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The 5 most important players on Missouri’s 2017 offense

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Okay, No. 1 is obvious. But let’s talk about the others.

Delaware State v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Mizzou returns virtually every contributor from last year’s offense, a level of returning production that, from a statistical standpoint, all but guarantees improvement. Quarterback Drew Lock will be more mature, and Mizzou has its most experienced receiving corps in three years and a genuine star in the making at running back.

Still, a particular level of improvement from certain players could make an immense difference in whether we’re talking about Mizzou’s offense as a top-40 attack or something closer to top-15.

Below are what I am calling the five most important offensive players of the season. Now, “important” could mean quite a few different things. It could mean a general statement about star power, in which case you could make the case for Damarea Crockett being No. 1. It could mean something more generic, about the five most important players in this type of offense — so, No. 1 QB, No. 1 WR, etc.

So I’ll specify: if we’re saying “Man, they came through big-time this year” about these guys at the end of 2017, it’s pretty likely that 2017 was a lot of fun. Crockett isn’t on the list because, to some degree, he already came through. We already know — or at least, think we know — what he’s capable of. The five players below have elements of both mystery and massive upside associated with them.

5. RG Tre’vour Simms

Upside is an issue for the Missouri offensive line. The Tiger front will be much further along than last year in terms of experience and continuity, but that only matters so much if you don’t have much room to grow.

While the tackle position is in solid shape with Tyler Howell and Paul Adams, the interior line is still a mystery, particularly center and right guard. Scholarship guys Samson Bailey and Alec Abeln dealt with a combination of injury and ineffectiveness that made them vulnerable to usurpers last year, and walk-ons Adam Ploudre and Jonah Dubinski took advantage.

Simms, a mammoth true sophomore, probably has more upside than any of the four players I mentioned above. He was not a spring standout for good or bad reasons, but he also didn’t overtake Ploudre for a surefire starting spot at right guard. But if things start to click for the big man from East St. Louis, he could push Mizzou’s overall ceiling higher.

Mizzou could still have a decent, in unspectacular, line without a Simms breakthrough. But if we look back on a 2017 Simms breakout, that probably means very good things for the guys up front.

4. TE Kendall Blanton

Mizzou has four potentially starter-caliber outside receivers in J’Mon Moore, Dimetrios Mason, Emanuel Hall, and Nate Brown, and the Tigers have a bounty of exciting slot receivers as well. Now Drew Lock just needs a safety valve.

Removing the Delaware State scrimmage from the equation, see if you can find a correlation:

  • Games in which Mizzou tight ends have at least 6 catches: 6.5 yards per play, 35 points per game
  • Games in which Mizzou tight ends have 5 or fewer catches: 5.8 yards per play, 20.5 points per game

Is that all due to the tight end? Of course not. But if Lock has a security blanket, things click pretty well. Crockett doesn’t appear to be a significant pass-catching option, but we’ve been talking about Mizzou’s potential at tight end for years. The more Blanton in particular produces in 2017 (as well as Jason Reese and the others, of course), the better.

3. WR Johnathon Johnson

Johnathon Johnson vs. EMU
Johnathon Johnson
Derrick Forsythe (Rock M Nation)

HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL, JOHNATHON. Only five teams had more fumbles than Mizzou in 2016, and all five played 13 or more games. Mizzou’s per-game rate was highest in the county. We know the primary culprit.

Johnson was Mizzou’s most electric play-maker in 2016, but in 28 combined rushes and receptions, he fumbled six times, losing two. He fumbled five more times on 14 credited punt returns. That’s 11 fumbles in 42 touches, basically, and ... without even checking, I’m going to go ahead and proclaim that the worst case of fumbleitis in the country. That absolutely, positively has to change. That he only lost three of these fumbles was all sorts of lucky.

Johnson averaged 18.1 yards per catch, 28.5 yards per carry, and 14.0 yards per punt return. That’s dynamite. But it’s not worth it if you’re fumbling on one-fourth of your touches. If he’s reliable enough to stay on the field, he could have an enormous season. If.

2. WR J’Mon Moore

Moore would have ranked high on this list no matter what, simply because he’s the No. 1 receiver until he graduates. Even when he was struggling last year, Lock still leaned on him heavily.

But then Moore went and turned into Danario Alexander at the end of 2016.

As it stood, the receiving corps was the least of Odom’s problems late in the year, as J’Mon Moore went nuclear. He caught eight of 14 balls for 138 yards against Vanderbilt, nine of 16 for 134 against Tennessee, and six of 10 for 135 against Arkansas. You always have to be careful with the “on pace for...” game, but projected over 12 games, that three-game pace would produce 160 targets, 92 catches, and 1,628 yards.

Moore went from dreadfully inefficient No. 1 target to Danario Reincarnated (Danario Alexander in 2009: 113 catches, 1,781 yards, and no damn Biletnikoff Award ... damn I thought I was over that, but I guess not) over the last quarter of the season. Hoping for 100 catches and 1,600 yards is a bit much, but it’s quite conceivable that he shows that form for a longer period of time in 2017. That would redefine Mizzou’s offensive ceiling in a pretty dramatic way.

Alexander’s 2009 campaign was probably the best sustained performance I’ve ever seen from a Mizzou football player, and it would be unfair to project anything close to that for Moore. But if he were to flip the Danario switch, say, six to eight times instead of three? If he proved ready to at least fight top-notch SEC No. 1 corners to a draw at times instead of disappearing into a funk like he did against LSU and Florida, wow, is Missouri’s offense going to be on a high level.

For all that has been written about Moore’s flakiness and his come-and-go catching ability (not to mention his primary role in the 2015 protests, something a certain portion of the fan base will never be able to look past), he still has a year left, and he’s hinted at upside that could make us forget a lot of the inconsistency of 2015-16.

1. QB Drew Lock

I almost called this list “5 most important players who aren’t Drew Lock,” just so I could have a more creative No. 1. But, well, he’s the quarterback on a quarterback-dependent offense, and he has a lot of improvement to still undergo. That’s going to make you No. 1 on this list, creative or not.