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T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant among hot receivers who will stay hot

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T.Y. Hilton is the third-most prolific receiver in the NFL.

Heading into the year, few would have predicted the young Indianapolis Colts pass catcher would rank third in total receiving yards (711) through seven weeks. But Hilton is far from the only surprising name in the top 10. In fact, a glance at the list reveals a fair amount of turnover thus far: Six of the top 10 in total receiving yards are "new" to the group this season, meaning they fell outside of the top 10 in 2013 (see the table below).

Top 10 receivers in 2014 by total yards
Rank
Player
Rcv. yards
1)
719
2)
712
3)
711
4)
676
5)
662
6)
649
7)
640
8)
590
9)
528
10)
514
*Also finished in the top 10 in 2013.

This isn't to say there's a changing of the guard taking place. After all, of the players who were in the top 10 through Week 7 last season, just four hung on through Week 17 (although the success rate was notably better in 2012, when eight of the top 10 through Week 7 were still there at season's end). Still, it's worth examining the players who have risen this season, to consider why they've started so well and to weigh whether they can sustain their high level of production. Even allowing for the natural statistical disparity created by the way bye weeks are distributed, this exercise provided an interesting snapshot of the fast-starting receivers in the league.

Below you'll find my take on each of the six players in the top 10 in terms of receiving yards who didn't finish in the top 10 last season, grouped according to whether I think they're for real or might fade. I've also provided a peek at two rookies who have a chance to crack the top 10.

THE REAL DEAL

T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

Total receiving yards: 711 (No. 3, up from No. 18 in 2013)

Blessed with outstanding quickness and great burst, Hilton is a very good route runner who excels at creating separation. His small hands have not kept him from making catches, nor has his lack of height (5-foot-9). He has extreme jumping ability -- and he knows precisely how to time his leaps, which enables him to take full advantage of that skill and compete with the bigger bodies on the field.

Hilton, who went to a small school (Florida International) that did not emphasize the pass, entered the NFL as a third-round pick in 2012. He's gotten better every year since, proving the truism that receivers tend to be under-drafted. He's a player on the rise who should continue improving and thriving, especially working with an MVP-caliber quarterback in Andrew Luck who looks for him all the time.

Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Total receiving yards: 676 (No. 4, up from No. 76 in 2013)

The Falcons will be playing from behind a lot, and they should be throwing plenty to Jones, who has the talent to shine even when opponents know the ball is coming to him. Jones will catch in a crowd; he's got long arms, strong, vise-like hands and great burst when he's leaping for a reception. He's also gotten better at getting open against press coverage.

Jones qualifies for this list largely because a foot injury knocked him out for most of last season. Still, he seems to be healthy now, and he should be a lock to keep producing at a high level in 2014, especially because veteran teammate Roddy White hasn't quite been the threat he once was.

Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys

Total receiving yards: 590 (No. 8, up from No. 13 in 2013)

Bryant might not top his statistical output from 2013, as the Cowboys are not passing as much as they did last season, but he's playing better than ever. He's become a great team player who does not make the kinds of mistakes he once did. Consider his 44-yard pickup in Dallas' Week 7 win over the Giants. After hauling in a pass that traveled about 24 yards in the air from Tony Romo, Bryant eluded two defenders to pick up an extra 20 or so yards. It was a sheer effort play, illustrative of how much he's grown and matured in the past two years; rather than settling for an easy first down, he turned upfield and worked to get as much as he could.

Bryant is a very competitive receiver with long arms, strong hands and great hand-eye coordination. With youngster Terrance Williams playing well, opponents can't afford to focus as much on stopping Bryant, who is definitely ascending. If Romo keeps producing and Bryant stays healthy, the receiver will be an All-Pro.

Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos

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Total receiving yards: 514 (No. 10, up from No. 50 in 2013)

In just six games, Sanders has more than half as many catches and yards as he had with the Steelers all last season. He also has yet to drop a pass after being targeted 51 times this season. Eyeing those numbers, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of production he'd be putting up as a member of the Chiefs, with whom he had contract talks last offseason, given that he'd easily be the No. 1 receiving option in Kansas City.

Nevertheless, Sanders is thriving in Denver. He has outstanding quickness and excels at adjusting to the ball. I figure that, even with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Andre Caldwell competing for passes, Sanders stands to possibly improve on his pace as Peyton Manning gains confidence in him.

MIGHT FADE

Golden Tate, Detroit Lions

Total receiving yards: 649 (No. 6, up from No. 31 in 2013)

Tate has been good but not great while helping to pick up the slack for an injured Calvin Johnson the past few weeks. Yes, he has an eye-catching 348 yards-after-the-catch, but that number is a bit skewed by last Sunday's 73-yard touchdown on third-and-14. Impressive as that play might have been, it's not the kind of thing you can rely on; massive scoring plays on third-and-long situations are uncommon, to say the least.

He's certainly improved as a receiver since entering the league, dropping just one pass out of 65 targets thus far in 2014. This is likely thanks to his learning how to catch with his hands rather than trapping the ball against his chest. He's also become a better route runner. That said, I don't see him as being more than a solid No. 2. When Megatron returns to full capacity, I think Tate will fall back to the pack.

Steve Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Total receiving yards: 640 (No. 7, up from No. 49 in 2013)

The signing of Smith by the Ravens was probably the best offseason pickup by any team. The 35-year-old was driven to prove himself after being released by the Carolina Panthers, and he's come through with what has really been a great season thus far. Smith isn't outrunning guys like he used to, but he's gotten a lot smarter with what he does. Where he once brought more of a freelance approach to the field, he's now running better routes, an indication that he's also become more disciplined and coachable. And while he's slowed a bit, he's still quick as a cat and as intensely competitive as ever. He really seems to hustle on every play.

If he were to stay on his current pace, Smith would rack up 1,462 yards, which would be the second-highest total of his 14-year career. I just don't think he'll be able to keep producing like this, as guys his age historically seem to wear down as the season goes on. I would expect Smith to fall off in the second half or final quarter of the year, and perhaps yield some catches and yards to Torrey Smith -- consider that the elder Smith has just 211 yards over the past three games.

Two rookies on the way up

Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills: The first-round pick is looking better every game. He has great hands and speed and can get off press coverage. With Fred Jackson set to miss multiple weeks and C.J. Spiller on injured reserve/designated for return, and with a quarterback in Kyle Orton who can throw it downfield, Watkins should pile up the yardage going forward.

Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers: Another first-round pick, Benjamin is a mismatch for most defensive backs; big, tall and heavy, he wins 85 percent of 50-50 balls. The long strider has good body control and good hands, and he can create separation. He's got some drops, but if the Panthers can get the ball to him downfield, he's got a shot at notching a crazy-high total.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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