Ranking the NFL's Top 10 WR Corps Heading into 2016 Season
In this day and age in pro football, it is vital a team has good receivers and be somewhat deep in this department.
Teams like the New York Jets (Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker) and Denver Broncos (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) each have dynamite wide receiving duos, but there's little behind them. The Miami Dolphins could be on the verge of a tremendous trio in Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and 2015 first-rounder DeVante Parker. But they’re not quite top-10 material just yet.
The topic here is strictly wideouts. So if you are in search of some clubs that include the best tight ends in the league (New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, to name a few), you’re out of luck.
The rules are the same as the look at the top 10 running back corps entering the upcoming season. The keys are depth, versatility and overall production (most notably but not exclusive to 2015).
Which teams are loaded at wide receiver? It wasn’t an easy list to pare down.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
Starters: A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell
Key Reserves: Brandon Tate, Mario Alford, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core
There’s a bit of a leap of faith here, especially when it comes to one rookie wideout for the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s safe to say the organization has earned the benefit of the doubt.
There is no mistaking the talents of receiver A.J. Green, a perfect five-for-five in his career when it comes to Pro Bowl invitations. He’s also led the Bengals in catches and receiving yards in each of his seasons in the league.
Look for a healthier Brandon LaFell to fill part of the void left by the free-agent defections of Marvin Jones (Detroit Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta Falcons). The former New England Patriots wideout played in just 11 games in 2015, catching only 37 passes for 515 yards and zero scores while dropping his share of balls. A year earlier he enjoyed a career campaign, totaling 74 receptions for 953 yards and seven touchdowns for the Super Bowl XLIX champions.
Brandon Tate and Mario Alford combined for only three catches in 2015, but the former is the team’s primary threat on punt and kickoff returns. Rookie Tyler Boyd, the team’s second-round pick in 2016, certainly bears watching. He totaled 254 catches for 3,361 yards and 21 scores in three seasons at the University of Pittsburgh.
The departures of Sanu and Jones hurt, but the Bengals played without the latter in 2014. It may take a little time for the new faces to blend in, but there’s plenty of reason for optimism.
9. Seattle Seahawks
Starters: Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse
Key Reserves: Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, Kenny Lawler
This has been an underappreciated group over the last few years. But the Seattle Seahawks’ passing attack really came into its own with the help of a veteran performer as well as a player's impressive debut in 2015.
Quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t the league’s top-rated passer this past season without some help. The Pacific Northwest receiving firm of Doug Baldwin, rookie Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse combined for 178 catches, good for 2,418 yards and 25 of Wilson’s 34 aerial scores.
Baldwin enjoyed a monster year and was one of the league’s hottest receivers down the stretch. Including the playoff split with the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers, the 27-year-old pro amassed 47 receptions for 654 yards and a dozen touchdowns in the club’s last eight outings. He finished the regular season with team highs in catches (78) and receiving yards (1,069), while Baldwin’s 14 scoring grabs tied for the NFL lead.
Wide receiver Paul Richardson battled injuries in 2015. But via Sheil Kapadia of ESPN, the 24-year-old receiver was fully recovered and working out with Wilson and Lockett last month. The team also added University of California’s Kenny Lawler in the seventh round in April.
This is a solid group. But it’s not even the best wideout contingent in the NFC West.
8. Washington Redskins
Key Reserves: Ryan Grant, Josh Doctson
Washington Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan made TCU wideout Josh Doctson the club's first-round pick in April.
The 6’2”, 202-pound performer, speaking with Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post, has spent time recently observing the team’s veteran receivers:
I just watch them work. It’s kind of how I was at TCU. I didn’t have much words for the young guys that came in. They just watched me work. I kind of know how they’re trying to teach me right now.
You can’t go to too fast. You don’t want to overdo it. I’m not comfortable with the routes yet. Right now, it’s about 75-80 percent is what coach wants us to run. Just get a feel for it and as time goes on, we’re just going up on a steady incline. When we get to training camp, we’ll be full go.
Doctson is a major addition to a wide receiving corps that emerged as last season unfolded. Although tight end Jordan Reed led the ‘Skins with 87 catches (11 for scores), Pierre Garcon and rookie Jamison Crowder combined for 131 receptions and eight touchdowns. Once healthy, DeSean Jackson did his big-play thing. He averaged 17.6 yards per grab on 30 catches and scored four touchdowns. Ryan Grant was a much bigger factor in his second season than he was as a rookie.
Emerging quarterback Kirk Cousins led the NFL in completion percentage (69.8) this past year. The addition of the speedy Doctson (4.5 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine) makes this receiving unit more formidable.
7. Oakland Raiders
Starters: Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree
Key Reserves: Seth Roberts, Andre Holmes
You knew the Oakland Raiders were going to feature a much-improved offense when general manager Reggie McKenzie made Alabama’s Amari Cooper the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft.
The 21-year-old wide receiver made his presence felt, catching 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six scores. The youngster did fade a bit down the stretch, catching two or fewer passes in three of his last four games, but that’s not uncommon for a rookie.
It was one-time San Francisco 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree who proved to be an exceptional surprise. Almost an afterthought during the 2015 free-agent period, the 28-year-old pro signed a one-year, $3.2 million contract with the Silver and Black just two weeks before the draft, per Spotrac. He responded by leading the team with 85 receptions and nine touchdown grabs, both tying career highs. Before the season ended, Crabtree inked a four-year, $34 million extension with the team.
Reserve Seth Roberts averaged 15 yards per catch, and five of his 32 receptions went for scores. Andre Holmes caught only 14 passes in 2015 but found himself in the end zone four times. All told, the quartet combined for 24 of the Raiders’ 34 touchdowns though the air.
With quarterback Derek Carr pulling the trigger, this is a group that is growing in experience and confidence. Expect bigger things from this group, especially now that Cooper has a year under his belt.
6. Dallas Cowboys
Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley
Key Reserves: Devin Street, Brice Butler
It wasn’t the best of times for the Dallas Cowboys or their passing attack in 2015.
But that doesn’t mean this club is short of talent at wide receiver.
You can’t expect a lot from a team that is forced to use four different starting quarterbacks and whose primary field general misses a total of 12 games. Such was the case with this club, which was without Tony Romo for the three-quarters of the season.
Two-time Pro Bowler Dez Bryant missed seven games and managed just 31 catches for 401 yards and three scores. In each of his previous three seasons, the 27-year-old wideout managed at least 88 catches, 1,200 receiving yards and 12 scores. In 2015, wideouts Terrence Williams and Cole Beasley tied for second on the club with 52 catches and eight scores, five of those touchdowns by Beasley.
Devin Street and Brice Butler are the main reserves. And this group would have a slightly higher ranking if health weren’t such a big issue in 2015. This will be a season to make amends.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Starters: Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns
Key Reserves: Rashad Greene, Marqise Lee, Bryan Walters
The 2015 season proved to be a coming of age for these Jacksonville Jaguars, at least on the offensive side of the football. One of the most improved passing attacks in the league was keyed by a trio of second-year performers.
Quarterback Blake Bortles tied for second in the NFL with 35 touchdown passes. Wide receivers Allen Robinson (14) and Allen Hurns (10) combined for 24 of those scores, the former tying for the league lead in that category.
The 22-year-old Robinson was targeted 151 times and hauled in 80 passes for 1,400 yards, an imposing 17.5 yards per catch.
Hurns also reached four digits in terms of receiving yards (1,031) and ranked second on the club with 64 grabs. Rookie Rashad Greene's main focus was punt returns, but he did catch 19 passes, two for touchdowns. He and Marqise Lee (15 receptions for 191 yards and one touchdown) will battle for the third-wideout spot in this club. Free-agent addition Bryan Walters finished fourth on the team with 32 catches.
The numbers are impressive, and it will be interesting to see what this group does going forward, especially if the Jaguars ever develop any kind of offensive balance.
4. New York Giants
Starters: Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz
Key Reserves: Dwayne Harris, Sterling Shepard
You have to go back to Weeks 5 and 6 of the 2014 NFL season to find the only two games New York Giants wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz played together.
That figures to change dramatically in 2016, and opponents will certainly have their have hands full with two players who have earned Pro Bowl recognition. In two seasons and a total of 27 games, Beckham has totaled 187 catches for 2,755 and 25 touchdowns.
Cruz sat out the 2015 season, with now-current Philadelphia Eagles wideout Rueben Randle taking up the slack. However, 2015 free-agent pickup and special teams standout Dwayne Harris also proved his worth on offense, catching 36 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. General manager Jerry Reese used a second-round pick in this year’s draft to grab Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, who could contribute sooner than later.
While the Giants may lack the overall depth of some clubs here, the talents of Beckham and Cruz elevate this group significantly.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Starters: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown
Key Reserves: Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson
The presence of a healthy Carson Palmer did wonders for the Arizona Cardinals offense.
So did a new role for one of the most productive wide receivers in NFL history.
Ageless Larry Fitzgerald finished with 109 catches, tied for fifth in the league and good for 1,215 yards and nine scores. The 32-year-old pro now ranks 11th of all time with 1,018 receptions, while only 10 players in NFL annals have caught more touchdown passes than the nine-time Pro Bowler (98).
With Fitzgerald doing most of the dirty work underneath, speedsters John Brown (15.4 yards per catch) and Michael Floyd (16.3 average) combined for 117 receptions, 1,852 yards and 13 scores.
Both Jaron Brown and J.J. Nelson also reached the end zone at least once in 2015, each wideout totaling 11 catches.
Only the New Orleans Saints totaled more passing yards per game this past season. Palmer wound up throwing for a franchise-record 35 touchdowns, 25 of those to the team’s wide receivers. This is an extremely effective group with plenty of big-play ability, and both Floyd and John Brown are just 26 years old. The future looks pretty bright as well.
2. Green Bay Packers
Key Reserves: Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis
In a meeting with reporters last month, including ESPN.com’s Jason Wilde, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was asked if he was worried about “losing a step.” The question was in regard to his age (he turns 31 on May 31), as well as his recovery from a knee injury that cost him the 2015 season. He responded:
Because I think it’s a waste of time if you do. Because if I do lose a step, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve attacked the rehab the way I wanted to; it’s progressed the way I wanted to. I continue to work out the way the coaches and trainers want me to. We’ll do everything we can to make sure I’m ready to go. For whatever reason, it’s not there, it’s not there.
It’s evident that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed his Pro Bowl wideout in 2015. He only threw for 3,821 yards and 31 scores with just eight interceptions. But the signal-caller completed just 60.7 percent of his passes, the lowest figure since he became the team's starter in 2008.
This is a formidable group of wideouts. Randall Cobb was a Pro Bowler in 2014 and led Green Bay in catches this past season in Nelson’s absence. Davante Adams looks to bounce back from a disappointing year due to injury and inconsistency, but he still managed 50 receptions. Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis provide depth; the latter came up big in the overtime playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
This is an above-average group even without Nelson. With his return, only one team in the league is better stocked at the position these days.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton
Key Reserves: Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers
Talk about high praise.
Recently on NFL Network, NFL Media analyst Willie McGinest had this to say about the Pittsburgh Steelers' top wide receiver, via SteelersDepot.com:
If Big Ben (Roethlisberger) is healthy this year for a 16-game span, which if you’re pacing 16 games last year, Antonio Brown would have broke the 2000-yard mark by far. Touchdowns, and you talk about receptions, would have had over 159. And it’s the route running, it’s the different ways that they put him against different defenders. And I know Martavis Bryant isn’t going to be there, but it doesn’t really matter. This guy, pound for pound, is the best player in the NFL.
Best player in the NFL? That's a topic for another time. But Brown is in the discussion, in the midst of a three-year run in which he’s totaled 375 receptions for 5,031 yards and 31 scores.
The four-time Pro Bowler has now led or tied for the NFL lead in catches two straight years, which is quite an accomplishment considering no Steelers player had totaled the most catches in the league in one season prior to 2014. The 27-year-old performer racked up 136 grabs for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 with three different starting quarterbacks.
Brown is also not alone. As McGinest mentioned, there will be no Martavis Bryant in 2016. He’s suspended for at least one year for violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
The Steelers are still stocked with Markus Wheaton, who totaled 44 catches for 749 yards and five touchdowns this past season. There’s also the revitalized Darrius Heyward-Bey and 23-year-old Sammie Coates, who opened eyes in the 2015 AFC Divisional Playoffs at Denver when called upon. Pittsburgh used a seventh-round pick in April to add Demarcus Ayers.
In two games versus the eventual Super Bowl 50 champion Broncos, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger totaled a combined 719 passing yards against the league’s top-ranked defense. Pittsburgh wide receivers accounted for 647 of those yards on 50 catches. Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards in the 23-16 postseason loss at Denver, with Bryant but minus Brown—who was out with a concussion.
It’s a group that’s explosive and deep. And these days, it’s the best in the league.
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.