Why Wide Receiver Is the Least Important Starting Position in the NFL
Inevitably, every time the NFL Draft rolls around, there are several teams that lack talent at several positions. Obviously, you hope that your team has at most two or three, and not between six and twenty-four (hello, Miami Dolphins); otherwise, you just suffered through a painful season.
Every position, including WR, has its merits. And every team, no matter how talented, needs one or two impact players on both sides of the ball, preferably more.
A basic analysis of the game of football reveals that the offense has to move the ball down the field. The defense has to stop them... okay, so now I sound like John Madden broadcasting. Bear with me for a minute.
The offense has the luxury of being able to cover up its weaknesses with its strengths. The defense can do the same thing, but to a much lesser degree. Whereas the offense can have a strong running game to divert attention from a bad passing offense, the defense CANNOT have a strong run defense to protect its poor pass defense. Obviously, a great pass-rushing DE can take a lot of pressure off of his secondary, and to a lesser extent, having two elite cornerbacks can help stop the run.
But an average offense, paired with a good defense, can cover up any weaknesses at the WR position to an exceptionally large degree.
I will not deny that there are TREMENDOUS benefits to having a top-flight WR- just look at what happened to Tom Brady's statistics once he finally had a receiving corps around him this past year, headed by Mr. Randy Moss.
But you also need to remember that the Patriots won three NFL titles without a single elite WR. Comparatively, WR is the least important starting position in the league for the following reasons.
1) A single weak defensive player can be targeted by a balanced offense. The offense has the ability to dictate the flow of the game- after all, they have the ball. If the player is a defensive lineman, the offense can run right at him. If the player is a linebacker, they can sucker him on a play action fake or run away from him if the player in question is slow. If the player is a defensive back, he can be caught out of position and give up a big play. To have a good defense, a team must have at least an average player at all eleven positions.
2) Without a good offensive line, any talent a WR has is worthless. Even if he is open two seconds into every play, a QB running for his life cannot consistently get the ball to his WRs, even if they are always wide open. Some QBs are better at avoiding pressure than others, but in the long run this rule holds true.
3) Without a good quarterback, the wide receiver is always forced to make adjustments to his pattern and cannot A) catch the ball in stride, or B) be his quarterback's target when he is open. A good QB requires great decision-making... and without that, the offense will lose the ball. The WR cannot make an impact from the sidelines.
In my mind, those reasons above firmly establish QB, OL, and the entire defense as the 17 most important positions in the league that are indispensable to a team's success. Obviously, the QB and OL cannot win the game by themselves- they need a little bit of help. But the question is- how much? Let us continue.
4) If a team has an elite WR, it can make up for a lack of a good RB and/or FB, true. However, a team with a good running game can usually get into 3rd-and-short situations rather than 3rd-and-long. The effect of this? The lack of receiving threats is diminished in importance.
5) If a team has an elite TE, he can create mismatches in coverage and even stretch the field vertically on occasion. He creates space for WRs by drawing double teams with the safety, leaving WRs one-on-one with CBs. He can also create space in the flat by drawing coverage to the middle of the field.
The main benefit to having a true #1 caliber WR is threefold. First, you have a possession receiver on 3rd down. This can be filled by the TE equally effectively in most cases. Second, it takes pressure off of the running game by forcing the safeties into deep coverage- something that can be done without by a great running game that runs through 8-man fronts anyway (and yes, I've seen it done- in the playoffs, see below). Thirdly, it gives you the ability to stretch the field. This alone cannot be truly filled by other players on the offensive side of the ball.
My main examples for why I believe that WR is the least important position are two teams: the Super Bowl winning Patriots and the Super Bowl winning Ravens of 2000.
Tom Brady, pictured above, was helped by a good (some might argue great) defense in each of his three Super Bowl wins. He did this without a true #1 receiver- the caliber of a Chad Johnson, Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison, etc. He was better served by his tremendous defense and ability to find receivers when they were open- even if they weren't elite WRs.
The Baltimore Ravens in 2000 won the Lombardi Trophy with Trent Dilferas their starting QB. He went 7-1 as the starter en route to a win in the big game... and was then prompty cut and signed as the backup QB that he was. Mind you, I have a special place in my heart for Dilfer- he was part of my team's championship run. But then-rookie RB Jamal Lewis, running behind an O-Line anchored by future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden, was the source of the team's success- even against 8 man defensive fronts. The best receiver on that team may have been journeyman Qadry Ismail- hardly an elite player himself, although he did make some big catches during the season.
Neither team had an elite, game-changing WR... they covered this weakness with strength at QB in the case of the Patriots and strength in the running game in the case of the Ravens... and both teams had defenses who were not just good, but also had a knack for the big play.
If a team is looking for someone to stretch the field, then a WR makes sense. But why the Lions took so many WRs just because they were the best prospects on the board makes no sense to me... they had so many other, more pressing needs.
I would like to hear others' thoughts on this. I've held this opinion for a few years now and no one has yet managed to dissuade me... what do you guys think?
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