How quickly do things change in this league?
Two years ago, the Washington Redskins were in desperate need of receivers. Sure, they also needed a quarterback, but they took care of that in the draft. But they knew after a 2011 campaign in which Jabar Gaffney was their most productive wideout that more weapons had to be added to the receiving arsenal.
That offseason, they signed Pierre Garcon to a rich contract. The next year, they drafted Jordan Reed. And earlier this spring, they added Andre Roberts and DeSean Jackson. And now suddenly, people are viewing this receiving corps as quite possibly the best unit in football.
People like NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks, who earlier this week ranked Jay Gruden's group tops in the NFL ahead of Chicago's corps (led by superstars Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall), Denver's amazingly productive unit, San Francisco's reloaded veteran troop and Indy's new-look gang of pass-catchers.
The Redskins have assembled a group of pass-catchers with the size (Reed checks in at 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds), speed (Jackson), explosiveness (Garcon) and quickness (Roberts) to torment defensive coordinators around the NFL.
It's hard to argue against the notion that Bruce Allen has built up the best group of targets in football.
Garcon led the league in catches last year, while Jackson led the NFL in deep catches, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Both ranked in the top 10 in yardage, and Reed was on pace for an 80-catch, 885-yard season before a concussion ended his rookie campaign early.
And then there's Roberts, who was actually signed to be a starter but is a perfect fit in the slot and has the resume and versatility to be considered one of the best No. 3 wide receivers in the NFL.
If we're looking at the sheer numbers, this Redskins group is right in the thick of things. Reed has yet to play a full season, and some don't include tight ends in these types of debates, so here's how these receivers stack up compared to other topnotch groups in terms of the top three wideouts.
|Top three receivers, last full season combined|
|Credit: Pro Football Reference|
We also had to go back an extra year for Reggie Wayne's last full season, and it's safe to say he's now on the decline at the age of 35.
And in San Francisco, Anquan Boldin is 33, while Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson are both question marks. We used both of their 2012 seasons because injuries brought them down in 2013, and it's tough to tell how much the 49ers will be able to rely on either. Plus, Johnson is no longer the only option now that he's out of Buffalo.
But none of the Redskins receivers are over 27. In fact, all three were born within a 17-month time frame and are either 26 (Roberts) or 27 (Jackson and Garcon). In other words, they're all either in or entering their prime, at least based on typical precedents.
No other group can really say that. Throw in Reed, who will be 24 this season, and the age comparison only bolsters Washington's case versus receiving groups in San Francisco and Indianapolis.
|Average age of top four targets|
|Team||Top three + TE||Average age||Oldest|
Now we'll include the tight end, because after all, it's 2014. And these days, tight end usage in the passing game is trendier than ever.
We'll prorate Reed's stats as well as those belonging to Levine Toilolo (who is expected to replace Gonzalez as a starter in Atlanta) and Andrew Quarless (who will likely become a full-timer in Green Bay). We don't know what to expect from rookie Eric Ebron in Detroit, so we'll give him Brandon Pettigrew's 2013 numbers for the sake of this comparison.
|Top three receivers plus tight end, last full season combined|
|Team||Top three + TE||REC||YDS||TD|
|* Tight end stats prorated for 16 starts; ** Pettigrew's stats in place of the rookie Ebron (Credit: PFR)|
We've already discussed potential flaws with the numbers posted by Atlanta, Indy and San Francisco, but it's probably also fair to wonder how much those Denver numbers have simply been inflated by Peyton Manning's presence.
Eric Decker has been replaced by Emmanuel Sanders, which doesn't make a huge difference, but is Julius Thomas the same threat as Jordan Reed? And DeSean Jackson is still probably the best player among those two groups.
Aside from Denver and Atlanta, the Bears might be the only team that can compete with Washington's top two receivers. In fact, you'd be crazy not to give the edge to Jeffery and Marshall. But Reed has a much higher ceiling than Martellus Bennett, and Josh Morgan, who is slated to be the No. 3 man in Chicago, was left out on Jay Gruden's curb.
|Top two receivers, last full season combined|
|* Welker's stats prorated for 16 games|
There's a lot of promise for those young units from Green Bay and Detroit, especially with guys like Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson leading the way, but they'll both be relying on new No. 3 wide receivers and new tight ends. Those units as a whole haven't produced like Washington's has.
And as Brooks mentions, the key for the Redskins corps might also be the diversity it offers. It's got a safety valve in Garcon, one of the best deep threats in football in Jackson and one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game in Reed. Roberts is explosive and versatile and can fly under the radar in the slot.
Reed is big; Jackson is small. Garcon can take care of business on bubble screens; Jackson can line up in the backfield. Roberts can run crossing routes; Jackson can go deep. Garcon can make guys miss; Reed makes quick catches to move the chains.
In fact, Reed and Rob Gronkowski were the only two tight ends in football who had 30 or more first downs on 50 or fewer total receptions in 2013.
The point is they can do pretty much everything, and they've proven that already.
"We can work matchups," Griffin said this week, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "We will have definite mismatches and then it will be good to distribute the ball around."
Since 2011, 35 receivers have had at least 450 yards in each of the three seasons that have taken place. Including Santana Moss, four of them are on the Redskins roster. And all in all, 6 percent of the 224 450-yard seasons that have occurred since 2011 have come from current Redskins players. That's the highest rate in the NFL and twice the league-wide average.
San Francisco is right there, and a lot of these units have made an immense amount of changes that are yet to actually be manifested on the field. But at this very moment it doesn't look like there's any team in football that can say it has better players than the Redskins do at WR1, WR2, WR3 and TE1. Certain spots, of course, but not all four.
Does that make them the best unit in the NFL? We won't know for sure until the fall.