Of all the position groups that we’ll be previewing over the next few weeks, none has been hit harder by graduation and early NFL draft entry than the receivers. Consider this: Of last year’s top nine receiving yardage leaders, only one returns – Michigan’s Devin Funchess, who didn’t even reach 50 catches in 2013. The addition of Maryland to the conference helps a bit, but big time Big Ten wideouts could be few and far between in 2014.
1. Maryland – It’s tough to dispute the Terps being atop these rankings. On a yards per game basis, they have three of the conference’s top five returning pass catchers, and even coming off broken legs, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long might be the top two receivers in the Big Ten.
2. Ohio State – Remember, these rankings factor in tight ends, and Ohio State has a pretty darn good one in Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman is complemented nicely by senior Devin Smith and sophomore Dontre Wilson, who could be one of this year’s breakout stars.
3. Michigan State – The Spartans don’t have any standouts on the outside, but their receiving corps took a big step forward last season, and five of their top six receivers and tight ends return in 2014, so there’s depth. It’s also a very experienced group.
4. Northwestern – I’ve seen some analysts put Northwestern as high as 2nd in similar rankings, but to be honest, I’m not very high on this unit. Sure, it’s deep, and there are a lot of upperclassmen, but I don’t see much more than average receivers. Tony Jones might be the only exception. And as for Miles Shuler and Kyle Prater, let’s not champion them until we see some in-game proof. The fact that NU still comes in at No. 4 speaks more to the state of Big Ten receivers overall.
5. Nebraska – Quincy Enunwa is gone, but the Huskers have nearly everybody else back in 2014. Kenny Bell is the go-to guy, and Jordan Westerkamp – you might recognize the name – was a nice option last year as a freshman. The x-factor might be Jamal Turner.
6. Michigan – Whether he’s a tight end or a wide receiver or something in between, Devin Funchess is a confounding matchup, and could be set for a big year. The Wolverines probably would’ve been higher if not for tight end Jake Butt’s February ACL tear. He should be ready at some point this season, but might not be 100 percent for a while.
7. Iowa – Shockingly, no Iowa player topped 400 yards receiving last year – not one! But in reality, that was mostly due to the team’s run-first approach. Another contributing factor was balance, as five players topped 270 -- four of the five return in 2014. No pass catcher on the current team is ever going to put up outstanding numbers, but these rankings are solely about ability, not offensive systems or any external factors.
8. Penn State – The deeper we descend into these rankings, the more of a crapshoot it becomes. So why not go with the upside pick? That’s the thinking behind the Nittany Lions at No. 8. Allen Robinson has moved on, but there’s chatter in State College that this group is loaded with promising youngsters. Plus, tight end Jesse James is a huge target.
9. Purdue – The Purdue offense was anemic in 2013, and thus no receivers had much chance to shine. But that doesn’t mean there isn't talent here. DeAngelo Yancey is a legitimate playmaker, and the Boilermakers have everybody returning, including two above average tight ends.
10. Indiana – On the other side of the ability vs. system discussion (see Iowa and Purdue) is Indiana. Last year’s offense was, at times, prolific, as the two quarterbacks combined to throw for over 3,600 yards, which in turn yielded some impressive stats for receivers. But Cody Latimer was the only truly special talent among the bunch, and both he and Kofi Hughes are gone, so Shane Wynn and freshman Dominique Booth have big shoes to fill.
11. Rutgers – There are two players to watch on this unit. Wideout Leonte Carroo scored 9 touchdowns in 9 games a year ago, and averaged over 17 yards per catch, while tight end Tyler Kroft should be in the mix for the title of Big Ten’s best TE. But after that, there’s not much depth.
12. Minnesota – Tight end Maxx Williams is solid, but aside from him, this is a pretty barren group. There are a lot of unknowns.
13. Illinois – This unit will have an entirely new look to it in 2014. The Illini have two decent tight ends, but other than that, not much. Senior Martize Barr is probably the top option.
14. Wisconsin – The Badgers really only had two legitimate receiving options last year in Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pederson, and both are now gone. So who will QB Joel Stave be targeting in 2014? Nobody really knows.
Why Northwestern should be higher: The argument in favor of NU’s crop of receivers is that they’ve been held back by the offense. If offensive coordinator Mick McCall does decided to let Trevor Siemian loose, maybe we finally see the best of the Joneses. There’s also Prater and Shuler, and Dan Vitale, who could have the belated breakout season that some expected him to have last year.
Why Northwestern should be lower: The counter argument would be that we've actually already seen the best of the Joneses, and that Vitale, while a decent superback, will never thrive as a pass catcher.
Second Thoughts: I could get behind the Wildcats at No. 3. I can’t see any reason for slotting them above Ohio State, but NU and Michigan State are very comparable here. In fact, Northwestern might have greater versatility and upside than Sparty at the position.