If you’ve followed college football during the offseason over the last decade then you have probably heard the term “returning production” thrown around quite a bit. Bill Connelly, now of ESPN, first started quantifying returning production as part of his SP+ rankings. Nearly every website that aggregates content throws up a list of his returning production rankings when they come out in the Spring.
What is less widely known is that one can look back over the years and see that returning WR production has become an even stronger indicator of a team’s success. It’s a big reason why myself and many others picked Georgia to win a national title this time last year. I probably never would have made that choice if I had known last summer that UGA would be without fully healthy versions of George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Marcus Rosemy, Darnell Washington and Arian Smith. If you recall, the Georgia defense was the big unknown going into the season. In the end, the futures bet I placed on UGA winning the title with +1200 odds cashed.
The most famous recent examples of teams returning a lot of WR production being successful are 2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2019 UGA returned a ton of talent in every position group except for wide receiver. That team never really found its stride offensively against Power 5 competition.
Still, all returning production is not equal. What a player does with any snaps is usually a good indicator of what they will do with more snaps. It is worth taking a look back at what pass catchers have done in their career to see what they have shown they can and cannot do to this point.
It is from that lens that I want to take a look at UGA’s 2022 wide-receiver room. What can they do and how many of them can do it? I feel like college football media members lose their heads a bit this time of year when ranking players at certain positions and analyzing talent. We are not talking about a player’s value in the NFL Draft. For our purposes, all that really matters is how well a player does or does not function in the system they play in with the talent around them.
Fortunately, we can look at some advanced stats to help inform us on a deeper level. Let’s start this series by looking at the pass catchers who can work the sidelines for UGA. This post will be free, but the upcoming advanced stat previews on every other position group will be for subscribers only.
UGA has plenty of experienced targets heading into 2022, but experience is a bit thinner on the outside. Only 5 receivers on the roster saw at least half of their snaps at the X or Z positions in 2021.
AD Mitchell is the unquestioned starter at the X position, filling in admirably for the injured George Pickens before coming on strong down the stretch of the season. His touchdown catch in Indianapolis secured his name in UGA history, but there are still things he needs to improve upon to become a more efficient and effective receiver.
Mitchell’s reception percentage was just 13th on the team last year at 55.8% (29 catches/52 targets). UGA’s quarterbacks had a 92.5 QB rating when throwing Mitchell’s way, which is not great but not bad.
His 14.8 yards per catch is respectable on the surface, but he averaged just 2.1 yards after the catch per a reception in 2021. That’s how he ended up with 14.8 yards a catch in 2021 despite having an Average Depth of Target (ADOT) of 15 yards. He’s not a burner, and UGA doesn’t need him to be, but there were times where Mitchell could have stayed on his feet for extra yardage.
Mitchell also lead the 2021 Bulldogs in drops with 6. That gave him a drop percentage of 17.1%. That number has to come down in 2022 for Mitchell can be considered a reliable weapon on a game by game basis. In 2021, two of Mitchell’s drops resulted in interceptions for the opposing defense. Some of that is bad luck, but it does point to the idea that AD needs to become a bit more consistent catching the football.
On the surface, Mitchell’s 428 yards look great for a true freshman in the SEC, and in many ways they are. However, he achieved those yards on on 258 receiving snaps, which equates to just 1.66 yards per route run. By comparison, Ladd McConkey had 447 yards on 165 receiving snaps. That’s more yardage on almost 100 less routes run.
Mitchell brought solid value to Georgia on contested catches. He had 10 contested attempts and caught 5 of them, which is a solid rate for 50/50 opportunities.
I often repeat on our film shows that any receiver who wants to play at Georgia has to block. UGA’s receiving corps struggled mightily with its blocking in September last season before showing great improvement towards the end of the season. One of the reasons why Mitchell was probably on the field so much in 2021 is the effort and awareness he brings to his downfield blocking. Mitchell was in on 215 blocking situations last season and only drew one penalty. That’s impressive for any wideout, but particularly a true freshman.
For 2022, Mitchell should see a big year if he continues with the habits he showed in November and throughout the CFP. One area of emphasis for this offseason should be his reads and timing with Stetson Bennett. They did well with each other on routes with clear stop or cut points, but they were often on different pages when the two had to make reads and throw stop fade routes on the sidelines. A full off-season as an entrenched 1st team WR should fix a lot of those misfires. Expect to see plenty more of Mitchell in 2022.
Ladd McConkey wasn’t supposed to be here. He was a late in the cycle scholarship offer that many dismissed due to his size. All he did in 2021 was make himself into Georgia’s third leading receiver and flash the type of technical route running ability to make him seem like UGA’s version of Hunter Renfrow.
His natural fit is probably in the slot and he did play there plenty in 2021, but McConkey starred in his turn as Georgia’s starting Z-receiver on the road at Auburn last year. Todd Monken dialed up two double moves to McConkey and he found himself 5 yards clear of his defender each time.
McConkey’s efficiency absolutely demands a higher usage rate in 2022. His 2.79 yards per route run was 32nd among all WR’s in the FBS and second only to Brock Bowers (3.01 YRR) among UGA’s 2022 players.
When targeting McConkey in 2021, Georgia quarterbacks had a QB rating of 154.0, which was the highest on the team. Ladd is also Georgia’s best receiving option on screens. Last year he turned 11 receptions on screens for 3 touchdowns and averaged 12.5 yards on those 11 screens. His 6 missed tackles forced after the catch in 2021 also lead all UGA wide receivers.
Despite being perceived as a smaller target McConkey lead all of UGA’s 2021 receivers in Contested Catch Percentage, pulling down 80% of the balls thrown his way in traffic.
Ladd did play just over half of his snaps as a Z-receiver in 2021, but 61.5% of his receiving yards came in the slot. His skillset is probably a better fit inside, but Georgia is stacked with inside receivers and tight ends. Other than Mitchell and McConkey, UGA doesn’t have a receiver who is a proven commodity on the boundary in SEC play.
Time will tell where McConkey lines up when the Dawgs face Oregon in Atlanta. McConkey has proven he can man the Z if another option doesn’t emerge by September. Because of the durability he’s shown so far and the way he has taken advantage of opportunities to this point, McConkey may be the surest bet on the roster if you’re looking for a WR whose stock should continue to rise in 2022.
Arian Smith is often assumed to be a slot receiver because he’s fast, shifty and doesn’t possess the length of your prototypical outside receiver. In reality, he’s taken more snaps in his career as a Z-receiver (62.5%) than he has in the slot.
Here’s a hypothetical for you: If you gave the UGA offensive staff truth serum and made them pick one guy on the roster who they could guarantee would be healthy for all of 2022 who do you think they would choose? I would put my money the pick would be Arian Smith.
Here’s some tantalizing numbers for you…
- 16 career routes run
- 32.1 ADOT
- 9 targets/5 receptions/37.6 yards per catch
- 188 yards/3 touchdowns
- 11.75 yards per route run
- UGA QB’s have Rating of 140.0 when targeting Smith
Do I really need to say anymore? Whether Georgia decides to play him at the Z-receiver position or move him to the slot, Smith is a big play waiting to pop. If he plays in every game this year then UGA is going to be a more explosive offense.
Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint should be full go for this season now that he is two years removed from the broken leg that ended his true freshman season just as he was starting to make a name for himself in Athens.
When UGA was on setting up for 3rd & 1 in Indy with 41 years of drought on the line, Rosemy was on the field. That should tell you EVERYTHING about his habits as a blocker and the trust that the coaching staff has in his grasp of the playbook. Despite that mental experience and trust, Rosemy has only seen 17 targets in his UGA career. He’s caught 11 of those for 14.2 yards per catch.
Despite just 17 career targets, Rosemy has run 160 routes when you combine his 2020 and 2021 seasons. His Yards Per Route Run is just .98, which means he is either rarely a primary target on pass plays or just not getting separation.
When you isolate Rosemy on film it’s clear that he is one of the 2-3 best route runners on Georgia’s roster. He has great feet and makes his breaks where he’s supposed to with consistency. 2021 was a season where he played because UGA desprately needed warm bodies at wideout, but clearly wasn’t 100%. If he takes what he’s learned about the offense over his time in the program and couples it with a return to the physical form he showed prior to breaking his leg he could become a consistent weapon for the Bulldogs in 2022.
He’s not an especially tall target, but Rosemy possesses lengthy arms and some veterans of the recruiting circuit in his native Florida have told me Marcus has some of the biggest hands they have ever seen on wideout. That should allow him to have a large catch radius. He has all of the pedigree and physical gifts that you want to see.
The spot where we are likely to see him the most is at the Z-receiver position, but we won’t know where he fits into the rotation until the season comes. He is a good candidate to become the type of outside receiver who is just impossible to guard in man coverage on a 5-yard in-route on 3rd & 4.
Jackson Meeks comes in at 6’2” 205 and our staff has heard rumors since last fall that he often flashes the ability to be a big time SEC target in practice. He only saw 6 targets in his freshman year but he did see that on just 20 targets run, which suggest a potentially high usage rate if he finds himself in the regular rotation down the road.
The length is tantalizing, and his emergence would give UGA a clear second option behind Mitchell at the X position. That would allow more receivers to play in the spots where they’re a natural fit instead of having to cross train outside.
Of everyone on this list, he may be the one most worth keeping an eye out for when practice reports start coming out during Georgia’s fall camp. UGA desprately needs another big body to step up and help out in the rotation at the X spot behind Mitchell. Can Meeks take the leap?
CJ Smith is just a true freshman but by enrolling early he greatly improved his chances of finding his way onto the field for Georgia in 2022. His physical gifts make him a tantalizing option anywhere on the field but he played most of his snaps as an X-receiver in high-school.
Smith is a legitimate 6’2” with a large wingspan, but he is also a laser timed 4.4 forty guy. He ran a 10.2 second 100 meter dash in high-school. For some perspective, Arian Smith’s fastest 100 meter time is a 10.1. CJ can absolutely fly. He also possesses the length and size that Arian does not.
The flip side to all of that potential is that Smith was often fighting through injuries in high-school and just doesn’t have a ton of experience as a wideout. That being said, his prep highlight tape shows a receiver who has much better ball skills and is much more physical than your average track guy. He can fight through tackles after the catch and he can go up and high point the ball in traffic.
It’s probably worth remembering here that Todd Monken’s background is as a receivers coach. His standard of play is high. CJ will need to become a crisper and more precise route runner to be trusted in big situations for the Bulldogs. In high-school his speed allowed him to work the field and be so open that crisp cuts weren’t much of a concern.
Still… speed kills. If Smith can learn the offense he will be hard to keep on the bench.
If Georgia were able to put CJ in a package where he and Arian Smith lined up on the field at the same time, with guys like Bowers and Gilbert in a two-TE set, and McIntosh or Milton at RB behind Georgia’s extremely talented offensive line… Well, a package like that might be damn near impossible to defend.
Brock Bowers, Darnell Washington, Arik Gilbert, Kearis Jackson and Dominick Blaylock may all see themselves lined up on the boundaries in certain situations. Todd Monken is particularly fond of isolating his tight-ends on the wide side of the field in heavy formations and forcing a smaller defensive back into a size mismatch.
We’re also likely to see Kenny McIntosh motion out wide when isolated on an linebacker in man coverage. Monken did that with James Cook the last two years and there were often positive results. Some of Stetson Bennett’s best throws as a college quarterback have come on those RB Vertical routes, so that’s another reason why you’ll likely see Mcintosh out wide a few times a game.
Because the Dawgs have so many more bodies at TE and Inside WR we’re likely to see more tight formations when they run 4 and 5 wideout sets. Diving into the data for this piece did make me all the more sure that a lot of multiple TE sets are coming down the pipe for UGA in 2022.
We will get into the Boundary WR Advanced Stat Preview next before taking a look at the TE’s.
If you enjoyed this piece please be sure to subscribe to Dawgs Central. Going forward, all of these will be paywalled. I will also put together some telestrated videos of 1-2 key players in each position group to go with this series.
Until later, thanks for reading Dawgs Central!