Ranking the ACC’s receivers

The last of our offensive groups: Receiving production.

We’re including receivers, tight ends and catches out of the backfield in this discussion, and when it comes to the passing game, it’s obviously impossible not to take QB production into consideration, too. But for the purposes of this analysis, we’re trying to look more closely at the stats that define receivers. To wit: Drop rate, % of catchable targets completed, yards after the catch, red zone TD rate, % of catches that resulted in a first down or TD and yards rushing beyond 10, which we’re using as a stand-in for downfield blocking.

Here’s how the numbers look (click the chart to open in Google Sheets):

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 11.53.03 AM

Is this a perfect analysis? Of course not. I’d be hard pressed to make the case that UNC, Pitt, Virginia Tech or Syracuse had a better receiving corps than NC State last year. And while Virginia’s passing game may have been more effective than Miami’s, I’d swap the names on receiver depth chart any day of the week. And as we see in S&P+’s passing down rankings or something simpler like yards per catchable target, there are some obvious inconsistencies.

So, what’s the point? Well, we’re hoping to isolate some issues and highlight some areas that perhaps flew under the radar.

For example, look at Virginia Tech. The Hokies actually ranked fourth in our analysis overall, 35th nationally in passing down S&P+ and second in the ACC in yards per catchable target. That’s all very encouraging. Then look at where VT came up a bit short: Drop rate and downfield blocking. Those are two areas where fundamentals are the likely bigger issue, and that often means they can improve dramatically year over year. So, take what was a pretty good receiving corps last year and add a year of improved fundamentals and, voila, you’ve got potentially the best receiving group in the ACC outside of Clemson. Then look at the names: Damon Hazelton, Tre Turner, Dalton Keene — all will play on Sundays, and all were freshmen or sophomore last year. There’s a lot to be excited about in Blacksburg when it comes to the passing game in 2019.

On the flip side, it’s fair to wonder how much Miami‘s quarterbacks are to blame for the struggles of the passing game last year. Yes, the Canes have guys with talent. But boy, that group did not perform particularly well last season. Miami was 13th in the ACC in reception rate on catchable targets, 13th in percentage of catches that went for a first down or touchdown and last in the ACC in yards per catchable target. Was that a function of the style of play? The performance of the guys throwing the ball? The lack of production from receivers? All of the above? Your answer may vary, but the bottom line is that if Miami’s going to get better QB play in 2019, it also needs to have more impact performances from its receiving corps.

Here’s the scary number on Clemson: The drop rate and catch rate were both fine, but probably suffered a bit from a young group getting used to working with Trevor Lawrence. And to look at any group that includes Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and two of the top incoming freshmen in America and suggest it has some real room to improve? Well, that’s a scary thought.

Virginia has a star at QB in Bryce Perkins. But does he have any real weapons to work with in the passing game? High drop rate, few yards after the catch, bad downfield blocking and a passing down S&P+ that was the fifth-worst in FBS. Now remember that Virginia lost its best receiver in Olamide Zaccheaus. The lack of big plays killed Virginia last year in both the rushing and passing game, and it’s tough to see how that changes a ton this year. Hasise DuBois was serviceable last year. Joe Reed had some big plays in the return game, so could blossom if UVA can find him in space more often. Bronco Mendenhall is high on Terrell Jana. So maybe there are some diamonds in the rough here, but for now, I’d be concerned.

Louisville’s numbers, not surprisingly, were brutal across the board. But like we’ve discussed earlier, can we really evaluate a team that clearly checked out at midseason because its coaching staff had given up? We saw Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick perform well when Lamar Jackson was leading the offense, so I have to believe there’s a chance to return to form in 2019. Charles Atwell had a nice freshman campaign last year, and Hassan Hall proved to be a solid option out of the backfield. I’m bullish on this group and wouldn’t be surprised if Louisville’s offense overall takes a sizable leap forward in 2019.

Duke’s drop rate of 9.3% was awful — especially for a team that prides itself on doing all the little things well. The lack of an elite receiver has plagued Duke since Jamison Crowder and Max McCaffrey departed, which is yet another reason I think Daniel Jones was unfairly critiqued for his college numbers. Now the Blue Devils turn to a QB who’s primary skill set is as a runner not a passer, and they lose their four leading receivers from last year. Things just aren’t shaping up well for this Duke offense in 2019.

Wake’s red zone production was exceptional, and the group had one of the league’s lowest drop rates. But the rest of the stat line was problematic, including the 101st-ranked passing down S&P+. They also lost Greg Dortch and Alex Bachman. So, there are some red flags. On the other hand, Sage Surratt really blossomed, Scotty Washington is a terrific physical threat in the passing game, Kendall Hinton is just starting to come into his own, and Wake nabbed two pretty good freshmen in the recruiting class in Donavon Greene and Nolan Groulx. Dave Clawson is actually pretty high on this group, and with the advancement at QB, I can see reason for optimism.

NC State is an interesting team. There’ll be a new QB, and two elite receivers are gone. What’s left though is solid. Emeka Emezie is a burgeoning star, and a couple different coaches have mentioned him as a guy who played beyond his reputation last season. Thayer Thomas had a nice year as a freshman, too. And while we didn’t see a ton from transfer tight end Cary Angeline, the guy has NFL talent and could become a much bigger part of the passing game in 2019. I’d be more concerned about QB than the guys he’s throwing to in Raleigh.

Wrote a little last year about the horrendous run of receiver recruiting at Florida State, and the 2019 numbers certainly didn’t change that. Sure, FSU has had some guys come through and perform adequately, including Nyqwan Murray last year. But they’ve not had a 1,000-yard guy since Rashad Greene left, and they’ve watched a bunch of blue-chippers flame out entirely. There’s reason for some optimism this year though. For one, the passing game almost has to improve. Secondly, there’s every reason to believe Tamorrion Terry becomes the superstar receiver FSU has been waiting for after a stellar freshman campaign. D.J. Matthews and Tre McKitty add options, too, and Keith Gavin is a guy I like in 2019. A lot of his targets last season were well out of his catchable zone and, yes, drops were an issue. But he’s got talent, and with a little refinement and better luck, he could end his FSU career on a high note.

No one put up stellar numbers in Pitt‘s receiving corps last year, but as we noted in our QB analysis, that’s probably more about Kenny Pickett. The numbers here underscore that notion, with Pitt’s guys looking solid in everything outside of red-zone performance, which again feels like more of a QB issue. The duo of Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench has a ton of potential, and if the play-action game can improve, they can be elite big-play guys. That Mack had just one touchdown last year is less an indication of his flaws than Pitt’s offensive hiccups. New coordinator, improved QB play, and this can be a pretty good (if not particularly deep) group.

So, how do we rank ’em for 2019? Argue away…

1. Clemson
2. Virginia Tech
3. Syracuse
4. Pitt
5. Florida State
6. NC State
7. UNC
8. Miami
9. Wake Forest
10. Louisville
11. Boston College
12. Virginia
13. Duke
14. Georgia Tech

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