It's always showtime when Calvin Johnson gets his hands on the pigskin.
Rejoice, football fans! It’s only two weeks until the 2012 NFL season kicks off, and everyone’s getting a little bit antsy for the first glimpse of their favorite teams. It’s time for many fans to gather for their fantasy and rotisserie league drafts and to determine which establishment to watch the big games at on Sundays.
It’s almost football season.
The wide receiver position has become just as valuable as the running back position in the NFL—something many NFL players and fans alike never could have dreamt of even 15 years ago. NFL teams are passing the ball with much greater frequency these days.
Only two teams in the entire NFL last season ran the ball more than they passed. The Giants and Patriots, Super Bowl competitors from one year ago, both passed approximately 60 percent of the time last season. Not exactly the 50-50 balance that most teams used to covet to keep defenses guessing.
NFL wide receivers come in all shapes and sizes. Tall, physical receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Julio Jones are dynamic, physical specimens but no more valuable to their teams than diminutive, explosive pass-catchers like Wes Welker and Steve Smith.
This article marks the third installment in my series reviewing the NFL’s top players at each of the offensive skill positions. I will also include the tight end position in my final installment, which has become a skill position in its own right.
For now, here are your top 10 wide receivers in the NFL entering the 2012 season.
Dear NFL defenders: Try bringing down Calvin Johnson at your own peril.
It used to be a big accomplishment when a wideout had over 100 yards receiving in a game. Calvin Johnson averaged 105 yards per game last season in Detroit. He played hurt, he was constantly double-covered; it simply did not matter.
“Megatron” was the best in the business in 2011, and he enters the 2012 season as the head of the class among the NFL’s wide receiving corps. At 6’5” and nearly 240 lbs., Johnson is an absolute beast and virtually impossible for the average NFL corner to body at the line of scrimmage or take down in the open field.
Johnson’s sixth NFL season finds him as the focal point of nearly every play that the Detroit Lions will run from scrimmage. And how can you blame them? Detroit called pass plays two-thirds of the time last season, the most of any team in the NFL.
In Detroit’s final three games last season—when it was charging hard to nab a playoff spot—Johnson tallied two 200-yard games and four touchdowns, including a game-winner against Oakland with less than one minute left in the game.
Megatron has scored 28 touchdowns over the last two seasons, and he led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns last season.
Not only is he the best wide receiver in the league, he may be the best overall player.
Larry Fitzgerald is a future Hall-of-Famer still primed for great seasons.
Larry Fitzgerald enters his ninth season in the NFL on a mission to reclaim the title of top receiver in the game. Some would say he’s never left the top spot. Fitzgerald has been the victim of a terrible, fluctuating quarterback situation in Arizona these past couple seasons.
Like many top receivers, he’s constantly double-teamed. Though he’s not making any excuses and he’s trying not to think about it:
"I try not to let my mind go there," Fitzgerald said. "It's like laying in bed with your wife, thinking about an old girlfriend. It's not fair."
Even with a disadvantageous QB situation, all Fitzgerald has done these past two seasons is catch 170 passes for 2,548 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was tied for third in the league in receptions over 20 yards, with 25.
Mike Sando of ESPN.com found an interesting nugget on Fitzgerald following the 2011 season, which should speak volumes on how great this future Hall-of-Famer really is:
@larryfitzgerald among 4 players with 150+ targets in 2011. Had 1 drop. The other three guys combined for 22 drops. ESPN Stats & Info.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@espn_nfcwest) January 4, 2012
Wes Welker is incredibly tough to catch in the open field.
Following Week 1 of the 2004 NFL season, then-Chargers head coach Marcy Schottenheimer cut the undersized Wes Welker. Bad, bad move. Schottenheimer went on to call it the “biggest mistake ever made” on his part.
Welker has gone on to become one of the league’s best players and the biggest target in one of the most prolific offenses in the league in New England.
Welker may somewhat notoriously be remembered for dropping a pass late in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLVI that could have sealed the game for New England, but the Patriots never would have been there without this incredible talent.
Welker just put up the 19th-highest total of receiving yards in a single season in 2011 (trailing only Johnson) and played in every game. Welker is durable, tough as nails and lightning-quick out of the slot position.
He led the league in receptions last season and has accomplished that feat three times already. He also led the league in yards after catch (YAC).
Expect Tom Brady to find Welker once again all season long.
Andre Johnson should be back healthy in 2012.
Andre Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards—in dominant fashion—in 2008 and 2009. This former University of Miami man was on top of the NFL receiving corps, dazzling with his brute strength, superior route-running, blazing speed and imposing size. Johnson is exactly what you’d desire in an NFL receiver.
But injuries have been the story for this uber-talented Houston Texan, particularly in 2011. Johnson played in only seven regular season games last season, though did come back to put up two impressive games in the NFL playoffs, combining for 13 receptions, 201 yards and one touchdown.
At 31 years old, Johnson is on the back-end of his prime years in the league, and if healthy, should continue to remain among the National Football League’s best. He appears ready to go, and hopefully, Texans fans will be able to see this dynamic threat at his best in 2012.
Steve Smith is what all the fuss is about in the Carolinas.
Steve Smith has finally found the quarterback to bring him back to elite status among NFL pass-catchers. It was a real shame watching this vertically-challenged, otherworldly talent languish a bit in Charlotte during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
2011, on the other hand, was a far different story.
In Cam Newton’s rookie season, Smith was the former Heisman Trophy winner’s favorite target, and that promises to continue. No matter the double-teams, no matter the matchups with taller, bigger corner backs, Steve Smith simply has a nose for the football and will not be denied.
Smith found pay dirt seven times in 2011 and put up the third-highest receiving yards total of his excellent career. To be exact, Smith caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards and, despite Newton’s undeniable ability, made the rookie look good on more than one occasion.
Just how dominant was Smith’s season among Carolina receivers? The Panthers’ next best receiver, Brandon LaFell, had 36 catches for 613 yards. Less than half of Smith’s totals. Smith isn’t done yet; in fact, he’s primed for a late-career resurgence.
Roddy White has put up killer numbers in the ATL.
Did you know that Roddy White has not missed a single game in his brilliant seven-year career? How about, did you know he has five consecutive NFL seasons of over 1,150 yards receiving and over 80 receptions? Well, if ya don't know, now ya know.
Matt Ryan is watering at the mouth these days in Atlanta, and his biggest "problem: is trying to determine who to throw the ball to. White combines with Julio Jones (10th on our list), Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers to form one of the premier receiving corps in the NFL.
White finished first in the NFL in receptions in 2010 and second in 2011 behind only Wes Welker. You don't hear White's name very often on the national landscape— outside of fantasy circles— but it's time to acknowledge this elite wide receiver as being one of the best in the game.
Now that he's got the perfect partner on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage in Julio Jones to complement him, more of the pressure and double-teams should be off of Roddy White. Imagine what kind of numbers he will put up then.
Victor Cruz found the end zone in Super Bowl XLVI and did the salsa.
Victor Cruz technically made his NFL debut in 2010, but he really made a splash last season for Big Blue. Cruz was easily one of the best wideouts in the NFL last season, compiling 1,536 yards receiving on 82 receptions and nine touchdowns.
Cruz and Nicks combined to form the best receiving duo in the league in 2011, one that propelled the Giants to their second Super Bowl title in five seasons. Eli Manning longed for a competent, speedy pass-catcher to help offset the loss of Steve Smith and to complement Hakeem Nicks, and he sure has found a keeper.
Cruz will be a mainstay in Giants blue, and New York fans should grow accustomed to breathtaking plays like this, as well as his signature salsa dance which follows every touchdown he scores.
The next step for Cruz is to try and match his amazing 2011 season, which culminated in this UMass grad getting some shiny bling for his finger and a whole lot of attention and future expectations to become the next great Giants wide receiver.
Ben Roethlisberger has found quite the target in Mike Wallace.
Wallace is expected to report to Steelers camp this week and plans to sign a $2.7 million tender, as reported by Adam Schefter and Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. Of course, Wallace is looking for a restructured contract and more big bucks to match his stellar on-field performance.
Wallace is also expected to enter the echelon of really elite receivers in 2012, a threshold he teetered on the brink of last season.
Wallace is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL and is the best deep-ball threat that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had in his eight seasons in Iron City. He ran an absolutely insane 4.28 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine in 2009, and he hasn’t lost a step since.
Wallace has back-to-back seasons of more than 1,190 yards and has caught 24 touchdowns in his three NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. The sky is the limit for this awesome athlete.
Nicks caught 10 passes for 109 yards in Super Bowl XLVI.
Hakeem Nicks is on the upward mobility track among NFL wide receivers, coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard season in just his third year in the league. Most impressive of Nicks’ accolades from one year ago were his 28 receptions for 444 yards and four TDs in the Giants’ Super Bowl-winning playoff run last January and February.
Nicks broke a bone in his foot this offseason and only practiced this training camp for the first time yesterday. The former North Carolina Tarheel looks to be here to stay and primed to fulfill the massive potential that many saw in him during his college days.
Nicks is the second New York Giant on this list, which means that Eli Manning is quite the happy lad heading into the 2012 NFL season.
Jordy Nelson found himself among the Green Bay faithful 15 times in 2011.
Jordy Nelson seemed to come out of nowhere last season to become NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers’ top target and finish second in the NFL in touchdown catches for a wide receiver behind only Calvin Johnson. Some NFL fans are still unfamiliar with this five-year pro out of Kansas State, but rest assured that many an NFL secondary is well-aware of this tall, surprisingly fast route runner.
Nelson combined with Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, James Jones and Donald Driver to form one of the best wide receiving units in the league last season. Nelson snagged 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Nelson was also among the top-10 receivers in the league in catches over 20 yards. At 26 years of age and with the best quarterback in the NFL throwing him perfectly-placed balls, Nelson is only getting started.
Julio Jones is an incredible threat in the Atlanta passing game.
It's hard to say that a wide receiver has come into the NFL lately with higher expectations and greater anticipation than former University of Alabama man Julio Jones. Jones was taken with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft following an incredible career with the Crimson Tide.
Jones is a physical, athletic marvel and has a championship pedigree, winning the 2009 National Championship with Alabama. He converted his college success—and Atlanta's faith in him by taking him so high in the draft—into a prolific rookie season. He finished seventh in the league in average yards per reception and nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with 959 yards receiving.
Jones and Roddy White form one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL and should position Atlanta for a deeper run in the NFL playoffs this season. Jones quickly became a favorite of rising star Matt Ryan and is expected to take his game to the next level this season and become one of the top-five receivers in the NFL.
This will certainly be an exclusive, tough fraternity to crack, but Jones has been destined for greatness since his days at Foley High in Alabama.There's no challenge that this 6'4", 220-pound beast won't take on.
NFL defenses have already been forewarned. Look out for Jones in 2012 and catch him if you can.