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Bucky's Best: Smith-Schuster leads CFB's top pass-catchers


The college football season is a few weeks away, but that doesn't stop NFL scouts from surveying the landscape to see which players have the potential to emerge as game changers at the next level. As a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers, respectively, I would frequently jot down notes and make preliminary lists of the top players in my region to help me plan my travel schedule for the fall. Although these lists were etched in pencil instead of pen due to the constant change in the evaluation process, the compilation served as a nice starting point for my draft rankings.

CFB 24/7 is marking the days to the start of the 2016 season by counting down the top 25 players in college football.

I will share with you some of my preliminary lists this week to help pinpoint which college players to track this fall. Today, we will take a long, hard look at some of the top pass-catchers in college football.

1. JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC, WR: Every coach in America would love to build their passing game around a big, physical pass-catcher with speed to burn. That's why USC's Smith-Schuster is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 receiver in the minds of NFL scouts heading into the season. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior is a rugged playmaker capable of doing the dirty work between the hashes or acting as a vertical threat on the outside. In addition, he delivers big plays on "catch-and-run" concepts that allow him to showcase his impressive combination of strength, power and explosiveness with the ball in his hands. As a recent convert to receiver (Smith-Schuster primarily played defensive back and running back in high school), he is just beginning to come into his own as a pass-catcher. With a complete offseason devoted to mastering the nuances of route running and bump-and-run releases, Smith-Schuster should go from good to great as the Trojans' WR1 this season.

2. Jake Butt, Michigan, TE: It is hard to find an old-school tight end in today's game, but Butt is a throwback with the size, soft hands and route-running skills to terrorize defenses between the hashes. As a polished route runner with a big body and a rugged game, he excels at "box-out" routes (option and Y-stick) over the middle. He overpowers defenders to establish position and uses his length to expand the strike zone for quarterbacks. Although Butt does most of his work at short-to-intermediate range, he flashes enough quickness and burst to run away from defenders on sail routes (15-speed outs) to the boundary. Given his impressive work on critical downs and situations (third-down and red zone), Butt has all of the tools to thrive as a TE1 on any level.

3. O.J. Howard, Alabama, TE: It amazes NFL scouts that a 6-6, 242-pound target has been virtually invisible in the Crimson Tide's offense for the past three seasons, but Howard could be slated for a starring role this fall after showing home run potential in the College Football Playoff title game. While he had sporadically shown flashes of his immense talent and potential throughout his career, Howard's rare combination of size, speed and athleticism as a tight end makes him a matchup problem for linebackers and defensive backs on the perimeter. He easily outruns big-bodied defenders down the seam on vertical routes while also showing outstanding "box-out" skills against smallish safeties and cornerbacks. Despite Howard's limited production to this point, I firmly believe he is not only one of college football's best pass-catchers, but he will be viewed as one of the game's biggest playmakers after Lane Kiffin makes him a bigger priority in the game plan.

4. Jehu Chesson, Michigan, WR: The Wolverines' WR1 is a silky smooth playmaker with a polished game. Chesson is not only the best route runner in college football, but he is a natural pass-catcher with strong hands and exceptional ball skills. The 6-3, 200-pounder routinely comes down with 50-50 balls on the perimeter, exhibiting sneaky strength and superb concentration fending off defenders down the field. With Chesson also showing big-time running skills as a returner and playmaker in the open field, it's easy to see why Jim Harbaugh has made the slender pass-catcher the No. 1 option in the passing game.

5. Corey Davis, Western Michigan, WR: The Broncos' smooth operator on the perimeter is not only a polished route runner, but he is an explosive playmaker capable of delivering big plays from anywhere on the field. He is one of the few college receivers with all of the tools in the toolbox (route running, press releases, ball skills and run-after-catch ability) and scouts are intrigued by his pro potential as a WR1. Davis has spent the bulk of his time operating on the outside, but his combination of quickness, agility and savvy would make him an ideal slot receiver in a number of schemes. Considering Davis' impact and production sharing the WR1 role with current Chicago Bear Daniel Braverman in the Broncos' offense, the slippery pass-catcher could post ridiculous numbers this fall.

Watch list: Calvin Ridley, Alabama, WR; Travin Dural, LSU, WR; Malachi Dupre, LSU, WR; Christian Kirk, Texas A&M, WR.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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