Each week, Sports on Earth is counting down the best returning college football players at every position entering the 2017 season. As always, these rankings are based on a combination of talent, proven production and potential at the college level. They are not NFL Draft rankings. The series begins with the top 30 wide receivers and top 15 tight ends.
Seven of the nation's top eight players in receiving yards in 2016 may be gone, but a few decisions by underclassman to return for another season plus a plethora of rising talent gives college football plenty of receivers to be excited about in 2017. Fourteen returning players finished last season with over 1,000 receiving yards, led by Middle Tennessee's Richie James (1,625). Our annual player rankings begin with a look at the nation's 30 best wide receivers at the top of the page, followed by the 15 best tight ends at the bottom.
Note: Special honorable mention goes to TCU's KaVontae Turpin, Rutgers' Janarion Grant and Pitt's Quadree Henderson, star playmakers who are listed as wide receivers but fill more of an all-purpose role and would be headliners on a return specialist list. These rankings lean heavily toward receiving.
30. Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech. The Hokies could have had one of the nation's best receiving corps, but both Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges left early for the draft (along with QB Jerod Evans), leaving Phillips as the overwhelming leading returning receiver. Phillips is the Hokies' only player who had more than 20 catches last year, hauling in 76 passes for 983 yards and five TDs -- production that came close to matching Ford, the All-ACC pick. A steady contributor who hasn't had many huge games, Phillips had a career-high 115 yards in the Belk Bowl comeback vs. Arkansas.
29. Mike Dudek, Illinois. Dudek has not caught a pass in a game since Dec. 26, 2014, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. After catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six TDs in a fantastic freshman season, Dudek tore his ACL in spring practice 2015 … then tore his ACL again in spring practice 2016. Now, Dudek is hoping to finally return to the lineup and provide a needed jolt for the Fighting Illini passing game in Lovie Smith's second season as head coach.
28. Linell Bonner, Houston. The Cougars have a terrific receiving duo atop their depth chart with seniors Bonner and Steven Dunbar. Bonner was the go-to chain-mover last year, catching 98 passes for 1,118 yards and three TDs. According to cfbstats.com, only national receptions leader Zay Jones had more third-down catches than Bonner. He doesn't make many big plays, but he's a machine as a 6-foot possession receiver, and he'll be a reliable weapon for the Cougars' new quarterback, presumably touted Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen.
27. Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State. Ateman rejoins a crowded, talented Oklahoma State receiving corps after he broke his foot and missed all of the 2016 season. In 2015, Ateman averaged 17 yards per catch, with 45 receptions for 766 yards and five TDs. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior will return to fight for targets with All-American James Washington, plus Jalen McCleskey (who could easily be swapped in for Ateman here0, Chris Lacy and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson.
26. Hunter Renfrow, Clemson. The walk-on national championship game hero is back for his junior season as one of the few familiar faces in what will be a new-look Clemson offense. Renfrow missed four games and was part of a loaded receiving corps last year, but he had 44 catches for 495 yards and six TDs, including the title-winning catch in the corner of the end zone. He'll continue to be a key factor in the slot, although Deon Cain should emerge as the Tigers' No. 1 target.
25. Nyqwan Murray, Florida State. The Seminoles' receiving corps has had some issues the past couple years, but even with Travis Rudolph gone, there's hope for a breakthrough this season behind Auden Tate and Murray. Murray was a nonfactor the first half of last season, but he emerged with six catches for 96 yards against Clemson, nine catches for 153 yards against N.C. State and a big Orange Bowl in which he had a 92-yard TD and the game-winning 12-yard TD. The Noles are counting on another leap forward to put QB Deondre Francois in better position to succeed.
24. D.J. Chark, LSU. Malachi Dupre turning pro made Chark the only returning LSU receiver who had more than five catches last season. Needless to say, the 6-foot-3 senior is going to be an important cog in the Tigers' attack as they try to breathe life into their passing game under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Chark had only 26 catches for 466 yards and three TDs, but he averaged nearly 18 yards per catch and rushed for 122 yards and two TDs, bringing length and deep speed to the table. Expect Canada to find creative ways to get Chark more involved.
23. Deebo Samuel, South Carolina. The shifty Samuel is expected to play more of a slot role this season, a move that fits the skill set of an intriguing multi-purpose threat who rushed for six touchdowns on top of catching 59 passes for 783 yards and a TD in 10 games. Samuel had 190 yards in the Birmingham Bowl against USF, and this Gamecocks passing game as a whole is equipped to take a step forward with a more experienced Jake Bentley at QB.
22. Darren Carrington, Utah. It feels like a decade since Carrington became the big pregame story of the national championship game, as a member of the Oregon Ducks. He had over 100 yards in the last two games of the 2014 season before he was suspended for the title game loss to Ohio State, a suspension that lasted the first six games of 2015, too. Carrington was terrific in the second half that year, and last season he led the Ducks with 43 catches for 606 yards and five TDs -- decent but somewhat forgettable numbers in a disastrous year for Oregon, although he had a spectacular game-winning catch against Utah. Now, after off-the-field trouble, Carrington was dismissed from the Ducks and landed at Utah, where he'll easily be the most proven receiver the Utes have in a new-look offense.
21. Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss. It would be inaccurate to call Staggers an all-or-nothing receiver. After all, he had at least six catches seven times last season, his first at Southern Miss as a juco transfer. Still, he had two games with over 100 yards: six catches for 292 yards against Rice and 11 catches for 230 yards in the New Orleans Bowl, two of the biggest games any receiver had all season. In total, Staggers had 62 catches for 1,157 yards and seven TDs, headlined by that day against the Owls in which he had an absurd three touchdowns of 75-plus yards.
20. Shay Fields, Colorado. The Buffaloes return their entire receiving corps, with Shay leading a group of three seniors. While Devin Ross led the team in catches, Fields is the best playmaker, leading the team with 883 yards and nine TDs on 56 receptions. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Fields isn't big, but he's a burner, with quickness and explosiveness downfield and after the catch that make him a constant big-play threat.
19. Deontay Burnett, USC. Losing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers is tough, but Burnett gives USC fans a big reason to be confident that prized QB Sam Darnold will have capable playmakers on the perimeter. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven TDs as a sophomore, in particular coming through with a massive performance in the Rose Bowl, as he hauled in 13 passes for 164 yards and three TDs in the shootout against Penn State. A three-star recruit, Burnett drew rave reviews in the spring and has a chance to emerge as Darnold's No. 1 target.
18. Cody Thompson, Toledo. The big-play machine led the MAC with 14 catches for 30-plus yards -- even topping No. 5 overall draft pick Corey Davis -- as he averaged nearly 20 yards per catch with 64 for 1,269 yards and 11 TDs. A 6-foot-2, senior, Thompson is part of a prolific passing attack that also includes returning 4,000-yard passer Logan Woodside. With physicality and quick change-of-direction skills, Thompson is particularly dangerous after the catch.
17. Demetris Robertson, California. After four years of Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid offense, the Golden Bears turned to a defensive leader in new head coach Justin Wilcox, although he made an impressive offensive coordinator hire in Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin. QB Davis Webb is gone, as is WR Chad Hansen (and his 92 catches). The star here is Robertson, a five-star recruit who showed flashes of that blue-chip talent as a freshman, catching 50 passes for 767 yards and seven TDs. The speedster spent the spring on the Cal track team.
16. Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame. St. Brown went from catching one pass as a freshman to standing out as the team's best receiver as a sophomore. He was the top target for DeShone Kizer, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine TDs, with consistent production all season. St. Brown is 6-foot-5, 204 pounds, a big-bodied, long-strider on the outside who is clearly the leader of this receiving corps as the Irish transition from Kizer to Brandon Wimbush behind center.
15. N'Keal Harry, Arizona State. Harry made an instant impact as one of the nation's top wide receiver recruits in 2016 (one who broke a backboard in a high school basketball game). The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder is built like another Jaelen Strong for the Sun Devils, and they're certainly hoping he develops like the former All-American. Harry had a promising freshman season in a rough year for Arizona State, catching a team-high 58 passes for 659 yards and five TDs.
14. Cedrick Wilson, Boise State. Thomas Sperbeck was the Broncos' first-team All-Mountain West receiver, but the 6-foot-3 Wilson made his presence felt, too, averaging 20.2 yards per catch with 56 for 1,129 yards and 11 TDs despite dealing with injuries much of the year. Wilson had 15 catches of 30-plus yards, and while he underwent ankle surgery early in the offseason, he'll return to be the clear top target for star QB Brett Rypien, with Sperbeck gone.
13. Anthony Miller, Memphis. One of four returning players to average 100 receiving yards per game in 2016, Miller has enjoyed quite a rise from walk-on to becoming the best player on the Tigers. The 5-foot-11 senior had 95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 TDs, with 250 yards vs Tulsa, 169 yards two TDs in the final four minutes to beat Houston and three TDs in the Boca Raton Bowl.
12. J'Mon Moore, Missouri. The Tigers' losing record masked the fact that their passing game made enormous strides last year in QB Drew Lock's sophomore season, improving from 120th to 47th in passer rating. The growth of the 6-foot-3 Moore was a big part of that. The passing game was so lackluster in 2015 that Moore led the team with 350 yards. As a junior, he became a dominant target, racking up 62 catches for 1,012 yards and eight TDs. Moore had a midseason downturn, which included a benching, but he had over 130 yards in each of his last three games before deciding to return for his senior season.
11. Michael Gallup, Colorado State. With star Rashard Higgins gone, the Rams needed a No. 1 target to emerge, and that's exactly what happened with Gallup. The 6-foot-1 juco transfer finished with 48 more catches than anyone else on the team in his debut season, racking up 76 receptions for 1,272 yards and 14 TDs. Gallup had at least 91 yards in each of his final eight games, including 13 catches for 213 yards vs. Air Force and three TDs against the excellent San Diego State defense.
10. Deon Cain, Clemson. While overshadowed by Mike Williams and some of the clutch plays made by Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow, Cain had a terrific sophomore season as the Tigers' deep threat, averaging 19 yards per catch with 38 receptions for 724 yards and nine TDs. Clemson is unlikely to throw quite as much without Deshaun Watson, but there are plenty of available targets for Cain to step into a bigger role with Williams, Leggett and Artavis Scott gone. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cain was a five-star recruit in 2015, and he has the size and speed to develop into one of the nation's top receivers.
9. Allen Lazard, Iowa State. The rare top-100 overall recruit to sign with Iowa State, Lazard has steadily improved over his career, cracking the thousand-yard mark with 69 catches for 1,018 yards and seven TDs as a junior. This program is on the upswing under coach Matt Campbell, and the 6-foot-5, 223-pound Lazard has made the transition easier. He enters 2017 on a hot streak, having surpassed 100 yards in four of the final five games last season.
8. Dante Pettis, Washington. Pettis was overshadowed by teammate John Ross' eye-popping speed, but his return for his senior season is huge for QB Jake Browning. Pettis and Chico McClatcher headline what is still a stellar receiving corps without Ross, after Pettis caught 53 passes for 822 yards and 15 TDs. In fact, Ross is one of only six players who had more receiving TDs than Pettis nationally. Pettis is a great leaper with ball skills, and he has plenty of his own explosiveness, too, as he ran two punts back for TDs.
7. Antonio Callaway, Florida. Callaway has had a tumultuous career at Florida, including a suspension much of last offseason, but on the field he provides a desperately needed jolt to what's been an otherwise anemic Gators offense. In 12 games last year, Callaway caught 54 passes for 721 yards and three TDs, stellar numbers in an offense that has struggled to move the ball since Tim Tebow left. If the Gators can finally improve at quarterback -- Feleipe Franks is the current favorite to start -- Calloway can take aim at a thousand-yard season behind his explosive playmaking ability.
6. Richie James, Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders have emerged as a highly potent offense behind the combination of QB Brent Stockstill and James. The 5-foot-9 James is a multi-dimensional weapon who has racked up an absurd 212 catches for 2,959 yards and 20 TDs over his first two seasons, ranking in the top three nationally in catches both years. If that wasn't enough, James stepped into a wildcat quarterback role with the top two QBs injured against Florida Atlantic. The result was 22 carries for 207 yards and three TDs, four catches for 120 yards and a TD and five pass completions for 76 yards in a 77-56 win. James is a great playmaker, plain and simple.
5. Ahmmon Richards, Miami. Whoever wins the Miami QB battle to replace Brad Kaaya will benefit from the presence of one of college football's biggest rising stars. Richards was an explosive star as a freshman, averaging 19.1 yards per catch with receptions for 934 yards. A four-star recruit, he started 11 games and cracked 100 yards four times, showing off enormous potential as an elite athlete destined to be an NFL receiver. If he builds off the strong start to his college career, he can become the ACC's best wideout.
4. Calvin Ridley, Alabama. Perhaps Ridley is following the Amari Cooper path. Cooper had 999 yards as a freshman but dipped to 736 yards as a sophomore. In his junior year, Cooper became a Heisman finalist with 1,727 yards. So far, Ridley has had 1,045 yards as a freshman and 769 yards as a sophomore. What's in store for his junior season? With freshman Jalen Hurts and his limited downfield passing at quarterback, Ridley averaged 10.7 yards per catch last year and finished behind teammate ArDarius Stewart in yardage despite catching 18 more passes. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is charged with refining Hurts' passing, and Ridley will be a huge part of those plans. With Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard gone, the dynamic Ridley is the experienced go-to player here. Alabama's offense will be too run-oriented for Ridley to put up Cooper-like junior numbers, but expect significant growth, because he is one of the top receiving talents in the country.
3. Courtland Sutton, SMU. Sutton has been Chad Morris' key weapon the past two years, and now he's a redshirt junior firmly on the NFL radar. At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, Sutton has played some basketball at SMU, but he's mostly shined as a wide receiver, averaging 16.8 yards per catch in his career. Even after QB Matt Davis was injured in Week 1 last year, Sutton caught 76 passes for 1,246 yards and 10 TDs. Late in the year, he torched South Florida for 252 yards. He's an explosive talent with size, and he's in line for a massive season for an offense that should continue to get better in Morris' third year as coach.
2. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M. Kirk may average a modest 11.9 yards per catch in his college career, but he's a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. A 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior, Kirk moves around the formation and is often the recipient of shorter passes that allow him to catch the ball on the move and take advantage of his ability after the catch, thanks to his quick change-of-direction ability. Shifty and explosive, Kirk has five career punt return TDs on top of catching 163 passes over the past two seasons.
1. James Washington, Oklahoma State. Perhaps no team benefited from NFL Draft decisions more than Oklahoma State, as both Washington and quarterback Mason Rudolph decided to return for their senior seasons. Washington in the headliner in the nation's deepest receiving corps, a 6-foot, 205-pound vertical weapon who averaged 19.4 yards per catch last season, grabbing 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 TDs. He burned Pitt for 296 yards early in the season and topped 100 yards five times the rest of the way. Washington had 16 catches of 30-plus yards. He'll be in the mix to be the top receiver taken in the draft next spring, and he provides Oklahoma State with a true No. 1 target in its quest to rise back to the top of the Big 12.
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15. David Wells, San Diego State. The Aztecs don't pass a lot in their ground-and-pound offense -- they had a 2,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard rusher in 2016 -- but Wells was a steady, reliable contributor when they did. Their top two receivers caught only 27 passes; Wells had 25 receptions for 294 yards and four TDs. Of course, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Wells has to be an impact blocker to succeed in this offense.
14. Marcus Baugh, Ohio State. After Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown turned pro, Baugh is the Buckeyes' leading returning receiver, having caught 24 passes for 269 yards and two TDs. That's partially an indictment of Ohio State's disappointing passing game last year, but Baugh stepped up into a starting role as a junior and was solid in Big Ten play. Baugh underwent shoulder surgery in January but is expected to be fine for the season.
13. Dalton Schultz, Stanford. Tight end has often been a go-to weapon for Stanford offenses, with Coby Fleener, Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz and Austin Hooper drafted in the first four rounds since 2012. Schultz is trying to follow that path, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him improve upon the 23 catches for 222 yards and a TD he had last year. The No. 1 tight end in the class of 2014, Schultz redshirted as a freshman, backed up Hooper in 2015 and became the starter last season. With Christian McCaffrey gone, more targets for the tight end will become available.
12. Tyler Conklin, Central Michigan. Conklin was a prolific receiver for the position last year, catching 42 passes for 560 yards and six TDs, serving as a reliable target for Cooper Rush. Rush is gone, but Conklin -- who originally went to Northwood University as a basketball player -- will continue to be a big factor in the Chippewas' offense.
11. Alize Mack, Notre Dame. Formerly known as Alize Jones, Mack flashed potential in 2015, catching 13 passes for 190 yards as a freshman after the he was rated the No. 1 tight end recruit in his class.. Expected to break out in 2016, Mack instead missed the entire season because he was academically ineligible. Now, he'll return to share the field with Durham Smythe, but Mack made his presence felt during spring practice and should prove to be dynamic target for new QB Brandon Wimbush. He may rise up this list during the season.
10. Blake Mack, Arkansas State. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Mack was a big-play weapon for the Red Wolves as a junior. His 12 receptions of 20-plus yards ranked second in the Sun Belt, according to cfbstats.com, and he averaged 19.2 yards per catch with 34 for 652 yards and three TDs. Arkansas State moves him around the formation, and he can be particularly dangerous when split out.
9. Cam Serigne, Wake Forest. Serigne's catch numbers have actually declined from year to year, but his average per catch has risen. Over three seasons, he has proved to be a reliable weapon for the still-developing Demon Deacons offense, hauling in 130 career catches for 1,519 yards and 12 TDs, with a career-best average of 14.2 yards per catch as a junior.
8. DeAndre Goolsby, Florida. The Gators' passing game still needs a ton of work, but Goolsby carved out a sizable role as a junior with 38 catches for 342 yards and three TDs. After a midseason lull, he did have 91 yards in the SEC title game against Alabama, and he can be key cog in an improved Florida offense this season.
7. Isaac Nauta, Georgia. The Bulldogs had a veteran tight end on the roster in Jeb Blazevich, but Nauta, a five-star recruit who enrolled early, immediately leaped into a sizable role as a receiver for fellow freshman QB Jacob Eason. Nauta finished third on the team in receiving, hauling in 29 catches for 361 yards and three TDs, a promising rookie campaign that sets the stage for perhaps a bigger breakout in 2017 as Eason grows as a passer.
6. Hayden Hurst, South Carolina. The former walk-on spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before deciding to play college football. He has proved to be a revelation for the Gamecocks. Named a team captain as a sophomore, Hurst broke out with 48 catches for 616 yards and a TD, excelling despite the Gamecocks' quarterback shuffling. Now, Hurst is a top target for sophomore QB Jake Bentley and one of the nation's best tight ends.
5. Adam Breneman, Massachusetts. A top-50 overall recruit nationally, Breneman struggled with injuries at Penn State, ultimately stepping away from football after graduating in three years. But after time away, Breneman made a return to football, heading to UMass as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility. He was dominant last year, producing like a wide receiver with 70 catches for 808 yards and eight TDs, including nine catches for 94 yards and two TDs in a close loss to South Carolina.
4. Jaylen Samuels, N.C. State. Perhaps underappreciated nationally, Samuels is a unique weapon who is much more than a tight end. Listed at only 5-foot-11, 236 pounds, Samuel is more of a multi-dimensional H-back. N.C. State moves him around and gives him the ball in a variety of ways: He has 126 career catches for 1,258 yards and 15 TDs. And he has 104 career rushes for 700 yards and 16 TDs. Samuels had 12 more catches than any other Wolfpack player last year and had the second-most rushing TDs.
3. Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin. Fumagalli stole the show in the Cotton Bowl, finishing a stellar junior season with 83 yards and a TD to lead the Badgers over Western Michigan. He led the team in catches last season with 47 for 580 yards and two TDs, making him a go-to target for QB Alex Hornibrook. And given that this is old-school Wisconsin, the 6-foot-6, 247-pound Fumagalli can block, too.
2. Mark Andrews, Oklahoma. The Big 12 is rarely known for tight end play, but Andrews is the exception. The only tight end to finish in the top 40 in the conference in receiving yards last year, Andrews hauled in 31 passes for 489 yards and seven TDs. With Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon and Geno Lewis gone, Andrews is easily the top returning pass-catcher for Heisman finalist quarterback Baker Mayfield, and his athleticism will allow his involvement in the offense to grow even more as a junior.
1. Mike Gesicki, Penn State. Two years ago, Penn State had high hopes for Gesicki as a breakout target because of his rare athleticism for the position. Nothing panned out as expected for that Penn State offense in 2015, and Gesicki had a problem with drops. Last year, however, the offense clicked under coordinator Joe Moorhead, and Gesicki proved to be a huge part of the transformation. While he has room for improvement as a blocker, Gesicki is a dangerous receiving target with size, speed, leaping ability and much-improved ball skills. No returning Power Five tight end had more than Gesicki's 679 yards last year, which came on 48 catches with five TDs. He's a perfect fit for the Nittany Lions' revamped big-play offense and a scary, 6-foot-6, 252-pound matchup nightmare for opponents.