NFL1000: Ranking Every NFL Receiving Corps
Like most position groups in the NFL, receiver corps and those who coach those receivers have learned adaptation and versatility are the most important concepts in the modern game. You will hear coaches and executives say it over and over—the NFL is now a matchup league.
How can an offense gain an advantage over a defense? Put your 6'4" No. 1 receiver in the slot and let him lord over that 5'10" slot cornerback. If you're playing a team that likes to run a lot of single-high safety looks, force it to change its tune with pick-route concepts out of double-slot formations. Are your receivers facing an outside cornerback who's great and a slot cornerback they can exploit with speed? Hit that duo with a crossing-route concept that takes your best speed receiver up the seam, and watch that poor slot cornerback struggle to keep up.
Yes, it's still a playbook league, but receivers also benefit heavily from formation diversity and intelligence—the understanding that it's as much about where the receiver is as it is about what he does. The best receiver groups don't just have talent—their coaches deploy them to great effect. And when it all comes together, it's a nightmare for enemy defenses.
Ranking the best receiver corps takes all of that into account. We're not just talking about player-to-player talent—it's just as much about how those players work together in the bigger picture. So, it's no surprise that the top team in our rankings has not only stocked its roster with some of the best targets in the NFL but has an implicit understanding of how to use its talents.
32. New York Jets
Receivers: Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa, Jalin Marshall, Robby Anderson, Quinton Patton, ArDarius Stewart, Charone Peake, KD Cannon, Frankie Hammond
Tight Ends: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jordan Leggett, Eric Tomlinson, Braedon Bowman, Brian Parker
While speaking to reporters, New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson seemed to suggest losing Brandon Marshall in free agency will make things easier in the locker room, but it's hard to say how it'll make things easier on the field.
Marshall led the team in receptions with 59, and at 6'4", he's been a reliable big target throughout his career. Moreover, the Jets don't have anyone to replace him in that capacity. Quincy Enunwa came along nicely in 2016, leading the team in receiving yards with 857. But he's far from proven, and he's also valuable as a slot receiver.
The Jets would love to have Eric Decker back at full speed after he missed 13 games with hip and shoulder injuries. Decker caught 80 balls for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015, and when healthy, he's a dynamic downfield threat. Most likely, he'll be the primary target of whoever is playing quarterback for the Jets this season. (Hint: That quarterback uncertainty is part of the problem.)
One player who showed potential in 2016 was Robby Anderson. The undrafted free agent from Temple caught 42 passes for 587 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie campaign, and he led the team with nine deep receptions.
But overall, the Jets receiver corps is emblematic of the fact that, because of injuries, free-agency blunders, draft issues and coaching problems, this is a woefully undertalented roster in need of a major rebuild. That's not likely to change in the short term.
31. Chicago Bears
Receivers: Kevin White, Cameron Meredith, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman, Josh Bellamy, Rueben Randle, Titus Davis, Tanner Gentry
Tight Ends: Zach Miller, Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims, Ben Braunecker, MyCole Pruitt
It's a shame Kevin White has experienced so much injury trouble in the NFL, because when he came out of West Virginia in 2015, he looked like as much a sure thing as you could imagine. Based on his college tape, I compared him to an embryonic Larry Fitzgerald. But White missed his entire rookie season with a broken tibia and then missed all but four games in 2016 with a fractured fibula and ligament damage in his ankle. At this point, it’s reasonable to ask if White will ever regain the explosiveness he once had—it would be a big plus to have him on the field for a full season.
The Bears lost Alshon Jeffery to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, and with that, the dream of a Jeffery-White battery the Bears' coaches once had went out the window. Former college quarterback Cameron Meredith surprised just about everyone by leading the team in both receptions (66) and receiving yards (888) last season. He tied with Jeffery for the team lead in deep receptions with seven, and he led all Bears receivers in the slot with 33 catches for 415 yards. The third-year undrafted free agent from Illinois State appears to be the only sure thing in this receiver rotation.
Kendall Wright, signed from the Titans to a one-year deal worth up to $4 million, should help in the slot. And former Pittsburgh Steeler Markus Wheaton, signed to a two-year, $11 million deal, has potential as a speed receiver when healthy (4.45 40-yard dash). But he missed 13 games last season and caught just four passes for 51 yards. Wheaton can be a deadly downfield threat if he's back to form.
Adding to Chicago's injury woes, tight end Zach Miller suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot last November, and that's his second such injury in his career. The Bears selected Ashland tight end Adam Shaheen in the second round at No. 45 overall, and while the 6'6", 278-pound Shaheen set a Division II record last season for touchdowns by a tight end last year with 16, he'll see much tougher defenses at the NFL level. The adaptation curve could be steep.
30. Los Angeles Rams
Receivers: Tavon Austin, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Pharoh Cooper, Josh Reynolds, Mike Thomas, Nelson Spruce, Brandon Shippen, Bradley Marquez, Paul McRoberts
Tight Ends: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Temarrick Hemingway
Put simply, the 2016 Los Angeles Rams offense was a disaster. Somehow, offensive coordinator Rob Boras managed to put together a set of schemes that exposed all the worst traits of rookie quarterback Jared Goff and made running back Todd Gurley—by far that offense's most talented player—an invisible afterthought.
The hope is new head coach Sean McVay, one of the more respected offensive play designers in the league, will improve things, but there's nowhere to go but up. Losing receiver Kenny Britt, who managed to top 1,000 yards despite everything falling apart around him, was a hit right off the bat.
McVay, the Redskins' OC from 2014 through 2016, has said he wants Tavon Austin to be the DeSean Jackson of his new offense—the speed receiver who blows by safeties and forced defenses to adjust, according to Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com.
That's quite a projection, considering that, according to Gonzalez, Austin has caught just 15 passes that traveled 15 yards in the air or more. That's partially due to the restrictive offensive systems in place under former head coach Jeff Fisher, but it also shows—as the tape reveals—that Austin has never developed into more than a gadget guy. And at 5'8" and 176 pounds, there are legitimate questions regarding his ability to do more.
More likely, Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp will be Goff's primary target. The Rams signed Woods, a former Buffalo Bills receiver, to a five-year, $34 million deal, despite the fact he's never come close to a 1,000-yard season. Woods is a good second receiver with speed (4.51 40-yard dash) and possession receiver attributes, but he's not likely the alpha dog this group desperately needs.
Neither is Kupp, but the third-round rookie from Eastern Washington could be the sleeper of the group. Kupp caught an astounding 117 passes for 1,704 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, and while he doesn't have the speed to separate from defenders on deeper routes—he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in Indianapolis—he has a great sense of how to get open outside and in the slot. Given the extent to which Goff needs to progress before he's NFL-ready, Kupp could be a major help with easy first-read throws.
Tight end Tyler Higbee is at the top of the depth chart following the release of Lance Kendricks, and though the second-year player caught just 11 passes for 85 yards in 2016, McVay told reporters to "expect big things" from Higbee.
Right now, McVay has some potential in this group of receivers but few sure things.
29. Baltimore Ravens
Receivers: Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore, Vince Mayle, Michael Campanaro, Keenan Reynolds, Chris Matthews, Quincy Adeboyejo, Tim Patrick
Tight Ends: Dennis Pitta, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Darren Waller
The Ravens lost Steve Smith Sr. to retirement and Kamar Aiken to the Indianapolis Colts in free agency, so the fact general manager Ozzie Newsome did little to bolster a receiver corps that underperformed in 2016 without those defections is cause for concern.
Baltimore added no receivers in free agency or the draft, and while the team looks to field one of the NFL's best defenses in 2017, this could be a lot like the 2000 Super Bowl champion Ravens—a terrific defense and a passing game lagging far behind.
Mike Wallace was somewhat miscast in coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's possession-based passing offense, but he still put up a 1,000-yard season for the first time since 2011, when he was with the Steelers. Never a top-flight route-runner, Wallace adapted pretty well to his schematic environs and Joe Flacco's relative inefficiency at quarterback, but he caught just four passes of 20 yards or more in the air. Wallace hit it big for 206 yards, but he was targeted 18 times. And few of those passes were catchable.
The hope now is that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman will realize his potential. He missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury and struggled through other injuries last season, catching just 33 passes for 499 yards and three touchdowns. At 6'2", 215 pounds, Perriman has potential to be a dynamic bigger receiver with his leaping ability and his catch radius, but he'll need to develop his route awareness before he can make the impact the team needs from him.
Tight end Dennis Pitta had 86 catches for 729 yards last season, both career highs. Still, the Ravens were likely ready to move on if Pitta didn't restructure his contract—a bold move for a team that needs all the targets it can get at this point and has precious few depth players who look able to fill the void.
28. San Francisco 49ers
Receivers: Pierre Garcon, Jeremy Kerley, Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson, Aaron Burbridge, DeAndre Smelter, Trent Taylor, Rashad Ross, Victor Bolden Jr.
Tight Ends: Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, George Kittle, Blake Bell, Logan Paulsen
The 2016 San Francisco 49ers may have had the receiver group with the lowest amount of overall talent in the NFL, and while new head coach Kyle Shanahan will undoubtedly maximize the potential on hand, the franchise didn't do enough in the offseason to bolster this group.
The addition of former Washington Redskins target Pierre Garcon will help, though. Garcon caught 79 passes for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns in an offense that isn't dissimilar to Shanahan's, with its West Coast passing concepts. At 6'0" and 211 pounds, Garcon is a better bet as a second receiver, like he was with DeSean Jackson last season, but he'll be a solid upgrade over everyone else.
Jeremy Kerley led the 49ers in receptions last season with 64 for 667 yards and three touchdowns, though this says as much about the rest of the roster as anything else. Ideally, Kerley is a slot guy who can get open underneath with route awareness and short-area quickness as opposed to an outside receiver. The 49ers signed him to a new three-year deal in the offseason, so he'll still be in their plans.
Beyond that, not much stands out. Newly signed Marquise Goodwin has blistering track speed (4.27 40-yard dash) but hasn't put it together on the field quite yet. Aldrick Robinson was a reserve receiver for the Falcons when Shanahan was their offensive coordinator, and it's likely that he’ll fill the same role here. And tight end Vance McDonald, who inexplicably received a five-year extension from the 49ers' previous administration, was openly shopped with no takers during the draft. Backup Garrett Celek might play more of a role. He set career highs in receptions (29) and receiving yards (350) last season.
Former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk signed a four-year, $21 million deal with San Francisco in March, and general manager John Lynch has said that he views Juszczyk as an "offensive weapon." Juszczyk has 78 receptions over the last two seasons, and Shanahan likes to get his fullbacks involved in the passing game, so he could be a high-target guy.
San Francisco took just one receiver in the draft—Louisiana Tech's Trent Taylor in the fifth round—so it's clear Shanahan and Lynch see the passing game as a long-term rebuild. And with a quarterback rotation of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard, that could be true of the entire passing game.
27. Cleveland Browns
Receivers: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Mario Alford, Jordan Payton, Jordan Leslie, James Wright, Rannell Hall, Josh Boyce
Tight Ends: David Njoku, Seth DeValve, Randall Telfer, J.P. Holtz
The big question with this group, of course, was whether oft-suspended receiver Josh Gordon would see the field for Cleveland in 2017. Gordon hasn't played since 2014 because of multiple drug suspensions, and with his most recent appeal for reinstatement denied in May, head coach Hue Jackson has made it clear that the Browns are moving on.
Gordon would add out-of-this-world ability if he were able to be reinstated and perform near his former peak, but at this point, this receiver corps must be ranked without him.
That probably leaves Kenny Britt as the team's No. 1 receiver. Britt turned his career around with the Rams after an iffy start with the Titans, and his 1,000-yard receiving season with Case Keenum and Jared Goff at quarterback in 2016 should be regarded as one of the more impressive statistical monuments of recent times. At 28, Britt still has good speed, and he's improved his route running over time. Ideally, he'd be a complementary receiver in a more talented package, but this is where the Browns are after losing Terrelle Pryor Sr. in free agency.
Cleveland will certainly ask second-year man Corey Coleman to do more. Hue Jackson has said that Coleman will be "the guy" in 2017, per Tony Grossi of ESPN, but that's a bit of a projection, considering that Coleman managed just 33 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Like Britt, Coleman would benefit from being a step lower on the depth chart—at 5'10" and 185 pounds, he's best deployed as a speed slot man as opposed to a go-to outside receiver.
The Browns traded up to select Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku in the first round and then cut Gary Barnidge. Releasing the 31-year-old was an inexplicable move given the paucity of proven talent this team has among its pass-catchers. Nonetheless, Njoku should be able to make an immediate difference in the passing game as a quick receiving tight end and yards-after-catch monster. He's not the blocker Barnidge is, though, and it would have been interesting to see Njoku and Barnidge in two-tight end sets.
26. Washington Redskins
Receivers: Terrelle Pryor, Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, Brian Quick, Maurice Harris, Robert Davis, Ryan Grant, Matt Hazel, Kendal Thompson, Reggie Diggs
Tight Ends: Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, Niles Paul, Jeremy Sprinkle, Derek Carrier
Losing DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency? Those were two major hits to a Washington offense that came together well in 2016, including quarterback Kirk Cousins’ best season by far. But contractual drama with Cousins left little on the table for his best offensive weapons, and with those two top targets out the door, Cousins—who relies on his receivers to make plays—could be severely impacted.
The signing of former Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor should limit the damage to an extent. The former quarterback caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns out of nowhere in an offense whose quarterback situation was dicey, to put it kindly. At 6’6” and 240 pounds, Pryor is bigger than either Jackson or Garcon, and while he doesn’t have their understanding of the subtleties of the position, he should be an asset in the red zone and on contested catches.
Tight end Jordan Reed will also be asked to do more—head coach Jay Gruden recently said that the offense runs through Reed, and it’ll have to if Cousins is to come anywhere near his 2016 production. When healthy, Reed is a dynamic receiver all around the formation. However, he’s never played a full season, and he missed four games last season due to injury. The Redskins also re-signed tight end Vernon Davis to a three-year, $15 million contract, so it’s possible that the offense will run far more through the tight end position in general.
Perhaps the most pressure is on Josh Doctson, the 2016 first-round pick from TCU who played in just two games in his rookie season due to chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles tendon. “Chronic” is never a word you want to hear regarding any injury, though Doctson has been impressive in recent OTAs. He’s another bigger receiver with an impressive catch radius, though he’ll need work on the finer points of route-running.
25. Arizona Cardinals
Receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson, Andre Ellington, Chad Williams, Brittan Golden, Jeremy Ross, Aaron Dobson, Chris Hubert
Tight Ends: Jermaine Gresham, Troy Niklas, Ifeanyi Momah, Hakeem Valles
If 2017 is Larry Fitzgerald’s final NFL season (and it looks like it might be), he’ll walk away from the game a sure Hall of Famer and one of the most dynamic postseason receivers in NFL history. Also, if 2017 is Larry Fitzgerald’s final NFL season (and it looks like it might be), the Cardinals have some work to do to build the structure of their receiver corps without him. Fitzgerald once again led the Cardinals in receptions (107) and receiving yards (1,023) in 2016, and while he doesn’t have the raw speed he had in his heyday, few receivers better understand how to exploit defenders with routes, angles and short-area quickness.
Running back David Johnson has become a major part of the passing game, with 80 catches for 879 yards last season, which further outlines the depth issues beyond Fitzgerald. Jaron Brown missed nine games with a torn ACL, John Brown saw his production drastically diminished from 2015 as he dealt with a sickle-cell trait and a cyst on his spine, and J.J. Nelson, who picked up some of the slack as others dealt with medical issues, is a 5’10”, 160-pound player who will be limited by size as an outside receiver, even in a Bruce Arians system that often puts smaller, faster targets in favorable situations.
The move to switch former running back Andre Ellington is an interesting one—he’s been a fairly productive pass-catcher throughout his NFL career—but if John and Jaron Brown aren’t able to return to form, it could be slim pickings for Carson Palmer this season. The team also re-signed tight end Jermaine Gresham to a four-year, $28 million contract, but Gresham has caught just 55 passes for 614 yards and three touchdowns in his two seasons in the Valley of the Sun, and he doesn’t add much as a blocker.
24. New Orleans Saints
Receivers: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Willie Snead, Corey Fuller, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Jake Lampman, Jordan Williams, Travin Durant, Rashad Lawrence
Tight Ends: Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui, Clay Harbor, John Phillips
Trading Brandin Cooks to the Patriots left Drew Brees without his most prolific and consistent target of the last couple years, but if Michael Thomas is able to keep the frantic pace of his rookie season going, the Saints may not miss a beat. Thomas broke Marques Colston’s team record for rookie receptions with 92, gaining 1,137 yards and scoring nine touchdowns as well. At 6’3” and 212 pounds, he’s got ideal size for the position, and he can also scoot down the field with impressive speed—last season, he caught seven deep passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. That didn’t quite match Cooks’ production on deep passes, but Thomas has the potential to get there.
Head coach Sean Payton has said that he has an "exact vision" of how to use newly acquired speed receiver Ted Ginn, per Mike Tripplett of ESPN.com. Most likely, it’s the same exact vision every other coach has had with Ginn—maximize the explosive plays and hope the seemingly inevitable drops don’t kill your offense too much. Ginn will be used as a deep target to try and take some of the sting out of Cooks’ departure, but he doesn’t have Cooks’ route savvy, and his seven drops to 54 catches ratio in 2016 is what one would expect based on Ginn’s history. In this exacting offense, that could be a problem.
Willie Snead is the Saints’ top slot man, an important designation in an offense where receiver splits and route combinations are as creative as you’ll see in the NFL. An exclusive-rights free agent, Snead is hoping for a bigger payday than the $615,000 he’s due in his third season, and he’s certainly earned it. He was third on the team behind Cooks and Thomas last year with 72 catches, and while he is a great inside receiver, he can also occasionally take the top off a defense. He’s an important part of this high-volume passing attack.
The five-year, $36 million deal the Saints gave Coby Fleener in March of 2016 was puzzling from a value perspective, though he seemed to perform with a bit more consistency in New Orleans than he did in Indianapolis. Fleener has cut his drops (he had just three in 2016), and he had eight deep receptions for 249 yards and a touchdown. Fleener doesn’t nearly match what Jimmy Graham brought to the offense, but he’s an acceptable first-string target.
23. Indianapolis Colts
Receivers: T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Phillip Dorsett, Kamar Aiken, Quan Bray, Tevaun Smith, Chester Rogers, Marcus Leak, Bug Howard
Tight Ends: Jack Doyle, Erik Swoope, Brandon Williams, Mo Alie-Cox, Darrell Daniels
Former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson was rightly pilloried for the quality of his drafts from 2012 through 2016, but when he selected T.Y. Hilton out of Florida International in the third round of the 2012 draft, that’s one he got right. Hilton had 50 catches for 861 yards in his rookie season and he’s topped 1,000 yards every year since; His 91 catches and 1,448 yards in 2016 were career highs. Moreover, Hilton is the most dangerous deep receiver in the game, able to hit a big play at any time.
Last season, he led the league with 17 receptions on passes thrown 20 yards in the air or more. And Hilton’s not just a straight-line speed guy—he’s developed into a great route-runner, and he’s unquestionably a No. 1 receiver in any offense.
Much was expected of Donte Moncrief after a 2015 season in which he caught 64 passes, gained 733 yards and seemed to become the No. 2 receiver Andrew Luck needed. But in the following season, he missed seven games with injury and caught just 30 passes. Ideally, he’s the bigger receiver who can get yards after the catch and keep possessions going.
When new GM Chris Ballard took over, he signed former Bills, Patriots and Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken who, like Moncrief, disappointed after a hot 2015. Aiken led the Ravens in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2015, only to fall back in all of those categories as Baltimore’s passing game regressed in 2016. He’ll be given a chance for the No. 3 receiver job, and in this offense, that’s an important designation.
Phillip Dorsett, selected in the first round in 2015, has not been able to live up to that pick to date. He’s a smaller-speed target who has struggled to stay healthy and to gain separation and run routes when he’s on the field. With no ties to the current administration, it’s on Dorsett to improve on his 33-catch season in 2016.
Things became a bit more stable at tight end last year with the emergence of Jack Doyle, a former afterthought who surprised a lot of people with 59 catches for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. He’s also a fine blocker.
22. Tennessee Titans
Receivers: Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis, Harry Douglas, Tajae Sharpe, Eric Weems, Taywan Taylor, Jonathan Krause, Darius Jennings, Tre McBride
Tight Ends: Delanie Walker, Phillip Supernaw, Jonnu Smith, Jace Amaro, Jerome Cunningham
Titans general manager Jon Robinson has been quietly building an estimable receiver corps for quarterback Marcus Mariota over the last couple of years, and the team made a big splash in the first round of the 2017 draft by taking Western Michigan’s Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick. At 6’3” and 209 pounds, Davis has the size to be a No. 1 receiver, and the speed and separation ability to create big plays downfield. The first MAC receiver since Randy Moss to be selected in the first round, Davis will need to eliminate focus drops at the next level, but he should be a major part of this offense pretty quickly, as long as he recovers well from the ankle injury he suffered in January.
Rishard Matthews, a 2012 seventh-round pick of the Dolphins, had a career year in his first season with the Titans, catching 65 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the team in the final two categories. Not a bad bargain for a guy who signed a three-year, $15 million deal, and Matthews should continue to be a highly targeted option for Mariota, especially as a primary deep target.
Tight end Delanie Walker led the team in catches with 65, but coming off his 94-catch, 1,088-yard season, this was a bit of a disappointment. Walker still caught seven touchdown passes, but he disappeared a bit after his 124-yard game against the Packers last November, and at age 33 when the 2017 season begins, his 2016 season may be more indicative of his future.
Kendall Wright, the team’s most productive slot receiver last season, went to the Bears in free agency, which leaves more targets for both Harry Douglas and Tajae Sharpe as inside receivers, though Sharpe seems to have the inside track there with his 41-catch, 522-yard rookie season.
21. Buffalo Bills
Receivers: Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones, Corey Brown, Andre Holmes, Walter Powell, Brandon Tate, Dezmin Lewis, Kolby Listenbee, Jeremy Butler
Tight Ends: Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary, Blake Annen, Logan Thomas
The Bills declined the fifth-year option on Sammy Watkins this year, which means that barring some other form of extension, he’ll be a free agent after the 2017 season. Injuries have played a factor in this—he hasn’t played a full 16 games since his rookie season in 2014 and he missed eight games last season—but Watkins flashes potential to be a top-flight receiver, and he’d certainly get a ton of offers next offseason. When he’s healthy, Watkins combines speed, toughness and separation ability in a rare package, and he’ll be only 24 at the end of this year. This decision could come back to bite the franchise, though at least it’ll have a high-potential receiver in a contract year.
Perhaps to offset the eventual loss of Watkins, the Bills selected East Carolina’s Zay Jones in the second round of the 2017 draft. Jones comes to the NFL as the FBS’s all-time leader in receptions with 399—including an astonishing 158 in 2016. Jones is not just a stat-collector—he’s a good speed receiver with route awareness that can be developed, and he should be an outstanding complement to Watkins.
Beyond that, it’s a bit fraught. The Bills experienced a receiver exodus in the offseason, with Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter and Robert Woods off the books, which places even more importance on Jones getting up to speed in a hurry. Buffalo signed Philly Brown, Jeremy Butler and Andre Holmes as depth players, but that’s about all any of those players have been in their careers. Holmes was a decent bigger receiver in Oakland, Brown is a reserve speed receiver and Butler caught just two passes last year for the Chargers.
The real No. 3 receiver will probably be Charles Clay, who has been reasonably productive in his two years with the Bills. He led the team in receptions with 57 last year.
20. Carolina Panthers
Receivers: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel, Brenton Bersin, Russell Shepard, Damiere Byrd, Keyarris Garrett, Charles Johnson, Fred Ross, Mose Frazier
Tight Ends: Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Scott Simonson, Chris Manhertz
The Panthers have been looking for consistency in their receiver corps since general manager Dave Gettleman showed Steve Smith the door before the 2014 season, and the one place this offense has had that consistency is at the tight end position, where Greg Olsen has led the team in receiving in each of the last four years. Olsen isn’t flashy, but he has good tracking speed to get back linebackers, he’s extremely tough with the contested catch, and he’ll get every yard after the catch he can. Here’s an amazing (and surprising) stat: Last year, Olsen became the first tight end in NFL history to amass three straight 1,000-yard seasons. At age 32, he should be the epicenter of this passing offense for at least the next few seasons.
Kelvin Benjamin, selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, has had an up-and-down career since his monster rookie season. He missed the entire 2015 campaign due to injury, came back well in 2016 with a 63-catch, 941-yard, seven-touchdown season, but he has appeared to have conditioning issues through 2017 minicamps. Benjamin is a huge, physical receiver with some ability to beat defenders deep when he’s in shape, but right now, that appears to be a big “if.”
Devin Funchess, a second rounder in 2015, has struggled to separate from defenders and really stake his claim in this receiver corps. Built more like a tight end, Funchess has caught just 54 passes for 844 yards in his career, and his catch rate of 39.7 percent last season just isn’t going to get it done.
So, with the first two picks in this year’s draft, Gettleman looked to upgrade his receiver group in some interesting and innovative ways. First-round running back Christian McCaffrey is an all-around player who should get a ton of targets in this offense as everything from a quick-screen back to a slot player who can use his speed and agility to beat cornerbacks downfield. And in the second round, Carolina selected Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel, who, like McCaffrey, can excel pretty much anywhere in the formation. As I wrote in early May, the idea with McCaffrey and Samuel is to place unique stresses on defenses with formation diversity.
19. Houston Texans
Receivers: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, Keith Mumphery, Jaelen Strong, Wendall Williams
Tight Ends: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin, Stephen Anderson, Rashaun Allen
Anything you say about the 2016 Texans’ receiver group has to be filtered through the reality that the now-departed Brock Osweiler was among the NFL’s worst quarterbacks last season, and backup Tom Savage was also underwhelming when he took over late in the season. Head coach Bill O’Brien now has to make a choice between Savage and first-round pick Deshaun Watson as his starting quarterback, but the receivers are shaping up nicely.
DeAndre Hopkins’ 78-catch, 954-yard season was a severe statistical downturn from the 111-catch, 1,521-yard season he put up in 2015, but again, consider who was throwing the ball to him. When he’s in a half-favorable situation, Hopkins is among the league’s best receivers, with the speed, physicality and body control to be a true No. 1 target.
The hope in selecting Will Fuller in the first round of the 2016 draft out of Notre Dame was that Fuller would overcome the focus drops that plagued him at times in college. That didn’t happen in his rookie season, as Fuller led the team with seven drops, adding a consistent level of frustration to his undeniable potential as a speed receiver. Hopefully, a more consistent quarterback situation will provide assistance in this regard, but Fuller needs to improve his concentration, especially in traffic.
Jaelen Strong, selected in the third round of the 2015 draft, has some potential as a slot receiver, catching 12 passes from the slot for 89 yards last season, but he’s been held back by injuries and the Texans would like to see more production here. Both Hopkins and Fuller were in the slot a lot last season, and nailing the slot receiver position would open up the offense.
Braxton Miller, the former Ohio State quarterback, showed some potential inside and could expand his role in the offense as he learns the subtleties of the position.
Fiedorowicz set career highs with 54 catches, 559 yards and four touchdowns, and like every other receiver on this roster, he’ll benefit from a more accurate quarterback.
18. Minnesota Vikings
Receivers: Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Jarius Wright, Michael Floyd, Laquon Treadwell, Isaac Fruechte, Stacy Coley, Rodney Adams, Cayleb Jones, Mitch Matthews
Tight Ends: Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan, Bucky Hodges, Kyle Carter, Nick Truesdell
That the Vikings were able to maintain a productive passing game after Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending knee injury and Sam Bradford coming into the system late says a lot about a receiver corps that could be a real asset in the years to come. Perhaps the biggest surprise in 2016 was Adam Thielen, the undrafted third-year man from Minnesota State who was barely visible on the depth chart until last season. Thielen showed a really nice knack as a deep receiver with Bradford as his passer, leading the team with nine deep receptions for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Add in his 24 slot receptions, and Thielen clearly became a high-quality all-around target last season. His new four-year, $19.240 million deal was a well-deserved reward.
Diggs, selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, improved as a target in 2016 despite injuries that caused him to miss three games. A speed receiver whom the Vikings’ coaching staff used creatively both outside and in the slot, Diggs could be even more effective if he beefed up a bit and was more durable—something he now seems to realize.
The Vikings now have a number of candidates for the full-time third receiver slot. There’s 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, who head coach Mike Zimmer admitted didn’t understand some of the subtleties of the position at the NFL level in his rookie campaign. Diggs didn’t run a full route tree during his time at Mississippi, and that’s something this staff requires, so Treadwell’s development this offseason will be a major factor.
The Vikings also signed former Cardinals and Patriots receiver Michael Floyd to a one-year deal in May, with the hope that Floyd’s obvious physical talent will stick, and the mental lapses both on and off the field that made him an afterthought in New England’s offense can be dealt with. And Jarius Wright, whose stats have declined in each of the last three seasons, is likely on the bubble. Look for the team to push Treadwell on the field more, if only to validate the first-round pick.
Things are far more secure at tight end. Rudolph thrived last season with career highs in catches (83) and yards (840), adding seven touchdown passes.
17. Philadelphia Eagles
Receivers: Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Jordan Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham, Nelson Agholor, Paul Turner, Bryce Treggs, Mack Hollins, Byron Marshall, Shelton Gibson
Tight Ends: Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Trey Burton, Anthony Denham
Quarterback Carson Wentz performed fairly well as a rookie despite a receiver corps that was short on size and speed at the playmaker level. To try to offset those negatives from 2016, the team got aggressive in free agency, signing former Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery and ex-Ravens and 49ers receiver Torrey Smith.
Ideally, Jeffery will be the new No. 1 guy, and when healthy and on the field, he’s got the size and quickness to fill that role. He missed nine games due to injury in 2015 and followed that with a four-game suspension in 2016 for a violation of the league’s policies on performance-enhancing substances. Nonetheless, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson believes that with his toughness, route-running and catch radius, Jeffery will become the kind of receiver and leader others will look to pattern their own games after.
Smith was brought in to add his own veteran acumen to the group and provide the occasional shot play. He hasn’t produced at a notable level since 2015, but given the dumpster fire San Francisco’s offense was last season, it’s hard to put that too much on any one receiver. Smith should fit in well outside and in the slot in Pederson’s West Coast passing game.
Having Jeffery and Smith on board should help Jordan Matthews, a high-quality receiver who was really miscast as a No. 1 guy last year. Matthews doesn’t have great speed, but he works the middle of the field well, and he’s an underrated slot man with his understanding of short and intermediate routes. Matthews has always been prolific, and he’s a valuable quick option for Wentz as he continues to put his NFL game together. Agholor and Green-Beckham are depth guys at this point.
There are no problems at tight end, where Zach Ertz has been a model of consistency over the last two seasons. This receiver group could be outstanding if Jeffery can bounce back to his 2013-2014 numbers.
16. Kansas City Chiefs
Receivers: Jeremy Maclin, Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, De’Anthony Thomas, Jehu Chesson, Demarcus Robinson, Gehrig Dieter, Seantavious Jones
Tight Ends: Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Ross Travis, Gavin Escobar
The Chiefs are one team in which their tight end is by far their most gifted receiver, and Travis Kelce had an outstanding season in 2016 with career highs in catches (85) and yards (1,125). With Rob Gronkowski struggling with injuries in 2016, Kelce became the most prolific and best overall pass-catching tight in the league in his third season, combining size, speed and route awareness in a nearly unbeatable package. He’s the perfect fit in this iteration of Andy Reid’s offense, which relies less on deep passes and more on yards after the catch—Kelce had 240 more yards after catch than the next tight end, New England’s Martellus Bennett, in the NFL last season.
Jeremy Maclin, coming off two straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Chiefs, disappointed himself in 2016 with a 12-game season in which he was slowed by a groin injury and caught just 44 catches for 536 yards and two touchdowns. Maclin is a quick, fluid receiver when he’s healthy, and he sounds determined to bounce back in 2017.
Tyreek Hill lasted until the fifth round of the 2016 draft due to off-field concerns, but when he hit the field, he proved to be a highly versatile player capable of a home-run threat from anywhere on the field. Hill scored 12 touchdowns in his rookie campaign—six as a receiver, three as a rusher and three as a return man. Reid has said that he wants Hill more involved in the offense this season, which makes sense—he had just 451 snaps in 2016 and created a disproportionate number of explosive plays in that limited run. He caught 61 passes and averaged 9.7 yards per catch last season; one can only imagine the effect he could have on that offense with an increased snap count—especially as he learns the subtleties of the receiver position.
Chris Conley and Albert Wilson are good complementary players, especially Wilson, a bigger receiver who has potential in the slot. Make no mistake, though—the Chiefs are hoping to get Kelce, Maclin and Hill on the field as much as possible in 2017, and they’ll look to create one of the more explosive trios in the NFL.
15. Denver Broncos
Receivers: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Taylor, Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer, Carlos Henderson, Marlon Brown, Isaiah McKenzie, Hunter Sharp, Kalif Raymond
Tight Ends: Virgil Green, A.J. Derby, Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman, Henry Krieger-Coble
All is well with the Broncos’ top two targets in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom managed 1,000-yard seasons despite a shaky quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian under center. Denver has to decide between Siemian and 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch as its quarterback of the future, but whomever takes the job will have Thomas as the deep target and bigger, more physical receiver, with Sanders as the speed guy underneath and along the boundary. Few one-two combinations have been more productive over the last few seasons, and the return of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy should make things easier for either young quarterback.
Jordan Norwood was the team’s primary slot receiver, and given Siemian’s issues with getting the ball downfield consistently, or Lynch’s adaptation to starting in the NFL (which would be helped greatly by a short slot target), the veteran could have more of a role in 2017.
Beyond that, more is needed from the depth guys. The Broncos selected Cody Latimer in the second round in the 2014 draft, and at this point, it’s hard not to detail the pick as one of the franchise’s bigger busts in recent years. Between healthy and injured inactive designations, Latimer has caught a grand total of 16 passes for 158 yards and one touchdown—in three years. Jordan Taylor and Bennie Fowler provide decent roster fill-out, but Denver’s ranking in this slideshow is primarily dependent on Thomas and Sanders.
14. Detroit Lions
Receivers: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Jace Billingsley, T.J. Jones, Keshawn Martin, Kenny Golladay, Michael Rector, Jared Abbrederis
Tight Ends: Eric Ebron, Darren Felts, Cole Wick, Michael Roberts, Khari Lee
The Lions signed Marvin Jones to a five-year, $40 million contract in the 2016 offseason to give Golden Tate a reliable partner after Calvin Johnson’s retirement, and for the most part, Jones proved to be a valuable asset. He set a career high with 930 receiving yards on 55 catches, and he has the potential to do more—he only had two games over 100 yards, though he led the team with 10 catches for 391 yards on passes over 20 yards in the air. Jones could stand to cut down on the drops (then again, so could Tate), but it was a promising first year.
Tate has been a high-volume receiver in each of his three seasons with the Lions, catching over 90 passes in all of those years. Built like a running back, Tate has the speed and physicality to be a top receiver, though his route-running sometimes lags behind.
Veteran Anquan Boldin is now a free agent, though the Lions have expressed interest in bringing him back for a second season in Detroit. It would be a smart move, as Boldin still wants to play, and though he doesn’t have the speed he used to, he’s still a good contested-catch receiver who really helps extend possessions. Moreover, the team doesn’t have anyone else who does what Boldin does.
The guy on the bubble here is Ebron, the first-round pick from 2014 who has both excited and frustrated with his own combination of athletic ability and inconsistency. He set career highs in receptions (61) and yards (711) last season, and the Lions picked up his fifth-year option in early May, so there’s clearly some belief in the front office that he can be as productive as Detroit’s high-volume passing attack sets him up to be.
13. Cincinnati Bengals
Receivers: A.J. Green, John Ross, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, Alex Erickson, Josh Malone, Alonzo Russell, Jake Kumerow, Chris Brown
Tight Ends: Tyler Eifert, C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, Mason Schreck, Cethan Carter
A.J. Green missed the last six games of the 2016 season with a hamstring injury, but he still amassed 66 catches for 964 yards and four touchdowns, and when healthy, he’s one of a handful of the league’s best receivers. Green should be fine for the 2017 season, but his absence showed the team that more depth was needed—Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd were the two receivers who picked up the slack the most in Green’s absence, but certainly neither one of them is a comparable weapon.
So, with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft, Cincinnati selected Washington speed receiver John Ross as the primary complement to Green going forward. Ross caught 13 deep passes for 535 yards and seven touchdowns last season, but he’s not just a smaller straight-line guy—he’s an excellent route-runner, and tougher over the middle than you’d expect from a 5’11”, 188-pound guy. Still, the Bengals would do well to keep him out of harm’s way—Ross suffered several injuries during his time with the Huskies. Still, the record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash speed he showed at the scouting combine is also evident on the field, and Ross could open up the Bengals’ passing game in ways we’ve not seen before.
Ross’ acquisition pushes LaFell and Boyd down the depth chart a bit, though each are good players in specific instances. LaFell has some deep speed, but he’s best as a No. 2 bigger receiver who can take in possession targets and move the chains. Boyd contributed 54 catches for 603 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season—he’s also a speed receiver, though not on the same level as Ross, and he’s an enticing target on underneath stuff against zone defenses.
Tyler Eifert, a top-level tight end when healthy, unfortunately has not been that often enough throughout his career. He missed the entire 2016 offseason after suffering an injury in the Pro Bowl, and he missed eight games in the 2016 season with a back injury. He’s a dynamic red-zone target when he’s on the field.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
Receivers: Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Arrelious Benn, Rashad Greene, Dede Westbrook, Shane Wynn, Larry Pinkard, Amba Etta-Tawo, Jamal Robinson
Tight Ends: Marcedes Lewis, Mychal Rivera, Ben Koyack, Neal Sterling, Caleb Bluiett
Neither of the two Allens—Robinson nor Hurns—were able to live up to their impressive 2015 seasons, but both could be in for bounce-back seasons in 2017. Robinson’s downturn from the 1,400-yard season he had in 2015 to last year’s 883-yard performance can be attributed to bad quarterback play from Blake Bortles and unimaginative coaching. When Doug Marrone took over as the team’s interim head coach, the Jags started moving Robinson around in the formation, and he responded with a nine-catch, 147-yard game against the Titans and a five-catch, 82-yard game against the Colts to end the season. Robinson should be more consistent with Marrone as the full-time head coach.
Hurns missed five games with injuries and played through others, which amounted to a lost season after his 64-catch, 1,031-yard 2015 season. Hurns got a five-year, $40.6 million deal after that season and was unable to come anywhere near it in 2016. When healthy, though, he’s an estimable possession target, especially in the red zone. Hurns also led the team with five deep receptions, despite his injuries.
Hurns’ literal and figurative disappearing act paved the way for Marqise Lee, the USC alum who had been invisible himself throughout his first two NFL seasons. Finally, Lee was able to stay healthy, and he responded with 63 catches for 851 yards and three touchdowns—all career highs. If both Robinson and Hurns can hit the field more often together in 2017, Lee has a lot of potential as a speed slot receiver.
After two seasons of hoping for the best from overpaid tight end Julius Thomas, the Jags now have veteran Marcedes Lewis at the top of their roster at that position. More is needed here from someone, but job No. 1 for this offense, and its coaching staff, is to either get Blake Bortles to play consistently or find someone else who can.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Receivers: Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson, Amara Darboh, Tanner McEvoy, Kenny Lawler, Kasen Williams, Tyler Slavin, David Moore
Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson, Nick Vannett, Ronnie Shields
Doug Baldwin, an undrafted free agent from Stanford in 2011, has used his toughness, determination and a severe chip on his shoulder to become one of the league’s most valuable receivers. One year after leading the league in touchdown receptions with 14, Baldwin finally made his first Pro Bowl in 2016—an overdue honor. Outside of Antonio Brown, there isn’t a better and more consistent route-runner than Baldwin, and his foot-fakes at the line of scrimmage tend to make defenders miss their coverages of him almost comically at times. Moreover, his chemistry with Russell Wilson is a key part of Seattle’s offense—when Wilson breaks the pocket because the protection has evaporated (something that happened far too often in 2016), Baldwin has a preternatural sense of how and when to run with Wilson to stay open.
Seattle’s two speed receivers struggled with injuries in 2016, but when they’re on the field, they’re a potent duo. Tyler Lockett went down for the rest of the season with a broken fibula in December, but he finished second to Baldwin in deep receptions with eight, and he brings a ton of value as a returner. Paul Richardson benefited from Lockett’s injury with more snaps in the playoffs, and he responded well—especially in the wild-card win over the Lions. He’s been slow to start through his three-year career due to his own maladies, but Richardson might be a breakout guy in 2017—especially if Lockett takes longer than expected to recover from his broken leg. Jermaine Kearse, once an indispensable part of this rotation, will need a better 2017 to hang on. He led the league in offensive pass interference penalties and finished third-to-last in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted receiver metrics.
The guy who could put this rotation over the top, of course, is Jimmy Graham—if the coaching staff finally unleashes him as the weapon he proved to be with the Saints. Graham got off to a slow start as he was recovering from a torn patellar tendon, but he showed enough potential through his second season in Seattle, despite schematic limitations. He’s a gifted contested-catch target.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Receivers: Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Ryan Switzer, Brice Butler, Andy Jones, Lucky Whitehead, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Quincy McDuffie, Noah Brown
Tight Ends: Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Connor Hamlett
Dez Bryant started his 2016 season slowly as he fought through injuries and worked to establish a chemistry with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, but he was the team’s most prolific receiver in the second half of the season and into the playoffs, catching eight touchdown passes from Week 9 on. An offseason with Prescott as the established starter, and better health for Bryant, should re-establish him as one of the league’s top receivers—especially as Dallas’ coaching staff continues to expand Prescott’s playbook with more deep throws.
Prescott’s standout rookie season was also a breakout year for Cole Beasley, who came on nicely in the 2015 season but became a real weapon from the slot in 2016. At 5’8” and 180 pounds, Beasley is never going to challenge cornerbacks as an outside receiver, but as a slot man, he has a great understanding of how to get open underneath in traffic, and he provided Prescott with a ton of easy reads when he needed them. To add to their slot performance, the Cowboys selected North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer in the fourth round. Switzer is a similarly sized receiver who was one of the NCAA’s most prolific slot targets last season.
Terrance Williams caught 44 passes for 594 yards last season, and while he’s never had what you might call a “breakout” campaign, no Cowboys receiver gave Prescott a higher passer rating as a target. The Cowboys signed him to a new four-year deal in the offseason, so they clearly believe in his potential.
At tight end, the ageless Jason Witten had another fine season, catching 69 passes for 673 yards at age 34. Witten is still one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, and an excellent mentor for a young receiver group with all kinds of potential.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers
Receivers: Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, Demarcus Ayers, Marcus Tucker, Justin Hunter, Martavis Bryant
Tight Ends: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Davis Johnson, Ryan Malleck, Scott Orndoff
The Steelers made Antonio Brown the league’s highest-paid receiver in February with a four-year, $68 million contract extension, and Brown has proven to be worth that kind of deal in every way possible. He’s caught over 100 passes in each of the last four seasons, and while his 1,284-yard total in 2016 was a downturn from his incendiary 1,834-yard season in 2015, one could place a lot of that regression on the rough time Ben Roethlisberger had staying productive in the second half of the season. Brown had four 100-yard games up to November 13 and none after that in the regular season, though he rebounded nicely in the playoffs. Brown is among the best route-runners in the NFL, and at age 28, he hasn’t lost any discernible speed.
Running back Le’Veon Bell was the team’s second-most productive receiver last season, which would indicate that the rest of this receiver group needs to step up. And it’s true that Brown’s excellence is most of the reason the Steelers are ranked in the top 10. But Eli Rogers, an undrafted free agent out of Louisville, started to make inroads as a reliable No. 2 receiver last season after missing his 2015 rookie campaign due to injury. Rogers was the team’s top slot receiver and added a secondary deep threat, and he’ll be one to watch in 2017.
Sammie Coates is the team’s primary speedster outside of Bryant, and while he did lead the team in drops with seven, some of that may be injury-related. But Coates will have to ramp his reliability up in 2017, especially if the reinstated Martavis Bryant can return to form after a league-mandated suspension that cost him the entire 2016 season. Bryant had scored 14 touchdowns on just 76 catches in his first two seasons, and when his head’s on straight, Bryant is a big play waiting to happen. The offense really missed him last year.
Jesse James established himself as the tight end of the future in his second NFL season, becoming more of a go-to guy for Roethlisberger in the playoffs—he caught 11 passes for 137 yards in Pittsburgh’s 2016 postseason run.
8. Miami Dolphins
Receivers: Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Leonte Carroo, Jakeem Grant, Rashawn Scott, Isaiah Ford
Tight Ends: Julius Thomas, Anthony Fasano, MarQueis Gray, Thomas Duarte, Chris Pantale
Last season, Jarvis Landry was the most prolific slot receiver in the NFL; his 65 catches and 856 yards led the league. Landry has become an indispensable target for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has had his issues with decision-making late in the down. Landry has gained more than 1,100 yards in each of the last two seasons, and while he’s also a fine outside receiver, his true value comes from short and intermediate routes inside the formation.
While Landry has things nailed down in the slot, both Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker are excellent deep receivers, and when Tannehill is accurate deep, they’re both fine targets. Stills led the team with nine catches for 380 yards on passes thrown longer than 20 yards in the air; moreover, he scored eight touchdowns on those nine receptions. Stills averaged 17.3 yards per catch last season, and the Dolphins wisely re-signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract with $20 million guaranteed in the offseason.
Parker took some nice steps forward in his second NFL season last year, and he’s working this offseason to upgrade his physical conditioning. If that takes on the field, Parker could finally become the asset the Dolphins thought he could be when they selected him in the first round out of Louisville in 2015.
Miami also signed former Broncos and Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas to a two-year deal; offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen believes that Thomas could add “10-12 touchdowns” to the offense. Thomas does have the talent to do that, but as he showed with a statistical downturn in Jacksonville after benefiting from Peyton Manning’s prolific seasons in Denver, he needs the right kind of quarterback to make that impact.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
Receivers: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Dontrelle Inman, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Geremy Davis, Isaiah Burse, Da’Ron Brown, Jamaal Jones, Javontee Herndon
Tight Ends: Hunter Henry, Antonio Gates, Sean McGrath, Jeff Cumberland, Asante Cleveland
This was a sneaky-good unit in 2016, and the selection of Clemson star Mike Williams in the first round of the 2017 draft could put it over the top as one of the league’s best. After missing most of the 2015 season with a neck fracture, he was the difference-maker for the national champs last year, catching 98 balls for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. If Deshaun Watson put the ball anywhere in Williams’ vicinity, there was a very good chance that Williams would come up with the ball. And while he doesn’t have the elite deep speed you might want from a No. 1 receiver, he did come up with 14 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns on balls thrown 20 or more yards in the air. Williams’ game as a deep receiver is far more about physicality, but he’s proven to be very consistent in this regard.
Allen, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1 of the 2016 season, ran routes at full speed in the team’s recent minicamp, and he should be ready to go for the start of the 2017 campaign. When healthy, Allen is a fine complementary receiver both outside and in the slot. Though his lack of separation speed is an issue, Allen is able to create openings with route awareness and physicality.
Allen’s injury allowed the team’s receiver depth to show itself, and that was true for Tyrell Williams more than anyone else. After a fairly anonymous rookie campaign in 2015, Williams led all Chargers receivers with 69 catches for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. The Oregon alum established himself as a faster deep target for Philip Rivers, and with speed a spare component of the team’s other primary receivers, Williams shouldn’t get pushed to the back of the line even with Mike Williams’ addition and Keenan Allen’s return. Inman caught 58 passes for 810 yards and four touchdowns last season, all career highs, and he became the team’s primary slot receiver. Travis Benjamin, who caught 47 passes for 677 yards and four touchdowns last season, could be used primarily as a return man in 2017. That’s how deep this group is when everyone’s healthy, though Benjamin’s speed will have him on the field as a receiver at times.
At age 36, Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but the future Hall of Famer tied second on the team with Williams with seven receiving touchdowns. He comprises a fine tight end battery with Hunter Henry, who led the team with eight receiving touchdowns and should be considered the starter at this point.
6. Green Bay Packers
Tight Ends: Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Richard Rodgers, Beau Sandland
Jordy Nelson won the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year award after missing the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, and Aaron Rodgers would certainly attest to the value Nelson brought back to the offense upon his return. Head coach Mike McCarthy prefers an offense in which the route concepts are fairly rudimentary, and it’s up to the receivers to beat their coverage. With his combination of deep speed (which showed up more as the season went along), toughness to catch the ball and ability to get open in short spaces, Nelson once again proved that when he’s available, he’s the alpha dog of the Packers’ receiver corps. With 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns, Nelson was able to play as if his lost season had never happened.
Davante Adams finally seemed to live up to his occasional athletic promise in 2016—he was finally able to transcend the frustrations he tended to inspire in his first two seasons, and fell just three yards short of his first 1,000-yard season. Adams still has issues with drops, and there are times when you watch him and wonder if he’s on the same page as everyone else, but his athletic potential is unquestionable, and for the most part, the light seemed to come on in 2016.
For primary slot man Randall Cobb, however, more was expected last season. For the third straight year, Cobb saw a downturn in receptions and receiving yards, and he’s caught a grand total of two touchdown passes in the last two seasons. He can still awaken the echoes of prior greatness, as he did in the playoffs against the Giants with a three-touchdown performance, but he’ll need to stay healthy and be used more creatively. Geronimo Allison is one to watch as a slot guy—he caught 10 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns there last season.
Green Bay lost tight end Jared Cook in free agency, but picked up Martellus Bennett to replace Cook, and if he’s able to stay healthy, Bennett could be a valuable addition to this offense with his superior blocking and productivity as a pass-catcher.
5. Atlanta Falcons
Receivers: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Devin Fuller, Anthony Dable, Nick Williams, Andre Roberts
Tight Ends: Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, Josh Perkins, D.J. Tialavea, Eric Saubert
While the Falcons receiver group proved to be one of the deepest overall in 2016, there’s no question that Julio Jones is the best of the bunch, and probably the best receiver in the NFL right now. Having ranked first overall among receivers in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics in cumulative value, Jones presents an impossible series of problems to the defenders who have to face him. At 6'3" and 220 pounds with amazing speed for his size, the ability to run every route with authority and a true gift for the acrobatic catch, Jones is—when healthy—as good at his position as we’ve seen in a long time.
Jones ranked second in the league in Football Outsiders’ per-play value among receivers. The top man was Taylor Gabriel, who caught just 35 passes for 579 yards last season, but he proved to be a devastating deep threat in limited action for the Falcons, with 272 yards and three touchdowns on six receptions in which the ball was thrown 20 yards or more in the air. Expect to see Gabriel’s role open up in the future—2016 was his first season with the Falcons after two years in Cleveland.
Mohamed Sanu was Atlanta’s main slot man with 48 catches, 544 yards and four touchdowns inside the formation. In his first year with the Falcons, the former Bengal showed a nice sense of route understanding and proved to be a great blocker, as well.
The Falcons have struggled to find consistent production from the tight end position since Tony Gonzalez retired in 2013, but Austin Hooper could turn that around. The Stanford rookie became more involved in the offense as the season went along, and he led all Falcons receivers in targets in Super Bowl LI.
4. New York Giants
Receivers: Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, Roger Lewis, Tavarres King, Dwayne Harris, Kevin Norwood, Travis Rudolph, Darius Powe
Tight Ends: Evan Engram, Will Tye, Jerell Adams, Matt LaCosse
Everybody who watches football knows what Odell Beckham brings to the game—he’s as acrobatic as any player in the league, and his highlight catches are legendary, but he’s also incredibly productive, with 288 catches on 457 targets for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns in just three seasons. Beckham has expanded his route palette since he came out of LSU, and the extent to which he can make defenders look silly at the line of scrimmage speaks to his rare combination of athleticism and body control. Simply put, he’s as good as there is at his position. Does Beckham have maturity concerns? It certainly seems so, but the Giants gratefully picked up his fifth-year option this offseason; they know well that they wouldn’t have much of a passing game without him.
Still, depth is important for any receiver corps, and the reason the Giants place fourth in our rankings is the extent to which they’ve worked to build a full unit of talent around Beckham. The offseason signing of veteran Brandon Marshall is a perfect example. Marshall caught just 59 passes for 788 yards last season for the Jets, but he’s two seasons removed from a 109-catch, 1,502-yard season with that same franchise. It’s hard to think that he’ll put up those kinds of numbers again, but that’s not what he’s on this team to do—Marshall is an expert at catching short passes and turning them into credible gains, and being a high-volume receiver for any quarterback on first and second reads. He’ll be a big help to Eli Manning, whose deep accuracy has faltered in recent years.
Marshall’s presence should open things up for Sterling Shepard, who became the Giants’ primary slot man in his rookie season. The Oklahoma alum proved to be just as slippery in his route-running at the NFL level as he was in college, and his 60 catches for 636 yards and eight touchdowns from the slot brought back some of the excitement this offense had in Victor Cruz’s glory days.
And with their first pick in this year’s draft, the Giants gave Manning something he’s missed for a long time—a legitimate pass-catching threat at tight end in Evan Engram. While he’s listed as a tight end, and the Giants say they’ll use him at the position in a traditional sense, Engram creates opportunities from all over the formation. Last season, Engram caught seven deep passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, putting him among the NCAA leaders in all of those categories.
3. Oakland Raiders
Receivers: Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, Cordarrelle Patterson, Johnny Holton, Jaydon Mickens, K.J. Brent, Ishmael Zamora, Keon Hatcher
Tight Ends: Jared Cook, Clive Walford, Lee Smith, Gabe Holmes, Cooper Helfet
Both Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2016, and they are the dual epicenters of Oakland’s passing game, but there’s more to the Raiders receiver corps than those two guys.
Cooper is the rock star in this group—in his second NFL season, he led the team in receiving yards and deep catches, and when he was on, he was terrifying—his 12-catch, 173-yard effort against the Buccaneers in October was as dominant a performance as any receiver had last season. Cooper needs to work on game-to-game consistency, and drops are still a minor problem, but it’s easy to see him put it all together, and he’s become one of the premier young talents at his position in the league.
Crabtree, the veteran, is the dirty-work guy—he can still run a deep route, but he’s all about beating defenders in the slot, coming down with the tough catch on the boundary and running the tough inside route. He led the team in drops with 13, which has plagued him throughout his career, but he’s aged well and he’s a crucial part of this passing game.
Seth Roberts tied with Crabtree for the team lead with 30 slot receptions, and in his second NFL season, the undrafted free agent from West Alabama made an impact as the third receiver with five touchdowns on just 38 receptions. And the addition of former Vikings first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson could be a very interesting factor. Patterson was never able to grasp the route concepts demanded of him in Minnesota, but he’s always been a great athlete and a devastating return man. In this offense, Patterson could see touches as a receiver but also as a running back. The intention, according to head coach Jack Del Rio, is to use Patterson’s athletic versatility. If Patterson can combine that with an offensive understanding that transcends his current status as a gadget player, the Raiders got quite a steal in him.
The Raiders will also have the services of Jared Cook, who caught 30 passes for 377 yards for the Packers last season but was surprisingly productive from 2013 through 2015 with a series of dismal Rams offenses. He and Clive Walford should combine to produce an under-the-radar, but reasonably productive, duo.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Receivers: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Josh Huff, Freddie Martino, Donteea Dye, Bernard Reedy, Derel Walker
Tight Ends: O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Luke Stocker, Alan Cross
The Buccaneers went 9-7 in 2016 with an offense that ranked 16th in passing attempts, and 16th in passing yards. Clearly, the front office felt that this franchise was perhaps one dynamic receiver from the proverbial Next Step, and that’s why they signed former Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $35 million contract in March.
As I detailed in this article after the deal was made, Jackson is a perfect complement to this offense, because he has the deep speed and separation ability that nobody else on Tampa Bay’s roster possesses—only Mike Evans caught more than 10 passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air last season, and Evans, while reasonably fast, is more of a contested-catch receiver. But Jackson had the most yards of any receiver on those types of deep passes with 579, and only Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton caught more deep passes than Jackson’s 16. Jackson will take safeties out of the picture for Tampa Bay’s other receivers and ease Jameis Winston’s reads on short and intermediate passes.
That will also make things better for Evans, a 6'5", 231-pound monster who can terrorize opposing cornerbacks with his skill of jumping for balls and using his body to block out defenders, especially in the red zone. Last season, Evans matched his 2014 rookie total with 12 receiving touchdowns. Adam Humphries was the main slot receiver in 2016, with 36 receptions on 56 targets for 395 yards and one touchdown inside the formation.
Speaking of red-zone targets, tight end Cameron Brate was underrated in this regard in 2016, with eight touchdowns, and he displayed a nice ability to get open in close quarters near the end zone. And to that tight end group, the Bucs added Alabama’s O.J. Howard in the first round of the 2017 draft. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, and running a 4.51 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, Howard has the size, release speed and blocking ability to become a major cog in this passing game.
1. New England Patriots
Receivers: Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Andrew Hawkins, Matthew Slater, Devin Street, Devin Lucien
Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel
We conclude our receiver corps rankings with one simple statement: The rich just got richer.
With two offseason moves, the defending Super Bowl champs now have a group of targets as deep as any in the Tom Brady era—certainly the equivalent of the 2012 corps, when Wes Welker put up 1,354 yards, Brandon Lloyd had a 911-yard season and third-year tight end Rob Gronkowski scored 11 touchdowns in just 11 games.
In 2017, the Pats traded their first-round pick for the services of former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, who had 1,100-yard seasons in each of the last two years, and team owner Robert Kraft has compared Cooks’ potential impact to that of Randy Moss in his prime. There’s a bit of projection involved in that statement, but Cooks has shown demon deep speed—last season, only DeSean Jackson had more yards on passes of at least 20 yards in the air than Cooks’ 544. Moreover, Cooks isn’t just a speedster—he has an estimable understanding of route concepts, and the transition to New England’s playbook, heavy on option routes, shouldn’t be a problem.
Cooks’ ability to create separation on long passes is especially important to this offense—last season, the Patriots completed 27 passes of 20-plus yards in the air to Cooks’ 11, and Chris Hogan had 16 of those passes for the Patriots. The former Bills speedster thrived in his new environs, gaining a career-high 680 receiving yards and leading the NFL with 17.9 yards per catch. Having Cooks and Hogan on the field at the same time will be worrisome for any deep safety.
The other offseason move that makes a big difference is the acquisition of former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, who will be Rob Gronkowski’s new best buddy. Last year, the Pats tried to team Gronk and Martellus Bennett together in their two-tight-end packages, but it didn’t work as expected due to injury. Allen never put up huge numbers in the Colts offense, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. Allen is a fine blocker and has the potential to be another deep threat—he caught three passes of 20-plus yards in the air in 2016, and all three were for touchdowns.
All these deep targets allow the Pats to do with Julian Edelman what he’s best at—run any route possible from anywhere in the formation, aligning himself perfectly with the three-dimensional passing game in Tom Brady’s head. Add in the depth in this rotation with proven role players like Danny Amendola and Matthew Slater, and factor in the receptions that can come out of the running game (remember the 14 receptions James White had in Super Bowl LI), and it will be tremendously exciting to see how this coaching staff deploys all this talent against enemy defenses.
Tom Brady has had some great receiver groups, but this just may be his best yet.