Better receiving corps: Alabama or Texas A&M?
Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
Better receiving corps: Alabama or Texas A&M? It is player ranking season in college football, and FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman ranked the best receiving corps entering the season, listing Clemson at the top, followed by Alabama at No. 2 and Texas A&M further down the line at No. 6.
The Crimson Tide and Aggies ranked first and second, respectively, in Phil Steele’s ranking of the top receiving corps in his preseason magazine. There’s little doubt that both of these units are among the best in the country entering the season, but we actually put A&M’s pass-catchers on our list of the top 10 returning units in the SEC heading into 2016, while omitting the Crimson Tide’s (although their edge rushers and secondary ranked first and fourth, respectively).
Why do we have the Aggies’ receivers above the Crimson Tide’s? It’s certainly not that we don’t recognize the talent present among Bama’s pass-catchers, but they did not fare as well in our grades last season.
Let’s start with Texas A&M. Christian Kirk is a dark-horse Heisman candidacy after his 80-catch, 1,019-yard, 7-TD true freshman season, particularly excelling as a slot weapon, ranking seventh among returning Power-5 wideouts in yards per route run and first in touchdowns out of the slot. He is also a big-time threat as a returner. Josh Reynolds forms a nice complement, with the fourth-best deep-ball catch rate, pulling down all 11 of his catchable deep targets last season for 450 yards and two TDs. Rounding out the group is Ricky Seal-Jones, a big target, and Speedy Noil, another explosive run-after-catch threat who graded very well in 2014 after an average campaign last season.
Calvin Ridley had a breakout season in 2015, ranking 10th in returning Power-5 WRs in yards per route run, after putting up his two highest grades of the season in SEC title game versus Florida and semifinal playoff game against Michigan State. Tight end O.J. Howard put up huge numbers in the national title game, with five catches on five targets for 208 yards and two touchdowns, earning his best receiving grade of the season. However, he wasn’t nearly that level of receiving threat the rest of the season, grading better as a blocker. ArDarius Stewart is another talented pass-catching option who graded well in 2015, and Robert Foster is another potential breakout candidate following his lost 2015 season due to injury, but overall, this unit simply didn’t accumulate the same level of production as the Aggies.
We expect both units to perform very well in 2016, but we’ll give A&M the slight edge for now.
Can Florida’s defense carry the offense and new QB Luke Del Rio? Former Florida and South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was named a consultant and ambassador to the UF football program last week, and in his remarks he labeled transfer Luke Del Rio as the front-runner to be the team’s starting quarterback.
This isn’t a real surprise, given that Del Rio has been considered the favorite for a while, but the bigger question for the Gators this year might be whether the defense can play well enough to keep the team in games if the offense – which really struggled a year ago – has something resembling a slow start.
The Gators lost a pair of very productive players in defensive end Jonathan Bullard (now with the Chicago Bears) and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but bring plenty of talent back, as well. Up front, they return four players who graded above-average or better in Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie and CeCe Jefferson. Linebacker Jarrad Davis performed very well in both coverage and as a pass-rusher last year.
But the Gators best unit is their secondary. Jalen Tabor allowed the lowest passer rating in the nation among returning Power-5 cornerbacks, recording four interceptions and 12 passes defensed, and he’ll be joined by another corner who graded well in Quincy Wilson. Meanwhile, Marcus Maye was second behind only FSU star Derwin James among strong safeties in PFF grades last season (among returners).
Florida has several improvements it needs to make on offense, not just at the quarterback position, but the Gators should once again field one of the SEC’s top defenses, giving the offense a little time to get up to speed.