The NFL is a passing league, and the value of a top-flight wide receiving corps has never been higher. A strong group of wideouts can bail out a middling quarterback and elevate a good one to greatness.
We’ve seen that manifest in free agent contracts — the average receiver is now worth approximately 150 percent of an average running back. Matt Ryan rode Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu to an NFC title and an MVP award in 2016. Two years later, Jared Goff pushed his way into the Super Bowl and MVP consideration thanks to the play of targets like Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.
With the preseason in the books and the official start to the 2019 season looming, those two teams dot the upper tier of our wide receiver corps rankings. But who else joined them in the top five? And which teams have to hope the hardest for big jumps from their young wideouts in the bottom five?
Here’s how we graded out this year’s wideout lineups to start the season. Lists of primary targets are taken directly from each team’s pre-Week 1 depth chart.
five six wide receiver groups
Primary wide receivers: Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy
There’s a tremendous amount of talent doled out in complementary shapes in Atlanta. Jones and a cast of department store mannequins would still be a force, but adding touchdown machine Ridley (10 touchdowns in 64 catches as a rookie) and a do-everything veteran (including throwing the ball) in Sanu makes the Falcons’ passing game a nightmare to stop.
With these three guys in tow, Matt Ryan had the second-best season of his career in 2018 — which is pretty good considering No. 1 on that list won him an MVP award.
Primary wide receivers: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins
Freddie Kitchens unlocked Baker Mayfield’s talent by spreading the ball to a host of new receivers over the second half of last season and taking some of the receiving pressure from Landry’s shoulders. General manager John Dorsey followed that strategy to an extreme by trading for Beckham, giving Mayfield another Pro Bowl target who can turn small openings into major gains.
Throwing Beckham and Landry at opposing secondaries will give Higgins and, once he returns from a four-game suspension, Antonio Callaway extra room to shine. Each of those players topped the 500-yard mark last fall and could have a similar role in 2019. With a combination of proven veteran stars and developing young playmakers, the Browns are loaded with different ways to burn opponents through the air.
Primary wide receivers: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds
Jared Goff is surrounded by versatile 1,000-yard receiving threats thanks to Los Angeles’ commitment to rebuilding a once-stagnant offense.
Cooks’ fly route mastery pushed him to his fourth straight 1,000+ yard performance last season, while Woods remains the Swiss Army knife in Sean McVay’s offense, bringing a diverse route tree to life. Kupp was on pace for an 80-catch, 12-touchdown sophomore season before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for the Rams’ playoff run. Reynolds stepped up in his place and emerged as a streaky, if not reliable, target midway through Goff’s progressions.
That group has thrived with an innovative playcaller and a young, blossoming quarterback. It could be even better in 2019. The Rams are a tenuous third in this year’s preseason rankings, but have the juice to make a run to No. 1.
Primary wide receivers: DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee
The Texans, fresh off acquiring Stills from the rapidly expanding washed-up corpse of the Dolphins, slide up into the top five while pushing out a Cincinnati team that will be without A.J. Green for an extended period. Hopkins remains one of the game’s most destructive and reliable targets. Stills and Fuller are each dynamic deep threats with questions to answer. Was Stills hampered by a neutered Miami offense? Is Fuller fully recovered from last year’s ACL tear?
Coutee averaged 4.7 catches per game as a rookie and could be primed for a breakout season, even if the rest of the receivers’ room lives up to expectations. Deshaun Watson won’t be hurting for targets, and it could lead to an MVP-level campaign from the third-year pro.
5. New England Patriots*
Primary wide receivers: Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett
Antonio Brown isn’t yet on the active roster and it’s unclear how much of an impact he’ll have in New England after escaping Oakland. If he can play up to 80 percent of his 2018 standard he’ll make the Patriots a force with which to be reckoned. With Edelman lined up in the slot and Gordon taunting safeties with his playmaking skill downfield, Brown should find plenty of room to thrive with Tom Brady.
Can he handle the rigorous confines of The Patriot Way (tm) and share targets with a veteran WR corps? Brown won’t get the dozen targets per game he previously got in Pittsburgh, but his one-year deal in New England suggests he could be cut at the first sign of discontent. Will 2019 be the year he tanks and then immediately redeems his stock as an elite wideout? Or will his acquisition unravel the Pats’ aerial attack from the inside out?
From a talent standpoint alone, this is a top five unit. As for fit? We’ll see.
The Raiders, by the way, went from seventh to 23rd after losing Brown. Prove me wrong, Tyrell Williams.
Primary wide receivers: Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Chad Beebe
Thielen exploded with eight straight 100+ yard receiving performances to start last season, before cooling off over the last half of the year. Diggs helped pick up where he left off with the first 1,000-yard season of his budding career.
And then after that pairing, things get much less certain. First-round bust Laquon Treadwell is gone. Washington first-round bust Josh Doctson is here to take his place. Beebe has four career receptions to his name and had 930 receiving yards total in four seasons at Northern Illinois. Rookie Olabisi Johnson was the 247th pick of the draft.
But if any of those last three guys can make any kind of appreciable leap, Kirk Cousins will have no excuse not to thrive in the Twin Cities.
2019’s bottom five wide receiver groups
Primary wide receivers: Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis, Richie James, Kendrick Bourne
Jimmy Garoppolo’s comeback season will rely on a shaky offensive line and one of the least recognizable receiving corps in football. Goodwin’s per-game receiving output dropped by 40 percent last season as he dealt with injuries and three different starting QBs. That raises an important question as to whether his breakout 2017 was the start of something big or just an outlier. 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis is capable of big-play magic, but he was also hampered by a lost season.
If that duo can live up to expectations and help Garoppolo bounce back, 28 will be entirely too low a place for the Niners’ wideouts. Given last year’s production and lacking overall resume, it’s just right to start 2019.
29. Seattle Seahawks
Primary wide receivers: Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, David Moore, Jaron Brown
Doug Baldwin’s unfortunate retirement leaves Russell Wilson to depend on an emerging Lockett and a host of untested and inconsistent targets. The fifth-year veteran will see more double-teams than ever before without a heady veteran like Baldwin to absorb some defensive pressure. Metcalf is a straight-line burner who’s built like a tour bus, but a limited route tree and a nagging preseason injury could affect his transition to the pros. Moore has the slowly germinating seeds of potential seemingly all Seahawks’ backup wideouts have and the injury problems to boot. That means he’ll soon be catching 30 passes per year while making a $10 million salary with Washington.
30. New York Giants
Primary wide receivers: Sterling Shepard, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, Russell Shepard
Golden Tate’s eventual return from a four-game suspension will provide a modest upgrade, but Eli Manning and Daniel Jones will have to make do with a solid veteran and a handful of marginal wideouts looking to make their mark. Shepard looked like an upper-flight receiver in 2017 when injuries cut short what projected to be a 1,000-yard season, but he fell back to Earth last fall thanks, in part, to Odell Beckham’s return to the lineup. He’ll have the chance to prove himself as a true WR1 early and often this season — and any leap he makes could help Jones flip the switch from overdrafted college passer to legitimate franchise QB.
31. Baltimore Ravens
Primary wide receivers: Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, Chris Moore, Jaleel Scott
Marquise Brown could be the lead wideout the Ravens have searched for since Steve Smith decided to insult others from the broadcasting booth instead of the field. It probably won’t happen in 2019, however; he’s buried on the Baltimore depth chart after recovering from a foot injury. That leaves an uninspiring corps to work with Lamar Jackson. Discounting a 2017 season where he only made eight catches, Snead’s yards per target figure has declined precipitously since his breakout 2015 — from 9.7 to 8.6 to last year’s 6.9.
Primary wide receivers: Paul Richardson, Terry McLaurin, Trey Quinn
Washington cut Josh Doctson this summer, three seasons and 81 catches after taking him in the first round. Filling his child’s size 7 shoes is Dan Snyder’s $40 million man Richardson. The former Seahawk has plenty to prove; he underwhelmed early, then missed the second half of his first season with the club due to injury. McLaurin has the chops to be a third-round draft steal, but he wasn’t exactly prolific at Ohio State. He’ll be starting early in his rookie season — and he could wind up reuniting with college teammate Dwayne Haskins before long.
Interested in the full rankings in order to better understand just how poorly I rated your favorite team? That table is listed below.
These top fours are all culled from team’s official depth charts, which means there may be some names in the rankings you wouldn’t expect and others who are missing. The Bengals, list A.J. Green as their top wideout even though he’s unlikely to play early in the season due to a foot injury. Parris Campbell may wind up as one of Jacoby Brissett’s top targets as a rookie, but he’s currently behind two other receivers on the Colts’ position chart. Players with an asterisk next to their name are expected to miss time early in the season due to injury, but are not on injured reserve.
2019 WR rankings and depth charts as of Week 1
|Odell Beckham Jr.
|Los Angeles Rams
|Los Angeles Chargers
|Green Bay Packers
|New England Patriots
|Kansas City Chiefs
|New Orleans Saints
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers
|New York Jets
|San Francisco 49ers
|New York Giants