Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson are widely considered among the "best" receivers in the NFL. But with the league putting a premium on big cornerbacks who can neutralize No. 1 options, teams need more than one talented receiver to make an offense work -- someone, who, if the top receiver gets taken out of the game, can open up new chapters in the playbook and force favorable matchups.
The No. 2 receiver often goes under-appreciated. With the success of passing offenses in today's NFL, it feels like a slight to even refer to these guys as "No. 2."
Of 2014's top 15 receivers from a yardage standpoint, three were technically No. 2 options. We have a long way to go until training camp, and even further until an actual football gets played, so lets take a minute and appreciate the too-often unsung No. 2 receivers in the league. We've organized them into tiers, from "elite" to the rookies who will start right away.
There's a distinct line between the absolute best No. 2 receivers and the guys below them, and that's probably because each of the guys listed above could be No. 1 receivers if needed. In fact, some of them already have been. Tate, for example, was pressed into top duties last season when Johnson was injured, and flourished. Many feel the Seattle Seahawks made a mistake letting Tate go, and he proved their points when he finished No. 7 in the NFL with 99 receptions for 1,331 yards and four touchdowns last season.
An yet, Tate was not the biggest standout receiver playing second fiddle. Sanders was the No. 5 receiver in the NFL with 1,404 yards but was, believe it or not, the second-most productive receiver on the Broncos behind Thomas. Cobb wasn't too far behind, finishing No. 11 in receiving yardage. Evans should perhaps be considered the No. 1 target in Tampa Bay after surpassing Vincent Jackson in productivity last season on 20 fewer targets.
That brings us to the two 2015 comeback candidates in this category: Decker and Cruz. Decker was the Jets' marquee free agent signing last season and was slotted as the team's No. 1 receiver. He finished with 962 yards and five touchdowns, which isn't bad but he clearly struggled against the top corners in the league. Now with Brandon Marshall in town, Decker is the No. 2 guy and he could thrive like he did in Denver (albeit, without Peyton Manning). Cruz, meanwhile, was one of the most exciting players in the league in 2011 and 2012, but has dealt with significant injuries over the past two seasons. If he can return to form, he'll be among the NFL's elite once again.
After you get past the NFL's elite, you have a group of guys who are likely going to put up consistently strong numbers. These are the guys you shouldn't worry about if they are forced to step into a starting role, who can go off for big yardage at a moment's notice.
Smith is one of the more interesting names on this list. He was utilized as a deep threat with the Baltimore Ravens before they let him walk in free agency. The 49ers, ever in pursuit of someone who can keep up with the deep balls that Colin Kaepernick throws, let Michael Crabtree walk and eagerly signed Smith. He'll technically play behind Anquan Boldin, but he could easily be considered the team's No. 1 receiver, as well.
Jones dealt with injuries last season, but he's capable and playing alongside one of the NFL's best in A.J. Green, which should give him plenty of opportunities to produce. LaFell is an interesting player -- he struggled to find his niche until he joined the Patriots last season. He put up 953 yards and could be the team's No. 1 going forward, but for now he's behind Julian Edelman.
The Pretty Good
It felt weird having these guys in the same category as the guys above. They all seemed to have reached their peak as decent No. 2 receivers, whereas the guys above can do some serious No. 1-style damage. Harvin is the most interesting name in this tier. Since flashing game-breaking potential with the Minnesota Vikings after being a first-round pick in 2009, Harvin hasn't found success with his most recent teams. He struggled with the Seahawks and Jets and now he's expected to be the No. 2 receiver on the Bills. Will he finally find success?
The Jacksonville Jaguars tried to make Shorts a No. 1 receiver and though he's flashed that potential -- with 979 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 -- chronic hamstring injuries have derailed his career . A change of scenery should do him well. Williams still has the potential to do more, but with just 621 yards in Dallas, he's a steady, reliable receiver and not much else at this point.
The Former Stars
Vincent Jackson might be included in this category as well, but he's still technically ahead of the aforementioned Evans. As such, this category only includes three players, all of whom were elite No. 1 receivers but have lost a step and now have something to prove.
White and Julio Jones might be the best receiving tandem in the league outside of the Thomas/Sanders combination in Denver, but that all hinges on both White and Jones being healthy. The two have rarely both been healthy and effective at the same time. Last season, White had 921 yards and seven touchdowns.
Johnson suffered a harsh decline last season, going from 1,407 yards to 936. He insists he was looking for a change of scenery when he signed with the Colts. With Andrew Luck throwing him the football, he could return to form.
A Lot To Prove
Brandin Cooks (New Orleans Saints)
Marqise Lee (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Albert Wilson (Kansas City Chiefs)
Martavis Bryant (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Charles Johnson (Minnesota Vikings)
Jermaine Kearse (Seattle Seahawks)
Brian Quick (St. Louis Rams)
This is an interesting group of players. You have someone like Cooks, who the Saints have invested heavily in but still has a lot to prove after gaining just 550 yards and three touchdowns in an injury-shortened rookie season. With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills out of the picture, he's going to get his shot this season.
Lee, a second-round pick in 2014, had just 422 yards and a touchdown last season. The Jaguars don't have much at the position and Lee should get every opportunity to establish himself. Guys like Wilson, Bryant and Johnson have received limited playing time but receive steady praise from their head coaches. Kearse and Quick are not particularly inspiring but there's no "not particularly inspiring" category just for the pair of them.
Amari Cooper (Oakland Raiders)
Kevin White (Chicago Bears)
DeVante Parker (Miami Dolphins)
Breshad Perriman (Baltimore Ravens)
Nelson Agholor (Philadelphia Eagles)
Dorial Green-Beckham (Tennessee Titans)
Devin Funchess (Carolina Panthers)
Finally, we get to the rookies. Five of the rookies on this list were first-round picks, and all seven of them have potential to be No. 1 receivers down the line. Some of them might wind up being the No. 1 receiver at some point during their rookie seasons. Players like Cooper and Green-Beckham won't face particularly tough competition from the guys set to start opposite them.
Cooper, the No. 4 pick in the draft, will play alongside Michael Crabtree, who has struggled in a No. 1 receiver role. Cooper was considered one of the safest picks in the draft. Meanwhile, many hope White will be an immediate, explosive force for Jay Cutler to get himself back in the groove.
All of these players are unproven, but they were taken within the first 45 picks of the draft. All seven of the teams listed were noted as being wide receiver-needy, and most of these picks were well-received by experts and fans alike. It should be fun watching them play from the outset of the season.