It was disappointing to lose Donovan Peoples-Jones to the NFL. It was a sad ending when Tarik Black transferred away. And should Nico Collins sit out the season as expected, Michigan will be without all three of its top-25 wide receiver recruits from the 2017 recruiting cycle, a trio who never quite lived up to its lofty expectations.
The cupboards are not exactly bare in Ann Arbor, although the contents are pretty green. The Wolverines will have a deep receiving core with Ronnie Bell leading the charge with Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil, and Giles Jackson beside him, but the latter three combined for just 21 catches last season. Freshmen A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson should see the field some, but they are unlikely to make significant contributions.
Accordingly, many are wondering what this means for the Michigan pass offense. Having someone like Collins available for new starter Joe Milton would have been a big asset, but he will now have to make due with a group who is very untested. To look ahead towards the 2020 season, it makes sense to first take a look back at the past.
Below is a list of the production from Michigan’s top three receivers each of the past nine years. This excludes running backs and tight ends, and obviously it is dependent on quarterback play and the usage of other pass-catchers, but this still remains helpful when looking at their year’s group.
- 2011 (Junior Hemingway, Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree): 84 rec, 1,507 yards, 9 TD
- 2012 (Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree, Drew Dileo): 100 rec, 1,740 yards, 9 TD
- 2013 (Jeremy Gallon, Jehu Chesson, Drew Dileo): 120 rec, 1,768 yards, 12 TD
- 2014 (Devin Funchess, Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh): 112 rec, 1,360 yards, 6 TD
- 2015 (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, Grant Perry): 122 rec, 1,619 yards, 15 TD
- 2016 (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, Grant Perry): 105 rec, 1,545 yards, 10 TD
- 2017 (Donovan Peoples-Jones, Grant Perry, Kekoa Crawford): 64 rec, 827 yards, 2 TD
- 2018 (Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Grant Perry): 105 rec, 1,391 yards, 14 TD
- 2019 (Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Ronnie Bell): 119 rec, 1,925 yards, 14 TD
Determining how the current crop of receivers compares to this list is tough given the multitudes of factors that are not included here. However, at first glance it seems like this year’s top three (call it Bell, Johnson, and then the slot combination of Sainristil and Jackson) should be able to fall right around the average; for reference, that looks like 103 catches for 1,520 yards and 10 scores.
The experience levels of the 2013, 2016, and 2019 squads is hard to match, and that likely puts a ceiling on this year’s group. But despite the recruiting rankings of players like Bell and Sainristil, the talent is definitely better than some of the lowest years of the past decade. Perhaps the sophomore years of Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh in 2016 could be a good measuring stick, though Jake Rudock was a much different quarterback than Milton, both in playing style and experience.
The point of this exercise is not to precisely predict the final statline of this cohort, but rather to assuage some of the fears of the fan base. Yes, the return of Collins, Peoples-Jones, and Bell would probably be the best trio on this list, but even cycling out two of the three leaves Michigan with the chance to have an above-average package of players.
Milton and Josh Gattis want to throw the ball, and the opportunities will be there. The supporting cast behind Bell is young, but there are plenty of examples over the past decade of receivers going from fringe players to significant receivers. With a stable of talented running backs plus a couple tight end threats as well, the Wolverines should be able to balance the offense well and have the benefit of not having to overrely on the receivers. Still, odds are that feeding them will work out well.