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Minnesota Football 2021 Season Preview: Wide Receiver and Tight End Upgrade / Downgrade

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Will the wide receivers be an upgrade or downgrade for the 2021 season?

Georgia Southern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It has been back-to-back NFL Drafts with Gophers wide receivers being taken early. Tyler Johnson’s departure affected the 2020 receivers. And now we will see how much Rashod Bateman being taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft will affect this upcoming season.

How did I do last year?

LINK

A year ago I suggested that this was a downgrade. I was accurate.

This current crop of receivers might be very talented and thus giving us a deep unit. But so many unknowns with the depth of this unit. Bateman may be an absolute beast and his return added significant points to this offense, but overall this unit may be a slight downgrade.

So many unknowns going into last season at this position. We knew Bateman was an all-time great and we were pretty sure that Autman-Bell would be a solid second option for Tanner Morgan. But after that, we knew very little about the receivers.

2020

WR Starter: Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell, Daniel Jackson
Depth: Seth Green, Michael Brown-Stephens, Clay Geary

TE Starters: Ko Keift, Bryce Witham
Depth: Jake Paulson, Brevyn Span-Ford

The season started well and good with Autman-Bell and Bateman starting and getting most of the targets from Tanner Morgan. Bateman eventually bowed out of the season after 5 games and a couple Covid cancelations. After those two names, it was an assortment of receivers who were learning on the job.

Daniel Jackson as a true freshman, Michael Brown-Stephens as a redshirt freshman and former walk-on Clay Geary were the three receivers who caught the most balls with 21 combined receptions.

Seth Green was a vital part of the offense yet again, but last year he was seen lining up at receiver more often than previous seasons.

At tight end (and FB) all four names listed all contributed. As a unit, their blocking was absolutely imperative to the success of the rushing attack. But incorporating the tight ends into the passing game is still not something that the Gopher offense does very well.

2021

Starter: Chris Autman-Bell, Daniel Jackson, Clay Geary/Dylan Wright
Depth: Michael Brown-Stephens, Douglas Emilien, Jonathan Mann, Peter Udoibok

TE Starters: Ko Keift, Bryce Witham
Depth: Brevyn Span-Ford, Austin Henderson, Nick Kallerup

The bad news last year is that there was a lot of inexperience at the wide receiver position. The good news this year is that a few guys were able to gain that experience last season. Will it pay off?

Autman-Bell has shown over the last couple years that he is very capable of being a productive receiver in this offense. For his career he has 78 catches, 1,250 yards and 6 touchdowns. The question here is only if he is going to be able to be reliable and productive when he is the #1 target. But no doubt he will be starting on the outside, who starts and gets reps around him is still a question.

Jackson is in just his second year but has shown in his first year with the team that this kid has some talent and he seems well-suited to play the slot in this offense. In the two games without Bateman to end the season, Jackson saw his production increase and ended the season against Wisconsin as the team’s leading receiver. I think you’ll see Brown-Stephens getting reps here too, but likely behind Jackson.

Opposite Autman-Bell is probably going to be up for grabs. It may very well be Jackson, with Brown-Stephens starting in the slot. It could be 6th year, former walk-on, Clay Geary. Or it may be the Texas A&M transfer, former 4-star recruit, Dylan Wright.

At the end of last season and during the spring, Geary started to emerge as a guy who will most certainly be getting reps, perhaps even starting. Wright comes into the program from the SEC after being a highly rated recruit and has all of the physical tools to be an elite receiver for the Gophers. Once he gets comfortable with the playbook and the game starts to slow down for him a bit, look for Wright to not only start but perhaps be elite.

Beyond those 5 names you are likely to see Douglas Emilien, Udoibok and Mann fighting for time with true freshmen Lemeke Brockington and Brady Boyd. In all years under Fleck (except 2019), the Gophers have given a true freshman receiver the opportunity to play. The depth chart is getting deeper, so perhaps there won’t be one this year. But if Brockington or Boyd (or even Dylan Hillard-McGill) stand out this fall and earn playing time, it will be given to them.

At tight end, there is no doubt that Keift and Witham are tremendous blockers. The question becomes if the Gopher offense can begin to incorporate tight ends into the offense a little more. Span-Ford has the athletica ability to be a weapon in the Big Ten, but his 5 career receptions in 3 seasons has not really given him the chance to showcase that ability.

Upgrade/Downgrade

I’ve struggled with where I think this position lands. Much like running backs, it is going to be collectively stronger in my opinion. But we also have lost a 1st round draft pick from this group. Bateman cannot be replaced. But also, Bateman’s impact on the 2020 offense was not as strong as it was in other seasons. He had 3 games with fantastic production (2 of them losses), he had 2 games of minimal production (1-1 record) and then he didn’t play in the final 2 games (1-1 with an OT loss at Wisconsin). No doubt that he is going to be missed, but collectively I think this unit can be stronger.

The experience gained by the likes of Jackson, Geary, Brown-Stephens along with the addition of Wright and the freshmen is going to make this unit overall neutral, with a decent chance at being an upgrade.

I suspect the ball distribution will be more balanced and there is room for someone to emerge from this year’s receiving corp.

As far as tight ends? I suspect they’ll be great a blocking again and largely non-existent in the passing game again.

Poll

Will the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends be an upgrade this year?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    UPGRADE - all the talent and depth
    (112 votes)
  • 45%
    NEUTRAL - this group will step up
    (138 votes)
  • 17%
    DOWNGRADE - um...we lost Bateman
    (53 votes)
303 votes total Vote Now