A trustworthy receiver can make an offense more explosive.
Big-play threats like Jakeem Grant and Josh Doctson become even more problematic for a defense when paired with a receiver who can extend drives with key third-down catches or make defenses pay for ignoring them. A year ago, Ian Sadler and KaVontae Turpin were critical pieces for offenses at Texas Tech and TCU respectively, often providing a trustworthy option alongside Grant and Doctson.
As we turn toward the 2016 season, let’s take a look at the most trustworthy returning receivers in the Big 12, based on their reception percentage (receptions per target) and drop percentage (dropped passes per target). These four returning receivers finished among the conference’s top five returnees in both categories. (All stats are courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)
Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Stats: 67 targets, 45 receptions, 3 drop percentage (tied third), 67.2 reception percentage (tied second)
What it meant in 2015: It’s pretty remarkable for Ateman to land on this list. His 15.78 air yards per target is, by far, the highest on this list and ranks third among all returning receivers in the conference. Ateman is a deep target in the Cowboys offense -- not a short-yardage specialist. James Washington was the Cowboys’ receiving star after his breakout season but Ateman was just as important to Oklahoma State’s 10-win campaign. If fact, Ateman’s 19 third-down receptions for 387 yards and four touchdowns led Cowboys receivers.
What it could mean in 2016: Ateman could combine with Washington to give Oklahoma State the Big 12’s top receiving duo. He took his game to a different level as a junior but will need to maintain the focus and commitment that resulted in the best season of his career. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Ateman will continue to create mismatches so he should have another productive season, particularly if Oklahoma State finds a running game and helps put him in more one-on-one situations on the outside.
Ian Sadler, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Stats: 64 targets, 42 receptions, 0.0 drop percentage (first), 65.6 reception percentage (fifth).
What it meant in 2015: Grant was the headliner in the Red Raiders' offense a year ago but Sadler was Texas Tech’s most targeted receiver on third down, averaging 2.4 third-down targets per game, just ahead of Grant’s 2.38 targets. Sadler does most of his damage around the line of scrimmage with an average of 9.05 air yards per target.
What it could mean in 2016: Sadler should continue to be a mainstay in the offense, providing playmaking in key moments between the hashmarks to supplement the outside receivers on the roster. Most importantly, quarterback Patrick Mahomes enters the season with a receiver he can count on, which should help him -- and the offense as a whole --overcome the void left by Grant.
Daikiel Shorts, West Virginia Mountaineers
Stats: 67 targets, 45 receptions, 3 drop percentage (tied third), 67.2 receptions percentage (second)
What it meant in 2015: Shorts could be the most under-the-radar receiver in the Big 12. After all, how many returning receivers have started games in each of the past three seasons? The fourth-year senior has never been a deep threat -- his longest career reception is 39 yards -- but he was the Mountaineers’ top receiver on third down with 14 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. While Shelton Gibson provided big plays, Shorts provided a safety net for the offense.
What it could mean in 2016: Shorts should have a similar role, particularly with Skyler Howard returning at quarterback. The New Jersey native has caught passes from four different quarterbacks during his time in a Mountaineers uniform so having Howard returning could help Shorts shine as a senior.
KaVontae Turpin, TCU Horned Frogs
Stats: 64 targets, 45 receptions, 1.6 drop percentage (second in Big 12), 70.3 reception percentage (first)
What it meant in 2015: Turpin played a secondary role for the Horned Frogs as Doctson carried the moniker of No. 1 receiver. While Doctson was beating defenses deep, Turpin was a terror on short passes. In fact, Turpin’s 6.64 air yards per target were the lowest among receivers with 50 or more targets.
What it could mean in 2016: It will be interesting to see how Turpin can adapt as a sophomore. Not only will defensive coordinators have had a full season to prepare for Turpin, he will be counted on to handle a bigger role and possibly expand his game to become a bigger threat down the field. The good news is the dynamic sophomore playmaker has proven to be trustworthy and durable.