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ACC football 2017 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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Can the conference replace all of the departed talent here?

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, we previewed the Syracuse Orange’s wide receivers and tight ends, who put up stunning numbers in 2016 but will need to quickly replace departing production to match or surpass those figures this year. The same could probably be said for many other teams, as a steady stream of offensive talent left the ACC this offseason.

Along with our Orange position group previews each week, we’ll also be offering a glance at the rest of the ACC’s situation. Who’s in the best and worst shape? Which are the best returning players? And how does Syracuse compare to the other teams in the conference?

Today:

ACC Football 2017 Wide Receivers and Tight Ends Preview

Last year’s top performers

Four ACC receivers surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark last season, and all four headed to the NFL thereafter. Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo was the league leader across most categories, nabbing 94 receptions for 1,482 yards and 14 scores. His sudden resurgence after transferring from Maryland took the league by surprise, and set some records in the process.

But other performances around the conference were just as impressive, too. Mike Williams caught 98 passes for Clemson, and Ryan Switzer had 96 for North Carolina. Isaiah Ford racked up 1,094 yards for a Virginia Tech team that excelled through the air at times. Players like SU’s Ervin Philips and Clemson’s Artavis Scott also put in work in the short passing game, despite not picking up the big chunks of yardage the players above collected.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2017?

As mentioned, the conference hits reset on a bunch of its core offensive talent this season, especially in the passing game. Eight of last year’s top 11 pass-catchers are gone. Couple that with four of the top eight QBs departing too, and it could make things a bit more complicated for these passing attacks -- even the ones that return quarterbacks.

Ervin Philips caught more passes (90) than any returning ACC receiver, while Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips could be the league’s most well-rounded wideout coming off a season in which he collected 76 receptions for 983 yards and five touchdowns. He’ll step up into a larger role without Ford in the fold. Philips, operating on the inside, will continue to refine his role as a lethal short-yardage option for the Orange.

Clemson’s Deon Cain put up modest numbers last year, but also sat behind two NFL receivers (Williams, Scott), so he’ll make the retooled Tigers’ passing game go this year, no matter who’s playing quarterback. NC State’s Jaylen Samuels sort of toes the line between tight end and all-purpose back, but he’s one of the conference’s most dangerous pass-catching weapons (and will be key to the Wolfpack throwing the ball).

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. Miami, 3. Florida State

Along with Cain, Clemson brings back noted Alabama killer Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud and more. Given the level the Tigers have been recruiting at for skill positions of late, there won’t be a noticeable drop-off between last year and this one at all.

Miami’s also collected talented offensive players, but just hasn’t seen the on-field results that the Tigers have enjoyed. That could change this year, and if it does, you can look at the running back position (Mark Walton) and this spot here. Ahmmon Richards is a big-play wideout who averaged over 19 yards per catch in 2016, and while his help will be inexperienced, it’s not without upside. Tight end Christopher Herndon caught 28 passes as a second-stringer last year, and players like Barxton Barrios, Lawrence Cager and Dayall Harris could just need more reps.

FSU will reset pretty hard at wideout, but there’s no denying the abilities of Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate, whose opportunities will grow a ton this season.

Bottom three units: 12. Virginia, 13. Wake Forest, 14. Georgia Tech

Wake brings back a lot, but last year’s receivers didn’t really produce enough to inspire faith that will change this fall. That said, Cam Serigne may be the ACC’s top tight end and should help lighten the load for Kendall Hinton, who’s struggled with accuracy before.

Though Virginia replaces two of its top four pass-catchers, the ones that come back -- Doni Dowling and Olamide Zaccheaus combined for 101 catches and over 1,200 yards last year. The Hoos’ passing attack isn’t prolific, but it could get a whole lot better with a lift form these two.

Georgia Tech’s passing game will not look great, but it’s not designed to. Still, the Yellow Jackets somehow take a step back from what they had now that Justin Thomas (who could actually throw the ball) is no longer under center.

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Top five wide receivers/tight ends in ACC

  1. Deon Cain, Clemson
  2. Ahmmon Richards, Miami
  3. Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech
  4. Ervin Philips, Syracuse
  5. Jaylen Samuels, NC State (tight end/all-purpose back)

Where does Syracuse rank?

Probably close to the middle of the pack. Teams ahead of SU replace just as much production as the Orange, but also have more talented players to step into those roles. While Erv and Steve Ishmael will put up quality numbers as the top two receiving options, the rest of the team brings few guarantees there, as much as we’d like to tell ourselves otherwise.

That said, Syracuse could easily find itself among the four or five most productive receiving groups at the end of the season if the supporting cast arrives. With bigger targets like Ravian Pierce and Jamal Custis out there, the passing game should look a little different (in a good way). And Devin C. Butler’s the big wildcard, and could be a potential deep threat. Dino Babers’s passing attack has the potential to be something special this year -- but for now, that’s still largely a hope, not a guarantee, until we know what these receivers can do.