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Alabama's Calvin Ridley leads top CFB WRs to watch in 2016


The 2016 draft was considered good, but not great at wide receiver -- and I'm not sure that 2017 won't offer more of the same. Calvin Ridley won't be draft-eligible next year, but the Alabama sophomore is the most talented receiver in the nation.

This is not a list previewing the 2017 NFL Draft, but a look at wide receivers who are generating interest from NFL scouts and/or are expected to post big seasons for their teams. Here are 10 to watch in 2016:

First Look:
NFL Media analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah takes a "first look" at college football's top players for 2016.

1. Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Alabama has another Amari Cooper, but I think version 2.0 might be faster. If you only data mine to find out about Ridley's abilities, you will come up short of the true picture. Hitch passes and jet-sweep receptions created lower yards-at-catch and explosive-reception (25 yards or more) totals than he's capable of producing. Turn the tape on and you will see a human torch striding past any and every cornerback he faced. However, former quarterback Jake Coker was unable to make consistent connections with the open, deep target. Ridley could use more muscle on his frame to help with securing more contested catches as a sophomore. With exceptional play speed, elite separation ability and advanced instincts as a receiver, he simply needs someone to get him the ball.

2. Mike Williams, Clemson

Some might have forgotten about Williams, who suffered a neck injury that ended his season in Week 1 last year. I can promise you that defensive coordinators haven't forgotten about him. Williams possesses an outstanding combination of size and speed. He can be a a big-time playmaker when the 50-50 ball comes his way. Williams will get plenty of vertical looks from QB Deshaun Watson and, although there is plenty of talent vying for touches in Clemson's offense, Williams is simply too gifted to not become a major factor once again for the Tigers.

3. Jehu Chesson, Michigan

Some receivers just carry themselves like a natural-born WR1 and Chesson is one of those guys. There is a level of confidence and toughness that comes through when you watch him play, and he is as fearless a wide receiver when working in traffic as any you will find, taking shot after shot while securing the catch. Stat scouts won't fall in love with Chesson based on his production last season (50 catches for 764 yards and 9 TDs), but NFL scouts love his ability to adjust to throws and work all three levels of the field. He won't have many "Wow!" highlights that have you jumping out of your seat, but his size, toughness and consistency put him near the top of this list.

4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

In a disappointing 2015 season for the Trojans, Smith-Schuster was one of the few players to truly shine and make his mark. He's not only a big receiver, but he can be extremely rugged after the catch. I would like to see more physicality within his routes to help back cornerbacks off and create additional separation. When Smith-Schuster works down the field, he's as good as anyone in the game at searching, finding and following the deep throw into his hands. Losing QB Cody Kessler to the NFL could have an impact on Smith-Schuster's production, but scouts are still excited to see him operate.

5. Corey Davis, Western Michigan

Davis is the active leader in the FBS with 3,785 career receiving yards. He's just 403 yards shy of becoming the MAC's all-time leader in receiving yards. Production is not an issue for this Bronco. Davis' alpha demeanor on the field has helped him handle the heavy workload and offensive burden for Western Michigan. Davis is a QB's friend, working hard back to the throw, and he has learned to free himself from press coverage with his aggressive hands. Davis does lack some suddenness in his routes and can improve his overall route running.

6. Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky

Brandon Doughty is gone, but the Hilltoppers' passing offense is so well-designed that a new quarterback can come in and find Taylor over and over again. Taylor posted gaudy receiving yardage (1,467) and touchdown (17) totals last season, and he's not just a scheme-based talent. Taylor plays with a competitive streak when the ball is in the air and after the catch. He has the speed to race into the open on vertical routes. Scouts would love to see defenses press him more to see how he responds off of the line of scrimmage.

16 for '16:
CFB 24/7 counts down the best of what college football has to offer in varying categories for 2016.

7. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Kirk wasn't expected to come in as a freshman and light it up with highly recruited talent ahead of him, but it didn't take long for him to establish himself as an electrifying threat. Kirk managed to pile up 1,009 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, even though A&M's quarterback play was erratic for much of the season. He enters 2016 as one of the silkiest slot men in the game, with smooth footwork in and out of his breaks and an ability to create separation in tight quarters. Another element that really stands out is his urgency when the football is in his hands. Kirk's athletic talent combined with his mental makeup should propel him to a strong sophomore campaign.

8. Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech

Ford's deep speed combined with his deadly double moves created significant issues for cornerbacks and safeties last season. He had 1,164 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. There is still plenty of room for growth in Ford's game, though. He thinks too much while running routes and almost never comes back to the throw, which allows cornerbacks to make plays on the ball. With that said, he has good ball-tracking skills and the ability to get over the top of defenses. That should help him yield impressive results yet again.

9. Gabe Marks, Washington State

In the pass-happy, "Air Raid" offense, Marks was able to do his thing with 104 catches, including 15 for touchdowns, using his plus foot quickness to accelerate into routes and create separation in and out of his breaks. With Luke Falk expected to post another monster season at quarterback, there is no reason to believe that Marks won't put forth another highly productive campaign. Marks lacks deep-threat speed and tends to play a little small at times when the ball is in the air. He needs to improve in those areas.

10. James Washington, Oklahoma State

If Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph is indeed primed for a monster year, it stands to reason that Washington will be his primary beneficiary. Washington is a stiff, straight-line receiver who can go get wins in the deep game -- 27.4 percent of his receptions totaled 20-plus yards. Washington is a well-built, explosive leaper who wins jump balls. His six touchdowns against marquee opponents TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma give you an idea of how he rises to the occasion. On the flip side, his drop rate of 14.5 percent is troubling.

Top 150 CFB players for 2016

Chad Reuter ranks the top 150 college football players to watch this fall. READ

Others to watch

Darren Carrington, Oregon: Carrington didn't light the world on fire last season for the Ducks, but if dual-threat QB Dakota Prukop can pick up the Oregon offense quickly, Carrington should see big upticks in his touchdowns and total yardage as defenses attempt to slow down running back Royce Freeman.

Thomas Sperbeck, Boise State: Sperbeck hits this list for his expected 2016 output more than his pro potential. While he lacks the speed and quickness that pro scouts look for from a slot receiver, Sperbeck should absolutely gobble up catches, yardage and touchdowns with quarterback Brett Rypien under center.

Artavis Scott, Clemson: The expectations here are for Mike Williams to handle the intermediate-to-vertical action while Scott racks up catch-and-runs underneath. Scott showed a great deal of poise and confidence in 2015 and he might end up being Deshaun Watson's favorite target.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.



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