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2022 Alabama Crimson Tide Report Card: Wide Receivers — No one proved they could be the go-to man

Two decent guys on the outside, but no true WR1

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Kansas State at Alabama Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Wide Receivers: B

We concluded our 2021 grading of the Alabama wide receivers with a bit of a critique that would turn out to be ominous foreshadowing for 2022:

Two very good players, and two limited players giving their best, are not how you create an elite offense that has to pass.

No, the issue this season were WR4-WR8 and TE1; those were the problem. There were so many opportunities to be had this year to seize playing time. JoJo Earle never emerged as the player that we thought he could be. Players like Traeshon Holden and Billboard seemed to spend more time grumbling on social media about getting targets and riding the pine. Javon Baker never seemed to be able to put it all together to get on the field. Agiye Hall just flat-out disappeared after a stellar Spring Game. Ja’Corey Brooks had one-step-forward, one-step-back games practically every time he had the opportunity to play, and down the line.

* * *

We cannot hold up Smitty or Waddle as the standard for guys like Baker and Brooks. No, we must hold them to the standard at which they can play. And even by that metric, they have to know they missed some opportunities through no one’s fault but their own.

They’re young, though. And some players have to grow into their greatness. There are no more excuses to be had this season, however. It’s now or never, and the expectations are clear. Next man up. It’s your turn.

Did that group of wide receivers step up? Did anyone seize playing time when it was to be had? Who was the next man up?

And when Alabama needed a catch, where was the ball going?

Sad to say, the answer to the latter question is not a wide receiver at all — it was Jahmyr Gibbs; the Tide’s leading receiver was its running back. That really clues you in on the rest of this underachieving group. Guys 4-8 in 2021 were expected to be WR1-3 in 2022, and the results just were not forthcoming.

You got six, you got none

The Tide’s issues began with the lack of a true WR1.

The man on the outside that teams must account for, that can make tough catches, that can move the chains, that can put points on the board. We thought Jermaine Burton could be that guy when he transferred over from Georgia. And lord knows he was given every opportunity to be WR1. But he had a knack of disappearing for games at a time, eventually settling into a specialty role as Alabama’s best redzone option...only to emerge far too late as Alabama’s steadiest option.

The frustrating part about Burton is that he plainly has talent. He had games at a time where he reeled in everything his direction. Then others, he would just vanish.

One could say the same of Co-WR1, Ja’Corey Brooks — the player with the most raw talent. He was by far the best deep player (though Burton also was very respectable, nearing 17 YPA). And they both were able to find the endzone a decent amount of time (15 combined scores).

But there simply was no separation from the pack...or from one another, for that matter.

They’re not the not sole goats here. They were the best of an average bunch. Nor is it that they had a bad year. They were the leading pass catcher on the outside. But Burton’s 40 catches, and Ja’Corey Brooks’ 39 receptions, and those total 1550 yards and 15 scores combined are what Jamo caught in 2021. Individually, Slade Bolden reeled in more balls than either of these guys.

Complete loss of verticality

The passing game was especially hit hard by Alabama’s lack of a burner. Since the offense was moderned up half a decade ago, the chassis of this terrifying 40+ PPG offense is held together by the adhesive of speed, and usually from the slot.

But, as in 2015-2017, the passing offense became far more limited because it lacked burners. The passing game was meant to rely on two players to stretch the field, and neither came to fruition. That promised maturation of JoJo Earle? It simply never happened. He’s now back in the Lone Star State at TCU. The oft’ injured Tyler Harrell? He’s a ‘Cane now. In 2022, the pair combined for 14 catches, two scores, and a woeful 173 yards. Not exactly putting pressure on those safeties and nickels, huh?

In fact, far and away the most promising deep routes emerged on the outside. If Brooks and Burton weren’t beating their man on the outside and getting it done, then it wasn’t getting done. Holden had very nice moves in the open field and could have filled in at the Z — but he was just as good for a drop as a catch, and as the year wore on, grew increasingly less reliable too. He simply checked out.

All of those drops

But one reason for everyone’s underperformance is fairly simple: Once again, it was drop rate. Alabama went from 264th in all divisions with a 9.6% drop rate, and somehow became even worse in 2022: all the way to 12.3%, and 307th. One of every eight passes thrown by Bryce Young hit these dudes in the mitts, and they simply could not reel them in. It set a record for a Saban team, in fact.

The highest drop rate Alabama had previously attained in his tenure was 10.8%, with a far crappier Alabama team. To put that in some perspective, the numbers break down like this for an average game by Bryce Young: 29 Attempts, 20 completions — 4.67 drops per game, every game, over the entirety of a 13-game season. Literally 50% of Alabama’s missed passes were balls DOINK off of wide receivers. And that resulted in BY’s completion percentage plummeting all the way down from 69% to 64.5% — and that is with a new safety valve-friendly running back, and with a far better offensive line.

Sure, 2021 was rough on the younger guys. But even with another year in the system, another year to grow as a player, they didn’t improve: in fact, they got worse. Alabama was fourth-worst in major division football in drops.

That is simply inexcusable.

It’s also very likely why Alabama’s roster is many scholarships lighter in 2022. On top of Harrell and Earle: Trae’shon Holden? Mr. Twitter Fingers took his schtick to Oregon. Leary? Georgia Tech. Aaron Anderson? LSU. Elijah Brown? FAU.

All told, half a dozen underachieving pass catchers are gone in one swift bloodbath that could prove to be addition by subtraction.

Knock on wood.

Promise on the horizon?

The freshmen acquitted themselves pretty well, and made room for themselves in the passing game, since neither Burton nor Brooks wanted to be the true go-to man.

And their output far outpaced what the previous freshmen did in 2021, so there may just be a silver lining in this cloud of mediocrity. I’d expect to see all of them far more involved in the passing game this year...assuming, you know, Alabama can pass, and Tommy Rees actually tries to let a quarterback throw to them instead of Notre Daming UA’s tight ends into the NFL. All of that remains TBD, however.

The trio of Kendrick Law, Kobe Prentice, and Isaiah Bond combined for 53 catches, about 650 yards, and chipped in three scores. Of the three, Bond and Law have the best game-breaking potential, but Prentice was the most reliable of the bunch. He was actually Alabama’s 4th leading receiver and its third leading wideout in receptions.

Still, there is that bugbear again: drops. Sure, they combined for 53 catches. But they also dropped 17 of them. Utility as a pass catcher is determined by your ability to catch balls thrown your way — you’re not seeing the field much if you hang on to fewer than 80% of balls that land in your fingers.

The other saving grace was that by season’s end it did seem Burton had finally emerged as That Guy. Down the stretch, he was Alabama’s best wide out. He played a great final few games...and Tide fans devoutly hope that carries over in 2023.

It’s hard to really recommend a group that is all over the place, depending on the stat you’re looking at. Drops? Positively putrid — among the worst in the country. Ability to reel in balls in the red zone? Actually quite good. Routine playmaking and moving the chains? Aggressively average. Stretching the field? Beyond limited.

For the first time in almost a decade, Alabama didn’t have a player in the SEC’s Top 10 in yards, yards per catch, yards after the catch, catches per game, or total receptions. They’re not only not elite, they’re well below average — like so many other units we’ve seen over the past few years, it doesn’t even look like Alabama out there.

Here’s the scary part too: if you can’t catch passes from Bryce Young, I have no idea what you’re going to do with Jalen Milroe throws (to take just one of Alabama’s ninety-three quarterbacks on scholarship).

Someone, anyone needs to emerge as WR1. And someone, anyone needs to reliably stretch the field. Otherwise, we’ll all be praying for a return of Dave Rader’s Jumbo Package.

If that sounds damningly similar to the prognosis we made for 2022, that’s because it is. Alabama’s passing game will just be spinning its wheels until someone emerges.

2022 Grade: C- And that is only for their ability to catch touchdowns, Burton’s late season emergence, and some promising freshmen


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