for an outside receiver. He's also proven to be a consistently productive target over his first two seasons, with 140 catches and 13 touchdowns. Harry has excellent ball skills and does a great job of owning the catch space with his big frame once the ball is in the air. An underappreciated part of his game might be how patient and poised he is when timing his attack on 50/50 balls. He has the play traits to be a physical possession receiver, but needs to prove that he can separate against quality man coverage and beat cornerbacks who try to crowd his routes over the top.
To this point in his Buckeyes career, Campbell has been known as an explosive, multifaceted talent just waiting to take off. It felt like we saw his launch in 2017 and now we are expecting to see the payload as a senior. Ohio State could have as many as six receivers vying for catches this season, but Campbell handles slot duties, so I'm still expecting the Buckeyes to get the ball in his hands with jet sweeps, screens and quick-hitters in order to allow him a chance to hit the big play with the ball in his hands. Campbell has good size (6-foot, 200) and great speed. He also offers value as a kick returner and cover man on special teams. His hands are problematic and he still has work to do in terms of expanding his route tree, but his big-play potential certainly intrigues NFL teams.
Brown is a compact, physical slot target on a team loaded with receiving talent. He racked up 1,252 yards last season, including five games with 150-plus. A 2016 draft pick of the San Diego Padres as an outfielder (19th round), Brown has tremendous ball-tracking talent and hand-eye coordination. He's a skilled route runner with the feel for uncovering out of his breaks and finding soft spots against the zone. Brown is also more than willing to get after defenders when it's his turn to block. He struggled in games against LSU and Alabama and will have to prove that he can rise to the occasion against the toughest competition this season.
Brown has played only one season at Oklahoma since transferring from junior college (College of the Canyons), but what a season it was: 57 catches for 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns. The junior is an electric talent with plenty of long speed and rare open-field elusiveness after the catch. Brown's thin (listed at 160 pounds), so he obviously needs to add more muscle and overall bulk to his frame by the time NFL teams are ready to consider drafting him. As one scout recently noted, "Hollywood surfs a tsunami of swag," and that swagger should only become more pronounced with another big season in 2018.