NFL 90-man rosters are starting to take shape as we near training camp. While it will be a few months before we can really start to nail down final 53s, we can at least start to piece together where teams are strongest, deepest, most talented, and conversely where they're thin or threatened.
I included 16 NFL clubs on my list today (plus some honorable mentions), all teams a realistic shot at being among the NFL's best at the position in 2014. There are some very deep groups, some top-heavy groups, and some groups that feature potent one-two punches. Regardless of how I've categorized these teams below, I've tried to take overall talent, quality depth and production into account, and as I've said on every previous article, I'm sure I overrated, underrated, or forgot about a couple teams with talent and depth at receiver within my list.
(italics indicates a rookie)
WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Wes Welker, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Andre Caldwell, WR Cody Latimer, WR Gerrell Robinson, WR Isaiah Burse, WR Nathan Palmer, WR Greg Hardin, WR Bennie Fowler
Denver returns one of the NFL's top outside X-receivers in Demaryius Thomas, and is again paired with one of this generation's best slot receivers in Wes Welker. Thomas, who finished as Football Outsiders' #1 ranked receiver in 2013 per their DYAR (total value - 'defense-adjusted yards above replacement') metric, caught 92 passes for 1430 yards and an NFL-high 14 touchdowns. He's a physical specimen at 6'3, 225 pounds with 4.4 or better speed, has amazing body control for his size, and is the definition of a #1 receiver; a true "go-to guy," Peyton Manning's security blanket. Per ProFootballFocus' tracking, Manning had a 122.6 rating when throwing to Thomas, second highest in the NFL for a QB-WR combo, behind only DeSean Jackson.
Welker, one of the most prolific pass catchers of this era who's gone over 100 catches in five of the last seven seasons, played his part effectively as one of Peyton Manning's three-headed target-monster. Welker navigated pick-plays and crossing routes with deadly precision, racking up 73 receptions for 778 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. While Thomas played his part as a deep threat (15.4 YPC), Welker cleaned up underneath and took advantage of his shifty athleticism and quick footwork.
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Obviously, the loss of Eric Decker to free agency hurts Denver's talent-pool, but they remain in the elite group because of their quality depth. John Elway and company went out and drafted one of the more intriguing receiver prospects in this year's Draft in Cody Latimer, who matches Decker in size and should provide Manning with a similar size/speed target with the ability to go up, climb the ladder, and come down with tough passes.
Adding depth and the potential as a bridge for Latimer's development, the Broncos added free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who is coming off of a career year with 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns with the Steelers. Sanders had only five drops on 72 catchable throws (per PFF), so his reliable hands should pair well with Manning's precision accuracy.
Veteran Andre Caldwell rounds out the group as solid depth.
WR Reggie Wayne, WR Hakeem Nicks, WR T.Y. Hilton, WR Da'Rick Rogers, WR Donte Moncrief, WR LaVon Brazill, WR Josh Lenz, WR Griff Whalen, WR Eric Thomas, WR Gregory Moore, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Tony Washington
Reggie Wayne's season ended abruptly last season, but the productive and reliable three-time All-Pro should return to the field in 2014 as a favorite target for Andrew Luck. Wayne - who played seven games and caught 38 passes, but was on pace for 83 catches and 1,149 yards - will pair with breakout star T.Y. Hilton, who played a whole season and ended up with, interestingly enough, 82 catches for 1,083 yards.
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Add in a theoretically motivated Hakeem Nicks, and you've got one of the best receiving trios in football, potentially. Nicks was once thought of to be among the top echelon of NFL receivers but has battled injuries and apparent malaise the past two seasons, and his numbers (and effectiveness) have dropped off dramatically. However, Nicks' talent is undeniable, and on a one-year prove it deal in Indy, the potential as a make-or-break season makes him an intriguing bounce-back player who could really augment an already-talented group.
Rounding out the depth for Indianapolis at receiver, high-upside players like Da'Rick Rogers will be thrown in with the likes of LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen, and we might find some interesting camp battles. Rookie draft pick Donte Moncrief is another insanely high-upside player with elite athleticism, and has the potential to make an impact early on as a deep threat that also run-blocks, which should earn him points in Indy's system.
Overall, the combination of savvy veterans, young up-and-comers, and a few ceiling-less prospects makes the Colts' receiver corps one of the best in the NFL.
WR Jordy Nelson, WR Randall Cobb, WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Davante Adams, WR Chris Harper, WR Jared Abbrederis, WR Jeff Janis, WR Kevin Dorsey, WR Myles White
Jordy Nelson did his normal ho-hum thing in 2013, finishing second in Football Outsiders' DYAR and third in DVOA while racking up 85 receptions for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. Aaron Rodgers had a 111.6 passer rating while targeting Nelson, who is equally effective underneath as he is deep down the field.
Randall Cobb broke out in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards and 8 touchdowns (plus 134 yards rushing), but missed much of 2013 to injury. When he's healthy, he's an absurdly dangerous weapon for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense, taking handoffs out of the backfield or running routes as a receiver. The 24-year old looks poised to shoot back to the top of fantasy-football discussions and figures to be a focal point for Green Bay. Cobb is as sure-handed (only one drop on 42 targets in 2013) as he is shifty, and he also adds value in the return game.
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Jarrett Boykin, in the absence of Cobb last year (and Donald Driver and Greg Jennings), enjoyed a breakout year of sorts with 49 catches for 681 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2013. He'll see competition for snaps from second-round pick Davante Adams, another extremely intriguing draft picks whose skill-set should mesh perfectly with Rodgers' accuracy, velocity, and willingness to pull the trigger. The thing that stands out most about Adams is his ability to box out defenders and pluck the football at its highest point, a talent that I'm sure Rodgers will take advantage of. I don't think it'd be surprising if Adams jumps a few guys on the depth chart and starts getting some red-zone reps for Green Bay early in his career.
Mix in intriguing depth in former Seahawk and 49er Chris Harper, who is making some noise in camp this year, plus Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, and you've got a deep, talented, and high-potential receiver corps that any franchise would covet.
THE DAMN GOOD
The Damn Good can be characterized as not only talented at the top, but deep at the position.
WR Michael Crabtree, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Stevie Johnson, WR Quinton Patton, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Jonathan Baldwin, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Kassim Osgood, WR Chuck Jacobs, WR Devon Wylie, WR David Reed
Injuries stifled San Francisco's receiver corps last year, but with the return of Michael Crabtree to go along with some savvy front-office wheeling and dealing, the Niners' pass-catching group looks really solid and deep going into 2014.
Crabtree is again partnered with Anquan Boldin, who sets the tone for San Francisco with his toughness, devil-may-care swagger, and unrepentant undershirt hanging out of his jersey, remains ageless and unstoppable. He might not be the fastest or most elusive, but he catches everything and finds ways to create subtle separation. Boldin caught 85 passes for 1,179 yards in 2013 on a team that threw the ball fewer times than anyone in the NFL. He may not produce at that volume in 2014 with a few more targets going elsewhere, but his efficiency isn't likely to wane.
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A mid-round conditional pick brings Stevie Johnson to San Francisco, and his role is a real wildcard for the Niners this year. If he can get back to the form that helped him break 1000 yards each of 2010, 2011, and 2012, we could see Kaepernick and company run out of three-receiver sets more often in order to get the most talent onto the field at the same time. At the very least, regardless, he'll be a nice upgrade in depth for the Niners, and should push for the #3 spot early on. Johnson will compete with promising sophomore Quinton Patton and rookie Bruce Ellington, who brings a speed/shiftiness element to the group, and overall this Niner receiver corps has potential to be among the league's best.
WR Pierre Garcon, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Aldrick Robinson, WR Andre Roberts, WR Ryan Grant, WR Santana Moss, WR Leonard Hankerson, WR Nick Williams, WR Lee Doss, WR Cody Hoffman, WR Rashad Lawrence, WR Rashad Ross
Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions in 2013, one of only five receivers to break the century mark. Paired with DeSean Jackson going forward, he's likely to find himself a few more one-on-one situations downfield as teams tilt deep toward Jackson's side. Together, they make up one of the more intriguing combinations at receiver this year -- Garcon's prolific production to go with Jackson's inimitable speed downfield.
While Garcon's raw numbers eclipsed Jackson's from last year, Jackson was elite if you pay heed to advanced stats. The free-agent signee that was abruptly cut in Philly was ProFootballFocus' 7th ranked receiver for 2014, receiving an 18.8 overall grade, and he came out 6th among receivers in Football Outsiders' DYAR, and 10th in DVOA. His 16.2 yards per catch is indicative of how he's used -- as a speedy threat deep downfield -- and that talent should mesh nicely with Robert Griffin III's strong downfield arm.
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Jackson wasn't the only target for Washington in free agency, and they landed former Arizona Cardinal Andre Roberts. Roberts was buried behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd in Arizona, obviously, and while he may continue to be overshadowed in DC, he's a very solid receiver. He'll be joined by savvy vet Santana Moss, role players in Ryan Grant, Leonard Hankerson, Nick Williams, and rookies in Cody Hoffman, Rashad Lawrence, and Rashad Ross.
The Saints' lost prolific pass-catcher Darren Sproles this year as a cap casualty, meaning some of his 71 receptions will have to go around elsewhere. Fortunately for Drew Brees, he has some talented receivers to distribute those to in 2014. Kenny Stills ended up first-overall in Football Outsiders DVOA metric, which essentially means he's was the most valuable receiver per snap in the NFL last year. That can be best understood by looking at his yards-per-catch of 19.3, among the best in the NFL for eligible receivers. When he was on the field, he was going deep more often than not, and picking up chunks of yardage each time.
Of course, I'm probably remiss in not first mentioning Marques Colston, a stalwart for the Saints over the past several years. Colston caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five scores last year, and is great because of his versatility -- he moves around, catching passes in the slot, up the sideline, and in the flats. He's a huge target for Drew Brees, who can trust him and throw it up to only where his pass-catcher can reach it.
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Add in Robert Meachem, who obviously didn't work out in San Diego but fits Sean Payton's scheme to a T, and you've got a very nice starting trio of receivers in New Orleans. The X-factor this year will be the addition of the dynamic and explosive Brandin Cooks, who could be a likely beneficiary of Sproles bequeathed targets. Brandon Coleman is another guy to keep an eye on as a potential longer-term replacement for Marques Colston, and Nick Toon has some potential in that system.
WR A.J. Green, WR Marvin Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Dane Sanzenbacher, WR Brandon Tate, WR Ryan Whalen, WR Cobi Hamilton, WR James Wright, WR Colin Lockett
A.J. Green is really awesome at playing receiver. He's got length, speed, and amazing body control to create separation at exactly the right instant, and his production backs this all up. He's been very consistent -- his line from 2012 (97 catches, 1350 yards, 11 TD) matches up very closely to 2013 (98 catches, 1426 yards, 11 TD) -- and his YPC is steadily going up. This trend won't likely reverse course.
Helping matters for the Bengals, Marvin Jones had a breakout year opposite Green as the 24-year old racked up 51 catches for 712 yards and ten touchdowns. Jones finished 11th in Football Outsiders DYAR (again, total value) and 3rd in DVOA (value per play). The third-year player out of Cal figures to improve with more reps and experience in 2014.
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Rounding out the group is 2012 3rd rounder Mohamed Sanu, who caught 47 passes for 455 yards in 2013. Dane Sanzenbacher, Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen, and Cobi Hamilton add some depth.
THE DYNAMIC DUOS
The teams that fall into the dynamic duo category have excellent talent at the receiver position and aren't necessarily "below" the Damn Good, but are more top-heavy in talent. They heavily feature two main weapons, and the depth behind these feature players is more tenuous.
There might not be a better receiver duo in the NFL than Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, and both are well-suited to play with Jay Cutler and his gunslinger mentality. Cutler is not afraid to put the ball into traffic and has enough arm to make any throw, and both Marshall and Jeffrey excel at high-pointing the football to bring it down in a crowd.
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The depth behind those two is the wildcard though -- Josh Morgan provides some veteran depth and could emerge as a viable #3 receiver in this offense, and Marquess Wilson showed a lot of promise in 2013 but remains an unfinished product.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, WR Michael Floyd, WR Ted Ginn, WR Jaron Brown, WR Teddy Williams, WR John Brown, WR Walter Powell, WR Dan Buckner, WR Brittan Golden
What can I say about Larry Fitzgerald that hasn't already been said? He's one of the best receivers in his generation -- catches everything, is tough as hell, is the nicest guy ever, has incredible teeth, and wears ascot scarves. His protege in Michael Floyd is no slouch either, and has developed into a very dangerous weapon opposite Fitz.
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Arizona has some nice depth pieces behind those two in Ted Ginn and the rookie John Brown, but Larry and Floyd (sounds like the bizarro characters of Dumb and Dumber) are the two pillars of that pass offense.
WR Vincent Jackson, WR Mike Evans, WR Louis Murphy, WR Chris Owusu, WR Robert Herron, WR Skye Dawson, WR Quintin Payton, WR Russell Shepard, WR Tommy Streeter, WR Lavelle Hawkins, WR Soloman Patton
The Bucs went out and got themselves a younger version of their #1 receiver in Mike Evans, and when paired with Vincent Jackson, teams better get big on defense in and around the redzone. Jackson's 31 and his yards-per-catch was its lowest in over five years, but he remains in an elite class of receivers. With some more consistent quarterback play in 2014, we should see his YPC creep back up toward his career average of 17.4 or so. Evans should take some of the defensive heat off of Jackson, and the two should combine for some pretty interesting personnel groupings when used in conjunction with Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Tim Wright.
Past Jackson/Evans, Robert Herron is an interesting one to watch this year. Somebody has to catch the intermediate, underneath stuff and Herron is an excellent candidate as a slot receiver for Tampa.
WR Calvin Johnson, WR Golden Tate, WR Kris Durham, WR Ryan Broyles, WR Jeremy Ross, WR Corey Fuller, Kevin Ogletree, TJ Jones
The Lions pass the ball a lot. I would too, probably, if I had a 6'5, 235 pound guy that runs 4.35 with a 42" vertical running routes (I'm talking about Calvin Johnson). Johnson is the elite of the elite, probably the best overall receiver in the NFL, and certainly the most impressive athlete among them. Johnson caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns (in 14 games) last season, off the pace he set in his record-breaking 2012 season but obviously still very good production. He'll be paired with the hilariously paradoxical-looking Golden Tate, all stubby, muscle-bound 5'10, 202 pounds of him. (If those two haven't started a "Twins"-themed marketing campaign for this year yet, someone tell Detroit's PR team).
Jokes aside though, Golden Tate has the potential to see a meteoric rise to superstardom in 2014, going from one of the lowest-volume passing attacks to the most prolific. Tate's led the NFL in broken tackles the last couple of seasons and led the league in drop rate (i.e., fewest drops) as well. He's a pinball with an internal gyroscope and he'll be fun to watch in that Lions passing attack.
WR Julio Jones, WR Roddy White, WR Harry Douglas, WR Darius Johnson, WR Drew Davis, WR Devin Hester, WR Dominique Groom, WR Geraldo Boldewijn, WR Bernard Reedy
When healthy, Julio Jones is one of the top receivers in the NFL, and he should get back on track in 2014 after sitting out all but five games last year. Jones is big, physical, and fast, and will play opposite Roddy White, who is getting older but can still play. The two combined to be one of the top tandems in the 2012 season and I wouldn't be surprised if they approach that in 2014.
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These teams are poised to make a jump -- the talent is there, but questions remain.
WR Jeremy Maclin, WR Riley Cooper, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Josh Huff, WR Quron Pratt, WR Brad Smith, WR Arrelelious Benn, WR Demaris Johnson, WR Ifeanyi Momah, WR Trey Burton, WR Jeff Maehl, WR Will Murphy, WR BJ Cunningham
The Eagles have a couple of well-established and effective receivers in Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, and made two really interesting picks at the position in Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. Matthews is already getting a lot of hype in camp as the Eagles' "best receiver", and Huff is an excellent athlete with experience in Chip Kelly's program. These two could contribute right away and makes this Eagles receiver corps pretty compelling.
WR Percy Harvin, WR Doug Baldwin, WR Jermaine Kearse, WR Kevin Norwood, WR Paul Richarson, WR Sidney Rice, WR Arceto Clark, WR Ricardo Lockette, WR Chris Matthews, WR Phil Bates, WR Taylor Price, WR Bryan Walters
Percy Harvin is the real crux here -- and this article assumes he'll see significant playing time in 2014. Harvin's a threat from anywhere on the field, any time he touches the football, and it was apparent how much his speed changed the Seahawks' offense during Super Bowl XLVIII. If Harvin can stay healthy, his abilities and talents as a playmaker completely change the complexion of the Seahawk offense. Of course, that's a huge "if" after Harvin missed most of last season and half of 2012.
Doug Baldwin, without getting into too many cliches, is as clutch of a receiver as there is in the NFL, and was always seeming to make a huge play when the Seahawks needed it most. third down, fourth down, cover-0 iso bomb or quick slant -- Russell Wilson always seemed to look toward Doug, who catches everything and knows how to get a clean release and separate quickly.
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Jermaine Kearse proved his value late in the season and during the playoffs last year, and likely comes in as Seattle's #3 receiver. He plays with toughness and physicality, and is probably the team's best run blocker. Speaking of excellent run-blockers, Sidney Rice returns to the fold, and provided his knee is healthy, should factor in as a nice possession type of target for the Seahawks' offense. Rice has absurd catch radius and extremely reliable hands, and while his role is probably more of a #3 or #4, he always seems to have at least one diving sideline catch or jump-ball in him every game. Past that, Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood are certainly wild-cards at this point, but Richardson in particular seems like a candidate to see some snaps as a field-stretching deep threat.
WR Dez Bryant, WR Terrance Williams, WR Devin Street, WR Cole Beasley, WR LaRon Byrd, WR Dwayne Harris, WR Jamar Newsome, WR Chris Boyd, WR L'Damian Washington
Dez Bryant is an explosive, talented receiver and has had back-to-back 90+ reception years. He'll look to get over 100 in 2014 and has a good shot of doing so. Terrance Williams emerged as a viable deep threat and will fight for that #2 spot after grabbing 44 passes for 736 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie. Adding Devin Street to the mix should be an interesting move for Dallas, and the productive Pitt product can line up inside our out.
Cole Beasley is a shifty slot receiver that caught 39 passes last year, and rookies Chris Boyd and L'Damian Washington were nice moves by the Cowboys. It will be intriguing to see if either can crack the roster.
THE WILD CARD
The Bills have accumulated some extremely exciting young talent at the receiver position but remain just that -- young. The talent is there, but in addition to Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and T.J. Graham need to make some jumps.
Received much consideration:
Houston Texans (Dynamic Duos)
Pittsburgh Steelers (Wild Cards)
Jacksonville Jaguars (Wild Cards)
Minnesota Vikings (Wild Cards)
New York Jets (Wild Cards)
Oakland Raiders (Wild Cards)
St. Louis Rams (Wild Cards)
Tennessee Titans (Wild Cards)
I'm not going to pretend I got all these into the correct groupings, and I'm sure left a few candidates off the list, (no seriously, this time I'm really sure), so in the comments below, let me know where you differ in opinion or let me know where I missed the mark.