Quarterbacks and running backs get all the headlines -- especially in the Big Ten, with its history of power football. Times have changed, ushering in wide-open offensive play, though the conference of Nagurski and Butkus has moved more slowly than other Power 5 leagues in posting huge numbers. The Big Ten did not produce a pass-catching threat last year among the top 15 nationally in receiving yardage. And it placed only Michigan State's Tony Lippett, at 13th, in the top 20 two years ago.
Still, the league has featured Leonte Carroo, Devin Funchess, Michael Thomas, Aaron Burbridge, Kenny Bell and Alex Erickson over the past two seasons. It's an impressive list, and the next group of wideouts is on the rise.
This week, the Big Ten writers are evaluating the best groups at every position in the conference. Our lists are based on overall depth of talent and projected success. Here's a look at the receivers (tight ends are included):
Big Ten teams with the best wide receivers
Why Michigan has the best WRs: The Wolverines return 94 percent of their pass-catching production from 2015, with the bulk of it handled by seniors Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Jake Butt. The trio combined for 159 catches, 2,145 yards and 19 touchdowns. Chesson, a first-team All-Big Ten pick by coaches who is out this spring with a leg injury, paced the group with nine scores. He ranks among the fastest players on the roster and enjoyed a breakout junior season. Darboh is better than a complementary piece. Both are strong route runners and benefited from working with Jedd Fisch, the Wolverines' passing game coordinator and receivers coach, in his first year. Additionally, Butt is perhaps the nation's top returning tight end.
Why Nebraska and Penn State are the runners-up: The Cornhuskers return six of their top seven receivers, a group that combined to make 190 catches for 2,811 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. Nebraska plans to throw the football a bit less this year, but the receivers will remain a huge part of the offense. It's likely the best bunch in school history, led by senior Jordan Westerkamp, second-team All-Big Ten last year. Westerkamp is a magician, and Brandon Reilly, a solid No. 2, presents a contrast as a big-bodied target. That Stanley Morgan Jr. cracked this group as a true freshman, catching 25 balls, speaks to his skills, which may rate as the best of the wideouts. Alonzo Moore and tight end Cethan Carter broke out last year, and De'Mornay Pierson-El returns as a versatile weapon after injuries robbed him of eight games last season.
For Penn State, it's all about star power. The Nittany Lions return a dangerous duo in Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton. Both have already earned second-team all-conference honors. Godwin's 1,101 receiving yards on 69 catches as a sophomore lead all returning receivers in the league. He burst on the scene in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl, supplanting Hamilton as the top PSU target. Still, Hamilton, who caught 82 balls as a redshirt freshman two years ago, has accumulated nearly 1,500 career receiving yards. The speedy Saeed Blacknall also returns at wideout, though Penn State faces a problem at tight end, at which its only experienced player, Brent Wilkerson, is indefinitely suspended.
Team that just missed the top-three cut: Indiana Hoosiers
The absence of quarterback Nate Sudfeld figures to affect the productivity of the Indiana receivers, but the Hoosiers get everything back. Junior Simmie Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1,035 yards. At 6-foot-4, he offers key comfort for Sudfeld's successor. Senior Ricky Jones amassed 906 yards a year ago, and classmate Mitchell Paige, a 5-7 dynamo, added 684 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
Team that could surprise: Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois loses Geronimo Allison, its top receiver from last season, but regains Mike Dudek, who exploded as a true freshman with 76 catches for 1,038 yards before suffering a knee injury last spring that cost him all of 2015. Malik Turner is back as a junior, as is sophomore Desmond Cain. They combined to total more than 1,000 yards last year.
Team that needs to step up: Wisconsin Badgers
Wideout Rob Wheelwright caught 32 passes as junior. Tight end Troy Fumagalli caught 28 as a sophomore. Jazz Peavy caught 20. Reggie Love had four receptions. And that's about it for experience at Wisconsin as it welcomes a new quarterback. The Badgers will probably lean on their ground game, but they'll miss Alex Erickson and need more from the returning receivers.