For a position where age often wins out, this year is a uniquely youthful group of underclassmen with lots of pass-catching potential. This projection hinges on how many will actually enter the 2019 draft. Some of the top talents will break in new quarterbacks while others must continue growing physically. UCLA’s Caleb Wilson and Iowa’s Noah Fant are vying for the preseason crown, but I’m eager to see if a dark horse emerges as the top talent. Wilson is the classic every-down workhorse, while Fant is the explosive playmaker.
1. Caleb Wilson, UCLA (6’4″ 235lbs.)
• Many will remember Wilson as the centerpiece of the Bruins historic comeback against Texas A&M, but the former USC walk-on was more than a one-game wonder in 2017. Wilson was on a torrid pace with 490 yards and one touchdown on 39 receptions in just five games before his season was cut short due to a foot injury.
2. Noah Fant, Iowa (6’5″ 232lbs.)
• Little separates Fant from Wilson, and it may come down to preference – so understand this is a 1a, 1b ranking. As Fant continues adding to his frame his appeal will only increase. The 2017 Big Ten touchdown leader (11) regardless of position can score in and out of the red zone and possesses mouthwatering athleticism.
3. Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri (6’5″ 260lbs.)
• An exciting passing-game threat, particularly in the red zone, he caught 11 touchdowns as a redshirt-Freshman last season. I suspect if he produces comparable numbers in 2018 then Okwuegbunam could leave school early with his graduating quarterback Drew Lock. Physically speaking, he’s already mature and ready for the pro level.
4. Tommy Sweeney, Boston College (6’5″ 255lbs.)
• Lacks the speed and athleticism to punish defenses, but there’s probably not a safer, more complete player available at the position. Sweeney blocks in-line competently, will move chains as a receiver, and has some yard-after-catch ability. I’ve noticed he has a good feel for soft zones in the passing game.
5. Kaden Smith, Stanford (6’5″ 259lbs.)
• The latest creation from a developing tight end factory at Stanford, Kaden Smith is a physically impressive athlete with desired length and movement skills to impose as a receiver. Another year of sustained production could convince Smith to make the pro leap.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Petite, USC (6’4″ 250lbs.)
• It’s apparent that Petite has plenty of untapped ability as a pass-catcher, as he generated a lot of positive momentum in that regard with Sam Darnold under center in 2017. Petite’s got an otherwise all-around game and if he can maintain his annual growth in production he’ll enter the NFL as a polished option for any team.