Wide Receiver Projection
Thomas Duarte (possible)
Dymond Lee (QB/ATH)
Darian Owens (ATH)
Alex Van Dyke
Thomas Duarte (possible)
A Look at 2016
In 2016, UCLA loses arguably its best receiver since at least Craig Bragg, and possibly before that, in Jordan Payton. Payton certainly wasn't the most flashy receiver, but his ability to do basically everything a receiver needs to do at a well above-average level is going to be significantly missed. UCLA also loses Devin Fuller, who quietly caught 147 passes through his four-year career (with one game to go). The Bruins will also miss out on Tyler Scott and Logan Sweet, who contributed significantly during practice and saw the field some during games. Scott, in particular, was a good blocker, which helped at the Y-receiver spot.
The big issue with projecting 2016, though, is not with the knowns, but with the big unknown -- Thomas Duarte. Duarte has put his name in for an NFL Draft evaluation, and while we would expect him to return given that we're not sold that he would be an early round selection in this year's draft, we're not certain. Duarte would almost certainly project as the leading receiver for UCLA next year, given how much Josh Rosen appeared to like to target him this season and given that Rosen's other favored target, Payton, will have moved on. For purposes of our projected depth chart, we'll say he stays, but that's not based on any real information at this point.
The next big issue is replacing Payton at outside receiver. As it stand, there aren't really any fully developed options on the roster, or at least any that have thrust themselves into the conversation with their quality of play to-date. So, given that, we'll take a flyer on Theo Howard and say that his speed and dynamic play-making ability gets him on the field sooner rather than later, especially given that he's coming in this spring. He's obviously a significantly different player than Payton, and certainly wouldn't be the edge blocker that Payton was as a physically developed senior, but his speed could provide an element that UCLA has lacked on the outside.
The other outside position is also a little bit worrisome. Kenny Walker and Eldridge Massington both started there at various points this year, and neither had quite the year they would have liked. If Howard starts at one outside position, UCLA would probably like a bigger, stronger receiver starting at this one. The issue is just that no one has really emerged as an obvious candidate. We could go with Massington, but he just didn't look quite right this season. Instead, we'll say Alex Van Dyke continues his development, again adds some weight and strength this offseason, and puts himself in contention for that other outside position. The light could always come on for Jordan Lasley as well.
At slot, UCLA has plenty of options in Darren Andrews, Mossi Johnson (assuming he returns from his knee tear by the end of summer), Stephen Johnson, and Demetric Felton. We'll just go with Andrews getting the nod to start the year since he played so well this season, but Johnson's extra gear might be enough to get him some more playing time next year. Just looking at it, slot receiver has gone from one of the weaker positions on the team to one of the strengths, in large part thanks to Andrews' emergence as a legitimate player.
The real issue, from what we can tell, is that if Duarte doesn't stay, UCLA really lacks that reliable, big receiver who can be counted on to convert tough catches for first downs. How many times this year did Payton or Duarte catch a ball with guys more or less draped on them for a big conversion? Developing that player this spring is going to be key, with or without Duarte, because in an ideal world UCLA would like to have more than one option for that role. Speed actually doesn't look like that big of an issue, with options like Howard, Andrews, Stephen Johnson, and Walker all available.
The great equalizer is Rosen, though. Rosen as a freshman was largely able to put the ball in good position for his receivers to make catches, but his ball placement was also off at times. As a sophomore, he's going to be better, and that'll mean more accurate passes and better ball placement. An improved Rosen (who was already ridiculously good as a true freshman) could make even a pedestrian receiving corps look pretty good, and UCLA's receiving corps is probably a cut above pedestrian, especially with the addition of Howard. The Rosen-to-Howard connection could be a fun one to watch over the next couple of years.
Will the position perform better, worse, or the same in 2016? Same.
Projected 2016 Two-Deep
X: Theo Howard, Kenny Walker
Y: Thomas Duarte, Austin Roberts
F: Darren Andrews, Stephen Johnson
Z: Alex Van Dyke, Eldridge Massington