4 Dark Horse Candidates to Lead the NFL in Receptions

Craig RondinoneCorrespondent IJune 11, 2012

Johnson can rank right up there with Welker if his hamstrings don't pop on him again.
Johnson can rank right up there with Welker if his hamstrings don't pop on him again.Bob Levey/Getty Images

The NFL is a pass-first league now more than ever. So which player will snag the most passes in 2012?  

Many prognosticators may be willing to just hand the receptions championship to New England’s Wes Welker right now. Welker led the league in catches in 2007, 2009 and 2011 and is always one of the most targeted receivers in football because he is virtually uncoverable when he lines up in the slot and because Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws the ball 120 times per game. 

Those same experts penciling Welker in as the champ again are probably the same people who predicted Kentucky to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament and always say that the New York Yankees will make the baseball playoffs, though.   

Other pundits will list Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Atlanta’s Roddy White and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham as top contenders for Welker’s throne. But what about the talented receivers and tight ends who do not get mentioned as much as possible receptions leaders?    

Here are four dark horse candidates to lead the NFL in receptions in 2012: 

Andre Johnson, Houston Texans

It could be easy for some fantasy owners and football fans to forget Johnson. He barely made a peep in 2011 thanks to injuries to both of his hamstrings that limited him to seven games and 33 receptions for 492 yards.

But this is the same dude who had back-to-back 1,500-yard years in 2008 and 2009 and was the cream of the WR crop. Matt Schaub is still the quarterback throwing Johnson tight spirals, Arian Foster is still the tailback keeping safeties from double-teaming him every play, and Johnson’s hamstrings are stretched out and ready for running.

Johnson will be 31 when the season starts, has some injury-plagued years on his resume and is still waiting for Houston to acquire a No. 2 WR of any talent to keep secondaries from honing in on him. Heck, he isn’t even the best Johnson at his position! Yet I believe Johnson is due for a healthy, 100-catch season, though, and primed to bounce back and challenge Welker for the reception title.   

Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers

Wallace and Pittsburgh are at an uneasy crossroads in their relationship at the moment thanks to the Steelers playing hardball with their star receiver over his contract. Thanks to salary cap constraints, the Steelers could only offer Wallace a one-year tender of $2.7 million instead of the multimillions Wallace was hoping for. 

All that means is Wallace will be fired up to catch every pass in his time zone so he can tack on millions to his long-term deal in 2013, whether it is Pittsburgh or another NFL organization giving it to him. 

Hines Ward is done blindside blocking opponents and bailing out “Big” Ben Roethlisberger on third downs. The remaining receivers on the roster will have to step up and catch the underneath stuff Ward used to, and Antonio Brown and Wallace will be the two counted on to do that the most. 

Wallace is not a one-song rock band. He does not just run fly patterns. He can catch passes over the middle, quick outs along the sidelines and screens. He is getting better as a route runner, and his reception total has gone up steadily in each of his three seasons. Look for Wallace to approach the 90-catch mark—and maybe higher—in 2012.  

Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts

Before you go assuming that Wayne has lost a step after his subpar (for him) 2011 season where he had “only” 75 receptions for 960 yards, consider who his QBs were—Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. This threesome was not the second coming of Dan Fouts, Warren Moon and Drew Brees.

Wayne caught over 100 passes in three of the four prior seasons when Peyton Manning was his quarterback. Now I am not about to tell you that phenom Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick overall in this year’s draft, will be Manning-like for Indy this year, but I think it is safe to predict that he will be better than the firm of Collins, Painter and Orlovsky. 

And with Pierre Garcon signing with the Washington Redskins, Wayne will definitely be the top target for Luck during the kid’s rookie campaign. Look for Luck to throw Wayne’s way early and often, and also assume Indianapolis will be trailing late and throwing late in most of its games, so Wayne could have 90-100 receptions when all is said and done.   

Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

Did you think that Pettigrew had more receptions last season than New York’s Victor Cruz, Dallas’ Jason Witten and Carolina’s Steve Smith? Me neither, which is why I should fire myself as the general manager of my fantasy football teams. 

I might be going out on a limb longer than Larry Fitzgerald’s wingspan, but if you inspect last season’s stats you could make the argument that Pettigrew is progressing towards a triple-digit reception breakout season. The 6'5" hulking tight end caught 83 passes and finished eighth overall in the category, and he is only getting better as he enters his fourth season.   

As long as Matthew Stafford does not separate either of his shoulders, Pettigrew will see plenty of passes this upcoming season. He is a great safety valve in the 5-to-10-yard area and does damage when Stafford is on fire and Calvin Johnson is getting double-teamed. Pettigrew’s fantasy value and numbers are curving upward, so 90-100 receptions would not shock me. 

Before you start writing in wondering why Miami’s Brandon Marshall was not mentioned as a dark horse, it is because I don’t personally think he is. I think he is a bona fide favorite—as long as he saves his off-the-field fiascos for the offseason.

Marshall’s reunion with quarterback Jay Cutler might be as magical as Van Halen’s this year. Marshall had back-to-back 100-reception seasons when the duo paired up in Denver’s passing attack in 2007 and 2008. There is no reason why Marshall cannot top the 100-reception plateau again with Cutler in Chicago.

Calling Marshall a dark horse to be the receptions leader is like calling 30 Rock a dark horse to win the Emmy for Best Comedy. But since he only had 81 receptions with Matt Moore and the mummified Miami Dolphins in 2011, I figured many would classify Marshall as a dark horse here. No, he could be the pace horse.