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2022 NFL Draft: Breakout WRs of the 2021 college season

A transfer from Houston Baptist leads the nation in catches and yards; Drake London bullying way into top-10 overall

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 WKU at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even though Michael Crabtree once made his meals in the Texas Tech air raid offense, a statistical advantage in college that hasn’t helped a lot of national passing leaders and receivers become NFL players, that didn’t stop the San Francisco 49ers from drafting him 10th overall.

It also didn’t keep his teammate Danny Amendola from signing with the Eagles in 2008, catching on with the St. Louis Rams in 2009, and still playing in the NFL today; Amendola’s Lions are set to face the Rams this Sunday.

We have good evidence to support an argument that certain players do transcend the air raid offense, including the 2018 NFL MVP. It could stand to reason then that maybe college football’s best wide receiver this year is a 5’9 transfer out of Houston Baptist who is putting up goofy numbers in Western Kentucky’s first year of the air raid offense. Whether or not that puts him into the 2022 draft conversation — we’ll get to that in a moment — but this has been one of the wildest college football seasons of recent memory.

Some would argue this is the craziest season of college football since at least the days of black and white television. NIL deals, the transfer portal, more top-25 upsets than ever before. These breakout receivers are only one of many storylines of 2021.

(And use the comments section below to also talk about college football’s Saturday action)

WR Jerreth Sterns, Western Kentucky

Measurements: 5’9 195 lbs

Season stats: 69 catches, 962 yards, 8 TD, five punt returns in 6 games

I do not imagine that the conversation right now is that the junior will declare for the draft and become the next DeVonta Smith. I do imagine what it takes to do this over the last three games: 46 receptions, 602 receiving yards, four touchdowns.

Not only does Sterns lead the nation in receiving yards by 105 yards over second place, he’s also played in six games, as compared to seven for anyone within 130 yards of him. He also leads the nation in receptions and he has three carries for 14 yards.

Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton hired offensive coordinator Zach Kittley away from FCS program Houston Baptist, then went out and used the transfer system to bring in his former quarterback Bailey Zappe and three receivers from Houston Baptist: Jerreth Sterns, his brother Josh Sterns, and Ben Ratzlaff.

Western Kentucky is 2-4, but they’ve gone from 115th in scoring to 10th. Zappe is second in the country in touchdown passes and eighth in passing efficiency. But perhaps the biggest breakout belongs to Sterns — who already was averaging over 10 catches per game at the FCS level.

Here he is jumping high as a high schooler.

Clearly “size” is not the issue in 2021 that it was considered to be in 2016. More and more receivers are entering the NFL and excelling at sub-6 feet and as you know, the Rams don’t shy away from receivers who weigh a lot less than Sterns.

And playing in an air raid should not be an issue either if the receiver is this productive and making plays. With Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals at 6-0, how can we still claim that the air raid has no place in the NFL?

WR Drake London, USC

Measurements: 6’5, 210 lbs

Season stats: 64 catches, 832 yards, 5 TD in six games

Though Drake London does have “USC expectations” and he had 502 yards in six games last year, a full Pac-12 schedule has allowed fans a chance to see that he is indeed one of the most dominant forces in college football. Despite a massively disappointing campaign by quarterback Kedon Slovis, London gets better every week.

Most recently against Utah, London caught 16 passes for 162 yards, and that was only his third-highest yardage total of the season.

Drake London has gone over 130 yards in five of six games. He has scored five times and he’s dominating many defensive counterparts who could at least get a sniff of the NFL some day.

I believe London has gone from getting “first round buzz” to not only solidifying himself on day one, potentially he’s going to be the first receiver drafted. As much as players like DeVonta Smith and Rondale Moore could be productive and dazzle, there are few 6’5 weapons at receiver like London.

WR Deven Thompkins, Utah State

Measurements: 5’8, 155 lbs

Season stats: 50 catches, 819 yards, 6 TD in six games

Now we’re into the Tutu Atwell category...

Though many places still list him as “Devin Thompkins” I’m going to stick with what’s on his Utah State page. Maybe everyone can get on the same page now that he’s one of the most productive players in college football.

After posting 536 yards in 12 games in 2019, then 214 yards in four games in 2020, Thompkins has gone off for 50 catches and 819 yards with a touchdown in all but one of his starts this season. He just had 12 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns against UNLV, his third game over 170 yards this season.

His lone game under 8+ catches and 90+ yards this year was a four-catch, 60-yard game against Boise State.

Good catch from last season:

Much could depend on his 40-yard dash but not even Tutu Atwell was exceptionally fast this year. (But he is very fast.) If Thompkins were to be that fast, breaking 4.4, he can’t be counted out.

WR David Bell, Purdue

Measurements: 6’2, 205 lbs

Season stats: 38 catches for 679 yards, 4 TD in five games

You can’t claim that David Bell was some nobody prior to 2021 — 86 catches for 1,035 yards as a freshman, 53 catches for 625 yards and eight touchdowns in six games as a sophomore — but what does he need to do before he’s considered a first round lock with numbers like that?

Did 11 catches for 240 yards against Iowa’s defense last Saturday help his cause?

All David Bell does is produce. He’s played in 23 college games and he’s had over 100 yards in 14 of them. He’s had over 60 yards in 18 of them. He destroys Iowa (35 catches, 558 yards in three games) and he’s got more size than most. There are many first round mock drafts without the name David Bell, and it is going to be another strong wide receiver class, but will it be a mistake to ignore him?

WR Dontayvion Wicks, Virginia

Measurements: 6’1, 210 lbs

Season stats: 32 catches for 679 yards, 6 TDs in seven games

The clearest definition of a “breakout” on this list yet, the sophomore Wicks entered the season with three catches for 61 yards in his college career. The former three-star recruit in the 2019 class, Wicks missed all of 2020 with a torn ACL but he’s returned to not only be among the nation’s leaders in yardage — he’s also had some nominations for “Catch of the Year”:

Too fast to see it?

Dontayvion Wicks leads the country with 18 receptions of 20+ yards and a UVA offense led by left-handed quarterback Brennan Armstrong is surprisingly one of the deadliest in the country. Wicks has the option to declare for the 2022 NFL Draft, but another year could raise his draft stock even more.

WR Jameson Williams, Alabama

Measurements: 6’2, 189 lbs

Season stats: 29 catches for 587 yards, 6 TDs in seven games / 8 kick returns, 39.4 average, 2 TD

It’s hard to be overlooked at Ohio State, but Jameson Williams couldn’t get his footing in a loaded Ohio State receivers room so he moved to a place a lot less competitive: Alabama.

Despite being paired with John Metchie III, the receiver who most expected to lead the Crimson Tide in yards this season, Williams has been Alabama’s most productive pass catcher and he’s also had two kickoff return touchdowns. Both Metchie and Williams are 2022 draft eligible and it seems likely that both would have their names called before day three.

Williams had 10 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns against Texas A&M two weeks ago, the bright spot in a blemish on Alabama’s season.

WR Tyler Hudson, Central Arkansas

Measurements: 6’2, 185 lbs

Season stats: 39 catches for 796 yards, 5 TD in six games

This is not a “breakout season” per se for Hudson — he’s been a UCA star since he was a true freshman in 2019 — but perhaps in the sense that he could be working his way into the NFL picture. Despite some other receivers playing in seven games already, Tyler Hudson leads all FCS players with 796 yards.

He is averaging roughly 20 yards per catch and the former teammate of Robert Rochell — a fourth round pick out of UCA this year — has been known for highlight plays and spectacular grabs already.

At this clip, could Tyler Hudson have anything left to prove with another season at Central Arkansas after this one? Isn’t it better for an NFL team to get him at 20 or 21 instead of 22? What’s he going to do next season—lead FCS in yards by more than what he will this year?

If you’re going to take your shot, take your shot.

WR Dontario Drummond, Ole Miss

Measurements: 6’, 215 lbs

Season stats:

Drummond spent two years at East Mississippi Community College prior to transferring to Ole Miss in 2019. Would come into game and get a couple of catches that season.

As a senior in 2020, Drummond was essentially the same player up until he had six catches for 110 yards in the bowl game against Indiana. That was his fifth straight game with a touchdown but otherwise is the breakout performance of his career.

Granted an extra year of eligibility like everyone else this year, Drummond has kept the drum rolling: he had nine catches for 177 yards against Louisville in Week 1 and he’s now caught 11 touchdowns in his most recent 11 games.

The extra year of eligibility because of the Covid-19 pandemic has helped a few prospects build NFL cases, perhaps few more than Dontario Drummond. The focus at Ole Miss all year long has been on quarterback Matt Corral (I think he’s just fine, but anyone who tells you that there is a surefire first round pick at the position next year is blowing smoke into your corral) and where would he be without this former JuCo transfer? Corral’s passing isn’t that spectacular, in my opinion, so Drummond’s making the most of what he’s getting.

WR A.T. Perry, Wake Forest

Measurements: 6’5, 206 lbs

Season stats: 23 catches for 454 yards, 7 TD in six games

Another scenario where you probably won’t expect the redshirt sophomore to declare for a draft so soon but A.T. Perry is nonetheless eligible and would qualify as a “breakout.”

The rare-sized product at a school where you rarely find NFL talent has been one of Wake’s best players in an unexpected season of success for the Demon Deacons. The 6’5, Perry had just 19 catches for 273 yards and two touchdowns in his first two seasons, but he’s already caught seven touchdowns in six games this year.

He had 155 yards against Florida State and 137 yards with three touchdowns against Syracuse.

If John Wolford can make it out of Wake, why not A.T. Perry?

Which of these receivers might make sense for the Rams on day two or three of the 2022 NFL Draft?